Thursday, May 17, 2007

God & Kings


Austin, Lynn. 2005. Gods and Kings.

Gods and Kings is an excellent novel, first in a series, fictionalizing the biblical account of one of Judah’s greatest kings, Hezekiah. Beginning with his childhood, Austin shows the legacy of corruption in Judah’s royal line. The story begins, of course, with the evil king, Ahaz. The opening of the story is powerful: Hezekiah, a young child, the second born in the royal family, is awakened along with his other brothers. It is the middle of the night, hours away from dawn, and grim-faced soldiers are forcing them out of bed. Soon, these royal princes, along with other young boys, are being marched outside of the city into the Valley of Hinnom. Their destination: to worship Molech and sacrifice firstborn sons. Witnessing his older brother’s murder--decreed by his father--changes this young boy forever. Severely traumatized, he clings to his mother, Abijah. Mourning the loss of her son, Abijah realizes that there was nothing she could have done to have prevented his murder. And there is nothing that she can do to protect her remaining son from the same fate. If Ahaz chooses to sacrifice another son, she can do nothing to change his mind. Nothing to save his life. She is powerless. The daughter of a priest, Zechariah, she had been told that it was a privelige to marry into the royal family. That she should look upon it as a great honor to bear the king’s sons. But Abijah would give almost anything to be an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband. She knows that he is corrupt. Without morals. Married to a monster, Abijah has to accept her fate and rely on the small chance that perhaps by staying on the king’s good side that her son will be kept safe. After all, if she can keep the king ‘in love’ (or lust) with her, perhaps he will try to please her.
But then the fateful day comes when the country is on the verge of war. Another sacrifice must be made. Molech must be appeased. As Hezekiah is woken up once again, he knows he’s doomed. He is now the firstborn son. He will be the day’s royal sacrifice. Unless....someone will be brave enough to speak out against the nation’s idolatry.
Enter the prophet Isaiah. Who just happens to meet their procession down to the idol, Molech. He speaks, and as much as the king would like to ignore him, Isaiah’s words haunt him. But he’s not the only one: Hezekiah hears this man of God speak and his life will never be the same: “Don’t be afraid...for Yahweh has ransomed you. He has called you by name. You belong to Yahweh. When you go through deep water, Yahweh will go with you. And when you ford mighty rivers, they won’t overwhelm you. When you pass through the fire, you won’t be burned. The flames will not hurt you. For Yahweh is your God. The Holy One of Israel is your Savior” (73). When Hezekiah’s life is spared--when his father chooses another son--a son of a concubine--over his, a small seed is planted. His journey to faith has begun. Still frightened, still overwhelmed, the idea of Yahweh is the only thing that will calm this young boy’s fear. Luckily, his mother, makes a pledge to renew her own devotion to the one true God. And she seeks out her father, Zechariah. Perhaps, this priest--this retired priest--can help train this young prince up into a godly king. It won’t be easy, with the palace full of idolaters. But maybe, Hezekiah will be the beginning of a new tradition, and perhaps he’ll create a godly legacy to pass onto his children.
The novel, Gods and Kings, is divided into two parts. The first part covers his childhood. The second part covers a brief period of his adulthood beginning with his betrothal and marriage and concluding with his coronation. After his father’s murder, this twenty-five year old man assumes the throne. But it is overwhelming for him as well. He has never had an official role in the government. He doesn’t know which officials are just and which are corrupt. He doesn’t know who to believe or who to trust. Luckily, that is where Isaiah and Micah--not to mention Hilkiah and Eliakim pop into the story. With some godly advice, can this young prince assume the throne and lead the nation into revival? One thing is for sure, expectations are high. This may be Judah’s best chance for redemption and renewal.
Gods and Kings is an exciting glimpse into a familiar Bible story. At least it’s a familiar Bible story to me. I suppose not everyone is as in love with the Old Testament as I am. But as a child, there was nothing I loved more than to read the history books. I loved reading of the kings and prophets. I loved hearing about the great battles, the great conflicts. How prophets would speak out for God and really let the corrupt leaders have it. I loved their boldness. Their perseverance. While Hezekiah isn’t my favorite king after the division of Judah and Israel--that would probably be Jehosophat or Josiah--Isaiah has always been a favorite. To see his words have life, have meaning, have depth brings great power to this story. It is one thing to read about an upcoming Assyrian invasion. As modern-day readers, most of us have never faced the threat of invasion. Never faced the threat of starvation and war. The fact that the invading army is brutal--without mercy--that they rape and murder. That they pride themselves in cruelty and brutality. It is almost meaningless to read the words off the page. But this novel brings the fear, the threats, to life. You realize that these were real people...real families. That this was a life-threatening, overwhelming fear that one would have to live with for weeks, months, years even. Let’s just say, that these fictional characters made me think a lot about the reality of the terror they faced in these final years of the dynasty. That it was their own fault makes it no less terrifying.