Buckle up, folks, because this is going to be a doozy. Hadassah is on a Roman ship—a “corbita”—headed for Ephesus. The others on the ship too, but she’s up on the deck “filling her lungs with the sale sea air” and thinking of the Sea of Galilee and home. She wasn’t alone for long, though.
Marcus came up form belowdecks and saw her at the bow. He hadn’t seen her in four days, and his senses quickened. As he approached, he took in the slender curves of her body and the way the strands of dark hair fluttered around her head. He stood right beside her, drinking in the sweetness of her serene profile.
Oh FFS, Marcus. Leave her alone.
“Mother said Julia was being very difficult,” he said as casually as he could, wanting her to relax with him. “I take it she is improved?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Her quiet, subservient response made him clench his teeth in irritation. He looked from her out to sea as she was doing. “I never noticed how a properly respectful attitude in a slave could put such distance between two human beings.” He looked at her again, direct and commanding. “Why do you build walls between us?” He wanted to rip down her defenses and take hold of her.
Good grief, Marcus. You can’t make a slave treat you casually when you’re her master’s brother and when you’ve been angry and violent with her and sexually assaulted her in the past. “Why do you build walls between us?” Really? There is so much gaslighting and so much classic abuser stuff going on right here, it’s profoundly disturbing.
Here’s an interesting question: Would Rivers, the book’s evangelical author, identify Marcus’ behavior toward Hadassah as abusive? Does she see it that way? Growing up in an evangelical home, I got an awful lot of “guys only want one thing” messaging, but no one ever told me that guys refusing to respect a girl’s no, and instead pushing and pushing, manipulating and poking and prodding, was “abusive.”
I was taught that if I were ever seeing someone and he were to try to push me to have sex with him, I should drop him like a hot potato. That would be a sure sign he is not a good, upstanding, godly man—and Rivers would say the same here, that Marcus is hedonistic and worldly and a fornicator. I plan to teach my daughter something similar—that if she’s ever seeing someone and he pushes her to do things she’s said she doesn’t want to do, she should leave him. But my reasons for teaching her this will be very, very different.
For progressives, when we talk about relationships and relationship partners we tend to divide people into “abusive” or “non-abusive.” That’s simplistic, of course—there’s all sorts of unhealthy relationship activity that can go on without being abusive. But still, that’s what we tend to look for. For evangelicals, the derivation is different. Evangelicals divide people into saved—and therefore good and godly—and unsaved—and therefore worldly and hedonistic. Evangelicals will recognize abuse if pushed to do so, but even then they tend to identify it as a spiritual problem.
My hunch is that Rivers wouldn’t say Marcus is abusive. My hunch is that she would say that he is unsaved. Therefore, all that is needed to fix him—to end all of these behaviors both progressives and evangelicals recognize as bad, though for different reasons—is for him to be saved. And viola. Just like that, he’ll be completely different.
I’m going to return to this in a moment, but first:
Marcus put his hand over hers and the heat of his touch shocked her. She tired to withdraw her hand, but he clasped it and held it where it was, captive. “My lord,” she said, imploring.
“Have you stayed belowdecks with Julia because she needs you, or in order to hide from me?” he demanded roughly.
“Please,” she said, wanting him to release her, frightened by the rush of sensations his touch aroused in her.
Note that it’s again framed as a battle within Hadassah. She’s upset that he has grabbed her hand and won’t let her go not because that he has assaulted her before and is acting in the same manner before but rather because his touch is turning her on. I’m going to spare you most of the rest of this, because it’s gross and repetitive. He rubs her wrist, kisses her wrist, puts his hand “against the silky smoothness of her cheek.” She resists, but we all know what’s going on inside.
She closed her eyes and he felt her longing as intently as his own.
After that vomit-inducing line from Rivers, Hadassah pushes Marcus away, telling him that “God does not bless fornication.” For anyone who is counting, we’ve already done this song and dance once, when Marcus sexually assaulted her a few chapters back, kissing her repeatedly and roughly and insisting that she wanted him and should just give in even as she resisted and begged him to stop. While things don’t get that far here, this scene feels very familiar.
The interaction between the two takes on a philosophical drift as Hadassah tries to explain to Marcus that God is love, but that that doesn’t mean sexual love, and Marcus mocks her. At this point Decimus comes up. Decimus asks Hadassah why she’s not with Julia, and Hadassah, chastened, hurries back below decks. It’s pretty clear that Decimus is actually displeased with Marcus, whom he has warned to leave Hadassah alone, and Marcus is angry at him in turn.
Speaking of which, why is Marcus on this boat, exactly? There’s an exchange between him and Julia later in this passage that suggests that Marcus has decided to come to Ephesus too, and that he’s claiming it’s because he wants to be with his parents and sister, but Julia is sure it’s because he wants to be close to Hadassah. And you know what, I don’t think she’s wrong. Unfortunately, Rivers does her “tell after the fact” thing, so we never got to see Marcus deliberate or make this decision. Instead, we do a time skip and now here he is, on the boat with them sexually harassing Hadassah.
Some time later the sea becomes rough and Julia becomes extremely seasick. Hadassah tries to sing to her, but Julia says she doesn’t want songs about “your stupid god and how he sees and knows everything” and orders Hadassah from the room. Hadassah falls asleep in the corridor; Rivers tells us that it’s cold, with the wind coming down from above.
And then, hours later, this happens:
Marcus almost tripped over her as he came down from helping the sailors.
Or maybe that’s just my dirty mind, and it’s supposed to show that Marcus actually is a caring, kind, helpful person, despite what he’s doing to Hadassah.
Or maybe Rivers just needed a contrivance for him coming down below deck after hours above, so that he could trip over Hadassah and find her there. IDK.
Anyway, Marcus, worried about Hadassah and finding that she’s half frozen, carries her back to his own room. Which by the way, what is this ship, a hotel? He puts her in his bed and covers her with his blankets. He sits there and looks at her and thinks about her and her god. After a while, he goes up to the deck to think. He decides to rape Hadassah, but as he turns to back to his room he comes upon Julia in the corridor.
“I told Hadassah to sit out here and wait until I called her, and she’s gone! She’s probably with Mother and Father, singing to them.”
He caught her arm. “She’s in my quarters.”
She jerked her arm from him, glaring up at him as though he had betrayed her. “She’s my slave, not yours.”
Handsy Marcus is handsy. Again. Also, does Hadassah know she’s Julia’s slave and not Marcus’s? Because she’s definitely under the impression that Marcus can give her commands, including giving her orders that his sister doesn’t even know about. Marcus promises he didn’t touch Hadassah and returns her to Julia, who is petulant and self-absorbed (and by that I mean that she wants very much to be off this boat and can’t seem to grasp that Hadassah could have taken cold).
But let’s return to something a few paragraphs up for a moment. Marcus decided to go back to his room, where Hadassah is laying in his bed asleep, and rape her. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. Here’s what the passage says:
With a wry smile, he uttered a prayer to Venus that she would send a winged Cupid to strike Hadassah’s heart with love for him.
“Venus, goddess of eros, let her burn as I do.”
A gentle wind rippled through the sails. Love is kind. Love seeks not its own.
Marcus grimaced, annoyed that Hadassah’s words should come back to him now, in the wake of his own appeal to Venus, like a soft whisper in the wind. He looked out at the vast expanse of sea and felt an aching loneliness. A vast darkness closed around him pressing in on him from all sides, heavy, oppressive.
“I will have her,” he said into the stillness and turned to go below.
Julia was standing in the corridor.
Am I wrong to conclude that Marcus, in this moment, decided to rape Hadassah? I’m deducing this from his “I will have her” comment coupled with turning to go back below, right after sensing a heavy, oppressive darkness (which I’m fairly sure is code for demons showing up in response to his prayer to Venus). And then, Rivers miraculously has Julia show up, looking for Hadassah and thus preventing Marcus from carrying out his intent. This deus ex machina might seem out of place if Marcus hadn’t just decided to rape Hadassah.
This book was never light, but it has grown darker in the last few months as Marcus has targeted Hadassah, sexually harassing her, sexually assaulting her, and physically abusing her. And I have been increasingly struck by my knowledge of what happens later in this book and in the one that comes after it. Marcus is eventually converted, and that fixes him.
It’s true that Hadassah is initially skittish around him, even after his conversion. It’s true that she wants to make sure his conversion is sincere, and not something he’s done just so that he can get in her pants. But all of that is treated as a spiritual issue. Marcus stops being abusive (assuming he stops—I’d need to reread the second book to be sure) because he is saved. It’s as simple as that.
Growing up in an evangelical home, anytime we heard about a bad person, or someone doing something bad, the immediate response was “that person needs Jesus” or “that person needs salvation.” Knowing Jesus was all that was necessary to turn the most unregenerate sinner (that was generally the language used) into a completely different person. And as to sin—fornication was just as much a sin as being abusive toward another person.
In fact, to be honest, I don’t ever remember discussing being abusive toward another person as a sin. Sins were things listed in the Bible. Fornication, adultery, lying, murder, stealing, coveting, and so on. Being selfish and self-centered might also be counted as sinful—it was being hedonistic, after all. But interpersonal abuse? Let’s just say that the ten commandments don’t exactly mention domestic violence.
I’m going to have to come back to this later once I’ve thought about it, and perhaps once we’re further on in the book, but my musings today suggest that evangelicals’ problems with abuse may be worse than I had thought. Up until now, I’d focused mainly on evangelicals’ response to abuse allegations—their tendency to use verses like “let him who is without blame cast the first stone” to accuse abusers—and less on fundamental underlying understandings of sin.
I’m still not convinced, for instance, that Rivers sees Marcus’ actions as an abuse problem, rather than as a fornication problem. After all, in Rivers’ hands Hadassah wants Marcus too. It is entirely possible that Rivers has set up these scenes to make it clear that Marcus is an unrepentant fornicator and to create tension within Hadassah as she fights her feelings and urges, and not to show the reader that Marcus is a textbook abuser. And that thought is disturbing.