By Gloria Wessner
Joel shuffled his way down the dusty street towards the stable through the little town of Bethlehem. No one was stirring yet as predawn blackness prevailed before the coming of the sun. Ever since Joel’s father died last year, he helped bring in a few extra drachmas for his mother by working as a shepherd for the few sheep the local innkeeper owned. He did this at certain times of the year whenever the shepherds kept their flocks near Bethlehem as the sheep were constantly moved from place to place to find new sources of grass. Next season he would stay with the shepherds as they moved their camp with the sheep from place to place as he would be old enough to go with them.
Joel shifted his sack from one shoulder to the other that contained his food for the day. His mother had made some barley loaves and put in figs, and goat’s milk in a leather skin bag. She, too, had gotten up early while Joel’s little sister Hannah still slept and began the daily chore of first grinding the grain into flour by hand using a quern – a special stone grinder – and then kneading it; shaping the loaves into flat pieces and baking them in their small, domed, clay oven. Being a widow in Israel was not easy as they were one of the lowest classes in society. They had to depend on the charity of others for their survival. Weaving robes when she had extra wool and selling or bartering them at the local market brought in some much needed income for the little family as well.
The sun began to peek over the eastern hills as Joel made his way to the stable. The stable was a cave, carved out of rock of the Bethlehem hills. There were several of these caves around Bethlehem that provided shelter for people’s goats, donkeys, sheep and a few cattle. The stable Joel headed for belonged to the innkeeper in Bethlehem where he kept a few sheep. The night before Joel carried an orphaned lamb with him as he guided the rest of the sheep from the pastures above Bethlehem down to the stable. Joel had tucked extra straw around the baby lamb to try and keep him snug for the night. Now he was coming to take him and the other sheep back out to the pasture for the day.
Joel whistled a tune as he went through the entrance to the cave. He looked around at the sheep, bent down to pick up the orphaned lamb out of the warm straw, and put him on his shoulders to carry along with his sack. He picked up his shepherd’s staff he had left against the wall. Joel talked to the sheep and they willingly followed him out into the dawn as they knew his voice. The little village was beginning to stir with activity with the coming of daylight.
The last few days saw Bethlehem bursting at the seams with an invasion of travelers. The Roman emperor Augustus had decreed that an official count of people should be taken of everyone in the Roman Empire. This meant that everyone had to return to their towns where their ancestors came from in order to register. Sleepy Bethlehem had suddenly become a bustling community. Every possible lodging and accommodation had been taken in the town.
As Joel led the sheep out to the pasture, he gazed at the people on the road heading into town. Some were obvious travelers coming and leaving Bethlehem as they carried their personal belongings in sacks or on the backs of donkeys. Several people were on their way to the fields to work swinging a hoe on their shoulders.
A young man and his wife caught Joel’s attention. The young woman was obviously pregnant and sitting on the donkey that her husband was leading. She appeared in visible discomfort and fatigue as she bobbed along in rhythm with the donkey’s walk. He wondered where they might find a place to stay for the night unless they were just passing through town.
Out in the fields the day passed by in the usual way. Other shepherds were nearby and sometimes visited in small groups while looking after their flocks. Joel kept busy keeping a watchful eye on his own sheep; making sure they didn’t eat any plants that would harm them, taking them to water, and putting ointment on wounds the sheep picked up. The little orphaned lamb was kept close to Joel all day and was carried by him when his little legs got tired unless Joel stopped for a rest.
By late afternoon the sun began to set, bringing coolness to the air. As darkness settled in, the shepherds gathered in one spot and built a fire to keep them warm. Some of the sheep settled down on the ground around the shepherds as Joel pulled his tunic and robe tighter around him for warmth and ate the rest of the food that was in his sack. It was a clear night and the stars were sparkling brightly. The evening hours were passing by, and Joel began to think it was time to take the little flock back to the cave stable for the night.
Suddenly, the night became as bright as day! Joel and the other shepherds covered their faces with their robed sleeves to escape the brightness……