Monday, October 14, 2019

Why I Wrote "An Exile from Atlantis"

by Alfred D. Byrd


Have you felt that you were born in a wrong place and time — that you belong to another world? You share what you've felt with countless others, misfits in our world — masters of another? Perhaps, that feeling explains humanity's fascination with Atlantis — a fascination that's lasted since Plato first wrote of the foundered land in his dialogues "Timaeus" and "Critias" some twenty-five hundred years ago. The land almost surely never existed in the form in which Plato described it, but the dream that it's awoken in some of us lives on.

That dream may interest a writer more than the land itself. The land is beyond our reach; the dream is in our heads daily. That dream can inspire a quest, a story's seed. The quest can take many forms: a quest for meaning, a quest for kindred souls, a quest for a place where one belongs, a quest for ancient wisdom letting us live well in the present day — a quest for raising the foundered land anew. Quest underlies the action of An Exile from Atlantis, a novel of kindred souls trying to live their visions of the Lost Land in remote parts of America in the last half of the Twentieth Century. Their lives' events may seem ordinary to you, but their way of living that life shouldn't.

I've set my exploration of the dream of Atlantis in places that I knew in the time in which I've written of them, and peopled my exploration with characters whom I might've known — or been. My exploration takes the form of an initiate's learning from a mystagogue. Fred, the initiate, lives a life that parallels mine in places where I've lived and in the background in which I grew up. His experiences are uniquely his own, yet familiar to all who lived in those places at those times. Amber, the mystagogue, is a mixture of the familiar and the mystical that I've seen in others — a sage with wisdom hidden to the rest of us, yet a troubled soul struggling with problems common to all of us. Fred and Amber's dance through time marks out a path to enlightenment unique to them, but common to the world.

Fred and Amber's quests take place, not on a fantastic landscape of castles and jousting fields, but in everyday life. School, socialization, work, church, marriage, and child-rearing can be mundane or magical depending on the lens through which you view them. After all, these institutions and activities existed in Atlantis, didn't they? Isn't part of Atlantis' lure that its inhabitants lived in ways that we envy and yearn to emulate? Wasn't it a land blessed by the gods who made it? Venturesome souls can perhaps rediscover an Atlantean way of life that can clothe the ordinary in wonder.

Still, even Atlantis was touched with tragedy. Why shouldn't it have been, peopled by humans whose passions were like our own? If we believe Plato, Atlantis died by divine judgment on its sins when it fell into the sea in a single night. A people of greatness, turning from virtues that'd made it great, suffered the consequences of the self-destructive and other-destructive choices that it'd made. What those choices were isn't clear to us — is perhaps disastrously unclear, for, if we follow a path blindly, it's likely to end in a fall — ours. Even if we raise Atlantis, it may subside into the sea again and take it with us if we repeat our forebears' errors. Could the worst blindness be our faith in our being wiser than our ancestors were? Will that blindness end in our repeating their mistakes?

Fred and Amber's quest takes them through darkness to the light — through darkness unique to each of them to a light that they can share. Their darknesses express themselves in rejection, fear, tears, death, and separation — consequences of a fall, whether of individuals or of Atlantis. The light is something that seekers must find and embrace so that it'll grow in themselves and enrich the lives of those around them. The light is something that seekers of the light must raise within themselves so that they'll be sources of light in a world mantled with darkness. Only when the light illuminates darkness can growth occur.

In the end, An Exile from Atlantis is a novel of growth. That growth comes through a quest, a journey from darkness to the light that each of us can see through finding the Light that is Love. Fred and Amber seek that light by following paths that diverge and then converge — paths filled with stumbling, reverses, and sorrows. Through persistence, will they prevail, reaching a goal that'll reward their quest? Is that goal one that you'd want to find at the end of your quest? Only from the end is the beginning clear.


You can read the opening chapters of An Exile from Atlantis for free by clicking on Look Inside.

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Why I Wrote "Kabbalah for Evangelical Christians"

Alfred D. Byrd


A major cause of division in our world is the abundance of systems of faith and practice within it. Tragically, members of each of these systems tend to stereotype, and be sterotyped by, members of other systems. This statement is no less true of Kabbalah and of Evangelical Christianity than it is of any other system. In the USA, both Kabbalah and Evangelical Christianity tend to be subjects of sensationalistic stories both in traditional media and on social media. These media, tending to focus on outrageous blooms of the plants of faith, overlook both the root and the shoot of these systems. Likely, many persons who make dogmatic statements about them are almost completely ignorant of their origin and of their intended purpose. Such persons' ignorance harms, not only members of the systems that they misrepresent, but also themselves. Stereotypes are two-edged swords as likely to wound the wielder as they are the persons against whom they are wielded. Against ignorance, we can only interpose truth.

I grew up and have long worshipped in the world of Evangelical Christianity and developed a fascination with Kabbalah as I encountered it while I was exploring Christianity's Jewish roots. Please understand that I'm only a reader of Kabbalistic literature, not a practitioner of the system. As I say in Kabbalah for Evangelical Christians, it's more than a lifetime's study for anyone. Still, I feel that I know enough of Kabbalah to give a beginner's explanation of it to my Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters — and to explain both systems to persons with only a stereotypical grasp of them. Anyone who replaces ignorance with any degree of knowledge has done worthy work.

Although many with just a superficial understanding of Kabbalah and Evangelical Christianity would say that no two systems of thought could be farther apart than they are, they're related in many ways. Foundationally, both have their origin in exegesis (reading out a meaning) of Hebrew Scripture. Each system of thought deals in its own way with Scripture's core teachings: creation (bereshit), the Fall, and redemption. Each system deals in its own way with theophany (the appearance of the invisible God in a visible form, particularly God's Chariot [merkavah]), and Moses' Law in its moral, civil, and ceremonial forms centered on the Temple (heikhal). Although each system takes its exegesis of Scripture in a radially different direction, both of them have at times reached surprisingly similar conclusions about God's nature and manifestations.

To make things clear to you, the reader, I've compared and contrasted Kabbalistic and Evangelical Christian teachings on like subjects. As I've said, both systems may have surprisingly similar teachings that you may not have at first expected. I've also put into the book sections on topics likely to lead the unwary to confusion: what's the true meaning of the Trinity (as much as anyone can hope to answer this question), why do Orthodox Jews not pronounce the Name of God (and why Christians shouldn't either), and what is the role of good works in a relationship with God. I've dealt with the role of sex in a religious setting — surely a topic open to misunderstanding if any topic is. Finally, I've dealt with the nature and practice of Kabbalistic magic — controversial even in the world of Kabbalah. I hope that I've brought a glimmer of clarity to what may've been darkness to a reader.

As I've said, Kabbalah is more than a life's study for anyone. What I've written is only the start of an introduction to a rich field of study. If you're interested in learning more of it, you can start with the books that I've listed in the bibliography of my work — the books that I used to prepare it. Still, no faith and practice is a matter of study of books alone. As I've learned within Evangelical Christianity, only by living one's faith daily can one make it grow and bear fruit to God's glory in a fallen world in which darkness only too often prevails. May the light of understanding expressed in good works born of faith be God's instrument in driving back darkness in a world desperately in need of redemption.


Two widely misunderstood and misrepresented systems of belief are compared and contrasted in Kabbalah for Evangelical Christians. You can read the book's opening sections for free by clicking on Preview.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why I Wrote "Blue Moon of Cthulhu"

My introduction to the Mythos came about in a strange way — appropriately for the Mythos. While I was living in Ashland, Kentucky between 1976 and 1978, I read a science-fiction magazine, which I no longer have, in which Dr. Jerry Pournelle wrote of attending a symposium given by Dr. Stephen Hawking on black holes. What he revealed about them was so unsettling to Dr. Pournelle that he felt impelled to describe the symposium as "a quiet afternoon of Lovecraftian horror." To learn what Dr. Pournelle meant by his outlandish adjective, I tracked down the works of H. P. Lovecraft and got hooked on them, as many of you who are reading this blog have gotten.

[Something to which I did not have access while I was living in Ashland was the Internet. Entering the phrase in quotes into Google, I learn that Dr. Pournelle's article appeared in Galaxy, volume 36, number 9. Maybe, somewhere, you'll find the copy of it that was once mine — if it hasn't gone down a black hole. Still, it would not have been wholly lost.]

Like many another who has gotten hooked on the Mythos, I have succumbed to the temptation to produce my own writings in it. The seven of these that took the form of short stories are collected in Blue Moon of Cthulhu. The first of these stories, "The Calming of Cthulhu," began in the mid-1980's when the sentence "A blood-red moon hung low over Arkham as Cthulhu rode into town" popped into my head. I had a clear image of the Great Old One and of his steed, but nothing else for nearly a decade until, one day while I was walking around on the campus of the University of Kentucky, the rest of the story came to me in a flash. The story turned out to be a lighthearted treatment of the Mythos, but, at least so far, I've suffered no ill consequences from the lightheartedness. Perhaps, when the stars are right…

Sometime in the Nineties, I bought from a huckster at a science-fiction a chapbook titled The Second Book of Rimel. From Duane Rimel of Washington, I learned that tales of the Mythos could be set in places besides Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Inspired by Rimel, I turned my hand in 2001, shortly after a new millennium had begun, to writing a tale of the Mythos set in Kentucky, which, of course, supplies the "blue moon" to my own book's title. This time was dark in my life; the darkness shows up in the story that I wrote, "The Transformation of the Troglodyte." Residents of the Bluegrass will recognize nearly all of the places mentioned in the story (I except only the protagonist's residence, which was in real life the obscure duplex in which I lived then), though not even the most determined investigator will find the bookseller's door in Midway or the cavern in McConnell Springs Park. I was haunted by "The Mad Prophet of the Shakers" until I put his story onto paper. Will he haunt you, too?

What does "when the stars are right" mean? I recall asking myself this question one time early in the new millennium while I was looking at a conjunction in the evening sky — not in the morning sky, when the protagonist of "Dreams of a Conjunction" is looking. My conjunction may have been of Mars at opposition and a crescent moon, but memory is mutable — and fickle. I wrote the short story for submission to an anthology that was suggesting original creatures of the Mythos. My original creature is Rasidep, whose name is an anagram of despair. Perceptive readers may guess Rasidep's source. The verse in the short story is original with me.

"Heritage of the Heretic" began as a title in search of a story. Readers of August Derleth's posthumous collaboration with H. P. Lovecraft The Lurker at the Threshold will recognize how it influenced a key point of the short story that would complete the title. I set the story largely at Harvard University because I was researching it for a novel that I ended up not writing. Had I known that I would publish the story in Blue Moon of Kentucky, I would have set the story in one of Kentucky's premier private liberal arts institutions: not Transylvania University, here in Lexington, as that institution's name would be both trite and misleading in this context, but perhaps Centre College in nearby Danville. I include in the story the notion that a character in my story reads Lovecraft's stories and learns that they are true. The story's protagonist, Ahithophel Grant III, also learns that each of us has his or her own role to play in the Mythos…

Among other things, I am a Civil War buff. I have been studying that war in Kentucky for nigh on to forty years now. When an anthology called for short stories set in nontraditional (in terms of the Mythos) historical settings, I chose to try my hand at a Lovecraftian tale set during the Civil War in Kentucky. Yes, the blue moon has risen again. The war crime that Second Lieutenant Laban Whittington, USA, sets out to avenge is based on a true bushwhacker murder that took place in Morgan County, whence my ancestors came. When Lt. Whittington enters Eastern Kentucky's hills, he takes a detour into — well, not The Twilight Zone, as that never dealt with the Mythos, did it? What a pity. I think that others besides me would have enjoyed an episode titled "The Lurker in the Hills. What do you think?

I wrote "Bookworms" while I was holed up in a motel room as the temperature plummeted outside in what weathercasters then called a "polar vortex." That sounds Cthulhian, doesn't it? Oddly enough, the story's protagonist has never seen winter. I wanted to write a story from an alien's viewpoint and show how the Mythos might affect creatures both like and unlike us. Note that bookworms can have more than one meaning — also that another conjunction is occurring. I guess that I am still asking what "when the stars are right" means. Briefly, they were right for the Great Old One Hixiling…

"The Dark Between the Stars began as another title in search of a story. The story that it found emerged from background to a hard science fiction Oort Cloud novel, Madness of the Glyphs, in which Cthulhu is mentioned in passing. In the short story, in an all-but-forgotten space station in orbit over the dwarf planet Eris, a Mythos role-playing game has evolved into a religion. What happens to the religionists — and to a skeptic among them — when a long-buried alien intelligence is willing to play the role of their god? I had fun writing the story of an arch-skeptic, Keturah Harness. Will you have fun reading it?

I wrote "Once in a Blue Moon" for the short-story collection. I've wondered what life-in-death would be like for a Great Old One bound to such a state by cosmic forces. I answer this question for a Great Old One trapped in a bend of the palisades of the gorge of the Kentucky River between Camp Nelson and High Bridge. Yes, the "blue moon" shines for the last time. The Great Old One's blue moon is different from Kentucky's. Also, the Great Old One's view of history as revealed in Lovecraft's classic tales of Yog-Sothothery may be somewhat biassed. Would it surprise you to learn that Great Old Ones are opinionated?


You can read the first short story and part of the second in Blue Moon of Cthulhu by clicking on Look inside.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

WHY I WROTE "PARABLES BEFORE JESUS"

Those of us who are Christians associate parables with our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly a master of them, He painted with them clear pictures, not only of the world around Him, but also of the world to come — the Kingdom of Heaven — a realm that lies beyond human experience, yet can be illustrated for us humans with homely, everyday objects and actions that all of us know and understand.

In Christian thought, parables are so closely linked to Jesus that many Christians think that they began with Him. He didn't invent parables; they were teachings with which He had grown familiar through Hebrew Scripture as He heard it in the synagogue and in everyday life. As Jesus used parables, earlier prophets had used them to teach heavenly truths in earthly terms — to explain the unexplainable in stories that would stick in a listener's mind. The goal of a teller of parables was to turn a common object — a bramble bush, a lamb, a linen belt, or a clay pot — into an object lesson reminding us — as bread and wine remind those of us who are Christians of the body and blood of Christ given in sacrifice for our sins — of something greater than ourselves — of the God Who is above and beyond our earthly lives, yet connected with them at every instant.

In Hebrew Scripture, parables were generally told by prophets, persons called by God to reveal heavenly truths to God's people. A parable came amid a crisis in an individual's or in the people's life to teach that person or the people what'd gone wrong. Often, we — for a parable to do us any good, we need to see that it may well apply to each of us just as much as it applied to the person to whom it was originally told — have grown blind to a situation around us and need a parable to help us see that situation with new eyes — with God's eyes, which see clearly what we may wish to hide, however much denial may hurt us and those around us. We can thus think of a parable as a divine wake-up call, which comes to us loud and clear when we've fallen asleep to the truth. If we sleep through the wake-up call, we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences of ignoring a warning meant to save us from ourselves.

The earliest parables, given in the time of the judges (leaders called by God to deal with specific crises among the Children of Israel in the Promised Land) or of good King David and evil King Ahab, dealt with political turmoil among the Hebrews, yet have clear lessons for us today. From "King Bramble," we learn that, if good persons refuse to govern a land, an evil person will govern it. From "One Little Ewe Lamb," we learn that, in God's eyes, a ruler has no right to oppress his subjects for personal gain. From "The Lying Spirit," we learn that a ruler who rejects good advice will come someday not even to recognize it when he hears it. The situations to which these parables responded are distant from our own, and the details of these parables are foreign to our modern world, but the truths that the parables teach are as current as today's headlines.

As the kingdom founded by God through good King David fell and went into exile, Hebrew parables reached their zenith through four great prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. In "God's Vineyard," Isaiah shows us how God cares for us with love, yet we discard his blessings and bring catastrophe on ourselves by doing things in our own way. In "The Yokes," Jeremiah shows us how God works through the world's events, and how what we may see as evil, God may be using for good. In the shocking, scandalous "Two Sisters," Ezekiel shows us that the relationship between God and His people is a spiritual marriage — a marriage that we can ruin, with disastrous effects on ourselves, through our unfaithfulness to our heavenly spouse. In "The Bad Shepherd," Zechariah shows us how a people, grown used to the corruption of bad rulers, may spurn a good ruler when he comes.

In presenting and explaining a selection of twenty parables from Hebrew Scripture, I've tried to give you a chronological picture of the life of God's people, Israel, and the crises that arose among it. When we learn what God was telling His people through these parables, we'll see that they're not dry facts from a distant time, but life lessons for all of time — for us today as we face crises that the Children of Israel would've understood from their own experiences. God's light, regardless of the situation on which it shines, is eternal, revealing to those who have eyes to see truths that are always valid. Let's learn from the parables of Hebrew Scriptures what we can use to live at peace with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with God today.


You can learn more about Parables before Jesus by clicking on Look Inside.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

WHY I WROTE "STAND AT THE CROSSROADS"

Few events are more dramatic than is a city's fall to a foreign invader. Such an event awakens in us questions:

what went wrong?
how did a place once strong become weak enough to succumb to outside forces?
did weakness come from within?
could that weakness also be in us?
what can we do to avoid the fallen city's fate?

In the Book of Jeremiah, we witness the fall of God's holy city, Jerusalem, and get answers to our questions about that fall — answers valid for us today. The answers come through a prophet — a person called by God to reveal God's word to the world — a young man born to be a priest, but repurposed by God for a thankless, but needful task. He'd face relentless opposition to his work in revealing God's will, yet would persist in that work through the fire of God's Holy Spirit within him. He was a hero of the faith because he stood up for the truth amid a world in which all things had become relative to the people's short-term desires and fears. In facing opposition, he felt all of the fear natural to one in deadly danger. He was not a superhero, but an ordinary person like any of us. From him, we can learn how to rely on God's promises to enable us to do what fear would keep us from doing.

Tragically, Jeremiah had to oppose rulers whose authority had come from God. The kings of Judah, the kingdom in which Jeremiah lived, were legitimate successors to David, the shepherd — the man after God's own heart — whom God had called to reign from the holy city of Jerusalem. The priests in God's temple were, as Jeremiah himself was, legitimate descendants of Aaron, the high priest whom God had called to start the cycle of offerings and sacrifices still going on at Solomon's Temple in Jeremiah's day.

Sadly, the leaders were legitimate, but their beliefs, their speech, and their actions weren't. As the leaders had gone, so had the people. They'd chosen short-term, material benefits in the here and now at the cost of abandoning the long-term, spiritual benefits of staying faithful to God. They'd chosen to justify their choice of wrong beliefs, speech, and action at the cost of oppressing those who desired to believe, say, and do what's right in God's eyes. They'd chosen to make peace with a world that'd fallen into apostasy, idolatry, materialism, aggressive war, slavery, and political oppression — a world more like our own than we may wish to admit it is.

Whether we know peace — our living safely and prosperously with one another in right relationships rooted in a right relationship with God — depends on the kind of shepherd that we have over us. We don't like to think of ourselves as sheep, but, in terms of our acting blindly, going astray, and harming ourselves and others through unwise choices, we often are. To make things worse, we're sheep with the nature of wolves, preying on other members of our flock. It takes a good shepherd, whether of sheep or of human beings, to ensure that a flock's physical needs are met and that it's protected from outside predators — in the case of human beings, sometimes from its own members. Sadly, in Jeremiah's day, many of the shepherds had become wolves, preying on the weak and the needy whom they were supposed to protect. What was the people of Judah supposed to do? What are we when we face bad shepherds?

In the short term, the faithful citizens of Judah suffered. They watched their beloved city go through a siege and be burned to the ground; they went into exile in Babylon, a city that's become a byword for godless, self-indulgent, oppressive materialism. There, they faced choices: they could fall into despair, they could strike out against their oppressors in vengeful violence — or they could choose hope. Jeremiah's word to them was to choose a lifestyle based on trusting in God and doing the right thing: building homes, raising families, praying and working for the good of the evil city in which they lived, and waiting for God to restore them to their homeland of faith.

In the long run, Judah's faithful citizens expected the coming of a heaven-sent deliverer, the Branch — Messiah, the anointed ruler who'd deliver the faithful from oppression and rule the world with righteousness. Those of us who are Christian identify Messiah with Jesus Christ, the Son of God — our Savior. The Branch, Messiah, would be a faithful shepherd who'd put the flock's needs ahead of his own and win for the flock safety in which it could serve God, not with outward ritual, but with inner belief resulting in outward service of love for God and of love for neighbors.

Through the examples of Jeremiah's successes and failures, and through God's word as he revealed it, we can learn how to handle hard times. While we wait, as the faithful in Judah waited, for Messiah's coming, we can believe, think, and act as God wants us to. We can be witnesses to a fallen world by living in faith rather than surrendering to despair. We can be lanterns shedding the light of God amid the world's darkness.


STAND AT THE CROSSROADS: Lessons from the Book of Jeremiah is available in Kindle format. You can read the book's opening chapters by clicking on Look inside.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

WHY I WROTE "A SONG OF THE ONE"

An age-old story for a new millennium, A Song of the One is an epic poem that retells the central narrative of the Bible. The poem flows from Genesis to Revelation and includes all of Scripture's key stories: Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Lives of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Kingdom of David, the Babylonian Exile, the Return to the Holy Land, the Life of Christ, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Revelation.

To keep the poem flowing and short enough for you to read in a single night, I've had to leave out some stories that, though important in themselves, didn't fit the poem's flow. I've also had to leave out most of the wealth of the Wisdom literature and prophecies of Jewish Scripture, as well as the epistles of the New Testament. My goal wasn't to try to replace the Bible. Instead, I want you to experience the drama of the Biblical narrative and come to, or come back to, the Bible with new eyes.

As part of helping you come to the Bible with new eyes, I've tried, while being faithful to the Biblical narrative, to take it out of its cultural context and make it universal. As part of my effort to do so, I've changed all of the names from the forms that they had in the original Hebrew and Greek. Some names, I've translated into English; others, I've replaced with words that describe the basic character or role of a person or people. My goal in changing their names was to make ancient persons live for you today.

I've written A Song of the One in American English, my native tongue. The form of verse that I used in the poem is one that began with Homer, but was adapted to American English by Longfellow in his epic poems "Evangeline" and "The Courtship of Miles Standish." I've used this form because great poets of the past have used it to write immortal verse. I've tried to make this form live today by using everyday words and putting conversations into everyday speech.

My goal was to write something that would be accessible, and appeal, to persons of every culture who've learned to read English. I've tried to write something that'll entertain you. Beyond that, I've tried to write something that'll bring you with fresh zeal to the sacred text that's been changing hearts and lives for thousands of years.

You can learn more about A Song of the One here. You can read the Prelude and the first two cantos for free by clicking on Preview.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

WHY I WROTE "THE LAST DAYS OF THE KINGDOM OF JUDAH"

A kingdom's fall is dramatic whether in fiction or in history. For those of us who read The Bible, few kingdoms' falls outweigh that of Judah to the Babylonian Empire, as described in II Kings, II Chronicles, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. There, the House of David, of which Jesus Christ appeared as heir in the New Testament, had held power for centuries while worship of the LORD went on in Solomon's Temple.

The kingdom had been living on borrowed time since the reign of Manasseh, who'd given himself up to idolatrous worship of foreign gods — worship including ritual prostitution and infant sacrifice — when his young grandson Josiah took the Throne of David. No one could've expected much of an eight-year-old of apostate ancestry, yet he became a pleasant surprise for Judah as he restored it to the worship of the LORD under Moses' law.

Josiah was young when he took the throne, and young when he died. What would've become of Judah had he lived a full life, we'll never know. He died because, unwisely for a small nation's king, he chose to play a game of empires. Assyria, which had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and had brutally invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, was swiftly decaying, its fate a plaything between the resurgent empire of Egypt to Judah's south and the resurgent empire of Babylon to Judah's north. Perhaps because of a bad decision by his great-grandfather Hezekiah, another godly king who played a game of empire, Josiah chose to back Babylon and went to war against Egypt. He may have been David's heir, but Egypt was no Goliath to fall to a weaker opponent. Josiah was fatally wounded in action, and his kingdom became an Egyptian puppet-state.

Things might still have gone well for Judah had Josiah's heirs not fallen away from his reform of Judah's faith and practice. Sadly, his first successor, his son Jehoahaz, chosen by Judah's people to replace him on the throne, got little chance to show the world who he was or what he could do, as the victorious pharaoh of Egypt took him into exile and replaced him with a puppet, his brother Eliakim, whom the pharaoh gave the regnal name Jehoiakim.

Jehoiakim was loyal to Egypt as long as a strong pharaoh was on its throne, but switched his loyalty to Babylon when its ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, showed up around Jerusalem with a strong army. Switching sides whenever someone stronger showed up became a theme of the House of David in its decline. To make things worse, Jehoiakim bankrupted Judah by taxing it heavily, first to pay tribute to Egypt and then to build an impressive palace for himself. Jehoiakim also burned a book of the Bible — the first draft of the Book of Jeremiah, which the prophet had to dictate again from memory. Jehoiakim was no more faithful to Babylon than he'd been to Egypt or to God: after three years of serving Bablyon, he tried to switch sides back to Egypt. When his diplomatic maneuvering went awry, he was taken prisoner by Babylon and died in exile.

Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin) took the throne for three months while Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem for the first time. Like Jehoahaz, Jeconiah never got a chance to show what he could do; like Jehoiakim, he ended his days in Babylonian exile. Unlike his father, he was honored in Babylon and became head of an advisory council of captured kings.

Borrowing a page from the pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar put onto Judah's throne a puppet, Jeconiah's uncle Mattaniah, who received the regnal name Zedekiah. The Bible paints Zedekiah as a man of consummate wickedness, but, if you read the accounts of his actions closely, you'll likely see him as a man of consummate weakness. Trapped between Babylon and Egypt as his father, brothers, and nephew had been, Zedekiah repeated all of their mistakes and made new ones of his own. A weather-vane turning in every breeze, he sought endless ways out of his dilemma: listening to false prophets and at times even to a true one, freeing slaves and then re-enslaving them, being a loyal subject of Babylon and then betraying it for the weak reed of Egypt, and asking advice from everyone and taking it from no one. Is it any wonder that his reign led to the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the destruction of David's palace and of Solomon's temple, and the exile of the Jews to what's now Iraq for seventy years? God could hardly have sent a harsher judgment on Judah than letting it be ruled by Zedekiah.

The Bible's accounts of Jerusalem's fall have a sad coda. As Nebuchadnezzar was willing to give the remaining Jews of Judah limited self-government under his sovereignty, he appointed a Judean court official, Gedaliah, as governor of a newly made Babylonian province. With Jeremiah's help, Gediliah was on course to revive Judah as a Babylonian protectorate when foreign intrigue, an internal traitor, and his own blind pride conspired to assassinate him. The surviving Jews, fearing Babylonian reprisals for the governor's death, headed off to Egypt for sanctuary. They dragged there Jeremiah, mourning that his people had returned to the land from which Moses had freed that people's ancestors from slavery.

I've given you a brief history of the last years of the kingdom of Judah as background for why I've chosen to write about that period. It combines several themes that have fascinated me as a writer: the nature of prophecy, political intrigue, and the fall of a once flourishing civilization. That period holds the fate of objects of mystery and wonder: Solomon's temple and the Ark of the Covenant. That period is relevant to today, when small states in the Middle East maneuver in a game of great powers. One of those small states is Israel…

Above all, that period raises questions still relevant today. How should we behave in a world where great powers act seemingly without regard for, or even in defiance of, God's law? How relevant is that law to Jews and Christians today? What should we do when patriotism to our nation conflicts with service to our God? Does the fall of Judah and Jerusalem to the Babylonians hold lessons from history that we do ill to forget?

The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah deals with its period of history chronologically and completely. I've dealt with Jeremiah as prophet in greater detail in Parables before Jesus and Stand at the Crossroads, a book of devotionals based on Jeremiah's teachings. In the end, I hope to use all that I've learned about this history to write a novelization of Jeremiah's life — the life of a compelling man in dangerous times.

You can read the opening sections of The Last Days of the Kingdom of Judah by clicking on Look inside.

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