By Lisa Vitello
Ancient Nazareth was a tiny, insignificant village perched 1,300 feet high in the Galilean hills of northern Israel. It was far removed from the trade route, which snaked through the Megiddo valley below. Archaeologists have estimated that as few as 150 to no more than 300 people lived there in the first century A.D. It is highly likely that those who did live in Nazareth were mostly extended family from the tribe of Judah, David’s clan, who had settled there after returning from the exile in Babylon.
Life in this rural town was a quiet, pastoral existence. Small, squarish, stone dwellings nestled into the hills on the southeastern slope of the Nazareth ridge. The hillsides were terraced for the growing of crops, which would sustain the entire community. There is evidence that grapes, olives, and wheat were grown there. At harvest time, the whole town was expected to turn out to do their part in gathering and processing the produce.
Animals were highly valued and either kept in a community stall or a special room built right into the family dwelling. Donkeys, sheep, and goats were counted among the herds to provide labor, milk, and wool. Milk mostly came from the sheep and goats. Much of it was fermented for a yogurt-like food or made into cheese.
Most homes had a cistern for collecting rainwater, which was abundant in Nazareth by Middle Eastern standards. However, there was also a well located on the northern end of town—now aptly named Mary’s Well—from which most of the town’s occupants collected their daily water. I’m sure Mary made the trip to this well countless times.
A young woman’s day would have been occupied with the labors that were essential for a family’s welfare. The daily bread was baked. This involved grinding flour or barley in the stone mill, and then mixing it with water and a lump of leaven saved from the previous day’s baking. It was then shaped into the familiar round “bible” loaves, taken out to the courtyard oven, and thrown against the wall to bake. When done, it would fall off the wall into the ashes below.
There was the spinning and weaving which had to be done. This was extremely time-consuming work. The wool was cleaned and carded (combed out) and then spun into yarn using a drop spindle or simply rolled on the thigh. The weaving was done on a wooden two-beam loom, many times kept on the roof in good weather.
Most people never ventured far from their village. We know from the biblical record that Mary and Joseph made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year for Passover. That—and that trip to Bethlehem, of course—was probably the extent of Mary’s travels during her entire lifetime. Day by day, week by week, year by year, life rarely strayed from this subsistent routine.
And then there was Elizabeth. She was from the daughters of Aaron, of the priestly line, as was her husband Zacharias. We know that they lived in the hill country, in a “city of Judah.” The Judean hills were tree-covered and full of wildflowers in the spring. In the summer, the stony ground is barren and sun-browned.
Having no children and being of an advanced age, Elizabeth would have nonetheless lived with the same daily routine of cooking, baking, and working with her hands that Mary did. Perhaps, being closer to the city of Jerusalem, she might have had access to the street markets and shops, especially when her husband was performing his course of service in the Temple.
It was into these two women’s seemingly unremarkable lives that the angel Gabriel blazed. The message to Mary from Almighty God was that she was “highly favored.” Elizabeth we are told was “righteous in the sight of God.” How amazing that these lives spent performing the humblest of domestic tasks could result in such high praise from God.
We all know their stories so well: the day these two blessed women met, the prophet leaping in the womb of his mother at Mary’s greeting; Mary’s psalm of praise as the Spirit filled her with His transcendent joy:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He hath regarded the low estate of his
For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall
call me blessed.
For He that is mighty hath done to me great things;
and holy is His name”
The Spirit of God revealed to her that her name would be known for all generations to come. And, so it is.
However, there was a life before these mighty things, and a life to be lived afterward as well. Mary herself said she was of “low estate.” Not rich, nor of high standing; just a young woman from a small village living an ordinary life. Elizabeth, too, had no claim to fame—nothing to set her apart—except for the heartbreaking reality of her barrenness. In those times, a woman in such condition felt considerably set apart, as I am sure many do in our day as well.
But the Lord was watching. He observed them as they went about their work and coped with the realities of day-to-day existence. They may not have been known to the world, but they were known to their God and precious in His sight. He saw the attitude of their hearts.
It occurs to me that these women were chosen to receive such miracles not only for how they would handle the supernatural events, but also how they would deal with the return to the mundane. For, in between the angelic visitation and the wedding at Cana, there were a whole lot of ordinary days in which ordinary things had to be done. And the Lord had confidence in these ladies that they would not be carried away by it all. In fact, we are told that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart,” keeping them to herself.
We all can look back over the course of our Christian lives and pinpoint certain events that stand out— moments when heaven and earth seemed to meet as the Lord performed some mighty deed on our behalf. But, mostly, our lives are filled with the daily obligations and duties inherent to the life of a home-centered woman—unnoticed, many times unrecognized, even by those closest to us. Yet, we know our God is watching.
Along with that, I wonder … I wonder if our story is being “read” even as we live it. After recording the feats of the great heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, the writer makes this intriguing statement in chapter 12:1:
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of
witnesses surrounding us … let us run with endurance
the race set before us.”
This brings to mind the great Roman arenas wherein the “witnesses” would sit and watch the races being run by those on the field. Just as we are so familiar with these stories from the Word of God, are those who have gone before us also watching our stories unfold?
You may be a mother, like Mary, or waiting on motherhood, like Elizabeth. Maybe you are a young woman, just starting the journey of wifehood and motherhood, or in a later season of life. Your days probably run one into the other, with cooking, cleaning, and caring for your loved ones. How can we make a difference for the Lord in this world with such a life?
Remember, it is what is in our hearts that our God is observing. Do we praise Him amidst all the simple things? Are we thankful in the humblest of circumstances? For this is the kind of heart the Lord seeks, and with a heart like that, the Mighty One can do great things through you, too.
The colored sunsets and starry heavens, the beautiful
mountains and the shining seas, the fragrant woods
and painted flowers are not half so beautiful as a
soul that is serving Jesus out of love in the wear and
tear of common, unpoetic life.—Frederick William Faber
Lisa Vitello is a wife of thirty-three years and mother to six, living the homestead life in rural California. She published the “New Harvest Homestead” newsletter for five years. Back issues are still available upon request. You can write to her at: [email protected] to request an index of issues.