The Other Man
The plane glided smoothly over the wood boards, birthing perfect curls of shavings. It would be a table fit for a king’s palace, but was crafted for the Levite who led the local synagogue. Sturdy and large enough for feasts and councils, with some adornment of abstract design along the legs and edges, consistent with the prohibition against graven images in Law, yet elegantly simple, it’s artisanry understated.
Twenty-seven year old hands, muscular, with remarkable dexterity, gripped the plane with the confidence of a skilled tradesman. They had gripped tools for nearly all of their days, and formally for fourteen years, since the hands’ owner’s apprenticeship that began after he celebrated his bar mitzvah. At twenty-one he began to cultivate his own style and clients, while still in the family shop.
If all went well, another few months would see him established sufficiently to wed his fiancée. He wondered as he whistled over his work a tune from the synagogue service, where did the fourteen year training period for crafts and trades come from? Did it originate with Father Jacob, who labored fourteen years for his two brides, a week of years for each? If so, why did one these days have to work fourteen years to just get the one wife? Not that he wanted more than one! No, no! He’d observed that one was plenty for most men. He just wished it could be seven for the one, and then get on with life.
His thoughts often ran to Miriam. It was an effort to keep enough of his mind on his work, and not lose himself in his daydreams. Miriam. Their parents had made the agreement practically on the heels of her naming ceremony when she was eight days old, just a few months after his own bar mitzvah.
It was common for parents to arrange things thus. It gave the son something to focus on, to motivate them in learning their craft. There was no little shame for a young man who was unready to marry his betrothed shortly after she came of age. For the daughter, she grew up in the security that her father had chosen someone to care for her, and her mother could show her from early on how to manage the household his personality would create.
Both sets of parents had a vested interest in making a good match that would be able to provide for them in their senior years. However, there was trepidation because of the uncertainty inherent in high infant mortality and the wars that could steal away a young man so easily. Assuming both were healthy, the young man hoped against hope that this infant girl would grow into someone he would be attracted to and could live with. You had to trust your parents –their intentions and wisdom both, a lot. In this, Yosuf was heartily relieved. His parents had done well, which was why he had such a time trying to concentrate on his work day to day.
She was devout, compassionate, competent in all she did. Oh, and did he mention her eyes? Her complexion? Her laugh? Her grace? That look that she only gave him? The Lord was good indeed! He barely wanted to admit it even to himself, but his friends had once snuck a look at the one scroll of Scripture they were not allowed to read until at least age thirty and showed it to him. His ancestor, Solomon the wise king wrote an exceptional and explicit description of the joys of marriage and love. It fired his imagination, and was one more thing he had to keep under control. He loved and hated that he’d read that scroll—loved the thrill of anticipation of what could be, and frustrated at the battle not to think of Miriam too deeply in that context.
As he rehashed this internal argument one more time, fighting for the control of his imagination and desires, he was completely caught off guard by the soft call of his name behind him, by the most inconvenient and lovely voice to hear in his state of mind.
“Yosuf,” said Miriam, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you!”
He recovered himself quickly. “Miriam! What are you doing here? It is good to see you, but this is neither the time nor place. It is inappropriate for us to be alone here.”
Then he saw the troubled look in her eye, and his concern morphed from societal to personal. “What’s wrong?”
“We really need to talk. The sooner, the better. Something incredible I barely understand, much less can explain has happened. It is from the Lord, and we need to discuss it. Our parents are talking even now, and agreed I should be the one to tell you. Propriety is the least of our worries right now, though my older sister is outside as chaperone.”
Yosuf’s hands fell limply from his tools. He didn’t know how to respond to such an introduction. He dumbly pointed to a chair he’d finished that morning for the table set, and she sat, tears beginning to run down her cheeks. He leaned on the table, panic and fear and uncertainty warred for dominance, causing his stomach to experience an astonishing array of discomforts. “O Lord Everlasting, guide us,” he breathed.
She began with a deep breath, her eyes aglow with the memory and desire for him to understand and believe. “I was in the house by myself, grinding the grain. The normal sounds of the day were outside the house and I was humming to myself. A bright light appeared behind me and I heard a voice…oh! What a voice! It was musical, beautiful, yet contained the gravity of the ages, and the depth and power of the Great Sea. It, he, I don’t know, called me with, somehow, tenderness and power, mixed with wonder and excitement…at least, that was the feelings I felt as I heard his words. I’m not making any sense. I felt afraid, too. He said, ‘Hail, Miriam, beloved of God!’”
“He saw my shock, and said, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have great news for you. You will become pregnant with a son, whom you will name Yeshua. He will fulfill the many prophecies God has promised to the world, that His very Son will be your son. He will be the everlasting Saviour.’”
“I don’t understand,’ I told him. ‘I’m not even married yet. How can I become pregnant?’”
“’God’s very Spirit will come over you, and His power will embrace you, so that your son will be rightly known as God’s Son. As proof of my words, go see your cousin Elizabeth, that old woman whom even now is pregnant with a son, her barren womb for six months has cradled this new life. God’s power will perform all He intends.’”
“’Well, then,’ I said. ‘I am in God’s Hands. May it happen as He says.’ The stranger left as the light faded. I just sat there, the grain meal forgotten. I was in shock, but excited. Who else has ever been visited like this? It all happened a few weeks ago. I should have said something then, but I told no one. It was too bizarre and I didn’t know what to say, believing God, but worried it was all in my head. I now know that it was real. I am pregnant, just as he said.”
Yosuf was stunned. How can you believe the unbelievable? He knew Miriam to be a truthful and devout person, so she couldn’t be lying, but what if she was so ashamed, everything else became twisted? She’d always been level-headed for a young girl, sensible, but what if she’d developed a brain sickness? The only other option was that it happened as she said, but that couldn’t be right either. What to think? What to believe? What to do about it?
He thought of the addition to his parents’ house that he was building for them, the furniture he built in the evenings for their new life. His heart began to sink as he thought of the fruitlessness of it all. He could never use it for another—her name had been on his lips with every shaping of the wood. It was hers, but now never could be. He would have to sell it. He didn’t know what to do. What if she was telling the truth? What then?
“Yosuf? Say something, please. You’re frightening me with your silence.”
“What does one say when one’s dreams are overturned like this? How should I respond? I don’t know what I think of what you’ve said, so how can I respond?” He said it without anger, in fact, leadenly. Although, deep in his heart, he did know. He knew that he couldn’t marry her. He needed to release her to whatever life she faced, to find his own way forward. But this sort of thing didn’t just go away, not in a small town like Nazareth.
“Miriam, I cannot give an answer to you. You’ve had weeks to come to terms with this. I’m just now hearing about this. I need time….and space.”
She nodded once, her face tight in an effort to stay calm. She rose and hurried out. Though she’d hoped for more, this was as good as she could have expected.
Yosuf stared into eternity, his stunned mind as blank as his gaze. He sat on the edge of that table for he didn’t know how long, until his father, Heli, came in and put a hand on his shoulder. “My son. I’m sorry.” He sat down on the table next to Yosuf and waited.
Many more minutes passed. “Do you believe her?” croaked Yosuf.
“I don’t know, son.” Yosuf nodded as if he expected that response. She was a good girl, from an honorable family, and his heart had been hers for years. There was no way to avoid scandal, but he could minimize it. He could quietly go to the town council and break the engagement. She would have a hard time of it, but maybe he could quietly and anonymously help her. Who was the father? Would he step up? Whom would he marry now? Was it too late? Was he too old to find someone? What was the right thing to do?
“What will you do, Yosuf?”
“I have some ideas, but I’ll do the only thing I can right now. Pray.” With that, he got up, went to the new wing of the house and closed the door.
Hours later his emotionally drained body fell deep into the cradle of sleep. As he slept, one dressed in light visited his dreams, and spoke to him. “Son of David!”
“Who are you?”
“Your prayers for guidance have been heard, and favored are you for your righteous heart. Do not be afraid to wed Miriam. What she told you is true. Her child is conceived of God and will be the savior of his people. Therefore, call him Yeshua.”
The next morning, he discussed his dream with his parents, and they went to Miriam’s home. When her father received them, Yosuf described all that had occurred since Miriam gave him the news.
“Bless you, my son. And, thank you. I do not know if I could have done what you are doing, even with an angel in my dreams, even knowing my daughter as I do. It would be too much of a hit on my reputation as a young man.”
“To marry the mother of the Messiah, to raise God’s own Son as my own. My biggest fear is that I am not up to the task! Who am I to be given such responsibility?”
Both fathers laughed loud and long. Heli clapped him on the shoulder. “My son, that means you are as ready as the rest of us when we found out we’d be fathers!!”
“May I see Miriam? May I tell her my decision?”
Her father sobered. “Yosuf, she is not here. She completely understood your reaction, but was upset nonetheless. We all agreed it would be good for her to leave town for a while, to let folks get used to the idea of her situation and the novelty to wear off. She left before first light to visit and care for her cousin Elizabeth through the end of her own miraculous pregnancy. What would you like to do? Shall we move the wedding date up to when she returns or keep the currently planned date for next year?”
“All of this has happened so quickly, I haven’t thought through the details. Besides, shouldn’t Miriam have a say in this?”
Yosuf went to work in the shop with new determination. He always thought better with a tool in his hand. The weeks passed quickly. Miriam returned with a profound peace and joy, and the community welcomed her home joyfully, in no small part due to the work of Yosuf and the two families preparing the way for her.
It was decided to have the wedding right before the birth. In her seventh month, news came to town of a Roman census of the entire empire. Everyone had to return to their ancestral home to be registered. For Yosuf’s family, this meant Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem. The timing meant the wedding had to be cancelled, so they had a very small ceremony in the synagogue with only the families present.
The next day, Yosuf and Miriam left. They continued to act, both publicly and privately, as though they were still engaged, rather than married. Yosuf believed, and Miriam agreed, that while she was pregnant, it was if God was her husband, and Yosuf a trusted family steward.
As he was the only one in his family of age for military service, his was the only presence required. He took a copy of the synagogue records of his clan, and to represent his father’s house.
The journey was hard and only got harder. He brought all of the savings he’d made for their new start together. He had hoped it would go further than it quickly became obvious it would. Miriam was getting larger and the strain of travel caused deep circles to form under her eyes. Yosuf did everything he could to ease her way and get her all of the food she needed.
As they passed through Jerusalem, he took her to the Temple to show her its majesty, and to the remains of David’s and Solomon’s palaces. It was a special time. As part of the required festivals, he’d been to Jerusalem three times a year since his coming of age, and a few times before that. Miriam had not been nearly so often, nor seen as much as he had.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, it was jammed full. David and his sons had many children, and they all had come home. It was a small village, so what public houses might have been there were full, as were all of the private homes with extra room. As Yosuf went from door to door, Miriam suddenly clutched his arm in a clawlike grip. “Yosuf!! It’s time!” He rushed back to the last home he’d just visited, next to a hill on the edge of town.
He banged on the door. The owner opened the door and said, “you again?! I just told you we have no room in this house.”
Yosuf, with a note of panic in his voice, pointed at Miriam, and tried to explain when he was cut off by a moan from her as another contraction besieged her. The homeowner’s face softened. “Very well. The only space I have, and I suspect the only space for ten stadia around is a cave in back, where I keep my animals. It is crude, but it is dry. You may use all of the hay you need to make things as comfortable as possible. I will send out a spare blanket and jars of water.” Turning to a young girl, he said, “Run, find the midwife, and show her where to go.”
“Thank you, sir. You really have no idea what this means, what is happening to us.”
It was dark in the cave, but oil lamps were produced. He lined a feeding tough with hay and set up a comfortable and relatively clean (for a barn) area in the back. The animals’ body heat kept the air warm. Even though he was a carpenter, he’d seen enough animal husbandry to have a general idea of what was about to happen. Nonetheless, he admitted to himself that he was both nervous and squeamish about the impending birth. He’d not really thought about it, assuming ladies would somehow be present to ‘take care of things’ like they did back home.
This was not home. The contractions were coming fast. Miriam was in physical agony and even afraid, being so far from home. The population explosion thanks to the census seemed to be keeping the midwife, and none of the men of the house wanted anything to do with it. Lambing and calving were fine, but this was women’s work and something about which they gladly chose to be willingly ignorant. Where were the women of the house? They were nowhere to be found either.
“O Lord, help us!” he prayed as he held her hand, and gathered his courage. He arranged her clothing and prepared cloths to receive and clean the baby. He’d heard stories of women in labor for days, women who’d died in labor, or who were so worn out they’d never recovered. Then he remembered that most of the women he knew back home had had multiple children and were fine. He remembered the story of Moses, how the Israelite women were so vigorous and strong, they had their babies before the midwives could even arrive.
Miriam appeared to be of that stock, for before he knew quite what was happening, the child’s head appeared, and it seemed an instant later, he was free and crying with real authority. His mother collapsed into the hay, breathing deeply and crying, calling weakly for her son.
Yosuf held this strange creature, gazing at him in wonder. “So this is what a baby Messiah looks like, “ he thought to himself. “I didn’t expect him to look and feel so, so, so ordinary.”
Then he realized, “this infant is not my son, but he is mine to raise. This woman is mine to provide for. Who am I to be given such responsibility, such blessing?”
“My son,” said a voice Yosuf felt more than heard in his mind, yet that seemed strangely to also come from the child he held, and also from beyond, where he did not know. “It is not who you are that you have been given all of this, but who I AM that I have given it to you, that I have given you charge of my very self. Your days and years ahead will be very difficult, and you will not see the ending of them, when I reveal myself fully in this skin I wear. But you will be a good father, and you will be shown all that you need to do. I have chosen you, above all men, past, present, or future, to be my earthly father. No other can claim that place that is rightfully yours and rightfully prepared for you from the beginning. You are a son of David, and you have his heart, a heart the prophets declared was fully belonging to God. There is none other to whom I would give this responsibility, or this honor. It is yours. Wear it wisely and well. Now present this baby to his mother. She is calling for him.”
With tears in his own eyes, Yosuf placed the child in his mother’s arms. As she gazed and cooed over him, and began to feed him, Yosuf felt the tension of the last nine months, and the strength that kept him going, sag out of him. He sank back into the hay next to Miriam, and as naturally as it could ever have been, put his arms around her, for the first time, drawing his new family into himself. He realized then, not with a shock, but with calm assurance, that this family, as of this moment, was truly and fully his. He was no longer merely the caretaker for an absentee landlord, but in a sense, had come into the full inheritance that God Himself had provided for him.
He wasn’t ready. He was ready to begin.