Although my favorite Bible verse changes with the day and what’s going on in my life, I tend to turn to the Gospel of John when looking for inspiration—especially writing inspiration. I’m always awe-struck at the very first sentence. These few words are simple, beautiful, and profound. They speak to my writer’s heart like nothing else ever has:
“In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.”
In this captivating retelling of a classic biblical story, Jesus shocks the town of Bethany with Lazarus’s resurrection from the dead, leading Martha—a seemingly perfect woman trapped by the secrets of her past—to hope and a new life.
Everyone in Bethany admires Martha—the perfect Jewish woman. She feeds and clothes her loved ones, looks after the family farm, and meticulously follows every precept of the Pharisees’ strict laws. But Martha is hiding a secret. At her sister’s marriage feast, she gave her heart and her innocence to a young musician who promised to return and marry her, but instead betrayed her love and abandoned her.
Seven years later, only two people in Bethany know of Martha’s secret sin: her brother, Lazarus, and Simon, the righteous Pharisee to whom Martha is betrothed. When Lazarus falls ill, Martha is faced with a choice: send for Jesus to save her dying brother—risking the wrath of Simon who threatens to betray her—or deny Jesus’ healing power and remain trapped in her tomb of secrecy and lies.
Meanwhile, on the shores of Galilee, Isa roams the wilderness, tortured by demons and knowing only that someone is waiting for him. When he is healed by Jesus, he finds that seven years have passed since his descent into madness. Isa journeys home to Bethany only to find he is too late to win back Martha’s love.
When Martha risks all to heal Lazarus, will Jesus arrive in time, or will he—like Isa—come too late?
Martha wanted to serve only her best to Jesus and his followers. This fruit and wine compote was a beautiful dish to serve at the end of her perfect meal.
Martha’s Spiced Fruit and Wine Compote
½ cup dried figs, halved
½ cup whole dried apricots
½ cup dried plums
1 ½ cup Zinfandel wine *
1 bay leaf
1 t coriander seeds
1 t fennel seeds
¼ t cumin seeds
¼ t black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
1 t ground cinnamon
1 T lemon juice
3 T honey
¼ t salt
Combine fruit, wine, and bay leaf in a medium saucepan. Let stand while you prepare the spices.
Put coriander, fennel, cumin, peppercorns, and cloves in a small skillet over medium high heat. Toast the spices until they are fragrant and the fennel seeds just begin to turn darker. Remove from heat immediately and pour into the bowl of a mortar and pestle. Grind the spices with the pestle until they are a fine powder. Add the ground cinnamon. This will smell divine!
Bring the fruit and wine to a boil then simmer uncovered for 30 to 45 minutes. Keep a good eye on the pan. When the liquid has reduced to a syrup consistency, remove from heat and stir in the spices. Add lemon juice, honey, and salt. Let cool.
Serve as is, like Martha did, or
—over ice cream
—top a baguette slice with goat cheese and a spoonful of fruit and sauce
—over a slice of pound cake
*substitute concord grape juice instead of wine if you wish
MARTHA CLENCHED HER teeth so tight her jaw ached. She’d kept quiet for seven days. Seven days. Now she felt like a pot left too long over the fire. If another old woman gave her a pitying glance, if one more village girl whispered behind her hand . . . by the Most High, she’d boil over.
She filled a cup for Josiah, her sister’s new husband. Who would have believed it? Sirach of Bethany’s daughter—his younger daughter!—choosing her own husband. And what a husband he was. Josiah had many good qualities. He was kind and patient, and everyone knew how he loved Mary. But he was also poor and none too smart. Even his own mother admitted that he was about as useful as a three-legged donkey.
She took a deep breath and poured a cup of wine for her father, careful not to spill a drop on his fine linen tunic. When Abba agreed to the betrothal a full year ago, the women of Bethany had gossiped for weeks. Most had concluded that Sirach was eager to be rid of Mary, his grown daughter who spent more time playing with the village children than taking care of her father’s household. But they were wrong. Abba loved Mary just as much as he loved Martha and Lazarus.
Now, at almost fifteen years, Mary was ready to start her own family with a man she adored. Martha was glad that Abba had allowed Mary her heart’s desire. If only he would allow Martha hers.
If Mary can choose Josiah, why can’t I have a say in my husband? But of course, she knew why.
Her eyes strayed to the center of the meadow that stretched between the Mount of Olives and her father’s many fields and vineyards. The afternoon sun cast a patina of gold on a pair of musicians—an old man playing the flute and a young one strumming the kinnor. Lazarus sat at the kinnor player’s feet, watching him with admiration.
Martha sighed. Even her little brother got to be closer to Isa than she did.
A group of village girls linked arms and began to dance, each eyeing Isa as if he were the last honey cake on the plate. Didn’t they have anything else to do but stare and giggle about how handsome he was?
Isa didn’t even look at them. He never did. He looked into the distance, where the Mount of Olives rose between Bethany and Jerusalem. The love song of Solomon was on his lips, but Martha knew his thoughts were on her. Small comfort, with all the work she had to do.
Mary’s wedding feast had lasted the full seven days. Abba’s excellent wine had flowed as generously as the music, and laughter had filled their courtyard and the meadow that surrounded it. It had been good to celebrate Mary’s joy, but with all the rejoicing, Martha had found only a few moments to be alone with Isa. And tomorrow he would leave for the Decapolis. She had to find a way to talk to him today. Who knew when they’d see each other again?
Mary and her new husband rose from their seats. The men nearest Abba elbowed each other and smiled. Martha averted her eyes from the couple. The sun wasn’t even behind the blossoming apricot trees, and they were already going to the marriage tent? Of course, they wanted children, and there was only one way to get them. But did they have to look so eager? People would talk.
“Leaving us so soon?” Simon, their neighbor and one of the most respected men in Bethany, was a handsome man—at least that’s what the village girls said—but his large, wide-set eyes and full lips had always reminded Martha of a fish. He pursed his thick lips and raised his brows. “I’ve never known a man to need so much sleep.”
A chorus of twitters sounded from maidens clustered in the shade of the olive grove. Older women, those with babies at their breasts and sleepy toddlers, exchanged knowing glances.
Martha watched as the bridal couple took their leave of her father. She had to admit, marriage agreed with her sister. Mary’s softly rounded face glowed, and her eyes, the same deep brown as Martha’s, shone with what must be the marital bliss Martha had heard of. The linen dress Martha had made for her—the best linen, dyed Mary’s favorite shade of pink—fit her plump curves perfectly and suited her bronze skin and the deep blush on her cheeks.
As Mary moved beside her new husband, her arms jingled with a dozen brass bracelets, her betrothal gift from Josiah. They weren’t silver or gold—in fact, they were practically worthless—but the best Josiah could afford. Mary hadn’t removed them since the ketubah had been signed at their betrothal.
Josiah shrugged his thin shoulders as if to brush off the laughter. He looked down at his new bride, and a ridiculous smile stretched from his crinkly eyes to his wispy beard. Josiah wasn’t much to look at, but when he smiled at Mary like that Martha could see why her sister had pleaded with Abba—even though Josiah owned little more than the cloak on his back and a tiny home in the village.
No more servants for Mary, no fine linen from Galilee, no meat in her cooking pot—not with Josiah as a husband. They’d probably live on barley bread and water. Mary didn’t seem to care, and, at this moment, Martha could see why. What would it be like to be adored? To have a husband so in love that he couldn’t keep his eyes, or his hands, off you?
Yes, Abba gave Mary to Josiah, but he would never let Martha marry Isa. It was unthinkable.
Bio: Stephanie Landsem, author of The Living Water Series, writes historical fiction because she loves adventure in far-off times and places. In real life, she’s explored ancient ruins, medieval castles, and majestic cathedrals around the world. Stephanie is equally happy at home in Minnesota with her husband, four children, and three fat cats. When she’s not writing, she’s feeding the ravenous horde, avoiding housework, and dreaming about her next adventure—whether it be in person or on the page.
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