Shemer’s head aches as he stumbles along the road. He can feel the blood trickling down the back of his neck from the blow that rendered him unconscious when the enemy soldiers forced their way into his home. Shemer glances back over his shoulder. He sees huge scattered stones and smoke where the walls of the Jerusalem once stood. He looks to where his house was, but it’s gone. He hears screams of women. Was that his wife? Was it his daughter? Solomon’s beautiful temple where he had prayed each Sabbath lies desecrated and obliterated, not one stone on another.
Shemer is jerked around with searing pain in his lip. The eye of a large fishhook sticks out from his lower lip. A hemp cord leads from the eye of the fishhook in his lip to a thick dusty brown rope. Dozens and dozens of survivors of the attack on Jerusalem are tied to this heavy rope with fishhooks in their lower lips. With their hands tied behind their backs, thousands of moaning captives trudge along the road away from the city. Shemer sees Israel’s soldiers lying on either side, all dead or dying. He strains to find his sons. But it’s hard to see through his tears.
After many days and nights of being dragged by fishhooks, with only enough food and water to survive, they reach a city in Babylon. They are brought to a group of ex-patriots who had been taken away to captivity a dozen years before. The soldiers order the ex-patriots to get these wretches ready for work. They answer immediately that they will.
They cut the lines and unbind their hands. All the new captives slump to the ground from exhaustion. Shemer recognizes a neighbor woman who immediately comes over to him.
Shemer says, “Abigail?”
“I’m not Abigail. I’m her daughter Ruth.”
“How?” Shemer manages to ask.
Ruth says, “I was a little girl when we were brought to this place. It was terrible. Mom didn’t survive the long march here. When she couldn’t walk anymore, they just cut the line and left her there to die. I would have died with her if the man behind me hadn’t picked me up and carried me kicking and screaming and sobbing.”
She says, “Sit up.”
“What?” Shemer is confused.
Ruth calls two men over. One puts a large flat stone up to Shemer’s chin and places a chisel on the fishhook. Before Shemer can pull back, the other man strikes the chisel and the metal hook snaps it in two.
Ruth motions for Shemer to hold still. She slips her fingers into his mouth straddling the curved hook. With the other hand she pushes the hook further into his mouth. He grimaces and moans as blood and saliva pour from his lip. Then she gently pulls out the barb. She washes his lip and his other wounds with wine and oil. She gives him a cup of sweet wine to drink. He gulps it down, spilling half of it because his lip is so swollen.
She says, “Slow down. There is plenty. Come to our house. You need to rest.”
Ruth helps Shemer to his feet.
He limps along on ragged shoes that hardly protect his swollen feet.
She leads him to a two-story stone house, better than her family owned in Jerusalem.
Shemer whispers, “How do you have such a nice place?”
“We are doing well here,” She says.
Shemer refuses to go in. He accuses her, “You are working for the Babylonians! You are cooperating with the enemy.”
Ruth says, “It’s complicated.”
Shemer responds, “It’s simple to me. These beasts set fire to God’s temple. They burned down my house. God only knows what they did to my wife and daughter. My sons are dead on the battlefield, while you’re doing just fine here in Babylon. You are traitors! Shemer spits in her face.”
Ruth spins around and goes into her home. She returns with her husband.
“I’m Adaiah, one of the rabbis here. You are welcome to come into our home. We have plenty of food and water and a place for you to sleep.”
“I’m not coming in until you explain how you are doing so well here. You must be cooperating with these barbarians.”
“Yes, we are,” the Adaiah says.
“What?! You admit it? My sons died for nothing!”
Shemer raises his fist and charges the rabbi.
Adaiah steps aside. Shemer stumbles and falls to the ground. He lies there sobbing.
After several minutes, the Adaiah kneels by him, “Won’t you come inside? We can talk. I promise we are not traitors. We will answer all your questions.”
He helps Shemer inside. They set him at a table with a bowl of various fruits. Shemer refuses to eat.
He motions to the produce on the table and accuses, “No doubt gifts from the Babylonians for betraying our people.”
“We felt like you when we were brought here,” Adaiah admits. “Having been dragged from our homes and having lost everything, we were marched here just as you were. They treated us cruelly, forced us to work the fields to grow crops that went to feed their King Nebuchadnezzar and his army. We hated them with every fiber of our beings and resisted in every way we could. Several of our people were killed for refusing to work. The prophets among us said that it would not be long before God would deliver us. We would return home to Jerusalem soon. But they turned out to be false prophets.”
Shemer interrupts, “So what made you turn against your own people and join the enemy Babylonians?”
Adaiah continues, “After a few years we received a letter from the prophet Jeremiah. You remember Jeremiah?”
Shemer responds, “How can I forget him?” When all the soldiers were ready to go out to fight, that crazy prophet showed up and kept saying, ‘God wants you to surrender. Surrender or you’ll all die.’ He said God was on the side of the Babylonians. He was demoralizing our troops. The king had him locked up.
The rabbi asks, “But wasn’t Jeremiah right?”
Bowing his head, Shemer responds, “Yes. We should have surrendered. All our soldiers died. But Jeremiah was taking the side of the enemy. Just like you are.”
Adaiah speaks softly, “Jeremiah may be crazy but everything he has said has come true. He speaks for God. After several years and many debates about his letter, the elders here in Babylon decided that Jeremiah was right. So about five years ago, instead of cursing the Babylonians, we started praying for them. Instead of resisting them and sabotaging them at every turn, we started helping them.
“Let me read you part of his letter, This is the message from God, to all the exiles I’ve taken from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and make yourselves at home.
Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country.
Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you’ll thrive in that country and not waste away.
Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare.
Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.’
As soon as seventy years are up, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not to abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.”
Shemer erupts, “Seventy years! That’s not good news. That’s more bad news. Jeremiah says you will die here and so will your wife.”
Ruth gently pats her slightly rounded abdomen and says, “Yes, but there is hope for our son or our son’s son.”
Shemer repeats, “Jeremiah is crazy!”
“We did not accept Jeremiah’s words at first. It was only after several years. Our resistance was only causing the Babylonians to come down harder and harder on us. We were losing people left and right,” Adaiah offers.
“We thought, ‘Soon we will all be dead. What have we got to lose? Let’s try Jeremiah’s way.’ So we started working hard to make the fields produce more. We came up with ingenious ways to irrigate more land farther from the river. Now they even consult us when they have an agricultural issue. Our land is producing more than any of the other deported people from other countries.”
“Our land?! Isn’t your land back in Jerusalem?” questions Shemer.
Adaiah responds, “Jerusalem will always be our home. But now we realize this is where we are going to die. So we are making this our new home. That’s what the prophet said. I pray to God he will let my son or my son’s son go back and rebuild the temple to our God. I have hope, not for me, but for them.”
Shemer accuses him, “But your work to feed the Babylonians only gave them more strength to crush our beloved Jerusalem and kill my family.”
The rabbi offers consolation, “I am so sorry for your loss and for all our people’s loss and for the destruction of God’s holy temple. But Jerusalem would not have been crushed if we had listened to the prophet and turned to God and obeyed. We would not have been deported twelve years ago if we had listened to the Lord then.
“The prophet Jeremiah told the king not to rebel against Babylon, not to put his hope in an alliance with Egypt. But the king did not listen. Neither did we. The prophet has taught us to accept our lot and to do the best we can for ourselves and for others, even for our enemies. Jeremiah teaches us that God is still on our side even though for many years we have had to suffer.”
Shemer shakes his head, “You’re an idiot if you still think God cares about us after all we have suffered. It’s obvious that God has abandoned us.”
Adaiah responds, “I agreed with you twelve years ago when we were led here like cattle and treated worse than cattle. But now I am clinging to the promise of God from the prophet, ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’”
Ruth hands Shemer an apple.
He takes it.