Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility,youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. Daniel 1:3–4
What were they saying? Two Babylonian men were still talking, presumably about our fate, as we stood squinting in the morning sunlight. One of them, seated on horseback, was obviously an officer, but it was difficult to guess the role the second man played. He was not dressed in military garb, nor was he afforded the same status as the officer but stood before him on foot. I quietly shifted my weight, in the hope of fighting off fatigue without drawing too much attention. We had been standing for hours, silently wondering what lay in store for us. Not far away a servant of the royal household decided she had had enough and quietly sat down, only to be forcefully kicked by a stony-faced soldier. People jumped at the sight but quickly hushed their voices. She struggled back to her feet, clasping her side and muffling her agony under the merciless gaze of the sentry. My heart ached. Still the two men went on talking in a language that I had could scarcely parse out. Suddenly, the officer stopped talking and galloped off to his next task, leaving the second man to survey the crowd before him. He briefly glanced at us before briskly walking away. I bit my lip, closed my eyes, drew a deep breath, and waited.
The sun grew steadily higher; the sweat beaded up on my forehead and slowly ran down my face in little channels before the second man had reappeared far to my left. A scribe and a contingent of soldiers followed him as he slowly moved down the line of weary men and women. “This is an official” I thought, “something is clearly underway.” A cloud of young men was forming some distance behind him accompanied by a handful of additional soldiers. It was difficult to figure out what was happening. “You, forward!” snarled a soldier in Aramaic. He took hold of a peer standing directly to my left and quickly moved him three paces in front of us. The official gave the man a brief glance and barked, “No.” The eyes fixed on me. I walked forward to the appointed spot and swallowed. “Yes,” the official snapped. “Over there!” growled the soldier, and there I went. The cloud had dispersed into lines, chained lines of well-dressed, hungry youths. I had just been given the ninth place in a new line when the sound of hooves and wheels announced the return of the mounted officer.
My eyes darted about, seeking understanding—from my chains, the hustling soldiers, or the unrelenting, threatening shouts—but there was nothing. Somewhere in the distance a woman was wailing and men were shouting fierce, terrible babble. Never had the quiet been so loud. Suddenly, the line jerked forward into a confused and stumbled run. Then all was confusion, sweat, and dust. Then up again, running, running, running. The sweat now mingled with the dust to obscure everything but there was no time—no time.
Illustration by Kitti Touzeau