Was he joking when he said that he would return to marry me?
No matter. Sarai knew her life's work. It had no marriage in it.
But such a man as this. Filthy from travel, yes. But there was a light inside him
that even the dust of the desert could not hide. Everyone in Ur-of-the-North treated
Father with great respect and honor, even though he was a king without a city. But this
Abram did not need to have others give him his honor. He carried it within himself.
He was more a king, arriving filthy from the desert, than Father was, here in his fine
The disloyalty of this thought made Sarai blush with shame. She would never
speak it aloud. But she would never deny it, either. If the desert is traveled by such men
as this, no wonder they are fit husbands for the daughters of kings.
Qira was born to be a queen, and this marriage covenant with a desert man was
the disaster of her life. When Father returned from the temple of the Lord of the city
full of talk about a desert priest named Terah, Qira had to fight to stay awake. Why
would Father bore her with talk about some Amorite who claimed a special kinship with
Ba'al? It was Sarai who was going to be a priestess. Qira was going to be a queen!
So when Father said, "And I want you to marry his heir, Lot, the son of his eldest
son," Qira did not quite understand.
"Whom?" she asked. "You want me to what?"
"Marry him. Terah's grandson, the heir to his great and ancient priesthood. Not
to mention the greater portion of his flocks and herds."
"Marry him? What city is he king of?"
"Not king of any one city. He says that the Ba'al of one city is only a statue that
reminds us of the true Lord, who has a true name known only to a few, and written in
signs known to none outside the lineage of the true priesthood."
Qira could not resist throwing some of Father's own teachings back in his face.
"'It's an arrogant man who says that the worship of others is false, and only his own is
Father shook his head. "Daughter, theirs is the lineage of Utnapishtim, who rode
above the flood. What is the royalty of a mere city, compared to him who is priest to all
"If they don't live in a city, how are they any better than the wandering
"The Amorites are barbarians who raid from the desert and destroy what they
cannot conquer. As we know to our sorrow."
"What cities has this Terah conquered?"
"He is no Amorite, that is my point, Qira. There is no need for him to conquer
cities, when he is the chief priest of God in the world!"
"Father," said Qira, "with all respect, I must still point out to you that a beggar
could say the things this man said to you, and it doesn't make him a king unless there
are people somewhere who obey him."
Father's face turned red then, and Qira realized that in denigrating this Terah,
she had said the unspeakable thing: She had denied that a king without a city could truly
be a king. "I did not mean ..." But there was no way she could put a good face on what
she had said.
"Very well," said Father. "Let me speak no more of priests and kings. Let me
speak of money. A real prince, to marry you, would demand a dowry, and we have no
dowry for you, living as we do on the gifts of my brother king of Ur-of-the-North.
While this Terah is rich in herds, and promises me a very sizeable bride-price for you."
"Everyone knows the Amorites trade in slaves," said Qira savagely, "but I never
thought you would sell your own daughter to one."
"As a slave," said Father coldly, "you wouldn't be worth two shoats, since you do
no work and have no skills."
"Should I callus my fingers with spinning, like a common woman?"
"Your sister is not ashamed."
"Sarai is born to be a temple servant. I am born to be consort to a king!"
"And I was born to rule a great city," said Father. "We don't always live the life
we were born for. Would you rather marry some tradesman who will put you in the
house behind his shop and trot you out to show his visitors that he has married royalty?"
"Once you decide that my shame can be purchased for money, what difference
does it make?"
At once she saw that she had goaded Father too far. "Your tongue is enough to
drive a man to beat a woman!" shouted Father. But he quickly got control of himself.
"If I marry you to Terah's grandson Lot, you will be the wife of a wealthy man with a
claim to an ancient priestly lineage. No one will say you married down."
"Yes they will," she murmured.
"Despite the fame of your beauty and the majesty of my rank," said Faither dryly,
"there has been no queue at our door of ruling princes begging for your royal company."
Qira burst into tears. "I will not live in a tent!"
"Is that all?" said Father. "I'll make that a condition of the wedding -- that you
never have to live in a tent. But this is the best marriage I will ever be able to arrange
Qira was no fool. She might be bitterly disappointed, but she knew that Father
would not lie about such a thing. "I will do my duty," she said miserably.
And so it was that she consented to this miserable wedding, wrecking all her
hopes, discarding all her dreams.
Ever since then, she had wondered: What god was it who hated her so much?
Still, for days at a time she had been able to forget what lay in her future. Desert
men were unreliable. They changed their minds. They broke their word. Or perhaps
her future husband died in battle and would never come for her. Or starved to death
out in the deep desert where not even grass could grow. She had all sorts of hopeful
fantasies like that.
But now the filthy uncle was here, and Father insisted on parading her forth as if
he were selling a milk cow.
"Wear the scarlet," Father said.
Her most precious gown. Well, she would not wear it, not for the mere uncle.
What did desert men know of scarlets and other bright and precious colors? Everything
was the yellow of grass and sand to them, everything smelled of the hair and dung of
animals, and the only music that they knew was mooing and bleating. Scarlet would be
wasted on him. If Father was unhappy that she disobeyed, what would he do? Beat her
with a stick in front of the uncle? Father could insist on the marriage, but she would
show her independence where she could. Qira was not one for submissive obedience, and
Father had better remember it.
So it was her blue and brown woollen dress that she pulled on over her linen shift,
only one step up from what a tradesman's wife might wear.
"Qira, what are you doing?"
Sarai stood in the door of her room, looking stricken.
"Showing proper respect to my uncle-to-be," said Qira, feigning innocence.
"You mustn't," said Sarai.
"He's a desert man -- what will he know?"
"He will know," said Sarai. "He's not what you think. He doesn't talk like an
Amorite -- his speech is as pure as ours, the speech of Ur the Great. And he's a man of
refined senses, I know it -- he'll understand what you mean by this coarse dress."
"It is a dress belonging to the daughter of a king," said Qira. "All my clothing is
far above his station." Why she was bothering to argue with a ten-year-old was beyond
Sarai stood in the doorway, contemplating her.
"Yes, after all, I think you're right," said Sarai.
Since Sarai never changed her mind easily, Qira grew suspicious. "What do you
"It's good to begin your marriage with honesty, not pretending," said Sarai.
"With this dress you'll show him that you're the daughter of a fallen, beggarly house
that lives on the gifts of another king. The royal scarlet would be nothing but a sham."
"I hate you," said Qira. "Asherah may never forgive Father for giving him such a
"You don't hate me," said Sarai. "You love me because I remind you to do what
you already know that you should."
"I don't like doing what I should."
"Neither do I," said Sarai. "But we both do what we must."
Qira burst into tears and embraced her sister, who also wept. But as they clung
to each other, Sarai spoke softly. "If your bridegroom is like his uncle, you'll not be
cursed by this marriage, you'll be blessed. The uncle is a handsome man, and he speaks
like one who is born to rule." She told Qira all about Abram, saying several times that
since this was only the uncle, the husband was bound to be even better.
But Qira saw the truth behind the words, and she was astonished. "You've fallen
in love with the uncle!" she said.
Sarai looked startled, then embarrassed. "I like him," said Sarai.
"I know all about such 'liking,'" said Qira. "You're all set to keep him in your
dreams, I know it from the way you talk!"
"The servant of Asherah has only such dreams as the goddess might send."
"You aren't bound over to Asherah's service yet."
"I'll help you put on the scarlet dress," said Sarai.
"You know I'm right. That's why you change the subject."
"I know that the uncle is waiting, and Father is impatient to show you off to
"Ten years old, but you have a woman's heart."
"It would do me no good to love him," said Sarai. "You know that if one who is
intended for Asherah should turn away and marry a man, the goddess will never give
her children as long as she lives."
"So I've heard," said Qira. "They say such things to keep temple-bound girls from
wishing for a wedding. But who knows if it is true?"
"I don't intend to find out," said Sarai.
"And yet you will dream." Qira began to hum and sing a wordless melody as she
held out the voluminous skirt of the scarlet dress and turned and turned.
Sarai could not help laughing. "You are such a foolish child," she said.
"The ten-year-old says this to her almost-married sister?"
"You're a dreamer," said Sarai. "So you think everyone dreams."
"You're telling me you don't? I won't believe it."
"I'm a very practical person," said Sarai. "I keep my hands busy with work. I
keep my thoughts on what my hands are doing."
"And you speak nonsense all day long."
"Come now," said Sarai. "Father's waiting."
"Down to earth," said Qira. "Practical. Handy. What a sturdy wife you'd make
for a desert man."
"Don't say any such thing in front of him," said Sarai, suddenly angry. "Don't
you dare shame me like a little child who has no feelings!"
"But you are a little child," Qira teased. "And you just said that you had no
feelings for this desert uncle."
The fury in Sarai's face would have been frightening, if she were not so small. "If
you mock me in front of him I will never forgive you!"
"I do what I want," said Qira, and she flounced on out of the room, Sarai
scampering furiously at her heels.
Sarai knew that Qira would do it, and she also knew that getting mad at Qira
would only make it worse, but it's not like you could stop being angry, it just filled you
up and you couldn't think about anything else until you either used up the anger or
something else happened to take your mind off it. And Sarai meant what she had said.
It was silly of her to care what this desert man thought of her, but she did care, and even
though she knew he was only teasing when he spoke of returning someday to marry her,
she could not bear the idea of being made ridiculous in his eyes. For he alone of all
adults had treated her, not as some sacred godbound object to be reverenced, and not as
some little toy human to be petted and chuckled at and then ignored or sent away, but
rather as a person worth talking to. And if he teased her a little, it was flirtatious and
not condescending. He didn't tell her what she looked like or ask her what her favorite
toy or game might be. He didn't talk about her hair or comment on how adult she
sounded when she talked, as if children should talk a separate language. Instead he
talked to her. And if Qira spoiled that by reducing her to a child in his eyes, then she
would see what it was like to lose a sister. There would be nothing between them from
then on. They would be like strangers forever. Sarai's memory was very long.
When they got to the courtyard, however, Father and Abram were not alone. A
new visitor had arrived, a man in strange clothing that Sarai recognized as Egyptian --
white linens, with more of his body showing than a man would usually let other people
see. The Egyptians who visited Ur-of-the-North were like that, flaunting their disdain
for local customs. Their clothing was the only true clothing, their language the only
true language, their gods the only true gods. Others had to learn their language to do
business with them, though in truth Father had told her once that the Egyptians only
pretended not to understand the accented Akkadian speech used here, so that others
would speak freely in front of them, thinking their secrets would be safe. That was why
Father made a habit of speaking the ancient holy language of Sumeria in front of
Egyptians, even though few in this city but the priests could speak it fluently.
Who was this Egyptian?
"Suwertu, these are my daughters, the princess Qira and the godchosen Sarai."
Even as she knelt before the visitors, Sarai remembered that Suwertu was the
name of the priest of Pharaoh who dwelt here in Ur-of-the-North. He was not actually
born Egyptian. He had been a priest of Elkenah until the day he won his appointment
as the priest of Pharaoh for this region. Father said he spoke Egyptian with a woeful
accent. Officially he merely ministered to the religious needs of Egyptian traders and
travelers. In fact, though, he watched over the interests of Pharaoh in the land of the
upper Euphrates. These days all the cities of the region had ties to Egypt almost as
strong as those of Byblos, which some said was practically an Egyptian city.
"Is he a spy, then?" Sarai once asked Father.
"Something between a spy, a teacher, and an overseer," Father had answered. "He
tells Pharaoh who his friends and enemies are, so that gifts and influence can be used
wisely. He encourages the local people to learn Egyptian ways and even give respect to
the Egyptian gods. And if there are signs of Ur-of-the-North getting out of line, he will
crack the whip."
"What whip can he crack, so far from Egypt?"
"The Amorites have broken up all the trade routes that used to make this city
prosper. You can no longer be sure of carrying goods from here to Ashur or Akkad, to
Ur-of-the-South or anywhere beyond the Tarsus. And as for Canaan, the cities of that
land are empty, and the people hide in caves for fear of the raids of the Amorites. The
only trade that remains strong is between Byblos and Egypt, for that is done by sea,
where the Amorites cannot go. So Ur must trade with Byblos if it is to prosper. And if
Egypt should tell the king of Byblos that Ur-of-the-North is not a friend to Egypt, will
our traders have any part of this trade? That is the whip. It has cracked more than once.
There are those who act as if Egypt ruled here. They go to Suwertu to learn the
Egyptian language, to worship Egyptian gods, to become Egyptians as best they can."
Father said this with disgust, as if becoming Egyptian were as foolish as trying to become
a lion or an elephant.
And here was this same Suwertu, in the courtyard of their home. What was his
business? And why today, of all days, when Abram had come to deliver the bride-price
in preparation for the wedding.
Despite the presence of the Egyptian, Sarai could see that Qira only had eyes for
Abram, and Abram frankly stared at Qira in return. Qira was no doubt trying to guess
whether Lot was going to be as handsome as Abram -- or was she noticing only the dirt
of traveling that still clung to him here and there? And Abram was probably judging
what kind of wife Qira would make, and whether his father Terah had chosen well.
But Sarai knew that having Suwertu here had to mean something, and it was
unlikely to be coincidence that he was here at this exact moment. For some reason
Egypt was taking interest in the marriage of a daughter of the ancient house of Ur with
the heir to this priestly family from the desert. Which meant that Terah's claims must
have substance -- or at least enough substance to kindle Suwertu's interest.
At first the conversation was mere chat -- talking about Qira's charms as if she
didn't understand plain speech, telling stories about things that went wrong at weddings
in the past, commenting on the bride-price and how Father was going to dispose of such
flocks when he had no shepherds among his servants.
Finally, though, Sarai's close attention was rewarded, as she heard Suwertu turn
to the subject that must have brought him here. "I wondered, though, that a man of
such wisdom as yourself, O King, would give such honor to an obscure family of
Amorites, no matter how many cattle they brought to your house."
Sarai noticed how Abram, rather than growing angry at this insult -- a veiled
accusation that his father was a liar -- merely seemed to relax further onto his bench,
paying, if anything, less attention to the conversation.
"A king is a priest before he is a king," said Father, as he had so often said before.
"But not all who call themselves priests have any claim to speak for God," said
"There are many gods and many priests," said Father.
"There are many names for gods," said Suwertu. "But we all know that the great
god whom the people of this land call merely Ba'al, 'the Lord,' is the same as Osiris, the
god who dies and is brought back to life by his son Horus with the help of the goddess
"I know little of Egyptian names for the gods," said Father. Sarai could see his
wariness increase even as he kept his tone of voice mild. "Terah knows the secret name
of Ba'al. And his priesthood comes from Utnapishtim, who rode above the flood, upheld
by the hand of the Lord."
"But how can he be the rightful possessor of this priesthood, when this can be
claimed only by Pharaoh?"
At once the air in the room seemed to crackle as if a thunderstorm were about to
Abram's eyes were fully closed.
"I have never heard such a claim made by a priest of Pharaoh before," said Father.
"Who would need to claim what everyone knows, until someone is bold enough to
deny it? Out of Canaan came the first Pharaoh. Osiris gave the land of Egypt to him,
because only Pharaoh had the true priesthood from the lineage of him you call
"Forgive me, Suwertu," said Father, "but how could the priesthood of
Utnapishtim have anything to do with the land of Egypt, or Pharaohs with Canaan?"
It was only then that Abram spoke, though he still did not open his eyes.
"Suwertu says many true things. The first Pharaoh was a descendent of a son of
Utnapishtim. He did indeed come from Canaan, where his claim to the true priesthood
was one of the tools he used in taking control of upper Egypt."
Sarai could see how surprised Suwertu was by this admission. "If you admit this,
then how can your father claim that his house has the true power of God?"
Abram sighed. "My father has many mistaken ideas, I'm afraid. For instance,
Ba'al is not just another name for the true God. Once upon a time it may have been so,
but now Ba'al is the name for statues erected in every city. The people do not sacrifice to
God, they sacrifice to the statue. But my father persists in thinking that these idols can
somehow be used in worship by servants of the true God."
"So you admit that your father's claims are false," said Father, looking stunned.
"Which claims?" asked Abram.
"That he is of the lineage of Utnapishtim, that the true priesthood is his by right."
"Oh, the priesthood is indeed Father's birthright. And the birthright of Lot,
through my brother Haran. As long as he is worthy. And I can assure you that Lot is as
worthy an heir to that birthright as you're likely to find."
Suwertu chuckled. "If this man's father lied about one thing, who is to say he
doesn't lie about --"
Abram sat bold upright and swung around to face Suwertu. "My father lied
about nothing. I believe him to be mistaken about the relationship between Ba'al and
God. I have tried in vain to persuade him to remove all idols from his house. We
disagree. But my father is an honest man."
"And a pious one," said Suwertu. "While you deny the power of the Ba'al of ...
well, of this city."
"And every other one," said Abram.
"If you deny that Ba'al is God, then you deny the power of the king," said
"When the king commands, the priests and the soldiers obey," said Abram. "I'd
have to be a fool to deny that."
"You deny the priestly power of the king."
"In every city, the king rules over the priests. Why would I deny that?"
"You deny that the king has divine power."
Abram looked startled. "But ... are you saying that kings are gods? I thought
they were priests."
Sarai finally understood the game that Abram was playing. Suwertu thought that
he was examining Abram, but it was really the other way around. Abram was giving
Suwertu a long string, and Suwertu was tying himself in knots with it. She smiled.
Father glanced at her right then, and winked. He, too, understood.
"What is the priesthood," said Suwertu, "if not the power to do what God does."
"God does what God does," said Abram. "The priesthood is the power to do what
God says for men to do in his name."
"I fail to see the distinction," said Suwertu.
"Does God offer sacrifice?"
"Of course not."
"But priests and kings offer sacrifice. So they aren't doing what God does, they're
doing what God says to do."
"Some kings have so much divine power that they do what only God can do."
"You mean Pharaoh," said Abram.
"I mean that just as Horus went into the underworld and raised his father from
dead into spiritual life, so also does the son of Pharaoh go into the underworld and
lift his dead father into heaven. They do what Horus did, and then, as Pharaoh, they
will do what Osiris did. The Father and the Son."
Abram nodded slowly. "Well, there it is. That's why Egypt is the only place
where the story stands on its head. Very clever."
"What are you saying?" said Suwertu.
"In every other land, we know that the King who dies and is raised up from the
dead is the Son, and the one who raises him up is his Father, the God of heaven. Only
in Egypt is it the father who dies, and the son who raises him up. For the very good
reason that the kings of Egypt wanted to make the claim you just stated -- that they have
more divine power than anyone else. Pharaoh has no power to let his son be slain, and
then raise him from the dead -- only God can do that. But if you just change the story
in this one tiny detail -- have the son raise the father from the dead -- then you can act
out the story all you want, generation after generation. The father dies, the son does a
ritual descent into the underworld and comes back to report that his father has been
raised from death up to eternal life, to dwell among the gods forever. Of course, no one
but Pharaoh sees this -- Pharaoh doesn't actually have to produce his resurrected father.
That, too, would be very hard to do."
Father smiled at Abram's words. Sarai could see that Suwertu didn't like that.
"When you think about it," Abram went on, "it's amazing that other kings had
never thought of it before. If you don't actually have the power to do what God does,
then you simply change the story of what God does, to make it something that you can
do. Perhaps those other kings actually believed in God, and therefore were afraid to tell
lies about him."
Suwertu's loathing was clear, but he maintained his composure. "So you accuse
every Pharaoh in the entire history of Egypt of being a liar."
"Not at all," said Abram. "I accuse only the first. The rest were simply repeating
the story they were taught. Old lies are passed along, not by new liars, but by new
Sarai thought Suwertu might burst. But still he contained his hatred. "You
yourself said that Pharaoh had the birthright," said Suwertu. "So who are you to say
that the story as it is known in Egypt is not the true one?"
"I never said Pharaoh had the birthright. I said he was descended from Noah --
the one the Sumerians call Utnapishtim. But through a son who was specifically denied
that birthright. Whose children were forbidden to hold the true priesthood. A sad old
story, but a true one. The birthright doesn't always follow the lineage."
"If the birthright doesn't follow the lineage," said Pharaoh, "what happens to
your father's claim?"
"The birthright passes from the father to a worthy son."
"And how do we know who is worthy? Especially when different sons claim to
have the birthright?"
"When a man has the true priesthood, the power of God is visible in his life."
"But that is what I said before," said Suwertu. "I will believe your father has the
priesthood if he can raise his son from the dead, as you say your god can do."
"God does not give us his priesthood so we can submit to foolish tests."
"Listen to him," said Suwertu, laughing. "He sees now the danger he is in, and so
like a rabbit he dodges left and right, trying to avoid the hawk."
"I'm in no danger, Suwertu," said Abram. "You're the one who is tempting God."
"You are most definitely in danger, Abram," said Suwertu. "In Egypt, when the
king dies his son goes to the underworld to bring the king into eternal life, as Horus did
for Osiris. If your priesthood is more true than Pharaoh's, you must prove it by doing
what you say your God does."
"We sacrifice animals as a symbol of the death and resurrection of the Son."
"Look at the rabbit dodging," said Suwertu. "Your father pretends to have the
kingly priesthood -- to be the only man in the world with the right to that priesthood --
but kings offer kingly blood in sacrifice."
"Your Pharaohs die of old age," said Abram. "Not as a sacrifice."
"But the son of the king is young. For him to be resurrected, he must be helped
to pass over into death."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Father, interrupting. "I want Lot as a husband for my
daughter, not as a sacrifice."
"Lot is Terah's grandson," said Suwertu. "Abram here, this man of effrontery, he
is a son of Terah. So let this Abram be offered up in sacrifice, and then let Terah show
us he can raise him up. Pharaohs do this every generation. If Terah cannot do as much,
then this marriage has nothing to do with kings, and everything to do with sheep."
""Suwertu," said Father, "you pervert the idea of religion."
"There are many kingdoms where the king's blood is shed," said Suwertu mildly.
"Barbaric ones," said Father. "Or they name a man as king for a day, so they can
kill him, and then the real king resumes the throne. I do not require any such
"No, but you do require a royal marriage for your daughter," said Suwertu. "I
will explain this situation to the King of Ur-of-the-North, your host and benefactor. I
think he will agree with me that unless Terah passes this test, his claim to be of royal
blood will not be recognized. Then if you marry your daughter to this grandson, this
Lot, it will be seen for what it is -- selling your daughter to an Amorite shepherd in
exchange for sheep."
"Why are you doing this?" said Father. "Why does Egypt care?"
"Because Pharaoh is the only king on earth with the true power of God in him!"
"Are you going to say that to my friend and brother-king? He'll enjoy hearing it,
"The King of Ur-of-the-North cannot afford to lose the right to trade with Byblos,
and the king of Byblos will not trade with someone that Pharaoh deems to be his enemy.
This Terah's claim is in direct conflict with Pharaoh's authority."
Abram laughed. "By this very action you prove that Pharaoh has no authority.
God has never allowed human sacrifice. Never. It cannot happen. A father does not kill
his son in the name of God. So by asking for this, you prove that you and your Pharaoh
are the enemies of God."
"We are the enemies of your god," said Suwertu. "I have a suggestion, Abram.
Get out of Ur-of-the-North tonight, while you still have time. Because if you're here by
morning, you will be taken and offered up as a sacrifice. Your father will, of course, be
given every opportunity to raise you from the dead."
Suwertu rose, bowed to Father, and swept from the house.
Abram sighed. "I see that this marriage is going to cause political complications.
Who would have thought Pharaoh would care so much."
"It's not Pharaoh, it's his meddling priest," said Father. "You'd better leave,
Abram. Give me time to work out the political problems."
"Forgive me," said Abram, "but you have no lever that you can use to pry us out
of this. If I leave, the marriage is off -- the king of Ur-of-the-North will be forced to
bow to Pharaoh's will, because Byblos is more important to him than you are. I speak
offensively, sir, but I speak the truth."
"Your words sting," said Father, "but yes, it is the truth. So I release you from
the marriage vow. Go. You can take the flocks with you."
"On the contrary," said Abram. "I came here to seal the marriage promise
between the daughter of a king of great and ancient lineage with the grandson and heir
of another. Nothing has changed, as far as my errand is concerned, except some
interference from the lying priest of a false god. What does this nonsense have to do
with Lot and Qira?"
"Didn't you hear him? He'll kill you."
"There is more than one way for God to show his power," said Abram. "Just
because Suwertu has a plan does not mean that the plan will be carried out."
"And just because you trust in your God does not mean that God will regard your
life as being important enough to be worth saving," said Father.
"I trust in God," said Abram, "not to save me from death, but to save my soul
when I die. I expect my father to see to it that the priest of Pharaoh does not shed my
blood on an altar in order to perform some stupid test. God does not give signs to prove
things to liars."
"I think you are in grave danger," said Father.
"I think you're right," said Abram. "But there are bears in the mountains, and
lions on the savannah, and diseases that kill men in their sleep. Do you know why I
can't die now?"
"Why is that?" asked Father.
"Because I promised Sarai that I would come back for her in ten years."
Father's face reddened. "Sarai is promised to Asherah."
"Asherah is just another name for mother Eve. She was a woman of greatness and
nobility, but she was never a god, and she has no use for your daughter, except to see her
be married and raise her children to serve God."
"Are you trying to make me as angry as Suwertu?"
"I speak truth," said Abram. "I speak the same truth to powerful men that I
speak to weak ones. That's why you can trust every word I say. How many men do you
know with whom that is possible? But now, if you'll excuse me, I must go and see to my
other business in the city."
"I hope you will have sense enough to leave Ur at once," said Father. "Next time
have your father send a trusted servant, and not a son. Especially not such an honest
and forthright son."
Abram smiled. "My father has sometimes told me that nothing is more annoying
than the inconvenient virtues of one's children. God be with you, King of Ur."
In moments he was gone. Sarai was left gasping at all that she had heard. This
man called into question all that she had been taught, all that she believed, and he did it
with such authority that it was impossible not to listen to him. Even when Fatherglared at her and demanded what she did to allure this man, Sarai could only answer
feebly, "I don't know, I don't know." For as of this day, she was no longer sure of
anything. Except this: Abram said he would be back to marry her, and somehow it
would happen, for today she had seen for the first time in her life the true power of a
king. It was the word of power: To speak, knowing that the thing spoken would come
The next few weeks were maddening for Sarai. Everything happening to Abram
in Ur was important to her household -- and certainly not least to her! -- but no one
thought to tell her each bit of news as it came into the house. Instead she had to quiz
the slaves, who never quite got the story right, since they didn't understand it
themselves, and also tended to change the details to make stories more interesting --
which usually meant more awful.
But the truth, when she finally learned it, was awful enough. Because Suwertu
declared Abram to be the enemy of Pharaoh's authority and therefore a danger to the
authority of all kings, Abram was taken prisoner. Within a day, his father Terah came
and camped in the grassland half a day's run from Ur. His messengers passed back and
forth, trying to win Abram's release.
Suwertu, though, was pulling strings behind the negotiations, and the choice
became clear. Terah had to renounce his claim to the true priesthood, confess that
Pharaoh was the only heir to the birthright of Noah, and swear never to make such a
claim again. Otherwise, he could prove the power of his priesthood by raising his son
Abram from the dead, after he was sacrificed to Ba'al -- or Horus, or to Pharaoh himself
as a divinity, depending on who was telling the story.
Until the gossip about Suwertu and Abram began, Sarai had never heard of
offering a human being as a sacrifice. To her, worship was about incense and music, and
now and then, from a distance, the ashy smell of burnt meat. But the meat was always
an animal -- a bullock, a he-lamb -- and a year or so back, Qira had explained to her that
only parts of the animal were burnt, while the rest of the meat was used by the priests.
"What do you think they eat, silly?" asked Qira. But Sarai had never thought about it.
She had only had some vague idea that the god they served provided for them. Instead it
was the people.
But when she realized that they were seriously planning to sacrifice Abram, her
first terrible thought was that the priests would eat him. Qira quickly dispelled that
notion -- but provided her with information that was even more horrifying. "It's not
like anyone in Ur sacrifices babies to Molech." If she intended to reassure Sarai with this
information, she failed. It broke Sarai's heart just to imagine that somewhere there were
people who would kill their own baby -- and that they would do it in service to a god.
And now that Abram had raised in her mind the possibility that priests might be making
up some of the stories about the gods, she was even more confused. For she could not
believe in the existence of a god who wanted the murder of children. Yet she could also
not believe that a priest could make up such a terrible thing.
Sarai thought of all the babies that she had known -- an infant suckling at a
servant's breast, a toddler playing beside his mother as she worked. She saw how
mothers loved their children, even when they were annoyed with them, even when they
were angry. Though she didn't understand why the mothers got angry. Everything
children did, at every age, fascinated and delighted Sarai. And somewhere, either a god
or a priest decided that people should be commanded to offer their own babies as
All of this preyed on Sarai's mind, and many times she almost convinced herself
that it was all pretend, that nobody ever really killed people in the name of a god.
Certainly it never happened with the worship of Asherah -- though there were things
that went on at the temple of Asherah that they didn't talk about in front of her. Could
it be that even there, something or someone was killed? Impossible.
But the rising tide of gossip made anything seem possible. Now she heard for the
first time that Suwertu had sacrificed a child as a thank offering, burning the child's
body on a hill near Olishem. This story was told in support of the idea that there really
wasn't anything unusual about human sacrifice, though to Sarai it seemed that if human
sacrifice were normal, no one would need to prove that it was normal, because everyone
would already know.
Most of the stories horrified or puzzled Sarai. Only one really frightened her. It
was the tale that Suwertu had sacrificed three young sisters. It wasn't the fact they were
young like Sarai that made her afraid. It was that they were the daughters of a man
named Onitah, who just happened to be making a claim that he was the rightful heir of
the first Pharaohs.
If this story was true, it meant that Suwertu made it a habit to kill people in order
to punish their fathers for claiming the birthright of the priesthood. That was the
reason this story was told -- those who repeated it always made comments about how
murder was murder, even when a priest did it and called it sacrifice. "This has to be
stopped," they would say.
But Sarai never heard them mention any plan to stop the sacrifice of Abram.
They might deplore it, but they weren't doing anything. Not even Father. And why?
Because he was afraid that he might lose his safe haven in Ur-of-the-North if he spoke up
against Suwertu's "sacrifices."
This is how it happens -- how bad people can do terrible things, right out in the
open, and everyone stands away and lets them do it.
There were even people who were helping Suwertu. The priest of Shagreel, for
instance, claimed that Abram had also blasphemed against his god, which was, after all,
only the sun. By saying that only the priests of his father's God had authority, Abram
had as much as said that all other gods were false. "And yet we see the sun in the sky
every day!" the priest was said to have declared. "We are warmed by it! And Abram
denies that the sun is a god!"
At last Sarai could stand it no more, and went tearfully to her father to ask him
why no one was doing anything.
"But many of us are doing things," said Father kindly. "We do them quietly,
where you don't see. But if it hadn't been for our intervention with the king, Suwertu
would have pierced Abram's heart already."
"So you're going to stop him?"
"With so many jackals pulling at the deer, how long will it stay on its feet?"
Father shook his head. "I'm sorry you have to know about such things."
"Why don't people hate Suwertu?"
"They do hate him. But they fear him more. So they don't stand against him."
"You stand against him, Father! I don't care if he sacrifices me."
"He couldn't sacrifice you," said Father. "You belong to Asherah."
Only then did she realize -- if Father openly opposed Suwertu, it might be Qira
on that altar, just like those three daughters of Onitah.
So because they fear it happening to their own families, everyone will let this
murderer have his way.
And he does it all in the name of a god.
It made Sarai ponder long and hard about the life she had been pledged to live, as
a priestess of Asherah. If the worship of Ba'al or Osiris or Elkenah or Shagreel could be
used as a mask for the murder of a foreign king's enemy, then which gods were genuine?
Only Abram seemed to be acting out of faith instead of private advantage, and his God
had no statues. His priests were herdsmen like Terah and Abram and Lot, who worked
with their own hands instead of leading the washed and perfumed life of a temple priest.
Will I have to become a liar and hypocrite like Suwertu in order to serve Asherah?
Or are the priestesses somehow holier than the priests?
Abram said that Asherah was just another name for a real woman, Mother Eve,
who was not a god at all? Why then would she need priestesses?
These questions rankled her and bothered her, getting all mixed up with her
confusion about Abram's promise to marry her and her own feeling of rage and
revulsion at what was being done to that good man.
Finally a day came when she could stand no more of it. She set aside her distaff
and ran up to the roof. Three servants were there spreading out clean clothing to dry,
but she sent them away so she could be alone there. She knelt and raised her arms to
heaven and prayed, not to Asherah or Ba'al, but to the God whose name she didn't even
"O God, spare the life of Abram! If thou dost this miracle, O God, then I will
know thou art the only true God, mightier than kings and false priests, and I will
worship only thee forever. I will repudiate my promise to Asherah. I ask only the life of
Abram. He doesn't even have to keep his promise to come marry me -- I know that a
man can sometimes be prevented from keeping his word, however honestly given. I ask
nothing for myself. Only save his life, and I will be thy servant in all things forever."
Over and over she said the prayer.
That night, as she slept, Sarai was suddenly awakened by a great shaking of the
ground. Her bed bounced on the floor. She heard the roofbeam creaking above her, and
ran from her room into the courtyard, so nothing could fall and crush her. The servants
ran there, too, and Father, and Qira. Some of them had bloody knees because they had
fallen when the ground shook so hard. And some had bloody heads or shoulders,
because of tiles or bricks that had fallen on them.
When the earthquake ended, no one would go back inside. It was common
knowledge that God rarely shook the earth just once. So even though the night was not
warm, they slept outdoors, servants lying down right among the royal family. Sarai
stayed awake after most of them slept, but not because she was afraid. At first she
wanted to see whether the servants slept in some vulgar manner that would explain why
they were not allowed to sleep in the same rooms as the royal family. And when she
satisfied herself that servants were no cruder in their sleep than the royal family, she
used the time to pray.
At last she did sleep, though only fitfully. No one slept deeply or long. She lay on
her mat on the stones of the courtyard as the adults woke, speaking softly, repeating
news of the city. The earthquake had broken down this house or that one; this person
had been killed, or that one. The reports of disaster made Sarai imagine what it might
be like to have someone in her own family killed by the shaking of the earth. Surely
there could be no clearer sign that a god wanted you dead than to have him shake the
earth to accomplish it.
She listened with her eyes closed, so no one would realize she was awake and cease
speaking plainly in front of her. So she heard the glorious news at the same time Father
"Suwertu was on the hill where he does his sacrifice when the earthquake struck,"
said the breathless visitor. "The earthquake knocked down all the statues he had
gathered there, shattering them all. And Suwertu was directly under the statue of
Osiris, which fell on him and crushed him to death."
Father gave one bark of laughter, and then composed himself. "I am sure the
king of this city will have a day of mourning for this noble servant of Egypt. There will
be weeping and wailing throughout the land!"
"No doubt," said his visitor.
"What about the sacrifice of my son-in-law's uncle?" asked Father. "They can't be
going on with it, can they?"
The visitor chuckled grimly. "Since his own chief god crushed him to death while
he was preparing to conduct that very sacrifice, I think it's safe to say that no one else is
at all interested in going ahead and daring the gods again. No, there'll be no sacrifices
today. I hear that Abram has already fled the city and gone into the desert."
"Yes, now he goes," said Father. "I tried to get him to do that days ago, but
would he listen?"
"If he had left when you told him to, Suwertu would not have been at the altar
when the earthquake struck, and so he would not be dead, and so the human sacrifices
would have continued."
"You think they'll stop?"
"He's the one who got people back into that kind of worship when he was
nothing but a priest of Elkenah. He showed everyone the danger of giving any man the
power to kill his enemies in the name of God. No, I think that when the next priest of
Pharaoh is chosen, it will be carefully explained to him what he may or may not do
without the consent of the king of Ur-of-the-North."
"So," said Father. "It looks like my daughter's marriage will go ahead after all."
"If you still want to marry your daughter to the grandson of such a weak man."
Sarai perked up her ears.
"It was not weakness for Terah to refuse to repudiate his own claim, even if it cost
the life of his son," said Father. "It was great courage and faith. More than I have. For
I would never allow my own child to be sacrificed, as Terah was doing, just for the sake
of preserving my own estate."
For the first time it occurred to Sarai: Isn't that exactly what you did, Father,
when you pledged me to Asherah the day I was born?
Then, condemning herself for even having such a thought, Sarai bounded to her
feet and ran once again to the roof. Behind her she could hear Father saying, with an
irked tone, "Was she listening the whole time?"
On the roof Sarai fell to her knees to pray again. "O God of Abram, I know thou
art faithful to thy true servant, Abram. So I will keep my vow. I will not give myself to
the service of Asherah. How could I, when I know now that thou art the only true and
living God. Thou, O Shaker of Earth, art my God forever. For thou hast heard my
prayer. Thou hast spared the life of Abram."
In the spring, Lot finally came in person and married Qira under the gaze of their
fathers -- two kings without kingdoms. It was a joyful time, and Sarai was especially
happy for her sister, for she was going to have everything she wanted: Lot seemed to be
a kind man, he was even more handsome than Abram had been, and he promised to live
in Ur for the near future, leaving his steward and servants with Abram out in the empty
For Abram did not return to Ur, even for the wedding of his beloved nephew.
There were those in Ur -- especially priests of other gods who had joined their cause with
Suwertu's -- who would never forgive Abram for having humiliated them. Never mind
that what humiliated them was proof that there was indeed a God who did not want
Abram murdered. There was too great a chance that someone would try to finish the job
-- Abram would never enter Ur again.
And I will never leave, thought Sarai. He will forget me. But I will never forget
It took two years, but she finally persuaded her father that it wasn't a whim -- she
was determined not to enter the service of Asherah. It was a delicate task, persuading
him to release her from the vow, for by releasing her he was as much as confessing that
he was not, in fact, king of anything, and so his daughter had no responsibilities to the
gods. Father never quite admitted that openly. He found some pretext about Sarai's
unreadiness or unworthiness -- Sarai did not care, as long as she did not end up bound
into the service of a god in whom she no longer believed.
The years passed. Sarai watched as her father tried to arrange this or that
marriage, but always it was the bored son of a rich man trying to add some luster to a
family that had no standing. Father tried to persuade her that each one was really a
good husband, but in truth he was never even able to convince himself.
By the time Sarai was eighteen, she had no idea what was going to happen to her.
By her age, most women were already married. Almost every day Sarai was reminded of
how well her older sister had married -- with Lot's wealth to back her up, she was head
of a worthy household in Ur. But to Sarai, the prizes in Qira's household were the two
little girls who, truth be told, saw more of their aunt than of their mother. Is this my
destiny, Sarai wondered, to be a spinster living in my sister's house, tending her children
and someday her grandchildren, always subservient, never to have a child of my own in
The one thing she could not let herself think of was the man who had come from
the desert so long before. Lot sent messages back and forth to Abram at least every
week, and servants made the journey often. Sarai heard of every movement Abram
made, each new encampment. He would be in the ruins of this or that city in Canaan,
empty because all the years of drought and windborne dust had forced the people to flee
to other lands. Or he would be selling cheeses in Akkad or wool in Babylon or leather in
Ur-of-Sumeria, and the next month, south of the Dead Sea in Sodom or Zoar, he would
be selling jewelry or clothing from Akkad, Babylon, and Ur. She heard of him trading
along the Phoenician coast in cities like Tyre or Byblos, or north among the Assyrians or
the Hittites or the Hurrians. Not once did Lot ever tell Sarai that Abram had so much
as asked about her. Not once did she receive a letter or a message or a gift or even a
glance from a servant that would tell her that perhaps her name had been mentioned in
And yet ... she knew he was a man of honor. He had said he would come for her.
She had promised nothing to him. Yet even if his words were merely a jest with a child,
it did not change this single fact: If he did come, she was determined that he would find
her waiting, ready to be a good wife, ready to be the mother of his children. And she
would never be like Qira, making him live in a city so she could wear fine gowns. No,
she would live in his tent, travel when he traveled. If he came for her, she would go
with him, and stay with him forever.
If the ten years passed, and then an eleventh, and he did not come, she would
never send word to him, either, nor give a hint to anyone, not even Qira, that she had
waited for him. She would simply decide, then, what to do with the rest of her life. By
then it would probably be too late for her to marry any other man. But having once
known Abram, she could not be content with a lesser man, and apart from Lot, she knew
of none that came close to being Abram's equal.
Did it hurt her? Yes, there were times when she felt a pain so sharp that it was all
she could do to keep her weeping silent and secret in her room.
But then, in the midst of such suffering, she would remember: Abram told me the
truth about God, and saved me from a life wasted in the service of false gods. I would
rather have had that hour of truth with Abram than any other possible life in which I
did not have the truth and never met that man. She would pray at such moments, and
soon her heart would be lighter, and even though she had no sign from God that her
future was being watched over, still she was content. She could wait to see what life
It was a hot day in summer, the kind of day where there is no shade except
indoors, and indoors there was no air that one could bear to breathe. No breath of wind
-- the dust from travelers or animals moving on the roads would rise in a cloud and hang
there, unmoving, settling so slowly that it seemed to be a brown-grey fog. Sarai could
not remain inside, and in the courtyard there was so much yammering from the servant
women that she couldn't think. The dust of the streets made the air unbreathable; she
could not walk to Qira's house. So she took her distaff to the roof, and with a whitelinen hood over her head to give her shade, she spun, while thinking her thoughts and
glancing out over the desert, over the city, over the nearly-dry riverbed. Would the
drought, which had already consumed so many years that she had never known a season
when the river ran full, finally do to Ur-of-the-North what it had done to the cities of
Canaan? Was it going to kill the grasslands and turn them into desert like the rumored
empty lands of the far south, where only sand covered the earth as far as the eye could
And who is that coming from the driest part of the desert, raising dust so thick
that he must have an army with him? Does no one else see this marauding army? Why
are there no trumpets of alarm, warning of a raiding party of so many Amorites that
they will swarm over Ur like locusts?
Then they came near enough that she could see that it was not an army at all, but
a huge herd of cattle and a vast flock of sheep. What Amorite would be mad enough to
assemble such a large herd in one place? Where would they find grazing? If all these
animals were sold at once in the markets of Ur, they would force the price down so low
that the animals would have almost no value. Even Sarai knew that much about trade.
On they came, and on, and on, and finally riders went forth from the city, and
then the riders came back from the herd, and after a very short while there was talking
and shouting in the streets and riders came to the door of Father's house and Sarai heard
her own name being shouted down below in the courtyard, in the rooms of the house,
but she did not need to be told anything, she already knew. Abram had come for her,
and with a bride-gift so large that no woman in all of Ur would be able to claim that so
much had been given for her.
Father himself came to the roof and handed her a sealed wax-stick. "For you
only," he said, and his eyes danced with happiness, for he had been worried about his
Sarai tremblingly opened the stick and exposed the two waxen surfaces. Very
little was written there. But it was enough.
I am almost two years early, Sarai, but I can delay no longer. I wait for
you outside the walls of the city, with a gift for your father but none for you
except my love and my faith and my future, which I ask you to share with me
Sarai looked up from the stick. "Father," she said, "I think my husband has
brought an inconvenient number of cattle and sheep for you to dispose of."
"His message to me," said Father, "spoke of plans to divide this herd and take the
animals to a dozen other cities, where they will be sold and the proceeds brought to me.
My only fear for you, Sarai, is that your husband will be poor, having given so much to
me. And yet the gift does not begin to make up for the great loss to me when you leave
and the light goes out of my life."
Sarai burst into tears and embraced her father. "He remembered," she said. "He
"No one, having known you, could ever forget you," said Father.
"Many men have forgotten me," said Sarai, "and far more have never noticed me."
"Abram noticed you," said Father. "And God has noticed Abram."
"And God has noticed me," said Sarai. "Or I would not be so blessed, to go from
the house of such a father to the house of such a husband."
Two days later, under a canopy that shaded the bright calm sun of morning, she
and Abram were married, with Father, Terah, Lot, and Qira looking on. She did not
know what the future would bring, but because she was married to Abram, she knew
that her life would matter, that the world would change and she would be a part of it.
Copyright © 2000 Orson Scott Card