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Cost and Conflict, Part Two

As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. Daniel 1:17

Of Cattle and Cuneiform

“What was your take on that group?” I asked as I glanced at Azariah’s tablet. “1,320—you?” he shot back. “Yes! I think I am finally getting a handle on Babylonian computation.” We stood in the spring sunlight recording groups of livestock being led into the precinct of Nebo, the god of scribes and learning. The New Year Festival was fast approaching, and our supervisors had not failed to notice the opportunity all these preparations afforded us in putting our scribal studies to work. Thirteen shipments of various goods and three herds of animals had passed us during our watch. More was to come, but the sun shone high overhead, reminding us the time was approaching to return to the palace courtyard where we would resume our copying of When on High—a confused account of the origins of the world.

“Ah, Abednego!” Our heads turned at the hail of two teachers who had come to check our reckoning and relieve us of our post. “I should have known that you would be stationed at the gate of your master’s temple! Have you done him good service in his worthy enterprise?” Azariah’s wince was so slight that it went entirely undetected by our supervisors. We had all needed to learn how to hide our abhorrence of these gods without losing the abhorrence altogether. Only God knows how we managed it. “What is your judgment, sir?” Azariah returned politely as we handed over our tablets. They silently scanned the tablets carefully, comparing them with their own work. “Yes, very good. However, Belteshazzar, you missed a notch in this figure. Rectify it and take greater care in the future.” “Thank you, sir,” I returned. Math was math, regardless of the god, and the God of all gods deserved my best.


Glorious Dirt

Thus dismissed, we turned into the open space of the Processional Way, leading northward toward the Southern Palace and from there on to the Ishtar Gate and the Northern Palace. It had taken some time to understand which “palace” we were summoned to at a given time. The Northern Palace and the Southern Palace were both situated in the northernmost edge of the main city. It was weeks before we understood that their names resulted from their relation to one another rather than to the city as a whole. Indeed, we didn’t yet know that the northernmost palace was, in fact, a third edifice at the very edge of the city known as the Summer Palace! Babylon was gigantic. I have never seen or even heard of a larger city. Nevertheless, its millions of glazed bricks are still nothing more than baked clay.

Illustrations by Kitti Touzeau

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