The Wedding Feast at Cana

THE TEXT


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“Stoneware water pots were there, used by the Jews for ritual washings. Each held twenty to thirty gallons.”

  1. 1 Three days later there was a wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there.
  2. 2 Jesus and his disciples were guests also.
  3. 3 When they started running low on wine at the wedding banquet, Jesus' mother told him, “They're just about out of wine.”
  4. 4 Jesus said, “Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn't my time. Don't push me.”
  5. 5 She went ahead anyway, telling the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.”
  6. 6 Six stoneware water pots were there, used by the Jews for ritual washings. Each held twenty to thirty gallons.
  7. 7 Jesus ordered the servants, “Fill the pots with water.” And they filled them to the brim.
  8. 8 “Now fill your pitchers and take them to the host,” Jesus said, and they did.
  9. 9 When the host tasted the water that had become wine (he didn't know what had just happened but the servants, of course, knew), he called out to the bridegroom,
  10. 10 “Everybody I know begins with their finest wines and after the guests have had their fill brings in the cheap stuff. But you've saved the best till now!”

John 2:1–10, The Message

THE HISTORY

In Jewish tradition, marriage is held to be the ideal state, and all Jewish men and women are generally encouraged to marry. For the peoples of the Old Testament (particularly the Jewish Torah), polygyny was the most common form of marriage. Polygyny is defined as “the practice of having more than one wife or female mate at one time,” and the scriptures provide many examples of polygyny: Abraham had both a wife and a concubine; Jacob had two wives and two concubines; King David had eight wives; King Solomon was said to have had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Often a slave would become the wife or concubine of her master, and sometimes a childless wife would offer her serving girl to her husband in order to produce heirs. Although there was no legal limit and a man could have as many as he could afford to support, it was really only the very wealthy or powerful who had more than one or at most two wives or concubines.

The Jewish prophets, such as Hosea and Isaiah, seem to have been proponents of monogamy (having only one spouse or mate at a time), for they represent the Chosen People's relationship to God as that of a monogamous couple, and they portray God as a jealous husband of one beloved wife. By the time of the Roman conquest, monogamy was the norm among the Jews.

The stories of the patriarchs also reflect the practice of endogamy: marriage within a specific group. The marriages of both Isaac and Jacob are held as exemplars, for they went well out of their way to marry kinswomen. Marrying outside of the tribe was seen to cause grief and turmoil, as, for example, in the story of Esau. When the Israelites moved into Canaan, however, some of them intermarried with the Canaanite women, and the Israelite kings, such as David and Solomon, sealed foreign alliances through intermarriage. The proscription of marriage with someone outside the tribe was relaxed during the times of exile, though the prophets blamed intermarriage, among other transgressions, for the calamities that befell the Chosen People. In general, men were prohibited from marrying their immediate blood relatives (mothers, daughters, sisters, granddaughters), as well as aunts, stepmothers, mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and stepdaughters (those who had legally become the equivalent of blood relatives). As a result of endogamy, a high degree of social cohesion was maintained.

Another custom followed by the ancient Hebrews was that of Levirate marriage, according to which a man is obligated to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother and to beget children on behalf of that brother. There were two purposes for Levirate marriage: to prevent the dead brother's name from passing away, and to ensure the proper disposition of the dead brother's property. In both cases, the firstborn son of the widow was considered the rightful heir of the dead brother's estate. A widow whose brother-in-law was unwilling to marry her could publicly humiliate him by loosening his sandal and spitting in his face.

While the wife was considered to be the property of the husband, she was to be valued and well cared for. Many wives, such as Deborah, one of the judges of the tribes, held important positions in the community, and most wives were responsible for managing the affairs of the household. A wife was supposed to be obedient, and infidelity on her part was a sin carrying the penalty of death. While the strictures were not identical for husbands, they were encouraged to be faithful as well and to respect and honor their wives.

Before a marriage could occur, a betrothal had to be arranged. A betrothal required the consent of the woman's (or girl's) parents and the payment of a fee to the man's family (a dowry). Sometimes the woman would also receive gifts from her father or relatives. Betrothals could occur either months or years before the nuptials would be celebrated; in many cases, parents would arrange betrothals for their children not long after their births. Once betrothed, a woman was considered to be a wife in everything but name, and she was required to behave as a wife should. The marriage and nuptial feast were mere formalities allowing the consummation of the union, though the celebration, held in the house of the bridegroom, might continue for many days.

BIBLICAL PASSAGE NOTES

It's a dangerous task for the writer to attempt to comment on the wedding feast at Cana, as it is considered by many in the Christian tradition to exemplify the miracles of Jesus. Turning water into wine is not an everyday affair, and to our knowledge there are no recipes for doing so, neither in ancient cookbooks nor in the magical tomes of antiquity. Nor is there a lot of information in the Bible (or elsewhere) on matrimonial customs of the Galilean middle class in the 1st century. Perhaps the best we can do is to read between the lines and interpolate a scenario based upon later (and current) traditions in order to give us a fair idea of the type of feast Jesus and his disciples attended in Cana so long ago.

The exact location of Cana is uncertain. Latin and Orthodox churches point to a modern-day site known as Keft Kenna, about four miles northeast of Nazareth. However, most scholars agree that the more likely spot is at the ancient village of Khirbet Qana on a hill about nine miles to the north of Nazareth. Who the party was that was getting married and the name of the host are not part of the biblical narrative, but as Nathanael of Cana is mentioned just a few verses earlier (ch. 1:45ff.), some have supposed that the invitation to the wedding might have come through him.

THE MENU

Wedding Challah

Endive Salad with Olives and Clementines

Dolmas (Stuffed Grapevine Leaves)

Baked Sardines in Tahini Sauce

Roast Duck with Mulberries and Horseradish

Rack of Lamb with Spicy Mint Sauce

Sweet Millet Fruit Balls

Mary's Almond Cookies (Mamool)

Platter of Melon Balls, Raisins, Dates, and Candied Jordan Almonds

Galilean Red Wine

THE PREPARATION

The festivities probably began on the third day of the week as was the prevailing custom, and continued for another four. Reclining guests (men) ate on floor mats, consuming lots of food and wine between listening to music and dancing. Women congregated elsewhere and were not part of the main activities of the celebration, remaining “behind the scene.” Mary and other female relatives of Jesus were apparently present—which, one tradition suggests, indicates that the bride was probably a close relation. According to the same source, the customs for that time required that there be a feast of roasted lamb and herbs, bread, and a lot of wine, which was used both for drinking and in the preparation of the foods.1

Just what other foods might have been at the myriad of tables set up for guests is uncertain. If it were a typical Palestinian wedding feast of the era, some writers, such as the authors of The Good Book Cookbook, have speculated that the feast would also have included, at the very least, olives, sardines, grapevine leaves, millet, dried apricots, dates, almonds, raisins, duckling, pomegranates, and rice.2 Whatever was served, it was not in stingy portions.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive at the feast, it is apparently a few days into the celebration, as the wine is running short. This was a very serious matter; so Mary, who apparently had some role in the wedding celebration, approaches Jesus to see what can be done.3 Just how it is accomplished is a matter between theologians and the faithful, but the biblical story reports that the water is changed into wine. What is particularly noteworthy is the abundance of wine that is delivered as a result of Jesus' actions: 120 gallons! (Or more, if you consider that the Jews typically diluted their wine seven parts [water] to one [wine].) The water into wine is really a most generous gesture and gift, which the early Christian Church came to interpret as a prototype of God's heavenly banquet reserved for believers.

NOTES

1. Edgar Cayce, Edgar Cayce on Jesus and His Church (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 75ff.
2. Naomi Goodman, Robert Marcus, and Susan Woolhandler, The Good Book Cookbook (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1995), 88.
3. See George Carey's Bible Study Notes: Life of Christ: John 2:1–11 at www.geocities.com/npford/loc18.html?20052 : “The law of reciprocity dictated how much food and wine were served. To provide a one-week feast exacted a tremendous toll upon the finances of the family hosting the festivities. One thing which helped them though was the realization that others hosting wedding festivities would reciprocate. Not to reciprocate in like manner would not only result in social embarrassment for the host but also in a lawsuit because he had failed to reciprocate appropriately.” Therefore, when it appeared that there might not be enough wine to continue to serve the guests, there was a cause for great concern.