When Hannah has to leave her pampered life at the court of Babylon to go to the wilderness of Judah, she is frightened at the prospect. Her father Jorah, a judge under the Persian King Cyrus, is a leader of the Jews who want to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple, In accord with a prophecy given by the prophet Isaiah, the Persian King Cyrus releases the Jews and gives them funds for their journey.
To Jorah, their mission is a holy quest directed by their God, but Hannah's favorite brother Behai rebels and stays behind. He doesn't believe in the dream of his father, and wants to marry Hannah's best friend and make his own way among the power brokers of the Persian Empire. Although Behai loves his family and tries to help them at first, political pressure against the Jerusalem party forces him to abandon them to their own resources.
Only when a plot to rob Jerusalem of military defenses threatens the lives of his family does Behai find the courage to outwit the plotters and prevent a Samaritan attack. Even after this, however, he rejects his father's pleas and turns his back on his family again. Many years later a deadly threat against his brother Eliakim's life brings Behai back into the family fold. The two work together to expose a vicious plot to attack the Jewish colony in Jerusalem and halt the restoration of the Temple.
In Jerusalem, Hannah, her family and the other returned exiles struggle against famine and the hostility of the nations already occupying Judah. They make an early effort to lay the foundations of the Temple, but their bright hopes to rebuild the walls are thwarted and delayed for many years.
Upon their arrival in Jerusalem, the Zadokite priests returning from exile are surprised to find sacrifices and worship being performed at the ruined Temple site. Levitical priests who stayed even after the final destruction of Jerusalem have been trying to preserve the rituals throughout the long seventy years of the exile. They are met with suspicion and rejection by the haughty Zadokites, who soon take these offices back into their own hands. This lays the foundation for a conflict between the two priestly factions that persists for the next hundred years and further impedes the restoration of a strong Jewish nation.
One of these young Levitical priests, Gera, becomes Hannah's friend. As they can, her family supports his struggle to find a place in the restored nation in spite of persecution by the Zadokites. Gera also makes friends with a young priest of noble blood named Jezaiah. Jezaiah has returned with the exiles, and knows Hannah's family. At a chance meeting, Jezaiah and Hannah fall in love, and soon they marry. Gera marries a local girl, and the friendship begun between the two couples persists throughout the next several generations.
Hannah's father Jorah and her brother Eliakim work with the secular governments of Prince Sheshbazzar and then of Prince Zerubbabel. They are not cut off from the central government in Babylon, but they are opposed in the court by strong factions which support neighboring provinces. They are also harassed by their neighbors and by desert raiders from the south, and most of all by the regional governor who lives in Samaria. Much of their lives are spent riding from one capital to another trying to build a diplomatic basis for the growth of the restored province of Judah.
Padon, another of Hannah's brothers, is a captain at the military garrison. Padon, like his father and older brother, finds no conflict between his desire to restore Judah as a Jewish nation and his loyalty to the Persian King. They realize that Israel cannot survive without the support given them by the Persian King. There are others in the community, however, who see treachery and faithlessness in the collaboration between the priestly Temple leaders and the secular Palace leaders, as well as in their submission to the Persian King. A heady mixture of mysticism and literal interpretation of the prophets fuels a persistent but low-key rebellion against the practical administrators who rule the city.
More years go by, but the Temple is not built. Grandchildren fill the homes of all Jorah's children, and they in turn grow to young adulthood before the glorious events of the dedication of the rebuilt Temple. Hannah and Jezaiah's oldest son, Jeshua, has been chosen to succeed the Chief Priest, Joshua. Their second son, Jehiel, joins the army of King Darius when he rides through Jerusalem on his way to Egypt, and trains there to be a doctor. In later years he becomes a representative of the King and travels to the farthest reaches of the Empire in his behalf.
As yet another generation is born and grows up, Jehiel's older brother Jeshua asks him to take Jeshua's son Coniah with him on his journeys as an apprentice. On their very first journey they are attacked because of some sensitive documents Jehiel is carrying. Coniah is sold into slavery and castrated, while Jehiel is so injured that he spends some months in coma.
Eventually rescued from slavery, Coniah feels deeply shamed and is unwilling to face his family back in Jerusalem, where his affliction would prevent his participation in Temple activities and worship. In an effort to help him, Jehiel forces himself back to health and they go to Jerusalem together for a visit. It is a difficult time, but they conceive the idea of together establishing a medical school and teaching hospital back in Susa, one of the Persian government centers. For the rest of their lives they are employed in operating their school, although they still sometimes ride on missions for a succession of Persian kings.
When two of his Persian cousins ask him to join them, Coniah returns for a time to Jerusalem. The cousins are in charge of the military garrison in Jerusalem and want Coniah to help them rebuild and strengthen the fortress. They encounter fierce opposition not only from the adjoining provinces who are determined that nothing should strengthen Judah, but also from the dissident priests who oppose anything that strengthens the Persian sponsored government.
At one time Gera's son Mattias had joined the dissident Levitical priests. These men opposed both the priestly and secular governments of Judah on the grounds that they were only Persian puppets. Jeshua and his parents helped Mattias find employment and a less rebellious life style, and in time he married their youngest daughter. During the months he is in Jerusalem, Coniah is a frequent visitor in Mattias home. He and Mattias' son Caleb become close friends.
When Caleb has a falling out with his parents over his participation in the same group of dissident priests that his father once joined, Coniah gives him a job on the construction at the fortress. Caleb betrays Coniah and helps the dissidents sabotage the building and rob the garrison. The tragic tangle ends in bitterness, and when the cousins are recalled to Susa shortly afterward, Coniah goes with them.
One of the cousins is killed in Xerxes' Greek campaign, but Shelemiah returns and he and Coniah maintain a close friendship throughout their lives. They learn of a Levite named Ezra who is leading yet another group of Jews back to Jerusalem. Their response is skeptical, based on their experience with the apathy and disunity among the residents of Judah. Shelemiah has met Ezra, however, and the man impresses him.
A decade later, Shelemiah is thinking of returning to Jerusalem. Coniah has died, but Shelemiah wants to visit a family who befriended Coniah on one of his visits there to tell them how much they meant to his friend. &n
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