A Shepherd’s Tale

“Let Him save Himself if this is Elohim’s Messiah!”

I hadn’t intended to stop.

Crucifixions were common enough outside Jerusalem. The accursed Roman invaders were always flexing their power, reminding my countrymen and I that they had conquered us and that treason and revolution would be met with death. But when I heard the crowd mention, “Messiah,” I stopped in my tracks. It had been thirty years since I was in the presence of Someone referred to as the Messiah.

Sure, there had been plenty of rumors over the prior several years about a Man named Yeshua Bar-Joseph who was the promised Messiah, but my people always got up in arms about self-proclaimed Messiahs. After four hundred years of foreign oppression, it only made sense, and if I had been a braver man, I would probably have followed some of them. But they always ended up dead, along with their followers, so I had decided that until I found the true Messiah, I would mind my own business

And that is what brought me to Jerusalem that day. I had been a lowly, despised shepherd since I was twelve years old. I helped raise, protect, and nurse sheep back to health so that I could bring them to the Temple for sacrifices, especially for Passover, which started that day.

The temple priests only did business with me because if they didn’t, then there wouldn’t be enough sheep to fulfill their precious law of sacrifices for the Temple. The looks they gave me, the comments I heard them muttering to each other, and their refusals to come in contact with me. They insisted on making sure I knew that they were better than me. They insisted on making sure I knew that they despised me. They insisted on convincing me that Adonai was opposed to me.

I am not a very knowledgeable Jew, but what I do know is that every Jew came from one man—our father Abraham—and as such, none of us should be considered better than any other of us. Also, all of our ancestors were in slavery in Egypt, and Adonai rescued all of us—most of whom were shepherds back then—from that life of toil, slavery, and abuse. If Adonai hated shepherds like the priests at the Temple wanted me to believe, then why did Adonai rescue shepherds from Egypt? Something didn’t add up.

But I missed the touch of a human being. Even a simple hug from my father. (Adonai bless him.) I was married to a beloved wife for a while, but the accursed Romans took her because I failed to pay my taxes three years earlier. I shudder to think where she is now. If she is alive, does she still think about me?

But as I stood there in front of the cross, I wondered, “Where is the Messiah?” The Liberator who would free us from the accursed Romans. I decided then that I would follow the real one, and smash in a few accursed Roman skulls before being killed myself, all in the hope of being reunited with my wife. Hannah.

I miss her long, brown hair. I miss the dark pools of her eyes that I could gaze into for hours. I miss her lips, both for her gentle kisses and her always encouraging words that would emerge from behind them. I miss her hands that would hug me and hold me and highlight my value in this world. I miss… no, I’ll keep those thoughts to myself. And later I’ll torment myself with thoughts of missing Hannah. She was the person in this world who most cared about me.

The only things that made physical contact with me at that time were the sheep that I cared for. Priests were too pure and holy to be defiled by scum like me. Perhaps that was why I had stopped trying to honor Adonai. If Adonai’s representatives thought I was unfit for Adonai, then why should I bother trying to live a life that pleases Adonai? And when my wife got stolen by the accursed Romans, I decided Adonai really didn’t care about me at all. Besides, it was the cheating and thieving priests who had paid me less than I deserved who caused me to not have enough for taxes. It’s their fault—and by extension Adonai’s (at least in my thinking at the time)—that my Hannah was stolen from me.

A voice drew my attention away from my situation. “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”

I looked for the source of the voice, and my eyes met the Man on the cross. The sign above His head read, “This is the King of the Jews.” And a crown of thorns bloodied His brow. It made me hate the accursed Romans even more.

It wasn’t enough to crucify a man. They had to announce that they were better than the kings of any other nation. Here they were saying, “We conquered your King, and if you bring forward another, we’ll kill him too.”

And the Man being killed as the King of the Jews was saying, “Forgive them”? This was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. As I looked at His blood-streaked face, I saw Him looking directly at me. It unnerved me. I turned my gaze to the ground.

I wanted to leave, but something rooted me to my spot. I wanted to kill the accursed Roman soldiers standing guard at the cross, but something prevented my movement. It was probably the fear that my shepherd staff would accomplish nothing against trained soldiers carrying swords.

I suddenly noticed the temperature outside. I looked up, and the sun beat down on me. There were no clouds in the heavens. As I gaze at the sun, its brightness drew my thoughts away from the present to a lonely night more than thirty years ago.

*         *         *

“Jonah,” my father called, “I need you in the fields with me tonight. It’s time you learn how to be a shepherd since you will soon be a shepherd yourself, now that you are officially a man.”

“Yes, father,” I answered. I had turned twelve the week before, and that meant it was time to be trained in the family business. And since my father and his father and his father’s father were all shepherds, I must—also—become a shepherd.

But I was scared. Shepherds were supposed to be out at night with the sheep, but darkness terrified me. My father had repeatedly told me that they used lanterns, but I knew that lanterns didn’t last all night. I was afraid.

And not only that, but my friend Daniel and I had snuck into the sheepfold several days earlier and killed a lamb because we were desperate to eat some meat. My father had noticed the missing sheep and asked questions. I had lied and said I didn’t know anything about it. He believed me, and he ended up attributing it to a wolf. But regardless, I was terrified of facing the owner of the sheep and saying, “I will take care of all your sheep, sacrificing myself to keep them safe,” because if I were honest, I would much rather eat sheep than die to protect them.

So, all I said in answer to my father was, “Yes,” like an obedient Jewish boy. But in truth, no part of me wanted to be a shepherd.

That night was dark. There were only a handful of stars shimmering in the darkness, and I shivered with fright as I sat beside my father. The air was chilly, and a slight breeze was blowing in the hills north of Bethlehem. It would be a few short weeks before we took the sheep to the Temple to sell them to the priests for Passover, and my father told me by the light of his lantern that I would be accompanying him on that trip.

But as I sat in the dark, my father said, “I am going to go check on the sheep. I can’t let any more wolves get in. Want to join?”

I wanted to join because I needed to be by the light of his lantern, even though the lantern’s glow did little for my fears, but my fear of being found out for butchering a sheep made me stay. “I’ll stay here this time,” I said.

So, my father and his lantern disappeared into the darkness. The sheep behind me were talking to each other, creating a cacophony of “Baas.” It would have been comforting, but I was haunted by the final sounds of the sheep Daniel and I had slaughtered for fun.

And that was when the night became as bright as day. If I had been afraid before, I thought I was going to die then. A figure was in front of me, suspended between heaven and earth. White light was emanating from its being. It looked like a star had descended to earth. To someone looking from a distance, it probably resembled a never-before-seen star.

My knees were quivering. I wanted to run away, but something held me in place. I knew in my own heart that I didn’t care a jot for the sheep, so it was not a sense of duty that kept me there. My mouth wouldn’t scream; my legs wouldn’t run; I fell onto my back in the grass. I felt alone, totally isolated at that moment, even though I knew there were other shepherds within thirty paces or less.

The silence was just as intense as the light. I hadn’t noticed before, but the sheep were utterly still. Their baaing had ceased.

I glanced down at my feet. There were shaking in terror. My eyes were drawn back to the light. I tried to turn away from it, but no matter where I turned, the night was as bright as day, and I was forced to look again upon the terrifying emanation hovering in the firmament.

I was not a very knowledgeable youth, but my Torah training around the family table as a young boy had undoubtedly taught me that Adonai sometimes appeared to people in bright light. The only story I could recall that night was the three boys who had been thrown into the fire. A fourth, bright one had appeared with them.

My fear escalated here, and I felt my whole body shake. Those three boys had been righteous. They had refused to commit idolatry, and Adonai had protected them for their faith. I had stolen a lamb and butchered it with my friend. I was not righteous. Adonai wouldn’t protect me. He’d kill me like I had killed the lamb.

It felt like an age between the night suddenly transforming into day, and an unfamiliar voice reaching my ears.

I looked again at the light. A part of it had dimmed enough to make out a face, and as the words continued coming, it was clear that the being in front of me was speaking. “Don’t be afraid.”

I wasn’t sure if that was what the being had said. I mean, the glory around it had diminished somewhat so that I could see a sword strapped to its side. I was sure it was there for me.

It spoke again, repeating its earlier command. “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David. This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”

I couldn’t believe it. I had stopped shaking, but I still couldn’t believe it. I was not so much afraid now as I was confused.

If Messiah was just born, why would He be placed in a feeding trough? And why would we—unclean, poor, reputation-less shepherds—be the first to hear the news? Shouldn’t this heavenly messenger be proclaiming this fantastic news to the king in Jerusalem?

But then, if I wasn’t confused enough already, the night became even brighter. I looked around, and thousands of the divine messengers were there. Before I had a chance to be frightened, they broke out in a chant:

“Glory to Elohim in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!”

They said this over and over and over and over. As I listened to the heavenly choir, my fear was completely alleviated. The lone figure brought us good news; now, the multitude was wishing peace upon us by telling us that Elohim favored us. Shepherds. Unclean, poor, often-dishonest (though not my father) shepherds. Elohim favored us. The news was too good to be true.

The heavenly messenger had been right. It was good news of great joy. I had never been happier in my life, and I wondered if I ever could be that happy again.

“Glory to Elohim in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people He favors!”

And then, just like that, they were gone. The night became dark again.

I didn’t move. I was too stunned. Elohim favored me. Why would He favor me? I had done nothing to deserve His favor. I was just a foolish twelve-year-old boy. It was at that moment that I decided the people Elohim favors were the other shepherds, including my father. It couldn’t have been me.

I slowly stood to my feet, as the cacophony of baas resumed.

“Jonah,” I heard my father calling from behind me.

“Yes, Abba,” I replied, turning to look.

A small light grew closer, hovering between heaven and earth, revealing a dark shadow beside it. It was my father with his lantern. In comparison to the heavenly light a few moments prior, the lantern could not rightly be called a light.

“Can you believe it, Jonah?” my father’s voice called to me. He was still approaching with his lantern.

“It was so bright. And they were so loud.”

“Yes, but it was beautiful, wasn’t it? I bet you they heard that all the way in Herod’s palace.”

“I guess so.” I didn’t want to press my luck. Usually, my father became vulgar and angry when Herod’s name was mentioned. Being half-Edomite led many pure-bloods to loathe the faker on Israel’s throne, who really just worked for the Romans. My father coined the term “accursed Romans” and used it often when he was angry.

I heard more voices behind my father, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which Adonai has made known to us.” There were more things said, but that was the first statement that I picked up. Several protested, “But who will watch the sheep?” But the overall consensus was, “We need to go see what Adonai has told us about.”

I still didn’t think the angel—as the older shepherds were describing the bright one—was referring to me as one Adonai favors, but I knew for a fact that if the shepherds all traveled to Bethlehem to find the newborn Messiah, then I needed to go with them. I did not want to be alone in the dark.

After several minutes of disputing and arguing back and forth, the shepherds decided that we would herd all of the sheep in our charge into Bethlehem to be both responsible as shepherds and encouraged by the good news from the angel by seeing it ourselves.

One of the shepherds, an older, bearded, sour man mumbled, “No one is going to believe us when we tell them. Shepherds don’t know anything except sheep in most peoples’ opinions. They’ll think we ate some bad mushrooms or something.”

“Quiet, Amos,” my father said. “If they want to think less of us, that’s their business. We’ll likely not even run into anyone right now—given the late hour.”

I feared that we’d run into a vast number of people who had been awakened by the angels’ chorus, but I kept my worries to myself.

So, we set out. A loud, large entourage to welcome our Messiah into the world. After another age, we found the stable. There were several stables in Bethlehem, and as luck would have it, there were no people in the first few we entered. Our sheep, though, found feeding troughs, so it added to the process trying to extricate them from the stables and get them back into the road. But finally, we arrived.

A young woman and a man were crouching at a feeding trough. I had to suppress a laugh. They looked just like the sheep whose faces we had just removed from feeding troughs. Except, instead of eating out of this feeding trough, the couple was looking into it. Their gazes were utterly oblivious to the crowd that had just arrived, looking longingly and lovingly into the feeding trough. I watched as they both yawned.

Our sheep, however, didn’t think there was any difference between this stable and the other ones. A group of them rushed for the feeding trough. But when they got there, they stopped. They didn’t stick their faces into the feeding trough. They stopped and looked in, just like the parents were doing.

The parents looked up at this point, and their jaws dropped simultaneously.

My father spoke, “I know it sounds crazy,” he said, “but an angel appeared to us on the hillside and said that the Messiah had been born in a stable in Bethlehem. So far yours is the only stable with people dwelling in it. Do you know anything about this?”

The man spoke. “His name is Yeshua.” He glanced down at the feeding trough. “The angel told me that He will save His people from their sins.”

I wanted to see the Baby. I couldn’t think of anything else. Whatever they said in their conversation was lost on me at that point. I wondered if the people Adonai favors were the same people as the ones Yeshua would save from their sins. Maybe there was hope for me.

I waded through a field of wool and finally reached the feeding trough. Sure enough, there was a baby in the trough. And, like the angel said, He was wrapped in cloth. He was small. And He was shaking. He cried, but I noticed that His cries were nothing like the incessant screaming my baby sister had done three years earlier. There was something different about this Baby, but I didn’t know what it might be. I asked His mother if I could hold Him.

She picked Him up and placed the little Package—still wrapped in cloth—in my arms. I’d never held someone else’s baby before, and I almost cried holding this little one. He chewed on His fingers and smiled up at me. I felt like He knew me.

I didn’t want to leave, but eventually, His mother took Him back and began feeding Him, and we shepherds started the process of herding sheep. We had to get back to the sheep pen before the sheep’s owner found them all missing—with his hired shepherds. I tried to protest and say we still had several hours before that, but the elder shepherds didn’t listen to me.

We left, and none of us could stop describing the experience. I’m sure we woke up many families on our way back to the fields. I couldn’t get the Baby’s gaze out of my head. It was uncanny how much it felt like He knew me.

*         *         *

That gaze. I looked back up at the Man hanging from the cross. Was that why it was so unnerving? Had we made eye contact before? The crowd had been yelling that this was the Messiah; He looked to be about the right age. And, when I actually paid attention to my surroundings, I saw two other criminals being crucified. They were screaming and yelling, insulting the accursed Romans, declaiming the Man between them (well, at least one of them was), and crying out in pain. The Man in the middle was different. It was clear that He was in pain—the look on His face betrayed no lack of excruciating pain—but He suffered quietly. It reminded me of the infant from the stable—obviously uncomfortable, but not making it as apparent as other people might.

And then there was the sign above His head: “Yeshua the Nazarene: The King of the Jews.”

“I didn’t expect it to end this way,” I muttered under my breath. I patted the back of one of the few sheep I had to take back down from Jerusalem. “Maybe the angels were wrong?” I thought. “Or maybe Adonai was playing a trick on us? He cruelly let my wife be taken; why not cruelly announce the Messiah only to have Him crucified?”

“Come on,” I said, urging my sheep along with my staff.

But at that moment, the day became as dark as night.

The Man on the cross cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, why have You abandoned Me?”

It was weird that He asked that. I felt the same. Adonai had forsaken me. He promised me Yeshua the Messiah thirty-three years ago, and I had held Him in my hands, but at that moment, He was condemned on an accursed Roman cross.

I stayed where I was for fear of tripping in the darkness. I couldn’t see anything. Even if I put my hand in front of my face, I couldn’t make it out. But I could hear everything. Yeshua—who had previously been so calm—was inconsolable now. He was screaming in pain, groaning in anguish, grinding His teeth in despair. I wondered what had happened to the calm, quiet sufferer I had witnessed only moments before.

*         *         *

What seemed like ages later, Yeshua let out His final cry. “Abba, into Your hands I commit My spirit.”

The ground shook at that moment, and I was afraid that it was going to open up and swallow my sheep and me alive, since I still couldn’t see anything.

After several minutes, the shaking stopped, and I looked around. The sun was shining again, though clouds were now blocking some of its brightness. A soldier was holding a spear and gazing up at Yeshua. There was a look of wonder fixed on the soldier’s face, and it made me angry.

“He’s dead because you killed Him. Are you stupid or something?”

I kept my thoughts to myself, and I hurried away from Jerusalem with my sheep.

*         *         *

The man in front of me asks, “Is there anything else you know about Yeshua?”

“Well, I know that I never would have met you, doctor, if the story had ended that day.”

“So, what happened next?”

“Well, it was three days later, and I was herding my sheep northwest of Jerusalem, within view of the road that leads to Emmaus. I saw two men walking along, and all of a sudden, a third Man just appeared behind them. Eventually, He caught up to them, and they began a dialogue.

“I tried herding my sheep to catch up to them, but the sheep didn’t feel like moving quickly, so I abandoned them.” I say in an aside, “I haven’t been a shepherd since.”

“Did you find anything out?”

“Well, I followed them all the way to the village of Emmaus, and when I got there, I heard them talking.

“The Stranger who had appeared said, ‘I should keep going.’

“The other two urged, ‘Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.’

“The Man agreed to come in with them. And by then, I had caught up. I asked if I could come in with them too. The two men weren’t sure, but the other Man smiled and said, ‘Let him join us. He’s a good man.’ I wondered how He might have known this. I didn’t recognize the Man. And besides, I had just abandoned my sheep to wolves, so I couldn’t really be that good of a man.”

“And?” the doctor asks. His face betrays an anxious desire to find out what happens next.

“Well,” I explain, “we were in the middle of eating a meal when the Stranger blessed and broke bread. At that moment everyone exclaimed, ‘It’s Yeshua!’ and I was dumbfounded. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Yeshua had died several days prior. He couldn’t be alive.

“And then the Stranger just vanished. Poof. He was gone.

“The people I was eating with exclaimed, ‘Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?’ and when I asked about it, one of them, named Cleopas, said, ‘He predicted that He would rise again after three days. He’s alive! Let’s go to Jerusalem and tell His disciples!’

“We all ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem as fast as our legs would carry us.

“And my life has never been the same since.”

The doctor speaks, “Praise Yeshua!”

“Yeshua is Lord,” I say. “Anything else you want to know?”

“No, I think that should cover it. I still have several more people to interview, including Cleopas, before I write my account.” The doctor pauses. “Thank you for your time, Theophilus.”

“Theophilus?” I ask. “I told you my name was Jonah.”

“Your given name might be Jonah,” the doctor says, “but all those who Adonai is pleased with are ‘loved by Him.’ To Him, and to His Son, you are Theophilus. And so am I.”

I thanked the doctor for his encouraging words, and I made my way back to my house. I wondered if anyone would ever read his account of Yeshua, but even if no one did, I was happy that I was able to contribute my story for his purpose.

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