Hear, O children, a father’s instruction, be attentive, that you may gain understanding!
MARTHA CLENCHED HER teeth so tight her jaw ached. She’d kept quiet for seven days. Seven days. Now she felt like a pot left too long over the fire. If another old woman gave her a pitying glance, if one more village girl whispered behind her hand . . . by the Most High, she’d boil over.
She filled a cup for Josiah, her sister’s new husband. Who would have believed it? Sirach of Bethany’s daughter—his younger daughter!—choosing her own husband. And what a husband he was. Josiah had many good qualities. He was kind and patient, and everyone knew how he loved Mary. But he was also poor and none too smart. Even his own mother admitted that he was about as useful as a three-legged donkey.
She took a deep breath and poured a cup of wine for her father, careful not to spill a drop on his fine linen tunic. When Abba agreed to the betrothal a full year ago, the women of Bethany had gossiped for weeks. Most had concluded that Sirach was eager to be rid of Mary, his grown daughter who spent more time playing with the village children than taking care of her father’s household. But they were wrong. Abba loved Mary just as much as he loved Martha and Lazarus.
Now, at almost fifteen years, Mary was ready to start her own
family with a man she adored. Martha was glad that Abba had allowed Mary her heart’s desire. If only he would allow Martha hers.
If Mary can choose Josiah, why can’t I have a say in my husband? But of course, she knew why.
Her eyes strayed to the center of the meadow that stretched between the Mount of Olives and her father’s many fields and vineyards. The afternoon sun cast a patina of gold on a pair of musicians—an old man playing the flute and a young one strumming the kinnor. Lazarus sat at the kinnor player’s feet, watching him with admiration.
Martha sighed. Even her little brother got to be closer to Isa than she did.
A group of village girls linked arms and began to dance, each eyeing Isa as if he were the last honey cake on the plate. Didn’t they have anything else to do but stare and giggle about how handsome he was?
Isa didn’t even look at them. He never did. He looked into the distance, where the Mount of Olives rose between Bethany and Jerusalem. The love song of Solomon was on his lips, but Martha knew his thoughts were on her. Small comfort, with all the work she had to do.
Mary’s wedding feast had lasted the full seven days. Abba’s excellent wine had flowed as generously as the music, and laughter had filled their courtyard and the meadow that surrounded it. It had been good to celebrate Mary’s joy, but with all the rejoicing, Martha had found only a few moments to be alone with Isa. And tomorrow he would leave for the Decapolis. She had to find a way to talk to him today. Who knew when they’d see each other again?
Mary and her new husband rose from their seats. The men nearest Abba elbowed each other and smiled. Martha averted her eyes from the couple. The sun wasn’t even behind the blossoming apricot trees, and they were already going to the marriage tent? Of course, they wanted children, and there was only one
way to get them. But did they have to look so eager? People would talk.
“Leaving us so soon?” Simon, their neighbor and one of the most respected men in Bethany, was a handsome man—at least that’s what the village girls said—but his large, wide-set eyes and full lips had always reminded Martha of a fish. He pursed his thick lips and raised his brows. “I’ve never known a man to need so much sleep.”
A chorus of twitters sounded from maidens clustered in the shade of the olive grove. Older women, those with babies at their breasts and sleepy toddlers, exchanged knowing glances.
Martha watched as the bridal couple took their leave of her father. She had to admit, marriage agreed with her sister. Mary’s softly rounded face glowed, and her eyes, the same deep brown as Martha’s, shone with what must be the marital bliss Martha had heard of. The linen dress Martha had made for her—the best linen, dyed Mary’s favorite shade of pink—fit her plump curves perfectly and suited her bronze skin and the deep blush on her cheeks.
As Mary moved beside her new husband, her arms jingled with a dozen brass bracelets, her betrothal gift from Josiah. They weren’t silver or gold—in fact, they were practically worthless—but the best Josiah could afford. Mary hadn’t removed them since the ketubah had been signed at their betrothal.
Josiah shrugged his thin shoulders as if to brush off the laughter. He looked down at his new bride, and a ridiculous smile stretched from his crinkly eyes to his wispy beard. Josiah wasn’t much to look at, but when he smiled at Mary like that Martha could see why her sister had pleaded with Abba—even though Josiah owned little more than the cloak on his back and a tiny home in the village.
No more servants for Mary, no fine linen from Galilee, no meat in her cooking pot—not with Josiah as a husband. They’d probably live on barley bread and water. Mary didn’t seem to
care, and, at this moment, Martha could see why. What would it be like to be adored? To have a husband so in love that he couldn’t keep his eyes, or his hands, off you?
Yes, Abba gave Mary to Josiah, but he would never let Martha marry Isa. It was unthinkable.
As Josiah took leave of his new father-in-law, Mary threw her arms around Martha. “It was beautiful. Everything was perfect. Thank you, my sister. I will remember my wedding feast forever.”
Martha’s throat tightened. Her only sister: beautiful, exuberant, not afraid to announce her love for all the world to hear, even the gossips of Bethany. Martha had worked for weeks to make Mary’s marriage feast—what they’d dreamed of since they were children—perfect. And it had been. But now she felt as though she stood on the edge of the sea, watching Mary sail away while she stood onshore alone. She kissed her sister’s hand and blinked back tears.
Mary’s smile faded, and she glanced toward the musicians. “Have you talked to him?”
Martha shook her head.
Mary squeezed her hand. “Talk to Abba,” she urged. “At least ask him . . . perhaps after another cup of wine?”
Martha tried to smile at Mary’s outlandish suggestion—at her hope in a hopeless cause. There wasn’t enough wine in all of Judea to make Abba let her marry Isa. Josiah at least lived in Bethany and worshipped at the Temple. But the elder daughter of Sirach, the most respected Pharisee in Bethany, marry someone like Isa? Never. “Go.” She gave Mary a gentle push. “Josiah is waiting.”
Teasing calls from the women followed Mary and Josiah to the marriage tent, tucked discreetly behind the olive trees, while Martha went back to serving the men. Simon leaned close to Abba, but his commanding voice carried far. “Let’s hope your grandsons have more sense than their father.”
Martha clenched her teeth. How dare Simon mock Josiah when he was barely out of earshot? At least I kept my unkind
thoughts to myself. She tossed the dirty bowls on a growing pile of dishes and hefted the next delicacy for the guests, rounds of soft wheat cakes, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
The other men chuckled, but Abba frowned. “Josiah is a righteous man, despite his lack of wealth. He will be a good husband to Mary.”
Abel, a tool merchant and one of Bethany’s city judges, snorted and mumbled, “If he can keep food on the table.”
But Simon nodded as if Abba were Moses himself. “You are a wise man and a loving father, Sirach.” He tipped his cup to take the last of his wine, then clapped it on the table. “Where are your kinsman Jesus of Nazareth and his parents? They are not ones to miss a wedding.”
Abba looked thoughtfully at the cakes. “Jesus sent a message that they could not attend. His father is not long in this world.”
“May the God of Abraham and Isaac watch over him.” Simon leaned toward Abba. “I remember talk of Jesus, many years ago. The priests in the Temple said he was a great scholar, although he was little more than a boy. Some even whispered that he was the Messiah.” Simon smiled as he said it, as if he were remembering a joke.
“Pfft. A Galilean is no scholar,” Abel scoffed. “Jesus is well past twenty and still working for his father, not even studying the law in Jerusalem.”
Martha set two cakes in front of her father, her temper rising. Yes, Jesus and his parents were Galileans, but they deserved more respect from Abel and Simon. His mother was Mama’s cousin and had always been welcomed in Bethany. And Jesus was like a brother to her and Mary and Lazarus. They’d all been disappointed when Jesus hadn’t come to Mary’s wedding feast.
Abba stroked his beard, its silver streaks glinting in the sun. “There have been many—far too many—who have claimed to be the Messiah. They’ve ended up dead, and many righteous men have died with them.”
Simon eyed the cakes as Martha came closer. “But surely the Anointed One will come. Someday.”
Abba frowned. “If we keep the law, the Lord will surely send the Deliverer, but we must be vigilant against false prophets. We must doubt, until his power is proven to us.”
Simon tilted his head toward his host. “As always, you are blessed with wisdom, Sirach.” He turned to Abel and whispered, “As if the Messiah could come from a poor hovel in Nazareth.”
Martha bristled, her temper sizzling like water on hot coals. Simon and Abel wouldn’t know the Messiah if he sat down at the table with them and announced the coming of the Kingdom. No one was good enough to be their Messiah.
Abba motioned for Martha to serve the rest of the honey cakes, as if he hadn’t heard their disrespectful talk. “Let us enjoy the feast and the last rays of the sun. You know every woman in Bethany wishes they could make cakes as light as the clouds, like my Martha.”
Martha plopped a cake in front of Simon before banging the wooden tray beside Abel. Abba raised his brows in surprise, a question in his eyes. She pressed her lips together and looked away, ashamed at her display of temper.
He who honors his father atones for sins. Was it a sin to think badly of her father’s friends? If it was, she’d atone tomorrow.
Tomorrow, when Mary moved into her new home with her new husband.
Tomorrow, when Isa left, and she wouldn’t see him until Tabernacles.
Abba returned his attention to his guests, but Simon watched her closely. Lately, it seemed he was always watching her.
She crossed her arms and looked at the ground. When would they stop their talk long enough to eat and let her clear the empty dishes before them? It wasn’t as though she didn’t have other things to do.
Simon licked the last of the honey from his fingers and stretched his arms over his head with a deep sigh. His rounded
stomach strained his fine linen tunic. “Your daughter is the best cook in Bethany, Sirach.” His words may have been to her father, but his fishlike eyes were on Martha. “Tell me again why she isn’t married before her younger sister?”
Martha knew what was coming next. She’d heard it enough from the women in the last year. And with good reason. She was almost seventeen years old, long past time to talk of marriage.
Abba fished a lamb bone from his plate and nibbled the remaining meat from it. “No man in Bethany is worthy of my Martha,” he said, his lips shiny with the cumin sauce that every woman in Bethany tried and failed to duplicate.
“But you will let her marry?” Simon smiled.
Martha stilled her hands, waiting for her father’s reply.
Abba chewed thoughtfully. “Most women let their hearts rule their heads, but not my Martha. She knows that the way to the Lord is through obedience and purity, just like her mother, blessed be her memory.”
“Blessed be her memory forever,” Simon repeated. “An obedient daughter is indeed rare and deserves a righteous husband.”
Martha’s stomach turned. A righteous husband.
Abba nodded. “She is a daughter I won’t easily part with. How could I give away such a treasure except to the most righteous man I can find? A man who can give her everything that I have given her.”
A treasure. Martha’s chest constricted, and despair clogged her throat. Across the meadow, Isa’s gaze was turned on her. The lilt of the kinnor joined with his deep voice, his song for her alone. She blinked back tears. Isa could never be the husband her father wanted for her, because he wasn’t righteous. He was a pagan. And he could give her nothing, because he had nothing.
Still, her heart cried out for Isa even as her head told her that the boy she’d loved since she was a child would never be worthy of Abba’s treasure.