June 22, 2006

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Seven Days to the Sea: An Epic Novel of The Exodus, by Rebecca Kohn (Rugged Land, 2006, 397 pages)

New Hampshire author Rebecca Kohn is back with another Bible-based novel. In 2005 she wrote The Gilded Chamber, about Queen Esther; now she presents Moses, in Seven Days to the Sea – as seen by his sister Miryam and his wife Tzipporah.

The novel begins with Moses’ birth and his adoption into an Egyptian palace, takes us through his journey to Midyan and marriage to Tzipporah, and follows them back to his birthplace to lead the Israelites from Egypt. Along the way, of course, he has several interesting conversations with God. All of this is told in alternating voices – Miryam narrates the story of Moses’ birth; Tzipporah recounts first meeting Moses, and so on.

This is just the sort of book that might be assigned to a high school class to teach them the story of Exodus and get them to ponder the deeper questions. We get Miryam’s point of view, favoring monotheism; we get Tzipporah’s and others’ point of view, asking “why can we not have both?” sets of gods (the Israelites’ Yahveh and the Midyanites’ goddesses). The characters struggle – with each other and each with herself – over where to put their allegiances.

Unfortunately, Kohn’s writing style gets in the way. Most of the sentences go “subject verbed,” leading to a distinct hammering-on-the-head sensation after a while. A few anachronistic phrases stick out, as when one woman “rattled off” a list and a group “threw together” ingredients for dinner – these would be fine if the rest of the book were written in 20th-century cadences, but it’s not. The whole thing has a shallow feeling, amounting to an exchange in which the Israelites say “My god can beat up your god,” the Egyptians say “We’ll see about that,” and the Israelites close with a big “Nanny-nanny-poo-poo.” Which you might think is an accurate reflection of the Bible itself, but this is supposed to be a novel, not the Bible.

When you take a three-page story and task yourself with expanding it to 390 pages, you need a good reason for the extra 387 pages. The questions of the allegiances and whether it was better to throw oneself behind the one god or stick with the familiar and more forgiving many gods, whether Yahveh was a good guy or a bully, why people should swear allegiance to any of these gods … these are good questions to justify the 387 pages. The choppy sentences, the superficial repetition of Miryam’s longing for validation and Tzipporah’s alienation – these are not good reasons for 387 pages. And the weird episode with Moses and his son circumcised by Tzipporah in a tent while all of Moses except his penis is being swallowed by a two-headed monster – well, that just comes across as strange and awkward, even in a book full of supernatural events.

It is good to get Miryam’s point of view: “I wanted Moses to admire me for my part in our mission, not my skill with the scrubbing brush,” she says, and “Yahveh had revealed Himself to me long before He spoke to Moses … How could these men doubt my authority?” But later, when she talks about Moses’ relationship with Yahveh, it’s hard to tell whether she’s feeling resigned, or basking in Moses’ reflected glory, or what. Once again, this may be very Bible-like, but we already have the Bible for that. C+

— Lisa Parsons


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