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For her second biblical novel, Rebecca Kohn has taken on a tougher challenge than in the first. In the excellent, The Gilded Chamber, she told the story of Queen Esther, who is so central to the action that she even gets her own eponymous book in the Bible. In Seven Days to the Sea, she once again relates an episode from the Old Testament--that of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt--from the viewpoint of the women involved. But here her characters are necessarily not present at key moments in the action--because only Moses and Yahveh are there or because Moses and Aharon are meeting with Pharoah--so there's an odd secondary quality to the first person narrative of Moses's sister, Miryam, and wife, Tzipporah. Think about it--a book about Moses with no burning bush, no scene where he gets the tablets, etc.--it's a pretty daring authorial decision. And, I have to admit, I was awfully dubious about it through at least the first half of the book, but then, to my surprise and great satisfaction as a reader, it paid off brilliantly in the end.

What Ms Kohn has done here is quite precisely to give us a somewhat slantwise view of the story, the view that the Jews who followed Moses, in rather bumptious fashion, would, after all, have had themselves. Though it was Moses who had to bear the difficult burden that Yahveh placed upon him, he did at least have the advantage that belief had been forced upon him. His people had to, for the most part, take his word for it that he was doing God's will and they should follow. Theirs was then the greater leap of faith and that they struggled mightily with it, and often against Moses and God, becomes all the more understandable when we look through their eyes. The Yahveh of Exodus is, as you'll recall, an exacting taskmaster and puts the Jews through their paces for forty long years before letting them get to the Promised Land. In Ms Kohn's narrative we get a sense of why a people whose leader had seemingly disappeared might cast a golden calf and also of why God, through Moses, would punish them so harshly for doing so. In one of the powerful dialogues near the end of the book, Tzipporah is treating the sores on Moses's face that are caused by drawing near to Yahveh and she is troubled by the demands God makes upon them, to which her husband responds:
"It is better for us to live by Yahveh's laws than the tyranny of men. Unlike men, Yahveh values life more than property."

"His punishments are too harsh," I whispered.

"Would His children listen otherwise?"

I could not bring myself to give the answer Moses sought, though I knew it to be true.

Moses sighed. "The people have not learned to act with the responsibility that freedom demands. In their hearts they are still slaves. For the time being only fear of His anger will teach them the wisdom of His laws. I pray it will not always be so."

It is a vain prayer, I said to myself.

"The yoke of leadership is heavy," he added.
And not just of leadership, but of freedom, because it does require that we learn to act responsibly and that we bend to His laws. It is as she teaches us these timeless lessons again, and makes us see how great was the struggle to accept them even as God Himself was teaching them, that Ms Kohn's novel achieves a real resonance that applies to our own lives. This is a book that will reward the patient reader greatly.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Rebecca Kohn (2 books reviewed)
Historical Fiction
Rebecca Kohn Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Rebecca Kohn
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Author Rebecca Kohn (Shay Zeller, March 9, 2006, Front Porch: NHPR)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: to The Gilded Chamber (Rugged Land)
    -REVIEW: of The Gilded Chamber (Gaby Wenig, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles)
    -ESSAY: There's Something About Esther: A spate of new books shows what Jews, Christians, and even secular business people can learn from the biblical heroine. (Rebecca Phillips, BeliefNet)
    -The Book of Esther (King James Version)

Book-related and General Links: