Saturday, October 23, 2010

City of Refuge: A Biblical Novel of the Ancient Past

By Valerie Farber,, 393 pages.

The religious laws of ancient Israel were tough but fair, according to City of Refuge, a novel set in the decades after the Israelite settlement of the Promised Land. Two young boys tease a tied-up ox into delirium until the animal breaks free and kills the children. Given the boys' behavior, the ox-owner is spared his own life by the strict, well-run court of religious elders and priests, but the ox must die.

Farber shows that this serves legal but also psychological needs, as the anger of the bereaved families falls on the animal rather than on the family who owned the animal. The narrative moves the story along in a fast-paced though detailed manner:

"An excited mob of townspeople followed the vindictive procession. The Nadav clan, helpless and friendless, shuffled at the back of the mob. Though they recoiled from the sight of the animal being led to its death, they couldn't depart from the scene."

As poor farmers, they would now have to plow the hard, rocky terrain without the ox, further impoverishing them. Thus Farber's presentation of the religious law shows the human side, as its judgments not only save the village from an extended clan fight, but also fail to compensate the family losing the animal.

Farber offers a great way for readers young and old to learn about the social and religious life of ancient Israel. City of Refuge tells the story of people struggling to remain faithful to the covenant with God through social, economic, and romantic pressures. Living the law of the Israelite tradition was a complicated matter.

The priest Tzaddok's daughter, Bat-Shachar, has an independent, defiant streak that, mixed with her naivety, leads her to trust too deeply in the family's reckless Canaanite servant Basmat, who attends Baal fertility cults where humans are sacrificed to satisfy the bloodlust of the gods.

Yet the nation's youth, including Bat-Shachar most of the time, take their traditions and duties seriously. Two lifelong friends, Yerachmiel and Tzuriel, hope to train as blacksmiths and make the weapons necessary to defend their nation against the Canaanites. They want to learn the mystery of iron, by which Israel's enemies have been dominating the Chosen People, so journey for days in search of the famous smith Shraya, who becomes their mentor and a father-figure.

The underlying message of City of Refuge comes through clearly: we are called to be faithful to our traditions and vocations. We must serve our people and our faith. Thus even though Bat-Shachar resists her father's choice of husband for her, she does so while struggling to obey tradition. She eventually finds the pious and honorable Tzuriel to marry, and the union is blessed by her father.

City of Refuge depicts a time when religion demanded honor and justice in God's name, quite at odds with the feelings-oriented therapeutic Christianity to which many subscribe today.

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