We usually think of fifteen-year-old girls as sophomores in high school, attending classes, eating in the cafeteria, playing in the band or singing in the choir, playing sports, laughing with friends, being grown up one minute and childish the next—all the things we see in adolescents today. We find it difficult to imagine a girl that age as a wife and mother; but it wasn’t always so. In fact, in the history of humanity, our current picture is very recent.
For thousands of years young teenage girls were expected to marry—frequently much older men—and to keep house and have and care for a family. They were raised that way. They were trained that way. They understood from a very early age that this was their future.
Most girls accepted—even embraced—such a life. What else did they know? What else did they see around them? What other role models did they have? The only alternative was to be an old maid of twenty, their lives half over, with no future, no one to care for them, no prospects except loneliness and—too frequently—poverty. Who would choose that life?
This is why Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. Once Rachel, the younger, more attractive sister was married, Leah didn’t have a chance. No man would be willing to accept her as a bride. Laban had no choice. He either found a way to marry Leah off, or he would be responsible for her for the rest of his life. Who could blame him? Certainly not the men and women of his culture. They saw him not as a cheat, but as a wise and loving father, concerned for his daughter’s welfare.
Like Hodel and Chava, Tevye’s second and third daughters (Fiddler on the Roof), most young girls dreamed of a husband who would love them, cherish them, and care for them, a handsome young man of good character who would enrich their lives.
Some girls, like Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, had seen enough of life to know that this dream was not often realized. More frequently the husband chosen for them (marriages were arranged by parents) would be a man looking for a second wife after the first had died from excessive childbearing and housework. He would be set in his ways, needing a housekeeper and someone to care for the children already a part of the family, as well as to produce more. He would be busy at work, with little time for romance. This, unfortunately, was the way of husbands and wives.
How fortunate, then, was Mary, whose family had chosen for her a kind carpenter named Joseph. Yes, he was older than her by a good few years. Yes, he already had children by his first wife. But this man seemed to be a good prospect. He looked at the young girl he was about to marry with love in his eyes. He treated her with respect. If she had to marry an older man, this one was exceptional.
Luke tells us that once Gabriel explained the origin of the child she was to bear she became a willing participant in the plan. “Behold I am the servant of the Lord,” she said. “Let it be to me according to your word.” When the angel first appeared to her, however, she was “greatly troubled.” I believe that was an understatement.
Mary must have had moments of doubt, both before and after the annunciation. She must have thought out carefully how she was to tell Joseph. How do you explain to your husband-to-be—as well as your family and the entire town—that you are pregnant, but it’s not illegitimate?
She had to have worries, concerns, misgivings, even if we’re not told of them. How could she not have been disturbed by the prospect?
How would a fifteen-year-old girl react today?