eScapegoat 6

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

In World History class, we studied cultural names and their meanings. Four our class project we could choose: Native American (the new, approved name for Indian), Greek, Hebrew . . . or Irish/Celtic. I liked the sound of the name, “Ireland,” and the idea that an island so small had such a big, ancient, mysterious story. For centuries, Ireland survived foreign invaders—both human conquerors and microbes that blighted their potato crops. It seemed magical to me: this faraway isle where people lived and died centuries before Columbus discovered my country.  I admired the attention the Irish gave to naming their children, and I wanted to learn to pronounce their beautiful, unpronounceable names.

No one else chose Ireland; most of my classmates favored Hebrew, since we’d already learned many of these names and their meanings in Sunday School. The project required us to research at least ten common names from the culture of our choice, to discover the meaning of each name, to learn whether the name was male or female or both, and to discern approximately how long the name had been in use.

I rode my bike to the library and sorted through card after card in the file drawers. I found lots of books on the history of Ireland, on St. Patrick, and on the Potato Famine, but nothing on Celtic/Irish names. Could I change my mind? Would the teacher let me do Hebrew names, after all? Would she count off?

I sensed a presence at my side and whirled around to find the librarian standing at my elbow. She was shorter than me (her head just reached my shoulder) and, in her straight skirt and crisp white blouse, she looked as neatly packed as the file cabinets.

“I noticed you searching our files.”

“Oh . . . I . . . I . . .”

She just stood there, squarely and comfortably in her space and surveyed me with open, blue eyes.

“I . . . I . . . I’m supposed to do a project.”

She waited, nodding.

“ . . . on Irish names. You know (how stupid, of course she didn’t know). Oh, uh, how they . . . I mean what they mean, where they came from, how old there are. All that.”

“Yes, well. . . “ She opened the set of half-glasses that hung around her neck on a black cord and set them on her nose. “That would be in the 900 class, ‘Geography and History,’ sub-section 20, ‘Genealogy, Names, Insignia.” We have a few books on the subject. I’m sure a few have chapters on Irish names. Here we are. Check out the books numbered in the 929s—down that aisle on your left.”

I thanked the librarian and ambled down the aisle, enjoying the symmetry of the books, standing at attention one after another row upon row, flank upon flank. I had a good grasp of the Dewey Decimal System and soon found the section I needed. There were eight books. I needed three sources. When I checked out the chapter titles, I discovered the librarian was right—not many mentioned Ireland. Thankfully, three did—just enough. I fished out my library card and took it, with the books, to the desk. The librarian placed her huge metal stamper over the little date pad in the back of each book and pressed down, “Cha-chinggggg!” I loved that sound. I wanted to become a librarian just so I could play with that stamper!

***

It seemed fair to me to choose five female and five male names. I thought most people would start with “A,” so I worked backward from Z. Not many Z offerings in Irish, not many Ys either, a couple of Ws. For the boys I chose

  • Wynne (win), a Celtic name meaning “white, fair.” Also spelled Winn or Wynn,
  • Uaine (OON-yuh), an Old Irish name meaning “young warrior.” Also spelled Owain, Oney, Owney; also Owen
  • Tadhg (TAYG), a Gaelic name meaning “poet” or “honors god”; also can be Timothy. Tadc, Tiomoid, Teague, Taidgh, Tiege
  • Seán – (SHAWN), an Irish name meaning “god’s gracious gift”; can also be John
  • Cedric (SED-rik), a Celtic name meaning “chieftain.”[i]
  • Hewney (HEW nee), Gaelic meaning “green.”

For the girls I selected

  • Teagan, meaning poet;
  • Riley, meaning rye;
  • Keira, meaning dusky or dark haired;
  • Cadence, meaning a rhythmic flow of sounds.[ii]
  • Bridget, meaning exalted one.[iii]

Once I got my ten names, I started flipping through the books, searching out the names of people I knew. Wilda meant “wild” and Wanda “wanderer.” Both were German names. Were we German? Did my parents know what the names meant? In the Native American section, I noticed the name “Awan” which meant “somebody.” Awan, I thought. That should be Sheila’s name. She could name herself Awan and know she’s somebody.

Now to structure the report. Most students in my class stood up with blue-lined note cards, finding their way through the presentation as they talked. When I stood before the class it was as if I’d taken some drug that made all my body systems go into overdrive: I felt every eye that turned to on me as if they were lasers, colors took on life and assaulted me, sounds increased to a screaming volume. I’d stumble over my words, blood would pound in my ears, and my brain would freeze up, refusing to form a single thought.

If only I could find a way to turn everyone’s eyes onto something other than me. Then I could—I hoped—make myself think and talk. One reference book contained a photo of a beautiful page from something called the Book of Kells. The photo looked like a Bible page, except the letters were painted by hand in rich, shining colors, and illustrations around the page illustrating the Bible passage. I could do something like that! I could paint the names onto poster board and draw in the meaning next to each name. Then I could stand beside the poster, point out each section, and just explain my drawing.

I pulled out my paint box and got to work. When Mother called dinner, I didn’t want to stop, but I made myself. They’d get mad if I didn’t come and then I might not be allowed to get back to work after dinner. So I forced down the food, said I didn’t want dessert, and worked until Wilda crawled into bed and demanded that I turn off the light. I barely slept, imagining what colors fit which names and how I could illustrate the meaning of each. I got up with the dawn and, in the clear light of morning, worked until I had to dress for school. I took my work downstairs “to dry.” That was what I told my mother, anyway. I really just wanted her to keep an eye on it and on Wilda anywhere near it.

***

Hank was a high-school graduate; he went to community college and to church and he worked part-time to pay for his education. He was respectful, and he studied—a lot more than Wilda did. Hank was training to be a med tech; he was more mature and less tortured than Wilda’s other conquests. He was darned near perfect. Darned near wasn’t enough, however, because Hank’s part-time job was at a public health facility that, under certain circumstances, provided birth control pills. The Pill was the hot button for our church: it fostered premarital sex and promiscuity—period.

Hank filed medical insurance and refilled supplies at the clinic. He didn’t distribute pharmaceuticals; it would be against the law. Still, my family could not tolerate his presence in “that place.” Wilda pleaded and, to her surprise, found Father unmoved. She slipped out to meet Hank and found herself, for the first time in her life, grounded. Hank tried to explain his situation: he needed the job, it was honest work and it paid well, he worked with good people and didn’t want to let them down. He didn’t like the clinic giving out birth-control pills, either, but he thought people should make their own choices.

Father was immoveable; he had the entire congregation behind him—for support or serveilance—I wasn’t sure which. Wilda grew frantic, wailing at Father, pleading that she loved Hank; she couldn’t bear to be without him. A stone would have been more yielding than Father.

Wilda cried hysterically in her bed; I’d stroke her hair and tell her it would be all right. Sometimes she was so overwhelmed, she let me comfort her. Other times, she would bat my hand away and tell me to leave her alone. Wilda’s wailing and Father’s rigidness went on for weeks.

Then one day Father came home and asked to see Wilda in the den. She emerged a few moments later and raced to the telephone. Within thirty minutes, Hank stood at our door. Wilda, seizing his arm and smiling (her eyes gleamed) led him into the den. Voices rose and fell. Hank’s at first level, then pleading. Wilda’s pleading, then shrill. Father’s cold, clear, determined. At last Hank and Wilda emerged. Father shook Hank’s hands. Hank’s eyes look dead and his walk seemed robotic. Wilda danced at his side, chattering and patting his arm.

***

From snatches of conversation in the coming weeks, I pieced it together: Father had found Hank another job in another medical facility. It wasn’t a good job or a good location, but the facility didn’t supply birth-control pills, favoring abstinence as the only means of birth control. Together, Father and Wilda talked Hank into quitting his present job and taking the new one. He couldn’t stand up between the two of them.

A few weeks after Hank changed jobs, Wilda started bringing other boys home. Hank came by a few times, his eyes now tortured like so many others. I hated lying to him; we both knew the truth.

Hank may have been Wilda’s chance to love something other than what she was expected to love. I think Wilda tried, for a season, to break free with Hank, but between she and Father, they just domesticated him.

I sorrowed for Hank, made to bend under Father’s steady, strong thumb and under Wilda’s heady appeal. She didn’t want him after that; why should she? She’d had all of him; once he yielded, he could not help her be any more than she already was. I felt sorry for Hank because he had no choice but to comply, yet he lost Wilda and he lost himself the moment he shook Father’s hand. He’ll live out his life in the shadow of that. When I think of him, I hope he returned to his old job, regained his self respect, and moved on with his life.

As I thought on it, I came to a startling realization. Had it been me, I could never have yielded: not to Father, not to Wilda, not to all the powers that be. I could not have relinquished my selfhood. That knowing was the beginning of the end.

***

I got a job at the new hobby shop—saw the sign in the window, went in and got hired. Just like that! I get a paycheck and I get discounts on art supplies. And the people don’t know my family.

***

After I left home, Wilda married Edward, a business major she met while attending class at a nearby university. Edward had all the right credentials: right answers, right job prospects, right beliefs. To save money, the young couple moved in with my parents while he finished school. They went on to conceive and birth two children in that house. Edward drives two hours to another town for work and socializes there afterward until his children are in bed. Wilda keeps busy with church and civic affairs, passing off her children to Mother’s care. And Mother takes them. I begin to think Mother is something of a shadow herself. Maybe more so than I am.

***

[i] (http://www.irishwishes.com/)

[ii] www.babyhold.com

[iii] www.behindthename.com.

From the Margins: Mary Magdalene

Soul Thirst

They hammered in my head day and night, year upon year, until I did not know waking from nightmare. They screamed at me to destroy myself and gnawed me until I tore at my hair to rid myself of their teeth.

Then, in a flash of rational thought, I’d know the demons had me, that they played sordid games with my mind, and that I could not stop them. Those rare moments of sanity were nearly as bad as the demon times, so enraged did I become at my powerlessness against my attackers. A fit was on me when I first heard his voice; like soothing balm, it bathed my ravaged mind.

He laid calm hands upon my matted, sweaty hair. Again I heard his voice and looked up into his eyes. I read in them sorrow; I’d seen that look and knew what would follow, what always followed—first the shock of horror and then the embarrassed dismissal.

Not so this time. His eyes sharpened and focused, a piercing power. I was now the fearful one, the one who wanted to turn away.

“If I let him, he may heal me; but if I yield, I could die.”

“Then die,” I told myself. “For what life is this.

I relaxed my will against his ministrations. A screaming began—one voice, then another, another, another…

Was I screaming? I never knew.

I woke to a reasoning mind. For the first time, my eyes looked on a world both sharp and clear. For the first time, I knew who I was, free of the voices that ate at my mind. So I followed the one who gave me life; I listened to his wisdom, watched him heal others, served as I could. Though Peter first named him the Christ, I had known from the beginning the kingly potency of his eyes and voice. He had come for some great purpose, that I knew. I could not wait to see his power unleashed against the Romans as it had been against the demons of my mind.

But now he is arrested. Tried. Sentenced. Crucified. He is gone, forever gone. Tomorrow is beyond bearing; I live for today alone. I remain with him in this hour though my heart aches with grief. My presence is a small gift, for I can change nothing. I cannot rescue him from his tormenters as he delivered me from mine.

I lift my eyes to the cross, its bulk creaking wildly in the wind. I can barely see his face, disfigured by blood, sweat, and pain. Life pours down the naked wood, pooling red at its base. I bear the horror of it only out of a love that takes me past myself.

The sky goes black; he screams against the darkness. Terror sends my heart racing. What now? Will the world—will my world—return to madness? Yes, for we are surely mad already. We are killing my Lord.

In the darkness, his voice rings with wild power: “It is finished!”

He is dead.

I stand there, forgotten, as they disentangle his limbs from the nails, as they wrap his body and bear it away. Far behind the sorrowing procession, I follow, lost in solitary grief. At Sabbath’s end I will come to his tomb—a final tribute—and do what I can. It will not be enough. But in a world gone mad, it will be, at least, something.

~excerpted from my book, When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

From the Margins: Rahab

Soul Thirst

They call me whore. When we pass on the street, heads down, eyes averted lest I contaminate them, they utter the word beneath their breath and hurry by, spewing judgment. They have seen their husbands and fathers and sons look long at me; bitterness must find a scapegoat somewhere. That is my role: scapegoat and whore. So be it.

I ceased long ago to live in their world. My life has been cruel, but life has given me a family—father, mother, brothers and sisters—all who depend on me for bread. I did not ask to be caregiver for so many, but I will do what I can. What I must. We are debt slaves, required to pay our obligations. I have some enterprise, for I am a woman of drive and intellect. I weave wool and I mill flax. But these tasks alone cannot provide for so many. I whore to feed my family. One day I will not be attractive enough or well enough even for that, but by then my parents will be dead and perhaps I can get by on my other work. That is the only hope I afford myself. For what could possibly change a life such as mine?

And then the rumors. I hear them from other prostitutes who hear them from their clients: they whisper of a wild transient tribe that dried up the waters of the Jordan and then slaughtered King Og and King Bashan. A thrill in my gut—is it fear or hope?—tells me the God these people follow has power. Power carries meaning for me, for powerlessness has been my life-long companion.

We are a walled city, I tell myself. Why fear a rag-tag tribe and their traveling God? And yet I do fear, for walls are built by human hands upon an earth built by hands I cannot see. What if those hands grasped our walls and toppled them?

Then two of them came—straight into our town, straight into my house. It looked to my condemners like business as usual. But for once I had the power. The spies visited my house; I could do with them as I willed: turn them over to the king, if I chose. Perhaps be rewarded. But I knew by now not to trust the power brokers of Jericho. These two men, spying out my city, felt more like kin than my own king. And their God seemed worthy of my loyalty. This day I could choose to be the woman I knew, rather than the woman others chose to see.

I hid the men under a flax pile on my roof. When the king’s men came looking, I lied. Told them my clients left before the city gates closed. If the seekers hurried, they might just catch them.

The spies emerged then, covered in flax and reeking of the fear sweat. I pressed them to spare my family when their God took our city. I had no doubt this God could do whatever He chose, for here was power beyond imagining. The spies promised, on condition that I hang a crimson weaving cord from my window and secret my family inside our house. I agreed, and lowered the two by rope over the wall and into the waiting dark. I cut a crimson cord, fastened it to the window and felt, for the first time in my memory, the hope of freedom.

Then came the strange daily marches: seven of their holy men carrying trumpets and four bearing on poles a golden box that flashed fire in the sun. The holy men blew their horns into the silence for, though the entire tribe, thousands and thousands of them, paraded behind their priests, not one made a sound other than the slap, slap, slap of sandals against dirt: nothing but the padding of countless feet, and the eerie sounding of the trumpets day after day, circling our city and then departing. I watched, mesmerized, and a thrill of something between wonder and horror settled in my belly. Six days all. Six days of trumpets and silent parading. People in the streets joked about it, making it small and silly, but I could feel their fear. It hung in the air, cloying and cold, and we could not escape it.

The seventh day began as the others: trumpets sounding in silence, a soundless circuit of the city walls. But when the wanderers completed one circuit of the city, they began again. A second circuit…and a third…and a fourth, fifth, sixth. The tribe began to circle Jericho a seventh time. Watching from my window, I saw their leader give a signal. Shouts erupted from the mass, shouts so loud, so fierce, and so wild, that I cupped my hands over my ears. My heart raced—it was happening—and I propelled my family to the center of our home. “No one leaves,” I commanded. “No matter what.”

The earth writhed beneath us and the walls above us rocked. Then the sounds and smells of falling rock and rising dust. Screams from the injured and the terrified. On and on it went until the only world I could imagine was the small space in my home and the people who occupied it. We could barely see for all the pulverized stone and dust in the air. We breathed it in and coughed it up. But we stayed, though our terror compelled us to run.

I bullied my family into submission. I had cared for them all along, had I not? They must trust me now. We must wait in place as our city collapses around us.

Two familiar faces emerged from the dust-laden air: the spies I had sheltered days ago. They led us out of the city and into the Israelite camp. I stood, watching war fires eat away what was left of Jericho; I watched my home and my business descend in ashes. Even from our distance, the smell of burning reached and engulfed us, stealing into our hair and our clothes. But I also watched the fire consume my debts. I was a free woman: my family safe and free. True, we were outsiders among these people, but had I not been an outsider all my life?

From the Margins: Jochebed’s Daughter

Soul Thirst

I am a slave child: my life poured out in service to others. Yet, since birth I have heard tales of a God Who promised our forefather Abraham a nation and a land. I was suckled on stories of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Esau, of Leah and Rachel. Stories of a protector God. A deliverer God.

Where was God when Hebrew babies floated dead in the Nile?

Then came my mother’s third labor. Mother shoved rags into her mouth to stifle the screams of child bearing. This baby would be born in the dark, alone, with me as the only attendant. I had never seen my mother so: sweating and writhing in pain, eyes fierce. Wildly determined to make no sound. The child came with the dawn: a male child sentenced on birth to death.

“Miriam,” said Mother after I had laid the cleaned child in her arms: “We must secret your brother. God’s blessing and hope rests upon him.” I nodded, feeling our smallness against the awesomeness of Pharaoh’s will.

So we hid him, muffled his cries with our own bodies, anticipated his needs so that he would not scream his distress. Our eyes grew hollow with wakefulness, our hearts more determined as our task grew more incredible.

And then came the night he screamed and could not be muffled. The risks we had taken until that moment were nothing to what Mother resolved to begin with the next dawn. She fled our hut as the sun rose, and she came late to Pharaoh’s field.

That night, Mother removed the blanket covering a bed of reeds she must have gathered during the day. I watched her skillful fingers plait a lidded basket. Father brought home a bucket of tar. Its acrid aroma invaded our hut as she smeared the stuff inside the basket, into its belly and lid. She covered, and recovered, every inch. I asked no questions, but my eyes missed nothing. As for Mother, she labored in silence. Her task moved her beyond words; I would honor her with my silence.

When, with the dawn, she bundled my brother in a blanket and laid him in the basket, I watched from my pallet. When she set out on a solitary journey, her steps weighted with dread, I followed, silent and wary, behind. Peering between the reeds, I watched her set the basket on the gentle waves of the Nile. I read in her face the same fierce determination I saw on the birthing stool. Her eyes flashed fire and tears as she turned and walked the path to Pharaoh’s fields.

I would not go to the fields this day. I would stay here, a familial spy, for my mother and brother. The Nile shallows rocked my brother and my heart pounded out a lullaby.

In time, the reckless wisdom of Mother’s plan came clear. The Egyptian princess, adorned in her finery, came to the river to bathe. Her attendants followed discretely behind, carrying her bathing things. Was I more terrified that the princess’ eyes would fall on my brother’s small craft or that they would not? I had no time to decide, for her sharp eyes spied something amiss in the reeded waters. I shrank back as a slave girl waded to the basket and glided it along the waters to her mistress.

The princess lifted the lid; an all-too familiar wail filled the morning air. No more hiding. No more waiting. My brother had been seen by Egyptian eyes. From my hiding place, I watched the princess peer into the basket. Her hand, tender, crept inside. Her face softened. I had seen that look on our women when they beheld a suffering child. An Egyptian feeling compassion for a Hebrew? How could Mother have known such a thing?

“It is one of the Hebrew babies,” the princess said. She lifted my brother from his basket into her arms. He nestled against her, still wailing, seeking her breast. My feet launched me forward before my mind could form thought. As I stood before the princess, God seared my imagination with a wild possibility. Princesses did not attend to the care of infants, this I knew, not even their own.

“Do you need a nurse for the child?” I asked, speaking as no slave should speak to royalty.

Her kohl-rimmed eyes studied me. Measured me. Measured my purpose.

“Yes,” she said slowly. “Do you know someone?” I felt sure wet nurses lived in the Egyptian palace, but she and I had come to an understanding.

“I do,” I answered, keeping my smile of triumph as secret as we had kept my brother.

“Get her.”

I ran to Pharaoh’s field. “Mother! Mother!” I shouted. “The princess needs you!”

 

I stand today, an aged woman on the far side of the Red Sea, but I do not feel my age for, at last, we are a free people. My brother, wearing his Egyptian name Moses, is the leader of a new nation: Abraham’s nation and Sarah’s nation; Isaac’s nation and Rebekah’s nation; Jacob’s nation and the nation of Leah and Rachel; Moses’ nation; my nation. With my Hebrew sisters, I take up my tambourine, fix my eyes on my brother, and lift my voice in praise…

From the Margins: Pharaoh’s Daughter

Soul Thirst

I was princess of all Egypt. But, powerful as I was, I could not foresee the penalties of my mercy. Had I a future vision of the Egypt I see today, would I have made the same choice? I know not, for I cannot imagine life without my adopted son. And I came to think so little, to care so little about his race or station, that when he rescued his own people, I counted myself forsaken. My son connected me with these slave people in ways I never expected. What, after all, has Power to do with weakness? We, the Egyptians, were Power. At least, so I believed until the day my eye caught something floating in the Nile River reeds.

I came down that day to bathe, accompanied by my slave girls. I was always accompanied. A princess is without solitude, even in her bath. I cleansed myself far from the killing waters. Our soldiers drowned the Hebrew baby boys downstream; I told myself my bathing waters were clean and pure. I told myself Father did what he had to do. And then I thought of other things. I was, after all, a princess, and one day, when I had reigned long as queen and traveled to Duat, even then my slaves would serve me. Buried with me, they would serve me in the afterlife. I was Power. Eternal Power. Slaves were interchangeable, doting pets to be replaced when they grew old and troublesome. I took little or no notice of any of them. Until that day at the river.

I bid my slave girl fetch the strange object. She waded out, waist deep, and was soon lost among the reeds. In time I saw her, straining to wade back carrying the burden. Exhausted, she finally laid it on the waters and guided it, floating, within the circle of her arms, until she reached me. She looked up, fearful. “Heavy,” she said.

But I had no fear—not then. I lifted the lid and the baby within wailed. A Hebrew baby: I recognized the coarse weave of the blanket. What a countenance he had. His infant eyes saw and claimed me. I had never before truly looked into the face of a Hebrew slave. If this is what they were…I could not let this one die when it is in my power to save him.

The sister appeared at my side, as resolve took shape in my heart. I knew who she was from the hungry eagerness in her eyes; it was all she could do not to snatch up the child and soothe his wailing. I assented to her suggestion of a wet nurse, amazed at the ingenuity of these peoples’ women. The mother appeared, fearful but determined, and we struck our bargain. I would protect her as she raised her son, even pay her to do it, until he was weaned. But then he would be a son of Egypt and I his mother. We never discussed the child’s parentage; it was our unspoken understanding.

Across his growing years, we faithfully kept our pact. I gave him an Egyptian name, but in deference to his mother’s courage, one that bore a pun from the Hebrew language: Moses, to draw out. I little knew Moses would draw out from Egypt its great Power—and mine.

I raised him in Egypt’s ways, but his blood was Hebrew. In the end it was to them his heart turned. He would make them free. And to do so, he would rip from Mother Egypt, from me, the riches we had so long enjoyed.

My son is gone; wandering the desert with his slave nation. He left Egypt bereft; our crops ruined, our cattle sickened, our firstborn and our army dead. What Father Pharaoh sowed in infanticide returned to him—and to all of us–full measure: justice meted out by my adopted son and his Hebrew God.

Resentful eyes turn on me as I walk the palace halls. To them I am the mother of their sorrow. I will carry their blame throughout my life. If I could choose again when I lifted the lid of that basket, would I not, myself, cast the infant boy into the Nile? Or would I again rescue the boy child in his basket boat? I see again his eyes, his face.

I would save him again. In an instant.

From the Margins: Jochebed’s Story

Soul Thirst

I am, to many, one nameless, forgotten face among countless forgotten slave faces. I am remembered only because of my connection to one whose name both Scripture and history revere. But I also have a name: a Hebrew slave name. I am Jochebed. I carry my name and the story that accompanies it with honor. For I, with God’s help, rescued my nation’s rescuer. What mother would do else?

I grew up in the arms of violence; saw neighbors beaten by slave masters and knew the sting of the whip against my own young flesh. I tended my slave father’s wounds and, when I married, the wounds of my slave husband, Amram. I expected to do the same for the children I bore. But Pharaoh’s past violence could not prepare us for the brutality he visited on us in the season before my second son’s birth.

Pharaoh, captive of his own terror, feared the vast numbers of his Hebrew slaves. We were a hardy race and plentiful. He feared we would revolt and seize his throne. He could not bear the thought of leading a life like ours, so he stole the lives of our male children. A short-sighted choice. In so doing, Pharaoh deprived himself of the strong backs and free labor those boys would provide in coming years. But the terror of the instant made him blind to the future.

Pharaoh commanded our midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill Hebrew infant boys on the birthing stool. But our women were artful: they attended to the birth of healthy boys, then told Pharaoh that we hearty Hebrew women gave birth before they arrived. So Pharaoh drowned our baby boys in the Nile River. We covered our ears as the screams of bereaved mothers pierced the night air. I trembled and laid a hand against the small life moving in my womb. I would find a way. I would rescue my child.

He was born a boy, as I knew he would be. But he was born with a beauty I could not have expected. God made this child for a holy purpose: I saw it in the child’s solemn gaze and in his princely countenance. My boy would not die at the hands of violence. I would see to that.

With the help of my husband Amram, son Aaron, and daughter Miriam, we hid the child for three months. Then one night, my son woke in a terror and was screaming before we could muffle the sound. We heard movements nearby. Terror sweat beaded my brow. But, as I soothed my sleep-troubled child, my fear fled before my determination. The Egyptian soldier would have to kill me before he could wrest from me my son. In the dimness, I surveyed the watchful faces of my family. He would have to kill us all first.

But the noise was merely a Hebrew neighbor seeking the privy trench; we were safe for the moment. I lay awake, cradling my son, and pondered. I must act. Now. In those twilit hours I formed an outrageous plan. It had the stamp of insanity on it. And it was our only chance. I whispered into Amran’s ears as our children, at last, slept. He grunted acceptance. I could tell he thought we would all die.

Before dawn, I rose and made my way down to the Nile, where I cut an armload of papyrus stalks. I hid them in our hut before going to labor in Pharaoh’s fields. That night I wove a basket. Amram brought home a bucket of tar from the shipyard and this I smeared inside, sealing all spaces between my weavings. Then I lay awake, aching to catch the slightest sound from my sleeping son. This one last night, and then…

As the sky turned bare gray, I rose and wrapped my baby in a blanket. I laid him in the watertight craft. “Be still my son,” I soothed as his arms flailed and his legs pumped in objection. “Today I obey Pharaoh. Today I cast you into the Nile.”

I journeyed silent and on foot to the river. I thought my son and I traveled alone, but a spy had followed me, tracking my every step. At the water’s edge, I lay my hand against the basket lid, a final blessing, and then set the woven boat in the water amidst the reeds. I could not stay. The slave master would come searching. I must now leave my son’s future in the hands of another woman: one who could as easily destroy him as rescue him. Could a woman of child-bearing age sentence another woman’s infant to death? I gambled—gambled with my son’s life—that she could not. Even though she was the daughter of Pharaoh himself.

From the Margins: Sarah’s Story

Soul Thirst

I am called Sarah—Sarai until God changed my name. Sarah. Princess.

For much of my life I thought the title a cruel joke. Princess, I asked God, of what? I felt more a slave than royalty. In the young days of our marriage, we were settled alongside our kin in Haran. I thought it would always be so. Then God came to my husband and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” So my husband went and, because I am his wife, I too, left what was known to me to follow Abraham’s faith.

In those young days I was beautiful. My husband’s eyes softened when they gazed on my face. And yet my beauty, when married to my husband’s fear, cast me into danger and humiliation. It happened this way. Hunger drove us from God’s promised land into Egypt. Abraham, fearful that my beauty would lead to his death, commanded me to declare myself his sister only. We were half-brother and half-sister, for we came from the same father’s seed. But I was also Abraham’s wife and not allowed to claim my role when Pharaoh’s eyes fell on me.

Pharaoh took me into his household to make of me a concubine. I will never forget walking through those wide and sunlit halls, the sheer raiment the people wore, their strange customs and language. Sick with terror, I tried not to imagine my future even a day hence in this place, much less a lifetime. Would I die, old and abandoned, in this place?

But, God be thanked, Pharaoh proved to be an honorable man. When he discovered the ruse, he set me free.

The years went forward. God’s promise of children seemed as dry to me as my empty womb. Each month, when the bleeding came on me, I wept as with a death. God still spoke promises to Abraham, but my husband told me nothing; perhaps he sought to spare me the ravages of hope. In time nature took from me all possibility of bearing the promised child. I did not bleed, but not because a child was growing in my womb. Rather, because age grew there. Death seemed nearer to me than life.

Thinking God must have promised a son to Abraham, but not to me, I offered my Egyptian slave, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife. Her ripe womb bore Abraham a son of long waiting. But then Hagar turned her eyes on me in disgust. She was the princess and I the slave, useful only for kicking. I begged my husband to intercede, as was the law of our people: he was to judge between his two wives. Abraham said I might do with Hagar as I liked, so I unleashed on her the full rage of my bitterness. I did to her all my position allowed me to do and she bore all her position demanded she bear. Until her soul could swallow my abuse no longer; she fled with her son into the desert.

God cared for Hagar there, just as God cared for me in Egypt. She returned to us for a season and I thought her child, Ishmael, must surely be the son God promised Abraham. I took some small solace for having arranged the match, setting aside my place as Abraham’s only wife. I had given my husband his nation; I tried to be content.

My name became “Old Sarah,” its meaning long forgotten. It was too laughable—a ninety-year-old princess.

And then they came: three strangers emerging from the distant dust, making their way to our tent. As our hospitality code required, Abraham set me to work baking bread from our choicest flour while our servant prepared a calf. I busied myself, preparing and serving. My task complete, I hid in the tent folds and listened. A woman in my situation, after all, has few diversions. I could not join the conversation, but I could sit at the edge of it.

One of the visitors, whose voice at once calmed my body and awakened it with curious emotion, spoke to Abraham as if they were friends of long acquaintance: as if they simply took up a conversation left unfinished. I caught snatches…Sarahson. For the first time, the absurd combination moved me to merriment rather than bitterness. Laughter exploded before I could remember myself and repress it.

“Why did Sarah laugh and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” the man asked my husband. “I shall return in due season,” the stranger continued, “and Sarah shall have a son.”

Shamed for having been caught listening, fearful of a man who would speak so sharp and strange, I denied it. But the man would have none of my dissembling. This time he spoke directly to me: “Oh, but you did laugh.”

And I am laughing now, for the stranger made true his promise. I hold in my arms a miracle son. How God produced such hearty fruit from such an ancient womb, I know not. But neither do I care. I never knew my heart could grow so tender until this boy child nestled into my body and slept in my arms. I am a princess, bold and strong, and full of laughter.

From the Margins

Soul Thirst

Each week of Lent, I’ll share a “personal bio” of a biblical woman. The Bible I love dedicates full chapters to some of these women while others are rendered nameless.

Why this Lenten practice? Two reasons. First, the Bible’s narrative is largely told through men about men, with women playing supportive roles. As a woman, I wonder about the lives of these long-ago sisters. What were these stories, seen through their eyes?

But it’s larger than that, which brings me to Reason 2. Due to their gender and culture, these women lived at the margins. Choices made by the Powerful wrenched women from their homes, labeled them pariahs, stole their dignity and, sometimes, their lives. Looking into and through these women’s eyes, we see in our culture’s marginalized (perhaps it’s you, perhaps it’s me) full souls deserving respect, freedom, and love.

As we read of these women, God’s love moves like a thread: weaving our stories into theirs. That thread connects and ennobles us all—all genders, the powerful, the marginalized. We find we can love our neighbors—and ourselves.

Could there be a truth more worthy of Lenten contemplation?

I hope to see you here next week, Feb. 10, on Ash Wednesday, as we share our first story from the margins.