It is 580 BC. Jerusalem is a ruin. Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, is blind and bound in chains in Babylon where, after three decades of captivity, the prophet Daniel has become that pagan nation’s second most powerful man. God’s servants Ezekiel and Zechariah live there too, but their longsuffering contemporary, the prophet Jeremiah, is a prisoner of his countrymen in Egypt. Jeremiah’s fellow captives include Baruch ben Neriah, his dear friend and lifelong scribe, and King Zedekiah’s daughters, three motherless, fatherless and tortured souls with no husbands nor hope for the future, who bear the innumerable scars of Judah’s incurable faithlessness.
While a very old man in Egypt, Jeremiah receives one last assignment from the Lord…
Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah…saying, “Take some large stones in your hands and hide them in the mortar in the brick terrace which is at the entrance of Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes, in the sight of some of the Jews. (Jer 43:8-9)
Excavations conducted in 1886 by Flinders Petrie, an English Egyptologist, unearthed a platform of brickwork at a site in Eastern Egypt which Petrie identified as ancient Tahpanhes, then known by locals as Qasr Bint al-Yahudi, the “Castle of the Jew’s Daughter,” an amazing bit of linguistic evidence supporting Petrie’s claim because we know from the biblical record that “King Zedekiah's daughters” were among the remnant taken forcibly to Tahpanhes…
But Yohanan the son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces took the entire remnant of Judah…the men, the women, the children, the king’s daughters…together with Jeremiah the prophet and Baruch the son of Neriah and they entered the land of Egypt…and went in as far as Tahpanhes. (Jer 43:5-7)
Jeremiah persuades Baruch ben Neriah to assemble a team of helpers then venture into the Nile delta to find suitable stones for the ordained construction and return with them to Tahpanhes, no small task. The nearest rock quarry is an ancient, abandoned mound known as Red Hill, so-called after the characteristic color of the sandstone once mined there, which lay some 60 miles southwest of Tahpanhes near Egypt’s ancient capital of Memphis and the site of modern Cairo.
Despite the perilous risks involved and the necessity to leave behind the woman he loves, one of Zedekiah’s daughters, Baruch accepts Jeremiah’s commission and is nearly killed in the pursuit. Upon his return, the prophet’s faithful scribe finds Tahpanhes surrounded by a small Egyptian army led by then-general Amasis, soon to become Egypt’s next Pharoah, a true historical figure of that period and a bigger-than-life character whom the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described as possessing “practical wisdom and cunning, a trickster on the throne or a kind of comic Egyptian Solomon.”
Amasis is bent on destroying Tahpanhes and killing all its occupants. How will Baruch get past Egypt’s army, deliver the stones to his prophet and thus fulfill his mission?
Publisher: Cliff Keller
1. The castle of the Jew’s daughter
When one is held captive, few things change. At the first hint of dawn each day, Baruch ben Neriah, the prophet Jeremiah’s lifelong scribe, would blink awake upon his pallet, splash his face with water and then, despite his many burdens, whisper praises to the Lord. Uninclined, those early mornings, to tread among his several snoring jailers in the dark, Baruch would drop out an open window then step across a courtyard to a lonely bench beside a wall. Through cracks in that wall’s facade, as the light grew bit by bit, he watched gulls dart through a fogbound marsh as they gorged themselves on insects.READ MORE
So engaged one morning, with the Egyptian sun but a dull orange disk and the air having turned quite cold, Baruch discovered his master standing quietly beside him. “Take your cart and mule out to the road,” Jeremiah said, not bothering to greet him, “then head west.”
“Toward the Nile?” Baruch asked (as he stood to drape his shawl across the prophet’s shivering shoulders).
“Have you difficulty hearing?” Jeremiah asked. “Toward the Nile, of course, then south, following the route of its nearly vanished branch.”
When Baruch remained stuck in place, speechless and confused, Jeremiah took his arm and led him past a sleeping guard and out the compound gate. “That way,” he said once they stood outside, pointing along the length of a dune that followed the coastal highway, “but this time you’ll pass the place from which you fetch our salt and go on to find a rock pit.”
This had not been the first unclear exchange between them. Knowing better than to ask more questions, Baruch waited calmly and the prophet soon said more, spreading his arms then raising his nose a notch to show, Baruch supposed, just how huge would be the rock pit he had mentioned. “Harvest several large, smooth stones from the quarry you shall find,” the prophet said, “and bring them back here to me.”
When Baruch nodded that he understood, Jeremiah smiled, although the corners of his mouth bent down with resolve, not up with satisfaction. “I’ll need big, even, cut rocks,” he said, “and I will need them soon. Start now if you hope to be back before dark.”
Prophets of God are not practical men, nor are they the sort with whom one argues, so as Baruch had done so many times in their long association, he gently encouraged his mentor to explain himself more clearly. “I’m to ride to some far place,” he began, “in the flimsy cart upon which we two barely made our way here?”
“Perhaps 70 miles past where you’ve gone before,” Jeremiah nodded.
“With only my aging mule to pull it all that way?” Baruch asked, and the prophet narrowed his eyes to assist his thinking. “And the large rocks you say you require…”
“Not I,” Jeremiah interrupted, “the Lord himself demands them.”
“Even so, sir,” Baruch said, “what do you think one rock might weigh?”
“Take some large stones in your hand…” Jeremiah answered, not an answer but what had become a rote recital, “…and hide them in the mortar in the brick terrace which is at the entrance of Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes, in the sight of some of the Jews…” He turned to point back through the gate toward the several barracks buildings in their compound, then toward what they had come to call the big house, in which the three surviving daughters of Judah’s former king now slept. “Is this not Tahpanhes?” Jeremiah said, pausing until Baruch nodded. “And was that house not once Pharaoh’s?” He paused again to smile as if he had made an important point. “Qasr Bint al-Yehudi, the locals have begun to call it. The castle of the Jew’s daughter.”
“If you say it,” Baruch answered, for who was he to doubt a prophet of the Lord?
“Of course I say it,” the prophet said, “as I know its Source.”
“And so you desire that I alone, with my creaking cart and clubfoot mule, trek some ninety miles to gather a load of stones.”
“As the Lord lives!” said Jeremiah, a man too often more at ease with mystery than facts.
“And I’m to complete this chore today?”
It is hard to imagine that a withering old man, raked with scars and bent by decades of arduous service to a thankless population, could suddenly glow with childlike delight, but Jeremiah did exactly that after devoting more thought to his demands. “I suppose,” he said, eyes twinkling, “that the layers of the weathered rock you’ll find must first be hacked asunder. Then, at some point, trenches must be dug about each rock you wish to cut.”
Baruch nodded hopefully.
“Agreed, then,” Jeremiah said, “you will need assistance, therefore take a few strong men with you.”
“But surely not from among those in this compound?” Baruch asked.
“Unreliable fellows all,” Jeremiah said, “with idle minds and averse to collaboration.”
“Perhaps at Sena,” Baruch said, “I might find a few men willing, though likely none of higher character.”
“Find them then,” the prophet said, “and when you’ve all assembled at the quarry, first cut grooves to break out the weathered outer rock, chisel gaps in what remains, then force in wooden wedges soaked in water. These will expand, you see, and thus split the rock into pieces more easily handled.”
After almost forty years in the prophet’s service, Baruch felt comfortable enough, just then, to set his hands upon his shoulders and pat gently. “And what use will you make of these big stones?” he asked.
“I’ll lay them side by side,” Jeremiah said, “exactly where and in the manner required by the Lord.”
“Even now,” Baruch sighed, “though Judah’s gone, you hear him?”
“Even now,” the prophet said, “he speaks.”
“Then I shall find a way to do exactly as you’ve asked,” Baruch said, “but, I pray, sir, understand. It shall likely take some time.”
“Then you had best get started,” Jeremiah said, having already turned and begun to walk away, leaving Baruch alone upon the highway except for his numerous misgivings.COLLAPSE
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