Hazel McHaffie

Jill Eileen Smith

Esther: Star of Persia

Last year and this, before, during, and after both lockdowns, a number of reports appeared which drew attention to the customs of Hasidic Jews in this country who were flouting the regulations about social distancing and mask-wearing and meeting in large groups, and the consequences in terms of the high incidence of Covid infection. Two jumped out at me: mass gatherings for weddings, and for the Feast of Purim. Reports also came in that in Israel, a curfew had been imposed and strict limits set for the number of people allowed to gather in closed spaces during that festival time.

Mention of the Feast of Purim made me think of its origins: the story of Queen Esther in the Bible; the casting of lots (pur) to decide what date the extermination of the Jews should take place, and how the nation was saved through the bravery of the young queen risking her life for her people, and the feast established to commemorate it.

Also during lockdown, I did a storytelling course, where we were asked to take stories from the Bible and bring them alive. It was then I realised how much careful research and work is needed to do this convincingly and with integrity. Authenticity comes in the detail.

These two things encouraged me to buy two more books for my growing collection of biblical stories told through fiction. Star of Persia by one of my favourite authors, Jill Eileen Smith, and Hadassah: One Night with the King, by Tommy Tenney. And I was impressed by the attention to detail which gives both a ring of authenticity and makes them into page-turners even when we know the basic story and the outcome.

Both are eminently readable, both stick pretty much to the story in the Bible, both create sub plots and additional characters which appear entirely sympathetic to the original. The book of Esther is the only one of the 66 books that make up the Bible not to mention God, and yet the hand of God and reliance on prayer to the Hebrew God pervades the account. Modern scholarship has it that the story is not historical but weaves a moral tale into a period of time where the Jews were scattered, and this particular group were settled in Persia at the time of Xerxes (rule: 486–465 bce).

At its core, is the pagan king – tyrannical, brutal, impetuous, capricious, paranoid for his own safety and sovereignty. He treats women as objects and has an insatiable sexual appetite. In a drunken state he sends for his queen, Vashti, to flaunt her exceptional beauty before all the important men in his land. She refuses to come and is instantly banished from court lest she sets a bad example to wives everywhere.

Who will succeed her? The king is advised to summon all the beautiful virgins to the palace and spend a night with each of them to find a new queen. They are all given a year undergoing extravagant beauty treatments to prepare them to a standard he will find acceptable. Among them is a young Jew, an orphan girl, called Hadassah – Persian name, Esther. She is the one Xerxes eventually favours, and it is she who goes on to save her people from the selfish and ambitious machinations of the king’s advisor, Haman, an Agagite, and long time enemy of the Jews. She is seen to have been placed in that position for just that purpose – as her guardian, Mordecai, says: Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?

There are a few issues about historical accuracy both in the original and these fictitious works, but they don’t detract from the overall merit of the stories told. And I learned a lot about the customs and thinking of those times – in a most palatable form! They made me check up on facts; they stirred my imagination; they challenged my preconceived ideas. And they gave me ideas for my own fiction! All good.

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Sin Eaters

I’m familiar with the genre of biblical fiction, where authors bring the ancient stories to life, embellishing and speculating, sometimes with their own evangelizing agenda. Indeed, books of this ilk occupy space on my own shelves – Francine Rivers, Jill Eileen Smith, Anita Diamant, probably the best known. But I’d never even heard of sin eaters! So The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers intrigued me.

Reminiscent of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16, which was sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people of Israel, sin eaters feature in Welsh, English and Scots folklore. Who knew, huh? (Apologies if this is all old hat to you.) In essence they’re beings who, in exchange for food, take on the sins of the dead, leaving the deceased to rest in peace rather than roam restlessly for all eternity.

Immigrants to the Americas took the custom of appointing sin eaters with them into the remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s this wild and isolated part of the world, in the 1850s, that forms the backdrop to The Last Sin Eater.

Told in the voice of 10 year old Cadi Forbes, it’s hauntingly of that time and place. Cadi is weighed down by a crushing guilt about her little sister’s death and all the troubles that have followed it. Her Mama won’t even look at her, and rarely speaks except to scold, and her Papa had ‘such a dark countenance most times that approaching him about anything took more courage than I possessed.’ She feels desperately lonely and undeserving; craving forgiveness. Her beloved grandmother has been her only solace, and when Cadi discovers Granny Forbes dead in her willow chair, gone without a by-your-leave after a long-living of 87 years, Cadi is bereft. There is no one left to lead her out of the wilderness of her pain and misery, to love her back from the edge.

It is an awful thing for a child to understand death in such fullness. I had already had one taste of it. This time it was a long drink of desolation that went down and spread into my very bones … what I knew hurt so deep inside me I thought I’d die of it.’

She’s already steeped in the stories of her Celtic ancestry, but her grandmother’s funeral is the first time she actually experiences the sin eater herself. It’s an eerie walk by torchlight in solemn procession up to the mountain cemetery, four men bearing Granny Forbes’ shrouded body, thick mist curling towards them like dead-white fingers through the dark shadows of trees, when Cadi senses the presence of the sin eater, like a cold breath of wind on the back of her neck. Everyone turns their backs, closes their eyes, while the sin eater consumes the bread and wine and Granny’s sins. Cadi is under strict instructions not to look at this creature – the ‘most dreaded of mankind‘ – who had already ‘taken all manner of terrible things unto himself‘, but she is mesmerised by the deep, tender, sorrowful voice that intones: ‘I give easement and rest now to thee, Gorawen Forbes, dear woman, that ye walk not over fields nor mountains nor along pathways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.’ She turns and sneaks a furtive  glance. For the briefest moment their eyes meet.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

Along with her friend Fagan Kai, gentle son of a brutal father, Cadi, finds a message of hope and redemption, first through her Granny’s best friend Miz Elda, then an unlikely preacher man on the other side of the river, and a woman who has squirrelled herself away from human contact, Bletsung Macleod. Gradually the identity and history of the sin eater emerges. And when they are forced to flee from Fagan’s father, the two children escape to the mountains, and are taken into the sin eater’s protection – the one place Brogan Kai is too afraid to go.

And so it is that the true gospel message comes to a remote people steeped in superstition and fear. There is no longer a need for a sin eater. This one was the last.

‘Light came into our highland valley that day so long ago, and it’s been shining bright ever since.

The analogies for Christianity are clear; but the story stands alone as an unusual tale of love triumphing over evil.

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