Lynn Austin. On This Foundation. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2015. See here to buy the book.
On This Foundation is the third novel of Lynn Austin’s Restoration Chronicles, which is about Israel after the exile. One can read, understand, and appreciate On This Foundation without having read the previous two books of the series. Still, I do recommend the previous two books because they are so good!
On This Foundation is set during the time of Nehemiah. Ezra, the main character of the previous book, is now an old man. Nehemiah’s father was killed during the time of Esther, and that makes Nehemiah obsessed with security, both that of the king of Persia whom he serves as cupbearer, and also that of Jerusalem, whose fallen walls leave her vulnerable to attack. The king of Persia permits Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem, to serve as the governor of Yehud, and to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. While Nehemiah is in Jerusalem, enemies are trying to undermine Nehemiah’s attempts. These enemies seek to sow and exploit discord and to make Nehemiah look bad to his people and the king of Persia. These enemies are intermarried into prominent Jewish families, so it is difficult for Nehemiah to know whom to trust.
Yehud is also beset by drought, and indebted Jewish families are losing their land to Jewish nobles. People are becoming slaves to pay off their family’s debts. One of these nobles is Malkijah, who comes across as a compassionate man. Nana is sold into slavery to Malkijah to help pay off her father’s debt, and Nana worries that she will never be able to marry her sweetheart Dan. Meanwhile, Malkijah’s son Aaron is continually leering at her.
There is also Shallum and his daughters. One of Shallum’s daughters is Chana. Chana’s husband Yitzhak was murdered, and Shallum wants for Chana to marry Malkijah. Chana is bitter about her late husband’s death and is determined to see Jerusalem become secure, so she assists in the rebuilding of the walls, to the consternation of Nehemiah, who thinks that is too dangerous for a woman. Lynn Austin actually draws the idea that Shallum’s daughters helped repair the walls from the Bible (see Nehemiah 3:12).
I do not want to give away too many spoilers, for I want other readers to enjoy seeing the mysteries resolved for themselves. One question that kept me reading was what kind of man Malkijah was: Was he outwardly good while inwardly bad? Was he a good man, yet one blinded by his privilege, wealth, and elitism? Was he a good man who had legitimate reasons for refusing to forgive people’s debts and release his slaves?
I was also wondering whom Chana would marry in the end. Lynn Austin actually surprised me here. Not all of her mysteries surprised me that much: for example, why did Malkijah’s servant Shimon decide to stay with Malkijah for life, as opposed to being released, and why has he covenanted to pray for Malkijah and Malkijah’s sons?
The book had somewhat of a C-SPAN feel to it in places, since it went into the technicalities of political intrigue. Some may find those parts dry; others may find them authentic, believable, and, well, intriguing.
The book also went into the complexities of the Torah: how the Torah can promote compassion and justice, and yet how it could be used in an oppressive manner, particularly when it came to slaves. My hunch is that Lynn Austin believes that, taken all together, the Torah promotes compassion and justice.
In this book, Nehemiah struggles with the question of whether God wants him to be king. Nehemiah wants more for his people Israel, and part of him wants more for himself. I do not know how realistic this is (i.e., was Nehemiah a descendant of David?). But it was an interesting dynamic, as Nehemiah interacted with issues such as a desire for God’s glory, a desire for his own glory, and acceptance of God’s plan.
This book did not sweep me off my feet to the same extent as other Lynn Austin books, particularly the ones that won Christy Awards. It is still an excellent book.
Bethany House Publishers sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.