Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The next few short stories examine the lives of wives in the Bible.

The Seal and the Cord

As Tamar0 reached for the jug it slipped in her clammy hands. Thank God, I didn’t drop it, she thought. After wiping her hands on her dress and with a firmer grip on the water pot lifted it to her head. She hesitated at the open doorway as she scanned the crowd already at the well so early in the morning. Tamar had grown accustomed to drawing water during the heat of the day to avoid the gossips, but today things were different and she had to face their nasty jibes.

The village women always gathered at dawn to fetch water and, more importantly, exchange news. Those deemed unacceptable, the outcasts, were forced to get their water later in the day when it was hotter and the earlier group had left. Their snippy remarks caused unseen, sharp wounds which could be difficult to hear for those who eked out their existence on the fringe of society.

Although Tamar was not immune to the women’s taunts, they wouldn’t bother her today. She had decided to fight her father-in-law for what was due to her, widow of his first-born son. It had taken months of debating and then very careful planning, but she’d come to the conclusion that there was no other way. Her honey-colored skin blanched at the thought of her undertaking and she took a deep breath to steady her nerves. As she waited for her turn to draw water, she held her head high, above the women’s barbed chatter.

This morning, despite her anxiety, Tamar’s countenance revealed determination. She scrutinized those closest to her as they exchanged news at the well. A breeze carried the lingering odors from cooking breakfast that clung to their clothes. She stood at the end of the line. Some of the women scurried away, pulling their children with them as if she were a leper.

A bold gossip whose hair circled her face with snakelike tendrils called to the others, "Be careful. Don’t touch her or let her shadow fall on you. Judah sent Tamar home because she killed his sons."

A hush fell over the women.

With a gleam in her eyes and in a loud hiss, the busybody continued, "She’s a witch, you know."

Ptuh. A red-headed woman spat at Tamar. Then the woman drew her scarf across her face to shield her skin from harm, as if she feared Tamar’s glance more than the sun. "Why did he send her back? He should have burned her."

Protective gestures to ward off evil and venomous looks assaulted her. As a crimson flush rose from her neck to her face, Tamar was rooted to the spot. When, at last, they had all drawn water, she filled her jug and headed back to the hovel she shared with Rivka.

Tamar huffed into their house and set her jug down loudly on the work bench. Rivka had waited for her after completing the other morning chores. Seeing Tamar’s red face and fierce expression, Rivka asked, "What happened?"

"The women say that I’m a witch. Since Judah accuses me of killing his sons, although he has no proof to carry out any punishment, they have concluded that his words must be true."

Rivka shook her head.

"It’s time. Judah still hasn’t sent for me. His wife was a good friend and ally; she would have interceded for me if she hadn’t died last year. Now there’s no one to confront Judah over this delay. Whether I’m burned as a witch or because I’ve behaved as a prostitute makes no difference, the fire will still be hot."

Rivka nodded and pulled out the sacks they kept under the bedding. It was a woman’s best hiding place because no man would disturb her bedclothes at the risk of becoming unclean from touching her blood. They spent the day cleaning the fabric and sewing the dress and veils in preparation for Tamar’s encounter with Judah.

From the time Tamar first crossed Rivka’s doorstep to the past week, they had debated Tamar’s predicament and explored a wide range of solutions. The plan they worked out would allow Tamar to regain her place in Judah’s household. Fraught with risk, it was better than constantly groveling for basic needs. Rivka’s supplies had dwindled, making their situation desperate. Despite their fears, they both knew that knew the time had come for Tamar to put the plan in motion.

Their strategy grew out of Tamar’s knowledge of Judah’s habits when she lived in his compound. Being recently widowed, he had been slow to return to his former routines. In the past few days, news had come that he was en route to Timnah to sheer his sheep and she planned to intercept him.

"Do you think you could wait another year for him to send for you and give you to Shelah as he promised? Must you take such a terrible risk, Tamar?" The higher than normal pitch of Rivka’s voice matched the worry in her eyes. They had debated this question endlessly. Although Rivka held a glimmer of hope for the possibility, Tamar had given up that Judah would keep his word and the law.

"I can’t take the chance that he might not check his flocks again in Timnah. As long as Judah thinks that no one will challenge him, I have an advantage. I’ve done nothing wrong and I want to be cleared of suspicion and shame. If only I could return to the home Er and I shared." Her eyes filled with unshed tears, but she blinked them back.

Although Rivka was eight years older than Tamar, age was not the only factor that provided her insights. She had been living alone since her uncle turned her out of his house when she was twelve years old. He had refused to expend time or money to arrange a marriage for her and provide a dowry as he’d promised when her father died. His excuse was that he could find no man to marry a lame woman incapable of managing the expected workload and liable to bear crippled children. Over the years, she had come to know the village attitudes and prejudices well. Prematurely grey strands threaded through her long, black hair. The hardships of life as a village outcast took a heavy toll.

Tamar and Rivka were opposites in disposition and appearance. Tamar’s tallness, grace and unusual beauty brought a different life. Her father married her off to Judah’s son as soon as she came of age, in an elaborate wedding with a generous dowry. Despite her married status, jealous women still found ways to disparage her. Although she wore her head scarf pulled tight to conceal her luxurious, dark hair, there was no way to hide her stunning appearance. Being taller than some men created an unspoken challenge, and if they couldn’t win her favor, they tried to humiliate her.

* * *

Hideous rumors had started as soon as Tamar’s father refused to have her in his compound and then, they escalated — this latest one accused her of wielding evil powers that could cause one to drop dead. When her first husband died of a brain fever, she had become a childless widow. His brother, who refused to carry out the letter of the law to give her a son on his brother’s behalf, was attacked and killed by a wild animal. Judah blamed her for the deaths of his two sons.

Although Tamar now lived in the village of her birth and she knew many of the women, they acted as if she were a stranger. When Judah, her father-in-law, had sent her home as a pariah, her father refused to accept her. He had stood imperiously with her mother next to him, flanked by her younger twin brothers.

"Out. You are a widow and have no claim on this household. Be gone!"

Her mother screamed, "No . . ." but could not say another word as her father’s hand sliced through the air and backhanded her. Blood dribbled from her lips as she stumbled back, but, she did not fall.

He turned to her brothers and hissed, "Get her out of my sight."

These were the boys whose bottoms she’d cleaned and noses she’d wiped. A firstborn female had value only in marriage, if she lived that long. The twins’ birth followed her by six years. Nothing was spared for them and she became their nursemaid. She lifted her head—they would not touch her now. She spun around and left, with no idea where she would go.

None of her friends acknowledged her. Only unwed, lame Rivka had opened her heart and home. On the farthest edge of the village Rivka’s meager shelter, cobbled together with castoff goods, was just large enough for the two of them and comfortable as long as it didn’t rain.

The day after Tamar moved in, she stood in the doorway, reflecting on all that had happened, being thrown out of two homes and thrust into the hovel of one of the poorest women in the village where she’d grown up. Tamar peered through the open door and watched a heavily-burdened woman hurry toward her. Suddenly, tears poured over her cheeks. Despite the load, Tamar recognized her mother’s smooth gait and held the door wider open for her. Her mother dropped the bundles and held her daughter in a fierce embrace.

The bruise at her mouth distorted her usual way of talking, but the message and feelings were clear. "You will always be my daughter and I will try to come to you whenever I can. I must be quick. Here are some things you may need. Oh—" Suddenly she spied Rivka standing in the darkest part of the room, and she turned to her with her hands outstretched.

"Thank you for taking in my daughter."

Rivka smiled. "Lady, you have always been generous to me; I can be no less to Tamar now."

Her mother bowed her head, reached for the opening and left. She’d been there so briefly, that the visit could have been imagined, if it were not for the large packages spilled on the floor. It was the only visit her mother had made in the past two years.

* * *

After Tamar returned from the well, the pair worked hard all day to make sure that her costume was perfect. The next morning, Tamar bathed and perfumed her willowy body. The rose oil scent enveloped them both. Then Rivka helped Tamar dress and braided her hair with red ribbons. Miniature whirlwinds of dust encircled Tamar’s feet as her black clothes fell to the floor with a whisper. She pulled on the sky-blue dress and Rivka handed her the dark red cloak. A small pile of jewelry sparkled on the grey blanket. Tamar slid the bracelets over her hands and hooked the earrings while Rivka fastened charms to Tamar’s ankles that tinkled with every move. Lastly, Rivka shook the wrinkles from the sheer veil — the sign of a prostitute — and dropped it over Tamar’s head concealing her identity.

Rivka stepped back and examined her friend. "Believe me. No one will recognize you." She hugged Tamar and opened the door. "Be careful. I’ll keep watch for your return."

"If I’m successful, I’ll be back before daybreak," Tamar said as she opened the door. She paused on the threshold until there was no one in sight. The setting sun cast long ugly shadows of the trees near the road. These distorted silhouettes created tension in the air, increasing her fear of failure. She made her way to the crossroads at Enaim and found her chosen spot under a huge willow tree that offered shade with a secluded bower nearby. It had taken the two women several days to clear the debris and surreptitiously add pillows and a blanket. After checking their handiwork, Tamar took her seat, arranged the folds of her dress, and waited for Judah. A light breeze rustled her veil.

* * *

Her eyes lost their focus and her clenched hands relaxed as she traveled back in time to the events that brought her to this day.

Tamar was fourteen when her husband, Judah’s first born son, Er died after a sudden illness, leaving her childless. Following the levirate law, Judah sent his next son to give her a child for Er’s linage. Onan, however, was always one to look after his own interest to the exclusion of others. He usually got whatever he wanted and to him, fulfillment of the law was optional. He entered Er and Tamar’s home with an arrogant swagger as she masked whatever feelings and thoughts she held toward him. She extended to Onan the respect she would have given to her husband and prepared her brother-in-law’s favorite delicacies. When they lay together, he played with her hair and stroked her body until she blushed in shame of her nakedness. Although he couldn’t hide his attraction and was ready to plant his seed in her, he rolled away to satisfy his needs. Two days later, a she-wolf attacked and killed him at the gate to the sheepfold.

Judah should have given her to Shelah, his last born son, as soon as he came of age. But, Judah claimed his son was too immature and sent her back to her father to be summoned later. Two years passed without any word from Judah. At fifteen years old, Shelah was recognized as a man — old enough for a wife. But, her father-in-law had no intention of risking his last son by giving Tamar to him.

* * *

Toward nightfall, Judah’s noisy entourage approached the intersection. Tamar rubbed her icy hands briskly to warm them. By playing the prostitute, she risked her life, but life as a village outcast wasn’t much to treasure. When Judah was a few yards away she jiggled her feet to make noise so that he would be sure to notice her. Judah smiled and made some comment to his friends, who responded in laughter. He walked on as if to continue to Timnah.

Tamar held her breath. Could all this planning and preparation come to naught? What if some other man tries to take me?

One of Judah’s companions pulled on his sleeve and spoke to him quietly. Finally, Judah nodded and gave orders to the others. They went on without him as he ambled over to Tamar. She stood and took a deep breath. In a husky voice, she said, "Welcome to Enaim and this humble bower. Rest a while before continuing your journey."

Judah’s salacious eyes caressed the curves of her body. "Come, let me lay with you. I’ll send you a goat from my flock." Both his quiet tone of voice and the way he took her hand, told her that the ruse had succeeded.

"Give me something as a pledge until you send it," Tamar said.

Judah smiled, "What shall I give you? My staff?" His walking stick was too large for her to handle.

She laughed and held out her hand. "Let me have your seal and its cord."

He handed them to her without hesitation before she led him into the dense arbor. Judah followed her so closely that his hot breath tickled her neck and the smell of his sweat excited her. Despite their age difference, Tamar considered her father-in-law a handsome man.

When they reached the cozy bower, a scent of flowers lingered in the cool, evening air. Colorful pillows and blankets covered the ground at their feet where he knelt and slipped the sandals off her feet. He fingered the tiny bells around her ankles, then slid his hands up her legs and drew her to him.

Once he’d sated his lust, he fell asleep. While he snored, she tied the seal and cord to her waist band and edged away from him. It surprised her that he had relinquished them so easily. The seal was the stamp used to verify his documents and mark his sheep. The cord had been carefully braided by his wife to allow seal to hang from his waistband, ready whenever he needed it. An owl hooted as she crept out of the thicket and hurried away.

Rivka held a burning lamp and opened the door when she heard familiar footsteps. She raised her eyebrows in an unspoken question.

Tamar smiled. "It went just as we planned. As soon as we retrieve the bedding, there will be no sign of this tryst."

* * *

Two days later, a man wandered through the village pulling a tan she-goat on a tether with a kid bleating as it trotted by its mother. He asked for the prostitute who stayed at the crossroads.

Indignant that a man would suggest that a prostitute lived in Enaim, the village headman straightened his back and barked, "There’s no prostitute here. We would have burned her for adultery. Take the goat back to your master."

Tamar waited anxiously for her normal time of bleeding. One morning she vomited after breakfast. As the days passed, she noticed the subtle changes in her body as it blossomed with pregnancy. First, her breasts swelled then her belly pressed against her dress pulling it taut.

One morning, four months into her pregnancy, Tamar was sitting with Rivka weaving a basket until the nausea passed. Suddenly they heard shouting. Men called for Tamar. As soon as she stood up, they seized her.

Rivka beat the man who held Tamar. "Let her go. What has she done?"

He shoved Rivka away and she tumbled into a stack of twigs and half-finished baskets. Another taunted, "Can a widow become pregnant? She’s become a prostitute, and so is Judah’s problem again. He’ll pronounce judgment and have her killed."

They tossed Tamar on the back of a wagon and hauled her to Judah’s village. When, they pulled her from the large cart she saw men and women building a pyre — the only sound was the clunk of wood as they added to the heap for the fire. The leader grabbed her arm and took her to the tree where Judah sat in the shade with his friends. His stern look made her shudder.

"My wayward daughter-in-law." He paused and eyed her from head to toe. "You couldn’t wait for my last son. By our laws, as a prostitute, you are to be burned," he said with an unpleasant smile.

Despite the venom in his words, she looked directly into his eyes. "And what is the law regarding the father of the unborn?" She, too paused for a moment. "I am pregnant by the man who gave me the seal and cord tied at my waist. Do you recognize them?"

All eyes focused on the shining seal that dangled below her swollen belly. The guard released his grip and yanked the cord and seal from her waistband. Tamar fell to the ground with her gaze riveted on her father-in-law. Judah slid the cord over the palm of his hand, then turned over the seal to examined its mark. He gasped, and the color drained from his face. Someone offered him a cup of wine and with his eyes still fastened on the seal, he took the chalice with shaky hands and drained it. Only the resonant thud of logs tossed on the pyre broke the silence.

He leaned back and bowed his head for several minutes. Finally, a chastened man whose eyes revealed shame and deep sadness, looked at her. "You are a more righteous person than I. I am expected to uphold the law, but didn’t, until you brought me to justice now reminding me of my responsibilities. I tried to make you an evil person by calling you a witch and seeking any excuse to avoid giving my third son, Shelah to you." He wiped his hand over his face and sighed. "Release her and get rid of the wood. Open Er’s quarters for her; give her anything she needs."

Tamar stood at the open door and relaxed at the sight of the familiar furnishings in Er’s house. As the weeks passed, her least request was fulfilled. Judah avoided any contact with her and if they happened to pass each other, he extended a formal greeting.

The pregnancy secured Tamar’s future. When time for her delivery drew near, she sent word for Rivka to join her. Their happy reunion was timely, because within two days of her friend’s arrival, Tamar gave birth to twin boys. Although Judah was their father and he chose their names, Perez and Zerah would be identified as Er’s lineage.

Judah’s firstborn, Er would continue to live through the twins and ultimately secure the future of the tribe. Among a people who lived by the rights of primogeniture in which the firstborn inherited all real estate and property, Tamar’s children guaranteed the future for all of the extended relatives and servants.

Tamar became a respected woman in Judah’s compound, afforded the same rights as if her first husband were alive. Life deepened with a richness in family and friends that she never could have imagined. Rivka, like a cherished older sister, lived with Tamar and remained her close companion. Over the years, Judah’s regard for her softened. He delighted in the twins and grew to hold their mother in high regard. While she was neither his wife nor his daughter, he sought Tamar’s opinion whenever they chanced to meet and extended her every courtesy for the remainder of his days.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Recent hand surgery delayed the release of my next short story about a woman from the Bible. The first two stories were about women from the Old Testament whose occupations are easily identified. By the time of the New Testament books, things had changed because Roman laws as well as restrictive views about the proper role of women restrict understanding of women's activities. Nevertheless, it's possible to gained some insight about how a woman might have entered the world of business. Here is the story about Shoshanna.


I grew up in Hippos, one of the original ten cities of the Greek decapolis taken over by the Roman empire. Jewish people here enjoy contact with a rich mixture of cultures. Rome considers the region its eastern frontier.

My thoughtful father sought to protect me both politically and financially by marrying me to a Greek merchant rather than another Jew or Roman, as soon as I turned twelve and came of age. Father abhorred the Romans and how they forcefully subjugated our people in many areas of Palestine. Hippos, he thought, was an open city with its many freedoms, and he chose this place for our home.

He’d known Adelphia for several years and watched him develop into an established businessman importing goods from all of the empire. When he approached my father to discuss marriage, he was eager to wed me to such a fine man that he felt could protect me and provide for all my needs.

I had to trust my father’s judgment for no young woman could choose her own husband. This practice made me both anxious and curious. Although my mother had taught me how to manage a faithful Jewish household, she had no idea what it would be like to handle a Greek home where I would be the only one of our faith. My anxiety increased to the point that I could eat very little on the days leading up to my wedding.

Adelphia was a handsome man and a very considerate, gentle husband. While our marriage was the result of negotiations, we were attracted to each other. Adelphia demonstrated his love for me in many small ways and I returned his affection. I also felt tremendous gratitude toward my father for chosing Adelphia for me.

A few weeks after our wedding, my husband asked me to join him in the room in our house that he used for his business.

After I was seated, he said,"Shoshanna0, I’d like you to change your name to the Greek form, Susanna."

My name is Hebrew for lily or rose and I always liked it. I was stunned that he would make such a request. I could make no response.

Adelphia saw my reaction and got up from the table where he had been working with several scrolls and parchment sheets. He sat next to me and tenderly pulled me close to him. "Perhaps I should have started this differently. I’m so used to giving orders and having them acted upon, that I didn’t stop to think about how one treats a spouse."

I remained speechless, staring at the rug beneath my feet. Although it was only a change in pronunciation, I felt as if I was losing part of myself.

Gently, he lifted my chin and turned my face toward his. He spoke softly, "Let me explain. Most of the people you will meet are not Hebrew. Most will be Greek and a few Romans. It would be better for us both if you change your name to Susanna so that people will not immediately associate you with the Hebrews. I have no problem, but for some of my business associates, it could become a major issue."

I was determined not to cry. "I understand what you’re saying, but changing my name. . ."

He pulled me to my feet and held me close as he spoke. "Your father and I discussed this prior to our marriage. He readily agreed with me and I assumed that he had mentioned it to you."

I shook my head as my thoughts swirled around. His reasons made sense and I wanted to be supportive of him. After all, I really wouldn’t be changing my name. Others would just say it differently. I looked up at him. "The change is in the pronunciation and not the meaning. While I prefer the Hebrew form, I can use Susanna." The name felt strange on my lips as I said it. Like so many things about marriage to a Gentile business man, it would take getting used to.

The ten years between us and our cultural differences were a challenge for me at times. The hardest adjustment was learning to serve and eat pork dishes after the years of training in my mother’s Jewish kitchen where pigs were not even mentioned. Despite these things, Adelphia and I grew to care for each other and had an amiable marriage. My greatest disappointment was that we had no children. But my husband was so busy with his work that he never seemed concerned that we were childless.

We had been married ten years when Adelphia took a ship to Athens to inquire about some new wines for import. He’d been gone two weeks when the manager came from his warehouse and asked to see me. This was most unusual because I had nothing to do with his work.

Aesop waited for me in the main room. He was dressed in the robes of a businessman, but the quality of the fabric and the lack of design on the hems indicated that he was of lesser status than Adelphia. Aesop was a gentle and very courteous man. He always greeted me whenever he came to the house and was the only one in my husband’s employment that I knew. When I entered he bowed and I took a seat. His eyes were darker than usual and there were lines in his face that I had not noticed before. He seemed deeply distressed.

"Madam Susanna, I’m sorry to trouble you with this urgent and very sad news."

I felt a chill go through me in the way he spoke.

"One of our ships, that your husband took on his way home, was sunk during a severe storm. They’ve found some debris, but no survivors."

My ears buzzed and the whole room spun around. When I opened my eyes, I was lying on my bed with my favorite maidservant seated next to me. Surprised to find myself in bed, I swung my feet to the floor. Before I could stand up, the manager’s words came back to me. I sat on my couch, immobile, until my maid helped me lie down again. I gazed out of the window and thought about my plans to change the garden. They made no difference now. It was to be a surprise for Adelphia. How could he be gone? How can I truly believe that he won’t walk in the gate? Nothing left. Not a trace.

I fell asleep and woke in the middle of the night. There was an oil lamp burning at my bedside and I saw my favorite maid sleeping on cushions nearby. The tableau startled me and the scene with the warehouse manager replayed in my head. Adelphia is gone. I’m not sure how many fitful sleeping and waking cycles I went through before I finally got up and haltingly resumed household activities. I couldn’t accept that Adelphia was gone. There were times when I suddenly remembered that he wasn’t coming home and the numbness began again. I would sit motionless, as if in a trance, until one of the servants came into the room and spoke to me. There was no one to stay with me; I was on my own. I had some friends, but my family had returned to Judea.

Four weeks later, the manager returned and asked if I would see him. Aesop wanted to know how to proceed with the business. Adelphia had no brothers to take over. The little I knew about the business from Adelphia’s remarks fascinated me. I had wished to know more about it, but he kept everything but the interesting stories from me. This could be my chance to find out about it. I asked Aesop to teach me. He was reluctant at first, but found me to be an apt pupil. I discovered that I enjoyed the work and became so immersed in it that I lost contact with many friends. Perhaps learning Adelphia’s business assuaged some of the pain I felt with his loss.

One evening, Mary, a Jewish friend of mine, joined me for dinner. Petite and fine-boned with a preference for colorful fabrics, she reminded me of a bird flitting from one flower to the next. Tonight was different; her clothes were more subdued in the usual style of a Jewish woman. Rather than touching on many topics, she could only talk about the new rabbi.

"Susanna, you have to hear him. He gives a new interpretation to the Torah that is not so harsh. He emphasizes forgiveness and love of your neighbor. He has all kinds of followers: Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor...It doesn’t matter who you are." Her voice revealed her delight.

"What a welcome change from the synagogues that keep us women out and never allow us to be taught."

"He usually teaches in the countryside or in his followers’ homes. His name is Yeshua. I’ll come get you when I know he’s teaching somewhere close to us."

Three weeks later Yeshua came through Raphana, and Mary took me to hear him. We found him in a small house on the edge of town. She pulled me into the room where he was seated. I was surprised at the number of people in the room and filling the doorways. As crowded as it was, everyone seemed happy to be in his presence.

Yeshua’s garment was deep blue with a homespun robe in a lighter shade. He looked at me with a kind, understanding gaze. I had never seen this man before and yet it was as if I’d known him long ago, like an old friend rediscovered.

He spoke softly, but everyone could hear his voice without straining. He told a story about a rich fool who saved all of his treasure in a warehouse and died without putting it to good use. I felt something stir inside me. Adelphia’s fine business acumen had made me a very rich widow. Now, I had a vast treasure that served no purpose.

As we returned home, I asked Mary to find out where he would be speaking again. She said that her contacts would let her know when he was in the vicinity again.

Thinking about Yeshua and the talk I’d heard brought me a new peace. I stopped imagining ways that Adelphia might have survived the disaster at sea. Now, I wanted to learn more about Yeshua and his teachings. He soothed an emptiness I’d felt since my marriage, when I abandoned my family’s religious rituals.

After hearing Yeshua for the second time, I knew that I wanted to travel with his followers. Mary was interested in joining the group too, but needed to find out how we could do this. In the meantime, I asked Aesop how he had kept in touch whenever my husband traveled. We devised a similar system for me to keep up with business whenever I left Hippos.

Our first journeys were very short, but soon we were staying with Yeshua and his followers for days at a time. Mary and I were accepted as regular members of Yeshua’s entourage.

About seventy people generally followed Yeshua. Some could stay for several days before having to return to their homes and families. Others never left Yeshua and became an inner circle of disciples. Mary and I joined the women who cared for all of the followers and I often paid for food and other necessities as we traveled.

Thinking about the situation now, it seems strange. I can only say that in the very core of my being, it felt right. I knew in my bones that the way Yeshua lived and taught about loving one another and forgiving others as much as seventy times seven was the way we were created to be.

When we neared Jerusalem, I knew that it would be easy to find my family, but they had made no effort to stay in contact with me after my marriage. Now Yeshua’s people were my family. Yeshua’s teachings intensified and the time he spent with us seemed more precious. He taught the same concept in many ways, both parables and miracles. Not a moment passed that he didn’t try to share some deep meaning with us.

At Passover, he took the towel and basin from my hands to wash everyone’s feet. He showed such care and tenderness to everyone as they removed their sandals and entered the room. When he washed my feet, his soothing touch spread throughout my body relieving every ache after the long day’s work with the other women to prepare the meal. He looked up at me and smiled.

"Shoshanna." There was a twinkle in his eye as he said my name.

It startled me to hear him use the Hebrew form after all these years.

When he continued, it was on a more serious note. "You have shared much with us, but more will be required of you."

"I am ready, Rabbi. Just tell me how I can serve." I’ll never forget those moments when I felt complete acceptance.

He looked into my soul as if he knew every fiber of my being and I was filled with joy. Yeshua said, "Susanna, when the time comes, you will know what is needed."

The hours following Passover when Yeshua was arrested were chaotic. We fought our way through the mobs to stay as close to him as we could. Often guards at the palaces or soldiers near the temple precinct kept us from gaining access to the courts.

With Yeshua’s arrest, new opportunities arose for me serve him. I coordinated the women’s movements so that his mother was never alone and all of her needs were met. In the past, a sturdy, young woman in our group named Sarah and I had often worked together. Now we brought bread and wine to those who stayed with Yeshua as they traveled back and forth from the temple council chambers, to Herod’s palace and finally to Pilate’s court. Few wanted food, but they all got thirsty. At Golgotha, his mother and her closest companions, including my friend Mary, knelt at the foot of the cross. The rest of us women stood nearby so that we could respond to any need that might develop.

The men following Yeshua had scattered, but the women stayed together. When Mary Magdalene came with the news that Yeshua had risen, her face glowed and she spoke with absolute conviction. Deep inside, there was no doubt in my mind that Yeshua lived. Our joy was muted though, because the temple priests and Roman soldiers searched for those of us who followed Yeshua.

* * *

After the crowds left Jerusalem, I made my way back to Raphana. My enormous home felt strange after living and working so close together with Yeshua’s followers, especially the women. Weeks later, Mary came to see me.

"What now? I feel kind of lost," Mary said.

I felt the same aimlessness."I’m sure Herod and the Roman prefecture are trying to smother any possible uprising as a consequence of Yeshua’s crucifixion. Not many can know of his resurrection since that’s being spread by word of mouth, not a public event like his death."

She shook her head. "You might be surprised. In Jerusalem, the news is spreading like wild fire. Since Passover, Yeshua has been seen in other places outside the city. The disciples are receiving requests to travel and share the news and Yeshua’s teachings."

As she spoke, I heard Yeshua’s comment to me when he had washed my feet. "I wonder if we could turn this place into a haven for Yeshua’s disciples. They could stay here and rest as they need to before traveling on."

Mary looked around the room and at the gardens outside. "It’s a good idea. We have to spread the word carefully. I left Jerusalem a week after you did and I still heard about soldiers who were looking for Yeshua followers. I think that search will go on for a long time."

* * *

When Aesop came to discuss the business, I explored the idea of turning the house into a place for pilgrims to stay.

"Madam Susanna, I’m not sure that is a wise thing for a widow to do." Then, his serious expression became a warm smile. "I spoke too quickly. His followers can use your help. Knowing that there’s a safe place for them to stay as they travel through the region would offer them tremendous support."

"Aesop, you seemed so negative and then said the exact opposite. You have confused me." I had trusted him, but now, I felt uneasy.

Aesop looked sheepish. "I became a follower of Yeshua soon after you began staying with them. At first, I wanted to make sure it was not a danger to the business and that you were not being used. Then, I started to listen to Yeshua’s teachings and found that I wanted to be part of his work. I’ve stayed in contact with his followers. I think that there are ways for both of us to help."

"Aesop, I’m so glad that you are one of us. It will make things so much easier. I want to open this house to his disciples and followers."

"It’s a fine idea. The income from the business is strong enough for this expense. My only concern is to be careful that we don’t invite unsavory people as we spread the word that this is a safe place to stay."

"We can keep the house going as long as the business remains strong. Do many people know that I’ve taken over?"

"They see things going on as usual and have not asked many questions. I usually tell them that we’re in transition and new management is being planned," he said.

"I’ve heard of a few Roman and Greek women who have their own businesses, but they have come from scandalous backgrounds. That wouldn’t do for us."

Aesop’s face broke into a grin. "There’s a Jewish woman in the region of Lydia who sells purple fabrics. She handles the business herself and is well respected. We receive shipments from her. You can say you’re following her example."

* * *

My transition to becoming a business woman in the Hippos community went better than expected, but it took time to gain respect with some of the businesses. I had invited several men with their wives for dinners during Roman holidays. Aesop came to host the men and I maintained my usual role with the women, unless some issue related to Adelphia’s business came up. I still didn’t think of it as mine.

Aesop cautioned me to keep business matters separate from my support of Yeshua’s followers. That had been easy to do when I left Hippos to follow Yeshua. Since his resurrection, life had become more challenging. I had to keep the business running smoothly and reach out to Yeshua’s followers as they moved away from Jerusalem to spread the news about him. In addition to opening my home, I hoped to offer the disciples passage on ships that we used routinely. As I was mulling over various possibilities, Magnus, the gateman came to me.

"A man has asked to see you."

"Why didn’t you bring him with you?" I asked, puzzled at his reluctance.

"He’s not a regular client and wears very simple clothes. He did say that he was a friend of the teacher."

Hearing those words, I knew it had to be one of Yeshua’s followers. "Bring him to me." The situation highlighted one of the problems I had yet to solve. How could I identify Yeshua’s followers, especially those who joined after his resurrection?

I asked my maid, Cora, to put water and towels in the first guest room, then went to see who my visitor might be. Months earlier, Mary and I had rearranged unused rooms that opened onto the gardens to make a comfortable place for the disciples to stay. This offered an advantage of easy access to the back gate, if needed.

"Greetings, Shoshanna," Thomas, one of Yeshua’s chosen twelve, said as he walked up the path.

"Welcome to my home." We walked along the almond trees to the garden and I showed Thomas to his room. "I’m anxious for news, but that can wait until you’ve rested."

That afternoon, Thomas joined me in the garden. "What is happening with the followers?"

"Yeshua’s brother James remains in Jerusalem and Peter considers joining him there. Most of the others travel to the places where Yeshua taught to tell them about the resurrection. I want to go where Yeshua never went. First to places in Syria and after that, who knows."

We talked all afternoon and when it was time for the evening meal I asked Aesop to join us. We moved to a corner of the large room Adelphia and I had used for formal dinners.

Thomas stayed with me for a month as he met with followers in the area around Hippos. Either Aesop or accompanied him as we were able. It gave us a chance to let others know that my house was available for people who followed Yeshua’s teachings.

Together with Aesop, I told Thomas about our concern to be able to identify Yeshua’s new followers.

"At this point, Shoshanna, you know those who are traveling. As we grow, you should ask people for a letter or token from one of the first group of followers. I believe that this will become necessary if the Romans continue to pursue us. Some are debating this issue in Jerusalem and they’ll probably come up with a common sign we all can recognize easily. We can send them a letter while I’m with you and see if they’ve found a solution."

Aesop tugged at his beard. "There’s one more thing that we talked about and maybe it should be included in your letter." Aesop glanced at me to see if I knew what he might be referring to.

"We’d like to offer passage on the ships we use for our business. It can be arranged, but the follower would need to be very discreet. We do not want to function in secret and yet that seems necessary to avoid persecution. I can continue to offer hospitality and other support as long as the business is successful. This means that I have to keep my support of the followers circumspect."

Thomas nodded. "You have a lot to offer and it will be appreciated. We have to explain the situation to James and he can discuss it with the others. They will determine how to deal with both issues. As for me, I’ll head east. There’s a story that Yeshua spent some time in India. I want to see if I can find any of his followers there."

The house felt empty when Thomas left. I found it hard to wait for word from the men in Jerusalem. If I didn’t hear from them, would I recognize the next follower?

Aesop arrived for our weekly meeting about business issues and once those matters were resolved we began talking about Thomas’s visit.

"I’m worried about receiving new followers that we don’t know. How can I know who is committed to Yeshua’s teaching and who is just looking for a place to stay?" An edge of anxiety crept into my voice.

A thoughtful expression replaced Aesop’s easy smile. In the silence, I could hear birdsong through the open doors to the garden.

He turned to me with a gentle smile and said, "Yeshua received everyone and recognized each person as a child of God. Perhaps that is the lesson to guide us now."

"How often I saw him open his arms to receive lepers, the poor, the lame. I’m glad you reminded me because it is the way forward as we offer a place to stay and, when the need arises, passage on the ships."

As the years passed, the news that my home was open to Yeshua’s followers, passed by word of mouth. Many traced the outline of a fish with their walking stick in the sand at the entrance to my home to reveal their involvement with Yeshua’s teachings. Some were with me for only one night while others remained for weeks. Occasionally, Aesop and I were able to arrange safe passage on my ship to some. A few faced critical financial problems that we were able to resolve. While I never travel or speak to groups about Yeshua’s teachings, I know that my hospitality and support enable those who are blessed with these abilities to continue his work. I believe that this is how I serve Yeshua.

Shortly after losing Adelphia, my friends had suggested that I marry again and a brief flame of desire for children flickered, but my involvement with the followers and Adelphia’s business kept me too busy to consider it. Now Yeshua’s followers have become my family and the younger ones are like my children. The time is coming when I need to find a like-minded woman to help me manage this house and keep it available to the followers, when I an unable to keep it going.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

As promised, here is the next story about a biblical business woman. I hope you enjoy her story

The Innkeeper

In the darkest hour before dawn, Rahab0 stood on her rooftop and gazed at the night sky. The sight always brought a smile to her face, forcing her worries to recede for the time being. As she lowered her eyes her gaze fell on the Israelite encampment. Even at this hour, the glow of small fires dotted the countryside like the stars overhead. But these lights triggered anxiety. Her instinct told her that conflict was inevitable and perhaps only days away. How could she protect her household?

The following morning, in anticipation of subduing the lands of Jericho, Joshua examined the ranks of soldiers for two men who could spy on the city-state and its troops. He walked slowly and scrutinized each man. Halfway down the row, he heard chuckles and muted laughter behind him and turned on his heel. One of the soldiers he’d passed at the beginning of the line strutted with his arms swinging in the distinctive stride Joshua recognized as like his own. Following this man, a second mimicked the first. They ceased their antics when the men grew silent, and they felt Joshua’s eyes on them.

Of average height, neither man had any distinctive feature, except for the uncanny knack of imitating others. With such gifts, and the ability to blend in, these were the ones Joshua sought to enter the strange land and report on the nature of their defenses.

When the men were dismissed, Salmon and Gaddiel followed Joshua to the awning at his tent. Once seated on the carpet, Joshua leaned toward them and spoke.

"Your gifts of mimicking people are needed. I’m sending the two of you into Jericho as spies. You’ve seen men as they come and go from the city so take your cues for attire from them. Carry nothing with you that would identify you as coming from the Israelite camp. We need to know the strength and condition of their troops, the basic security of the city and any other information you can glean. Take no unnecessary risks. Kill no one. Report to me as soon as you return."

Gaddiel gave a curt nod, then asked, "When do we leave?"

"You have today to prepare. Leave tomorrow morning."

* * *

Several days later, Rahab sent a servant girl to fetch water from the city well and glean the early morning news. Exhaustion from managing a brawl in her establishment the night before made her long to sleep for one more hour, but she couldn’t afford such a luxury. As the firstborn, the responsibility of the business and her family had fallen on her shoulders when her father was crippled in battle. While a son was expected to provide for his siblings and parents, the only other males in the household were her brothers, a four-year-old and an infant. She was sixteen now; three difficult years had passed since she took over the inn.

"Madam." Hearing the servant girl’s call, Rahab fastened her hair and descended to the main room from her quarters on the roof. The girl waited at the foot of the steps.

"What have you heard?"

Her eyes sparkled with excitement. "Everyone is talking about spies from Israel. They’re supposed to be in the city, but no one knows what they look like."

"How did this rumor begin?" Rahab asked in a skeptical tone.

"Oh, it’s not idle gossip. The king has a spy among the Israelites who reported to him last night. Then, he doubled the guards at the gates and on the ramparts," the girl said twisting a lock of her hair as her voice dropped to a whisper.

"Thank you, Becka. Go on with your chores. Let me know if you hear anything else."

In the early years of the king’s rule, he had been fair, but as the years of his reign passed, he became more unpredictable. He frequently sent his men to check Rahab’s inn for the least infraction. Once he had her brought to the royal court like a criminal, but without charges. Rather than ordering her to be punished, he had commanded her to join him for dinner.

She took extra care with her dress that night and her sister fixed her hair with a blossom nestled inside each curl. The king sends soldiers to inspect the inn on the least whim. Will this evening be a wasted effort or can I gain some promise of security for my family from him? The head of the guards came to escort her to the palace. Torches were lit at the entrance and throughout the hall where the two of them were served dinner at a raised dias, with other guests seated below.

The way the king caressed her arms and groped her thighs, it was as if they were seated in his private chambers. An embarrassed flush rose from her neck, quickly followed by the revelation that she could not gain any promise from the king tonight. At least nothing was likely to happen to her as long as they stayed in the hall. Emboldened with that insight, she filled and refilled his goblet with wine. His behavior became more outrageous until the wine took effect. When he was too drunk to stay awake, she gestured to the guard who had brought her.

"It time for me to leave. Escort me to my home." She spoke confidently, as if she were one of the court and not just a woman for whom the king had a passing fancy.

The next morning, two soldiers arrived at the inn and demanded to see her. Her behavior had displeased the king. Nevertheless, he would overlook it if she would attend the bacchanal next month to celebrate the harvest. If she did not please him, he would turn her and her family out of the city.

Rahab looked across the room without seeing the disarray from the previous evening, as her thoughts went to Jericho’s king. Her head nodded involuntarily as if to confirm the sudden realization that she had nothing to gain by remaining loyal to an unstable king and a lot to lose if he chose to seize her property and family. She considered the options open to her. Seeking passage for her and her family with a caravan held more risks than she wanted to take. Men wanted to deal only with the man in charge, not with a mere woman. Her father was in no condition to bargain safe passage for them. Once the leader of the caravan discovered their vulnerability, she and her sister could be robbed and sold into slavery, or worse. Rahab’s only hope was the possibility of negotiating with the Israelites.

At midday, the regular crowd filtered into the inn for refreshment. Rahab and her younger sister Merab were kept busy refilling pitchers of wine. Late in the afternoon, Rahab snuck away to the storeroom where she leaned against the back wall and closed her eyes.

Merab crept into the room and rested against the wall near her sister. "Rahab, two men have arrived. I’ve never seen them at the inn before." Then in a quizzical tone, she added, "They asked to see you."

Rahab took a deep breath and nodded. Can this be the opportunity I’ve been waiting for? She followed Merab into the passageway, where she observed the strangers without their knowledge. Everyone else in the tavern was well known to them. Whenever men needed lodging, they were accompanied by the person who referred them. If, at the guests’ departure, the inn was well paid, a jug of wine was reserved for the one who brought them. That these two came alone suggested that they were the spies.

Rahab crossed the room with a confident stride. One of the regular customers grabbed at her skirt and cursed when he missed.

She smiled warmly at the newcomers. "How can I help you?"

The shorter of the two answered. "We entered Jericho this morning and we need a place for the night. A shopkeeper sent us here."

"How is it that you speak like a native of Jericho, but I’ve never seen you here before?" Rahab teased.

"I may be a stranger to your inn, but I live not far from here," he said with an engaging smile.

Rahab was certain that they were the spies, not because of their comments, but what was left unsaid. No one would have left out their connection to people in the city or, at least, the name of the shopkeeper.

"Excuse me, Madam. I need to talk to you." Becka held a basket full of supplies from the market.

Rahab saw the girl’s anxious expression and led Becka out of earshot of the men. "What is it?"

"The king’s men are searching Jericho for the spies. The soldiers searched every stall in the market. I heard one say that they will come here next."

Rahab nodded. "Don’t worry. I’ll deal with this. " As she was talking, the two unknown men had seated themselves at an empty table. Rahab intercepted Merab and took from her the tray she was carrying to another table with cups and wine.

When she reached the two men, she rested the tray on their table and in a low tone of voice, said, "I’ve heard the king’s men are searching for two men from Israel. Leave this room by the side door. The steps lead to the roof. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can."

In the hallway, Rahab gave the tray to Merab. "Keep an eye on the room for a couple of minutes. I’ll be right back."

Merab nodded and turned in response to a shout for more wine from one of the regular customers.

The men stood under the shelter that Rahab used for her private quarters. She motioned for them to cross the roof to a pile of flax stalks. "This stack is big enough to hide you both. The soldiers will be here as soon as they finish their search of the market. I’ll come back when I can."

"But, why..."

Rahab shook her head. "There’s no time to talk now. Hide." She turned away and hurried down the concealed wooden staircase. Soldiers burst through the door as Rahab joined her sister.

"Where are they?" One of them barked at her.

"Good afternoon, Captain. Who are you looking for?" Rahab smiled and handed him a cup of wine.

"The spies. Where are they?" He grabbed the cup and guzzled it like water. Then he spit on the floor.

"Yes, there were strangers here. In fact, they left shortly before you came. I heard them say something about leaving the city before the gates were closed for the night." She wiped sweat from her forehead with the corner of her apron.

The Captain commanded two of his men to alert the guards at the gate. He turned back to Rahab. "Now I’ll search your rooms."

"Of course, Captain. Do you want me to come with you?"

"Come along," he said in a weary tone. The captain and his men had searched her inn many times before and knew the layout.

Her only measure of control in the situation was to lead the way and observe which items they took as they overturned every basket. Some pilfering was to be expected and part of the appeal for the soldiers. They searched every room and storage area on the ground level and second floor. She followed them and tried to right overturned baskets and cushions in their wake. The captain led the way up to the roof. His men threw aside her bed pillows and opened the chest filled with her clothes.

"Captain, you may want to stand to the side when your men check the flax. My servant girl told me she saw a big cobra there this morning and I haven’t had a chance to deal with it,"

Rahab said.

"Cobra?" He looked at her in disbelief until he saw a small milk snake slither away from the bundles of loose, tan fibers. He raised the sword in his hand, then paused. "Never mind. We’ll leave you to deal with your vermin." The captain stomped down the steps with his men following him.

Relief that the search was over left her weak. Rahab knew that the king would readily charge her with treason if the spies had been discovered. She leaned over the parapet and watched the tavern door from above as the last soldier left. She turned toward the pile of flax and spoke very quietly. "You’re safe for the time being. It’s best if you remain on the roof and hide if you hear anyone. I’ll come back after I close the inn for the night. Then, we can talk."

As a darkened moon crested the hills, three people ate together on the roof of the inn.

"Why did you save us?" Gaddiel, the more talkative spy asked.

"The risks for my household to remain here have become too great. I have no allegiance to this king. Over the years, I have heard about the God of Israel from people in the tavern. Certainly the laws of your God appeal to me more than the impulsiveness of Jericho’s king. He claims divine authority over us and wields his power on a whim. There was a time when he was friendly toward our family, but now he barely tolerates us in the city. I need to arrange something else for my family. I hope that by helping you, you will reciprocate and help me."


"I can provide you with any information you need and get you out of the city safely if you promise that none in my household will be harmed when Israel attacks Jericho," Rahab said.

"We’ve been able to assess the conditions of the city and get a good idea of the size of your troops. If it comes to hand-to-hand combat, we outnumber your men by at least ten to one."

Rahab nodded. "The king doesn’t trust anyone. He assumes that he knows what is going on better than anyone else and personally gives all the orders to his troops. When he’s wrong, everything spirals downward into chaos."

Gaddiel’s partner Salmon was the more muscular of the two. He had chiseled facial features that revealed a strong jaw. While they were talking, Salmon had been looking at Rahab. Rather than feeling threatened, his kind gaze sent a thrill through her. When he spoke, she felt herself drawn to him in a way she’d never experienced with other men who had passed through her inn.

In a gentle tone, Salmon asked, "During the battle, how will our soldiers know your house to protect you and your family?"

Salmon’s demeanor gave Rahab a feeling of safety. "My inn is built into the city wall. There’s a narrow window on the second floor for archers if the city falls under attack. I’ll hang a red blanket from there so that all your troops will know this is my house."

"When the fighting is over, do you have a place to go—another town, or do you want to come with us?" Salmon asked.

"We would like to join the Israelites," she replied.

Gaddiel’s gruff voice broke the fragile link between them. "First, we have to leave this city."

"As soon as you have finished eating, my sister and I will lower you from the window on a rope. The king’s soldiers will not give up their search easily. Take the extra food and remain hidden in the hills away from your camp for three days before you return."

"I give you our word that no one in your home will be harmed. When we return to Jericho, we will bring you to our camp and provide for your needs," Salmon said.

Rahab kept watch long after the men had disappeared from view. She prayed to El for their safety and that Salmon would get them to the Israelite base in safety.

She descended to the second level of the inn where her parents and sister had their rooms.

Huddled together in the dim light from the oil lamps, they discussed the arrangements Rahab had made with the spies.

"Rahab, I cannot fight to protect." Tears welled in her father’s eyes. Since his head and legs injuries, he was often overcome with sorrow at his inability to lead his family.

Looking directly into Rahab’s eyes and with a firm voice, her mother continued where her husband left off. "Are you sure that these men will keep their word? They could just as easily kill us."

"My belief is that in offering them hospitality and safety from the king’s soldiers, they will keep their word and give us safe passage to their camp. Life with the Hebrews has to be better than it has been under this unpredictable king," Rahab said.

"You have faith in them and that is all we can hope for now. Despite fighting for our king, he will not help us," Her father said.

Her mother searched her daughter’s face. "All of the decisions that you have had to make with the inn have been well done. You are a good judge of people. We must hope that these men keep their word."

* * *

Five days later, the Israelites began marching around the city, constantly blowing trumpets. On the first day everyone in the inn made jokes at their expense. But for Rahab this was the message that meant she should hang the red blanket. The second and third days, men still laughed about the foolish parade of the Israelites. Since the Israelites made only one full circuit of the city each day, the people of Jericho were more annoyed than alarmed with the strange behavior. But on the third day, after the Hebrews had completed their drill, earth tremors began that lasted through the night. By the fourth, fifth and sixth day, everyone had grown tired of the endless noise that began shortly after dawn and continued until noon. It was strange that the only break from the mild earthquakes was when the Israelites marched. The soldiers talked about killing the Israelites one by one from strategic locations around the city wall, but the king refused to give the order.

The seventh day began with the Israelites marching around the wall in silence six times and on the seventh Joshua gave the signal to blow the horns as all the people gave a mighty shout. For at least fifteen minutes, the earth shook within the city shook violently until the walls and all of the buildings in Jericho began to collapse. People ran into the streets shouting for help. As soon as the severe tremors stopped, Joshua gave the signal for his soldiers to enter Jericho. They killed everything that lived, including all of the animals, and set fires to the rubble. In the entire city only one building remained standing, Rahab’s house. Joshua and the two spies raced to her inn and pounded on the door.

Salmon grabbed the blanket and scaled the wall. He ran to the roof in search of Rahab then descended, checking each floor as he went. Rahab ran up the steps to make sure that everyone and all of their baggage was accounted for. She met Salmon on the staircase and looked up at him; he pulled her up and held her tight. "Thank God, you’re safe. We must get the others."

Joshua and Gaddiel continued to pound on the door, but Merab heard the screams of people being killed and wouldn’t open it.
"Merab, let Salmon through. They’ve come to rescue us," Rahab called to her sister.
Salmon pulled the tables away from the door and opened it to admit Joshua and Gaddiel. Salmon carried her brothers as Gaddiel and Joshua picked up the bundles of family possessions. Outside, walking was precarious, with boulders strewn like seeds across the street. Huge crevices had to be negotiated and fires spread from sparks carried on the breeze. Salmon kept Rahab close to him and guided her out of the city. Gaddiel and Merab struggled together with some of the larger bundles. Joshua supported her crippled father over the rubble and make his way out of the city. He called for another soldier to assist Rahab’s mother carrying the baby.

When they finally reached the countryside, Joshua ordered several other soldiers to help the family while he returned to his troops.

Once they reached the Israelite camp, Salmon sent the other men back to the city while he and Gaddiel showed the family to their new tent. Salmon was attentive to Rahab’s needs and helped her unpack and set up their belongs inside the tent. Together they arranged places for her family. He took her to the Jordan river and when the jugs were full, he helped her carry them. Gaddiel helped Merab set up a separate enclosure for their supplies.

At Rahab’s invitation, the two men stayed with the family for the evening meal. Salmon and Gaddiel sat with her father and as custom dictated, they ate first. Although they could have left as soon as they finished eating, they lingered until the women had finished their meal.

Salmon went to Rahab and took her hand in his. "Be sure to let us know if you need anything else. Let me show you where my tent is so that you can send a messenger whenever you need help."

At a loss for words, Rahab responded with a warm smile and nod. Once he showed her the way, he accompanied her back to her family.

The following morning, Joshua called everyone in the camp together. He stood on a large boulder and praised the people for their help to conquer Jericho. Then, he called Salmon and Gaddiel to recognize them for their advance preparation that had made the battle a success. Lastly he called for Rahab. "This woman gave shelter to our men when they were scouting the conditions in city. She helped them escape when the Jericho soldiers searched for them. Without her, we would not have met with success. . . and we may have lost Salmon and Gaddiel. She merits the full consideration of a heroine among our people."

Rahab felt the heat rise in her cheeks as Joshua spoke. She was glad for the recognition that, she hoped, would help her family learn to live with a new people.

For two months, Rahab was held in high regard by the Israelites, but as time passed murmurs grew about her life prior to joining the Israelite camp. She overheard one woman say that Rahab should be stoned as a prostitute. Salmon saw her returning from the river where she’d been washing clothes. She didn’t have a chance to wipe the tears from her face before he noticed them.

He stopped her and asked,"What’s wrong?"

"How quickly your people forget how I helped them against Jericho. Now they say that I should be killed because I am single and housed men overnight at the tavern. Maybe I should have expected it, but their jibes caught me by surprise."

He pulled her away from the path into the secluded shade of a willow tree. He took the basket of wet clothes from her arms and set it on the ground. "Forgive me. I have been preoccupied with other things." He pulled her to him in a tender caress.

"The comments of the women worry me. At a minimum, they could make life unpleasant. I don’t know much about Joshua. Could they change his opinion about having us here?"

Salmon was quick to shake his head. "You can count on Joshua to keep his word to you." He reached for her hand. "Marry me. When you say yes, I’ll with meet your father."

Rahab reached up with both of her hands and held his face as she looked into his eyes. "Yes, I’ll marry you."

He leaned forward and kissed her. When they returned to the path, he smiled at her and said, "The problem of the women will resolve as soon as we are married."

A week later, both Salmon and Gaddiel arrived loaded with gifts. Salmon asked to marry Rahab, then Gaddiel spoke to their father regarding Merab.

After they left Jericho, Rahab’s father had gained strength rapidly as the wounds in his leg steadily improved. He welcomed Salmon and Gaddiel with the friendliness he had shown to guests in the inn prior to his injury. The women brought food and wine for the men as they negotiated the terms of the two marriages. They talked about additional gifts and merging the households and agreed that the entire family would pledge allegiance to the covenant of the Israelites prior to the marriage ceremony.

The camp buzzed in preparation for the double wedding. Joshua would lead the ceremonies and once more acknowledge the role of the heroes during the battle of Jericho. In addition, the head priest would certify the marriages. Each person involved took care to ensure that the laws and customs of the Israelites would be fulfilled properly.

Rahab smiled to herself. The gossiping had stopped and women approached her with their good wishes for a happy marriage and many children; some even brought small gifts to their tent. All of the tension and fear of previous weeks had dissipated when word of the ceremonies spread through the camp.

Salmon and Gaddiel moved their tents to join with Rahab’s parents. Traditionally, the wife moved to be with the husband’s family, but neither Gaddiel nor Salmon had any immediate family. By extending the family compound and joining the families, the entire camp would be satisfied that they were keeping true to the traditions.

The celebrations lasted for two days. When they were over, Rahab walked through the family’s reorganized compound. The tension in her neck finally had dissolved and she was able to relax at last. She felt as if she had been given a new body for her new life as a member of the Israelites. She had never been so happy.

The day after the celebrations ended, Salmon returned to their tents at midday and heard singing in the outside kitchen. He walked around the tent to the cookfire and watched. Rahab stood, stirring a pot of stew and swaying her hips to the rhythms of her song. He swept Rahab into his arms, lifted her off her feet and whirled her around. Then, he set her down on a cushion and went to the stew pot returning to her side with a bowl of stew and chunk of flatbread.

As he held the bowl out to her, he said, "Let me serve you now as a reminder that your other life is over."

Rahab sat speechless. Salmon tore off a piece of bread, dipped it into the stew and handed it to her to eat. She chewed the bread slowly, letting the importance of Salmon’s gesture sink in. Then, she took another piece of bread, dipped it in the pot, and gave it to Salmon. "We start a new live together and find new ways to do things. The past is finished."

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Months have passed and I've gained a lot of new insight regarding my manuscript, Unheard Voices. As a result, I'm going to post these stories of biblical women in this blog. I'll go throuhg the 13 women as I have them sequenced in the manuscript.
Please let me know what you think of each one as she appears so that I have an opportunity to reply to you or modify the story.

We seldom think about biblical women as business women so I've begun with their stories.

The Midwives

The woman’s scream shattered the stillness of the night, and her husband ran toward the hovel where she was giving birth. Before he entered, two older men grabbed him, dragging him back to their seats by the open fire.

"Don’t worry, Nathan. This is normal. As soon as the baby is born, things will calm down. Dinah will be all right."

The young man bent over, holding his head in his hands. "Is it always like this?"

The second man answered, "After the third child, it seemed faster. My wife recovered more quickly too. It’s the first one that’s so hard."

Inside the mud daub home, oil lamps provided dim light. Dinah’s huge belly almost hid her face as she slouched against the wall. Dinah’s mother, aunts and older sisters sang songs to encourage the mother to push, beating a steady rhythm on a small drum. The rhythm intensified whenever the mother pushed, as if the drummer’s efforts could help her in some way.

The midwife felt the swollen belly and spoke to Dinah’s mother, Leah.

"I need help. Send someone for Shiprah0. Tell her that Puah needs her immediately."

"Is it bad?" Leah whispered.

"It could be if I don’t get help."

Leah scurried out the door to the men. Soon heavy footsteps could be heard as one of them ran to get Shiprah.

The flap that served as a door snapped open as Shiprah, another midwife, entered. She assessed the situation and noted Puah on her knees massaging the woman’s lower abdomen. "What do you want me to do?" Shiprah asked.

Puah directed her friend and colleague to get behind the woman and hold her up to put more pressure on her belly as she pushed. At this stage of the mother’s labor, words were superfluous. Shiprah supported the mother’s back into a half-sitting position. Puah massaged her with each contraction. Dinah was nearing exhaustion. Finally, with a loud scream and one great push, the baby’s head appeared with the cord wrapped around its neck. Puah eased her fingers under the cord as she caught the baby. Its face had a bluish tinge. Puah struggled to remove the cord, then holding the baby by its feet, turned it upside down and massaged its back. A lusty cry filled the room and Dinah reached for her son.

The sun was rising when Leah dashed outside to share the news with the men, who erupted with loud singing and rhythmic foot stomping. Soon, neighbors joined in the celebration.

Work was not yet finished for the midwives. Shiprah cleaned and wrapped the newborn as Puah worked with the mother and watched for the afterbirth. Suddenly the celebrations stopped. Not a sound was to be heard. Leah went outside to see what had happened and was faced with one of Pharaoh’s soldiers.

"Where are the midwives?" He demanded.

Leah’s voice quavered, "They’re inside attending to my daughter."

"As soon as they’re finished, I must take them to the royal court. I’ll wait."

Shiprah and Puah exchanged glances, but were too occupied to think about what awaited them. With the last bowl of water, they washed their face and hands before meeting the soldier outside.

He paused to look them over. The wrap Puah wore tied at her waist to protect her clothes was bloody. Shiprah’s head scarf was knocked askew.

"Follow me."

He marched them out of the Hebrew encampment and through the streets of the city to the royal compound. At the gate, two royal guards escorted them to Pharaoh. They were the last to arrive and stood behind the other Hebrew midwives. Breathless from the fast walk and exhausted from their night’s work, Shiprah and Puah were slow to take in their surroundings.

A horn sounded. The midwives huddled closer together as Amenhotep II entered the room from a door at the far end of the hall. He mounted the dias and arranged his gold embroidered robes into a dazzling display before taking his seat. The ebony throne, decorated with gold leaf and inlaid gemstones, was the only furniture in the vast room. He examined the women before him as they tried to sneak looks at him. His headdress included an ornate cloth that fell to his shoulders and a slender gold crown of a cobra poised to attack. The heavy kohl on Pharaoh’s eyes gave them a snake-like, hooded appearance.

Bare-chested and stone-faced, Pharaoh’s guards each wore a royal blue headdress with a bronze crown that signified their status. With a short sword in their belts and carrying iron spears, the men flanked a group of a dozen Hebrew women, easily recognized by the poor quality of their homespun clothes. The only distinctive feature that they all shared was the style of their head covering, tied in a way that indicated their profession as midwives. The guards prodded them to approach the Pharaoh.

"I order you to kill male Hebrew babies when they are born. Only female babies are allowed to survive. Do you understand?" His voice gradually increased in volume until his question was shouted at them.

None dared speak before the Pharaoh, but all nodded that they understood. The captain of the guards looked to each of his men to verify that all of the women had gestured appropriately. Pharaoh watched the captain’s exchange with his men and ended the audience with a hand gesture to sweep them away. The guards marched the women out of the throne room and across the compound. At the gate, a contingent of regular soldiers accompanied the women to the entrance of the Hebrew encampment.

Shiprah and Puah, a distinctive pair as the tallest and shortest of the midwives, walked together. Puah’s slenderness gave her face sharply defined angles. Tiny Shiprah walked with a rolling gait, having worked on the Nile boats as a slave to an Egyptian family for a year. Her face was uncharacteristically blank; under normal conditions, she would have made a witty quip, triggering laughter. Shiprah grabbed hold of Puah’s hand as they walked, but neither woman spoke until after the guards left them and they were walking along the well-known paths of the Hebrew encampment. Then, Shiprah pulled Puah in the direction of the Nile River. At this late hour of the morning, shadows hadn’t begun to form; only fisherman readying their nets and boats for the afternoon’s sailing remained, selling the day’s catch. They were too busy to pay any attention to the women. Aside from the jokes they called back and forth, the only other sound was the screech of water birds trying to find an easy meal in the detritus thrown back into the water.

Shiprah released her colleague’s hand and turned to face her. "Well?"

Puah looked into her colleagues eyes and shook her head. "It’s unthinkable." A steely look of determination darkened her eyes. "I learned to bring life into the world, not to extinguish it—ever."

Shiprah looked across the river without seeing the wavelets coming to shore or the sails, bleached a brilliant, white in the noon day sun. "I needed a chance for us to talk about this. I feel the same way you do, but how do we proceed? He has spies everywhere and will find out if we’re not following his orders."

"Can we tell him that Hebrew women differ from Egyptian ladies because they give birth faster and have their babies before we get there?" asked Puah.

"I guess it’s good enough, until we come up with another idea." Shiprah heaved a deep sigh as they turned back toward their homes.

Weeks passed without any further summons to the royal court. Rumors circulated in the camp about the Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn boys. Whether women sent for a midwife at all depended on the rapport that they had with her. Some of the midwives lost their clients, but others remained busy. Shiprah noticed that many of her clients waited longer before calling for her to attend them and as a consequence there were many more complications during labor and delivery. Shiprah and Puah often worked together on these calls when the circumstances were too dire to worry about Pharaoh.

In the hours just before dawn, Pharaoh’s soldier came to the hovel where Shiprah and Puah had worked together through the night to help a mother give birth. As they stepped outside, the soldier intercepted them to escort them immediately to the royal palace. Weary and disheveled, they only had a quick wash before leaving the client’s house. They found it hard to keep up and straggled behind the other midwives who grumbled about the order to leave what they were doing at Pharaoh’s whim.

"His order is absurd," said a midwife walking in front of Puah.

"Since word of it spread through the camp, women have tried to avoid calling me. One woman and her newborn died before I arrived. The family was too afraid. I can’t believe that women actually believe that we might try to do what Pharaoh wants."

They turned the corner and all conversation stopped as they approached the entrance to the royal compound.

The throne room was still intimidating, but the impact was lost on the two exhausted women. Shiprah and Puah stood in the back. To avoid blocking others’ view of events, Puah always stood toward the back. Her unusual height often drew attention and today was no exception. Amenhotep II scanned the group until he spied Puah.

He pointed. "You and your partner come to the front where I can see you. I understand you just left a Hebrew woman. Tell me about your night."

Puah saw Shiprah sway and grabbed her arm before responding. "We had a very difficult night, Pharaoh. The woman had been in labor several hours before she called for us."

His voice boomed in the chamber. "Was is a boy or girl?"

"A girl," Puah said.

"Tell me what’s going on. Boy babies are still being born. Your group has not followed my orders. Why?" His eyes bored into Puah’s.

She looked at the Pharaoh as her reply echoed. "Rumors about your order have spread through our camp. Many women have stopped calling us and those that do usually have serious complications like last night. It’s amazing that the baby survived."

Pharaoh tugged on his bearded chin. "My order to you stands that you must kill boy babies." He leaned toward and advisor standing next to him. The acoustics of the room were so good that a few words carried to the women’s ears. "...too many Hebrew men." He looked at the head guard and said, "Get them out of here."

When the soldiers left them, the midwives crowded around Puah and Shiprah. Many of them hugged the two and some expressed thanks for how they had stood up to Pharaoh and for Puah’s answers.

The unofficial leader of the midwives said, "Many of us would never have been able to stand there under his glare, but you both appeared so calm. Thank you for speaking up; you spoke for all of us and we appreciate it."

Since Shiprah’s home was closest to the camp’s entrance, she took Puah with her. They collapsed on the bedding and slept a few hours. Shiprah’s mother brought them food when they woke.

Puah looked around. "Thank you for letting me rest here. I was so tired after last night."

Shiprah said, "We were both exhausted. The audience with Pharaoh took the last bit of strength we had and you had to do all of the talking."

"I remember answering Pharaoh’s questions—blurting out the truth. I can’t understand why the other midwives thought what we did was so special." Puah sat cross-legged, leaning forward to cup her chin in her hand.

"I overheard the royal guard tell Pharaoh that we had arrived. He used such submissive language that it took some time to state his business. Perhaps the women reacted because you answered Pharaoh directly, as an equal, without any deferential language."

Puah shrugged. "I think they would have reacted the same way we did, if Pharoah had questioned them."

Shiprah refilled their cups from the water jug. "Pharaoh’s orders to kill baby boys was preposterous. As if that weren’t enough, he tells us how to do it. I couldn’t imagine one of us throwing a baby into the Nile or smothering it at birth."

Puah drank deeply before responding. "We had no choice but to hear him, whether we follow his advice is up to each one of us."

"I wonder what he’ll try to do next to shrink the size of our community? Did you catch the end of his remark to his advisor about too many Hebrew men?" Shiprah’s voice was distorted as she rearranged her cushions.

"Who knows what Amenhotep II will try next. He underestimates Hebrew women. Have you heard about Jochebed? She wove a water-tight basket and lid adding a layer of pitch to caulk the seams. After her son was born, she set him adrift in the Nile and sent her ten-year-old daughter, Miriam to keep watch." Puah’s eyes had a determined look.

"That’s the baby that Pharaoh’s daughter found?" Shiprah asked.

"Yes. Miriam arranged it with the princess so that Jochebed ended up being paid to care for her own son in the royal compound. One day Pharaoh may regret his efforts to kill Hebrew babies."

As time passed, midwives were called for deliveries only when problems developed and as a consequence there were more mother and infant deaths. None of the midwives followed Pharaoh’s order.

In general, living conditions in the Hebrew camp deteriorated. The demand to make more bricks for Pharaoh’s projects increased the men’s workload while the food provided to the camp decreased. Since meals were served to the men first, the women and children suffered greatly from the lack of food.

Forty years passed this way, but eventually Pharaoh stopped trying to restrict the births of Hebrew babies and turned to other means of making life difficult for the Hebrews. He increased the required daily output for person whether they worked in the quarry or made bricks while reducing the amount of food allocated for the camp.

Through the years, stories about the two brave midwives had grown. Young midwives still came to Puah for advice about problems they encountered in their work. The discussions always ended with a request to hear firsthand the story about how Puah and Shiprah spoke up to Pharaoh. Of the two midwives who had spoken up to Pharaoh only Puah was still living. Shiprah had died soon after the birth of her first granddaughter.

One day, when Puah had just finished feeding her grandson, she heard laughter and singing somewhere outside. She pulled back the leather flap that served as a door and stepped into the path. At the far end of the lane, Miriam was waving her head scarf and leading a group of people as they danced and sang. Words were hard to make out, but the melody was of a song of praise to God.

As they drew closer, Shiprah’s daughter’s voice rose above the others.

"Puah, come with us. Celebrate." She grabbed Puah’s hand and pulled her into the crowd.

Puah joined in the singing and when there was a pause, asked, "What happened?"

"Remember Moses - the baby in the basket raised in Pharaoh’s household?"

"Sure, he’s Miriam’s brother."

Shiprah’s daughter hugged Puah and said, "He is organizing us to leave Egypt! How wonderful it will be to leave this place."

The women danced around Puah and hailed her and Shiprah’s bravery for being the first Hebrews to speak out to Pharaoh.

Moses had fled Egypt as a young man and returned to claim his identity as a Hebrew in recent years. Many times he confronted Pharaoh over the conditions in the Hebrew camp and demanded freedom for the slaves, and each time, Pharaoh would grant permission for them to leave and then renege on his promise. Plagues and disasters followed each broken promise. The tenth time, Pharaoh finally had had enough and kept his word.

Now brief celebrations followed in the camp as people hurried to gather their few belongings and prepare to leave.

Out of respect for Shiprah’s and Puah’s courage before Pharaoh, Moses himself allocated positions of honor at the head of the entourage for both of their families. Their reputations lived on whenever people talked about the efforts of Pharaoh to eliminate the Hebrews. In the annals of midwifery, these were the first two women held up as models of the profession.

Seated on a donkey, Puah scanned the massive line of Hebrews marching out of Egypt. She shaded her eyes with her hands, but could not find the end of the line. Turning around in her padded saddle, she looked forward to see Moses leading them. A satisfied smile brightened her face as she said to herself, "No one will have to listen to Pharaoh ever again."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Parable

The small village was a generic place like many others around the world. There were no distinguishing features of the land or people, nothing to draw tourists, but it was home to an assorted group blending at least three cultural heritages and languages.
For months, maybe years, the village council had been debating what to do with the town square, or plaza, as some called it. Originally the village center had been used to hold livestock, with homes built in a haphazard fashion around it, and there were fields and pastures beyond the enclosure made by the houses. Over the passing decades, the homes were converted to shops, bars and restaurants. The center field became a playground for the kids and picnic area for special events. The shops drew people from outlying areas and the men discussed the issues of the day seated on the benches outside. Eventually, stores and eateries were established along the main road into the village and fewer people came to the central square. Patches of grass, weeds and bare earth made the old village center unattractive and unappealing.
The village fathers debated the problem. Some wanted to invite a major department store to build in the square. Others wanted to create a formal park and band-shell for concerts. The debates waxed and waned without resolution. No one felt strongly enough to push his idea through the stagnated council meetings.
One morning, the shopkeepers entered the square and discovered a huge box-like contraption in the plaza. It filled the open area and was at least as tall as the highest two-story building, maybe taller. The shop owners’ and clerks’ indignant voices filled the air, silencing the birds. One man set off in a huff to see the mayor about the monstrosity.
Mayor Dayly had just finished reading the newspaper and drinking the last drop of his second cup of coffee when Arthur Rodriguez entered his office. Without any preamble or minimal greeting, Rodriguez asked, "Who decided to put a box in the plaza? Damned fool idea. It’s ugly. You can’t see across the field."
The mayor scrutinized Rodriguez for any sign of a prank, then answered, "What do you mean? Nobody’s done anything to the plaza."
"Well then, you better come see for yourself."

Rodriguez turned around and left. Mayor Dayly sat behind his desk, perplexed. What in the world was the man talking about? Had he lost his senses?

By the time Mayor Dayly got to the plaza, it had filled with people examining the huge structure, walking all around it and calmly talking about its origin and purpose. As soon as they saw the mayor the crowd turned their attention to him in anticipation of some announcement. He cleared his throat. "Folks, I’m just as surprised as you are. I had no idea someone was going to do this. I’ll get back to you when I know about it." An indication of the level of mystification was that no one asked a question or made a rude remark about his ability.

The box itself was unusual, not only in size, but construction. There was no entrance or windows and no seam where sections might have been joined. It was as smooth as polished granite and highly reflective so that a color was hard to discern. The surface, when touched, gave no feeling of warmth or coolness, but seemed the same temperature as the air. However, there was a soothing sensation when it was stroked. As the mayor walked the perimeter, he unconsciously trailed his hand along its side. The people followed him and mimicked his gesture.
Every member of the contentious village council examined the structure and came away calmer than when they’d first heard about the box. When they met, not a single person raised his or her voice and none offered a course of action in its regard.
As the days and weeks passed, individuals developed their own relationship with the box. Children liked to play near it. Teenagers made no effort to cover it with graffiti, which probably wouldn’t have adhered anyway. People began leaving small tributes next to the box, bouquets of flowers, a polished stone, a whittled twig and other items. The unobtrusive offerings each had a story. A young woman anxious for children left flowers from her garden as she muttered her wish for a baby. A man suffering from cancer treatment sprinkled tobacco along one edge as he spoke about his hope to see his son graduate from high school. The box drew people to it in a respectful way and they left it, not with their problems solved, but with a sense of ease that somehow all would be well.
News of the box traveled slowly because the villagers were hesitant to speak about something that they couldn’t explain but which comforted them in an indescribable way. Nevertheless, others were drawn to the plaza to see this strange box.
The village boasted three churches (two Protestant, and a Catholic), a Jewish group, an Islamic cluster of faithful, along with assorted Buddhist, Hindu and those who followed other faith-ways. The clergy of the institutional groups met monthly to discuss common concerns. When the box first arrived, they were puzzled, but had no particular problem with its presence. By the third month, however, the Catholic priest was worried.
Father Thom scanned the faces of his colleagues before speaking. "Since the arrival of the box, there’s been a dramatic drop in the number of people coming to confession and fewer attending mass. I’m sure it’s due to the box because I happened to overhear two parishioners talking about its comforting presence in the village."
At first no one spoke, then they all talked at once. Rabbi Jacobs said, "Our group was never very large, but now I’m lucky if three come to Sabbath observances."
"I agree," Rev. Smith said. "Now that you mention it, my congregation has about thirty people attending most Sundays, but lately there have been only twenty. And, fewer have been coming to scheduled counseling sessions. I checked my calendar and noticed that the shift came after the arrival of the box."
They had no solution for the drop off in participation in religious activities, but agreed to continue to monitor attendance.
Six months later, people had begun talking about the box with reverent tones. Those who had shunned some people in the community for their unorthodox religious practices began asking for their insights. No one left their church or faith community, but disparaging conversations about other beliefs subsided.
Sheryl, the woman who wanted children, became pregnant and Horace’s cancer went into remission. Each of them went to the box with tokens of gratitude. While they didn’t talk about the changes in their status, family and friends made a connection with Sheryl’s pregnancy and the arrival of the box. Horace’s friends associated his improvement with the presence in the plaza. News of the possibly healing powers of the box spread and those living further away made an effort to come to the village square.
Much to the surprise of Mayor Dayly, no matter how many people left offerings at the box, they never piled up to become an eyesore. He had worried about incurring additional expenses as a result of the change. Although nothing had piled up in an unsightly way, it bothered him so he decided to spend the night in the plaza and see if one of the shopkeepers was cleaning the area around the box. He casually strolled the perimeter of the plaza all night and saw no one, but in the morning the gifts around the bottom of the box seemed less, ready for the offerings of the day.
Mitchell decided that the box would be the best place for him to propose to his girlfriend. So, he waited for a night with a full moon and brought Jessica to the plaza. The box was stunning with the full moon's light glowing through it and on each side. Instead of one full moon, it seemed like there were eight or ten lighting the square with a soft glow. Mitchell almost forgot why he brought Jessica, but not quite. He knelt next to the box to ask her to marry him and looked up at Jessica speechless as he saw her she stood bathed in the moonlight that revealed her startling beauty. After she said yes and he slipped the ring on her finger, he stood up and took her in his arms. He felt as if another set of arms caressed them as they kissed.
Although word of the box and special events related to it had spread throughout the region, the plaza hadn’t become a major tourist attraction as some on the town council had hoped and others feared. The box related to each person in her or his deepest heart so that people shared information about it with more thoughtful words.
No one knew who first coined the phrase, the God box, but it fit so well that nearly everyone used the term. It didn’t change the way people frequented the square, but reflected more accurately their sense of awe.
At the monthly clergy meeting seven months after the appearance of the box, Father Thom could hardly wait for the opening prayer to conclude. "People are calling that thing in the plaza, the God box! It’s a sin! They seem to worship that thing. We have to do something about it."
The others nodded, but no one suggested any course of action. Finally Rev. Smith said, "There are some things about this situation that I don’t like at all, like the extreme drop in church attendance and lack of participation in other church functions. But, I was talking to the chief of police, who’s a member of my congregation, and Manuel said that crimes have come to a standstill. Since the arrival of the box, there have been no murders, no rapes, robberies have dropped to single digits and drunken-disorderly conduct has stopped." He paused and shook his head. "I don’t like the worshipful attitude that everyone has about it, but things have changed for the good since that box arrived."
Pastor Whilmsy tilted his head to the side, a habitual pose prior to saying anything. "I can agree with both of you, but I’m worried about my quarterly reports to the central office for our church. Not only has attendance dropped, but giving has plummeted. I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon to the superintendent when he calls to find out what’s going on."
"It’s hard to know what to do. On the one hand there’s so much good that’s happening. But the truth is that our religious services are suffering and if it goes on too much longer, we all may be out of work." The last remark was meant as a joke, but Rabbi Jacob realized it was closer to the truth for Pastor Whilmsy.
"So what do we do?" Still indignant, Father Thom looked intently at each one.
"It came on its own schedule. I have to believe that it will leave that way too." Rev. Smith’s voice was flat with resignation. "Until then, we muddle along as best we can."
Six weeks later, Mayor Dayly walked into the plaza and sensed tension in the atmosphere. He looked around to figure out what was different and noticed that the plaza looked normal again. There was no box! He stood glued to the ground. The shopkeepers straggled into the square and had the same reaction. Finally, someone blurted out, "Where is it? Who moved it? We need to put it right back where it belongs."
News that the box was missing spread faster than wildfire, drawing groups to the square to see for themselves that it was gone. Speculation about what happened flowed like heavy snow melt in spring, but no one knew the answer. One of the kids went to the outline of tributes and gifts left behind when the box disappeared. He bent down and started sorting through it to pick up old soda cans and empty plastic bags.
"Who put that trash there? We showed respect for the God box." The woman ran across with a black trash bag and shoved the trash into it as fast as the boy he picked it up.
Disappointment, like a heavy blanket, settled on those gathered. By ones and twos people returned to their daily schedule. Toward the end of the day three men had been arrested for fighting and that night, there was a three-car accident from drunken driving. After nearly a year of peace and cordial relationships in the county, the social fabric was beginning to fray. There were signs of friction in the patched quilt of ethnic groups and languages. It was as if the box had never been there.

Mayor Dayly called a special meeting of the village council. He waited until everyone had a cup of coffee doctored to their preference with milk and sugar and was comfortable in their regular seat at the table. "Before the box arrived, we were discussing what to do with the village square. While it was here, there were all kinds of positive spin-offs for the shopkeepers and community in general. It’s time for us to choose a plan and develop the square."

Art Rodriguez cleared his throat. "I’d like to see it paved with bricks and a gazebo in the south corner. We could hold events in the plaza. Artists could have booths to sell their merchandise or we could have performances there."

"That sounds nice. It’s the best proposal yet," Sheryl Watson said softly as she rocked her infant daughter.

Manuel Mondragon nodded. "It would be good to have a place for social events. With regular use, it would deter some of the drug activity that has returned to the plaza after the shops close."

"I speak for myself, but I think the members of the clergy in town would support this effort. Maybe some of the people in our congregations would donate time and supplies to make it less costly for the village," Rev. Josiah Smith said.

By the end of the special meeting, everyone was in agreement to move forward with the plaza improvement. On May first of the following year, there was a village celebration for the opening of the new plaza. Much of the work and some supplies had been donated. Flowers hung from baskets at each corner and spotlights mounted on the corners of the shops provided light into the evening. Local music groups took turns entertaining the crowd that swelled with families from outlying areas who came for the day.

With the schedule of social events for the plaza and the fact that many of them, including teenagers, helped construct it, the town folk developed pride in keeping it looking good. At least one couple got engaged in the gazebo. Families brought their children for picnics on the weekends and in the evenings many returned for the music and dancing.

On occasion, someone would mention the box, but no one lamented its disappearance. Its presence had led to a new rapport in the community and a spirit of cooperation. Crime statistics rose again, but never to the level they were prior to the arrival of the box. Tensions between the cultural groups waxed and waned, but something had changed to mute the ferocity that had been so common in past grievances. It was not an idyllic village, but things had changed in a good way.

Mayor Dayly was just finishing the paper and his second cup of coffee when Arthur Rodriguez entered his office. The mayor looked up and raised his eyebrows, anticipating a complaint, but Rodriguez took the visitor’s seat across form the mayor’s desk.

His eyes locked on the mayor’s with a steady gaze. "What do you think about all that’s happened here the past three or four years?"

"Art, that’s a pretty general question. Can you narrow it down?" The mayor would never have called him Art before, but they’d worked so closely on the issue of the box and developing the plaza, that a relationship, almost friendship, had formed between them.

"Frank, I’ve been thinking about the box and all that’s happened since. Is there some kind of moral in it or lesson for us?"

"I’ve struggled to find something to hold on to after that event. I couldn’t come up with anything. It was totally unexpected and no one knew anything about it. Its presence broke down some invisible barriers and changed the regard we had for each other. All I can say is that it was a good thing to have happen to us."

"Yeah, I’ve had similar thoughts. I want to have some kind of moral that I could pass on to my kids as they grow up, but I couldn’t come up with one." Baffled, Art shook his head.

Frank’s eyes softened and he smiled. "It didn’t do anything. But so much good came out of its being here. Don’t get me wrong, the plaza looks nice now, but once in a while, I miss the box."