Egypt is a beautiful civilised place. I had always imagined that I would either die in Jerusalem or be carried off with the rest of my people to Babylon. I had long been told by Yahweh that the core of my people would grow and prosper in Babylon. I had sent them word again and again that they would be safe there, should settle down, marry, trade, learn. It is an utter blessing that my Baruch is a scribe. How simple that made these long-distance conversations.

I had seen other things too – that Baruch, younger than I, would live a long and peaceful life, travelling where he chose, always protected by Yahweh, and that this was a reward. Yahweh was right, that was exactly the reward I would have chosen for my service. He had also shown me something of what it had cost him to destroy Judah, which had been his own work. I had a glimpse into his pain, and did not fully understand, only wondered. It made my own suffering easier to accept, and his promises easier to believe, that life in Babylon would be for the good of the people.

But I did not end up in Babylon. I ended, with a tiny dissolute rump, in Egypt. It should have been a time of horror. Egypt is a place of exile, of slavery. It was not terrible. It was a time of peace. Although I continued to try and call them to obey the will of Yahweh, and continued to fail, I knew we were safe.

I had word from Babylon that my people there were beginning to turn to Yahweh. To learn from what had happened, and to gather themselves for that return to their home, to Jerusalem, which I was sure would follow one day. I had utter confidence that when they had learned enough they would go to Jerusalem, and there it would indeed become true that they would learn how to worship Yahweh with their hearts and lives, offering the truest worship of a life well lived, of justice and – well, frankly if you do not know the rest by now …

One day I suggested to Baruch that we might go to Babylon and see the people there. We were sitting under a date palm with a small jar of wine, and a loaf of bread. He had been singing to me. He has a beautiful voice. He looked down at me as I lolled in the shade. ‘Let us stay here, where Yahweh has brought us,’ he said gently, ‘Let us enjoy the peace.’


Rachel weeping

The siege. Finally the enemy encamped round Jerusalem, and all of us holed up, waiting for food and water to fail, and for us to become weak enough that the enemy could easily end it. The worst thing was not the false prophets who kept on and on promising the King victory against Babylon. How they were listened to, believed, and how they put me to shame. Nor was it being imprisoned as a traitor in the barracks. Of course I was a traitor, I spoke ceaselessly against what they called ‘the war effort’. I saw only misery and defeat. We needed to surrender. I spoke to the soldiers of it. They put me into a black slimy cistern, a water-holder, yards and yards deep. I sank into the mud, wondering how deep it was, and when it would cover my mouth. But it did not. I stood there, waiting for exhaustion to take me, for me to fall asleep under the smothering filthy blanket.

Being unexpectedly drawn up by kind hands – hands which had padded the ropes that hauled up my thin, exhausted flesh. That was actually good, for all that I had resigned myself to death. They dragged me before Zedekiah the King, and left me there. And there he stood. He was starving, we all were as the siege pressed on and on, yet he was still dressed in gorgeous embroidered robes and well enough fed to stand without effort. And there I stood, mud up to the loins, shatteringly tired, and swaying with lack of food. And he begged me. He implored me. He wanted the truth, finally. Surrender, I told him. End it now, get what mercy you can.

He was too afraid to do it. I promised him what I promised everyone who would stand still long enough to be told. A new covenant, not based on sacrifices and rituals, and physical circumcision. Instead based on love, on each man and woman and child devoting themselves directly to Yahweh. A heart with the shell removed, a soft, tender, bare thing. That Jerusalem would be rebuilt and would flourish as a centre of justice and mercy where all tribes and all nations would be well treated. And that, that is what he was too afraid to accept. And as I looked at him and little pools of mud gathered around my feet, I pitied him, who was so much more afraid than I was.

In the end, when inevitably the city fell, they made him watch his sons being executed and then put his eyes out. I wept for him when I heard that. But that was not the worst thing. And neither was it the breach in the walls, and the soldiers pouring in, and the brutality of them, and the horrible profane hands snatching all the precious holy things, and my suddenly realising how much I cared for the Temple after all.

No the worst thing, the very worst thing, was before that. It was watching a woman nurse her child who was dying because there was no milk in her breasts. That was the worst thing. A mother weeping over her dead son.

Baruch the scribe

Jerusalem is not large, not by the standards of a modern city like Memphis, and I had grown up there, or thereabouts. I knew nearly everybody in the educated classes by sight. When I saw a man standing at the edge of the crowd, listening intently, my attention was caught. Well, listening intently. And then, I realised I did not know him, or only had the vaguest memory of him.

Quite a little man, very neat, very dapper in his clothes. A full head of hair, very well groomed. A good few years younger than me. I must have been in my mid forties by then, and he was about thirty years old. I finished my usual account of what was required, and the few who had been listening, or jeering, moved away, except for him. He came over to me. ‘Baruch’ he said, ‘Yes, what you say makes real sense.’

He tells me that I looked as though he had hit me. ‘You agree?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I could believe whole-heartedly in a God of justice, and decency, and kindness. But, can I be frank, I am not at all sure that speaking on street corners is the way to get the message out. We must think of other and better ways.’

The water vendor was passing by, and he stuck out a casual hand, to stop him, and gestured to me, ‘Drink?’ I looked at his hand, stained. For an uncomprehending moment I puzzled over the stains, so out of place in one whose dress was so precise. And then, then I took his hand and turned it over, and all the stains were between finger and thumb. ‘Can you write?’ I asked.

‘Professional scribe,’ he answered, laconically. ‘Don’t get excited, mainly it is just accuracy. I’ve been working for a party of merchants, working the routes to Egypt. Selling cashmere, buying dyes, and papyrus, of course.’ That was why I did not know him. He had been up and down the road to Egypt most of his adult life.

We talked. That is weak. Within seconds, I was plotting with him, laughing with him, drinking in hope from him, exploring what he knew writing could do. Standing on the street, learning the crisp hair, the little curl at the neck. Plotting how to hold in my memory the slight curve on the nose, the set of the eyebrow. Wondering if I had another good reason to touch his hand.

We walked slowly back to my home. Listen, there was no wife there to disturb us. I had never married. Yahweh had utterly forbidden it. I knew that as certainly as I knew anything. When I asked, as the evening drew on, if he needed to return to his home, he smiled a little. ‘Oh, my servants will hardly mind a free evening, no, no wife, no family.’

It was utterly natural to sit there with the light of a little lamp, eating cheese and grapes, dividing up bread, drinking a little wine. I was afraid to drink much. Afraid to dim these moments even slightly. Then, as the moon rose and lit the room, he turned to me, smiling up into my face. He put his hand behind my head, drew it down. Over eager, my mouth collided with his, mine terribly clumsy, his calm. Then, deliciously, his hand brushed up the inside of my thigh.

Ours was, is, the most perfect love. None of the things which interrupt man and woman, when they love, ever disturb it. There is no difference in rank. No buying or selling, no bride-price, no constant fear of death from child-bearing. We are two equals. This was, I knew, the gift of Yahweh to me – not a wife but a full and perfect partner, who made his covenant with me, as Yahweh made a covenant with Judah. Only, our covenant was unbroken, unshadowed by any unfaithfulness.

I have been duped

Humiliation and terror are nasty things to chose between – not that I got the choice. No, I got both, with frustration and misery as a side dish. Josiah met his inevitable end, playing off one super-power against another. Our most ancient enemy and ally, Egypt, clashing horns – not the old enemy, Syria, but the new one, Babylon. One tricky power-play too many had him skewered by an Egyptian arrow and dying nastily in Jerusalem. His younger son got three months to play at being King before he was carted off to Egypt, and his elder brother was plonked on the throne by the Egyptians.

For a brief moment, my hopes rose. Surely everybody could now see that playing with the big boys was an utter disaster. All we had landed was a crippling tribute, which meant impossible taxes on my poor people – or more bluntly on the poor of my people.

I was the more encouraged because another prophet, Uriah, was also listening to Yahweh, and taking the same tack as me. So, as soon as Jehoiakim was enthroned, and demanding his taxes, I began to proclaim the same message, all over again.

I had nothing new to say. It was so simple. Treat every person with respect. Include the powerless in this. The basic necessities of food, drink, and justice, must be for everybody, even for foreigners. Love Yahweh. Put no trust in sacrifices, or in the Temple. Never imagine you have Yahweh shut up in the Temple, he is bigger than that. You think he lives in the Temple, but he is bigger than Judah, Egypt, Babylon. He is bigger than the earth, than the sky.

If you keep playing power games, if you ignore justice, he will turn Jerusalem into a ploughed field. He will destroy this King as he destroyed Josiah.

Speaking against the King is, apparently, treachery, while selling a whole country to one power after another is not. Whoring your birthright, your God-given responsibility is just fine.

For pity’s sake, could they not see what had happened already? Had Jehoiakim not watched his father’s lingering death? And for once it was not just me: it was me and Uriah.

They threatened Uriah. He fled to Egypt. They hunted him down, abducted him, and brought him back to Jerusalem. I knew people at court. Not friends, exactly, or not trustworthy ones, but people who delighted in spelling out the details. They told me it was the King himself who struck him down with a sword. I still had people at court. I was put into the stocks. Jeers, and rotten fruit, and stones, while I wondered if this was the warm up to my final agony, or if I would get to limp off to my solitary home and get myself cleaned up and to bed.

I got to my home. I was sad, and furious, and utterly betrayed. Betrayed by Yahweh. He had promised me I would a pillar. I was a battered, bruised, stinking mess. I had been duped by him. He had given me nothing to fulfil that heady promise. Instead I was caught between a desperate need to speak the truth he insisted on showing me, a need which was fire in my bones, and open public derision when I spoke, jeers and decaying vegetables, and filth in my mouth. I turned it into a poem. I sat sobbing, and wrenching my anger and misery into my best verse. Dear knows who would ever hear it. They had accused me of treachery and blasphemy, and here I was in my honesty abusing the God I sought to serve.

Drink deeply

The moment I saw that child’s face was the exact moment I knew that sacrifice repulsed God. I saw the child’s face as he was drawn near to the fire, and I turned away, my ears full of the drumming they made to hide the pleas, the screams. I went behind a rock, and with shut eyes and ears full of drums, voided everything in my body. So, no, I never saw the child burnt alive.

At that very moment, I knew that that kind of sacrifice was not what Yahweh wanted. Sacrifice in the form of the death of a living being is not and never was his will. Not even animal sacrifice.

I cut my hair off. I ripped open my clothes. I wept. I wept for the child, for his father, his mother, for all the lies they had been told. I wept for their fear of invasion, the fear that led them to thrust their own child into the fire to save their country – as though it ever could. As though anything good could ever come of that. And I raged against the leaders of the people, who believed the safety of Judah lay in just the very playing of politics which caused the fear. I raged against priests, and prophets, and against the King. I came down from that valley, so near Jerusalem, so very far from everything good in civilisation, in human society, weeping for the stupid cruel waste of it all. Even in the city, I could hear the distant drums. It was a torment past bearing, made worse because I knew that up there, a far, far worse torment was going on. The day Josiah the King stopped it, that was, well, it was … But by then I had seen what I had seen, and knew what had happened to so many, many terrified children. That drumming, that sickness, had become part of each day.

Was Josiah a good King? He tried to be. Yes, he finally did away with the child sacrifice. He got his trained men into that accursed valley destroying the shrine up there. In his way, I think he believed in the Law – or in the basic rudiments of human decency. That no woman was to be blamed if a man raped her. That no seeking of justice was ever to exceed the crime done. That some things were simply evil: theft, adultery, the worship of foul gods who demanded people offer their children to fires, or their own reluctant bodies to use without love. That much he believed.

He never believed that what really mattered was doing Yahweh’s will. He never truly though his job was to make his country a place which grew strong through ensuring each person in it flourished, that none of his people remained slaves. He believed in the politics of power, in game-playing and in Judah being a strong state. He would play one of the super-powers off against the others, alliances with Egypt, or Babylon. Our country lay like a battlefield between superpowers. They courted him, and he made himself attractive to them like a whore. And like a whore he was used for an hour and then left. I never convinced him. It was doubly dangerous. First, to attract attention, flirting openly with other powers. Secondly, ignoring what was really for the good of my people; drinking deeply from the loving kindness of Yahweh, ensuring every person in Judah thrived, living as a free people without fear. Living with tender hearts, dedicated to honesty, justice, mercy. Living as though Yahweh was their tender lover.

I never convinced him, or come to that anybody else, that sacrifice should only ever be a matter of the heart, the mind. The offering of bodies, any bodies, was at the very best an irrelevance. That last was going too far for the King. Far too far for the priests.

What Yahweh was saying to me now was more and more difficult for people to hear. Telling my family that their daily lives are deeply unpleasing to God, when all they were doing is seeking to serve him. Telling the King that his every last foreign policy was downright wicked. Nobody else could see any of it. My voicing it, my voicing the commands of Yahweh, made me more and more an outsider. There are two ways of diminishing an outsider. To call them a traitor or to make them a figure of fun. Either can be dismissed. Either can be removed. I watched it become imperative that I was silenced.