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The Shepherds of Bethlehem: A Short Story
Shepherds at odds
The night was as clear as it was beautiful, alight with countless stars shimmering against the backdrop of a dark sky. Yakov hugged his ragged cloak tighter on this unseasonably cool night, and breathed deep into his lungs, energizing for a moment his weary body. His stomach growled; dinner had been sparse - the last crust of bread and a dried fig he had left over in his pouch. It had been a long couple of weeks. The sheep had been restless ever since a lion had killed two of his finest lambs. Abel, his hireling, had been careless and lazy. Dozing seemed to be more important to him than tending the flock. The end result was the loss of income, as he had hoped one day to sell the lambs for temple sacrifice.
Yakov needed to clear his head and hiked a quarter mile where he found Aaron and Levi warming themselves by a fire. He sat down and joined them.
"I clubbed a wolf two days ago after he went after my Star. Thank Jehovah I got to him before he got to her," Aaron was saying.
"Yakov, Micah and Judah report they spotted two wolves just over that hill to the east," said the affable Levi, poking the fire with a stick. "How are you faring with your flock tonight, my friend?"
"The sheep were restless awhile ago, but I talked to them and they are calm for the moment," Yakov said.
"Strange how the simple sound of a shepherd's voice settles the sheep," said Levi. "They are so trusting. I wish we could settle the wolves with a few words."
Handing Yakov a hunk of cheese, Aaron said, "Say Yakov, where is that scoundrel Abel? I hear he napped while a lion attacked your sheep." Yakov took the hunk of cheese gratefully and enjoyed the first bite.
The memory of his confrontation with Abel came back. Abel had been unconcerned when confronted, and snarled back at Yakov that the lion was too swift and too far away, so why bother. "Better the lambs than me."
"Yes, two of my best lambs," he answered his friends. "I beat him to a pulp. I hope the lions tear him limb from limb." Yakov had indeed beat him within an inch of his life. When Abel finally got up off the ground, he dusted himself off, wiped some blood from his mouth, spat at the flock, and staggered away.
The haunting howl of a wolf ceased their idle talk. The recent influx of predator attacks were making high alert necessary. The men grew quiet and listened and watched for any stir.
Yakov couldn't stay quiet for long. "That scoundrel Abel takes no pride or responsibility in his duties nor his behavior," Yakov sneered. "He cares nothing of the flock. He is a sluggard, a thief and a liar, and the poorest excuse for a man as there could be." The previous month Abel been caught stealing produce from a nearby farm, and another time selling some of the increase of the flock. "As soon as I can, I will have to hire someone else," he said, stroking his beard. Maybe when he made his next trip into Bethlehem he would ask around. He hated Abel and wished him dead.
The men were quiet, listening, thinking. Levi had just thrown more wood on the fire when straightaway the hillside became illuminated, ablaze and radiant with a light brighter then they could ever imagine. They held their hands over their brows to keep the light from hurting their eyes. Then a being, full of this radiance, appeared to them. It took their breath away. Their legs quivered and they fell to their knees in great fear. Then the being spoke:
"Do not be afraid. Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people."
Every shepherd for miles around saw and heard the being as if he was right there in their midst. The realization that it was an angel occurred to them all at once. They were motionless and riveted to their celestial messenger.
The angel continued, "For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Christ the Lord? This news hit them with great force. How could this be? A sense of disbelief filled them. It was hard to grasp such news.
"And this will be a sign for you;" said the angel, "you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."
Before a single thought could flit through their heads the entire sky became ablaze with angelic beings; their praise to God filled the universe.
"GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST AND ON EARTH PEACE, GOODWILL TOWARD MEN."
Then they were gone, up into the heavens, and the night returned, stark with silence. The shepherds remained on their knees, and heads lifted heavenward for a moment, trying to comprehend what they had just seen and heard.
The other shepherds in the vicinity made their way to Yakov and his friends and they began to talk with excitement about what had just happened and what they had just heard.
"I...I can hardly breathe," said Ehud, one of the shepherds who had just joined them. He was exhilarated by the angelic show. Ehud had lost an eye the previous year in a fight with a mama bear who had only been protecting her cubs. He was actually proud of his angry scar and his success in surviving such an attack. His brawn, grit and bravado had melted away that night, however. On this night he was soft, vulnerable and in awe.
Yakov looked at Aaron, mouth still agape. Aaron turned to Levi, mouth still agape. All the others looked back and forth at one another. Then they began to talk all at once.
"Did you hear what the angel said? Christ the Lord!" said a youth named Samuel, usually the skeptic, but not this time.
Daniel, who spoke with a lisp replied, "In Bethlehem, so cloth to us."
"A baby in swaddling clothes," Levi said, still trembling a bit.
"And lying in a manger. Why would Christ the Lord be lying in a filthy animal trough?" asked Micha. Micha always had to know the "why?"
"But that's what they said - a manger," said Abel.
Abel? Abel had seen and heard it all too. And something had happened to him. Dare he hope that the good news the angel proclaimed was possible for a despicable sinner like him as well? He'd been miserable all his life; bitter to the core from an abusive father. Now this angelic message had been given, and he somehow felt hope that salvation could be for him as well. He felt changed.
Strangely, no one seemed to care that it was Abel - the lazy, no account Abel was there with them, and he was suddenly just one of them. Even Yakov was able to put aside his hatred. This glorious thing that they had all just experienced seemed to dissipate anything dark, evil, or contentious.
Yakov cried over the din, "Friends, this wondrous thing that has happened, this good news the angel declared, we must go to Bethlehem. We must see it...see Him for ourselves."
The men set out, not for one second concerned about the safety of their sheep. They knew somehow the sheep would be protected. All the way to the outskirts of Bethlehem, the men talked over one another in exuberance. The thrill of hope surpassed anything and everything.
Out of Bethlehem
Out of Bethlehem
Bethlehem was still alive at that late hour, but winding down. Rounds of laughter, and voices still spilled out of houses, structures, and camps here and there. Wherever there was a plot of ground, in or outside of town, pilgrims camped. The census ordered by Casear Augustus had brought the masses from near and far and there was no more room for anyone. The usually quaint and quiet Bethlehem was fairly brimming with humanity and beasts.
The shepherds traveled the hillsides outside of town, searching for a cave that might be stabling animals. They stopped for no one. They passed an encampment where the foul stench of body odor, urine, ale, and dung permeated the air. An intoxicated traveler was relieving himself just outside the camp. Raucocus laughter and the slurred shouts of sots and all manner of sinister souls assaulted the hillside. All at once the voice of a bawdy woman cried out "Boaz, Boaz, my lamb. Come here to me boy, so I can make a man out of you." Young Boaz tried to dodge her open arms, stepping over asses, goats and fellow travelers to do it. Thunderous whoops and hollers ensued.
"Poor boy Boaz is in the wrong place at the wrong time," whispered Yakov behind his hand to Ehud.
"Wish we could invite him along. But we need to hurry," murmured Ehud.
There were family groups camped together, dotting the hills with their fires where they huddled together in the cold. Most of them had no shelter but the cathedral of stars overhead. Many had traveled from afar on foot. Their feet, their bodies, and their spirits, after weeks of being away from home, were still in the process of healing and gaining strength. It had all gotten so old. The cry of a baby rang out of one such camp and the shepherds halted for a moment, wondering if it was the baby they sought. But there was no cave in that spot, so they continued on.
Minutes later they did come to a cave. To these shepherds of Israel, the pungent odor of manure mixed with fresh hay was a familiar and welcome one. But it struck them how strange it might be for the promised Savior Child to be born in such a crude place. Abel was first at the entrance. He was a man with a mission, driven by a desperate hope. As he stood there, the other shepherds gathered around and behind him. They could hear the low of a cow, a bawl from a goat, a snort here, a cluck and flap there, chewing, and all sundry of noises one hears in a stable full to the brim with tired, hungry animals.
Just outside the stable entrance a craggy man named Amos was crooning to a donkey with his grizzled voice and hand feeding her some hay. "There now Abigail, my pet, you've earned your meal for the day. That's a good girl." He ran his hand over her rump affectionately and sighed. He scowled at the group of shepherds and cursed their intrusuon. Still near the entrance, the shepherds saw to their immediate left the dim light of a lantern, revealing the shadow of a man on his knees and looking down over a slumbering woman in a bed of fresh hay. And then Abel saw it - the trough. He saw movement. His heart quickened. "I'll bet that's Him," he whispered to Yakov. "I see something moving in the manger." They moved nearer an inch, quietly, reverently.
Yoseph, the carpenter from Nazareth who watched over the woman, heard their soft footfall and whispers and turned back to see them standing expectantly. He held his finger to his lips, "Sshh, come near quietly and see Him," he said. They tried not to be intrusive with the mother sleeping so close, but then the baby in the feeding trough let out a little mew. Then a whimper. Mary, the mother, awoke and picked up her baby and held him close. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, the shepherds noted, just as the angel had said.
"It IS Him," said Abel with wonder. "It is HIM. The angel told us He would be here," he told Yoseph and Mary.
"Angel!" said Yoseph, "An Angel sent you here." It was more a statement than a question.
"Yes, yes," said Abel, mesmerized at the sight of the baby in his mother's arms. Ehud edged his chin over Abel's shoulder to get a closer look. The others moved in closer as well. Abel didn't seem to mind Ehud's warm breath on his neck, nor the wetness of a tear, for his own tears were spilling copiously onto the hay just inches from the mother and baby.
Mary looked up at the visitors, beaming as new mother's do. "His name is Yeshua," she said proudly.
"Yesthua," lisped Daniel with acknowledgement.
Clarity dawning, Yakov followed with "God is Salvation!"
"A Savior..." began Levi.
"Who is Christ the Lord," Abel said with joy.
Abigail whinnied outside of the stable as if to agree. Amos had forgotten Abigail in all the commotion and had wandered over to the visiting shepherds to see what all the commotion was about. He didn't know what the big deal was with a baby birthed in a stable like a common cow or oxen. A goat bawled once again from the back. Yakov thought it seemed as if the animals understood more about all this than the humans. Abigail's right ear twitched and she snorted, as if to tell Yakov, "Of course we know!" Amos stroked his yellow-gray, bristly beard roughly. 'I wonder what this fuss is all about,' he thought to himself.
"The...the angel said "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord," Abel continued.
Mary looked at Yoseph and smiled.
"What else did the angel say?" inquired Yoseph.
Ehud took over the story. "He said that the sign for us would be a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and would be lying in a manger. We thought it so strange that the baby, this Savior child, would be in a manger. One would think to find Him in a palace." The shepherds nodded at one another in agreement. "But here He is, in this manger, in this manure, animal filled cave. Yet somehow it seems right. I don't know why," he finished.
Levi nudged Ehud. "You forgot the heavenly host part, man. Tell them." But Levi went ahead and told them with great animation. "After the angel gave us this good news, the sky was suddenly filled with multitudes of angels. It was amazing. They were singing, 'Glory to God in the Highest. On earth peace, goodwill toward men.' The heavens were filled with their praises, and the glory of God seemed to shine all around them." Levi gulped as he ended the story. He had no more words.
At that moment, little Yeshua squirmed and let out a hearty wail. Everyone laughed, then Yoseph stood and thanked the shepherds for coming. He led them out of the stable so Mary could nurse Yeshua quietly. Amos followed them, hoping to hear more. Maybe there was something to this. Maybe there was hope for him too.
Mary snuggled down into the hay with baby Yeshua to nurse Him. She loosened the clothes to examine him. Yeshua's little hand gripped her finger like a vise, and He drew in His nourishment greedily. Mary could hear the din of the voices of the shepherds telling the good news to some of the pilgrims who had gathered. She looked down into Yeshua's sweet face with awe and tenderness. His long, dark lashes rested on his cheek and His mouth worked rhythmically at her breast. She remembered the words of Gabriel, nine months before, "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Yakov forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end." And now the angel's message to the shepherds, the heavenly host lauding her baby. Mary pondered all these things in her heart, something she would do often in the years to come.
The awe-struck and joyful band of shepherds trekked their way back up into the fields and hills to their flocks. They rejoiced and praised God the whole way. They had all been inexplicably drawn intimately together in spirit by seeing and hearing the glory of God from the heralding, heavenly host. As they traveled along they told the pilgrims the story and gave glory to God. The pilgrims responded with curiosity, awe, wonder, and even some derision.
It was hard for shepherds to go back to shepherding where they'd be separated from one another. They bid each other goodbye with back slaps. Abel wandered back to his post where he could be alone. He fell to his knees, his cheeks once again damp.
"Jehovah, God of my fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, in some ways this all seems so surreal, but then again, it was so incredibly real and wonderful. Why would you include me, a sinful man - a sluggard, a liar, and a thief - to witness this marvelous, wondrous night? Why would You allow this dog to see this sweet Savior child? O' Jehovah, I am sorry, so sorry for my evil ways. Forgive me. This Savior, which is Christ the Lord, the angel said, has brought me hope and peace. I feel I will never be the same. Thank you that you have blessed me this night with the hope of salvation."
A couple of days later, Yakov sought out Abel and found him a half mile away talking to a lamb named Winter with the tenderness and love of a father. Abel did not notice Yakov at first.
Abel was rubbing olive oil into a deep scratch on one of Winter's back legs, the result of a run-in with a thorn patch. "There now little one, let this be a lesson. Stay close to me and I will protect you. If you wander away, I will pursue you to the ends of the earth. And if you get caught in the brambles and thorns, I will always tend your wounds and bring healing. And if a bear or a lion should come near, I will take this rod and beat him senseless. No one hurts any lamb in the flock of Abel. No, love, not one."
Yakov swallowed hard. He felt as if he were eaves-dropping on an intimate conversation. But he couldn't help listening. His heart was touched at the change in Abel. A hard, selfish heart had become as soft as the skin of Yeshua, the Savior child in Bethlehem. But more, he felt the change in himself. His hatred for Abel had turned to peace. He now saw everyone and everything differently. He finally spoke.
"Abel, my friend, it is good to see you."
Abel looked up at Yakov. He stood up and cleared his throat. "Yakov, I...I've done wrong by you and by this flock. I..."
"You don't need to say anything Abel. I know. I see what the Lord God has done in your heart. We shepherds who witnessed the angels and the baby, we have all been changed in our hearts. My heart needed changing as much, if not more, than yours. Forgive this angry shepherd for being so harsh. I am as much at fault as you. Forgive me, please."
Abel tried to speak, but nothing came out. Yakov, facing Abel, put his hands on his shoulders, looked into his eyes and said, "That angel said the good news of the Savior, the baby, Yeshua, is for all people. Abel, you and I are included in 'all people.' He has brought peace between us, in us, and to all men who will trust in this Savior."
Abel nodded with a grateful heart. Yakov placed his arm across Abel's back and they began to walk. "To me, Abel" he said, "you are no longer a hireling, but a shepherd, and my friend. Now we are brothers and true sons of Israel." They picked up their staffs and led their flock over the next ridge, free from the fetters of bitterness and hate.
The sun began to set over the western hilltops, crimson, gold, bronze, and purple. The colors reminded Abel and Yakov of the joy of the Lord and everlasting peace. And it was theirs to share.
You shall go out with peace
"For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.” Isaiah 55:12-13
© Lori Colbo. December 2014. All rights reserved.
© 2014 Lori Colbo