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Bible Backstories: How Miriam and Yossef got to Bethlehem


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Author’s Note: Bible Backstories stories follow an almost journalistic pattern—a straight narrative line that strips away whatever extraneous, maybe emotional, reverberations. Consequentially, even heroes rarely seem conflicted about what they are told to do, or what someone else was told to do that has a direct effect on the other guy. As a result, it gets harder to think of Mary or St. Paul or Elijah as neighbors, people in the store, or getting gas. Hence, a series of re-imagined, familiar stories about people who live next door.

The Annunciation/1650 painting
The Annunciation/1650 painting

I was milking the goats in the shed when the mail came. I could hear mother’s voice—calm, polite, everyday. Then she rushed into the backyard. “Miriam!  Miriam!”

Boy, was she excited. “In here, mom.”

She swung the bottom half of the door open, “Your Aunt Elizabeth’s having a baby! At her age! She should be ashamed.”

I grabbed the milk bucket before she knocked it over. “Why ashamed? I mean, it’s a medical miracle, but…”

She hissed at me, “It means they’re still…well, you know.”

“Sleeping together? Great! Good for them.”

“Anyway, she wants you to come down for a while and help her. Seems like he’s still on temple duty—why they haven’t thrown him out, I don’t know—but he’s, well, lost…his voice.”

I knew she wanted to say a lot of country things about what he should have lost instead of his voice, but to go south, on my own, that close to Jerusalem and all the shops…  And helping Aunt Elizabeth around the house when she already had three housemaids, I could manage that in a heartbeat. I was very careful what I said next.

It wasn’t until I drifted off to sleep that night that I thought about Yossef. I wouldn’t see him—for a month. Or more.

He was so cute, so shy. And the beautiful things he made with scraps of wood at Amos’s Carpentry. He’d come up to Nazareth six months ago to help Amos make furniture (and coffins) for the officers at the Roman camp at Legio for a couple months, and just stayed. We met outside the synagogue—he’d walk me home sometimes. Once he gave me a little bowl of olive wood that just fit in my hand. I kept it under my pillow and rubbed the inside with my thumb before I fell asleep. I thought he really wanted to ask dad if we could date.  But dad’s so fierce about “Not before you’re 14, young lady.” But what if he found somebody else to walk home with while I was gone, whose father wasn’t so fierce? Then what?

Me. A spinster, left with just a little piece of wood to rub.

Mom made a deal with Eliyahu ben Rafael for me to go south with his delivery of melons in Jerusalem. He’s dad’s second cousin plus two. He’d look after me. And he picked up an escort from Legio, so mother and dad wouldn’t fret when we crossed the river to avoid those Samaritans. Not sure why they were always those Samaritans, but there it is.

Yossef wasn’t happy about my going. We walked over to the olive orchard, very slowly, and he said, “I wanted to talk to your father first, Miriam, but…I want to marry you.”

“Woa! I thought you just wanted to come over for coffee.”

He shook his head and looked at the ground. “You need to understand…well, I love you. And I’ve thought about it a long time—since you brought me those little coriander cakes, remember? You were so…well, it seemed like you were giving me the most valuable thing you had.”

And he kissed me. Like a butterfly resting on my eyes and then my forehead.

Which MUST be the reason I had the strangest dream that night. What with all the kerfuffle about Auntie E and then, Yossef. There was like this column of light as bright as lightning and a voice that was like a trumpet, except it was very very soft. I felt like I was melting into a puddle of wax. The light said I made God happy.


And that God wanted me to have a baby.

Then I woke up and my sheet was all tangled up over my head. And it was sooo hot in my room, I took my bedroll and went up on the roof for the rest of the night.

Then next morning, I got my bundles together and mom and dad walked me over to the caravanseray and we said goodbye and I jumped up on one of the wagons and snuggled into the hay. Which is just plain silly, because there isn’t anything snuggly about hay. It gets in EVERYWHERE.

The five days to Jerusalem seemed like a half a year. Uncle Zacharias met me at Eliyahu’s fruit market. We were going to walk the last six miles south to his place. He picked up my bundles and we started out, and sure enough, he couldn’t make a sound, but he had the biggest smile in the whole of Palestine!

When we got to the house, Auntie E met us at the door. I guess Uncle Z must have texted her. She looked terrific and all glowy.

“Wow, Auntie, you’re beautiful!”

She smiled—just like Uncle Z’s smile and her robe slipped open.

“You’re as big as a house!”

And she just hugged me and then, stepped back quick, her eyes wide and wide and scared.

“Miriam! You didn’t tell me! Are you…did you get…married?”

It was my turn to step back and look scared. “No…what’s wrong?”

She shook her head and said, “Nothing…is…wrong. But my baby kicked when I hugged you and it was like…like I was supposed to kneel down. Anyhow, you’re pregnant, my girl.”

“That’s not possible.” What? That dream?

So I lamely said, “Unless a butterfly kiss on the eyes makes you pregnant.”

Well, we sat and talked and had supper and sat and talked and talked and talked. Until I told both of them about that crazy dream. Then Uncle Z scribbled something on his pad. He showed it to Auntie E and then me.

“God is the father of your baby, as he was ours—well, maybe not exactly the same.” He just beamed at Auntie E as if they were 16 years old.

Holy Methusaleh. I was awake all night thinking about bright lights and babies and wanting to talk to Yossef so bad it just hurt. I wrote him about the whole thing the next morning and sent it off, suddenly terrified that I would scare all the manna off his plate for the rest of his life.

Two weeks later, I had a letter from him. More bright lights and sleeping on the roof because of the heat. His bright light told him that he was supposed to be the father of my child. And to stop being afraid. But he didn’t sound all brave and Maccabean Heroic. He sounded like ‘What was I thinking of…with this girl?’

I told auntie and uncle.  he said, “Get them cell phones. Tomorrow.” He nodded and patted me on the shoulder.

Not long after, auntie and I went for a walk after supper. There was one beautiful little house just at the edge of the drop-off toward the Field of Ruth. The front gate was open and we could see through the entryway into a lovely garden full of flowers and a palm tree and a little fountain in the center. I stopped to look at it.

“I’d love to live in a house like that, with Yossef and the baby.” I was starting to show and found that I rubbed my belly the way I rubbed my little olive wood bowl.

Auntie smiled her Zecharias smile. “I guess you wouldn’t know about this house.”

I shook my head.

“It’s Yossef’s. He rented it to a family when he went up to Nazareth.”

Just that moment two little girls came racing out of the entryway with, I guess, their mother, puffing behind them, yelling for them to get back inside before they were trampled by camels. They came right out and hid behind the wall, making shushing sounds to me and auntie. Their mother stopped, tears running down her round face. “You girls will put me in my grave!” But she wouldn’t come out through the gate alone.

I put my hands on the girls’ shoulders and steered them back to their mother. There was a lot of kissing fingers and raising them to her forehead at me, then high-pitched scolding as she shut the gate, rather firmly, and pushed the girls through the entryway.


“They are a good family, but very noisy. The girls act like boys and frighten their mother to death most days.  And they aren’t taking care of Yossef’s garden. Probably not the house either.”

Read part two of this story here.

Judith Shadford
Judith Shadford
After a career in marketing and public relations in New York City and Santa Barbara, Calif., Judith Shadford moved to the Northwest to focus on writing.

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