In her Newbery acceptance speech for The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth Speare spoke to the purpose of her novel by indirectly commenting on the situation of the world at that time and the anxiety it generated in young people who “do not want to accept meaninglessness” in their lives. Looking for values, she said, they turn “urgently to the adult world for evidence that we have proved our values to be enduring. . . . They demand an honest answer. Those of us who have found Love and Honor and Duty to be a sure foundation” must find the words to communicate this to them (quoted in Randall 2001, 129). Significantly, in the text of her speech Speare capitalizes these virtues to signify their monolithic meaning—that their definitions transcend relativity and are not up for debate. They are, like Plato’s Forms, eternal truths. She also argues that “words” rather than actions have the ability to contain these meanings young people seek, thus giving power to “the word” as a reliable vessel for such truths. Western culture has traditionally located such words in the Bible, where, indeed, “in the beginning was the Word.” If there is a final foundation for undisputed truth, many would agree that it lies in that particular book.
That is precisely what Speare shows in The Bronze Bow, for in this historical novel she locates this foundation of meaning that embodies love, honor, and duty in a narrative about Jesus sometime around AD 26 when he was choosing his disciples and beginning his ministry. At first, however, Jesus provides background to the more immediate plot of oppression and resistance, for the time of Jesus was characterized by Roman rule and the desire of Jews to free themselves. Romans had occupied Israel since 63 BC, and during these years (as they had for hundreds of years previous to this), Jews prayed for a savior who would free them from the subjugation brought about by the brutality and humiliation of rule by a conquering force. Eventually, some organized themselves into a group called the Zealots, who fought violently to eradicate Romans from Israel.1 Speare contrasts the ideology and actions of Zealots with that of Jesus to reveal love, honor, and duty as moral answers to her contemporary audience. In this way, she constructs her story not around people praying piously for a messiah but through an action-packed drama of young people committed, through violent means if necessary, to free Jews from Roman tyranny, which they characterize as “God’s Victory.” The conflict emerges from the different meanings of and solutions to tyranny provided by the Zealots, represented by Rosh, on the one hand, and Jesus, on the other.
The protagonist is Daniel bar Jamin, who as a young boy had witnessed the crucifixion of his father by the Romans for a matter related to taxes, and then endured his mother’s grief and subsequent death as well as his younger sister Leah’s complete withdrawal from society as a result of this horror. Now, at eighteen, Daniel identifies himself as a Zealot: “All I know is I hate the Romans. I want their blood. That is what I live for.” He vows he will “pay [the Romans] with [his] whole life. That [he will] hate them and fight them and kill them.”
His first step in avenging the suffering of his family is to leave his grandmother and Leah to live in the mountains with Rosh, a leader of the Zealots. Rosh, who in our contemporary parlance is an “insurrectionist,” launches small guerilla attacks on Romans while also attacking and stealing from Jews to raise money and feed his group, with the ostensible and final goal of creating an army that will rise up against and defeat the Romans. Through Rosh’s leadership, Daniel hopes he can best accomplish the revenge he seeks. After meeting Joel and his twin sister Thacia, however, Daniel’s views begin to expand, for they offer a friendship he has never known. They, too, commit themselves to the cause of the Zealots, but Joel’s familiarity with the scriptures together with Daniel’s uneasy attraction toward Thacia provide him with a perspective that begins to rattle his earlier surety about his mission in life. As the plot moves forward, Daniel returns to his village to care for his dying grandmother, assume care for Leah, and take over the blacksmith business of his friend Peter, who has left town to follow Jesus, a rabbi intriguing people through his calm charisma, his kindness, and his words that describe and promise a new sort of freedom that Daniel and his friends struggle to understand.
Events grow around Daniel’s choice concerning how best to fulfill his promise to avenge the cruel death of his parents; help free his people from tyranny of Roman rule; and, the real core of his dilemma, free himself from the hate, fear, and anger that has lodged in his heart. Does Rosh, whom Daniel considers as “one man who still dared to act” and whose very name in Hebrew means “leader,” provide the way? “Rosh is the finest leader you could ask for. . . . He is afraid of nothing on earth, nothing,” Daniel tells Joel. “One of these days Rosh would show them all.” Or does Jesus offer Daniel the leadership necessary to allow him to obtain the blood revenge he seeks? Although some speculate Jesus might be a Zealot, he seems an unlikely candidate to lead an army against the Romans, for he knows nothing about fighting and is as gentle as Rosh is fierce. Yet when he first meets Jesus, Daniel observes “how strong he is. . . . The impression of strength came from an extraordinary vitality that seemed to pulse in the very air around him.” The more Daniel learns about Jesus, the more perplexed he becomes. Rosh has warned Daniel about “softness,” calling it “a soft streak. . . like a bad streak in a piece of metal.” According to Rosh, when they are ready to fight the Romans, “there’ll be no place for weakness.” But if Rosh speaks with “scorn” about Daniel’s “weakness,” the voice of Jesus is at times joyful and other times commanding, but often “its gentleness rested on the suffering people [who come to hear him] like a comforting touch.” Yes, Jesus certainly would be considered “soft” in Rosh’s value system, for he says things such as, “Each one of you is precious in His sight.” Here Daniel locates the core difference...
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The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare takes place during the time Christ lived in Israel. Daniel bar Jamin is a young Jewish man fueled by one passion: vengeance against the hated Romans. They had crucified his father and uncle when Daniel was eight, his mother died of grief, and his sister, who saw the bodies on the crosses when she was three, was so traumatized that she became excessively fearful and has never left the house since. Daniel’s grandmother took the children in, but she was so poor that she had to sell Daniel to a blacksmith as an apprentice. Daniel’s master was so cruel that Daniel escaped to the hills, where he was taken in by a band of outlaw freedom fighters.
One day Daniel, now a young man, spies another young man and his sister exploring the hills and realizes he uses to know the other young man, Joel. Though it’s not wise or safe, Daniel feels compelled to speak to them. They get reacquainted and wonder whether the freedom fighter’s leader, Rosh, could possibly be the deliverer, the Messiah they wait for. Joel wants to join Rosh’s band, so Rosh tells him to go back to town and wait, and he’ll send him word when it’s time.
Eventually Daniel’s friend, Simon the Zealot, sends word to Daniel that his grandmother is dying. As his sister, Leah’s, only living relative, Daniel feels compelled to go back and care for her, though Rosh calls him “soft.” Simon offers Daniel his blacksmith’s shop since Simon is following Jesus and not using it. Daniel finds that most people in the village, though they don’t like Roman rule, aren’t willing to fight against it. Though homesick for the free air and space of the hills, Daniel recruits Joel and other boys to a band to train to help Rosh when the time comes.
As Daniel hears of Jesus from Simon and Joel, goes to listen to his teaching, and witnesses healings, he can’t help but wonder about him and ponder his words. He wishes Jesus would team up with Rosh. But eventually he realizes Jesus’s deliverance is not so much from Roman oppression, his message is not about revenge, hatred, and war: in fact, he tells people to love their enemies. That Daniel cannot acquiesce to, so he goes his own way, which eventually leads to disaster and despair. Will Daniels’s hate destroy everything dear to him, or will his hitting rock bottom finally allow him to look up?
“Daniel,” he said. “I would have you follow me.”
“Master!….I will fight for you to the end!.”
“My loyal friend,” he said, “I would ask something much harder than that. Would you love for me to the end?”
It is the hate that is the enemy. Not men. Hate does not die with killing. It only springs up a hundredfold. The only thing stronger than hate is love.
I came across this book while searching for an award-winning classic for the Back to the Classics challenge, and this won the Newberry medal. I was resistant to reading it, both because I figured it would be predictable and I am wary of fictionalized Bible-related stories. I chose another classic but had to lay it aside due to bad language and couldn’t find anything else, so I came back to The Bronze Bow. And I was pleasantly surprised! Though one event happened like I thought it might, the rest of the story didn’t pan out like I thought it would at all, and I was drawn in to Daniel’s story and angst. I listened to the audiobook nicely narrated by Peter Bradbury, but also checked out the hard copy from the library to go over certain passages more in depth.
I wouldn’t take my theology from this book. There are conversations and incidents involving Jesus that may not represent Him or His message entirely accurately, and the redemption described seems more about overcoming hate than personal salvation from sin (though of course overcoming hate with love is certainly a part of salvation). But it does give an excellent feel to the times, especially to what being under a Jew under Roman occupation was like, and shows the cultural customs naturally without being didactic. The characters were well-drawn and the story drew me right in.
One thing that stood out was the sense of anticipation of waiting for the Messiah, the Deliverer, even though some people missed the point of what He was coming to deliver them from. It was interesting reading this during the Christmas season, when we commemorate the anticipation of His coming the first time, and renews in me that sense of anticipation of His coming again.
(Sharing withLiterary Musing Monday and Carole’s Books You Loved)