“Marah! Come at once!” the voice called sharply.
At the sound of her name she sighed heavily and paused from cleaning the ashes out of the clay oven. She sat back on the ground to relieve her sore knees. Hearing the happy chatter of small children playing in the dust of the street outside the gate, she listened wistfully and sighed. She was nearly thirteen, a woman now, too old for childish games.
Wiping her hands on her dark shawl, she rose slowly and stretched as she looked out over the village. The air seemed less heavy. The village dogs that lay panting in the sparse shade most of the day rose warily, seeking to quench their thirst in the water channels that cooled the street. While the surrounding valley of Shechem retained a verdant green, the town itself shimmered in the summer heat of Elul.
The time of noonday rest must be over. Marah heard voices and activity from the heart of Shechem. Picturing the streets as they came alive with shopkeepers opening their stalls for the afternoon trade, she smiled to herself as she allowed her imagination to take her through the marketplace. At each merchant’s shop brimming with goods, she browsed leisurely, ignoring the persuasive pleas of the vendors. She would take her time, choosing carefully the things she wanted to buy -
She glanced reluctantly towards the house but only for a moment. Did her aunt have still another task in mind? She lifted her chin and strolled towards the gate to watch the children play. It seemed an eternity since she had been free to be a child.
“Marah! Come at once,” the now angry voice called out again.
She had delayed too long. Lifting the heavy braids off her neck in an impatient gesture, Marah turned and walked slowly towards the house. A rivulet of perspiration ran down her back
Like other things around the house, the wooden door to their dwelling was in need of repair. It hung loosely on worn leather hinges. Marah moved it carefully as she slipped inside and stood quietly.
A narrow ray of sunshine spilled into the darkness and fell upon the rounded figure of a woman leaning back upon the cushions of the pallet. The petulant face was deeply creased
around the mouth from constant frowns and made the woman who was in her late twenties, appear much older.
“I am here,” Marah prompted softly.
Immediately the woman began to gasp, as if struggling to catch her breath. At the sign of such apparent distress, Marah moved closer and touched her Aunt Reba’s shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” Reba roughly brushed the girl’s hand away. “I can’t bear to be touched when I am suffering.”
Marah quickly stepped back.
“Don’t stand there looking foolish. Have you never looked death in the face? Just bring me some cool water.” Reba moaned again.
Her aunt was not dying, Marah was sure, yet it frightened her to think it might be serious. Reba was all she had. Turning quickly to the water jar, Marah averted her eyes lest her aunt see the fear that sprang so quickly to the surface.
As she lifted the dipper, Marah was surprised to see the jar was nearly empty. It had been full this morning.
She handed the dipper to Reba who, with much effort, raised her bulk onto one elbow to drink a swallow or two.
“Aunt,” Marah began hesitantly, as the woman fell back among the cushions moaning pitifully, “the water jar is nearly empty.”
Reba moaned louder. “I feel feverish. You must go and get more water or I shall not last the night in this heat. Go to the Well of Jacob and fill the water jar before it grows later.”
Puzzled, Marah stared at her aunt. “The Well of Jacob? But Aunt, surely the village well is closer. I could go and be back quickly.”
“Did I say the village well? Don’t be a dull-witted girl. If I wanted the water from the
village well I would say so. Now go!”
Marah stiffened at the insult, but still she hesitated. Reba had become unusually strict in the last few days and had forbidden her to leave the house or speak to anyone.
As if reading her thoughts, Reba raised herself up again.
“You have not been out in the last few days. The walk will do you good. Take Hannah with you. You shouldn’t go alone.”
Still Marah lingered.
“Must you stand there wasting precious time? Go!” Reba waved her hands impatiently.
“Yes Aunt”. Marah’s voice was barely audible.
Reba covered her eyes with one hand and the other hand clutched her heart. “Go quickly,” she moaned.
“Will you be all right until I return? Perhaps Dorcas could stay with you?”
“Did I ask for Dorcas? I will just rest until you return. Now go!”
Puzzled and yet relieved to be free of the confinement of the small house for a little while, Marah adjusted her shawl to cover her hair, lifted the water jar to her shoulder and moved gracefully towards the door. Her body, curving into womanhood, filled out the simple garment she wore. Even in her youth she was already tall as were most of the women of Samaria.
Marah looked back for a moment at the woman on the pallet. There was something…but perhaps she only imagined it. She hurried from the house and quickened her step. It would be good to talk to Hannah today.
At twenty-three, Hannah became a surrogate mother when Marah’s mother died three years before. When two years later, Marah’s father also died, leaving her in the care of her aunt, Hannah’s warmth made her life less lonely.
Her father, Jared, grieved for his wife, and feeling his young daughter needed care, had
sent for Reba, his only sister, to come to Shechem and care for their household. How could they have foreseen the change her aunt would bring to their lives? Reba’s small darting eyes had never missed an opportunity to point out a fault.
As Marah neared the house of Hannah and her husband, Simon, her friend stepped out of her doorway.
“So, you finally come to see me, and with your water jar? I have missed you these past few days.”
Marah shrugged slightly. “Reba wouldn’t let me leave the house.”
Hannah’s warm brown eyes highlighted a plain square face. A gentle smile made her appear almost pretty.
“Is the time of women upon you again, child?”
“No, I’m fine” She looked at Hannah eagerly, “Reba said you could go with me to get water. It is cooler now. Can you go?” She looked hopefully at her friend and waited.
“Could I refuse you any request?”
Hannah turned back into the house and reached for her own water jar.
Suddenly, Marah hesitated. “Reba is feverish but has told me to go to the well of our Father Jacob for the water. I am not to go alone.”
With her hand paused in mid-air, Hannah turned and looked closely at Marah, then snorted, “If I should live to see a hundred harvests, God willing, I shall never understand your aunt.”
Hannah reached again for her water jar. “Of course I will come. Your aunt is right. You shouldn’t walk so far from the village alone.”
Marah waited impatiently, anxious to be away lest Reba change her mind and fetch her
back to the confines of the house.
She thought of the many springs that flowed nearby that fed the village well. Why would Reba ask her to go all the way to Jacob’s well when she felt feverish?
Hannah interrupted as though reading her thoughts. “If Reba feels the water from the
well of our Father Jacob will make her feel better, let us go quickly,” she said with resignation.
Hannah cared little for Marah’s aunt.
“You do all the work of the household while Reba spends her time in idle pursuits and
walking through the street of the merchants,” Hannah said more than once. “She takes advantage of you. And all those aches and pains are in her head!”
“She gives me a home” Marah replied once.
“A home?” Hannah snorted. “And what home have you got, Reba’s? It belongs to a distant kinsman. It should have been yours. You are the only child.”
Marah sighed. It was difficult to defend her aunt to Hannah.
“The Leverite law requires you to keep your land within the tribe, yet Reba claims there was not a kinsman redeemer to be found who could marry you,” Hannah had stated flatly. “And what will be your dowry when you do marry? How will you live when the money from the sale of the house and land is gone?”
Shaking her head with righteous indignation, Hannah looked out at the street leading to Marah’s home and folded her arms. “She brings more sorrow to the house. Have you not borne enough with the death of your parents and then to be saddled with that woman?”
Marah kept silent.
“A selfish woman, that Reba.” Hannah rolled her eyes at the ceiling. “Who knows what she will do.”
“I will be all right.” Marah affirmed gently, smiling back at Hannah with trust in her eyes. She understood Hannah’s desire to protect her, for despite prayers and hopes, Hannah’s marriage to Simon had not produced any children. Hannah poured all the mother love of her nature into Marah as if she were her own.
They walked quietly for a time, their sandals making a soft slap, slapping sound in the dust of the road.
“So what is Reba’s ailment this time?” Hannah ventured.
“She gripped her heart and said she was feverish.” Marah’s winged brows knitted together as she recalled the strange confrontation with her aunt.
“Did you not get water this morning?”
“Reba was to go. I have been forbidden to leave the house.”
“For what reason?”
“I’m not sure. Reba has been acting rather strangely lately, perhaps because she hasn’t felt well. I was cleaning the ashes out of the oven and she called me in to send me to Jacob’s Well. Does the well have medicinal properties?”
“Not that I know of, child.” Hannah chewed on her lower lip. She seemed about to say something and then thought better of it. She glanced furtively at Marah from time to time and
then sighed heavily, pursing her lips as they continued in silence. Each was occupied with their own thoughts.
As she and Hannah neared the town gate, some of the village women stopped to watch them pass. They regarded Marah and spoke among themselves.
She decided not to pay attention, listening instead to the barking of the village dogs and soft twitter of the Bulbul birds. In the distance she could hear the chirp of tree crickets. As they began the mile and a half walk to the well, Marah felt a sense of adventure. She had never been to Jacob’s Well before.
Away from the town they enjoyed the cooler air that began to blow down the vale of Shechem.
“Perhaps someone should have stayed with Reba while I was gone,” Marah murmured. “This pain seemed to come upon her so suddenly. It was different. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been left alone. I offered to get Dorcas, but she didn’t want her.”
Hannah glanced quickly at Marah.
“She will be all right, child. We will be back soon with the water she desires. It will
make her feel better.”
Marah nodded, reassured by Hannah’s confident tone.
“I try hard to do as my aunt asks,” Marah said aloud, “but there seems to be no pleasing Reba. Perhaps she will be in a better mood when we return.”
As they walked along in companionable silence for a while, Marah’s thoughts tumbled over one another.
“Hannah. How did you feel when you were to marry Simon?”
“So it is marriage that occupies your mind these days!” The tone was teasing.
Marah blushed. “Well, yes and no. I mean, I merely wondered. I know that one day I shall be a bride. At least I hope I shall,” her words trailed off and she looked beseechingly at
Hannah paused, studying Marah’s face for a moment, “It is in the hands of God…”
Marah looked up at Mt. Ebal. The hands of God. Were they like her father Jared’s hands, gentle and loving, yet firm when she misbehaved? Her father had always said, “Doesn’t the God of all the earth know His way?” What was God’s way for her?
She thought of the dream that came to her from time to time. A man, a stranger, reaching out to her. He wanted something and when she tried to get closer he disappeared. Her grandmother had believed in dreams and visions. What did it all mean?
She shook her head. I am only a maiden. Why would the God of all the heavens be concerned with me?
Blinking, Marah looked back at Hannah who was still speaking.
“…If your family has chosen well for you, a marriage can be a good thing. Simon has been a kind and good husband”. Hannah looked off in the distance, musing. “I was fortunate.
As the youngest of three daughters from a poor household and plain; I was almost fourteen when
my marriage to Simon was arranged.”
“At least you were not a maiden forever!” Marah immediately regretted her words. Only one misfortune was worse than being an unmarried maiden. She knew how much Hannah wanted a child. To be barren was a disgrace. God had closed Hannah’s womb and she sadly bore the stigma of it. Marah looked quickly at Hannah but her friend did not seem to be offended. Relieved, she fell silent again and then a possibility entered her mind.
“Do you think that Reba will arrange a marriage for me?” She hung her head. “We
have very little money.”
Hannah hesitated. “How much do you understand of the sale of the property to that distant kinsman?”
“I know it mustn’t pass out of the tribe of my father. That is the law. Reba said that
out of respect for Jared, the kinsman allows us to remain in the house for a small rent. He was very old and married. As my father’s sister, Reba has no inheritance. Reba had to act
quickly and said I must trust her to do what is right.”
Marah paused to see Hannah shaking her head in unbelief.
“That is like trusting a wild dog with a chicken!” Hannah muttered half aloud.
“Reba would do the right thing for us, wouldn’t she?”
Hannah sighed and continued walking. “Yes, child, I am sure she will do the right thing.
And she will arrange a marriage for you one day. She is your family now that your father is gone.”
Though Hannah’s tone did not have a very positive note, Marah was comforted because
Hannah said the words. Hannah would know.
At the mention of her father, tears came to Marah’s eyes. It had been over a year, and she still missed him terribly, longing to hear his booming laugh and feel his gentle touch.
She looked away towards the fields for a moment, imagining his tall figure striding towards her. He would scoop her up in his strong arms and carry her home when she was small. She remembered candlelit evenings sitting at her father’s feet while he repaired a tool or carved something out of wood.
Then Reba came, with her complaints.
“Jared, when will you fix the roof? Don’t you care if I catch my death of cold?”
“The roof is fine, Reba. I repaired it only last month.”
“Jared, do you not care that I struggle to keep up this house? Marah needs to help me more.”
“She does most of the work as it is, Reba. Aieee, she is only a child yet!”
“She needs to learn her duties.” Reba said sternly, her lips pinched tight and arms folded over her considerable chest.
Marah’s father was no match for her.
He worked his fields and patiently endured Reba’s tirades. Marah recalled that he frequented one of the inns more often as the months went by. Then, two years after Reba had come to live in their home, Jared was found dead in the fields. His great heart had given out. Some men from the village gently carried him home. In her grief, Marah had turned to her aunt for comfort. It was a mistake, for Reba had no comfort to give.
“Now which of the young men in Shechem will you have for your husband?” Hannah
asked, breaking her reverie. Then, seeing the wistfulness in the girl’s face she added with a twinkle, “I’m sure there shall be someone, a handsome young man. Probably there shall be a rich merchant passing through who cannot live without you.”
Alarmed, Marah looked at her friend. “I would not wish to leave Shechem. I pray my husband shall be from our own town!”
“Most surely, child, he will be. Perhaps the son of the Shammash?”
Marah’s eyes grew wide for a moment and then they both laughed. The Shammash, who
assisted the High Priest, was a strong influence in the community, but his son was an empty-headed young man.
“Perhaps a shepherd?” Hannah murmured with a knowing glance at her companion.
Marah blushed and made a face. She turned and breathed deeply of the smells of the rich earth stirred by a welcome breeze.
Jesse. When had she not known him? When had that moment come between them when the friendship of children had slipped into the shadows? When had they become aware
of one another in a way that had suddenly made her shy and him protective? Each day when she took their few sheep to him for watching they talked shyly, prolonging the time together. One day soon, Jesse would speak to his father.
As Marah pictured Jesse’s father speaking to Reba, warmth spread through her heart
and an unconscious sigh escaped her lips. She looked quickly at Hannah, but her friend was looking ahead, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“I shall probably not marry for years!” Marah cried defensively, lifting her chin. Then they both laughed again at the improbability.
The two women didn’t hurry, but walked with purpose.
Marah looked over the dry fields and saw the date palms burdened with ripe fruit. As they passed through the narrow valley, she listened to the birds that perched in the groves of
olive trees. It was nice to be carefree, even for a little while.
At the point where the road climbed slightly, they paused to rest and savor the view of the Vale of Shechem. With the valley curving behind the mountains, the walls of Shechem were hidden from view. The mountains seemed to give the valley strength, forming a barrier that protected the valley from the cold winds of the North and the hot winds from the South. The waters that sustained the valley poured forth in a benevolent flow from the side of the holy mountain, Gerizim, bringing moisture and balancing the dry air of Palestine.
Marah breathed deeply again, savoring the breeze at this peaceful time of the day. Ahead she saw the well of their ancestor, Jacob, whose men had dug the well to water his flocks and herds. It stood on a windswept hill that formed the crossroads for foot travelers and caravans passing through Samaria from other lands.
Many villagers still liked to come to Jacob’s Well to enjoy the walk and the cooler air that blew down the vale in late afternoon. It was a well of tradition more than convenience. Both a cistern and a spring, it was fed by surface water as well as an underground stream.
The well measured seven spans of a man’s hand across. Over the years, the ropes used to
raise the water pots from the well had etched deep grooves into the stones forming its rim.
As Marah and Hannah approached the well, they saw three women laughing and talking together. The latest gossip, no doubt.
The women stopped talking and looked up as the newcomers drew near. After showing Marah the ropes to lower her water jar, Hannah exchanged a few words with one of the other women.
Occupied with filling her vessel, Marah paid little attention, knowing that Hannah would share any interesting news.
When she had carefully drawn up the full jar, Marah turned to call to Hannah. The teasing words caught in Marah’s throat as she beheld the startled look on Hannah’s face.
”Hannah, what is wrong? What has happened?”