Lynn Austin. Keepers of the Covenant. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2014. See here for Bethany House’s page about the book.
Keepers of the Covenant is the second book of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles, which is historical fiction about Israel’s post-exilic period (the time after Jews returned to the land of Israel from exile). Whereas the story in the first book, Return to Me, took place in the sixth century B.C.E. and featured biblical personalities such as Daniel, Zechariah, Haggai, and Zerubbabel, Keepers of the Covenant is set in the fifth century B.C.E. and features Ezra and Esther. One can read, understand, and appreciate Keepers of the Covenant without having read Return to Me, but I do recommend reading Return to Me first. Hodayah, the half-Samaritan girl who grows up and joins the community of Israel in Return to Me, is an old woman and a prominent character in Keepers of the Covenant.
Keepers of the Covenant is set in three different locations throughout a lot of the book: the land of Israel, and two cities in Babylon. What unites the three settings is the Persian king’s decree that Jews throughout the Persian empire (which includes Babylon and Israel) can be slaughtered by Gentiles. In the final third of the book, the only setting is Israel, for Ezra and other Jews from Babylon are allowed by the Persian king to go to their homeland.
Some of the same themes from Return to Me recur in Keepers of the Covenant: the tension between justice and mercy, and between Israel’s mission to bring all the nations to God and her exclusivist attempts to protect her godly culture. As in Return to Me, the characters have their own reactions to Israel and her God, for their own reasons. A theme that is more specific to Keepers of the Covenant, however, is how people can grow to love those whom they did not love before. We see this with three characters: Ezra’s wife, a Jew whose mother adopts an Edomite girl, and a renegade Jew who learns to love the God of Israel.
Although I wish that the book had a greater number of sympathetic Gentile characters, it mostly does present characters who have understandable reasons for doing what they do, and who struggle to define and to do what is right. There is an Edomite girl who lives in Israel for a while and wants to return to her own people, since she believes that she owes that to her family. And there is Ezra, who struggles with his own hatred of Gentiles, yet is pained when he compels Israelite men to divorce their Gentile wives, some of them wives for a long time.
Lynn Austin is a compelling writer, and the story of Keepers of the Covenant was moving. The part of the book in which the leaders of Israel are judging a marriage between a Jew and an Edomite girl who converted to the worship of the God of Israel was quite tense. Some scholars may question the picture that Lynn Austin portrays: her assumptions about the dates of the biblical books, and the question of whether conversion was a viable option that was known to Ezra. It is still a riveting portrait of spiritual journeys and the attempt to make sense of the tensions within the Hebrew Bible.
The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.