At the first blush of dawn, the wise and comely Queen of Sodom rises from her canopied bed, glides across her boudoir to the open window, and surveys her domain in all its improbable perfection. Peering past the ramparts and ziggurats of her capital, she beholds the stately walls of its sister city, Gomorrah, beyond which rolls the Jordan River with its sleek salt-barges plying the waters and its alluvial deposits spreading across the floodplain. In her mind’s eye Queen Nahilia discerns the lesser cities of her realm, elegant Admah, exuberant Zeboim, boisterous Zoar. Presently a hymn takes form in her soul, and she passes a full hour singing paeans to the Great God Anu for the boons he has bestowed on the Cities of the Plain.
These days there are but a handful of beggars in Sodom and Gomorrah. The orphans of Admah are routinely consigned to foster parents, its lawbreakers to rehabilitation programs. A sojourner in Zeboim or Zoar will find few hungry children, faithless spouses, forgotten widows, or neglected invalids. The jails of the Pentapolis contain no felons, merely a rotating population of drunkards, usurers, vagrants, and vagabonds.
Upon consuming her usual breakfast of barley cakes and honey, Nahilia descends to her throne room with its burbling mob of courtiers, priests, scribes, petitioners, and sycophants. A dozen handmaids appear from every direction to form a protective bubble around her royal person. Nahilia would prefer a less populated life for herself, but with sweeping powers come collateral inconveniences, and what right has a beloved absolute monarch to complain?
Although the Cities of the Plain are at present citadels of probity, Nahilia fears this felicitous situation will not last, and so she feels compelled to routinely take the moral temperature of the nation, searching for warning signs of dissolution. The Boatman’s Conundrum, the Merchant’s Puzzle, the Executioner’s Paradox, the King’s Riddle, the Princess’s Predicament—Nahilia contrived these ethical dilemmas, and a dozen more, as tools for assessing the rectitude of her subjects. As she assumes her throne, her chancellor, Joktan, whom she numbers among the more sensually adept members of her harem, introduces her to the two randomly chosen players in today’s game: Serug the potter, who sells ceramic idols in Turtle Square, and Obal the carpenter, whose shop is on Egret Lane. Neither man can conceal his joy, for each knows that, even if he fails Her Majesty’s test, he will receive a silver coin for his trouble.
“Today you will grapple with the Prisoner’s Quandary,” Nahilia informs Serug and Obal.
Flourishing four papyrus sheets, Joktan marches up to Serug. “Imagine that yesterday morning Captain Abiud of the Palace Guard arrested you on a false change of having stolen a dozen jars of beer from Sodom’s premier brewery.” He pivots toward Obal. “Later that day Captain Abiud apprehended you for having supposedly pilfered three casks of wine from the city’s most celebrated vintner. Both of you were taken to a dungeon beneath the palace, locked in separate cells, and told you must serve two-year sentences starting now.”
“There are no dungeons in Sodom,” notes Serug.
“It’s a game,” Nahilia reminds him.
“Captain Abiud would never be party to a frame-up,” says Obal.
“Use your imagination,” says Nahilia.
“Pretend that this morning the captain appeared in your cell waving a pair of documents,” says Joktan, pressing two of the papyrus sheets into Serug’s grasp. “The first is your confession that you stole the beer. The second is also a confession, but it includes an amendment declaring that Obal is the leader of a beer-stealing ring and you committed the crime at his behest. Sign the first document, and your original sentence will be reduced from two years to one. Sign the second, and you will be released immediately, but Obal’s sentence will be increased to three years.”
“Will Captain Abiud present Obal with those same two choices?” asks Serug.
“Indeed,” says Nahilia.
Joktan delivers the remaining two sheets to Obal. “Sign the first confession, and you will spend a year in the dungeon. Sign the second, naming Serug as the brains behind a wine-smuggling cabal, and you will go home, though he will be made to serve three years behind bars.”
“Now, here’s the rub,” says Nahilia. “If you both indulge in finger-pointing and sign the second document, your original two-year sentences will remain in place. But if you both sign the first document, your mutual cooperation will of course be rewarded with mild one-year sentences, though you will have forsworn any possibility of immediate freedom.”
“A vexing dilemma,” says Serug.
“Hedged with thorns,” says Obal.
“How much time do you require?” asks the Queen.
“Until lunch,” says Serug.
“The same,” says Obal.
“Serug, you will deliberate in the palace library,” says Nahilia. “Obal, you will meditate on the veranda. We shall reconvene in one hour, whereupon you will each show me a signed document, then join us for a noonday meal.”
Across the great Nefud Desert, six hundred miles northeast of the Cities of the Plain, the wasteland yields to a derelict arboretum surrounding a forsaken oasis. Unmarked on any map, this now defunct Garden of Eden (as it was once known) comprises ten acres girded by a crumbling wall and watered by four streams, each a tributary of the great Euphrates River.
This afternoon is different from all other afternoons in Eden, for two sentient beings have appeared amidst the bleached rocks, blighted vegetation, and scattered bones: a flesh-and-blood theologian, Martin Luther, and an ectoplasm-and-ichor angel, the sagacious and largely benevolent Uriel. Solemnly these visitors saunter along the sacred banks of the Pishon Tributary, inhaling the blistering scent of the Nefud.
Luther, the Great Reformer, is still adjusting to his wrenching relocation. A mere two hours earlier, as he lay abed in Eisleben, feverish and not far from death, he was visited by Uriel, who had brought glad tidings. Owing to Luther’s prodigious contributions to the science of salvation, the angelic hosts had voted to reward him with a priceless gift: a tour of Eden as it existed, depleted but still indisputably holy, thirty-four hundred years earlier. Uriel had straightaway enfolded the frail but grateful Luther in his arms and flown him two thousand miles eastward to the Euphrates valley and three thousand years backward in time to the reign of Queen Nahilia.
Luther interrupts their stroll, pointing to a dead tree rising from the west bank of the river. Two desiccated pieces of fruit hang forlornly from the lowest branch. “O mighty Uriel, could that be one of the Überbäume—the Tree of Knowledge, perhaps, or the Tree of Life?”
Uriel smiles in assent. “Almost certainly.”
Approaching the tree, Luther plucks a fruit. A fig of knowledge? If so, he is ill-inclined to eat it, for he already possesses an adequate understanding of good and evil. A fig of immortality? Again, he has no reason to bite. Ever since A.D. 33 or thereabouts, eternal life has been a matter of faith in Christ, not perspicacity in cuisine.
“May I take this fruit with me?” he asks.
Uriel shrugs. “At one time this arboretum was numinous beyond measure, but now that fig is metaphysically inert.”
“Most relics are,” says Luther, placing the withered fig in his satchel. The Great Reformer has never been keen on relics. “I want it as a souvenir.”
Behind the tree, propped against the trunk, an enormous sword, large as a crutch, glitters in the Mesopotamian sun.
“Could that be the object I imagine it is?” asks Luther.
“The first weapon ever to appear on Earth,” says Uriel, nodding.
Although Eden has gone to seed, the place has rejuvenated Luther, and he has no trouble lifting the sword and hefting it. The blade is corroded but seems sharp. Yes, this was surely the very sword with which the cherubim, posted outside the gates of Eden, kept Adam from re-entering the Garden and feasting on the Tree of Life.
“The blade burned and burned,” says Luther, lacerating the air. “Year after year, century upon century—and yet it bears no scorch marks.”
“This object will also fascinate you.” Uriel indicates what appears to be an oblong hempen sack. “After Yahweh dismembered the serpent, forcing it to wriggle its way through the rest of its life, it remained in the Garden, feeding on grubs and insects. Six months later it molted.”
“Sweet Christ—that is the very skin of Satan!”
“According to some sages, the Genesis serpent was indeed the Devil, but I shall neither endorse nor denounce that interpretation. I’m an angel, not a theologian.”
Luther jabs the sword into the ground, where it remains upright like an apparatus for crucifying rats. He seizes the sloughed-off snakeskin and presses it to his chest. Though manifestly dead, the thing seems to quiver in his grasp—a sensation tracing, he decides, to the Dark One’s residual wiles.
“O great Uriel, might we now travel forward to the time of Christ?” asks Luther. “I would rejoice to see my Savior enter Jerusalem and mortify the moneychangers.”
“Your time-traveling allotment is spent, Doctor, but I shouldn’t complain if I were you. Never before has a mere mortal been privileged to live outside his congenital calendar.”
“Then might we journey eastward to Nineveh and applaud Jonah as he calls upon the people to repent?”
“A thousand years lie between this moment and Jonah’s mission.”
“Then might we betake ourselves southwest to Thebes and speak with the prince of prophets?”
“Alas, Moses’s accomplishments lie four centuries in the future. But if you’re determined to meet a biblical figure, let us fly to the Cities of the Plain—Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and the rest. Once mere Mesopotamian colonies, they are now a sovereign and prosperous nation. Lot the patriarch and all his tribe are encamped on its outskirts.”
“I’ve never warmed to the story of Lot,” Luther admits.
“His proposition to the mob—ravish my daughters but leave my guests alone—is not the Torah’s most edifying moment,” says Uriel.
“And yet Lot would be preferable to no such personage at all. Take me to Sodom. My preaching will prove a boon to its citizens.”
“You must not tamper with God’s plans for the Cities of the Plain,” says Uriel.
“I merely want to help the people understand why He has no choice but to burn them alive, lest they go to Hell bearing a grudge against Him.”
At the hour when the sun stands highest in the heavens, Serug the potter and Obal the carpenter come before their Queen with dour faces and measured strides. Both players hold copies of the dual documents that figure in the Prisoner’s Quandary.
“If I am a wholly rational man, I shall have signed the second document, accusing Obal of masterminding the beer theft,” says Serug. “True, he might have signed the first document, a simple confession to a petty crime, confident I would do the same, and yet I cannot know for certain he will gamble on our mutual cooperation. No matter what Obal decides, my betrayal of him will protect me from the worst outcome, three years in the dungeon. Instead, I’ll either walk free or serve a tolerable two-year sentence.”
“The potter’s logic is impeccable.” Obal saunters across the throne room and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Serug. “By implicitly trusting him and merely confessing to the wine theft, I shall risk a three-year sentence. By informing against him, I shall guarantee myself a two-year sentence.”
“And yet you both inhabit my realm,” says the Queen, “not some subterranean Sumerian afterworld whose residents drink bitumen all day and fellow feeling has died along with the sun.”
“Indeed,” says Serug.
“Quite so,” says Obal.
“Therefore you have both chosen cooperation—correct?” asks Chancellor Joktan. “You each confessed and refused to implicate the other prisoner.”
“Not I,” says Serug.
“Oh?” says Nahilia.
“I have prepared and signed a third document.” Serug retrieves a rolled-up papyrus sheet from his tunic. “Although I know nothing about Obal, I had to assume that even one year of incarceration would wreak havoc in his life. Perhaps he is his family’s only source of income. Perhaps his wife died in childbirth and he is singlehandedly raising their twin sons, one of them chronically ill. My own life is comparatively easy. Given my bachelor status, not to mention the financial support I routinely receive from my siblings, I can abide a protracted imprisonment.” He points to document number three. “Therefore, I have confessed not only that I stole the jars of beer but also that, disguised as Obal, I robbed the vintner’s shop. For my punishment, I shall happily accept a three-year sentence—provided my fellow detainee will walk free.”
“Assuming my gesture will liberate Serug,” says Obal, pulling a papyrus sheet from his belt, “I have likewise confessed to both thefts.”
Warm honey rolls through Nahilia’s veins. Her smile is a shining crescent. If the morality of these men is any indication, the Pentapolis will remain a bastion of virtue for generations to come.
“Your ethical sophistication delights our hearts and minds,” says the Queen. “We would be pleased to have you break bread with us.”
The party proceeds to the dining hall. Eshcol, the High Priest of Anu, is already seated at the table, likewise Lot, the patriarch from Ur of the Chaldees. Although Lot holds pride of place in the Queen’s harem, he visits her bedchamber less often than she would prefer, for he’s not always prepared to make the long commute to the palace from the Hebrew encampment on the fringes of the Pentapolis. A widower with two unmarried daughters, he still mourns his wife, though during his private hours with Nahilia he normally affects a cheerful demeanor.
Throughout the luncheon, Lot becomes increasingly phlegmatic and withdrawn, silently consuming his chunks of skewered lamb. After the servants clear away the plates and pour fresh goblets of wine, he at last speaks his mind.
“O splendid and generous Nahilia, I must ask a boon of your august self. For three full years you have permitted my people to pitch their tents, grow their crops, and graze their sheep on the margins of your realm, but now they wish to become Sodomites and Gomorrahans, earning their livings as shopkeepers, potters, weavers, bakers, bricklayers, and cordwainers.”
“Her Majesty will take your request under advisement,” says Joktan.
“We have already advised ourselves,” says Nahilia. “My nation will welcome your tribe within its walls, Lot, provided they memorize and obey our Vigintalogue—twenty commandments handed down to us by Anu and engraved on four stone tablets displayed in his temple.”
“Her Majesty is offering a fair bargain,” says the High Priest Eshcol. The eldest member of Nahilia’s harem, Eshcol is also the most learned, and what he lacks in vigor he makes up for in stimulating conversation.
“Every citizen of our realm knows the Vigintalogue by heart,” says Nahilia. “Am I right, Serug?”
“Rule one, worship what gods thou wilt, but know I reign supreme,” the potter recites. “Rule two, when gold comes thy way, thou shalt mint it into coins for the poor, not melt it into raiment for thine idols. Three, gainsay other humans if thou must, but not in my name. Four, keep feast days holy in every regard. Five, honor thy parents, for thou shalt lose them soon enough.”
“Obal can likewise declaim the Vigintalogue,” says Nahilia.
“Six, refrain from murder,” says the carpenter. “Seven, renounce adultery. Eight, forgo stealing. Nine, eschew envy. Ten, disavow mendacity.”
“We Hebrews have our own versions of those precepts,” says Lot.
“Were I to visit your tents, would I find them carved on your stelae?” asks Joktan.
“As of yet we have no stelae, though in time we shall surely become a people of the book, not simply a tribe of the tongue.”
“Eleven, thou mayest practice contraception to thy gonads’ content,” says the High Priest Eshcol. “Twelve, thou shalt nourish the neonate but not fetishize the fetus. Thirteen, thou shalt not despoil the Earth. Fourteen, thou shalt not rank the races of men. Fifteen, thou shalt not rank the genders of humanity. Sixteen, thou shalt not scorn uncommon erotic appetites. Seventeen, thou shalt not treat thy donkey as an object or thy neighbor as a means. Eighteen, thou shalt not confuse wealth with worth. Nineteen, thou shalt make no person thy slave. Twenty, thou shalt not study war.”
“Do those rules likewise have a familiar ring?” asks Joktan.
“No, but I find them reasonably congenial,” says Lot.
“I hereby decree that we shall open our gates to Lot’s people,” says Nahilia. “If after one year these Hebrews fail to take the Vigintalogue to heart, we shall return them whence they came.”
“O great Queen, my gratitude is without bounds,” says Lot.
Martin Luther, angel-borne, soars over the burning Nefud Desert toward the Jordan River, wearing Satan’s scaly skin like a cloak. The journey entails numerous discomforts, from the prickling of Uriel’s feathers to the sting of the hot wind to the weight of the sheathed sword strapped to his back. The irony is not lost on him. He has spent his life railing against relics, and yet now he curates not only a holy sword but also a sacred snakeskin and a consecrated fig. There was really no choice in the matter, however, for his recent prayers and meditations have convinced him that sword, skin, and fig will figure crucially in his mission to the Cities of the Plain.
Much to Luther’s delight, Uriel touches down just as the Hebrews, having corralled their flocks and herds outside the walls of Sodom, begin marching two abreast through the massive Ebla Gate. Shepherd’s crook in hand, Lot stands beside the road, urging his people forward. For Luther the procession foreshadows that great day, four centuries hence, when Moses will bring the Twelve Tribes to the brink of Canaan.
“I greatly desire to sermonize in Sodom and Gomorrah,” Luther tells Uriel, “but I know not their language.”
“Fear not, Doctor. When need arises, the angelic hosts will bless you with the power of pagan speech.”
“Of course, I have no wish to spend my final days in the Pentapolis.”
“Fear not.” Uriel presses a purse full of shekels into Luther’s palm. “We mean for you to pass away on February 18, 1546, at the age of sixty-two. You will be laid to rest in All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.” The angel points to a distant hill surmounted by a rock resembling a falcon. “Meet me in a fortnight beside that stone bird.”
Eager to insert himself into an actual biblical moment—Lot’s people entering Sodom—Luther elbows his way to the front of the procession, where he importunes the patriarch and lures him into a conversation. After determining that Lot appreciates God’s practice of weaving miracles into the warp and woof of Creation, Luther introduces himself as a time-traveling doctor of theology in service to a far-future gentile church.
“I’ve been called upon to act as a liaison between Sodom and the cosmos,” Luther elaborates, pleased that the Hebrew language he studied as a postulant has come flooding back. “I plan to tell Nahilia’s people that Heaven has taken note of their sins. I shall break the unhappy news that the King of the Universe is about to punish them with spheres of flaming bitumen and shards of burning brimstone. You look doubtful.”
“Why should I credit the effusions of a crazed gentile?”
“You would do well to discount my demeanor and instead ponder my prophesies. Mark my words. The cities will soon be incinerated—though you and your family will escape.”
“How gratifying. I have a busy day ahead.”
Luther begs for a second audience, and Lot proposes that, come sunset, they meet at the public house in Lotus Square.
“And now I must make certain we can water our flocks without draining Sodom’s wells.” Lot heads for the gate. “If we cause the Pentapolis to run dry, the Queen would be within her rights to send us all back to the desert.”
When the appointed hour arrives, Luther enters the open-air Hyssop Tavern, secures a cup of date wine, and joins Lot at a table abutting the far wall. Lot’s staff sits in the corner, as if he’s expecting sheep.
“I must tell you God’s plan in full,” says Luther. “Although He will grant your wife safe passage out of Sodom, she will abuse the privilege, and disaster will follow.”
“I am a widower.” Lot lifts his tankard and takes a prodigal swallow of beer. “I have no wife.”
“Before the Almighty visits His wrath upon the Cities of the Plain, you will surely marry again.”
“At the Ebla Gate you spoke of sins committed by Sodomites and Gomorrahans.” Lot drags his sleeve across his lips, soaking up the foam. “My people have long lived adjacent to the Pentapolis, and its citizens seem singularly virtuous to us. They live by a code, the Vigintalogue, a score of rules handed down by their principal deity, Anu. This canon comprises a version of the decalogue that Hebrew tribes pass by word of mouth from generation to generation, plus ten supplementary commandments.”
“A decalogue is all well and good, likewise a vigintalogue or even a trigintalogue, but no canon can compensate for the absolute depravity of humankind,” says Luther. “As a Christian theologian, I readily grasp the condition of the visible world. Utterly fallen, irretrievably broken, a breeding ground for diseases of the soul. It all goes back to Eden.”
“Eventually my people will write down the story of Adam and Eve. For now we are content to tell it.”
“Ah, but you don’t tell it correctly, a feat that the gentile genius Saint Augustine will accomplish two thousand years from now.”
“By what right does this Augustine purport to improve upon a Hebrew narrative?”
Instead of answering, Luther removes the fig from his satchel, identifying it as a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. “When Adam disobeyed his Creator, that transgression reverberated through all of Nature, corrupting the Earth pole to pole. Augustine determined that this original sin polluted his seed and the seed of all men who came afterward.” He slides the snakeskin cloak from his shoulders and flourishes it like a banner. “The Hebrew account also fails to acknowledge that the Eden serpent was the Devil incarnate. Behold the Dark One’s outermost garment, which I recently retrieved from the detritus of Paradise.”
“It looks like an ordinary snakeskin.”
“Appearances, like Lucifer, are deceiving.” Luther opens his robe to reveal the cherubim’s sword belted around his waist. “And here we have the blade with which Yahweh armed the guardian angel, so that Adam and Eve could never revisit the Garden, feast on the Tree of Life, and become immortal.”
“If you insist these are remnants of long-ago events in Eden, I am not prepared to dispute you.”
“Will you also agree that the Almighty, taking pity on His creatures, sent them His Only Begotten Son, a Jew called Jesus? Will you allow that only by faith in this Second Adam can a person be spared hellfire?”
“Do you really believe Sheol’s guardians resort to fire?” Lot takes a long sip of beer. “It’s reportedly a depressing place but hardly a torture chamber.”
“Souls are roasting in Hell even as we speak,” says Luther.
“I’ve never been there. Have you?”
“Before God subjects Nahilia’s people to bitumen and brimstone,” says Luther, ignoring the question, “I must apprise them of the reasons for His wrath. Tell me, does any Sodomite myth turn on a primal act of disobedience? Is there a story involving forbidden fruit or a lost paradise?”
Lot revisits his tankard and frowns thoughtfully. “The myth of Adapa comes to mind. Its hero is a priest of Enki, son of Anu, the supreme Mesopotamian deity—excepting Yahweh, of course. Upon learning that Adapa has capriciously subdued the south wind, Anu sends him an angry and mandatory invitation. Right before Adapa departs for Heaven, Enki warns him not to partake of any refreshments Anu may set before him, for these will be the food and drink of death.”
“Splendid. This priest will be my Adam figure.”
“Later, standing before Anu, Adapa explains that he calmed the south wind to prevent his boat from capsizing while he was out fishing on Enki’s behalf. Anu listens carefully and is placated. He admits that he intended to poison Adapa, but now he has changed his mind. Within earshot of his guest, he orders his majordomo, Ningishzida, to serve Adapa the figs, dates, and wine of immortality.”
“Let me guess. Something goes wrong...”
“Left alone with the refreshments, Adapa is visited by the demon Sebettu, who insists, falsely, that these new offerings are also poisoned, and so Adapa refuses the meal. When Anu learns of this ungracious behavior, he becomes enraged—how dare a mortal refuse the gift of eternal life?—and casts Adapa out of Heaven, telling Ningishzida never to let him return.”
“I am evermore in your debt, friend Lot. Adam as Adapa, Sebettu as the serpent, Enki as the Savior—everything fits.”
“And Ningishzida is your cherubim.”
“Does the myth give him a flaming sword?”
“No, but I’ve noticed that, when relating their legends to one another, pagans often add embellishments.”
“Then Ningishzida will get a sword.”
When it comes to delivering sermons and transfixing multitudes, Martin Luther knows no equal, neither in his own time nor in the reign of Queen Nahilia. Instead of standing behind a pulpit, Luther performs his Pentapolis orations while on the move. Gamely he struts back and forth along the parapets and roofs, his shining sentences coiling out of his mouth like tendrils of spun glass—true to his word, Uriel and his fellow angels have gifted Luther with a knowledge of the local tongue—as he sets the people straight about the sorry condition of their souls and the odds against their salvation. One day he sermonizes in Sodom, the next in Gomorrah, the following three days in Admah, Zeboim, and Zoar. Summoned by the siren call of certainty, vast crowds gather in the streets below, opening their hearts to Luther’s theological wisdom and attuning their minds to his incandescent intellect.
He tells of Adam, progenitor of the human race, fashioned by the One True God from the dust of the Earth and deposited in an arboretum on the far side of the Nefud Desert. Just as Adapa was the first mortal to stand before Anu, so was Adam the first mortal to behold the Creator of the Universe.
“But dark forces were at work in Eden.” Luther flourishes the snakeskin. “Disguised as a serpent, the demon Lucifer set a snare for Adam.” He displays the sacred fig. “Just as Sebettu persuaded Adapa to refuse Anu’s feast, so did Satan beguile Adam and his mate into eating of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge.” He brandishes the Eden sword. “The Almighty had no choice but to banish His creatures from the Garden and post an armed guard at the gate.”
In sixteenth-century Germany, Luther’s followers often remarked that his words could inspire a lion to forswear gazelles and a wolf to abstain from sheep. They said that were he to rehearse his sermons in the presence of birds, the skies would soon fill with winged Christian converts tweeting hymns to their Savior. And so the citizens of the Pentapolis believe this stranger when he explains that they are riddled with iniquity. They understand that any notion of humans atoning for Adam’s original sin is absurd, for the entire race has become that original sin.
“Ever since Eden, the Devil’s venom has been mixed with human semen—such was Saint Augustine’s great discovery—and passed with breathtaking efficiency from generation to generation. Now here’s the good news. Before calling the Universe into being, God bestowed on certain as-yet-unborn sinners the gift of everlasting life, marking them to spend Eternity in His presence. Can you grasp the shattering beauty of such predestination? No amount of merit can deliver a person from Lucifer’s furnace, and yet, many centuries from now, the Almighty will dispatch His Son to redeem sufficiently faithful Christians irrespective of humanity’s foul nature. Such is the love of God for His creatures. Such is the unfathomable mechanism of grace. It’s unfortunate that the First Coming won’t occur soon enough to deliver any of you from damnation, but some things were meant to be and others were not. Amen.”
Luther sheathes the Eden sword, pockets the momentous fig, and rolls up the serpent’s skin. He stretches to full height and surveys the crowd. Their shining eyes and beatific smiles tell him they have apprehended his message in full. He will go to his grave—and transcend his tomb—in a state of profound self-fulfillment.
When Chancellor Joktan enters Queen Nahilia’s bath-chamber and announces that the Cities of the Plain have fallen under a moral curse, the news troubles her but does not surprise her. Yesterday Mizim the weaver and Tiras the wigmaker, invited to grapple with the Prisoner’s Quandary, had cynically signed depositions condemning each other as arch criminals, thus guaranteeing for themselves moderate two-year sentences and awarding a victory to the Great God Expediency.
“Something is rotten in Sodom,” Joktan elaborates. “Gomorrah is putrefying as we speak. There is crime in the streets of Admah, violence in the brothels of Zeboim, and fraud in the markets of Zoar.”
Seeking to salve her anxiety, Nahilia seizes both her toy boats—replicas of Jordan River salt-barges—and launches them. These models are among the childish things she never put away, and normally the sight of them navigating her bath would relax her, but Joktan’s revelations have crushed her spirits.
“How might we account for this catastrophe?”
“A rogue prophet has come among us, screaming sermons from the housetops. He declares that the One True God expected the world’s first man and woman to obey a simple rule. They failed the test, thereby sickening their descendants with undiluted depravity. Not only have your subjects become sympathetic to the teachings of this Martin Luther—he is a master of persuasion—they are behaving in conformity with their newfound knowledge of themselves.”
To Nahilia’s endless distress, Joktan tells of the Sodomites who recently performed so impressively in the Prisoner’s Quandary. Serug the potter has made slaves of his assistants. Obal the carpenter has murdered his father.
“And what of Lot’s people?” asks the Queen, heart pounding furiously.
“They have thus far been spared this plague, but I cannot say they will remain evermore immune.”
“Joktan, you will report to Captain Abiud posthaste. Tell him he must find this troublemaker and throw him in jail.”
The chancellor makes an about-face and sidles toward the door. “After tomorrow, Majesty, I promise you, there will be no more talk of original sin in Sodom.”
Having given themselves to fine wine and frantic lust, Nahilia and Lot savor the aftershocks of their passion. But even the synergy of grapes and eros cannot assuage her misery. Earlier that day, she learned that Captain Abiud and his men scoured the Pentapolis to no avail. Martin Luther is still at large.
When Lot asks Nahilia what’s wrong, she tells him about the epidemic of immorality sweeping through her nation, a plague to which his own people might ere long conceivably succumb.
“Our villain is a tireless sermonizer with eccentric ideas about the origins of humankind,” says Nahilia. “By beguiling our citizens into thinking the worst of themselves, Martin Luther has placed the entire Vigintalogue in jeopardy.”
“I’ve actually met this gentile theologian,” Lot confesses. “Ten days ago we drank together in the Hyssop Tavern.”
“Perhaps we should look for him there.”
“Alas, Majesty, I fear that in telling Luther about the myth of Adapa, I inadvertently supplied him with potent material for his sermons.”
Before Nahilia can reprimand Lot for his poor judgment, someone knocks on the door of her boudoir. The Queen and the patriarch hurriedly pull on their garments. Tizgar, chief among the royal handmaids, admits a beautiful young man dressed in the robes of a novitiate.
“Majesty, I bring an urgent message from the High Priest Eshcol,” says the acolyte of Anu. “A theophany is unfolding in the sanctum sanctorum!”
Thus it happens that the Queen, the patriarch, the novitiate, and a bevy of handmaids hurry out of the palace. Crossing the great plaza, they are met by Joktan, who explains that he, too, was summoned by Eshcol.
“We have a clue to Luther’s whereabouts,” Nahilia reports.
“Tell Abiud he’s partial to the date wine served at the Hyssop Tavern,” Lot explains.
The party enters the courtyard of the Ziggurat of Anu and ascends the stairway on the western face. Leaving her handmaids, her guards, and the novitiate in the temple anteroom, Nahilia makes her way to the innermost chamber, Lot and Joktan at her heels.
Eshcol stands in the center of the sanctum, its four walls holding the massive stelae on which, centuries earlier, the Vigintalogue was inscribed by unknown artisans, five rules per tablet. Rising from an iron tripod, a blazing brazier dominates the room, its pan the shape and size of a soldier’s bronze shield. The flames cast twisting apparitions on the floor and ceiling.
“Look!” cries Eshcol, gesturing toward the writhing fire. Nahilia has never seen the high priest in such an agitated state. “Look! He’s back! There! He’s back! There!”
There, indeed. A lion-headed man, naked as Adam and tall as a date palm, materializes above the brazier. Tendrils of flame encircle the figure’s shins like greaves. Nahilia, Lot, and Joktan gasp in synchronous astonishment.
“Who are you?” inquires Joktan.
“Our name is Shaddai.” The shimmering vision’s syllables ricochet off the walls like stones from a sling. “Call me also Yahweh, the Lion of Creation. Pray to me as Marduk, the Serpent of Infinity. Worship me as Anu, the Bull of Heaven. I am the one to whom all other deities, actual and fanciful, factual and false, bow down.”
Nahilia wants to address this multifarious pantheon with a piquant aphorism, or perhaps a stanza from the Saliniad, the national epic of the Cities of the Plain, but she can summon only a platitude to her lips. “Welcome to my realm, O Lord of All That Is.”
“When surveying that same realm, this Lord of All That Is grows angry at everything He sees!” Shaddai bellows. “Thy subjects revile my revelations, mock my expectations, and treat the Vigintalogue as a joke. In the past six days, my commandments have been broken six thousand times!”
“This plague is not without a cause,” says Joktan. “A rogue prophet roams the Pentapolis filling people’s heads with preposterous notions.”
“That sounds like an excuse,” says Shaddai. “I detest excuses.”
“The lowest form of discourse,” says Nahilia in a tone of assent.
“The fury I feel could snuff the stars! Hear my prophecy! My wrath will crack the ramparts of thy realm, level the temples, and bring the Jordan to a boil! Not a single mortal in this nation is worthy of my Vigintalogue! Behold!”
One by one, the mounted stelae jump free of their bolts and crash to the floor. Practice neither promiscuous polytheism nor idolatry, blasphemy, sacrilege, and filial ingratitude—likewise murder, adultery, theft, envy, and mendacity—furthermore contraceptive despotism, reproductive autocracy, environmental desecration, race-ranking, gender-ranking, sexual-predilection bigotry, expediency, greed, slavery, and war: all twenty dictums are now dust.
“Earlier today I deployed a double cordon of Amorites around the walls of this realm,” says Shaddai. “Captain Gogma will let no one pass save those listed in the Register of the Elect. After the evacuation, my spheres of fire and loaves of brimstone will burn the Pentapolis from the face of the Earth!”
“During our first conversation, Luther made this catastrophe the object of a prophecy,” Lot informs the Queen. “He probably never imagined his ministry would figure in its fulfillment.”
“Take heed, Lot,” says Shaddai. “Because thy people have not yet rejected the Vigintalogue, their names will appear in my Register. Thou shalt spend this day gathering them together in one place, that thou might lead them to safety ere the brimstone cometh.” The lion-headed man fixes on Nahilia. “O noble Queen, know that thy name will also grace the Register, likewise the names of thy administrators, courtiers, and priests.”
“My Lord, I entreat you to modify your plan,” says Nahilia, her thoughts running barely ahead of her words. “Brimstone is a blunt instrument. Your sulfur will incinerate the righteous along with the wicked. Should it happen that, beyond the tribe of Lot and the court of Nahilia, there are fifty virtuous people in the Cities of the Plain, might you not spare my nation for their sake?”
The vision falls silent. An impossibly protracted interval elapses.
“Two days hence, at the noon hour, thou shalt assemble fifty presumably blameless citizens in the temple courtyard,” says Shaddai. “If they pass my test, I shall withhold the brimstone.”
“That is most enlightened of you,” says Joktan.
“Pray to me, Chancellor, don’t patronize me.”
“Now tell me, my Lord, what if we find only forty-five righteous citizens?” asks Nahilia. “Or a mere thirty?”
“I shan’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for thirty’s sake.”
“What if we find as few as twenty?”
“I shall stay my wrath for twenty’s sake.”
“O great Shaddai, be not wroth with me if I make one final appeal to your better nature,” says Nahilia. “What if we discover but ten righteous citizens?”
“I shall not destroy the Cities of the Plain for ten’s sake.”
“Then we have a compact?”
“A compact, yes. I shall seal this great quota covenant with a rainbow, as I did my promise to Noah.”
“Who?” asks Nahilia.
“You call him Utnapishtim,” Lot explains.
Abruptly the vision fades, leaving a thunderstruck Nahilia, a flabbergasted Lot, a dumbfounded Joktan, and a stunned Eshcol staring at one another, their exhalations echoing off the hot, naked walls.
“We have work to do,” says the high priest.
“Ten righteous citizens,” says Joktan.
“In two days,” says Nahilia.
Luther is uncertain why Nahilia’s corrupt regime is bent on shutting down his ministry. Perhaps this lady despot fears he will topple her vile pantheon, though he merely seeks to prepare her people for the imminent firebombing.
Whatever the Queen’s motives, he will not surrender to her. He was always quick on his feet. As a law student who regularly trod the road between his family’s home in Mansfeld and the University of Erfurt, he was once caught in the open by a violent storm and straightaway resolved to outrun the lightning. He tripped on a root and, while prone, promised Saint Anne he would become a monk if she secured his survival, and the rest was history: European history, specifically—the Protestant Reformation and all that.
So far, at least, eluding capture by the Palace Guard has been child’s play. Each time a soldier takes notice of him, Luther rushes into the nearest marketplace and melds with the crowd. He fully intends to keep his rendezvous with Uriel, but not before delivering a final sermon, a real stemwinder, on the inexhaustible topic of infinite depravity.
Although Luther’s first day in the Pentapolis found him sharing Lot’s conclusion that its pagan citizens were fundamentally virtuous (possibly owing to their lofty Vigintalogue), he later realized they were as rotten as the rest of humanity. On his third day of sermonizing, he began witnessing armed robbery in the money-changing stalls and rape in the public squares. He saw bloody brawls, lethal duels, assassinations for their own sake, and drovers beating recalcitrant donkeys to death.
Suddenly Lot himself appears before Luther, crook in hand, bearing a cup of wine and an unstable expression, delight alternating with distress. Attempting to sit at Luther’s table, he trips over the Eden sword and nearly spills his wine. With the aid of his staff he recovers his balance and assumes an empty chair.
“Do you bring that sword wherever you go?” asks Lot.
“Rather the way you never part with your crook.”
“The news I bear concerns matters of life and death,” says Lot.
“Then I’m glad I brought the sword.”
“Yesterday, standing beside the Queen in Sodom’s highest temple,” says Lot, “I beheld a plenary deity—Shaddai who is Yahweh and also Marduk and furthermore Anu. This Lord of All That Is means to destroy Nahilia’s nation with fireballs and brimstone, just as you prophesied.”
“I also prophesied that you and your tribe will escape.”
“The Lord has indeed inscribed our names in His Register of the Elect.” Lot props his crook against the wall. “An hour ago my people left Sodom under the protection of my cousin Meshech. Even as we speak, three hundred and ten Hebrews, including my daughters, are headed for the hills.” Absently he rubs the shaft of his staff. “But know this. Yahweh will cancel the inferno if ten righteous people are brought before Him at noon tomorrow. Chancellor Joktan has found four such citizens. Will you help us find six more?”
“No, but I’ll buy you a tankard of beer.”
“Queen Nahilia believes your sermons prompted the people’s descent into violence. Her chancellor calls you a rogue prophet peddling preposterous notions. This is your opportunity to redeem yourself.”
“My redemption occurred the instant I entered the Erfurt monastery.”
“During your sermonizing spree, you doubtless encountered two or three citizens who struck you as singularly virtuous,” Lot persists. “I implore you—seek them out and send them to Joktan.”
“Some of Nahilia’s subjects are perhaps less wicked than others, but I’m not about to thwart the will of God.”
“This looming disaster isn’t the will of God—at least, not entirely. The judge part of Him remains wrathful, but the jury part is still out.”
Before Lot can continue badgering Luther, the hulking captain of Nahilia’s guards bursts into the tavern, accompanied by two soldiers with drawn blades. Luther grabs the Eden sword with both hands and raises it high. His antagonists freeze in their tracks. They fear me, Luther decides, and they fear my relic even more.
But to slay these men, he realizes, would be to hurl himself into a pit of sin. Calling for the extermination of rebellious Swabian peasants, as he had done in his customary time and place, was one thing. Staining his own hands with blood would be quite another. And so, instead of advancing, Luther spins around, hurls himself out the back door, and melds with the multitudes. Even as they bear him away, a felicitous metaphor appears in his brain. Human beings are rats—worse than rats: they are what exits the anuses of rats. His final sermon will be the oration of a lifetime. He will deliver it, by God, then return to A.D. 1546, see Eisleben once more, and die.
With provisionally buoyant spirits and a qualified faith in the future, the Queen of Sodom strides toward the Ziggurat of Anu, two vigilant handmaids and three armed bodyguards at her side. A faint, ephemeral, multicolored arch splits the sky above the Pentapolis, the sign and seal of the quota covenant. It’s a pale and shoddy rainbow, to be sure, but a rainbow all the same.
Upon reaching the courtyard, Nahilia observes, beyond the usual clusters of priests and passersby, a bracing tableau. Her chancellor is supervising ten anxious and perplexed citizens, six males and four females, all presumably pure in heart and prodigious in virtue.
“This was well done,” says Nahilia.
“What are we to make of the rainbow?” asks Joktan, pointing.
“That’s how Shaddai signs His name.”
Joktan reveals that he and Eshcol began their quest by seeking citizens who were oblivious to Luther’s preachments. They soon found a bricklayer and a stone mason who’d spent the rogue prophet’s ministry convalescing in a Sodom hospital. Next Joktan and Eshcol tracked down a deaf coppersmith in Gomorrah and a similarly impaired cheesemaker in Admah. That evening they found two lusty adolescents, a boy from Zeboim and a girl in Zoar, who throughout Luther’s stint as a celebrity sermonizer were too busy masturbating to receive his message.
“Your strategy was clever, Joktan, but did any of your discoveries actually witness the rogue prophet’s performances?” asks Nahilia.
“Have no fear. Yesterday we enlisted two members of Luther’s audience, a cordwainer and a coppersmith, who style themselves sages and axiomatically reject any arguments they didn’t devise themselves, including each other’s. And last night we interviewed a rug merchant and a wheelwright, attendees at Luther’s orations whose inveterate skepticism compels them to dispute with anyone who claims to know how the Universe really works.”
Having spent the morning in communion with Shaddai, Eschol appears outside the temple and, bathed in the light of the noonday sun, descends the western stairway. Approaching Nahilia, he explains that, like the animals boarding the ark of Utnapishtim, the candidates will present themselves in pairs, climbing the steps two by two, entering the sanctum, and submitting to Shaddai’s judgment. Being the Lord of All That Is, He will deign neither to ask formal questions nor to present ethical dilemmas. He will simply probe their souls, and that will settle the matter.
“I suggest we start with the self-appointed sages,” says Nahilia.
“Phut and Aram, you will now ascend to the temple,” says Joktan.
The cordwainer and the coppersmith do as instructed. Ten minutes later they return to the sunlight, grinning like hyenas.
“Shaddai has judged us blameless and upright!” cries the cordwainer, racing down the stairway.
“Actually He said, ‘more or less blameless and upright’,” adds the coppersmith, following his fellow sage.
The skeptics are next to stand before the brazier. Reporting back to Joktan, the rug merchant and the wheelwright reveal that Shaddai has pronounced them “free of the plague that has sickened the cities.”
The practitioners of self-pleasuring are accorded the subsequent theophany. Descending, the boy and girl proclaim in unison that Shaddai called them “wanton but a long way from wicked.”
Unsteady and disoriented after their convalescence, the bricklayer and the stone mason take their time ascending. They return with splendid news. “Quoth the Deity, ‘We find no malice in these artisans.’ ”
At a nod from Joktan, the deaf mutes climb to the temple. They bring back a beautiful and moving narrative, conveying it to Nahilia and her chancellor using a language composed of manual signs. Shaddai restored their hearing, sang to them of peace and paradise, and whispered “Not guilty” in their ears.
Peals of laughter and shouts of joy waft across the courtyard, the righteous citizens raising their voices in tandem with the Queen, her chancellor, her entourage, the priests, and the bystanders. The quota has been met, and Shaddai is appeased. His arsenals of bitumen and brimstone will find no targets this day.
A puffy-cheeked, flush-faced, peculiarly dressed man, sixty years old at least, dashes across the courtyard. His identity poses no mystery to Nahilia. This is the surely the rogue prophet who caused all the trouble.
“Doctor Luther, your notoriety precedes you,” says Nahilia, not so much speaking the words as hissing them. “I shall evermore hold you the most despicable traveler ever to set foot in Sodom.”
“You will be rid of me soon enough,” says Luther in a tone mingling exhaustion and defiance. “I’m supposed to be on my deathbed now, three thousand years hence and two thousand miles to the west.”
“Did you know your orations nearly brought down divine fury on all our heads? Were it not for these ten righteous citizens, the holiest of gods would be about to inflict the unholiest of punishments on my nation.”
“Majesty, please know that this story is not yet over,” says Luther, opening his robe to reveal a large sword belted to his waist. “The razing of the Pentapolis is in the Bible, and so it will come to pass.”
“Shall we arrest him?” asks the tallest of Nahilia’s bodyguards.
Before she can answer, a quintet of Luther’s adherents march onto the scene with drawn blades. Chaos ensues, a grisly commotion that drills into all five of Nahilia’s senses—the sight of thrusting swords, the screaming of impaled citizens, the stench of opened bowels, the taste of vomit in her mouth, the pressure of flesh and bones as Phut the sage falls dead in her arms. Luther and his followers accomplish the massacre in less than a minute, slaying every last upright citizen and wrecking the ratio that underlies the quota covenant. The high priest, Nahilia’s handmaids, and the three bodyguards also lie dead. The cracks in the paving-stones have become runnels of blood.
“Almighty God, I offer thee the final fruits of thy primordial sword!” cries Luther. “The ten are no more! The bargain is broken!”
Abruptly the rainbow darkens, becoming a great black ox-yoke in the sky, then disappears entirely. An instant later the heavens disgorge a seething sphere of bitumen—and then another, and yet another, and still another. The fireballs crash onto the plaza before Nahilia’s palace, sending up plumes of red cinders mixed with sandstone granules. Now come burning chunks of brimstone, hurtling out of the skies and slicing through towers, turrets, pinnacles, and spires, so that heaps of bricks and stones soon clog the streets of Sodom.
“No!” cries a distraught Luther. “Not yet!”
Though stupefied with fear and grief, Nahilia cannot but laugh at her adversary’s indignation. He wasn’t expecting so immediate a response to his intervention. Evidently he will die along with everyone else.
Much as Nahilia would like to wait around and see Luther vaporized by bitumen or felled by brimstone, she has no time to waste. Swerving, she charges up the ziggurat stairs, taking the steps two at a time. She has business with the Lord of All That Is, and He dare not refuse her an audience.
Although Saint Anne had delivered him from incineration on the Erfurt Road, deflecting the lightning when he failed to outrun it, Luther’s every instinct tells him she is unavailable here in the nineteenth century B.C. Retreating from the courtyard, he declines to solicit intervention by Anne or any other saint. The Hebrews’ Yahweh probably won’t help him either, for at the moment He doubtless regards the Great Reformer as just another depraved Sodomite. As for his Savior, Luther knows it would be prideful to petition Him, asking B.C. to become A.D. for his benefit alone. A man living outside his time, he decides, is a man living in Hell.
Jettisoning his sword and satchel, Luther sprints across the public square outside the Hyssop Tavern. Suddenly an errant brimstone nugget strikes his shoulder like flaming bird dung and ignites his cassock. He tears off his entire ensemble and stands naked in the street, watching the fire consume every last thread. The Sodomites, having brimstone problems of their own (a crisis that has inspired half of them to sprint madly in all directions, the other half to run about in crazed circles), take no notice of his unclothed condition, but he nevertheless feels ashamed.
Another nugget strikes him, setting fire to his hair. He gags on the acrid stench. Before the flames can reach his scalp, he dashes to the nearest donkey trough and lowers his head into the water.
Perhaps he is marked to die in Sodom, perhaps back home in Eisleben, but in any event Luther refuses to enter Heaven bald and bare-assed. Upon acquiring carnal knowledge, Adam lost no time strapping on a fig leaf, and Luther means to clothe himself with equal efficiency.
He rushes down Ibis Lane, his scarred scalp throbbing. Periodically he pauses to engage in petty theft, stealing first a shift from a corner stall selling female apparel (the proprietor had fled), then an elaborate readymade coiffure from a wig shop (likewise vacant). He might be mistaken for a woman, but at least no one will think him a lunatic or an exhibitionist.
Scanning the terrified masses, he spies a familiar figure, Lot the patriarch, running pell-mell toward the Ebla Gate. With no particular aim in mind, Luther chases after him.
“Let not my appearance deceive you!” Luther draws abreast of Lot and grabs his sleeve.
“Unhand me, harlot!” Lot wrests free of his pursuer’s grasp.
“It is I, Martin, the one they call the rogue prophet!”
Lot halts and scowls at Luther. “I didn’t realize you were a transvestite.”
“Needs must when the Devil drives.”
“This has been the worst day of my life,” says Lot.
“Mine, too,” says Luther.
“Evidently Joktan failed to find a full quota of righteous souls,” says Lot, resuming his frantic flight.
“Do you still think my sermons started these pagans on the path to depravity?” asks Luther, keeping pace. “That theory is as nonsensical today as when the Queen’s chancellor dreamt it up.”
At the Ebla Gate, pandemonium rules, terrified Sodomites clamoring to exit while a double cordon of soldiers armed with swords and javelins keeps them inside the walls.
“The soldiers are Amorites,” Lot explains. “Yahweh deployed them to guarantee that those who violated the Vigintalogue won’t escape.”
“Perhaps the Almighty has come to His senses and written my name in His Register of the Elect,” says Luther.
Lot strides toward the double cordon. Evidently intuiting his privileged status, the soldiers part like clods of earth before a plow, allowing the patriarch and his companion to advance.
Lot approaches the Amorite commander, a scowling behemoth of a man.
“Captain Gogma, I am on your list of legal evacuees, Lot from Ur of the Chaldees.”
The commander consults a clay tablet. “Your entire tribe has been granted safe passage. Your cousin Meshech and both your daughters have already left. Will we see other members of your family today?”
“My wife died three years ago,” says Lot. “Does the Register of the Elect perchance include a Doctor Martin Luther?”
“I see no such name,” says Gogma.
“On the subject of your family, my darling,” says Luther, affecting a falsetto as he rubs Lot’s forearm, “you must inform this gatekeeper that you and I, your second wife, were wed this morning.”
The Great Reformer and the Hebrew patriarch lock eyes. Lot’s expression conveys bewilderment at Luther’s deceit but also a tentative willingness to deliver him from the flames—a resolve that would doubtless falter were Lot to suddenly realize Luther had arranged the breaking of the quota covenant.
“I shall tell you and your bride what I told your cousin and daughters,” says Gogma. “The Great God Anu was clear on this point. If you look back while fleeing Sodom, the consequences will be dire.”
“I shan’t look back,” says Lot.
“Nor shall I,” says Luther.
“Begone, then!” barks Gogma.
At a nod from their captain, two soldiers open the formidable gate. Luther and Lot rush through the portal, charge down the Ebla Road, and, veering sharply to the west, head for the parched and rocky terrain beyond.
“Infinite is the power of the Almighty!” cries Lot, eyes fixed on the distant hills. “Behold, he has torn the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah free of their foundations and sent them soaring across the heavens like immense clouds!”
“That’s not in the Bible!” shouts Luther, looking back.
With measured steps and iron resolve, the livid Queen enters Anu’s temple and proceeds to the sanctum sanctorum. The fire still blazes in the brazier, giving form and substance to the lion-headed vision. Spasming shadows adorn the walls. The shards of the Vigintalogue still litter the floor.
“O regal Nahilia, thou must leave this place at once!” cries the vision. “Gogma will escort thee safely to the banks of the Jordan!”
“I have no desire to perish along with my nation, but I would rather die than keep silent now. Hear me, O wrathful Lord of All That Is.”
“Speak quickly. Time is running out.”
“I demand that you call back your fireballs. You must cancel this conflagration immediately.”
“Sorry. Impossible. The fall of Sodom and Gomorrah is an axial anecdote in the Hebrew Bible—or, rather, it will be after Moses writes the Pentateuch.”
“Do you not feel shame, O Monarch of Chaos? Or is shamelessness the point of being you?”
“The Pentateuch will report that I grew to regret making Adam, for his descendants in time became vile and corrupt. Genesis 6:6. Shame is impossible for Yahweh, but chagrin is within His repertoire.”
“Your sins are many, O Lord of All That Is. You held my realm responsible for a moral catastrophe perpetrated by a rogue prophet, and when that same prophet made a shambles of our quota covenant, smiting the righteous hip and thigh, you took his side and unleashed your arsenals.”
“Wouldst thou have me atone, Nahilia?” The vision’s voice has become curiously mellow. “It’s not unthinkable. I repented for bringing humankind into being. Genesis 6:7.”
“And then you drowned most of them. What kind of repentance is that?”
“In this Universe we do things my way.”
“At least you spared Utnapishtim and his family.”
“One should always leave something for the historians.”
“I want you to atone for letting Martin Luther talk you into breaking the quota covenant.”
“Luther didn’t talk me into anything. The demise of the ten righteous citizens automatically voided the compact.”
“That sounds like an excuse,” says Nahilia. “Shaddai doesn’t like excuses, remember?”
“Be thou assured that Luther hath been punished for his impetuosity. I transformed him into a pillar of salt.”
“The subject is your sins, O great Shaddai, not Luther’s.”
“What manner of atonement dost thou have in mind?” Shaddai has a catch in His voice. Against all odds, Nahilia is getting through to Him.
“Perform the ultimate intervention,” she suggests. “Give your creatures the gift of doubt. Bless them with the ability to say, ‘What are we to make of this God who so insouciantly razes cities? Is He evil? Or simply a nothingness, a phantasm who exists only in human testaments?’”
“I can do even better than that,” says Shaddai drily.
“The Almighty can aspire to the nonexistence of which thou just spoke. He can subtract Himself from human affairs. Indeed, He can edit Himself out of the cosmos entirely and thenceforth remain a nullity, leaving behind only a scattering of angels, a plethora of stars, and His favorite world, the Earth.”
“Are you saying you would rather be a nullity than the sort of deity who treated my nation as you did?”
“Don’t put epiphanies in my mouth.”
“So we have a new compact—am I right, Shaddai?”
“Get thee gone from Sodom ere I change my mind.”
The Queen hurries down the western face of the ziggurat. Sparks swirl everywhere like red pebbles churned up by a sandstorm. Hot ash thickens the air. Screams of pain and cries of terror mingle to become a canticle of despair.
As she reaches the courtyard, Joktan rushes toward her. They embrace amid the swirling cinders. They kiss in the heart of the dying city.
“Now what?” he asks.
“We proceed to the Ebla Gate and hope for the best.”
“Behold,” says Joktan, gesturing skyward. “Shaddai’s sign has returned.”
Nahilia looks up. A multicolored arch spans the heavens, far more dazzling than the rainbow that sealed the quota covenant—perhaps even more magnificent than the spectrum that appeared to Utnapishtim as his human and animal passengers filed out of the ark.
“What is happening, Majesty?” asks Joktan. “Has He renewed the covenant? Too little, too late, in my opinion.”
“I made a new compact with Shaddai.”
“What were the terms?”
“He agreed to commit deicide.”
“In His place, I would do the same.”
“And this time around, I believe, His rainbow can be taken at face value. He will hold up His end of the bargain.”
“Well, that’s something.”
The wise and comely Queen of Sodom takes her chancellor’s hand, and together they walk through smoke and ashes toward the Ebla Gate and the cool soothing waters of the river beyond.