Among the many characters of my novel, Babylon: A Novel of Jewish Captivity, is Mara. She is the daughter of Sarah, who was captured by Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers at the age of 15, forced to endure a brutal march across harsh desert sands to Babylon and raise a family on a small barley farm on the outskirts of the capital, all the while longing to return to Judea.
A major theme in the novel is the tug-of-war between assimilation and continuing to believe in a God who appears to have abandoned His people. Sarah’s four children make very different choices in this regard – one fully adopting Babylonian idols and succumbing to the country’s many temptations, another compromising between capturing Biblical stories as a scribe yet marrying out of the faith, and yet another becoming obsessively rigorous in his adherence to the practices of the Hebrew people.
But Mara, whose name means bitterness in Hebrew, doesn’t share the semblance of freedom her siblings enjoy, despite their exile. Because of a promise made to Babylonian royalty, she ends up serving as a slave in the palace. Brutalized by the whims of the careless and uncaring nobles, Mara’s faith is tempted past endurance, as she explains to Uri, her half-brother, when he attempts to buy her release from servitude:
“Mara.” Uri rose, thrusting the pouch at her. “Take the money. Buy your freedom.”
Mara’s hands moved behind her back. “No, brother. You asked me if I had lost my belief in the Most High. The answer is far worse.”
Uri stared. Her face suddenly appeared ravaged, as though the shadow of every sleepless night and furrowed tear could be traced upon it.
“I believe in Him—and I hate Him,” Mara whispered. “He has given me nothing but pain and suffering. He robbed me of all I might have held dear. He is nothing but a taunting bully.”
Uri laid a hand on her shoulders. “Mara, no one is saying your life has not been hard….”
Mara stepped back, out of his reach. “My life? If it were only my life, brother…. But I see what life has become for all of us, how different from the world Father and Mother and Uncle Seraf grew up in. Why did the Lord forsake us? Why did He break his promise to us?” Mara forced a laugh out of a throat that sounded parched and sore. “All my life I’ve waited for a sign that God loves His people—and instead, I was sold into slavery, into a world of baseless desires and heartless ambitions. He rewarded my mother by allowing a soldier to rape her and took her lover’s—your father’s—manhood. He gave my father a dry portion of land and a wife who was grateful to him but could never love him.”
Mara turned away. “And you and Nachum? You married out of the faith and Nachum struggles to keep his brood fed on a tiny farm that will never belong to him. Only Rahil—selfish, grasping Rahil—did your Almighty see fit to reward.” Her shoulders sagged. “No, I won’t buy my freedom, Uri. I hoped for honey cake and your Lord God gave me a thimbleful of stale crumbs. I will stay where He has placed me and dine on them.”
As the novel progresses, it appears that Mara will never recover her faith. She dismisses any attempts made by her brother or even Daniel the prophet to help her find peace. But then another prophet, the second Isaiah, comes along. And somehow, his words reach her:
Then the young prophet spoke of suffering. Uri saw Mara straighten, fixing her eyes on his face. “He gives power to the faint; and to him that has no might He increases strength,” he proclaimed, “they that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.”
An immense burden lifted from Uri’s shoulders, watching the transfixed look on his half-sister’s face. This young Isaiah had made inroads in Mara’s soul where he and Daniel had persistently failed.
Uri stopped to greet Daniel as he left, hunching a shoulder in Mara’s direction. “She’s finally found some semblance of peace,” he said, bending low to speak into Daniel’s good ear.
But God is not done testing Mara, and as several of the family leave Babylon when King Cyrus conquers the country and allows them to return to Judea, she is afflicted with breast cancer. In her delirium, she dreams of Daniel in the lion’s den, a miracle that has not yet happened. She insists that Daniel be summoned and relates what she has seen. After she completes her story, knowing she has done God’s will, Mara succumbs to a peaceful death:
Mara delivered the tale in a clear voice, but with the last sentence, she was beset with a coughing fit. As Daniel and Ezra watched, helpless, she coughed up thick blood and mucus, staining her bedclothes. Rahil clutched her sister to her bosom, trying to soothe her.
“I will send the king’s physician,” Daniel said.
Mara shook her head, gasping out, “No need. I’ve told you of my vision, and God is pleased. He will deliver me of my pain and suffering. I am ready.”
Ezra backed away. Daniel bent and kissed her forehead. “Yes, God is pleased with you, my child. Go in peace.”
Mara’s coughing ceased, and Rahil turned away to bid farewell to the parting guests. Mara had felt a gentle warmth pervade her body as Daniel spoke his last words to her, knowing they were a benediction. When Rahil returned to her sister, Mara was gone, her lips turned upward in a tranquil smile.
Mara is just one of the many characters who must find a path to faith in Babylon, despite the trials forced upon them. I experienced trials of my own with this novel: completed more than a decade ago, I had to wait, more or less patiently, until the right time and the right publisher appeared to bring it into the world. I always had faith that it would, someday, happen – and am delighted that, at long last, it has.
About the author: Michelle Cameron is the author of Jewish historical fiction, with her most recent being Babylon: A Novel of Jewish Captivity. Previous work includes the award-winning Beyond the Ghetto Gates and The Fruit of Her Hands: the story of Shira of Ashkenaz. She has also published a verse novel, In the Shadow of the Globe. Napoleon’s Mirage, the sequel to Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is forthcoming in August 2024.
Michelle is a director of The Writers Circle, a NJ-based creative writing program serving children, teens, and adults. She lives in Chatham, NJ, with her husband and has two grown sons of whom she is inordinately proud.
Visit her online:
· Website: https://michelle-cameron.com/
· Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/michelle.cameron1
· Instagram: @michellecameronwriter
Author ofBEYOND THE GHETTO GATES (She Writes Press)
“Insightful, colorful, and fascinating.” – Margaret George, New York Times bestselling author
Awards & Praise for Beyond the Ghetto Gates: 2020 Silver medal -The Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) | First Place, Best in Category Chanticleer Goethe Awards | Finalist 2020 Foreword Indies