Bill Kassel’s Novel about
the Family of Jesus
My Brother’s Keeper
Read the Prologue & First Chapter
Numerous readers have commented to me that as soon as they read the opening of MY BROTHER’S KEEPER they were hooked. Since the prologue and first chapter reveal my novel’s unique perspective on the Gospel story, they were immediately convinced they’d have to read all the way through.
Well, naturally I’d like you to read MY BROTHER’S KEEPER all the way through. So below are the prologue and first chapter. Be warned. You’re going to want the rest of the book.
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In the meantime, enjoy…
The house of Joseph was located at the northern edge of the town on a grassy hill. There Avram the shepherd, of blessed memory, had once kept a sheepfold in which he would pen his animals until they were shorn or selected out for sale to Nathan, the butcher.
When Avram had owned the hill, before Joseph came from Bethlehem of Judea, the knoll was thought of as outside the town, half a Sabbath journey beyond the last house on the street. But Nazareth had grown. Being close to the great city of Sepphoris, it had prospered from work provided to craftsmen in the surrounding country by the Greek merchants eager to enlarge their villas, as well as by the legion command for construction of new billets for Roman troops in transit and the storage and distribution houses that supplied posts and garrisons throughout Galilee.
By the time Joseph came to Nazareth with his wife, Escha, new dwellings had already shortened the road up from town, and Avram the shepherd had recently died. Having no children, Avram’s widow sold the land to this young carpenter and builder, and then went to the home of a kinsman to spend her own last days.
Joseph and Escha moved into the small limestone hut in which Avram had kept his fodder and sheltered himself against the rain. A new roof and door made the place habitable enough, but Joseph’s building skills soon yielded another room, in which their first son, Josis, was born. That was followed by an upper chamber on the new section, accessible by a stairway running up the outside to a door at the top sheltered by a wooden enclosure. The original hut was given over completely to the purpose of a shop where Joseph daily plied his woodworking trade. A wall, built of the same limestone plentiful in the region, came next, enclosing a court with its own well, a small flock of chickens, and a she-goat.
The family grew — to five children, before long — in tandem with Joseph’s spreading reputation as a man of superior craft, industriousness and reliability. As the years passed, he found himself spending less time fashioning carefully wrought wood furniture and household implements for the people of Nazareth, and more adding to the growing array of fine houses and public structures in Sepphoris.
Indeed, Joseph and his crews of workers were highly praised among the city residents, whom the Jews called Greeks whether they be Roman or any of the other nationalities represented among the foreign intruders. And if his neighbors in Nazareth felt some unease about Joseph’s many dealings with pagans, feelings were soothed by the pagan gold he brought back to town. As the old expression went, “A workman deserves his wage,” and it was Joseph who came to provide so much of it.
While he might not be considered a man of wealth to the measure of his Greek patrons, Joseph was a man of accomplishment. And with his indisputable piety — faithful in attendance at synagogue and study of Torah, despite so many demands of business upon his time — he was respected, someone to be turned to in trust.
Joseph and Escha lived in as much hopefulness and serenity as could be expected in a land under the control of a usurper king backed by a foreign force. Indeed, while Nazareth was close to the great imperial enclave of Sepphoris, it was much less touched by the intrigues and strife of Jerusalem, to which Bethlehem was located so near. A certain kind of peace prevailed here in the hills of Galilee.
And so it was in this sedate household that Joseph and Escha raised three sons and two daughters. Josis, the eldest, trained at his father’s side, mastering carpentry skills and joining Joseph in the family business. Judas and Simon, being more drawn to country pursuits, brought sheep back to old Avram’s grassy hill, their sheepfold abutting the outer side of the court wall. They also secured some seedlings of olive trees with the intention of establishing a grove.
All three of the sons took wives, and the wall became pierced with doorways into new dwellings built in a cluster, so that the house of Joseph grew into a compound of some size. Marriages were arranged for Lydia and Assia, the daughters, who thus made their homes with their husbands in the town. Grandchildren abounded on old Avram’s hill, the boys learning to assist their fathers in the trades of the household, and the girls learning womanly skills at their mothers’ sides.
And then, in the fullness of her days, Escha conceived unexpectedly and gave birth to a fourth son, James. But the joy of this late blessing was dampened by a sudden turn in her health. Escha’s healing was not proper, and she was never fully strong after that birth. She collapsed on the morning of the child’s circumcision, and had to be carried to her bed.
No one could say if her illness had been caused by James’ birth. She vomited, passed blood, and ate less and less as painful weeks wore on. Lydia and Assia came from their homes every day to help their brothers’ wives in caring for the baby and attending their mother, but to no avail. Joseph was heartsick to see her wasting in such a manner.
Finally, one day Escha pulled her husband close and whispered a few labored words. “This little James is the child of your old age,” she said with great difficulty. “He is the last of me. He is what I leave to you, my husband. And you must love him like Jacob loved his favorite son. Promise me that you will not charge this child with my loss, and that you will love him always.”
With tears in his eyes, Joseph took his wife’s chilled and weakened fingers between calloused hands that were strong but now shaking from his great sadness and fear. “I will love him,” he told her. “I will cherish this boy, and make him a great scholar and a man who is held in high regard. This I promise you, my wife.”
Escha smiled and turned her face away to sleep. And by the time night had come upon the house of Joseph, she was dead.
Whoever pursues righteousness and kindnes
will find life and honor.
The Rabbi Ezra surveyed the small cluster of students, only four today. They sat on rough wooden benches in the mottled shade of an overhead screen of olive branches woven into a loose wicker. The crude shelter, set in the court that separated the rabbi’s house from Nazareth’s small synagogue, served as a classroom in pleasant weather. It did double duty as a harvest hut for the rabbi and his wife during the annual feast of booths.
He chose a random psalm to check his students’ memorization. The earth is the Lord’s and all its bounty… he began, leaving the line incomplete. The boys dutifully picked up from him — the world and all who dwell in it — reciting through to the end with only occasional stumbles among some of them.
“Better,” said the rabbi, “better.” Then he pointed at a small boy, the newest member of the class, just five years old. “And who is the King of Glory, Abner son of Benjamin? I don’t think I quite heard you say it.”
The little boy was startled at first and searched his memory. Then he recalled that he knew perfectly well who the King of Glory was. “The Lord of Hosts is the King of Glory, master,” he said assertively.
“Yes,” said the rabbi, smiling broadly. “The Lord of Hosts is the King of Glory. Very good, Abner son of Benjamin.”
All the boys laughed.
Ezra straightened in his seat and gestured in the direction of the oldest boy. “Yesterday we heard the story of Cain and Abel,” he said, “which was read to us very nicely by James son of Joseph.”
At this mention, James turned his eyes down into his lap self-consciously. He often felt slightly embarrassed when the rabbi complimented him. Ezra made it a point to praise all his students, believing kind words a better encouragement to learning than the harsh criticism, even scorn, on which some teachers relied. Still, James often sensed that the rabbi was the merest bit quicker to recognize his accomplishments than those of his fellows. There was a reason for that, and it made him somewhat uncomfortable.
It was well known to those familiar with the family of Joseph the builder that James held a special place in his father’s heart. But no one ever observed any resentment expressed toward him by his brothers or sisters. Indeed, it had often been remarked that Joseph avoided the error of their forefather, Jacob, who as Scripture recounted, doted on his favored child in ways that sowed seeds of bitterness.
There was a certain sweet honesty about James that endeared him to the adults in the family and made him a hero to the household children. Because of his scholarly bent and the diligence he brought to his studies, no one ever begrudged the time he spent in ceaseless questioning of the Rabbi Ezra or pious reflection on the holy books, even when it took him from chores in the compound.
That James would one day be a doctor of the Law was an assumption shared by all, especially Ezra. The rabbi was always willing to invest time in the boy, over and above the hours spent in class. This was partly due to his recognition of James’ abilities, and partly out of gratitude for some extra support provided by James’ father.
Nazareth being a small town based principally on its surrounding farms and herds, Ezra’s students were often called upon to work in the fields and so could not be counted on for regular attendance in class. This made the stipends on which Ezra depended somewhat erratic. Since Joseph was deeply concerned for the continuity of his son’s schooling, he had a quiet understanding with the rabbi to make up the difference whenever students were away and Ezra’s earnings fell short. It kept things going, regardless of how many students were present.
The supplement was invaluable and much appreciated by a humble scholar with few opportunities for added income. To Joseph it was a practical arrangement by which he expected no privileges for his son beyond the privilege of learning. Still, Ezra couldn’t help but feel a special stake in this particular student. James was aware of that, and so often wondered if a certain amount of this rabbinical attention might be more than was deserved by his actual scholarly gifts, ample though they were.
“What did all of you think about this story?” Ezra asked the class.
The group was silent. James too said nothing. He knew the day’s lesson was aimed at the younger boys and the rabbi did not expect him to respond.
Ezra waited. Then: “Well, let us recall what happened in the story. Ephraim son of Joel, what did the two brothers do?”
The chubby boy, son of the town blacksmith, wrinkled up his face in thought. “They made sacrifice to the Lord,” he said after a moment.
“That’s right,” Ezra said. “And what did they bring before the Lord?”
Ephraim thought again. “Well…” he said, “Cain brought crops, and…” His words dissolved into the silence of uncertainty.
“Yes, Cain was a tiller of the fields,” the rabbi said. “And what was Abel?”
The strain of remembering was apparent in the boy’s soft features, but all his effort yielded no result.
Ezra turned to another student. “Caleb son of Mathias, do you remember what was the work of Abel?”
“He was a shepherd,” the boy answered quickly with a grin at his triumph over a classmate.
“A shepherd, yes,” the rabbi said. “And what would a shepherd offer as a sacrifice?”
“He offered a lamb,” said Caleb.
The rabbi clapped his hands together. “A lamb,” he said, glancing at James, who was amused at the rabbi’s playful and teacherly prompting.
“Now,” said Ezra, “what happened when Cain and Abel made sacrifice? Was the Holy One pleased?” He pointed to Abner. “Abner son of Benjamin, did the Lord like what Cain and Abel brought Him?”
The boy hesitated. “Y — yes…?” he proposed warily.
“Did He?” asked the rabbi. “Remember the story which James son of Joseph read to us.”
Caleb waved a hand to attract his teacher’s attention. “The Lord liked Abel’s gift,” he said.
“Ah! Caleb son of Mathias recalls that the lamb of Abel was pleasing to the Holy One,” said Ezra. “But what of the crops brought by Cain?”
“He didn’t like them,” said Ephraim, at last connecting with yesterday’s reading.
“You’re right, He didn’t like them. And how did this make Cain feel?”
Caleb was about to speak again, but the rabbi looked at the boy, winked, and held a finger to his lips. Caleb smiled in satisfaction, understanding that his teacher realized he knew the answer.
“Ephraim son of Joel, Abner son of Benjamin, how did Cain feel?” asked Ezra.
“He felt bad,” said Ephraim.
“Yes.” The rabbi nodded his head solemnly. “He felt very bad. In fact, the story tells us that Cain’s face fell.” The rabbi’s features became an exaggerated mask of comic sadness at which everyone laughed.
In such a back-and-forth manner, Ezra led the group through a recounting of Abel’s murder at the hands of his brother and the Lord’s banishment of Cain. He emphasized the seriousness of Cain’s act, but took care not to present the tale in a way that was too frightening to the children whose minds it was his duty to nurture.
When the lesson was concluded, James lingered in the wicker-shaded enclosure. It was not unusual for him to remain behind to ask some question of his teacher or discuss the day’s topic in more detail than would have interested the other students, even those closer to his own age. But today he sat quietly, gazing off in the direction of the synagogue building.
Ezra noted the boy’s distraction. “Something burdens your mind, James son of Joseph?”
James turned to his teacher. “Oh…no, master,” he said. “Not really. It’s just that… Well, I have heard the story of Cain and Abel so many times, and…”
“Rabbi, I have never understood why the Holy One should have rejected Cain’s offering. Didn’t Cain bring what he had to give, just as his brother did?”
“Do you think the Lord was unfair to Cain?”
“It seems like He favored Abel. And I don’t know why.”
Ezra sat down on the bench next to the boy. “This is a question the sages have pondered,” he said. “Some note that the scriptures mention particularly that Abel offered the finest of his flock — where it’s merely recorded that Cain offered crops, with no description of what they were or how good they might have been. So perhaps Cain was holding back his best and he deserved the Lord’s rebuke.”
“But we don’t know that.”
“This is true. We don’t know.”
“What if he did pick the best of his crops to give?”
“Mmm… He might have. But even if he did, there could be a problem in that also.”
Ezra seized upon an opportunity to push the boy into deeper reflection. “Well,” he said, “here you must try to think like the sages who understand that Scripture teaches as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does. Suppose Cain had worked very hard, day in and day out, in all kinds of weather to make things grow, and then he chose very carefully so that he would be sure to set only his very best produce before the Holy One of Israel. And maybe, through all those days when he was toiling in the field, he had watched his brother lounging with his flock or leading the animals aimlessly about. Maybe all of this had made Cain feel that his efforts were better than those of Abel. Could it be the Lord saw that Cain was puffed up with his own superiority? Perhaps the Holy One knew that Cain had come to despise his brother even before the two made their offerings.”
James examined the situation posed by Ezra. “My brothers are shepherds,” he said. “They are farmers too, if you think about the olive grove they’re trying to make.”
“At which tasks do they work harder?” the rabbi asked.
“I’m not sure,” James said. “With the olive trees they must dig and fertilize and water. With the sheep they must haul feed, and of course they have to sheer them. All of that is work.”
“Yes. All of that is work,” Ezra agreed. “So I guess we cannot really know what was in Cain’s heart, and we cannot be sure why Abel’s gift was pleasing to the Lord and Cain’s not.”
“Then what can we learn from the story, Rabbi?” James asked.
Ezra saw the boy’s puzzled expression, and he smiled in a kindly way that was intended to encourage. “Perhaps what we can learn,” he said, “is that the Lord has His own designs.”
* * *
This time of year, classes were dismissed before the day’s heat accumulated fully, so it was still morning when James arrived back at the family compound. He performed the usual entrance ritual, kissing his fingers and touching the scroll of the Commandment (called in Hebrew a mezuzah), the small piece of parchment bearing Torah verses and rolled inside a niche in the doorpost. He noticed that there were no children in sight, which struck him as unusual, since the court was normally alive with the din of childish play.
There were, however, two men standing in the portico of the house he shared with his father, who was at this moment addressing them, head slightly bowed in humble greeting. Approaching the portico, James recognized one of the visitors: Joachim, an aged neighbor and the wealthiest man in Nazareth, holder of vast estates on which perhaps a fifth of the farmers in the region were tenants. James’ brothers, Judas and Simon, pastured their flock on part of his land.
The other visitor was a stranger, and an especially distinguished-looking one. Though clearly older than James’ father, this man stood imposingly to the full extent of his tall size. His robes and turban were bleached a bright white, and the sash around his middle was an interlacing of cords in different colors woven with flecks of gold. James recognized it as a badge of status.
Joseph spotted his son, and made a gesture which the boy caught and understood. James ran to the side of the house, found a basin and sponge, and went to the well in the court. He filled the basin with water, and brought it to the portico. Joseph motioned the visitors to be seated, and they placed themselves side-by-side on a wooden bench whose edges were carved in a motif of vines and leaves. Joachim exhibited some slight difficulty in doing so.
The boy knelt down, removed their sandals, and proceeded to wash their feet with the sponge. Their nodding heads acknowledged the gesture of hospitality.
“My son, James,” said Joseph, taking a stool and seating himself across from the visitors.
Joachim eyed the boy approvingly. “He has grown,” the old man said. “What age is he now?”
“Soon to be twelve years,” Joseph replied.
“So he will celebrate his maturity in just over a year then?”
Joseph nodded. “He looks forward to when he can be counted as one of the ten men for a service.”
“Wonderful,” said the tall, distinguished-looking visitor. “A fine son.”
James completed the foot washing, stood with the basin, and bowed. He would not presume to refasten the guests’ sandals.
Joseph put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “James,” he said, “you know our esteemed townsman, Master Joachim.”
It wasn’t the most common thing for a young boy to be included in introductions among adults, but the warmth between father and son was evident to the visitors. James bowed toward Joachim, holding his tongue as befit his youth.
“But I especially wish for you to remember the day,” Joseph continued, “when you were in the presence of the honored Zacharias, great priest of the Lord’s temple.”
James emitted a quick gasp, and his eyes went immediately to the tall man. The boy was duly impressed, as his father had known he would be. For such a figure to grace Joseph’s home was an occasion to be spoken of down the generations.
Joachim smiled, amused at the boy’s stunned reaction. “James studies the holy books with great diligence,” he said to his companion. “Is that not true, Joseph?”
“My son has been a student of the Rabbi Ezra, here in Nazareth, since the age of five years. Ezra tells me that James has great prospects. He often has him lead the other boys in their recitations. When he is older, Ezra will find him a more learned master.”
Zacharias smiled kindly at the boy. “A joy to you, Joseph, I am sure,” he said. “But he should learn in Jerusalem. When the time comes, send him to me. I will see to a placement in one of the houses of study.”
Joseph glanced at James and met the boy’s eyes. Then he looked back at the exalted visitor. “I…would be forever grateful,” Joseph said, unsure at what should prompt such a statement. Was it a sincere offer, or merely a social nicety?
James’ face was reddened from the kind words spoken about him. He withdrew from the porch, carrying the basin.
The unsparing Galilean sun had brought the court near to its usual, cooking, midday temperature. But a slight breeze left Joseph and his guests cool in the shade of the portico. The two visitors sat quietly for a while, leaving their host in great perplexity about the reason for their coming. James shared his father’s curiosity, though he shared it at a distance, listening from behind a large bush at the end of the portico by the stairway leading to the upper room.
Joachim appeared to Joseph to be somewhat unsettled, which could have been the effect of his poor health. He was indeed quite aged, his hands had a noticeable tremor, his skin was pale with many flaked patches, and the shock of fine, pure-white hair sticking almost straight out from under his cap was buffeted easily by even the slightest movement of the air. Joseph noted that he seemed as uncomfortable sitting as he had when he was shuffling slowly across the court. The old man had suffered the loss of his wife, Anna, not more than two years before, and it was said in the town that her passing had accelerated his long decline.
Joachim looked around the court, and then turned this gaze up to the sheltering roof overhead. “When you added this structure,” he said, “it was just before the wedding of your son, was it not? What is his name?”
“Simon,” said Joseph.
“Simon, of course. The flock. Forgive me. My memory…”
“We completed it in time for his wedding feast,” said Joseph.
“I attended. I recall that.”
“My house was honored by your presence. Simon is a father three times since then.”
“You are blessed.”
“The Lord is generous,” Joseph said.
“The Lord is generous,” Zacharias repeated.
Joseph suddenly felt a flash of guilt. It was common knowledge that the wife of the famous priest had borne him no children, and he hoped that the joy of his own family life was not a reminder of that sadness. Joachim had been in a similar circumstance until late life. Then, a daughter. Joseph was glad he had instructed his sons’ wives to keep all the children out of the court while the visitors were present.
Joachim stirred slightly on the bench, his face showing a fleeting grimace. “We have come, Joseph,” he said, “I and my friend and honored kinsman, Zacharias — You are aware that my late wife was sister to Zacharias’ wife, Elizabeth?”
“I am,” said Joseph.
“Yes. Well…we wish to make…a request.”
“Anything I am able to grant,” Joseph said.
Zacharias laughed — very slightly, but still a laugh. “You are a most gracious man, Joseph. You must wait until you hear our request.”
The priest’s remark added to Joseph’s increasing puzzlement over this visit. To James’ as well. What an extraordinary thing that these men should come here. The carpenter had never before met Zacharias, though the holy man’s fame had reached to Nazareth, as throughout all of Galilee and Judea. And as for Joachim — he was a neighbor, Joseph had served him with his carpentry skills, and his sons tenanted their flock in the rich man’s fields. But to have him seated here was something very unusual.
“Yes,” said Joachim. “It is not a small thing that I wish to ask you.”
Now Joseph’s curiosity was highly aroused. He waited in silence, but with impatience.
“Joseph,” said Joachim, “you know that my daughter, Mary, has lived in the temple precincts. I and my wife, Anna, of blessed memory, had passed many years without the joy of children. Then the Holy One saw fit to bestow a gift. And such was our gratitude — and our relief, really…” He looked at Joseph with a sudden sadness of bitter reflection. “I once tried to make sacrifice in the temple, and the priest told me I was unfit because heaven had withheld children from my wife and me. You cannot imagine the shame.”
“The shame was upon that priest,” said Zacharias firmly. “I can only say that he was not of Abijah, my priestly division.”
“I know, my friend, I know,” said Joachim. “But that is past. When Mary came to us…after so long and painful a wait…my wife and I felt it must have suited the Lord’s purpose in a special way. The child belonged to the King of the Universe. We cherished her for three years…three wonderful years…until she was weaned. That was all we had any right to hold her as our own. We dedicated her to the service of the Holy One, blessed be He.”
“That was a great sacrifice,” Joseph said. “It must have been very difficult to give her childhood over to the temple.”
Joachim’s head moved slowly up and down. “Yes. This is true. Difficult. Still, we were confirmed in our decision when we delivered her to the virgins’ quarters.” He paused, a hand going to his face, thoughtfully fingering his white and tangled beard. “You would have been amazed, Joseph. We expected the child to cry at our parting. Such a thing would have been natural, what a child would do. But she waved us away. I remember her little happy smile. It was a strange thing…so very strange. Her legs carried her up the steps as if she were dancing.”
His face lit at the memory, and he started to laugh. “To be truthful, I expected that we would cry — Anna and me — and embarrass ourselves in front of the party that had come with us to make our presentation. But we did not. We both experienced a most wonderful feeling of consolation. I have never been able to explain it, or to understand how it should have come upon us, or why. Such things are beyond explaining.”
Joseph, of course, was aware of the temple virgins and their life of prayer, study and service. And he had often heard the gibes about how the priests, for all their tithes and temple tax, would not be able to keep the place running without the little girls and old women who knew where the mops and brooms were kept. Mary was the only child from Nazareth whom Joseph was aware served in the temple. But he had known nothing of the circumstances of her going, beyond town gossip. To hear these details from the lips of her father was moving.
To James it was all quite baffling. He had heard that this neighbor girl was serving in the temple, but he found it hard to imagine a childhood spent separated from home and family, so far away in Jerusalem. He could not imagine a young boy in such circumstances, much less a girl.
Zacharias leaned toward Joseph with hands on knees. The priestly turban gave his face, framed by his silvery gray hair and beard, an aspect of authority. “There is a problem now, however,” he said.
“Yes,” Joachim agreed, “a problem.”
“Let us come to the point,” the priest said to Joseph’s unspoken agreement.
Despite being made privy to Joachim’s family story — an interesting tale and a privilege to hear it — Joseph was no closer to understanding why these visitors were here.
Zacharias sensed a subtle impatience in their host. “Mary has reached nearly fourteen years,” he went on. “For some time we have expected her to attain her womanhood and for her first flow of blood to begin. It is surprising that this has not happened already, but surely it will soon. This means that her stay in the temple will be concluded because the days of impurity will come. It is customary for the families of temple virgins to arrange marriages for them upon completing the term of service. Being pious and hard-working young women, they make exemplary wives and mothers. But…”
This hesitation prompted Joachim to speak again. “The problem, Joseph,” he said, “is that Mary does not wish to marry. She insists upon carrying on with the dedication her mother and I made for her — that is, on remaining a virgin devoted to the Lord — even though there is no place for a girl her age in the temple.”
“We can make no provision for her,” said Zacharias.
Joseph took on a quizzical look. “As her father,” he said, “do you not have the power to insist that she be absolved of this dedication? If you never intended for it to be lifelong, then — ”
“Yes, I could do that,” said Joachim. “I could do that. But…how can I explain… Mary is an unusual girl, Joseph. Gentle, but…intense. She feels deeply, and she is…insistent.” The old man shrugged, his face in a crooked smile. “I am old, Joseph. Perhaps too softhearted? I admit it. I admit it. But I suffer with many infirmities, and I know…that the Lord will call me soon.”
“You have kin,” Joseph said. “Surely someone could — ”
“There are clanship connections through which my properties are entailed,” said Joachim. “But Elizabeth, Zacharias’ wife, is the only close relative.”
“We are old, ourselves, you see” said the priest. “One way or the other, Mary would be left alone.”
“Even if I had relatives to take her,” Joachim said, “how could Mary ever be assured that she could retain her virginity as she wishes? Whoever became her guardian could insist that she marry. I cannot have this, you see. My daughter’s welfare must be looked after, her dedication respected. She is so young.”
Joseph’s curiosity was beginning to give way to unease. What did these men want of him? His three older sons all had wives, and his youngest was but a boy. And in any case, if the girl wished to remain unmarried, what had her commitment to do with him?
Joachim brought his hands together in the lap of his robes, Joseph’s eyes following them. They were indeed the hands of an aged one, misshapen, trembling. He saw great pain in the fingers with their swollen joints under almost translucent flesh through which one could clearly discern the outlines of the bones.
“Joseph,” said Joachim, now looking away, “it has been quite some years since the passing of your wife, Escha, of blessed memory. Yet, you have not remarried.”
Joseph was silent.
“People in the town — I myself, in fact — well…it is often wondered if you might have had opportunities,” Joachim said. “Surely, a man of distinction like yourself… You must have been approached. Many families would consider you… That is, the name of Joseph the builder is known throughout the whole of Galilee. You manage workers. You have authority, you have means. Yet you have remained unmarried.” He looked directly at Joseph now. “Please, my friend, I know that I have no right to question you in such a way. Forgive me, but…”
“I have a family,” said Joseph. “I am in middle life. Actually, a bit more than middle life.”
“You are younger than I am,” said Joachim. “Considerably so.”
Joseph nodded. “That is true. And…yes, I have thought about what you suggest. The matchmaker has come to inquire on several occasions. But Escha, my wife… When she died, I just — Well, could another woman find a place in my heart? I don’t know. I have never believed so.”
“Joseph — if I may…” Joachim was at pains to avoid giving offense, and torn over having to venture into such a private area. Still, he pressed on. “What of a man’s…longing…my friend? Again, I beg forgiveness. I have no right to question these things, no right at all. And of course, I speak only of the wholesome and proper feelings which a husband has for his wife. But…are such desires…behind you?”
Behind the bush, James’ ears perked up, the inquisitiveness of a boy piqued at hearing his father probed along such lines.
Joseph looked from Joachim to Zacharias and then back at Joachim again. He saw no prurience in their faces. Indeed, their eyes bore into him with what was obviously a great sincerity of purpose.
“Surely,” he said, “you cannot be thinking of me as a match for your daughter. I am well beyond the age even of being her father. I know that such marriages are not uncommon, but I have never thought them wise or fair, especially for the young girls. And besides, if Mary does not want a husband — ”
“Mary’s wishes are precisely of the essence,” Zacharias said. “But…to the question, Joseph — do you no longer feel the needs of a man for a wife?”
Joseph was astonished. He sat quietly for some seconds. These men had come to ask him to marry Joachim’s daughter. He hardly knew how to respond.
“My honored guests,” he said at last. “Let me say that I am content with the life which the Lord has given me. He blesses me beyond measure. I am surrounded by my family — children, grandchildren. What more could a man of my age ask? What would be even right for him to ask? I have no wish to marry.”
“Then, the question of desires…“ said Zacharias, not letting the point drop.
Joseph was becoming annoyed. His visitors could see it in his face and in the rigid posture of his body on the stool. He had tried to answer their unwelcome queries in as discreet and dignified a manner as he could.
“Your forbearance and your forgiveness — please,” Zacharias insisted. “The question…”
Joseph now felt embarrassment mixed with a feeling that was close to anger. Only his long and high regard for Joachim and the priestly status of Zacharias kept him from being overtaken by temper, something rarely seen in the steady and self-possessed carpenter.
“Let my contentment to remain without a wife be an answer to that question,” he said. “Draw from it what conclusions you will.”
A meaningful glance passed between Joachim and Zacharias, though whatever meaning it contained was quite beyond Joseph. The three men sat silently again for more seconds, Joseph trying to calm himself. Then Joachim, with an exertion that told of his age and weakness, straightened himself on the bench and spoke.
“My friend Joseph, please realize that our presence here, and these intrusive questions, reflect nothing but the utmost respect — which you surely deserve, and which you may be certain we have for you.”
“Truly so,” Zacharias added.
Again Joseph was without words.
Joachim continued. “My daughter is settled on her virginity. I cannot say that I understand her insistence, and as her father, I do not favor her choice. I would see her wedded to a fine young husband and grandchildren on the way soon after. Such is the outcome I prefer. Still, I respect the strength of her conviction, and I must assume that the hand of the Holy One is in it. Anna and I accepted the sacrifice of our child once, and I am prepared to accept it again. But my time is short, and Mary must be looked after. If a man were prepared to take her into his home — with no expectations that would compromise the discipline she wishes to impose upon herself — such a man would be doing a great kindness, both to Mary and to me.”
“It would be a deed of the highest merit,” Zacharias added.
Joseph’s body lost its stiffness, and he made a long exhalation of breath. As presumptuous and startling as this proposal was, he recognized in it an honor, coming as it did from two men of such high standing.
“She would, of course,” Joachim continued, “come with a generous dowry —”
Zacharias interjected, “That is, we do not wish in any way to imply, Joseph —”
“I do not take the words amiss,” Joseph said. “Joachim is known to all as someone who is open-handed in the extreme. It is said he gives a generous portion of his income to the temple and its equivalent to the poor. I know he would be most unstinting to any husband, as befits his station and his good name.”
Joseph rose from the stool and walked to the front edge of the portico, standing with his back to Joachim and Zacharias, deep in pondering. James drew farther back around the side of the house to avoid his father’s catching him listening in. The visitors glanced at each other again, then at Joseph, waiting for him to turn once more in their direction, which after a time, he did.
“Why do you make this request of me, Joachim?” asked Joseph. “We are both of the Tribe of Judah, but surely, that is not reason enough.”
Joachim took time before answering the question, choosing his words with deliberation. “I asked myself, Joseph…to what man could I confidently entrust the care of my daughter? I considered several whom I had encountered over the years. Whom did I know that lived his life in accord with the Law of Moses? Who was faithful in fulfilling promises and meeting obligations? Who most had my trust?”
He paused again, stroked his beard, then held out a hand in Joseph’s direction. “I have observed you in the execution of your craft and in the affairs of your business. I have seen you deal fairly with those who pay you for work and those who work for you. I have watched you at prayer in the synagogue, heard you read and discuss the holy books. I have observed the fatherly love in which you hold your family. I have sensed prudence, wisdom, charity. I speak here of righteousness, Joseph, righteousness. This is what I seek in the man who would care for my precious girl. And so, I come to you.”
Joachim’s words filled James with pride for his father. But Joseph was shaken. He stood with his eyes closed, almost ashamed to be in the sight of these two men. To hear such a recitation of his merits disturbed him deeply, because it echoed a struggle that had gone on within him all his life. He knew, deep in his heart, that Joachim’s description of these qualities was accurate. He had always understood his own virtue. Yet he sought to walk humbly in the way of the Lord. Humbly. How can a man be humble when he knows that he is righteous? This was a quandary which Joseph had never been able to resolve.
Without opening his eyes, Joseph said, “It would be a great privilege to have the daughter of Joachim in our family compound.” And then he did open his eyes. “We can accommodate her readily,” he continued. “My sons and their wives will do their best to make her feel welcome. But marriage…this I do not know. Mary could certainly be regarded as an esteemed guest. A ward, maybe? Some sort of…adoption? Perhaps that would —”
Joachim reacted with a look almost of horror. “No,” he said. “That cannot be. For you to adopt Mary while I still live — or for you to take her into your home under such conditions as you mention — this would shame me. People would get wrong, even malicious ideas. It is not without reason that those in other towns repeat the old joke that nothing good comes out of Nazareth. The gossip here can be vicious.
“And an arrangement must be made before I die,” he continued. “I fear that Mary would not accept it when I am no longer here to persuade her. My daughter is a young woman of strong will. I must be honest and tell you this, right from the beginning, Joseph. She has a heart large enough to embrace the whole world, but she holds firmly to her own way once an idea has lodged itself in her mind.”
“But of course this is a strength,” Zacharias added quickly. “Mary has great attentiveness and devotion. I have observed it. She learned to weave while living in the temple precincts. She created several panels of the temple veil by herself. Everyone was impressed at her mastery of the craft — the fine work she was able to do, even though she was only a small girl at the time — and at how she persisted in a great and difficult task.”
For a moment, Joseph found himself amused at these attempts at persuasiveness on the part of the priest. He knew that Zacharias was a trader when not serving in the temple. His caravans plied the routes to Idumea, Nabatea, the Arabian desert, Damascus, and many other parts far and near. It was obvious that the inclination toward selling did not fail him.
The carpenter returned to his stool and sat, his head turned down. Again, there was silence until, after more uncomfortable seconds, Joachim spoke.
“If you have any thought at all of marrying again, Joseph…” he said, “any at all — I mean to a wife who — ” He left the awkward part unmentioned. “Well…I would certainly understand.”
“No,” Joseph said calmly, “I have no intention of that. In this time of life, my thoughts are not directed toward worldly pleasure. Without Escha…well… You see, I live in the world, and in so many ways, the world has been good to me. But now, my children, my grandchildren, my work — these are all the joy I ask of the world. I have no need of a wife in the way you suggest.”
More silence. Joseph leaned forward on his arms, put his hands to his head, and thought — deeply. He understood that Joachim was a man of pride who would not make such a request as this but for the most tender concern. Joachim loved his daughter, the living sign of the Lord’s blessing upon him, the focus of his faith and gratitude. It was hard for Joseph to think of him here in this house near to begging.
Joachim and Zacharias heard a murmuring from Joseph, very quietly, words they could at first barely make out but then recognized as words of prayer: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe…” Joseph’s voice trailed off, and all was stillness again. More seconds passed. Finally, the carpenter lifted his head, looked at Joachim, and said, “I will take Mary as my wife under the terms you propose — if she will agree.”
Joachim held up his hands as if to clap them together in joy and relief, but then he restrained himself. “Thank you, my good friend,” he said, “thank you, thank you. You have made the path to my grave straight and peaceful for me. May your name be remembered throughout the ages.”
“You do an important thing this day,” Zecharias said. “The Holy One is pleased, blessed be He.”
* * *
James could see that his father was disturbed in his heart. After returning from the evening service at the synagogue, Joseph had asked Salome, the wife of Josis, to bring him some fruit and bread to eat alone, for there were things on his mind and his hunger was very slight. Salome complied, but included some olives and uncooked vegetables, along with a few pieces of meat, knowing that her husband’s father frequently under-judged his appetite.
Josis, Judas and Simon were at their respective tables, eating with their wives and children. James should have been at Simon’s table this night, but he stayed behind, sitting in the shadows at the far corner of the lower room in the lodgings he shared with Joseph. A faint shaft of light, the last of the day, penetrated the open-shuttered window on the west wall, the lamp not yet lit.
James’ eyes were on the man who had been his only parent. The boy carried no memory of his mother, since she had died mere weeks after his birth. And while he had been looked after by his sisters and his brothers’ wives, his father was the one living soul around whom his life had always turned. Would things be different when the girl, Mary, was in their home? What claims would she make on his father’s love and attention? Being young, James only partly understood what he had caught of the discussion about a man’s desire for a wife. He had heard Joseph say that he had no such desire, so he assumed his father’s marriage would not be quite like that of other men. But what would it be like?
And what expectations would the girl have of James? Would she consider herself his new mother? Would Joseph demand that he defer to this stranger who was only two years older than the boy? There were so many questions. Perhaps there were yet no answers. Perhaps that was all part of his father’s unsettled mood.
A slight movement of James’ foot caused a sound that roused Joseph’s attention.
“My son? Are you there?” he asked. “I did not see you. Come out of the dark.”
James stood and walked across the room, slipped off his sandals, and deposited himself on a mat near where his father was seated beside a low table.
“Did you eat in Simon’s house?” Joseph asked.
“No, Father,” said James. “I was not hungry.”
“When are you not hungry?”
“Just tonight, Father.” And the boy laughed nervously.
“Eat with me,” said Joseph. “Salome has brought me more than I need. She always wants to fatten me like a calf.”
Father and son washed their hands. Joseph took a small cup, drew water from a basin that sat beside the table and poured it over each of his hands, reciting the prayer for washing. James repeated his father’s actions. Then each broke off a piece of the loaf Salome had provided, and recited the blessing of bread. They began picking from a tray in the middle of the table.
James considered how to address the subject of this person who was to come into the household. It was a delicate problem. Joseph would not like that his son had listened in on the talk of these visitors, but James very much wanted to understand the changes that lay ahead for the family — and for himself. He had to ask.
“Father,” the boy ventured, “when will Mary come to our house?”
Joseph’s eyebrows went up slightly, and his hand paused in delivering a morsel of lamb to his mouth. Then he smiled. “You are always the curious one,” he said. “You heard my talk with the men?”
Joseph thought of scolding, though he didn’t think of it seriously. “No matter,” he said. “You would have learned of these things soon enough. Have you told your brothers?”
“Then please don’t. I will tell them what is to happen.”
“What is to happen, Father?”
When this morning’s discussion on the porch had turned to specific details of Mary’s coming, the voices of all three men grew softer, and James could not hear as much. He knew only that a marriage was to take place between his father and Joachim’s daughter.
Joseph ate the piece of lamb, then said, “Mary will leave the temple before the turn of the new year. Then, a betrothal will be announced. A date for the wedding will be set at that time. There is no urgency, and I have projects that will take me way from Nazareth for several weeks. My journey has been planned for some time. We will marry after I return.”
“Does Mary know?” the boy asked.
“Her father will speak with her,” Joseph said. He reached to take some olives from the tray, then hesitated, aware once more of his lack of hunger, and clasped his hands together with his arms resting on the table.
James noticed. “You should eat, Father,” he said.
Joseph looked at the boy fondly. “And so should you, my son.”
“Then, we will eat together,” James said.
Joseph smiled, and the two of them took food from the tray and ate. After a time, James, renewed his questioning.
“Do you think that Mary will want to marry you?”
“Mary is an obedient daughter,” said Joseph. “And from what Joachim and Zacharias say, it seems that she is a bright girl. If this is so, then she will see that it is the best way for her to live in the manner she — Well, she will see the rightness of the arrangement her father has made for her. I am certain she will agree.”
“Where will she sleep, Father?”
“The upper room. That will be her home. I will set it aside for her use only. Mary has known a life of prayer and study. And since she can no longer have that in the temple, then she will have it in her own home. Or at least something as near to it as possible.”
“The upper room is where you and I sleep,” said James.
Since his relationship with Mary would be of a different nature than that with his late wife, Escha, Joseph had naturally assumed the girl would require separate quarters. He would, in consequence, remove himself to the lower level of the house. But only now did it occur to him that dedicating the upper room to Mary’s exclusive use would mean evicting his son from the space in which parent and child had shared their nights since James was small.
“Oh. Yes. I — I am sorry, my son. I must confess, I did not think about…”
The expression on James’ face made Joseph realize what disruption this would bring to the well-established order and rhythms of his son’s life. It was a point of pride to Joseph that he had always been a good father, able to provide a secure home and an orderly pattern of living for his sons and daughters. He observed how some families paid little heed to the conditions in which their children lived. He knew that far too many of the urchins glimpsed on the streets of Nazareth slept in the straw of animals — and looked it. Now, Joseph felt that, in helping Joachim, a man whom he respected, he had ignored the needs of his own flesh and blood.
“I truly am sorry, my son,” he said.
James saw guilt in his father’s eyes, and it stabbed him in his heart. “Where will you sleep, Father?” the boy asked.
“Here. In this room,” said Joseph.
“Than I will sleep here with you,” James said. “This will be our home.”
If there was effort in the smile which James showed to his father, Joseph accepted it as a sign of love.
“Yes, my son,” he said. “This will be our home. Of course, Mary will be welcome in it.”
“Yes, Father. Mary will be welcome.”
Escha had been right. James was the child of his old age. He loved the boy in a special way, and he resolved that whatever adjustments might have to be made, he would let nothing become an impediment to his relationship with this last and cherished son.
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