I’ve seen things that no child should ever have to see.
It was mere months ago that we were besieged within Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. Now I sit on the banks of the Tigris River, remembering my childhood, which was brutally stolen from me. Yesterday was my twelfth birthday.
But there was no one to celebrate it with me. The last few months successfully wiped out all of my loved ones. I’m alone in this world. I’m alone in a strange land. I’m alone with my memories. Memories no child should have.
My family had lived in the countryside outside of Jerusalem. But when the Babylonian army came through, we retreated inside the city walls. It was my parents; my older brother, who had joined the Judahite army as the Babylonians surrounded the city; my older sister, who was supposed to be married today; myself; and my baby brother, who never received a name because he was born as the army drew near the walls.
Now it’s just me. At least that’s what I fear. I haven’t seen my older brother since he went to join the army.
My betrothed, Ananiah, was with us in the city when it fell.
But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.
My name is Tamar, and I guess it only makes sense that I’m suffering like I am. Throughout our people’s history, women with my name have not exactly had the best fortunes. Like the patriarch Judah’s daughter-in-law, who lost two husbands to death, my betrothed was stolen from me. Like King David’s daughter, I am suffering—along with my people—as a result of sin.
Adonai told us this would happen. Whereas most of my countrymen have scorned the Law of Moses—saying it is outdated and unimportant; saying the Babylonian gods, like Ishtar (“the queen of heaven”) are easier and more fun to worship; saying that only kooks like the prophet Jeremiah care about worshiping Adonai—my father taught his family to love Adonai.
Did it save my father’s life last month? No. Did it prevent my mother from being murdered and worse by Babylonian soldiers in front of my eyes? No. Did it prevent my sister from starving to death to make sure that both my baby brother and I had food to survive the siege? No. Did it save my betrothed, my beloved Ananiah, from having his neck slit by a Babylonian blade as he tried to protect my brother and I from the invaders? No. His last words to me were, “Run, my darling, into the cliffs!” as he choked on his own blood.
I couldn’t run to the cliffs. I fled from the invaders, but I couldn’t get far. It is hard to run while carrying an infant. But I tried, crying into the bundle in my arms. Why must I lose everyone in my life in the same month? The grief was too much to bear. I swore I’d do whatever it took to save my brother.
I was trying to come up with a name for my brother when I passed a group of people huddled in a corner. They pawed at my arms, crying out, “Give us your baby. We are starving.” I forced my arms away from the cannibals and kept walking.
My brother cried, and I caressed his cheeks and cooed softly to him to try to calm him down, but it did no good. He was hungry too. But I had nothing to feed him.
So I kept walking. I didn’t know where to walk, so I made my way towards Bethlehem. Jeremiah, the prophet, had been residing in that region, and the rumor was that the King of Babylon had told his commanders not to touch him. I thought that maybe I would be safe with him. Perhaps the soldiers would leave us alone there.
But as I approached the broken down gate of Jerusalem, leading to Bethlehem, I heard voices and footsteps and laughter. I refuse to tell what I heard, but it was nothing a woman or a child should overhear.
My brother’s cries became louder, and I covered his mouth with my hand. I knew we would be in trouble if these barbarians heard us, especially after hearing their words. I ducked behind some rubble from the wall and peered over the stone as a troupe of rough-looking men with scraggly beards and reddish hair came into the ruins of my people’s city.
Laughter erupted from several of them. “Oh, great and powerful, Jerusalem,” one voice cackled, “your god is so puny. Even we avoided the wrath of Babylon.”
“Do you think there’s anything left here to take?” another one asked.
“At the very least,” one said, “we can find some refugees to make some money off of. Babylon told us they’d pay us for exiles.” He paused before making a crude comment about women, at which I ducked even lower behind the rubble.
“Look over there,” another one said. “A refugee.” My heart stopped. They saw me. I looked down at my brother and watched as he opened his eyes. I felt him yawn beneath my open palm, and I hoped beyond hope that he wouldn’t make a noise. It was not the time to start crying.
The invaders spoke again, “The fool thinks he can stop us with a sword. Haha. One against twelve. That’s laughable.”
I glanced backwards and saw a man with a sword at his side. He put a finger to his lips, telling me to remain silent. I glanced back down at my brother. He was staring at me. I felt his mouth start to open again.
“Please don’t cry,” I muttered under my breath.
But cry he did, and it led to his death.
My brother started screaming, and it drew the invaders’ attention away from the man with the sword and fixed it firmly on my brother and me instead.
“Run,” I heard the man with the sword behind me shout.
I stood up to run, but a hand held me firm.
“What do we got here?” my captor spat in my face, and I felt his eyes looking me up and down. “Take this, Hadad,” he said to one of his partners, referring to the bundle in my arms.
He stripped my brother out of my arms, despite my screams of protest. My cries earned me slaps across the face. “What do I want with a baby?” he asked, glancing at the bundle in his hands.
“You’ll figure out what to do with it,” my captor spat.
It was then that I watched as my baby brother was thrown against the rocks where we had been hiding moments earlier.
* * *
I force myself back to the present. The memories are too terrible for me.
I was sold back to the Babylonians, and that is how I ended up by the Tigris. As I’ve talked to other Jews here, my story isn’t unique. As I sit here, I watch the gently flowing water. Time goes on.
I remember my father telling us that Jeremiah had promised restoration for our people. Jeremiah had also once promised destruction on the Edomites, the redheaded barbarians responsible for killing my brother and selling me as a slave to the Babylonians. Jeremiah had also promised things that have come true already, so I have no doubt that his other prophecies will come true as well.
But as I sit here, watching the water rush by, I hear another of my countrymen begin to sing.
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There we hung up our lyres
on the poplar trees,
for our captors there asked us for songs,
and our tormentors, for rejoicing:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
“How can we sing Yahweh’s song
on foreign soil?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not exalt Jerusalem as my greatest joy!
“Remember, Yahweh, what the Edomites said
that day at Jerusalem:
‘Destroy it! Destroy it
down to its foundations!’
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who pays you back
what you have done to us.
Happy is he who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rocks.“
I know exactly what he means. We can’t forget Jerusalem. We can’t forget Adonai’s promises to us. We can’t forget our history. Adonai is a God whose Law states an eye for an eye, so the man’s prayer that someone dash children against a wall simply means that their deeds will return to them. Adonai is just. The punishment will match the crime.
Tears return to my eyes as I think of my brother. Thrown away like garbage. He deserved more. He had his whole life ahead of him. I cry uncontrollably.
But then a strong voice behind me cries out,
“This is what the Lord Yahweh has said about Edom:
“We have heard a message from Yahweh;
a messenger has been sent among the nations:
‘Rise up, and let us go to war against her.’
Look, I will make you insignificant
among the nations;
you will be deeply despised.
Your presumptuous heart has deceived you,
you who live in clefts of the rock
in your home on the heights,
who say to yourself,
‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’
Though you seem to soar like an eagle
and make your nest among the stars,
even from there I will bring you down.
This is Yahweh’s declaration.
“If thieves came to you,
if marauders by night—
how ravaged you would be!—
wouldn’t they steal only what they wanted?
If grape pickers came to you,
wouldn’t they leave some grapes?
How Esau will be pillaged,
his hidden treasures searched out!
Everyone who has a treaty with you
will drive you to the border;
everyone at peace with you
will deceive and conquer you.
Those who eat your bread
will set a trap for you.
He will be unaware of it.
In that day—
this is Yahweh’s declaration—
will I not eliminate the wise ones of Edom
and those who understand
from the hill country of Esau?
Teman, your warriors will be terrified
so that everyone from the hill country of Esau
will be destroyed by slaughter.
“You will be covered with shame
and destroyed forever
because of violence done to your brother Jacob.
On the day you stood aloof,
on the day strangers captured his wealth,
while foreigners entered his gate
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you were just like one of them.
Do not gloat over your brother
in the day of his calamity;
do not rejoice over the people of Judah
in the day of their destruction;
do not boastfully mock
in the day of distress.
Do not enter the gate of My people
in the day of their disaster.
Yes, you—do not gloat over their misery
in the day of their disaster
and do not appropriate their possessions
in the day of their disaster.
Do not stand at the crossroads
to cut off their fugitives,
and do not hand over their survivors
in the day of distress.
“For the Day of Yahweh is near,
against all the nations.
As you have done, so it will be done to you;
what you deserve will return on your own head.
As you have drunk on My holy mountain,
so all the nations will drink continually.
They will drink and gulp down
and be as though they had never been.
But there will be a deliverance on Mount Zion,
and it will be holy;
the house of Jacob will dispossess
those who dispossessed them.
Then the house of Jacob will be a blazing fire,
and the house of Joseph, a burning flame,
but the house of Esau will be stubble;
Jacob will set them on fire and consume Edom.
Therefore no survivor will remain
of the house of Esau,
for Yahweh has spoken.
“People from the Negev will possess
the hill country of Esau;
those from the Judean foothills will possess
the land of the Philistines.
They will possess
the territories of Ephraim and Samaria,
while Benjamin will possess Gilead.
The exiles of the Israelites who are in Halah
and who are among the Canaanites as far as Zarephath
as well as the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad
will possess the cities of the Negev.
Saviors will ascend Mount Zion
to rule over the hill country of Esau,
but the kingdom will be Yahweh’s.”
I’ve never seen the man before. I don’t know his name. But his words are strangely comforting. They remind me of Jeremiah’s words several years earlier, though more specific to the very situation I just experienced. The Law says that every testimony will be confirmed by two or three witnesses. Two people have now stated the same thing regarding those who hate us. It must come true.
But even more than that, this man just promised that the kingdom would be restored. We would be central. Adonai Himself will again rule us.
I long for the day.