By Donna McPherson
Reuben waited to broach the subject until the day before Joseph’s anticipated arrival with his new wife. Rachel put her hand on her hip and waved her wooden spoon in Reuben’s face.
“No, husband. I say no! I love Joseph dearly, but I won’t have that hussy in my house with my daughters. As if I need more useless girls.” Her motions became more animated. “Your own girls will be worth nothing. Nothing! Do you really believe the men here will marry your daughters if they follow her footsteps? I can’t believe Joseph honored the contract with her father after he found out. Everyone knows. The caravans brought the shame months ago. She will be heavy with child by now, and them not married even six months. You know that Joseph didn’t put that bastard in her. He would never do that. They say she was visiting with her cousin. When she came home she was with child. No, I will not have her in my home.”
Reuben’s shoulders sagged. The son of his wife’s oldest sister was a favorite nephew even though distance between Galilee and Bethlehem kept him from visiting except when he came for a festival in nearby Jerusalem. Few people could afford the ten days it could take to walk. Reuben was only a few years older than Joseph, and they always got along well. There was little point in arguing though. As a bride, Rachel’s beauty took his breath away. But, the birth of daughter after daughter lessened her standing in the eyes of the rest of the village. Bitterness hardened her pretty face. Her sharp tongue became a dangerous weapon that the whole village feared perhaps as much as they feared the hated Romans. She blamed him that she had no son. It isn’t my fault she can only produce girl children. God punishes her for her wicked tongue. I should be cross with her, not her with me.
Rather than argue, Reuben took his usual approach. He left the house. He worked hard to make a beautiful home for her. Most homes in Bethlehem had only one large room. The family slept and ate on the raised end and the animals were kept inside at night on the lower end. Mangers and feed areas were hollowed out of the hardened clay floor. But with his hard work, Reuben had managed to build a guest room beside the house. A two-room house, and still she is never happy. The roof top had space to sleep in warm weather. Sleep came peacefully up there away from the noise of children and animals. He loved to lie back and count the stars. God had promised father Abraham that his children would outnumber the stars. Reuben remembered whispering to Rachel that they would have twelve sons like their patriarch Israel. But, that was before the daughters came. Now she only let him touch her after another daughter had been weaned.
“A son this time,” she would warn.
Perhaps the one she carried now would be the long-awaited son. Reuben lifted his eyes heavenward and silently prayed. Oh Lord, send our redeemer. If not, at least make this child a son.
Cold or not, he would sleep on the roof tonight. Probably whether he wanted to or not. Caesar Augustus’ census had filled the country with travelers. Joseph would be here tomorrow or next day at most. As soon as Rachel heard the news she eagerly sought among her friends for a “son of David” who would need a place to stay. She boasted of her guest room then. Finally, a desperate neighbor told her about an elderly couple who would be coming in for the registration. Rachel was delighted! Now she could turn away her nephew and his fiancé without the village despising her. Reuben felt sorry for the guests until he learned that both were hard of hearing. I suppose it is best this way. Rachel cleaned and fussed as though she were expecting a king to come to her guest room. They were expected in three days, but he knew Rachel would never let Joseph and his wife enter the house, much less sleep in her precious room. And, truthfully, seven daughters and a pregnant wife did fill the main space. Joseph would have to find something else.
When the elderly couple arrived on time for the noon time meal the next day, Rachel could barely contain herself offering the best hospitality in the village. The girls who were old enough were sent rushing to the market for more food or off to the fields for flowers. Reuben couldn’t help looking down the dusty road. His heart struggled with his brain. Joseph, poor fellow what have you gotten yourself into? She can’t be worth it. Concern for Joseph and his young wife fought with his concern for his own whipped hide.
Before the evening meal at sundown, Reuben looked out the door down the road one last time before he brought his animals inside. Sheep for wool and sacrifices, a goat for milk, and a donkey he bought as peace offering for his troublesome wife to impress neighbors. Romans wandering about creating trouble and the strangers in town for the census only increased the need for this nightly precaution. If there were no animals, there would be no temple sacrifices. He felt a tug at his sleeve. Little Leah. His third daughter had a sweet, gentle spirit and was, perhaps, the only quiet one in the bunch. She always seemed to see past the surface of a thing into its heart. Unlike the rest of the women in his house, she listened and watched. He often wondered what thoughts tumbled about in her pretty little head. He tousled her dark braided hair.
“Papa,” she tugged again and whispered, “Is she really so bad? What has cousin Joseph’s wife done that Mama hates her?”
“Nothing for you to worry about, love. Help me with the lambs?”
“Yes, Papa. But, Papa, I will know. You know I will know if she is good or not. I love Joseph. He wouldn’t love her if she were bad. I will just look in her eyes and know.”
“We shall see, little one.”
I pray with all my soul that you are right. God, if she isn’t good, make her good, for Joseph. And, God? If you made my next child a boy, maybe my wife would be good too.
Leah helped her Papa with the animals. Reuben worked hard. Not everyone had a donkey. Once the animals were secure with fresh grass in the manger on the floor, Leah slipped her small hand into Reuben’s.
“Papa, just one more look?”
Reuben picked her up and gladly took her to the lower level door to peer out into the gathering darkness.
“There, Papa, look! There they are.”
Leah scrambled out of her father’s arms into the road. Before Reuben realized what happened, she sprang out the door and ran to the dusty figures coming toward them.
“Leah, can it be you? Well, look how you’ve grown.”
Joseph dropped his bundle, picked her up, and tickled her cheek with his beard. She giggled. After greeting her special cousin, Leah slipped from his arms. She grew quiet and looked at young woman he led. Without a word, she cautiously reached out to lay a hand on the woman’s swollen belly. Joseph began to introduce his wife to his little cousin. Leah, however, bounced back to her father who was coming up to greet them.
“She’s good Papa. I told you so. I know that she’s good. She can come in now. Mama can’t leave her out.”
Reuben hushed his child and stretched out his arms to Joseph.
“Welcome, Joseph. We didn’t know if it would be today or tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Uncle Reuben. We didn’t know if we would make it. The roads have been so crowded. Mary is just about done in, but I didn’t want her on the side of the road another night.”
“Come to the house. We will see if your aunt has any room left. At least a meal.” It isn’t my fault there isn’t any room. Let her turn her nephew away. I won’t do it.
The group approached the house. Reuben held up an oil lamp. He didn’t know what he expected to see. Rachel had planted images in his head of a wanton Roman priestess or a roadside harlot. What he saw was a girl only a few years older than his oldest daughter pale with fatigue and covered with dust. Her face didn’t show shame or lewdness. No deceit or bitterness marred her face. She was simply sweet. She gave him a tired smile.
“Uncle Reuben, I am glad to meet you.”
Like my own little Leah.
He didn’t know what happened, but he knew he would defend this young mother and his beloved nephew. Even to his wife. He felt a strength he had not known for years well up inside him.
Loudly enough for all the neighbors to hear, he bellowed, “Wife! Rachel! Guests for you. Make welcome your nephew, a son of David come to claim your well-known hospitality!”
Rachel opened the door and hissed for him to be quiet. People peeked out of the nearer homes.
“Joseph, my poor nephew, come inside,” she said and kissed him.
She tried to make it sound welcoming to the neighbors, but everyone heard it for what it was, a command. Some continued to look. Most closed their doors and quietly joked that Reuben would be sleeping on the roof, again.
Once inside, Joseph tried to introduce his weary wife.
“Aunt Rachel, my wife Mary.”
Rachel turned her back to Mary. She gave Reuben a look that would have wilted him an hour earlier. To her surprise, he scowled back. He ordered the girls to fetch water for washing and a bowl of goat’s milk for Mary. Leah brought some of the bread and cheese from the meal which was almost ready.
“She’s good, Mama. She’s not like you said.”
Rachel slapped the child hard enough to leave an angry red hand print on her face. Bread fell to the floor. Mary pulled the child to her to protect her from another blow, but Reuben caught Rachel’s hand before she could strike again. Rachel seemed to come to her senses when she saw the pain in Joseph’s eyes.
Mary laid a small hand on Joseph’s arm. Her voice was barely audible.
“We can go. We don’t need to staaaaa…”
Her words stretched into a cry of pain and she clutched her belly. Rachel started to reach for Mary but anger and embarrassment hardened her heart.
“I will see to my guests,” Rachel said as she turned away. She escorted her esteemed old people to their room and busied herself taking food to them. She hoped that they were too hard of hearing to be able to repeat the scene to the neighbors. The girls knew better than to interfere. They snatched the food they wanted and hid in their beds.
Reuben tried to lead Mary to the bed mats, but she shook her head to say no. Joseph and Reuben stood for a moment just staring at one another.
As the pain subsided, Mary protested that she didn’t want to cause inconvenience or trouble. Where, indeed, would the family sleep on this frosty night if she took a bed? Joseph suggested they bed down in the animal’s area.
“There is plenty of straw. Do you think Aunt Rachel won’t mind too much?” he asked. “We brought our blankets with us for the road. I know Aunt Rachel would never let it be too dirty.”
“If I could just rest tonight, we can go tomorrow.”
“Rest, child,” said Reuben. “I will deal with my wife.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” said Joseph.
He helped Mary down the steps. This is not how it should be. I know this is your Son, God, but does it have to hurt Mary? The Son of David deserves a throne, a palace, at least a welcome.
After the men helped Mary lie down, Reuben pulled Joseph aside.
“You do know, that her time is now, right? Cursed Romans. They ruin everything. But, birth of a first child is rarely immediate. The baby might not come for a day or more. Rachel will have to get over her issues and deal with the situation. You are clearly done traveling for now.”
Joseph responded, “Thanks, I do know. This baby is special. God gave me a promise about Him. I know Aunt Rachel thinks Mary, well. You know. But, she didn’t. And, I love her, and I love her son.”
Reuben noticed that Joseph didn’t say “our son.”
The whole situation didn’t make sense. Maybe she was raped on her journey to her cousin’s house. That would explain her innocence and Joseph being willing to protect her even if he isn’t the father.
“Well, let’s drink a glass of wine and pray that God gives both of us sons.”
Leah came up just then. “I’m not a boy, but you love me.”
Reuben pulled her into his arms. “Yes, sweet Leah. I love you very much. And, Joseph will love this baby even if it is a girl.”
“He’s not,” Leah said with authority. “Mama’s baby is a boy too.”
“And just how do you know this, little lady?”
“I don’t know how. I just know. Maybe God tells my heart.”
Joseph let out a hearty laugh and exclaimed, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, You O God, have ordained truth.”
“In the face of such overwhelming evidence, I think perhaps we should all go to sleep and see what happens tomorrow.”
With that, Reuben carried Leah to her bed with her sisters and snuffed the lamp. Joseph found the blankets where Mary lay and stretched out. Her peaceful breathing told him that she was resting well despite the situation. He knew there was a chance that Aunt Rachel would judge Mary. Almost everyone did. But he had hoped that Aunt Rachel’s love for him would overlook an awkward situation. He had long since given up explaining about angels. Everyone thought he was delusional. None of the girls Mary’s age were allowed to speak with her any more. Her mother believed her only after Joseph confirmed the contract. Her cousin Elizabeth believed her from the very beginning, but she was the only one. I didn’t even believe her without the angel telling me. Oh God, how can I do this? He’s almost here. How can I father the Creator of the world?
Joseph’s thoughts gradually gave way to troubled dreams. Mary woke to pains which she muffled in her robe. She giggled a little when she thought that her muffled cries were still softer than Joseph’s snoring. And softer than the angry whispers from the other side of the house. She had hoped that when they were further from home that people wouldn’t make wrong assumptions. At home all the old ladies counted on their fingers the months that passed before she began showing from her wedding date. She hadn’t done what they thought. Not even with Joseph after their wedding. He was very careful to guard her and keep her pure. She wondered what it would be like to finally know Joseph completely when the purification days after Jesus’ birth were complete. Then the pains began again. O little Jesus, Mama said it would hurt, but I had no idea. Do you wish you would have chosen someone stronger for your mother? Help me be who You need me to be.
Morning dawned and animals stirred well before the people were ready. They were completely unconcerned that the whole house full of humans woke somewhat bleary eyed. The goat began to show interest in Mary’s blanket. No one had rested well. Joseph was already cleaning the mess from the animals and preparing them to go out. A neighbor’s son would take them to graze and bring them back for the night. Mary sat up, lightly swatted the goat’s nose, and looked at the family beginning to rouse themselves.
Leah saw Mary sit up. She returned Mary’s smile. Unfortunately, her mother saw as well. A sharp command sent Leah running to the well for water. Rachel noticed Leah touch her bruised face on the way out the door and called her back to muck out the lower level. The oldest girl was sent for water instead. Mary tried to make conversation with Rachel.
“You have a lovely home. Joseph told me Rueben built you a guest room too.”
Rachel’s curt answer put an end to that. “You’ll not set foot in it, and I’ll thank you not to corrupt my daughters by speaking with them either,” she snapped before turning away.
Mary fought tears. People could be so cruel. They will see some day. God promised He would save His people. An unusually sharp pain struck just then which made Mary catch her breath. Joseph saw and rushed to her. When she could speak again, Mary asked whether any other place could be found.
“I’m afraid not, my dear. The Romans have the entire world turned upside down. I didn’t want it this way for you or for Him. I’ll look for something, but until some of the travelers leave, we are blessed just to have a roof over our heads.”
“I know. I am sorry. We are blessed. Everything will work out fine. He does seem eager to come though.”
Joseph quietly warned her, “You had better rest today. No helping sweet Aunt Rachel either. She simply wouldn’t hear of a guest working in her home. All of Bethlehem knows how well she runs her household.”
Mary giggled when Joseph winked at her. He put his finger on his lips and then on hers. Leah had been listening in. She had to drop her head to hide her smile and a fit of coughing covered her short laugh.
Rachel left for the market after feeding the older couple. She left food out for Joseph and the younger girls. She had to hear the gossip first hand to insure no tales were spreading about her household. Joseph went out to help Reuben and asked Leah to let him know if Mary had any difficulties. Leah knew better than to be caught talking to Mary. So, Mary was left to pray. She did. First for her own strength in the coming hours and days and for her little son. She prayed for Joseph and blessed God for giving her a man that loved her and honored God. She prayed for Uncle Reuben and sweet Leah and the other children because she felt sorry for them. And, she prayed for Aunt Rachel. On the journey, Joseph had regaled her with stories of his childhood. Joseph’s mother was 12 years older than Rachel and understood her value to her home and her community. She was a woman content with who God made her to be. Rachel grew up hearing the scripture taught to the boys. Every day she heard the Torah. She longed to be in the group that got to sit in cool shade and listen to the beautiful voice of the rabbi. She felt cheated that while they read, she had to clean and cook and sew. She often snuck away from her chores to hear the teacher. Her one consolation was that when she married, she could produce many male children and increase her standing through them. If she had sons, God might value her too.
Leah hovered in the house where she could watch Mary. The peacefulness of the young woman soothed Leah’s wistful heart. She wished her own mother loved her with the love she saw in Mary’s eyes. She knew Mary would be a good mother. When Mary’s pains came stronger and more frequent, Leah would gasp with every little groan. Leah ran for her mother when she could not bear to hear the cries any longer. Joseph and Reuben were just returning. By the time the evening meal was over, even Rachel’s hard heart softened. She became all business. She ordered the men outside, she ordered Leah to fetch the midwife, and she ordered everyone else to bed. She herself caught the wee child before the midwife could arrive. But with Mary’s crisis over, Rachel would not look at the child after she saw it was a son. Joseph heard the newborn cries and rushed in. Rachel coldly handed him the naked boy and went to her roof top to cry privately.
“It’s not fair,” she lamented to God. “I am a good, faithful wife for all these years, and the unfaithful one has a son. I have only girls. If this one can’t be a man child, kill me during the birth.”
Mary and Joseph wrapped the babe in swaddling cloths to keep him safe and cozy. After a sleepy nursing session, both mother and child slept. Joseph sat staring at the two. The tiny child amazed him. He carefully pulled back the cloths to count tiny fingers and toes. The Son of God yawned at him! He gently laid the baby in a manger near Mary. He’s so perfect. But, He’s so ordinary. He came in the ordinary way. Why this way?
Joseph’s musings were interrupted by talking and shouts, bleating and rushing sounds. A crowd of shepherds were hushing each other at the door. Reuben had long since gone to bed with the children, so Joseph opened the door. If they were robbers (or Romans, same thing) he couldn’t have stopped them from entering.
“What do you want?”
They pushed past him and dropped to their knees in front of his wife and child. Mary woke. The shepherds tried to be quiet to not wake the sleeping baby, but their excitement filled the room. Reuben woke and Rachel came down from the roof to fuss but couldn’t be heard over the commotion. All the shepherds were talking at once.
“They sang! They sang ‘glory to God in the highest.”
“Said the Son of David was born.”
“Lying in a manger. And, look, there He is!”
“They were so bright, but said not to be afraid. I was afraid but then…”
“Fear not, they said. Glad tidings they said – for ALL people. Not just the rich and the rabbis, but ALL people. Folks don’t pay us dirty shepherds much attention. Don’t even want us in their houses.” Here he paused to glance at Rachel before continuing, “ But angels came to us. They sang. They sang to us. About Him.”
The room grew quiet when the little baby wiggled a little and smiled in his dreams. His mouth began to make little sucking motions. Mary sat in awe watching the humble men adore her little son. She picked him up and held them so that even the ones in the back of the crowd could see. When he started rooting around for his milk, Joseph thanked them for coming. Reuben and Rachel stood spellbound. The shepherds took leave, each one bending down to the baby before going out. They sang praises more gently now. Their joyful hearts could not be contained. The entire village heard at least part of the noise and wondered at it.
Rachel turned to Reuben, buried her face in his chest and wept.
In eight days, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple. They didn’t have to tell what happened there. News of the old Simeon’s strange blessing and old prophetess Anna’s reaction to the baby Jesus reached Rachel before they returned. Joseph found a small house for his little family as people began to leave after registering for the census. He had plenty of work and Aunt Rachel needed help with her family as she approached the end of her term. She was weary to her soul. Though Mary helped with everything, even the menial and demeaning tasks, Rachel still would not speak with her. Leah encouraged her to eat and rest.
“This one is a boy, Mama,” she would promise.
Rachel would turn her face to the wall. Finally her day came and Leah was justified. News spread like wildfire that after seven daughters, Rueben had a son! The entire village came to congratulate him. Rachel’s health seemed to return, and she asserted herself once more. Mary was no longer required or tolerated. Neither was her son. Rachel never held him except for the moment he was born.
When the boys were toddlers, another strange event occurred. Rumor reached them from Jerusalem that Eastern astrologers were looking for a baby boy “born the king of the Jews.” They had asked questions at the palace and at the temple. Bethlehem hummed with discussion on what that could mean. The women holding court at the well stared with amazement when a small train of richly dressed strangers rode up. They wandered around town the latter half of the day, always gazing at the sun to see where it stood in the sky. As the sun set and the sky filled with stars, they looked with purpose at the heavens, then mounted their animals and pointed them towards a small house on the outskirts of the village. Every woman with a young son, including Rachel, stood in her doorway as they passed. Each hoping for a prophet to proclaim something wonderful for her or her child. When Rachel saw the house they entered, she pursed her lips. They left after some time. Rachel noticed that they had fewer burdens than when they came. One smiled sadly at her as he passed her.
“It would have been better for you if your child were a girl.”
Rachel wanted to rip his eyes out.
“What can you know of my life,” she spat at him.
She clutched her boy more tightly to her and escaped into her house. Something about him made her hair raise on end. She began to cry. Reuben heard her and came.
“Why the tears, Rachel? You are the mother of a strong son.”
She fell against him and sobbed.
The next morning Reuben came back soon after leaving.
“Joseph left. He just disappeared during the night with his whole family. A couple shepherds said they saw them slip out after sunset. There was no moon last night. I looked in the house. They took what they could carry in a couple bundles and left everything else. I wish I knew what is going on.”
Rachel grabbed at her heart, ran over to where the girls were playing with little Reuben, and snatched him up.
“Rachel, what is this? Has the whole world gone mad.?”
Rachel never let her little son out of her sight. Then they heard another rumor. It was so terrifying that no one believed it. Then they came. They had no need for secrecy though many of the soldiers seemed ashamed. Others were gleeful. They came with the power and reach of Rome. Herod had condemned every young male child near Bethlehem to death. After the first few babies and toddlers were speared, women frantically stripped the clothes off their daughters to show they were not male. Mothers of boys hid in every possible location. To no avail. They were found. Women who tried to shield their sons were also savagely hacked.
Reuben came home to find Rachel weeping. She sat on the floor rocking her son back and forth, her clothes and hair splattered with blood. A dark pool grew at her feet. Reuben pried the child from her arms. His head tipped back. His fat little chin pointed up and showed a red line across his neck.
Reuben wailed. All of Bethlehem wailed. Rachel would not be comforted.
“I knew. I knew Who He was. I wouldn’t even hold Him. I cursed His mother. He should have been the one to die. I know the scriptures. He was the One to come and I missed Him. And, I shall never be a mother to a son. There is no comfort to me.”
Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.”