Once Dean was settled, Simon greeted everyone.
“Good morning! I think we need to begin if we are to get through everyone’s stories. Jonathan, we’re in your hands.”
A tall man with a serious expression stood up.
Jonathan spoke softly. Dean had to lean forward to hear him. The tall man noticed the movement so raised his voice as he introduced himself.
“I am Jonathan Wright and I’m a mineral engineer. My work involves me living abroad, in remote areas of the globe; mainly in Africa and Asia, as we search for a variety of minerals. I’m employed by a big mining company and travel a lot.”
He stopped and looked down at the carpet, seeming to think about what he would say next. Dean was not sure he would be able to hear much if he talked looking at his feet, but the man lifted his head, and, as if with renewed courage, he continued.
“As Bekka said last night, I have also struggled with shyness. In my case, I’m the only child of a single mother. My father was killed in a car accident just before I was born, so it was always just the two of us. As a result, by the time I attended the Class of 1990 when I was fifteen, my mother had come to rely on me to be the man of the house. But I was beginning to want to find my own feet and her growing possessiveness was becoming a problem. I couldn’t wait to finish school and go to university – as far from home as I could go.”
He paused again. Dean could see he was having a tussle as to how much he should share. Jonathan smiled straight at Dean.
“The story you told in our third week was the one for me. Let me tell it as I remember it, and then I‘ll tell you how it influenced my life.
They had travelled from the land of her birth many years ago. Zilpah had been happy in Ur, the land of the Chaldees. It was where she had been claimed by Terah as his wife and she had thought they would live there for the rest of their lives. She bore him three sons, Abram, Nahor and Haran.
But when Haran died, Terah, her husband, was restless with grief. He had ordered the servants and herdsmen to prepare for a long journey. Taking Abram and his wife Sarai, and Haran’s son, Lot, with them, and leaving Nahor to manage their lands in Ur, the family had made their way to Harran where they settled once again. Terah had died after a while, but even so, Zilpah was content with her family around her.
Until the day, late one afternoon, when Abram came into her tent, she would even have said she was happy.
Abram told her what had happened, in words which seared themselves into her heart. She heard them play in her mind over … and over again. And while he shattered her life, his eyes shone with a joy she had never seen before. It was as if a fire had been kindled within him, and now, at this very moment, it was being fanned into flame.
“Ummur! Mother! Today something remarkable happened! This morning I went to the far pastures over the northern range, to do a head count of the sheep and goats grazing there. I didn’t see you because I left before dawn and took my dogs, to hunt for hares for your pot.
“I had reached the foothills when I heard it. It was a voice, Ummur, as clear as I am speaking to you now, I heard him speaking to me.”
“Who?” she couldn’t help but ask.
“Ummur,” his voice dropped to barely more than a whisper, as if in awe of what he was going to say.
“Ummur, I heard God today.”
“God? Which god?”
He glanced around as if worried he might be overheard. Then he turned back to her.
“Ummur, I heard the One God.”
“Abram, what are you talking about? There are so many gods. We have shrines and statues of them all around the camp. I should know. I’ve had to clean them and pack them up myself every time we move. Your father would never let anyone else touch them.”
“My father … Abur …”
For a moment her son looked startled, almost afraid to upset the memory of his father. But Terah had loved him dearly. He had been an indulgent parent, even though he was strict at times. But he had been set in his beliefs about his gods and refused to be questioned on their existence. She had felt the same in the end, so now Abram’s talk of One God disturbed her.
“Ummur,” her son continued, “Abur was wrong.”
She gasped in shock. How could Abram question his father’s beliefs? Although Terah was no longer alive, she was concerned that the members of his family and his loyal servants would not tolerate such outright rebellion, even from Terah’s favourite son.
“Be careful, Abram. Your father’s brothers will not put up with any blasphemy, just as your father would not.”
“I know. But, Ummur, when did any of Abur’s gods speak to him?”
She could not answer. She had never been told of any such occasion, yet Terah had spent many hours on his face, pleading with his gods. He would have been lost without them.
She hardly dared ask her question.
“Abram, what did this One God say to you?”
And he told her. She staggered at the shock of it all so he had to help her sit on a pile of cushions. He clapped his hands and told the servant who came running in response to bring a cup of pomegranate juice. As she tried to absorb what he had said, she asked him to tell her again, more slowly this time.
“Ummur, when I heard God call my name, I searched around for someone hiding in the sparse scrub, or perhaps someone who had fallen and hurt themselves. The dogs seemed to be unconcerned, but maybe a man had been attacked by a lion and lay injured in the dust. There was no one, Ummur. I could find no one.
“Then the voice spoke again. ‘Abram’.
“I spun around, seeking the one who called me by name.
“‘Abram, you cannot see me,’ he said. ‘You can only hear me. But that does not mean I do not exist. You are not dreaming, Abram. I AM.’
“For some reason, I fell on my face. I felt, deep inside, I wanted to worship the one who was speaking to me.
“’Who are you, Lord?’
“’You are right to call me Lord, Abram. For I am the King of kings and the Lord of lords. I am the One God. I AM.’
“Ummur, there was no doubt in my mind what he said was the truth. Don’t ask me how I knew, but it was a moment filled with love, power and life. Not like the times when I have lain prostrate in front of Abur’s gods. The air crackled with life. This was real. What God told me was the truth.”
His mother gazed at him in wonder. Her son, standing before her, had changed. His eyes sparkled with joy; he seemed to be full of life, as if he was ready to spring into action.
“What did he say to you, Abram?”
Her voice was low as she whispered her question. She was reluctant to hear the answer. Her heart ached. She had a feeling life was going to change and never be the same again.
Abram knelt before her so he could look her in the eyes. He reached out his hands and took hold of hers, drawing them to his chest. She thought for a moment his eyes had filled with tears, but she must have imagined it. The men in her family did not cry.
“He told me to go, Ummur.”
He clasped her hands tight as she tried to pull away.
“These are his words.
“He said, ‘Go from your country; your people and your father’s household, to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
“I know I have to follow God’s command, Ummur.”
Zilpah cried out in horror.
“No, Abram, no! Where will you go? How do you know this is not some evil plot to rip you away from your family? Maybe someone in the family wants to get rid of you to gain your inheritance! Abram, no!”
He laid her hands in her lap and reached up to put his fingers gently on her mouth.
“Ummur, this is no plot. I know deep in my heart, in my spirit, this is what I must do. When I think of ignoring these instructions, my stomach churns in an uneasy way; but when I think of following them, my heart leaps in excitement and joy. I have to go, Ummur. I have been commanded by the One God.”
“But, Abram, what will the elders say? What about your flocks and Sarai? How will you ever have a son of your own if you force Sarai to travel to unknown distant lands with you? Do you want to stay childless? And what about Lot? Abram, think! This makes no sense. How can you set off when you don’t even know the direction in which to travel?”
Zilpah’s voice had been rising, becoming harsher, as she expressed her objections. But now, she whispered her next questions.
“And what about me, Abram? What will I do without you, my son?” She covered her face with her hands and sobbed, broken-hearted.
Her shrill voice had attracted a crowd. Servants had clustered at the door, and one had run to fetch the elders. They pushed through the small group. Cherith, the senior elder, dismissed the murmuring servants with a wave of his hand. He looked angry, his face grim.
“What is the meaning of all this noise? What’s going on?” He swung from Abram to Zilpah and back to Abram again.
“Abram? Why are you arguing with your mother?”
“Not arguing, Cherith. Please join us so I can tell you all that has happened to me today.”
Zilpah was amazed at the strength in Abram’s voice. He spoke with the respect due to the elders, but there was an undertone which did not invite refusal. To her surprise, Cherith and his companions joined her on the cushions, sitting opposite her.
In an unhurried manner, his voice calm, Abram told them his story. Zilpah tensed, waiting for the outburst she was sure would follow.
But for some moments, no one responded. They all sat in silence while Abram waited for one of them to say something. Zilpah glanced up at Cherith to see his face full of emotion.
Cherith stood up. Abram leapt to his feet, ready for whatever was to come. But instead of the explosion of disagreement Zilpah was expecting, Cherith put a hand on Abram’s shoulder.
“My son,” he said, “I believe you. I feel what you are saying is true. We will not stop you from leaving.” He turned to look at the other elders gathered around. They all nodded in agreement.
In her head, Zilpah thought she heard Terah speaking to her.
“My love,” he said, “You must let Abram go. It is the right thing to do.”
Abram spoke to the elders.
“Cherith, thank you. I would like to invite Lot to accompany me, and of course, Sarai will come as well.”
He looked down at Zilpah.
“And perhaps my mother?” he suggested. But it was all too much to take in and she shook her head, as much in bewilderment as denial.
They discussed it night after night. They tried to persuade Zilpah to go. But she had lived many years and the thought of making such a journey was overwhelming. In Harran she knew people. She was safe and did not want to make the effort to travel. For her, there was no choice. She would stay where she had been content for so many years. But oh, her heart ached.
So the plans were made. Flocks and herds were split so Abram and Lot could take most of them with them, yet some of the choice ones would be left for Zilpah’s benefit and comfort. Members of the family would care for them and in time, would inherit them. Servants were allocated to Abram to tend the flocks and care for those travelling. Tents were dismantled and possessions packed into bags then slung onto pack animals.
Then the morning came when they left.
Lot and Abram had discussed the route they would take on this day. Lot had gone first, followed by the flocks and herds, the servants mounted on camels and donkeys. Then Sarai left with her attendants. Last to go was Abram.
Abram. Her son.
He lingered until the very end when everyone else was on their way. Then he came to her. She fought her tears. He was convinced his God, the One God, had called him on this journey. Who was she to question it? She did not want to dissuade him, even now.
So, for the last time, she drew him close into her arms. He held her tight to his chest.
“Ummur, thank you. Thank you for letting me go. May the God of comfort fill your heart with peace. May he walk with you as he walks with me for the rest of your days.”
He pulled himself gently out of her arms and mounted his camel, smiling down at her as he saluted her in farewell, urging the beast to move forward.
He left, accompanied by the cheers of their people, but she could say nothing. Others walked away once he was gone, but she stood and watched until the last dust had settled beyond the horizon and there was no further trace of his presence.
The tears she had fought for so long burst free and fell, unheeded, down her face to the dust.
Then she heard it.
A voice. Calling her name.
She swung around. Who had had called her? But could see no-one.
“Zilpah, you cannot see me,” he said. “You can only hear me. But that does not mean I do not exist. You are not dreaming, Zilpah. I AM.”
She had remembered the words the One God had spoken to Abram. She fell in the dust to worship him.
“Zilpah, although you have been left behind, you are not deserted, for I will never leave you alone. I am with you, Zilpah.”
There was a burning within her as her grief, which was so inconsolable a few moments before, began to melt, and peace seeped into her heart.
She missed her son.
But the One God, who calls himself I AM, was with her, so she was not alone.
God became the source of her joy. She was now at peace.