The Shepherds of Bethlehem: A Short Story
Keeping Watch Over the Flocks By Night
Yakov hugged his ragged cloak tighter on this unseasonably cool night. He took in a deep breath of the brisk air, energizing 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 wolf 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 found his way to where Aaron and Levi were warming themselves by a fire.
"You should have seen how I clubbed that wolf today after he went after my Star," Aaron was saying." He was known for his brute strength, audaciousness, and the occasional embellishment of his heroics. "Thank Jehovah I was able to save her."
"You did well, Aaron," affirmed Levi, who had witnessed it with his own eyes. "I know Star is always lagging behind or wandering off," He poked the fire with a stick. "Yakov, how are the sheep faring on your side of the field?"
"They were restless awhile ago, but I talked to them and they are calm for the moment," he answered.
"Isn't it strange how the simple sound of the shepherd's voice settles the sheep?" Levi mused. "They are so trusting. I wish we could settle the wolves with a few words."
"Say, Yakov," Aaron said, handing a hunk of cheese to him, "where is that scoundrel Abel who napped during that wolf attack the other day?"
Yakov chewed hard on the cheese. The memory of his showdown with Abel rushed back to him. Abel had been unconcerned and dismissive when he confronted him about the incident.
"The wolf was too far away and too swift for me to get there in time," Abel had said. "Better the lambs than me, anyway."
Yakov had given him a thrashing. When Abel got up off the ground he wiped the blood from his mouth, spat at the flock and stalked away. No one had seen him since.
Turning back to his friends from his reverie, Yakov answered them. "Yes, I lost two of my best lambs. I beat the coward to a pulp. He's the poorest excuse for a man as there ever was. I hope a wolf tears him from limb to limb while he's sleeping."
The men grew quiet, listening and watching for any stir. But Yakov couldn't stay quiet for long. "That rogue is a sluggard, a thief, and a liar. Remember how he was caught stealing produce from a nearby farm last month? And it was you, Levi, who caught him in the act of trying to sell some of the increase of the flock." He stroked his beard, simmering with indignation. "What was I thinking giving him another chance? As soon as I can, I'm going to hire someone else." He hated Abel and wished him dead.
Angels in the Fields
Levi had just tossed some thorny scrub into the fire when straightaway an angel of the Lord appeared before them, radiant with the glory of God. Their legs quivered and they recoiled in fear. Levi lost his strength and fell to his knees.
"Do not be afraid." the angel said. "Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people."
Riveted to their celestial messenger the three men remained motionless.
"For to you is born this day," continued the angel, "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?'
"And this will be a sign for you, 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."
As quickly as they had appeared the angels retreated back up into heaven, and the night returned stark with silence. The shepherds remained motionless, their heads lifted heavenward in astonishment trying to comprehend what they had just seen and heard.
"I...I can hardly breathe," said Aaron. Having just witnessed the angelic host, his brawn, grit, and bravado had melted away.
"Did you hear what the angel said? Christ the Lord!" said Levi.
"In Bethlehem, so close to us," said Yakov, still trembling a bit.
"A baby in swaddling clothes," Levi added.
"And lying in a manger," said Abel. "Why would Christ the Lord be lying in an animal trough?"
Abel? Where had he come from?
"Abel, how did you get here?" Yakov asked. He did not ask in anger, but out of surprise.
"I was hiding and sleeping over there." He pointed to some scrub in the near distance. "I saw and heard it all."
The truth was Abel's heart was deeply stirred. Dare he hope in this Savior, Christ the Lord? Surely not. He was a bitter, selfish young man, uncaring for anyone but himself. But he recognized it now and wanted to be anyone else than who he was.
Strangely, no one seemed to care that the lazy, no account Abel was there with them. Not even Yakov. He was just one of them. This glorious thing that they had all just witnessed seemed to dissipate anything dark, evil, or contentious.
Yakov cried over the din, "Brothers, let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass which the Lord has made known to us."
They set out with haste and calm assurance that the sheep would be safe. The thrill of hope surpassed anything and everything.
Meet the Savior
The usually quaint and quiet Bethlehem was swollen with humanity and beasts. The census ordered by Caesar Augustus had brought pilgrims from near and far to register in their ancestral home. The voices of campers gathered under the stars echoed in the night and their firelight dotted the hillsides. Many slept with no shelter at all. The heavens were their abode.
The shepherds swiftly traversed the hillsides bent on their mission. They passed an encampment where an intoxicated traveler was relieving himself in the open. Raucous laughter and shouts of mockery came from his likewise drunken comrades.
"Hey, you shepherds," cried one. "Where's our leg of lamb?" They slapped their legs and roared with merriment.
It did not deter the little band who shepherd the fields of Bethlehem.
They made their way into the town where homes and inns were fairly brimming with families and patrons. The cry of a baby rang out and the shepherds halted for a moment, wondering if it was the baby they searched for. They followed the sound and found the One whom they sought in a stable at the inn. A woman sat cradling her newborn baby, cooing to quiet him. The baby drifted off and she lay him in the trough, wrapped in swaddling clothes just as the angel had said. The heavy aroma of dung permeated the stable. The woman's husband plumped up their nest with fresh straw to keep them warm and clean.
Levi, heart thumping wildly, entered first. As he watched the baby he forgot to breathe. He felt warm breath on his shoulder from Yakov who was leaning in from behind him. Aaron came around to Levi's left and knelt. All three were in awe. The husband spoke to them.
"Welcome. My name is Yoseph and this is my wife Mary and our new son, Yeshua."
"The Lord is salvation," whispered Levi in awe.
"Yes, the angel told us He was Savior, Christ the Lord," said Aaron.
"Angel, you say?" Yoseph inquired.
Yakov gave them the story.
"Yes, you see we were watching our flocks this night, nothing out of the ordinary. We were talking by the fire and all of a sudden a great angel appeared before us. He shone brightly as if it was the glory of the Lord that illuminated him. I don't mind telling you we were trembling in fear."
"Yes," added Aaron. "Levi here was so scared he slumped to the ground."
"He's right," said Levi. "And I'm not too ashamed to say so. If you had ever seen such a grand angel you would be afraid too."
Yoseph and Mary exchanged a knowing look and smiled. "Go on," said Yoseph."
Yakov continued. "The angel gave us a message. He said 'Do not be afraid. Behold, I bring you good news of great joy..."
"For all the people," Aaron interjected. "All, I say."
"Then he said 'For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior..."
"Who is Christ the Lord," Levi finished.
"Yes," said Yakov. "As I was saying, he then told us a sign to find Him."
"A sign, you say?" Yoseph said.
"Yes, he said we would find a baby, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as your dear babe is now."
Mary took in a sharp breath.
Levi exploded in animated wonder as he described the next thing that happened. "You wouldn't believe it but all of a sudden the entire universe was filled with angelic beings saying "GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST AND ON EARTH PEACE, GOODWILL TOWARD MEN!"
Yeshua startled and let out a lusty squawk. Mary calmed him with whispers and a warm hand on his head.
Yakov scolded him. "Levi," he hissed, "you startled the poor lad. Keep your voice down."
"Oh, so sorry," Levi whispered to Mary. "But you just can't imagine how...how...well, there are simply no words to describe it."
"I saw and heard it, too." Everyone turned to see Abel stepping forward out of the shadows. He looked askance to Yoseph. "May I?"
Yoseph nodded. Abel knelt at the manger overwhelmed by his unworthiness. Tears spilled down his face. Yeshua squirmed in His sleep, let out a sigh, and curled up into the fetal position he'd been accustomed to in the past nine months. Abel had never seen a newborn up close that he could ever remember, nor had he ever had interest in babies and children. They soiled their diapers and made a lot of noise. But now, he was gripped in wonderment at the delicateness of Yeshua's skin and the thick black downy hair that covered his sweet head. He looked up into Mary's eyes.
"He's beautiful. So beautiful." He wiped his runny nose on his cloak.
"Abel, move away or you'll drown the baby or make him sick," scolded Levi. Abel pulled back and looked apologetically to Mary. She gave him a reassuring smile.
"Finish your story," Yoseph said.
"No more to the story, sir," said Yakov, "except we left our flocks immediately and made our way quickly to find the baby the angel and told us about. We thank you for letting us see Him."
The others nodded in agreement and stood to go. Abel couldn't break away and remained kneeling near the manger. "You are the Savior," he whispered to the baby. "Is there hope for me?"
The baby made no sound or movement but Mary reached out and put her hand on his. "There is," she said. He sighed with relief and stood to join the others. "Thank you," he said, wiping his eyes.
After the men left Yoseph reclined in a corner and prepared to bed down for the night. He encouraged Mary to get some sleep as well. Just then Yeshua mewed and she took him up in her arms and put him to her breast to nurse. Yoseph wrapped a blanket around her and went to sleep, his heart full.
Mary beamed as her son's tiny hand gripped her finger. "A strong grip you have, son. You will make a good carpenter like your father." As Yeshua drew in His nourishment she wondered, 'If He is Savior, will He work as a laborer? What will His life be?'
While Yeshua drifted back to sleep, Mary quietly pondered all these things in her heart.
The exuberant band of shepherds left the baby and stopped everyone they could to tell them the events of their evening. The people marveled at the news and it spread everywhere. They finally arrived back to the fields a few hours before dawn, sleepy but still full of excitement. The sheep were safe and sound and happy to see their shepherds once again. Abel separated himself from them and wandered through the flock pondering the last several hours.
At the edge of the field, he fell to his knees, his cheeks damp once again.
"God of my fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, in some ways this all seems so surreal, but it was so incredibly real and wonderful. Why would you include a wretched dog such as myself to meet this sweet Savior child? Lord, I am sorry for my evil ways. Forgive me. This Savior, Christ the Lord, that the angel proclaimed, has changed me and I will never be the same. Thank you that you have blessed me with the hope of salvation. Amen."
After his prayer Abel lie down for a quick nap then he would return to Yakov and ask for forgiveness and mercy and pledge to work off what he owed. Even if Yakov did not take him back, he would find work elsewhere and pay his debt.
When dawn was but a line of amber light on the horizon, Yakov sought out Abel and found him a half mile away talking to a lamb with the tenderness and love of a father. He was rubbing olive oil into a deep scratch on one of her 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 if a bear or wolf should come near, I will take this rod and beat him to death. No one hurts any lamb in the flock of Abel. No, love, not one."
Yakov swallowed hard. He couldn't help eavesdropping on Abel's intimate conversation with the lamb. His heart was touched at the change in Abel. A hard, selfish heart had become as soft as the skin of Yeshua. At that moment he recognized the change in his own heart as well. His hatred for Abel was completely gone. He now saw everyone and everything differently. He finally spoke.
"Abel, my friend, I'm glad I found you."
Abel looked up at Yakov. He stood and cleared his throat. "Yakov, I...I've done wrong by you and by this flock. I will work to pay you back what I owe you, if you'll have me, that is. I am a changed man and I will care for these sheep as if they were my own children."
"You don't need to say anything else, Abel. All of us who witnessed the angels and the baby have been changed in our hearts. My heart needed changing as much as, if not more, than yours. Forgive this angry shepherd for being so harsh."
Abel tried to speak, but nothing came out. Yakov put his hands on his shoulders, looked into his eyes and said, "That angel said the good news of the Savior 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, you are no longer a hireling, but a shepherd, and my friend. We are now brothers and true sons of Israel."
The sun rose crimson, gold, bronze, and purple, over the eastern hillsides. The colors reflected the hope and joy of the Lord and His everlasting peace. And it was Abel and Yakov's 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
Note on Social Status of Shepherds in First Century Israel
It is commonly believed by many scholars that shepherds in Jesus' time were outcasts, rejected by even the common people. However, David A. Croteau, author of Urban Legends of the New Testament: 40 Misconceptions, offers a compelling argument refuting such claims:
"One clue in the context, a subtle hint, supports the opposite view of the legend. Luke 2:18 says, “And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” They weren’t amazed that shepherds were telling them; they were amazed at the content of what the shepherds said.
"If shepherds were viewed as societal outcasts, they would have been shocked that the shepherds were involved in the process. Instead, they were amazed at the story itself. This is a contextual clue that shepherds were not considered societal outcasts."
Croteau goes on to point out that Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd and cites Old Testament Scriptures that reference the Messiah as a shepherd. He also points to Paul and Peter telling church leaders to shepherd their flocks.
I am not a biblical scholar but what Croteau says makes perfect sense. I have been struck before by the fact that the people listened when the shepherds told them about the events of that night seeing angels and the newborn Messiah. They were not scorned while sharing the good news. Rather, the people marveled at the message (Luke 2:18).
© 2014 Lori Colbo