Spare narrative and a stoic reporting of the facts — this is the tone of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah:
“So I came to Jerusalem . . .” (Five words about a dangerous two-month, one-thousand-mile journey.)
“I wept and mourned for many days.” (Three months!)
Based on a careful study of Scripture, Lynn Austin puts meat on the bones without obscuring the truth or compromising biblical fidelity. On This Foundation, book three of The Restoration Chronicles, is a fictionalized rendering of Nehemiah’s journey and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s shattered wall which can easily stand on its own. Characters from the Old Testament book become more three-dimensional and their emotions and the events of the story more palpable since novelizing the story brings in the sights, sounds, smells, and energy of those tumultuous days. For example, there is more to the role of cup bearer than I had realized, and Nehemiah’s duties in the citadel at Susa were a unique preparation for his position of leadership in Jerusalem. Connecting Nehemiah and his brother Hanani with the events chronicled at the end of the book of Esther gives depth and family history which hint at a possible reason for Nehemiah’s strength of character and drive.
The mobilization of a ragtag assortment of refugees into an efficient construction crew and formidable fighting force along with the restoration of the wall in only two month’s time becomes a lush and layered tale. Heart-breaking realities associated with bond servitude in Israel’s history and the grinding poverty that lay at its root are reported in Nehemiah 5, but On This Foundation gives the problem a face and a name in the person of Nava who must leave her family and her childhood sweetheart for a six-year term of servitude in payment of her families debts.
The tedious list of names in Nehemiah 3 and the details of who worked next to whom (and what they built) has been incorporated beautifully into Lynn’s story arc with flowing dialogue and imaginative scenes. Best of all, the daughters of Shallum (3:12) explode the boundaries of their one-verse mention and are given an identity that fulfills the vision and courage which earned their mention in Israel’s historical account.
Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are portrayed as the formidable and self-seeking foes that we see in the biblical narrative, adding to the intrigue of Nehemiah’s situation. I was drawn into the tension of Nehemiah’s survey of his surroundings, his dawning realization that there was no one he could fully trust, and his fear that he was endangering his brothers lives as well as his own. Was there anyone in all Jerusalem who was committed to the cause with unsullied motives?
My Sunday School class and I recently spent nearly six months studying the book of Nehemiah together, so, for me, On This Foundation felt like a visit with an old friend. I encourage readers to accept the author’s invitation to explore the biblical text. (She provides a list of all the passages she referenced in her research.) Those who do will realize that Nehemiah’s trip to Susa and his subsequent return to Jerusalem in Nehemiah 13 have been omitted from the book. Many of the reforms that Nehemiah addressed (Sabbath observance, marriage to unbelievers, temple worship, and provision for the Levites) occurred after his return, indicating that the slippage had actually taken place in his absence. At 464 pages, On This Foundation is really a perfect length for getting lost in, so the inclusion of that journey would have been cumbersome, and its omission takes nothing away from the story.
As for sorting out the truth about Malkijah the wealthy land-owner: Is he just another cruel and greedy rich guy who is hoping to increase his power by marrying one of Shallum’s daughters? Is Chana wise to accept his proposal? These questions nagged at me as I read, but even after the plot was resolved, and I was imagining the choral processions singing at the dedication of Jerusalem’s Wall, I couldn’t let go of that pair of complex characters — Malkijah and Chana, so alike in their need for repentance and self-awareness. The truth is that every one of us is a mixed bag of greed and loyalty; blindness and insight; charity and ambition. Only God can change a heart, working from within, and like Nehemiah, we all must come to the realization that anything of consequence that we do, anything lasting that we build must be set on a firm foundation of faith in the Almighty One.
Interested in visiting the landmarks from my six-month journey through Nehemiah with my Sunday School class? Click here to view a link to the series.
This book was provided by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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