Katie Sampias tells a short story of a woman deciding over an arranged marriage, a practice common in the time of Jesus
Sepphora was stunned when her father first mentioned that he had received a proposal for her hand in marriage. Although 16 years old, she had not thought the time for marriage would come so soon.
Sepphora had been around men all her life -- her father and brothers -- but the intricacies of marriage remained a mystery. Sometimes she imagined herself as the heroine in an ancient land, called upon to marry a mysterious man who was dark and attractive but needed to be tamed. She had been intrigued by the story of Esther living in the palace of King Ahasuerus, who used her feminine charms and intelligence to save her Jewish people.
It must have been on one of her outings to the centre of town that the man from whom her father had received a proposal had seen her. Her father had returned from buying some timber for building and repairing the fishing boats. He said it would seem only practical to consider this. The man was the second eldest son of the house where he had purchased his wood, and his name was Alexander.
‘Alexander has not yet received the blessing of his family’, her father admitted. ‘They are of greater means than us, and it is possible there may be some objection. I have every reason to believe he is a man of honour, but I will make some further enquiries about this’.
Sepphora shuddered a little at this last statement. How would her father be able to find out for sure that this man would treat her fairly and kindly? What if this man turned out to be like the ones she had heard horror stories about at the temple -- men who could become violent and cause pain, physically, verbally or emotionally? Her mind quickly ventured to a scary place, where her options were to leave a traumatizing situation without any security and risk being shamed by her community or remain trapped in a dangerous domestic situation.
‘What do you have to say, Sepphora?’ her father asked. ‘What are your thoughts?’
Her father’s questions broke her dark reverie. She felt a sudden urge to get away so she could process the massive life change that may be about to take place.
‘Sorry, father, this has taken me a little by surprise’, said Sepphora.
'Are you all right?' her mother asked.
‘I think I need to get away for a little while’, Sepphora told them. 'I need some time to think about this. Maybe I could visit Aunt Mary? I know she has been feeling lonely after Joseph has passed away. And I know Jesus is there for her, but maybe she would be glad of my company too.'
'I think that's a wonderful idea,' her mother said. 'Give it some time to think over your father's proposal.’
Mary welcomed Sepphora with loving hospitality. Mary was extremely grateful to have someone to chat with and take her mind off her own troubles. Sepphora easily fit into Mary's daily routine, helping her as she went about her chores. Conversation was easy, and Sepphora found relief in telling Mary her anxieties about marriage. Mary listened intently and did not dismiss her concerns.
‘Spend time in prayer and tell God how you feel about this prospect of marriage with Alexander’, Mary advised. ‘Marriage is a way of life in which a couple seeks to love one another and any children that might be born as a physical manifestation of God's love for us. You will never find a perfect person. Any marriage you enter into will have ups and downs, good days and bad days. Joseph and I certainly had our share of difficulties to navigate together. But what made our marriage work through it all was that we both were committed to helping each other be the best versions of ourselves for God, for each other and for other people. We put God at the centre of our marriage and prayed for our needs, relying upon God to find a way for them to be met. Ask God for his wisdom over your life and if Alexander is the best person for you. Try to learn what you can about him. Your parents are quite reasonable and will respect your wishes if you do not feel this is right for you.’
Just as Sepphora and Mary were talking over these things, a door opened, and in walked Jesus. He was carrying a hammer in one hand, and at first, he seemed deep in thought about something he had just been working on. But once he looked at Sepphora and Mary’s faces, these thoughts appeared to dissolve. He must have been able to intuit the conversation that had just passed between the two women.
He smiled and let out a laugh. ‘Oh, so quiet as soon as I enter! Sorry to interrupt. I'm just here to get a bite to eat’, he said, as he casually reached for a bunch of grapes sitting on the table behind Mary and some flatbread left over from breakfast.
He raised an eyebrow and looked earnestly at his cousin. ‘He's a great fellow, Sepphora. You have nothing to fear. I see him fairly regularly with my work. His family is one of my suppliers, and I actually need to go today to get some more supplies. Would you like to come with me? I know you may not want to meet Alexander in person, but you can wait for me while I go about my business. You can keep me company and get an idea about where he comes from.’
Sepphora felt both excited and nervous, but she could not refuse this offer of perhaps finding out a little more about her potential husband.
When they arrived, a few people were tending to some crops and cattle. One end of the estate was filled with the largest pistachio trees Sepphora had ever seen, and alongside the large ones were others in various stages of growth.
‘Wait here,’ Jesus said, gesturing to the entrance of the main residential building. Sepphora stayed with the wagon and watched from a distance as a man came out to greet Jesus. Jesus gestured toward the pistachio trees, and the two men began walking towards the trees purposefully. Once they reached their destination, the second man seemed to be advising Jesus on which one to cut. Sepphora realised he must be Alexander.
Alexander seemed quite serious and officious at first, but then Sepphora noticed Jesus was working to soften him, and before long, the two men were laughing and sharing a joke. Sepphora saw Alexander’s smile, and she could just make out small crinkles around his eyes. When he laughed, he threw his head back and softened his shoulders. Sepphora's heart
warmed. If this man could share a joke with Jesus, at least she knew they could find a sense of humour in common. Sepphora then found a seat on the wagon and lay back. It would be a little while before the wood would be cut and ready to take back to Nazareth.
Sepphora returned to Bethsaida a few days later. Her father told her that the marriage had indeed been approved by Alexander's family, and the couple would soon meet in person.
When Sepphora met Alexander in person, she felt calm and peaceful. She found that he was easy to talk to, polite and considerate of her needs. He showed a genuine interest in her as a person, asked her about her hobbies and interests and listened intently.
Over the next few weeks, Sepphora met with Alexander along with various members of her own and his family to discern if she wanted to accept his proposal. A new excitement about future possibilities started to enter her mind. She started to imagine the love that would be created in her new family and the new relationships that her marriage would create. She imagined holding her own children, sharing their joy and supporting them and her husband in more difficult times. She experienced deep satisfaction when imagining these scenarios, but she also started to feel some sadness. She realised she was grieving for her childhood and the life she would be leaving behind.
Her days would be different, and the routines and rhythms she had known before would be gone. Her simple days of helping her mother with running the household, balancing the books and administering their family's fishing business would end. She had had a busy life as a single young woman, but not so busy that she didn’t have time to wander up and down the seashore. She would meditate on the different shapes and colours of the rocks and sand or lie on the shore and watch the clouds roll above her as her brothers, father and their men toiled on the water. Sepphora pondered how blessed she had been in her childhood. Her parents had nurtured her and provided such that she had never wanted anything.
In addition to this sadness, Sepphora also experienced doubt. She began to wonder if Alexander was the best possible suitor for her. She had not met any other potential husbands. She started to worry that she would marry him, only to find out later that in fact there was a better match for her.
Sepphora struggled to reconcile these different thoughts and feelings within her so that she could make a clear decision. She did as Mary suggested and asked God to reveal to her whether the marriage with Alexander was right for her. She listened and felt that when making any big decision, there was always bound to be some uncertainty and even grief in leaving things behind. Sepphora felt she should decide based on whether she believed this path of marriage with Alexander would best help her serve and love God and others, including herself.
Sepphora’s family members who had met with him had only made positive comments about the prospective match, like her mother, who had noted that Alexander’s practical bent would complement Sepphora’s creative and imaginative tendencies. Her father had noted that Sepphora and Alexander shared a similar sense of humour, and when they were both laughing together, their joy was contagious and felt by all those around them.
And Alexander's own family had a good name, a reputation Alexander had lived up to in his dealings with other people through his business and personal relationships. He seemed to love and serve God to the best of his ability, which included loving and serving the people in his life.
Despite the doubts and sadness, Sepphora felt an overriding peace. She decided to act on that and told Alexander she wished to accept his proposal.
Sepphora’s attendants made the final adjustments to her finery. Once they were satisfied with their work, one lit a torch, and then the others followed, one by one, carefully and silently. The occasion was joyous, but at this moment, the quiet also marked its solemnity. All the anxiety from uncertainty and sadness for what she was leaving behind left her. She felt her soul lifted up by what almost felt like winds of joy and peace.
Now it was time. She and her attendants began to walk slowly towards Alexander's home -- the home that, after this evening, would also be her own. The air was warm but dry and crisp, and some amber light left over from the sunset glowed above the mountains on the horizon. Several men were carrying large stone containers for storing water into the house. The pebbles on the path crunched beneath her sandals, and her attendants began to sing.
Sepphora too joined in their trills, letting the newfound peace swell within her. A smile glowed from within and filled her face as the group continued on their journey to where Sepphora's new life would begin in the town of Cana.