I’m not exactly sure how marriage works in your culture, but in our culture, it is a year long process. At least. That in itself is not easy for an 18 year old. I mean, I have needs! But anyway, back to the marriage. There are two stages in a Jewish marriage and the first stage is the betrothal period. This begins when my father would go throughout the town and surrounding towns and find me a young girl, usually about 11 years old, who would be my wife. I remember the day that it all happened. I was outside in the shop working on a chair for some neighbors when my dad burst into the house.
“Joseph! Joseph!” he yelled. “I’ve found her! And son, you will love her. She is beautiful.” Well you can imagine my excitement, and my nervousness. I mean, I trust my dad, but you know – seeing is believing. As it turned out, she was from Nazareth, too, so later on that night I went out for a walk. Now I knew that I couldn’t be alone with her yet – heck, I really wasn’t even supposed to be in her presence yet, but I went out looking for her house anyway. I just wanted to see her. And so I crept around through the courtyard and eventually found her home and I waited there until I got one good look. I was not disappointed. She was beautiful. In fact, I must confess, all I could do when I saw her was to think back to the Song of Solomon – you know the parts I mean.
The next morning the marriage preparations were in full swing and about a week later we had our first ceremony. Now this was not the official marriage ceremony, it was more like a pre-nuptial ceremony. This would officially begin Mary and I’s life together. Even though after this ceremony we would be called “husband” and “wife”, we still couldn’t, you know, be together. In fact, the best we could do is spend a little time alone together at my dad’s house. I remember that day well – the rabbi was there and my dad gave the traditional gift of livestock to Mary’s family to unite our families. Her father gave us some money that we could use to start our family in about a year, and then it was time for me to give my gift to her. Through the giving of my gift, I would symbolize my commitment to our relationship. I didn’t know what to give to her. I thought about when my forefather Isaac gave expensive clothes and jewels to Rebekkah to begin their marriage. I sure couldn’t do that – I mean, who was I? Just the son of the local carpenter. So I did what I do best – I made her something. It was a little plaque to put over our doorposts that had the shema written on it, and I decorated it with some ornate wood on the sides and it looked pretty good. She seemed to like it anyway. I just wanted her to know that I was going to base our marriage on the law of the Lord from the very start.
And then it was done. We were married legally. In fact, at that point I had legal rights over Mary. The only way that our betrothal could be broken was by divorce, but you never think about that right after your marriage begins. For the first couple of weeks, things were great. Mary and I would spend time together almost every night. We would talk about our lives and our future. We would talk about the carpentry shop and how we might even someday try to save up enough money to open up a second store. Imagine me, Joseph, a chain! We were getting along so well so you can imagine my surprise when I decided to stop by her father’s house on the way to work one morning. Her father opened the door like he was surprised to see me. We exchanged pleasantries, but there was something wrong in his voice. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was like he almost felt ashamed. He wouldn’t look me in the eye and he acted very hurried in our conversation. And then he told me that Mary had left early that morning for her cousin’s house up in the hill country. I tried to get him to tell me why she left so quickly and without telling me herself, but I couldn’t get anything out of him. All he would tell me was that it was important for her to go away and that she would be gone for 3 months.
As he shut the door, I stood on the porch in disbelief. Was Mary sick? Was Elizabeth, her cousin, sick? What was going on? So there I was with nothing to do except wait. So I waited, and I waited. There was no news. Mary’s father stopped opening the door when I came to ask about her. No one in town knew anything. Everyday I would get up and go to the shop and try to concentrate on work, but how can you do that? My wife was somewhere in Judea, not sure exactly where and not sure exactly why. Three months is a long time. It was a long time of wondering and thinking, and of trying not to be angry. Those months are just kind of a blur now – work and home, work and home, work and home. Some days I was angry, some days I was hurt, but by the time it was over, all I could think of was how much I just wanted her to come home. And then she did…