(Jedidah, pronounced jeh-DYE-dah, is a Hebrew girl’s name meaning “beloved.”)
My name is Jedidah. I was fourteen the year Augustus Caesar ordered the world to be registered for taxes. You know those Romans. Forever counting everything in their possession so they can extract every possible penny. And they couldn’t let people register by residence. No, everyone had to travel to the town whence came the root of their family tree and register there.
Bethlehem isn’t the most up-and-coming place in Judea. Though it is the City of David, the greatest king in the Hebrews’ history, it’s only a small town with few people and many sheep.
But King David had many sons, and his sons had sons, and so on down the line to my own father. (I have four brothers.) When the census came, people began pouring into Bethlehem like wine pouring into a cup. Except a person pouring wine usually stops before the cup overflows. But the people kept flooding Bethlehem.
The marketplace was crowded all day long, six days a week. Prices doubled and tripled as more people arrived to buy the goods. Mother had many a heated argument with the sellers of fruit and vegetables, and most times she talked them down because we were regular customers who would return week after week, long after the crowds returned home.
At our home, my three sisters and four brothers and I had to vacate our rooms on the roof so that Uncle Hezekiah’s family could lodge there. It made for tight quarters in the main room below. My father’s other three brothers had homes adjoining ours, enclosing a large courtyard. Every upper room in the household was full to bursting at night, except one small room above Uncle Zadok’s house. We’d reserved that room for a distant cousin whom I had never met, but he was even older than my grandfather, so he deserved special consideration. With so many cousins, it was like the feast of Passover in our own town instead of in Jerusalem.
I was helping mother prepare the evening meal one afternoon, when Isaac, my fourth cousin, came walking in the open front door.
“Shalom, Aunt Rachel.” (She isn’t really his aunt, but she feels more like an aunt than cousin. I call his mother my aunt.)
“Shalom, Isaac. Come to play with your cousins?”
“No, I bring a message from Mother. The first of the relatives from Nazareth have come, and Mother says we cannot possibly make room for them.”
Which was quite true. Isaac’s family hosted our cousins who dwelt all the way in Phoenicia. They had seven children, and Isaac had four siblings at home. Not to mention their house and courtyard were much smaller than ours.
“From Nazareth?” Mother’s brow furrowed. “But we did not expect them until two weeks hence, after Hezekiah’s family had returned home.”
“It’s only Joseph bar Jacob and his wife Mary. Joseph says he dared not wait later, for Mary is so near her time.”
Mother pursed her lips, and I knew exactly why. We had heard of Mary, with child only a few months after she and Joseph were betrothed. We expected Joseph to put her away, for he was a righteous, just man as far as we knew. And, lo, he took her to wife anyway. Mother said that made it clear whose child Mary carried, and Father agreed, saying he feared what our family would come to if such shamelessness continued.
“Tell your mother to send them down here, Isaac. We’ll find a place for them,” Mother said.
“Thank you, Aunt Rachel.” He waved at me. “See you, Jedidah.”
“See you!” I called after him.
Mother went on kneading bread, pounding it harder than usual. “This is simply deplorable.”
“Why can’t we put them above Uncle Zadok’s house?” I suggested. “We don’t know when my cousin will arrive, and—”
“Jedidah!” Mother looked at me like I’d suggested we work on the Sabbath. “Your cousin Abijah is an aged and venerable man. It would be most unsuitable to give his room to Joseph and that wife of his.”
“Well, you’re not going to make them lodge at the inn, are you?” I was a little saucy because she’d scolded my idea so harshly. “You know what they’re charging for sleeping space these days, and since Mary’s with child, it doesn’t seem proper.”
“Hold your tongue, young lady. Of course they won’t lodge at the inn. They can sleep in our stable.”
“The stable?” I looked over my shoulder. My father wasn’t rich, and our stable occupied the rear half of our home, separated from the rest of the room by a step down and by a short fence. It didn’t seem like the place to put guests.
“Fetch your brothers and have them move the goats to Uncle Zadok’s stable. They can clear the straw, we’ll scrub the floor, and with fresh hay down it should be quite snug.” Mother returned her attention to the bread dough and muttered, “That half of the stable is bigger than Zadok’s room, anyway.”
I passed through the stable to the courtyard, seeking my brothers. I still thought an expectant mother ought to have more privacy than a stable even if she hadn’t been a virgin when she wed. But a stable was better than the inn.
Scroll to the comments section to find links to parts 2 and 3.