Hey all! We’re back to Hadassah today, but first I wanted to make a quick note about the last passage. There was nothing said about Arria evading a chaperone. The passage read as though Arria had simply come to Antigonus’ house to party, perhaps with some girlfriends but not with a chaperone. The passage also indicated not only that Arria had multiple former lovers, but also that this was well known to all—in fact, in one case the men in Marcus’ circle had been making bets on whether Arria could win a man “away from his gladiator.” Many readers pointed out last week that a 17-year-old Roman noblewoman of good birth would absolutely not be allowed to do such things.
There was a very interesting point floated in the comments last week—I forget precisely who mentioned it—that Roman gender norms and sexual mores at this time would have been very similar to those in evangelicals’ ideal Christian society. But that doesn’t make a very good story—young Christian slave girl who lost her family in the sack of Jerusalem evangelizes moral, chaste Roman family. So instead you get a picture of gender relations and sexual practices that looks far more like modern American culture than it does like Ancient Rome circa 70 AD.
But we’ll get more on this as we go on, and as Julia grows and enters the scene. Oh—and Arria isn’t disappearing any time soon, either.
We’re shifting storylines this week, and Hadassah has a problem. She’s in Antioch. Many of the slaves taken in the fall of Jerusalem have been dispersed already, and she is one of the last several hundred left—and being looked over by an Ephesian slaver interested in purchasing prostitutes for the Temple of Artemis. I have questions.
Rivers describes a shame associated with nakedness, and I’m curious whether she looked into how nakedness would have been seen in Ancient Rome in general, and in Judea in particular. The very little bit I read on Wikipedia suggests that outside of specific situations (such as the baths) nudity had negative connotations, in part because captives of war were often stripped, but it also suggests that slaves were routinely sold naked. Yet Hadassah is never stripped—she retains her tunic even while being looked at by slavers—and the woman who is stripped is only stripped “to worsen her humiliation” after yelling at some “small dark boys” throwing dung, and not because she is a captive or as part of being sold. To me this suggests that Rivers didn’t take the time to try to understand what role nudity would have played in these situations, perhaps assuming that cultural approaches to nudity are universal.
I’d also note that scholars have increasingly questioned whether the cult of Artemis at Ephesus actually involved prostitution. There appears to be little evidence of this outside of traditional Christian sources. Regardless, Hadassah is saved this fate by the same Roman soldier who gave her that scoop of corn (and here Rivers calls it grain, which resolves the speculation I saw in the comments over what was actually meant there) shortly after Jerusalem fell, ending her long period of starvation. In this instance the soldier convinces the interested slavery that Hadassah is “one of the righteous” and that she would kill herself before she served a pagan god. Hadassah thanks the soldier, but the soldier calls her a fool.
Ultimately, Hadassah is purchased by a Greek slaver, to serve as a household slave. She is put on a ship, descending into its hull, walking past galley slaves and descending further. A grate is closed above them and they’re locked in with “the second crew of galley slaves.” The woman who was stripped naked is immediately grabbed and raped. And I’m sitting here trying to puzzle out why slaves being transported would be locked in with off-duty galley slaves like this. The grate is opened only to switch galley crews or dispense “meager rations.” Hadassah offers the woman a spot beside her and gives her her overdress, keeping only her gray tunic.
Is it significant that the nudity and the rape happened to another woman, and not to Hadassah herself? I think it is. I think Rivers needed Hadassah constantly clothed and untouched to ensure that she was pure and virginal for the remainder of the book (in which Hadassah will be—spoiler!—pursued by Marcus). In another or Rivers’ books, the heroine was raped, and let’s just say that River doesn’t come off well in how she handles that. It’s not the girl’s fault, but she’s still tainted. She loses her future-preacher fiancé and ends up with a guy with a mottled past—someone who better fits her newly tainted state.
But Rivers wants Hadassah pure.
In some sense Hadassah’s near miss with temple prostitution underlines her purity, emphasizing how easily this purity could have been destroyed. It also puts on full display Hadassah’s abject horror at the idea of becoming a temple prostitute, thus pointing again to her virtuous purity. (Although to be fair to Rivers, Hadassah is horrified at the idea of serving a pagan goddess, not simply at the idea of being prostituted.)
There’s one more thing I want to note as the journey continues.
There’s a storm and Hadassah hits her head and blacks out. She wakes to “the steady cadence of the drum and of the dip of the oars.” The woman she’d given her overdress to is still sitting by her. The woman strikes up conversation, asking Hadassah if she’s okay and thanking her. The woman begins quoting Hosea, and Hadassah joins in, finishing the passage. Then we get this:
The woman took Hadassah’s hand. “Why is it only in darkness that we remember what sustained us even in the light? I have not thought of the words of the prophet since childhood, and now in this darkness they come to more clearly than the day I heard them read.” She cried softly. “Jonah must have felt this same dark despair in the belly of the whale.”
“Hosea was speaking of Yeshua and the Resurrection,” Hadassah said, without thinking.
The woman let go of her hand and peered at her in the darkness. “You are a Christian?” The word sounded like a curse. Frightened, Hadassah didn’t answer. She felt the chill of the woman’s animosity. The silence that grew between them was thicker than a wall. Hadassah wanted to say something, but could find no words. “How can you believe our Messiah has come?” the woman hissed at her. “Are we delivered from the Romans? Does our God reign?” She began to weep.
“Yeshua came to atone for us,” Hadassah whispered.
“I lived by the law of Moses all my life. Don’t speak to me of atonement,” the woman said, her face ravaged by bitter emotion and grief. She got up and moved away, sitting near several other women. She cared at Hadassah for a long moment and then turned her face away.
Hadassah put her head against her knees and fought against despair.
This sets the tone for the rest of the book: The Jews are bad guys, and Hadassah has faith but is afraid to truly stand up for it.
I suppose I don’t know enough about the relationship between the Jews and the Christians at this point in time (70AD) to evaluate this interaction as thoroughly as I’d like to. I do know, based on what I read while preparing one of these posts a few weeks ago, that the term “Christian” would not have been in circulation. I also suspect, based on what I read, that not everyone in Judea or in Jerusalem would have heard of the new sect, though it would be slightly more well known than in Rome.
Remember that there were lots of different groups and sects not only within the Roman empire but also within Judea and within Judaism. Looking back, we like to pick out the Christian sect (whether it was called “the Way” or something else at the time) as important, but that is only by virtue of knowing what happened later. At the time, it likely wouldn’t have stuck out. But here, Rivers portrays a conflict between Christianity (portrayed as monolithic) and Judaism (also portrayed as monolithic). Already you have a dichotomy, but at the time, it would not have looked that way.
That this book takes place right after the fall of Jerusalem makes its portrayal of Jews particularly troubling. They are not sympathetic characters. Earlier we saw them described as bitter and angry, in contrast to Hadassah’s peace and desire to forgive and accept. Here we see Hadassah showing kindness and helping one of the fellow Jewish captives around her, who has, like her, seen war, starvation, and bloodshed, in addition to sexual violation, only to have this woman angrily reject her—because she is a Jew and Hadassah is a Christian.
And just who has been kind to Hadassah so far? Roman soldiers. The Roman soldier who found her after Jerusalem was taken chose not to kill her, for no reason even he could understand. Another Roman soldier gave her grain (even though it seemed wasted, given her state), and later persuaded a slaver not to buy her as a temple prostitute (with absolutely no reason or incentive for doing so). When the slaver asked this soldier whether he’d been “using” Hadassah (given his clear interest in her), he was appalled and vigorously denied touching her.
But why? Why are these Roman soldiers being kind to Hadassah—especially when other Jews are so willing to spit in her face?
Evangelicals insist up and down that they aren’t anti-semitic, that they are a friend to the Jews, that they are supporters of Israel, and so forth. Writing like this does not help make that point—and we haven’t seen the last of it yet.