The novel opens with David ben Lazarus mourning the death of his beloved wife, Eliza, and their new born son, Samuel. David is a Jewish vintner in Roman occupied Israel. David who lives on his estate in Bethany with his sister Martha, exports pomegranates, sycamore figs, and wine to all areas of the known world.
In order to distract David from the grief of his wife's death, his best friend, Judah ben Perez suggests that they go check out a new prophet whom some are saying is the Messiah. Judah is a rich merchant from Jerusalem who is responsible for exporting David's wine. David and Judah travel to Jordan where they witness the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. At the baptism, during a brief thunderstorm, David hears what he believes is the voice of God saying that Jesus is his beloved son. However, learning that Jesus is from Nazareth, they dismiss the claim that he could be the Messiah because he is not from Bethlehem.
Later on Judah invites David to supper at his home in Jerusalem. David is hesitant to go because he knows Judah's sister Jemima will be there. Judah and David's families at one time, had planned to marry the two, but David fell in love with Eliza.However, the visit never happens because a terrible altercation involving a Roman ambassador sees Judah and his family arrested and taken away. David tries to help, but is badly beaten and rescued by a Greek traveler whom David helped only minutes earlier. Although David makes many inquiries, he is unable to find out where Judah has been taken nor what has become of his mother and beautiful sister.
The export of David's wines is taken over by Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a good friend of David's father. When he comes to dine with David they discuss his sister, Mary of Magdala, whom David considers to have sold her soul. However, in one of the novels more poignant moments, Joseph admonishes David for being so harsh towards his sister, whom he sees as a 'lonely woman who has spent her life looking for love'. David recalls how Mary took a lover and how he married her off to an old man to save his family's reputation.
David is gradually drawn into contact with Jesus. When he attends a family wedding at Cana, he witnesses the great miracle of the water being changed to wine, although despite his uncertainty, he is amazed. But then he sees how Jesus treats his sister Mary when she is brought before him, caught in the act of adultery. Mary has been considered dead to David's family, for her shameful lifestyle. She has taken many lovers and is considered a terrible sinner. Her current lover, Marius Longinus, is a Roman soldier. As an onlooker, David watches as Mary is dragged before Jesus by the Pharisees. Seeking to trap Jesus, they ask him what they should do with her. Jesus looks into her heart, sees a woman who seeks the love she never received from her father, does not condemn her but defends her brilliantly before the Pharisees, asking, "The one of you who is without sin, ...let him cast the first stone at her." At this moment David realizes that he is not without blame with regards to his sister. And Mary is transformed by her meeting with Jesus, opening her estate to women who have been abandoned.
David ben Lazarus meets Jesus many times after this, witnessing many miracles and learning first hand from Jesus about his teachings. David watches as the Pharisees plot to destroy Jesus, attempting to trap him repeatedly by confronting him with difficult questions. The novel's climax of course, is the death of Lazarus, whom Jesus loves so much, that he weeps when he learns of his friend's passing.
This novel is well written, flowing naturally from one event to the next, with the authors neatly tying in events from the gospels with fictional events in David ben Lazarus' life. Although heavily laden with scripture, this does not impede the storytelling. When Jesus Wept is replete with themes of love, forgiveness, mercy, suffering and redemption. One of the best examples of this is David being gradually shown, first by Joseph of Arimathea and then Jesus, that his judgement of his sister's life is wrong.
The Thoene's capture the essence of the brotherly love between David ben Lazarus and Jesus through the numerous conversations between the two men. It is not overt, but more the love between master and pupil. When Jesus asks Lazarus why he weeps, he confesses his pain of loss over the death of his wife and child. This is an interesting passage because Jesus explains to David that he did not lose his family because of some sin (which was common thinking during Jesus' time and still remains so today among many Christians), but rather because suffering is a fact of life here on Earth and that through suffering, God in the end is glorified. Suffering is probably the biggest obstacle to many people's faith and the most difficult for most of us to comprehend, to come to terms with.
If I have one criticism of this novel it is that it lacks a certain passion in the storytelling, sometimes bordering on bland. However,the recounting of the raising of Lazarus is well done and from an unique perspective. According to the gospel account, "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha and Mary were still deeply mourning their brother's death.
"When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; and he said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus wept. So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'..."We experience Lazurus' resurrection from his point of view rather than from that of Martha or Mary or other bystanders. This allows the authors to relate Lazurus' death experience, and his brief reuniting with his beloved Eliza and his son Samuel. Interesting and unexpected!
Overall this novel was well done and a competent retelling of an interesting event in the gospel of John.
When Jesus Wept by Bodie and Brock Thoene
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 2013