Before she was killed, my mother named me Shani. It means scarlet. Aunt Miriam believed it was a last act of defiance. I would be a constant reminder to the Sanhedrin— the council of elders—that they had failed to break her. As a child, the women of the village whispered that my mother had spoken a curse over me in revenge for her death. That in giving me this name, she sealed my future just as I had sealed hers. It was my fault that she was put to death. An unmarried Jewess found with child has but one fate under the law of the Torah.
My father was not a Jew. That is why he did not claim her as his wife, why he did not save her from the Sanhedrin. He was a Roman. A soldier. An enemy of our people. No one but Aunt Miriam knew who he was, and my mother made her swear not to reveal it to the judges. She knew my life would be hard enough without this added offense. He loved my mother, or so I am told. He did not force himself on her; she welcomed him. But he was sent away by the emperor before she knew about me, and then it was too late. The only mercy shown was that the judges permitted her to give birth.
Now I am not so certain this act was merciful. As a child, I felt very little besides a deep sense of guilt. It was like a mark that had woven itself into my skin, possessing the essence of who I was. A mark that no one could see or feel, but I knew it was there. This scar, this guilt, was to be part of me forever. It was there to punish me for the works of my parents.
Justice would receive satisfaction.
No one entertained the thought that I would marry. I was beneath all flesh, not deserving of the love of a righteous man. But there was one who was unfortunate enough to cast his eye to me. A man twice my age, named Raviv.
Aunt Miriam was eager for Uncle Eliam to agree to our marriage, thinking this man was my only chance for any happiness in this world. Before I had reached twelve years old, it was already known to all that I belonged to Raviv. Three years later, we were married.
On our wedding night, he confessed that he only did this for my mother.
“I remember your mother very well. I grew up with her, just as I watched you grow up. I looked into her eyes the day she died,” he told me as I lay beside him. “They were so empty, screaming for hope. I wanted to give her something. When she passed by me, I whispered that I would take care of you.”
Raviv was gentle with me. He did not laugh at my fear. It was all over very quickly. He left me soon after, and my heart choked amid its disappointment.
Raviv did not love me. He pitied me. How could he be so cruel? How could he steal from me all hopes of love and mask his cruelty in the folds of compassion? In his eyes, he was my savior. In mine, he was my punishment.
“I hate you,” I whisper, thinking of Raviv. The pain is as fresh in my heart now as it was the day of our wedding. He drove me to the arms of another, yet I carry the weight of the sin.
There is no mercy found in the Sanhedrin. How I hate them. I hate their holiness, their laws, their righteous cruelty God has blessed them with. What sort of god can Elohim really be, if he even exists? I used to pray to him, asking him to give me Raviv’s love, to make my life more worth living. But no. Elohim is not so merciful.
Raviv and I lived together a year before my nightmare became reality. Raviv met her when he journeyed to be with his tribe to celebrate his brother’s marriage. I had chosen to stay with Miriam rather than attend the wedding. I did not think I could bear it. Had I known Raviv would lose his heart to one of the women of his tribe, I would have thought differently.
Rebecca, that is her name. I did not understand why Raviv could not love me till I saw her. She is a small woman, with long black hair and an olive complexion. My brown hair and fair skin betrays my mixed blood.
Rebecca is a jealous woman. I should have known this when I met her. But I was blinded by my despair, and so I was easily fooled. She came here with her people to live until the wedding could be arranged; her caravan set up their tents at an oasis just outside the city. Raviv sent me to welcome her. He had convinced himself that Rebecca and I could be friends.
“Here, Shani! Go to the market and buy cloth for a dress! You must have a new gown to wear to the celebration!” she told me, giving me a purse of silver.
“I cannot accept this,” I replied. I did not want anything from her.
“You can and you will! It is a present from me,” she said, placing the purse in the basket I carried. “Have you no servant to attend to you?”
I shook my head. Raviv had house servants, but I had none of my own. Rebecca had many servants, all part of the dowry her father had provided to tempt her husband.
“Then you shall have one of mine,” she said. I tried again to refuse her kindness, but she would not have it. She called for a young man of her house and presented him to me.
“This is Japheth. He will serve you well, and without quarrel,” Rebecca assured me. She thrust Japheth towards me. “Shani is your new mistress now. You belong to her house hereafter.”
Japheth stood close to me, closer than a servant should dare. He was not a Jew, or if he was, he also had a heathen blood pulsing within him. His jade eyes feasted on my body, eating up every inch of me.
I had never received such a glance from Raviv. Now, as this servant stood over me, I felt a wicked sensation that I hadn’t experienced before. Japheth took my breath from me in this single moment, something my husband could never do.
“What is your will, mistress?” Japheth asked, bowing his head slightly to show his respect. I did not reply; I turned sharply and walked out of Rebecca’s tent, hurrying towards the village and the safety of a thousand eyes that would restrain me.
Japheth was quickly at my heels.
“You are Raviv’s first wife, yes?” he asked.
“You are so young,” he remarked. “How many years separate you?”
“He is twice my age,” I replied curtly, hoping this would silence him. I was not used to handling servants, and I cursed Rebecca for forcing this one on me.
“It amazes me that he was able to claim you,” Japheth told me. For a moment I wanted to laugh, but then I realized that Japheth knew nothing about me. He did not know about my mother or about the circumstances of my marriage to Raviv.
“He has been good to me. He wishes me to be happy,” I told him, my pace quickening. Japheth did not seem to notice.
“I will do all I can to make you happy as well,” he said. Japheth reached out and took hold of my basket, his hands closing over mine. I let them rest a moment, knowing I shouldn’t. This touch, however innocent, tempted me. What would it feel like to have those hands, those strong arms, wrapped around me?
I released the basket and hurried to the house, not speaking another word to him. Japheth presented himself to Raviv and took his place in the servant’s quarters. Even there, his presence haunted me. As I slept that night I had dreams of his face, of his piercing green eyes. And I knew what emotion he stirred within me. It was the most dangerous and sinful of all for a Jew.
But I did not deny it.
One day, I was alone in the house. Raviv had gone to the oasis to meet with Rebecca’s father, to discuss their upcoming marriage. My heart was so bitter and angry, I began to cry. I had thought no one was there to hear me, but I was wrong. Japheth suddenly appeared in the doorway, his face filled with concern.
“What is wrong, mistress?” he asked. I wiped the tears away quickly.
“Nothing. Please leave.” He didn’t. He came inside and closed the door behind him, moving close to me and kneeling by my side.
“I know why you weep,” he said. “He leaves you alone in this house to go to her.”
“I asked you to leave,” I replied.
“Do not send me away. I would never leave you, Shani, were I lucky enough to be Raviv. I would stay with you, and show you love often,” he said.
I turned to Japheth, intending to strike him, but I didn’t.
“You have no right to say such things to me,” I told him. “Go back to your mistress and tell her I free you from my service.”
“You are my mistress now, and I do not wish to go back,” Japheth replied. “I want to please you, Shani, so that you never feel such sorrow again.”
I felt my lips quivering as I looked into his eyes. They were so passionate, so intense. I reached out to him, caressing his face with my hand. This was all Japheth needed. He moved closer to me, and I did not stop him. His arms, so strong and firm, wrapped around me, and I did not rebuke him. When his lips pressed against mine, I drank their passion eagerly, viciously.
Japheth ran his fingers tenderly through my hair.
“I will do your bidding, Shani,” he promised. “There is nothing I would refuse you.”
I pushed him away and hid in my room, trying to suppress the desires I was feeling, convincing myself they were not there. But each day as Japheth escorted me to the marketplace, as he did my bidding about the house, as I watched him from the window of my room, I knew in my heart that I wanted him. He knew this as well, and slowly began to regularly show his affection. He grew bolder every time I called for him. At first it would be only a kiss, perhaps on the hand, but soon after my neck. Before long, he would wait until the house was empty and we would lie in each other’s arms for a time.
Then came the night of our greatest sin.
It was the night before Raviv and Rebecca were to be married. I was wearing my new gown. There was much feasting and drinking; friends and family were in the courtyard at the tables of Raviv, helping him celebrate the taking of his new bride. I hid in the house, my heart sick with sorrow. I couldn’t bear this, and Japheth knew it. He came to my side and pulled me close.
“Let me love you, Shani."
“Did you love Rebecca before me?” I asked.
“No,” he said firmly. “She demanded my lips and the feeling of my hands upon her, but she knew she must be able to prove herself to a husband. I am so glad she did not force herself upon me.”
“Please, Japheth, don’t.”
“Shani, no man has ever wanted you as I do. Let me have you this once. You may banish me from your sight afterwards if you wish, but let us share this night,” he replied, taking me by the wrist and pulling me along the edge of the courtyard.
I did not fight him. This was what I wanted.
Japheth took me to his chamber and closed the door. I was so frightened, I could not move. He removed my gown and carried me to his bed. His touch was so different from Raviv’s. Japheth was fierce and passionate; he was everything I had dreamed of, the lover I had imagined while alone in the chambers of Raviv’s house.
Japheth did not take me. I gave myself to him.
Our arrest was terrifying. The door was flung open and torchlight filled the room. I was still in Japheth’s arms when Raviv pushed his way inside. At first I was blinded and could not see who was there. A black figure loomed out of the dark, coming swiftly towards us. It was my husband. I screamed as Raviv’s hand rose and fell, thrusting a knife into Japheth’s chest and jerking it out again with vengeance. Japheth clutched at the wound and fell over to the floor, blood streaming down his stomach. Raviv pulled me out of the bed, casting a robe around me to hide my nakedness.
“So, the stories are true,” he remarked. “I should have known this would come from you.”
“It will do you no good to beg mercy from me!” Raviv thundered. “I am only ashamed that I allowed the two of you to breed such sin within my own house! I did not want to believe Rebecca when she tried to warn me about you and this servant, but now it’s clear I was deceived!”
Japheth died at my feet. I had no time to weep over his body. Raviv drug me through the streets to my uncle’s house. My crimes were announced publicly there, and my uncle was charged with holding me until the day I would stand before the Sanhedrin to be judged.
Tears fall slowly down my cheeks and soak my lips now. I have no strength left to cry out, but the tears come anyway, streaming along my neck and resting on my collar bone. I look up and see the sun coming through the curtains.
I know that the elders will be here soon.
“Why did you let me live?” I ask Elohim, knowing full well that he will not answer. “Why didn’t you let me die inside my mother?”
Miriam comes to help me dress. She ties the white robe around me, silently, not saying a word. When the crowd gathers outside the house, Eliam takes me by the arm and pulls me towards the door.
“I will offer sacrifices in the temple for your soul,” Eliam whispers softly. “I pray that Elohim will forgive you.”
“I do not want your god’s forgiveness,” I hiss.
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Believe that if you want to.”
Eliam opens the door and hands me over to the elders. Two of them pull me through the city. The people all surround us, following, shouting insults at me. I stare fearfully at their hands. They all clutch stones.
I do not see the man, though I am thrust at his feet. As I fall, my hands fly up to save my face from the cobblestone. I can feel the blood running from my palms, staining the white rocks beneath me, but I do not dare move. The crowd is whispering his name, Yeshua, in surprise. They all know of him, and they all wait to hear what the elders will say.
“Rabbi, this woman was taken in adultery, caught in the very act,” they tell him. “The law of Moses says she must be stoned to death. But, what do you say?”
My heart is racing. I listen to hear his judgment on me.
There is quiet. No one speaks, no one moves, except the prophet. He stands over me and I can feel his presence. Something radiates from him, something frightening that shakes me. My lips are trembling, and I bury my face in my arms.
“Whoever among you has never sinned, cast the first stone.”
I cover my head, waiting for the stones to strike my body, but they do not come.
The people are murmuring, moving about, but I am not struck.
I hear the stones as they drop the ground all around me, and the leather of sandals against the street, growing dimmer and dimmer.
His touch frightens me. I gasp when I feel his hand stroking my hair. He reaches down, cradling my cheek, and gently lifts my face to meet his gaze. His eyes pierce through me. They look deep inside me, past the flesh and into my soul, staring at all the anger and fear.
This is no mere man who commands my attention. I cannot look away. I know who He is.
“Woman, where are your accusers? Do none condemn you?” He asks me.
They are all gone. We are alone by the east wall; only the stones remain behind me to prove that the crowd was ever there.
“None, adonai,” I whisper. His gaze softens; it is no longer one of command, but of understanding. He takes my bleeding hands and helps me to my feet.
“Neither do I,” He says gently. “Go. And sin no more.”
I feel my whole body shaking as His arms fold around me.
I finally feel what I have been looking for, aching for, longing for my whole life.