Babylonia – Brandon Marlon

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—MEETING OF THE MINDS—

 

“Sour grapes eaten by parents leave a bitter taste in the mouths of their children.”

Ezekiel overheard the adage time and again as he navigated the barley fields and byways of Aviv, and lamented the fatalism in these words. Just as he had feared, the spirit of his fellows was faltering. Seeing themselves as hopeless victims would soon turn resignation into despair.

Praying for guidance under the shade of a tamarisk, the co-guardian of the exile was fatefully gifted with the means to rouse his countrymen from complacency. On a warm Sabbath morning in the spring he congregated the community within the cooling shelter of the synagogue, where in a rousing sermon he espoused a revolutionary doctrine, ruffling the feathers of his flock.

“The one who sins is the one who suffers,” he propounded to a packed hall stunned silent.

“Not so! Moses said the sins of the parents would be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation,” a feisty elder corrected, suspicious of the upstart prophet’s authority.

“Is the Master’s message less truthful now than it was then?” Ezekiel countered. “The Lord’s word came to me, saying: ‘Behold, all souls belong to Me—parents as well as children. Only those who sin will perish. Children will not suffer for the sins of their parents, nor parents for the sins of their children. Righteous people will be rewarded for their righteousness, and wicked people punished for their wickedness. But if the wicked turn away from all their sins to obey My decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die. All their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done.

“‘Do I delight in the downfall of the wicked? I only wish for them to turn from their wickedness and live. But if the righteous turn from their righteousness and sin like others, should they endure? All their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will suffer for their sins.

“‘Yet you say the ways of the Lord are not just! Hear Me now, House of Israel. Are My ways unjust, or are yours? I will judge each of you according to your actions. Repent and cast away your sins, lest they become your undoing! Put all rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit; for why should you perish, House of Israel? I take no pleasure in your demise, therefore repent and live!’”

Although staggered by the prophet’s purported abrogation of the Torah, the people wept, embracing one another at heaven’s mercy revealed to them through its spokesman.

Ezekiel’s oratory proved powerful. His rhetoric echoed with soulful certainty. Perorations tempered admonition with trust in a hopeful future, lest the exiles give way to heartbreak. Throughout daily teachings at his home and passionate Sabbath sermons in the synagogues, a singular underlying message was emphasized: Babylonian captivity will be no different from Egyptian slavery; once again will exile ultimately lead to exodus.

 

Daniel admired the artistry of the Hall of the Throne’s latest tapestries, waiting as Nebuchadrezzar perused renegotiated commercial contracts for final approval. Economically critical, the documents provided for the importation of much-valued carnelian, pearls, tin, and diorite from neighboring states, but the emperor appeared rather more interested in the agreement than was his wont. He was, in fact, highly impressed. The cuneiform script was impeccable; the language sophisticated; the trade terms favorable and its legal clauses watertight. Nebuchadrezzar cautiously handled the fresh clay tablets, appreciating just how indispensable his governor was to the empire’s prosperity. The imperial assent was granted. He now added the indentation of his signet ring to the mark of Daniel’s gubernatorial cylinder seal at the bottom of the tablets, confirming their validity effective immediately.

“Well done. Have we any other matters to address? If not, I’ll expect you at once to conduct a routine inspection of the Judahite villages. I hear strange rumors of an itinerant seer.”

“As do I, Sire. As do I…”

For five years Daniel heard a great deal about this famed figure Ezekiel, whose burgeoning prophetic career he followed with great interest, balancing his desire to encounter and engage the holy man with an apprehension of the dire predictions he knew had been foretold. Other qualms kept Daniel at bay. If this new spokesman contradicted Jeremiah’s pronouncements, would this disprove his validity? And if he confirmed them, would he not give rise to widespread despondency among vulnerable exile communities? Daniel exercised abundant caution in his deliberation, lest his visiting Ezekiel unintentionally bestow credibility on one whose commission and authority remained in question.

Although as a youth in Judah he had known of and listened to the somber sermons of Zephaniah in assembly houses, the poetic homilies of Hulda in public squares, and the impassioned pleas of Jeremiah in Jerusalem’s streets, Daniel had never conversed directly with a prophet of Israel. Even more troubling, many were the claimants of divine blessing and despite Ezekiel’s growing fame there was yet no irrefutable evidence of his legitimacy. Perhaps this was merely another false prophet obscuring the minds of simple believers and wayward idolaters alike. Only time would bear out the truth of the matter and either vindicate a provident man or expose an impostor. Yet something about the reported visions and recorded pronouncements of this clairvoyant smacked of old Jeremiah. Eventually Daniel ceased procrastinating and set aside inhibitions, making haste from urban Babylon to rural Aviv, seeking out the sapiential word.

“The eccentric dwells just there, Governor,” an ever-crusty Menanu muttered through gnashing teeth, signaling with his crooked, bony forefinger to the adjacent adobe shack shaded with reeds overhanging the roof. “Look for the wavy-haired figure with a cedar walking staff, but beware—he’s a little touched, if you get my meaning,” he added, tapping his head.

Daniel thanked the cranky overseer by pressing a glimmering silver shekel into his callused palm, and advanced to the hut. He peeked into the open doorway and saw no one. Shafts of window light illumined wine amphorae and a sealed chest of the type that commonly held scrolls. Little else in the sparse shelter betrayed the presence of human life. At first glance, it seemed a habitation equally fit for a spirit or demon as any mortal being.

“The tax farmer already collected his dues,” a resonant voice assured, heralding the advance of a strapping frame from the shadows. Daniel scrutinized the white-cloaked figure of Ezekiel, slightly his senior, somewhat taller, with stouter shoulders. Ezekiel likewise appraised his unexpected caller, sensing in Daniel’s gubernatorial garb a loftier rank in officialdom.

“You’re not the tax farmer, that much is certain,” he decided. Something in his visitor’s aura, in his poise and posture, seemed familiar to him. His attire and insignia were strictly Babylonian, but his eyes and beard were unmistakably Judahite. Detached from worldly politics and far too preoccupied with spiritual pursuits to keep abreast of the machinations in the capital, Ezekiel had nevertheless encountered talk of the Judahite hostages serving in the imperial court, some of whom had since been appointed to high-level positions within Nebuchadrezzar’s administration. One in particular had gained renown amongst the Judahite villages as a result of his judgment in the infamous episode involving Susannah of Harsha, and of his subsequent arrangements for her marriage to the incarcerated royal Jehoiachin.

Ezekiel studied the fellow before him with careful attention, discerning that the trim, light brown beard, curly shock of russet hair, and lean physique matched popular description of his notable countryman Daniel. Was this possibly the intended counterpart Jeremiah had alluded to, the one pure of heart, co-guardian of the exile?

“I’m Daniel son of Noah, governor of Babylon, and I’ll gladly arrange for the remittance of your dues,” Daniel offered. “A prophet should be exempted from taxes.”

A gentle grin expanded Ezekiel’s cheeks, softening his stern mien.

“Why should I be exempt? Hasn’t the Lord endowed me with my share of barley and wheat? Don’t be fooled by my sparse surroundings; I lack for nothing.”

He reached for woolen sacs of dry victuals tucked away in a corner, opening them slowly.

“During the week I thrive on eggs, peas, beans, spinach, and grains; on the Sabbath there’s plenty of wine, and meat from the oxen and fowl from the village. The community supplies my material necessities, just as I’ve been appointed to provide for their spiritual needs. Truth be told, I’m richer than I’ve ever been, thanks be to heaven.”

Daniel smiled. The ice had been broken.

Ezekiel, contrary to his hermetic reputation, shed all aspects of the ascetic and offered Daniel gracious hospitality. A large round plate of honey wafers and salted almonds soon rested in the center of the floor between them. Together they sat cross-legged on stuffed cushions softening the thin reed mats dyed beige and blue that layered the ground. Daniel was highly self-conscious and vulnerable in this seated position, as if Ezekiel would somehow notice how his legs were closed too tightly and intuit his shameful castration. He felt impelled to further causerie, stammering formalities, progressing to those matters he wished most to discuss.

“I understand you knew the prophet Jeremiah…” he began, “…is this so?”

“I had for a mentor the father of our generation. May the Almighty preserve His loyal servant.”

Daniel hid his envy. Even as a leading governor in a supreme empire, transacting the affairs of state, it pained him to be reminded of his lost opportunity so many years ago.

“Have you been able to maintain contact with him?”

“For some time now I’ve received no word.”

“The vise of siege admits precious little. For what it’s worth, I…I want you to know that I’ve made a point, on several occasions, of reminding the emperor of Jeremiah’s appeals in his favor. Nebuchadrezzar is mindful of this. I’m sure it will be taken into account in his treatment.”

“Great is your gesture. Ultimately the prophet, like the nation, lies in the Lord’s hands.”

Although Daniel’s elder by only a handful of years, Ezekiel’s lengthy beard was prematurely graying into a salt-and-pepper blend, aging his appearance well beyond Daniel’s youthful looks. His familiar manner was both fraternal and avuncular. Common yearnings gave way to reminiscing of Jerusalem, its bountiful lemon trees, apple orchards, and olive groves. Daniel was buoyed by a sense of kinship.

“I long to know more of your visions…and how it feels to receive divine inspiration.”

“When the Lord’s hand was upon me,” Ezekiel answered, clasping his cheeks as if still bewildered by the event, “it was somehow terribly heavy and extremely light all at once.”

Trembling at the memory, he breathed deeply, composing his quivering lips.

“My visions amount to a clear realization: Babylonia is our new Egypt. And you, Daniel, must stand in place of Joseph as in days of old, interceding in a foreign land on behalf of Israel. You see, we’re members of a rebellious house. Defiers and despisers constitute King Zedekiah’s court. It’s but a matter of time…”

“Surely there’s a remnant, a vestige loyal to the Torah and the ancestral ways…?”

“Only a vestige of a remnant, and a dwindling one at that,” Ezekiel pointedly opined. “Fraudulent holy men and corrupt civil leaders have led our blind nation astray, yet even these are victims of their own patriotism and some may have meant well. Pray for their souls, Daniel. Misguidance fathered their thoughts, which events now falsify.”

“Then there’s no hope for Judah and Jerusalem? I’ve often felt that so long as Jeremiah lives, perhaps…” Daniel suggested.

“The decree has been sealed; even angels cannot reverse it,” the oracle confessed with a finality negating Daniel’s intent to pursue this line of questioning further.

Breaking the tense atmosphere, Ezekiel rose from the floor and paced the room, formulating phrases to convey what he longed to impart from his overwrought soul.

“Israel has a hard forehead and a stiff heart. Yet our redemption rests on the distant horizon, which will someday be upon us. With vigilance and patience we’ll overcome our trials.”

“What gives you hope that all isn’t lost? What makes you so sure the Covenant of our fathers will be renewed?” Daniel pressed, eager for insight.

 “In my visions I’ve seen the angel Sandalphon standing behind the Lord’s chariot, forming wreaths of prayers. So long as there are prayers to wreath, there’s hope for the future!”

Daniel couldn’t help but be uplifted by this optimism and imbued with a sense of destiny. He was nonetheless wholly unprepared for Ezekiel’s ensuing entreaty.

“As a nation we survived slavery and will endure exile. Just as we went from slavery to freedom, so too will we go from captivity to restoration. Hear me, Daniel. I need your help. The Almighty positions you and I to ease the burden of our brethren. Let us together pledge to preserve the people and lay the groundwork for the return to our homeland. As Moses shepherding Israel through the desert to the Promised Land, we must guide the flock through the Diaspora, even though we too may ultimately fall short of entering the land ourselves.”

Daniel, overwhelmed, reeled at the prospect that he was tasked with the responsibilities either of a saintly Joseph or a prophetic Moses, let alone both. He paused to catch his breath and clear his mind, then surveyed the abode’s barren walls which merely reflected his thoughts back on him. Finally he nodded, vowing to do all in his power to protect the Judahite communities and remain ever conscious of the charge bestowed upon him by the Most High.

Before taking his leave of Ezekiel, Daniel requested a few moments to collect branches and leaves of the wondrous tamarisks copiously grown in the area and frequently used in herbal remedies. He was schooled in the tree’s healing properties and meant to distribute its parts widely to Babylonian physicians, who could then create compounds and treat local patients.

“Such compassion and concern for the multitudes under your influence is a credit to the Almighty,” Ezekiel professed. “Your kindness and charity sanctify His holy name. It’s no wonder that you’re appointed to such high purpose, and that angels whisper of you in hushed tones.”

Astounded by the declaration, Daniel’s heart palpitated, his mouth dry as the desert floor.

“Am I then…am I also a prophet?” he wondered aloud, shaking at the prospect. Since his adolescence he had secretly coveted the power to prognosticate and preach reform to his errant fellows. His tendency as a youth in Judah to speak out in Jeremiah’s defense had proved his will to pursue the righteous cause.

Ezekiel smiled like a loving sibling might, responding with warmth and sincerity.

  “You are beloved.”

Despite Daniel’s searching expression, Ezekiel did not elaborate. In his intonation, however, Daniel was astonished to detect the faintest touch of envy.

 

—PILGRIMAGE TO UR—

 

Daniel touched the serrated acacia staff and felt his soul quake.

He was unable to reach the end of Baruch’s papyrus letter; instead, he fell to his knees and tore his attire in overwhelming grief.

Somehow, he had always figured, Jeremiah would live forever.

He summoned his closest companions, alerting them to the terrible report. Dressing in sackcloth and dousing ash upon their heads as signs of sorrow, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah wept together a long while before finally drafting a heartfelt notice distributed by horseback messengers throughout Melah, Harsha, and Aviv, officially declaring thirty days of bereavement for all Judahites in Jeremiah’s honor.

The month of mourning expired, and Daniel still agonized over the loss of his hero. Not since Kesh died did he know such profound despair. Babylon’s self-absorbed courtiers, pagan priests, and materialist mobs offered no comfort. At every turn idolatrous heathens and raucous hedonists disturbed his attempts at introspection, and his suffering spirit yearned for escape.

He formally obtained from Nebuchadrezzar a tablet of exception to sojourn in the southern reaches of the country, and set out from the capital as a pilgrim with scrip, waterskin, and walking stick, free for a time from the burdensome trappings of imperial duty. His route coursed along the eastern bank of the Euphrates, taking him past Borsippa with its monumental ziggurat and Nabu’s great temple of Ezida, whose wafting frankincense could be smelled from the river, then onward to Dilbat where Daniel stopped under some date palms to refresh himself with a light meal of grilled carp by a public campfire.

Chewing the savory flesh, and careful to spit out tiny bones, he glanced westward across the Arabian sandscape into the rocky wilderness of Moab up to the Jordan River, beyond which he knew Jerusalem lay in ruin, lonely as a widow.

In his scrip lay a single parchment scroll to stimulate his mind along the journey: a copy of the Book of Jeremiah which Baruch had forwarded to him along with the papyrus report. He unraveled the weighty roll, delving into the dramatic record of the ancient augur’s early career, tirelessly transcribed by Baruch’s loyal hand.

Daniel digested the epic contents, amazed at the seer’s self-revealing nature. He began to see in Jeremiah the confluence of different prophetic traits: the affliction of Job, the hesitation of Moses, the rebelliousness of Jonah. The father of his generation was a tragic figure forced to brave the animosity of his fellows, an earnest soul laying bare the emotion of one singled out to be the mouthpiece of heaven. Unwilling to finish the account in a single sitting, Daniel rose and dusted off his robe, resuming his trek to the southern marshes of Sumer.

Days passed uneventfully, which for Daniel was a pleasant change of pace from hectic Babylon where everything was spectacle. Peace was in the provinces. Serene scenery beckoned in every direction. Quacking mallards and tranquil teals swam along the river’s surface, pecking away at passing schools of fish. Thick-stemmed lilies floated above water, their pink petals in full bloom. Brown butterflies fed on their nectar as orange-winged dragonflies pursued mosquitoes.

He glanced eastward as he marched, able to identify a remote mass as the Ekur temple of Enlil at Nippur, and the crumbling remains at Isin where hapless statues of Hammurabi and Sargon I decayed. Snacking on caraway seed biscuits, he viewed labor crews hauling roughly-hewn lamassus overland from a nearby quarry at ruined Lagash by means of ropes, levers, and wooden rollers, destined for urban temples and the sharp chisels of skilled craftsmen.

He adjusted his white kerchief, braving the blazing sun. Following the river’s curve, he spied out a pair of long-abandoned, wasted mounds that he knew from administrative maps as the former cities of Shuruppak and Umma. He could not help but notice how horribly time had deteriorated these locales, erasing them from mankind’s consciousness. It occurred to him that the crucial element ensuring a civilization’s longevity was not a commitment to build, as Nebuchadrezzar and Nabopolassar had done so well, rather to rebuild after the inevitable ravages of time or war. The notion was self-consoling: Daniel had Jerusalem in mind and nurtured the hope that someday soon the Holy City would rise anew from its shambles and shame.

Dusk settled on Daniel’s campsite, a picturesque pit stop underneath the canopy of a palm grove. Without revealing his official identity to anyone, he broke bread with fellow travelers, maundering spirits vulnerable to the rugged landscape and harsh elements, partaking in much-missed conversation and companionship. Lukewarm water extracted from an aquifer was shared by a generous pair of young pilgrims touring Sumer’s temples. Having begun at Girsu and Lagash, they had lately come from the ornate shrines of Anu and Ishtar at Uruk. They regaled one and all with riveting stories of genies and demons playing tricks on gullible mortals passing through their domain. Legends kept the dark hours lively and even Daniel was intrigued by the myth of a luscious gulf island being the primordial Garden of Eden.

Warmed by a steaming cup of cardamom tea, Daniel gazed at the star-speckled sky, listening to the unbroken silence of night. Here in the solitude of the wilderness one could hardly avoid meditation. Isolation bred introspection and the vast expanse became a canvas against which he projected shadows of inner life. He reflected on his youth in Judah, his adventurous companions, his tutelage in Babylon and, most of all, on his dearly missed Kesh. So many things he wished to say to her would forever go unheard. Part of him still blamed himself for her fate, though not the rational part. Kesh had been her own woman, strong-willed and independent to a fault. He grieved the loss of time at her side and the urbane discourse they easily shared. None had enlivened him since in quite the same manner. He had loved her in every way one person loves another, but above all he missed a cherished confidante.

He rested on the outskirts of Uruk at a predetermined rendezvous point beneath a tapering alder tree. It was not long before his travel companion arrived, slowly traversing the earthy plain in a beige robe, linen shawl, and thin-strapped sandals.

“Peace be upon you,” Ezekiel greeted, steps away from Daniel relaxing on the ground. Climbing to his feet, Daniel nodded genially at the oracle, offering a firm handclasp.

“I’m honored you could join me.”

“I’ve also sought solace in vain, ever since receiving your notice. I lost my master and mentor, and our flock its shepherd. Israel is orphaned…”

“May his righteous memory be a blessing,” Daniel uttered, suppressing tears.

They sat somberly on a grassy patch and eulogized Jeremiah, reminiscing about he who had meant so much to both. Their meeting, however, was intended for more than fond recollections: together the guardians of the exile made their way to the ancient city of Ur, formerly a Sumerian capital, currently in the hands of Chaldean clans. Historic as the site where humanity initially converged to live and labor and where the brilliant badge of civilization first shone, Ur was also the birthplace of Abraham, founder of nations.

Ur had been proposed as a site of pilgrimage by Ezekiel after their initial encounter at Aviv, and Daniel readily accepted the chance to spend more time in the company of his distinguished counterpart. In the wake of Jeremiah’s death, the moment seemed ideal. In Daniel’s eyes Ezekiel was Jeremiah’s natural successor, and he venerated both as heaven’s chosen.

The lure of Ur was that of their mutual Patriarch, who spurned the conventional idolatry of his father in favor of newfound faith in the invisible Yahweh. Although Abraham was born in Sumer and was Amorite by race, upon setting out from Harran and crossing the Jordan River into Canaan he became something else, a Hebrew—the name itself referring to ‘one who crosses over’. In Abraham’s case, the spiritual crossing over outweighed the physical passage, and together both sealed his fate and those of his manifold descendants forevermore.

It was in search of the inspiring spirit of their forefather that Ezekiel and Daniel now endured burning rays, following the meandering Euphrates from Uruk down to Larsa, finally fording the steady river southward to their destination.

What they saw at Ur gave each man infinitely more respect for Abraham’s bravery than he inherently had. They steered through evocative ruins, most of which had not been restored but left in a dilapidated state, marveling at the revolutionary decision of an individual to chart an innovative spiritual course. What valor to renounce the ways of his age! The scope and size of crumbled structures suggested that once this city had thrived as a center of human ingenuity.

Surrounded by fading remnants of sun-dried brick shrines dedicated to outmoded Sumerian gods, Ezekiel relied on Daniel who was well-versed in foreign languages and symbols to translate their meaning. Here stood columns once supporting a temple to the primordial pairs of Apsu and Tiamat, Lahmu and Lahamu, Anshar and Kishar; there rose from cracked ground stelae inscribed with the earliest law codes known to the world.

Daniel combed random markings and inscriptions, explaining how the Sumerian pantheon had been absorbed by the Babylonian, allowing Enki to live on as Ea, Inanna as Ishtar, Dumuzi as Tammuz, Utu as Shamash, Nanna as Sin. Illuminating the intricate background to Ezekiel, Daniel was struck by a truth intrinsic to posterity: some gods simply die out while others adapt and survive. If true for the gods, he mused, how much more so for humankind.

Abraham had left nothing in Ur by which to be identified nor did the Torah recount anything of him before he was already at an advanced age. Still, little imagination was necessary for Ezekiel and Daniel to visualize their progenitor amid this pagan world, raised from birth to worship stone idols and wooden sculptures of the patron deity Sin that abounded. Why Yahweh had waited generations to renew the primal knowledge of Noah, of Adam and Eve, was unknown and unknowable. Daniel pressed Ezekiel for a sapient answer, but was met with a flat smile.

“His ways aren’t our ways,” he maintained.

“For that I’m eternally thankful. I’ve seen up close what ‘our ways’ are,” Daniel confided. His disdain for Babylon’s excesses was not lost on Ezekiel.

“Surely the Lord reveals Himself no less in history than in nature,” the oracle opined, sighing as he surveyed a circumference of urban decay.

The concept of providence stirred Daniel’s intellect, affording him a measure of comfort. He pondered the idea more and more as they cautiously navigated through the rutted terrain of loose stones, cylinder seals, black marble bullae, burnt mud bricks set in bitumen, alluvial clay, and broken pottery. Further amid the debris the presence of human remains indicated a burial ground once full of tombs and mausoleums, which as a priest Ezekiel was careful to avoid.

Daniel scanned the barren, soundless vista, moving swiftly to rescue a clay tablet jutting out between sandstone slabs as baby lizards darted to safety. Ezekiel inquired of the find, noting the delicacy with which Daniel grasped the tablet and dusted it off. Narrowing his eyes to better make out the Sumerian script, Daniel mumbled as he interpreted semi-legible writing.

“The Epic of Atrahasis,” he revealed, leaving Ezekiel clueless. From his companion’s vacant expression Daniel understood clarification was in order.

“Essentially it’s the Sumerian saga of Creation and the Flood, recounting the experiences of a certain Atrahasis during the deluge, known as Utnapishtim to the Babylonians and whom we know as Noah from Genesis,” he explicated, gently packing the tablet in his scrip.

“Ah… Fitting, then, to conserve it,” Ezekiel affirmed. “Noah saved his own generation, and all those that followed. In a way, I feel we’ve been entrusted with a similar responsibility. Success in captivity can only result from communal cohesion, from unity among our fold. Keeping this unity requires bolstering faith in the coming redemption. To this end I’ve begun composing a lengthy scroll of my visions conveying the Lord’s message to the captives, a work intended for dissemination throughout the Diaspora.”

“I’m…I’m heartened to hear of it,” Daniel stammered. “The people must be reminded of the constancy of the Holy One, even in the far reaches of Babylonia. Tell me if I can assist you.”

 “The book’s recension I’d entrust to you, knowing how you excelled in your training at the academies of Babylon. But you must do more than revise my writings once completed; you must compose a work of your own, for the divine spark burns brightly within you.”

Daniel was lost for words, uncertain if he could fulfill such an obligation. Loath to expose his self-doubt, he held his peace as they silently rambled ahead, stumbling before the base of the city’s huge ziggurat, its partially collapsed structure crumbling before their very eyes.

Ezekiel stared up the step pyramid’s immense staircase that seemed to pierce the ether and that was capped by a shrine to Sin, patron deity of Ur. The prophet puzzled over strange symbols engraved into ancient mud bricks. Instantly Daniel recognized the infamous moon god’s double crescent symbol, triggering in him a deep-seated revulsion coupled by his recurring guilt over never having brought Kesh’s killer to justice. The lurid mystery of Sin’s underworld cult had never been solved, and the identity of the degenerate heresiarch remained unknown. Ezekiel perceived Daniel’s disquiet, giving him room to dwell within the privacy of his thoughts.

They parted warmly after a tepid cup of lemon-mint tea and some ripe figs. Daniel followed an impulse, continuing southward beyond Ur, admiring the bulrushes and flora cropping up along the riverbanks. Here at the lower end of the country where the Tigris and Euphrates emptied into marshlands, lagoons, and lakes at the gulf head, barrel-roofed houses of qasab reeds sprung from the wetlands. Using shaduf buckets attached to weighted poles, village children raised water from the river as oblivious fishermen rowed by in their bowl-shaped quffa coracles, framed by willow and juniper and covered with hides coated in bitumen for waterproofing.

Daniel rested and untied the straps of his leather sandals, cooling his sweaty feet in the welcoming everglade. He massaged his calluses against algae, his mind spinning at thoughts of rival responsibilities to his own people and all Babylonians, to Nebuchadrezzar and Yahweh, Ezekiel and Kesh. Overwhelmed with obligations and beset by uncertainty, he sat listening to quacking waterfowl, watching carefree toads and tadpoles, meditating till inner chaos dissipated.

He reached into his scrip, tenderly retrieving the Book of Jeremiah and delving into the remaining chapters with their vivid episodes. The profundity of the divine message grounded Daniel, yet engendered speculation. Could it be that he too was meant to serve Israel as a prophetic leader in the mold of the indomitable Jeremiah and exceptional Ezekiel? Was he possibly a prophet of Yahweh himself, who would be called on to defend the deity in the face of heathenism? And if so, when would he know beyond the shadow of a doubt?

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