Mary, Called Magdalene
The New York Times-bestselling author of Elizabeth I brilliantly reimagines the story of the most mysterious woman in the Bible
She was carried to a place she had never been. It was much more vivid than a dream, it had a depth and a color to it, and exquisite detail that made it seem more real than the time with her mother in the courtyard, more real than the dreamy hours she spent sometimes looking out at the great lake of Magdala, the one so grand they called it a sea: the Sea of Galilee.
She was elevated, put on a high pillar or a platform, she could not tell which. And all around her were people, gathering at the base of it, looking up at her. She turned her head to the side and saw that other pillars had other people on them, that there was a whole row of them, stretching as far as she could see. The sky was a yellowish color, the color she had only seen once, when there was a sandstorm. The sun was blotted out, but there was still light, diffuse golden light.
Then someone came to her-were they flying, was it an angel, how did they get there?-and took her hand and said, "Will you come? Will you come with us?"
She felt the hand holding hers, and it was smooth like a piece of marble, not cold, not hot, not sweaty, but perfect. She wanted to squeeze it but dared not.
"Yes," she finally said.
And then the figure-she still did not know who it was, she dared not look at the face, only at the feet in golden sandals-lifted her up and took her away, and the journey was so dizzying that she lost her balance and began to fall, to plummet, and it was very dark beneath her.
She sat up with a jolt. The oil lamp had burned out. Outside she could hear the gentle sound of the water of the great lake, not far from her window, as it lapped the shore.
She held out her hand, felt it. It was moist. Was that why the being had let her go, had dropped it? She rubbed it hard.
No, let me cleanse my hand! she cried out, silently. Don't abandon me! I can wipe it off!
"Come back," she whispered.
But the only answer was the stillness of the room and the sound of the water.
She rushed into her mother and father's room. They were sleeping soundly; they did not need a lamp, they slept in darkness.
"Mother!" she cried, grabbing her shoulder. "Mother!" Without permission, she climbed into the bed and huddled under the warm covers next to her mother.
"What...what is it?" Her mother struggled to form words. "Mary?"
"I have had such a strange dream," she cried. "I was taken up...into some heaven, I don't know where, I only know it was not of this world, it had angels, I think, or...I don't know what..." She paused, gasping for breath. "I think I was...I was called. Called to join them, called to become part of their company..." But it had been frightening, and she had not been sure she wanted to join them.
Now her father sat up. "What's this?" he said. "A dream? A dream about being called?"
"Nathan-" Mary's mother reached out and tried to restrain him, by touching his shoulder.
"I don't know if I was being called," Mary said in a small voice. "But there was this dream, and people up on high places, and-"
"High places!" cried her father. "That is where the ancient heathen idols were. In the high places!"
"But not up on pedestals," Mary said. "This was different. The people being honored were standing upon them, and they were people, not statues...."
"And you think you've been called?" her father asked. "Why?"
"They asked if I would join them. They said, 'Will you come with us?'" Even as she recited it, she could hear the sweet voices.
"You must know, daughter, that all prophecy has ceased in our land," her father finally said. "There has been no word uttered by a prophet since Malachi, and that was four hundred years ago. God does not speak to us that way any longer. He speaks only through his holy Law. And that is sufficient for us."
But Mary knew what she had seen, the transcendent glory and warmth of it. "But, Father," she said, "the message, and the invitation, were so clear." She kept her voice low and respectful. But she was still shaking.
"Dear daughter, you have been misled. It was but a dream, brought on by our preparations for Jerusalem. God would not call you. Now return to your own bed."
She clung to her mother, but her mother thrust her aside. "Do as your father says," she ordered.
Mary returned to her room, the majesty of the dream still enveloping her. It had been real. She knew it had been real.
And if it was real, then her father was wrong.
"What kind of idol? I've never seen an idol!" she asked eagerly.
"Pray that you never do!"
"But how will I know an idol if I see one?"
"You'll know," her father said. "And you must shun it!"
Now Mary remembered this, but all her earlier curiosity about Jerusalem was eclipsed by the dream, still so vivid to her in the darkness.
Busying herself with the final preparations, Mary's mother, Zebidah, had suddenly broken off measuring grain into the travel sacks and bent down to her daughter. She did not mention the dream. Instead she said, "Now, as for this trip, you must not mingle with any of the other families coming, except for the few I tell you are acceptable. So many people do not keep the Law and only want to go to Jerusalem-and even the Temple!-as some sort of holiday. Stay with the other observant families. Do you understand me?" She looked hard at Mary. In that instant her pretty face was not pretty but forbidding.
"Yes, Mother," she said.
"We keep the Law zealously, and so it must be," her mother continued. "Let all those other...transgressors look to themselves. It is not our duty to save them from their negligence. And mixing with them will contaminate us."
"Like mixing milk and meat?" Mary asked. She knew this was absolutely forbidden, so much so that anything pertaining to them must be separated.
"Just so," her mother answered. "And worse, because their influence does not fade away after a day or so, like that of the milk and meat. It stays with you, corrupting and corrupting."
The dry season had begun, and already the sun felt hot on Mary's face. It hung brazenly over the Sea of Galilee, where it had risen earlier from behind the mountains. At dawn those mountains across the lake had been the color of tender grapes; now they showed their true colors of dust and stone. They were quite bare, and looked, Mary thought, malevolent. But perhaps that was because the land of the old Ammonites had such a bad reputation as Israel's ancient enemy.
What was it the Ammonites had done that was so bad? King David had had trouble with them. But, then, he had trouble with everyone. And there was also that evil god they worshiped, although Mary could not at first remember his name. He made the Ammonites sacrifice their children to him, putting them into the flames. Mo...Mol... Molech. Yes, that was his name.
She held up her hand and squinted across the lake. She certainly could not see any temples of Molech from here.
She gave a shudder, even in the warm sun. I won't think any more about Molech, she told herself sternly. The lake, gleaming in the sun, seemed to agree. It was too beautiful for its blue waters to be stained with thoughts of a blood-dripping god; it was probably the most beautiful place in all Israel, Mary firmly believed. No matter what was claimed for Jerusalem, how could anything be lovelier that this oval body of water, bright blue, surrounded by hills cupping it protectively?
She could see fishing boats out on the waters; there were a great many of them. It was fish that her town of Magdala was famous for-here they were salted, dried, traded, and shipped all over the world. Magdala fish were a presence on tables as far away as Damascus or Alexandria. And a presence in Mary's own home, for her father, Nathan, was a leading processor of the fish hauled into his warehouse, and her oldest brother, Samuel-although he had taken to calling himself the Greek name Silvanus for trading purposes-was the business manager, dealing with both local people and foreigners to arrange sales. Thus the big mosaic of a fishing boat that decorated their entrance hall indicated the source of their wealth. Every day as they stepped across it they could be reminded and give thanks for their good fortune and God's multitude of fish in their sea.
An east wind struck the waters of the lake and made the surface of the water tremble; she could see the ripples of water that did indeed look like harp strings. The old, poetic name for the lake was Lake Kinneret, Lake Harp, because of its shape and also because of the pattern of the wind on the water. Mary could almost hear the fine sound of plucked strings, singing to her across the water.
"Here they come!" Mary's father was gesturing to her to urge her donkey back toward the others. Down the dusty road she could see a very large caravan approaching, with even a camel or two besides donkeys and the mass of walkers.
"They must have celebrated the Sabbath too long yesterday," said Mary's mother, tartly. She was frowning; the late start was a nuisance. What was the point of delaying the departure until after the Sabbath if they were to lose a half-day anyway? No one ever started a journey the day before the Sabbath, or even the day before that, if it was a long journey. The rabbinical law forbidding walking more than about a Roman mile on the Sabbath meant that would waste a day-as far as travel was concerned.
"The Sabbath is such an excuse to waste time," said Mary's brother Silvanus loudly. "This insistence on strict observance of the Sabbath is crippling us in the foreign trade; the Greeks and Phoenicians don't take one day off out of every seven!"
"Yes, we know about your pagan sympathies, Samuel," said Mary's other older brother, Eli. "I suppose next you'll be running naked in the gymnasium with all your Greek friends."
Silvanus-alias Samuel-just glared at him. "I haven't time," he said coldly. "I am too busy helping Father run the business. It's you, with all your spare time studying scripture and consulting with rabbis, who have the leisure to go to the gymnasium or any other place of amusement you want to."
Eli flared, as Silvanus knew he would. The younger man had a hot temper, despite all his efforts in studying the ways and whys of Yahweh. With his fine, straight-nosed profile and noble bearing, he could pass for Greek, thought Silvanus. Whereas he-he almost laughed-looked more like the little scholars who were always bent over the Torah in the beth ha-Midrash, the House of Learning. Yahweh must have a mighty sense of humor.
"The study of Torah is the most important thing a man can do," Eli said stiffly. "It supersedes all other activity in moral worth."
"Yes, and in your case it precludes all other activity."
Eli snorted and turned away, pulling his donkey with him, so that its hindside was facing Silvanus, who merely laughed.
Mary was used to hearing this exchange, in various forms, between her twenty-one-year-old and eighteen-year-old brothers. It was never resolved and it never even progressed. Mary's family was deeply observant, adhering to all the rituals and religious strictures; only Silvanus seemed restless in what her father referred to as "the perfect Law of the Lord."
Mary wished she could study that Law at the little school attached to their synagogue, the beth ha-sefer, and see for herself. Or that she could steal the knowledge that Silvanus, who did not seem to want it, had acquired from his Torah schooling. But girls could not attend the school, since they could have no official place in religion. Her father had sternly repeated the rabbinical dictum, "It would be better to see the Torah burnt than to hear its words upon the lips of women."
"You should learn Greek so you can read the Iliad," Silvanus had once suggested to Mary, with a laugh. Naturally Eli had countered with a shocked blast. But Silvanus had replied, "If someone is shut out of her own literature and knowledge by stupid rulings, is she not then forced to turn to another?"
Silvanus had a point; the Greeks welcomed others into their culture, whereas the Jews guarded theirs like a secret. Each action was the result of thinking theirs was superior: the Greeks thought that one taste of Greek culture would instantly win anyone over, whereas the Jews felt theirs was so precious it could be desecrated by offering it to any and all passersby. Naturally this made Mary all the more curious about both of them. She would learn to read, she promised herself, and then she could tap into the magic and mystery of the holy writings herself.
Instead of a sharp retort, Silvanus said thoughtfully, "For the history, Eli, for the history. I love the stones of Jerusalem, each of which tells a story-and tells it clearer and finer than the words in the scrolls."
Eli ignored his brother's solemnity. "It's a story you wouldn't even know if it wasn't written in the very scriptures you scorn! It isn't stones who talk and tell us their tales, it's scribes who record it for posterity."
"I'm sorry that you credit only yourself with the finer feelings," Silvanus finally said. He halted and fell back into another group; he would not be traveling close to his brother on this journey.
Mary did not know which one to keep near, so she went over to her parents. They were walking resolutely, their faces set for Jerusalem. The sun beat down, its brightness causing them to squint and shield their eyes.
Clouds of dust were blowing. The startling green of the Galilean spring grass had begun to fade, replaced by a dun mat; the jewel-colored wildflowers that had dotted the hillsides had wilted and disappeared. From now until next spring, the landscape would become progressively browner, the glorious burst of nature's love merely a memory. Galilee was the lushest part of the country, the nearest thing to a Persian garden paradise in the land of Israel.
The branches of the fruit trees were laden with new apples and pomegranates; the bright-green early figs were peeking from under their leaves. People were gathering them; new figs never remained on the trees long.Colorful and involving... [George] is a powerful writer. (The Washington Post)
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