Story taken from Gospel Voices, my collection centred around the life and teaching of Jesus
As I say in my Note to Reader at the start of Gospel Voices, I ask you to remember that while my inspiration comes from Scripture, my stories are speculative. It is my hope they will trigger personal research and cause you to formulate your own ideas on what these characters may have been like, and on the challenges they would have faced. This Midrashic approach allows our imaginations to enter Bible narratives, and our intellects, through thorough and responsible research.
Five days ago she was in Nazareth, bags and baskets packed for the journey,
saying those lingering farewells. Her mother clung to her and asked one last
time if it was really safe for her to travel. Joseph could do it alone, she’d
reminded her; but no, he was faithful and kind and she wanted to be by his
side. Dear Joseph. The way he looked at her and smiled – such commitment in
his face, such depth of love. God really knew what he was doing in choosing
him, though she wondered if she was up to the task herself. Why exactly had
she ‘found favour’ with God, as the angel had said?
Five days! How much had changed since then. She dipped her fingers in
the shallow dish of olive oil beside her and ran them over the baby’s smooth
skin, massaged the oil into his dark strong hair, over his cheeks and his little
nose with the gentlest of touches. Did he look like her? It was hard to tell so
early on; she wondered if there would be any likeness at all. He certainly
wouldn’t look like Joseph, but he had the purest, deepest love of all and would
be the best earthly father she could imagine.
She picked up one of the baby’s small hands and felt it wrap around her
finger. He held on with all of his little might. What a beautiful boy he was and
how she loved him already! What an incredible gift! Her heart felt so full of
love for him that she could even feel it beating; she felt more alive than ever
before. What purpose he had given her, what hope! How wonderful God was,
that he should have dreamt this up and thought of her.
She wiped the tears from her face that had started to fall onto the baby, and
felt Joseph lay his big strong arm across her shoulders. He swept the remaining
tear from her cheek. ‘It’s going to be alright, you know,’ he said. He paused
and hummed while he filtered his thoughts. Then, ‘We’ve got this far,’ he
continued, ‘and one fine day we’ll take him home, show the family. You need
to get some rest now, you must be so tired.’
‘I could stay here forever, just us three,’ she said as she rubbed the oil over
the baby’s legs and feet, her fingers lingering on his tiny toes. ‘I’m in no hurry
to go back anyway – it won’t be easy, the gossip won’t stop.’ She paused. ‘Can
you pass me those strips of cloth?’
‘One day at a time,’ said Joseph, handing them to her. ‘I…I wanted to
provide you with some place better than this but we’ll find a proper room
‘I’m comfy here,’ she said. ‘And look how settled he is.’ They gazed at the
baby, transfixed by him. She tenderly wrapped him in the swaddling bands
then kissed him on the forehead. Joseph arranged some straw in the feeding
trough next to where he was sitting, then rose, took him in his arms and placed
him inside, very slowly though so as not to wake him.
It was getting quite dark now, but the moon was large and casting enough
light for them.
There was the noise of a stampede outside and raucous shouts, the heavy
feet of young men racing down the track.
‘I’ll go and see what’s happening,’ he said. But as he spoke, there was a
gentle cough from outside.
‘Shalom!’ came a voice. ‘We’re looking for a baby.’
Joseph stepped over to the mouth of the cave and there stood an old
wizened shepherd who, on catching sight of mother and child, stepped back
and bowed his head. ‘We saw some angels out in the fields; they invited us
down, us,’ he said, looking at his old woollen tunic and brushing off the debris
from the field. A cluster of shepherd faces joined him in the entrance, their eyes
wide and shining bright.
‘Come in,’ said Joseph. ‘All of you.’
‘He’s the Saviour of the world,’ said the old shepherd. ‘Ach, it’s the Lord,
he’s here and the angels chose to tell us.’ He shook his head in wonderment
and, in a moment of boldness, went right up to the manger and knelt before
him. ‘Welcome, little king,’ he said, and shook his head again.
A young, vital shepherd put a hand on his shoulder and knelt down beside
him, and the others followed.
‘Well, well, what a night indeed! I’m glad to see you’ve found our manger,’
said a tall shepherd with a long beard who stood up now and leant on his staff.
He placed it against the wall and began rotating a twig in the centre of a
limestone slab, at the entrance to the cave.
‘Your manger?’ said Mary. But was the Lord in this as well?
‘It’s where we birth them – in here,’ the shepherd replied. ‘Otherwise
they’re out on the hillside, every day of the year.’
Soon the shepherd had a small fire going and brought over the oil lamps
from the craggy shelves, before placing them back, one by one.
‘I did wonder how you found us so easily,’ said Joseph. ‘The angels—they
didn’t give you directions then?’ said Joseph with a smile.
‘Ach, we knew where to come, alright,’ said the oldest shepherd, the
wonder in his eyes now even more visible. ‘We’ve known for a very long time.’
There was a silence now – a holy silence, and it felt like no one should break
it. It was a moment that would stay with Mary for eternity. These were
certainly respectful men, she pondered. But they were more than that, it
seemed. For they’d been called to witness the dear child’s arrival. Oh, what a
moment was this! And what a God they served.
‘Those…those angels…so what did they say to you?’ asked Joseph, sitting
down again and resting a hand on Mary’s shoulder.
‘It was just one who spoke, but soon there was a great crowd of them,
singing their praises to God. I’m surprised you didn’t hear them from here.’
And the old shepherd told them what the angel had said and the hearts of
all were warmed.
‘So…What’ve you done with your sheep?’ said Joseph and they laughed
‘Ach, they’ll cope without us for a short time,’ said the oldest shepherd at
last. ‘You know, my sheep don’t roam far.’
‘We really shouldn’t stop long,’ said a nervous looking young shepherd,
and he pulled on the leather belt around his waist. ‘If they end up blemished,
they’re no good.’
‘Just this once, lad, just this once,’ replied a shepherd with a greying bushy
beard. ‘Tonight is an exceptional night.’
‘So the Bethlehem sheep are special, I’ve heard,’ said Joseph, ‘very special.’
‘That’s right, young man. King David tended these sheep as a lad,’ said the
‘And I wrapped the most recent one,’ said the young shepherd, now
appearing to gain confidence as he realized how warmly they’d been received.
‘I put him in that self-same manger. It’s our tradition,’ he said, with a proud
‘Well, ours is a holy calling,’ said the tall shepherd. ‘We declare which will
be Passover lambs at birth, then wrap them, like the boy said.’
‘And the only journey they’ll ever do is to Jerusalem to be sacrificed,’
continued the oldest shepherd, picking up the story. ‘Course, not all of them
will be good enough. They have to be without blemish, no broken bones either.
We walk them in on a Friday to be slain. Only when their last drop of blood is
spilt will the temple priest declare, ‘It is finished.’
‘Grandfather, they don’t want to hear such detail, not on such a joyful
night,’ said the youngest shepherd to the eldest.
‘Oh I think they do,’ the old man replied. ‘I think they understand.’
‘There’s bleating, it’s getting louder,’ said the young shepherd. ‘I think
they’ve nearly caught up with us!’ ‘Come on lads, we’d better go. Pleased to
meet you, little king.’
See Luke chapter 2, verses 1 – 20 for the narrative of Jesus’s birth
Born in a cave?
There is an old tradition that Jesus was born in a cave. While we cannot be certain, some researchers think this was the Tower of the Flock, Migdal Edgar, the cave used by the temple shepherds in which the Passover lambs were birthed. Researchers like to cite Micah 4:8. There is the thought that Luke 2:7 states ‘in the manger’ (Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges and the Thayer Greek Dictionary). Commentators do raise the question of how the shepherds knew where to go otherwise, for the angels didn’t tell them, and they were not led by a star. I wonder how many mangers there would have been in Bethlehem.
Lambs around Bethlehem…in December?
Have you ever heard the argument, ‘lambs wouldn’t have been outside in December’? People say ‘Christmas is celebrated at the wrong time of year’. We’ll never know when exactly Jesus was born, but there is a little known detail that means our choice of December 25th isn’t so outlandish! The sacrificial temple lambs had to be one-year-old males, and living outside for 365 days. The fields around Bethlehem are known to be where they were raised. The temple needed lambs all year round, and so the hillsides would have been sheep-dotted regardless of the seasons.
Ellicott, writing about Luke 2:8, says ‘The statement in the Mishna that the sheep intended for sacrifice in the temple were pastured in the fields of Bethlehem, gives a special interest to the fact thus narrated, and may, perhaps, in part, explain the faith and devotion of the shepherds…’
See also the blog by Howard Hewitt, below. It is interesting to consider the parallels with Jesus’ own life; the sheep, born in Bethlehem, would be brought to Jerusalem on foot on a Friday, ready for slaughter:
14 March, 2014 Story of Bethlehem Sheep More Than Legend.