From the CLAY “Story” Series
And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come… Micah 4:8 NKJV
“Shimri—come quickly! Hannah is about to lamb!”
The young man came bounding up the hill, his tunic gathered so he could run and his torch held high.
“Hannah? You named a ewe Hannah?”
“Would you just come with me? We need to get her up to the birthing floor in the tower before the lamb comes.”
Shimri grabbed his staff and followed his younger brother down the hill.
“Nathanel, slow down—I don’t have a torch.”
Nathanel stopped while Shimri caught up. “If we don’t hurry—“
“She’ll be fine. Where is she?”
“Under the sycamore at the foot of the hill. This is her first lamb and I just—“
Shimri smiled. “So that’s why you named her Hannah. Good to know you’ve been paying attention in synagogue. Am I going to run into a Ruth or a Jochebed while we’re out here?”
“No. They’re both over in the far pasture.”
Shimri chuckled under his breath. “Of course they are.”
“Here she is.”
The expectant mother lay on her side under the tree. Shimri took his staff and tapped her hind quarters.
Nathanel just looked at him. “What are you doing?”
“We need to get her up and to the birthing floor.” Another tap. “Up you go.”
The ewe didn’t budge.
“Sad to know you haven’t been paying attention to the shepherds. Now if you’re finished hitting a pregnant sheep…” Nathanel knelt down beside the ewe and pulled a few stalks of clover from a small pouch hanging from his belt.
Hannah sniffed the air, stretched her neck, and took a nibble of the choice treat from his hand. He took another stalk and held it a little farther away. She slowly got up in order to reach the snack he dangled in front of her. He took another stalk out and began to slowly walk up the hill. The ewe followed dutifully.
“I thought they didn’t eat when they’re in labor.”
“To a sheep this clover is like manna from Heaven.” Nathanel continued to dole out an occasional stalk to entice Hannah to follow him. “I got the idea from Joah.”
“He should know. He’s been tending sheep since they came off the ark.”
“He’s not that old.” He caught Shimri’s raised eyebrow. “OK—he is old. But he’s one of the smartest men out here.”
“He’s a shepherd, Nathanel.”
“Don’t start on the shepherds—“
“They’re crude and I’m certain not one of them has set foot in the temple in years. And they smell.”
“So? Right now, we’re shepherds, too. And you don’t smell so good yourself.”
“I may smell like one but I’m not a shepherd—and neither are you. We’re just here to make sure they take care of the temple flocks properly. Next spring when I turn twenty I’ll be through with being out in the fields. I can finally join our family’s order and serve in the temple with the other priests. You will, too, one day.”
“I like being out here. Tending to the flocks for the temple is important work.”
“I know it is. But this is not the life I planned to have.”
“King Solomon said, ‘Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.’”
“Now I’m wishing you didn’t listen quite as well in synagogue.”
Nathanel laughed. “When you’re a priest you’ll be glad someone like me is out here making sure you get perfect, unblemished lambs.”
Shimri followed his brother and the pregnant ewe on up the hill. “No doubt.”
As they approached the Tower of the Flock, a tall old shepherd stood up from his place around the fire with several others and peered into the darkness, “Who’s a-coming there?”
“It’s Nathanel, Joah; and Shimri.”
“Is that Hannah with you?”
Nathanel smiled while Shimri rolled his eyes. “Yes—and she’s getting ready to lamb.”
“Well get her on inside—I’ve laid a fresh bed of straw. I figured she’d be ready soon.” He turned to go inside. “Leave your torch out here. You don’t want to set the whole thing on fire—I’ve got lanterns lit.”
Nathanel handed his torch to one of the shepherds and dangled the last of the sweet clover to entice Hannah into the birthing floor on the lower level of the stone watchtower.
The rectangular stone room smelled of fresh hay and glowed dimly in the lamp light. One side was lined with stalls and at the rear was an archway through which a steep stone staircase led to the upper floors of the circular watchtower.
Nathanel guided Hannah into one of the well-bedded stalls and knelt down beside her. “There you go, little mother,” he said, scratching her behind the ears.
After a bit she began pacing nervously around the enclosure, sniffing and pawing at the hay.
“She’s close, all right,” said Joah. “Shouldn’t be long now.” He sat down on a wooden bench opposite the stalls and leaned back against the stone wall. “Let’s leave her be—she don’t need our help.”
Shimri sat down on the bench beside the old shepherd while Nathanel stayed close by Hannah. “How many lambs have you seen being born?” he asked.
Joah shook his head. “I been tending the temple flocks since I was a boy. I can’t count that high. I’ll tell you this: it never gets old. Amazin’ to watch.”
“Did you ever want to do anything else?”
Joah looked at him blankly. “My family’s been tending flocks since our people left Egypt. What else would I do?”
Before Shimri could answer, Nathanel called to them. “Here it comes!”
Joah got up off the bench just as Hannah stopped pacing and laid down gingerly in the straw; soon, and with very little effort, she was the proud mother of a newborn lamb. Joah gently shook and stroked the lamb to be sure it was breathing. “Looks like she got herself a little Samuel,” said Joah, smiling.
“Samuel means ‘heard by God,’” Nathanel said.
The lamb suddenly gave a high-pitched bleat. “That’d be about right, then,” Joah said, laughing. “He looks strong and healthy. Let’s let her clean him up and feed him, and then we’ll swaddle him so he don’t bruise himself, just ‘til he settles down. Your father’s a strict one when it comes to keeping these lambs unblemished.” He made his way back to the bench.
Shimri stood up. “Actually, the Lord is the strict one. Father is just following the law.” He ambled toward the archway. “Since you both appear to have ‘Samuel’ under control, I’m going to see if I can find a spot upstairs to lie down.”
“Eliab’s up in the watchtower for the night. The rest are probably asleep. We’ll see if you can stand the snorin’,” called Joah, as Shimri made his way up the stone steps.
Nathanel sat cross-legged in the stall watching mother and son, apparently deep in thought. Once Hannah finished cleaning him up, Samuel managed to get up and wobble his way around to the source of nourishment.
After a moment, He asked, “Do you ever think about the fact that…well…Samuel, for example, will end up in the temple as a sacrifice?”
“Course I do; you can’t hardly do this as many years as I have without thinkin’ ‘bout that. But trust me—it won’t do you no good to brood on it. That’s the Lord’s doin’.
“But the lambs have never done anything wrong.”
“That’s why the sacrifices work. Innocent blood spilled to save sinnin’ blood.”
“But only for a year. Then another one has to be sacrificed.”
“I guess lambs blood is only so powerful.”
“But the Lord Himself said, ‘I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.’ Even He knows there must be a better way.”
“Young one, I don’t know the scrolls like you do. I don’t get much chance to sit in synagogue any more. But if the Lord knows of a better way, He’s not sayin’. It’s been many years since He told Moses everything, and he hasn’t said no different.”
“I know—you’re right. Still…”
“It’s something you have to get used to.” Joah got up and walked over to the stall. “After a while, you’re grateful the Lord will accept one of these innocent ones payin’ the price for your sin. Anyway, looks like Samuel is finished eatin’. We need to swaddle him.”
“My father sent some old priest’s garments to tear into strips.”
“That old white linen’ll be good and soft. Little Samuel’ll wonder what he did to deserve such finery.”
Nathanel found the bag of linen robes used during Temple services his father had gathered and he and Joah tore one of them into strips. “Get him and let’s wrap him up.”
Nathanel gently picked up the sleepy lamb and held him as Joah wrapped the strips of linen around him just tight enough to keep him from thrashing about. When he finished, only his soft white head and the tips of his front legs showed.
“Lay him in the manger so nobody’ll step on him. His mother can see him when she feeds.”
Nathanel laid the bundled lamb in the manger. Hannah sniffed him, then lay down in the straw, obviously tired from the evening’s experience.
Nathanel stood there quietly, watching the sleeping lamb. Joah laid a calloused hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, young one; this is the way it has to be. If there was a better way, the Lord’d provide one—a once-and-for-all sacrifice.”
Nathanel nodded. “That would have to be a powerful lamb.” He sat down in the straw and leaned back against the manger. “I’ll keep an eye on him if you want to get some sleep upstairs.”
“It’s quieter down here. Smells better, too. I’ll just sit over here and close my eyes for a bit.” He lowered his lanky frame down on the wooden bench. Soon, both Joah and Nathanel had nodded off.
• • •
Nathanel awoke to searing brightness. Instinctively he jumped up from where he lay in the straw and yelled, “Fire! Joah, fire!” He grabbed Samuel and ran to the stone archway at the back of the room. He yelled up the staircase: “Fire! Everyone get out!”
He turned to make his way out of the building, then stopped, abruptly. There was no fire, no smoke, no crackle of flames, no sound at all. The room was filled with blazing light, but it wasn’t from fire.
“Joah?” No answer. “Joah, where are you?” Nathanel slowly made his way to the open door, where the light streamed in. Behind him he heard commotion as the others hurried down the stone steps from upstairs.
He stepped outside. “Joah? Are you out here?” The light was so bright it was almost blinding, bathing everything in pure whiteness. He took a few more tentative steps, then saw Joah cowering on his knees, face to the ground, hands covering his head. Several other shepherds were nearby, each in similar postures.
“Joah? What is this? Where is the light coming from?” The old shepherd lay there, silent, trembling, his rough hands shaking as he tried to cover his head with his cloak, a futile attempt to hide from the light.
Those from upstairs stood frozen at the tower entrance, one half-dressed, a tattered blanket pulled tightly around another, all afraid to set foot outside, as if the stone tower could possibly offer protection from the light—light that could almost be felt, light that left no shadow, no darkness, and nothing hidden.
Shimri stood behind the group of shepherds in his bare feet, his face ashen. His voice shook, shrill against the eerie silence. “Nathanel! Get inside!” Nathanel ignored his brother.
Still holding Samuel, Nathanel continued slowly past the prostrate, trembling shepherds. He stood at the top of the hill and slowly turned in a circle, peering into the brightness, as though trying to determine a source for the light. As there was none that could be seen, he whispered softly to himself…
“The Lord.” He clutched the lamb tightly, standing in the open at the top of the hill, nowhere to hide, bathed in brilliant light brighter than anything ever seen; not light, but something brighter and more frightful: the glory of the Lord.
Nathanel half-turned to retreat to the watchtower when something caught his eye. Coming toward him up the hill out of the brightness was a figure—a figure like a man, but not a man; a figure so bright he appeared to be clothed with the light. Nathanel froze where he was.
The figure moved with unhurried, effortless steps, stopping a few feet away. Nathanel’s heart pounded in his chest, leaving him unable to do anything but stand and look at the magnificent being.
He was ageless and serene. Obviously aware of the terror the men felt in his presence and at being awash with the overpowering glory of the Lord, his first words, spoken with a voice deep and rich, were “Do not be afraid.”
Then he smiled.
Nathanel’s heart suddenly stopped fluttering and he was able to breathe again. Slowly the trembling shepherds got up from the ground, one of them stooping down to help Joah. Those within the shelter of the tower made their way outside. Soon they were huddled together, illuminated by the glorious brightness, the lowest of the low in the presence of the highest of the high.
Nathanel asked softly, “Who are you?”
“I bring you good news; joyous news—great joy for everyone. A Savior was born today in David’s city.”
“A Savior? In Bethlehem?” Joah asked. “What kind o’ Savior?”
“One who is able to save you from your sins.” He looked around the gathering. “A Savior for all people; a Savior who is Messiah the Lord.”
An excited murmur moved through the crowd of shepherd. “Messiah! Messiah has come!”
Shimri, his voice no longer shrill, said, “We’re honored that you’ve come to give us this news. Our people have been waiting to hear this for many years. But why here? Why us?”
The messenger glanced down at the lamb, still wrapped in linen and asleep in Nathanel’s arms. His gaze shifted to Nathanel. “You will understand the sign: the baby will be swaddled and lying in a manger.”
Nathanel locked eyes with the messenger, then nodded slowly. “I do. I understand.”
The magnificent visitor slowly raised his face to the heavens as the recipients of his message stood spellbound. Suddenly, he issued forth a joyful proclamation of “Glory to God in the highest!” his voice like a trumpet reverberating throughout the hillside.
As the echo died, from behind the tower they heard a reply, not unlike a flute: “Glory to God in the highest!” Another came from further down the hillside like sweeping strings: “Glory to God in the highest!” Then another, and another—individual voices, some dulcet sweet, some thunderous; thousands upon thousands of dazzling beings like the messenger appearing out of thin air, surrounding the shepherds, each raising his own praise to most high God.
As they listened, the individual voices began to change. Gradually a transcendent, concordant melody began to emerge, a soaring paean never before sung; an otherworldly anthem celebrating the pinnacle event in history that had happened earlier in Bethlehem:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.”
The song grew and swelled, filling the air with a mighty chorus of praise and of promise. No longer afraid, the shepherds were mesmerized by the spontaneous worship to which they were allowed to be observers.
Nathanel turned to see the reactions of the others. Most of the shepherds stood with mouths open, unable to fully comprehend what they were seeing and hearing. Shimri was standing there, shaking his head in amazement. He looked around to find Joah, finally catching sight of him standing near the back. His rough hands were lifted up, his face turned toward the heavens, his eyes closed, tears streaming down his dusty cheeks.
None of the shepherds knew nor cared how long they stood there drinking in the breathtaking symphony of praise. Maybe minutes, maybe hours. Maybe time stood still. Whatever the duration, as suddenly as it began, it ended. The radiant bearers of praise were gone and the final echoes of their impromptu concert faded, leaving the messenger alone once again.
He left the men with a final reminder: “You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling, lying in a manger.” He turned and made his way back down the hill, slowly fading with the glorious brightness.
The stars were once again the only light in the sky, the distant bleating of sheep the only sound to be heard. None of the men moved for several minutes, trying to make sense of what they had just seen, wanting to remember as long as possible the experience to which they bore witness. Joah finally broke the silence.
“Angels,” he said. “Had to be angels.”
“What else could they have been?” said one.
“I’ve never seen an angel,” said another.
“You have now.”
Nathanel turned and faced the group. “Are we ready?”
“For what?” asked Shimri.
Joah ignored his question and began barking orders. “Some of you need to get the rest o’ your clothes on; and all of us could use a little washin’ up. We leave for Bethlehem soon—don’t be late.”
The group began to scatter. “Wait!” yelled Shimri. “We’re going to Bethlehem? What about the flocks? We can’t just leave them here.”
Nathanel answered. “The angel gave us directions, Shimri, and a sign only we would understand—we have to go. The Lord sent His messenger here to us—to us. I’ll take Samuel with me—he’s our only newborn. The others will be fine. The Lord will take care of the flocks.”
“What will father say?”
Joah spoke up. “What do you think he’ll do—demote us all to shepherds?” The others laughed. “It’s OK, son. The Lord invited us to meet His Messiah. I’m not gonna disobey Him. Let’s go.”
• • •
Energized by the visit from the angels, the men made the trip from the Tower of the Flock to Bethlehem in less than an hour, chattering excitedly about what they had seen and what they were about to see. As they neared the sleeping city, Eliab hurried on ahead.
“Let’s wait here ‘til Eliab gets back,” said Joah, as he sat down under a tree. “His aunt’s a midwife in town—there’s not a baby born she don’t know about. Besides, don’t need a army o’ smelly shepherds paradin’ through town in the middle o’ night, torches ablaze, wakin’ folks up.”
Nathanel sat down beside him, still cradling the swaddled lamb in his arms. “I think I know what the angel meant when he said the baby lying in a manger would be a sign we would understand.”
“I knew you did, young one.” Joah smiled at him. “And I think we’re about to meet that pow’rful lamb.”
• • •
The men stood outside a low stone enclosure built around the mouth of a small cave where animals belonging to guests of the nearby inn were kept. Other than a donkey, a couple of cows, and a few sheep, there was no evidence of life.
Joah nodded to Shimri, the chosen spokesman for the group. He called out, “Hello? Is anyone here?”
No response. “Maybe they’re asleep,” said Joah. “Try again.”
Shimri raised his voice. “Hello? We’ve come to see the baby.” After a few seconds, a barefoot young man carrying a lamp peered out of the mouth of the cave, clutching his tunic around him.
“Good evening, sir,” said Shimri. “We’re sorry to wake you. We were told a newborn baby had been born here.”
“Yes—yes, that’s correct.” The man looked around at the ragged group. “Who are you?”
“We tend the flocks for the temple at the tower outside town,” Shimri replied. An angel—”
Nathanel interrupted. “Actually a host of angels.”
“Right,” Shimri continued. “A host of angels appeared to us earlier and told us a Savior, the Messiah, had been born. We were told we would find Him here.”
The young man turned and disappeared into the cave. Shimri looked at the others, not sure what to make of this abrupt behavior. Joah nodded to him to continue. He raised his voice. “I know it’s late, but—”
The man reappeared wearing a coat and sandals and hurried to the gate. Fearing they were about to be chased away, Shimri continued. “I know our story sounds unbelievable—if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t believe it myself, but—”
“No, no—I believe you,” the man said, opening the gate. “I’ve seen plenty of unbelievable things myself lately.” He motioned to the group. “Please come in. The boy’s mother will want to meet you.”
The men followed him into the cave. “I apologize for the surroundings—with everyone in town, this is the best we could find.” None of the shepherds seemed to mind.
They reached the dimly-lit inner chamber, little more than an opening in a rock with few furnishings. A dark-eyed young woman sat propped up in a makeshift bed of hay, covered with a worn blanket. A low, wooden feed trough filled with hay sat within arm’s reach. In it lay the sleeping child, tightly wrapped in swaddling, only his tiny head showing. The men knelt reverently in the straw.
The young man sat down in the straw by the woman and the manger. “This is Jesus, and this is Mary, his mother.”
She smiled at the group. “Joseph said an angel sent you here. An angel appeared to me, as well.” She looked at the young man and smiled. “And one appeared to Joseph in a dream.”
“Now you see why I had no trouble believing your story,” Joseph said to the shepherds.
Mary sat up in her straw bed. “Tell us what happened, what the angel said.”
The shepherds eagerly recounted their experience with the angels, each one adding the details he remembered. No one had to embellish the story—the reality of the night’s events was fantastic enough. When they couldn’t find words to express what they saw and heard, Shimri would step in to help. Sometimes none of them could find the right words to adequately convey what happened. Mary and Joseph just sat and listened, amazed at what the shepherds told them.
Throughout the discussion of their encounter with the glory of the Lord and His angels, Nathanel had been uncharacteristically silent, unable to take his eyes off the baby. He looked at the innocent child, swaddled and lying in the manger, exactly like the sacrificial lamb he was holding had been earlier. During a lull in the conversation, he asked Mary quietly, “May I ask where you got the swaddling?”
“It was given to me by my relative, Elizabeth,” Mary replied. “It’s from one of her husband Zechariah’s old garments. He’s a priest. Why do you ask?”
Nathanel could only shake his head, tears welling up in his eyes. Mary looked at him, an odd expression on her face. “Are you all right?” she asked. Nathanel got up and hurried out of the cave.
“I’m sorry,” Joah said to the young couple, standing. “I hope you’ll excuse him. It’s just been a full night for all of us. He’ll be fine.” He followed Nathanel out of the cave.
Joah found him outside the gate to the enclosure, cradling Samuel in one arm and wiping his eyes with the other. Nathanel said softly, “The baby—he’s the once-and-for-all sacrifice, isn’t he?”
“Yes, young one—I think so. Looks like the Lord’s finally provided a better way.”
“But losing a person is much worse than losing a lamb. What will His mother think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she’ll say, ‘There’s my son, Jesus, savin’ the whole world from their sins.’ If there was another way, I’m sure the Lord’d choose it.”
Nathanel nodded. “I guess so. Like you said, I’m grateful the Lord will accept someone else to pay the price for my sins.” He looked back toward the cave. “That’s some powerful Lamb.”
The other shepherds and Shimri came out of the cave. Shimri walked over to his brother. “Are you OK?”
“I will be.” He looked at Joah. “We all will be, won’t we?”
Joah laughed. “That’s right—like that angel said, a Savior’s come. We need to let people know.” He raised his voice so the other shepherds could hear. “Let’s go home. But this time, let’s not be quiet. Everybody in Bethlehem needs to know what we’ve seen.”
As the morning began to break, an army of smelly shepherds paraded through the streets of Bethlehem, not concerned with who they might wake, eager to be the first to tell the world that a Savior had come.
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. Luke 19:10 NIV
©2015 Dusty Teague
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