“Marah! Come at once!”
At the sound of her name, she paused from cleaning the ashes out of the clay oven and 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 once again. She was nearly thirteen, a woman now, too old for such 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 than the previous day. The village dogs that lay panting in the sparse shade most of the day would be 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 toward the house. Did her aunt have still another task in mind? She lifted her chin and strolled toward 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 toward 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 a 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 said 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 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, the water jar is nearly empty.”
The woman fell back among the cushions with another round of pitiful moans. “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 toward 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.
When Marah’s mother died six years before, her father grieved deeply but eventually realized his daughter needed a woman’s care. He sent for his only sister, Reba, 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. Two years later, when her father also died, Marah was left in the care of her aunt. Though only in her early twenties herself, it was Hannah who became Marah’s surrogate mother, and through the years, it was her warmth that had made Marah’s life less lonely. 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 midair, 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 tell 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 Levirate 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 said 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 said.
“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, 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 her friend.
Hannah paused, studying Marah’s face for a moment. “It is in the hands of God.”
Marah looked up at Mount 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?