The Old OnePosted: December 26, 2015
The Old One
An Original Christmas Story
My name is Yitzaak Ben Ephraim, but no one remembers my name any more. They call me “the old one.” I have outlived three wives almost all of my children, and now I keep sheep with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Although to be fair I am not much of a shepherd any more. I am lame. I cannot keep up with the flock, but I still count the sheep in the evening, when my grandchildren bring them to the fold. I still know the remedies when sheep are sick or injured. I know where the hidden meadows lie, where grass can be found even in the dry season. I do not eat much, with age my appetite is smaller, so, the grandchildren do not begrudge me a place at the table. My legs are no longer strong, but I can earn my keep with what I know.
Up there on the hill is the village of Bethlehem – the City of David, the Great King of Israel’s past. He like me was a shepherd. He cared for sheep in these very hills. I do not wander the hills much anymore. My joints are too stiff and sore. So, I stay here in this valley in our sheepfold. It is a natural depression with a generous rock shelter and a little cave, where we can get in out of the weather. I stay here and watch over my youngest great-grandchildren who help me care for any lambs or sheep who are sickly or injured. Sometimes I teach them how to use the shepherd’s staff and the sling, the tools of our trade, so they can grow up to become the next generation of shepherds in Bethlehem.
I tell them they must learn to be brave and to use the weapons of the shepherd, for these hills are not always safe. From the North great Siberian wolves wander as far south as Israel. And from the South we are occasionally visited by lions from Africa. I tell them the legend of the shepherd boy David, who defended his flock and killed a lion with nothing but his staff and his sling. And then they ask me if it is true that the Great King David killed the giant Goliath with his sling. And I laugh and tell them that everyone in our family knows that it was Elhanan Ben Jaare of Bethlehem one of our own ancestors, who was the slayer of Goliath.
But the great days of Israel are gone. I was born, when we Jews were still a free people, with a Jewish King in the 20th year of the reign of Alexander Jannaeus. I was born the second son of Ephraim of Bethlehem, a free holder with a flock of over a hundred sheep, and a leader among the shepherds of the City of David. Our lives were peaceful and during my childhood the early and the late rains made the pastures of the wilderness lush — a time of milk and honey.
When I was seven years of age, when the great Queen Salome succeeded her husband and reigned in Jerusalem. My world was at peace as I grew old enough to shepherd the flock along with my older brother Yacob. But when the Queen died in my sixteenth year, her two sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus began a war over who would succeed to the throne – foolishness for the Jews, only our enemies prospered.
Normally during this time I would have taken a wife like my older brother, but my father postponed marriage for me, because of the troubled times. For four years they fought, and finally the struggle was decided by the Roman General Pompey. With his legions he installed Hyrcanus as King with the wily Idumean Antipater as his Prime Minister. We Jews were no longer Masters of our own destiny.
After order had been restored my father arranged a marriage for me with Elisheva, the beautiful daughter of Rabbi Eliakim. These were years of great happiness and we were blessed with four sons and three daughters. The flocks grew and Yacob and I took care of our father.
But these were not good times for Israel. Aristobulus appealed to Aretas, the King of the Nabataeans, who brought an army of 50,000 soldiers and besieged Hyrcanus and Antipater in Jerusalem. When powerful men seek for their own gain common people suffer. On their march through Bethlehem the Nabataeans killed my father blessed be his memory. And during the civil war Hyrcanus called upon the great saint Honi the Circle Drawer to curse the forces of Aristobulus. Honi prayed instead, “Lord of the Universe, as the besieged and the besiegers both belong to your people, I beseech you not to answer the evil prayers of either side.” For his wisdom and courage Honi was stoned to death.
One war followed another. When the Parthians invaded our land, we took our flocks into the wilderness, and stayed away from our home for three months until the invaders left. The Romans fought two of their civil wars involving different factions in Judea. And twenty-five years later Herod, son of Antipater the Idumean was King of the Jews and Judea was a province of Rome. My brother Yacob was dead, two of my sons were dead, and I was head of the family. We kept our flocks, but war, unrest and Roman taxes diminished our holdings.
Herod is an evil ruler, but at least there has been an uneasy peace. As the years of Herod’s rule have lengthened I have become the Old One. I have one son left, 10 grandsons, and twenty-two great-grandsons. God is good. Together we have over two-hundred sheep, when we count them as they enter the fold at night.
But enough about history, what I want to share with you are the amazing events that have happened here in Bethlehem in the past few months. But first allow me to tend to a lamb one of my great-grandsons has brought to me.
It all started four months ago. Herod King of the Jews sent out orders that all of his subjects must return to the towns of their origin in order to be counted and taxed. That was easy enough for our family, for we have counted Bethlehem as our home for over a thousand years, since we Jews settled in the land. But many other people, claiming the great King David as their ancestor sought to travel to Bethlehem to be counted and taxed.
From the shepherd’s field East of the City we watched them come and go. The wealthy rode in litters, or chariots, the less well off rode in ox carts, and the poor, bless them, they walked or occasionally they could afford an animal, a donkey to carry their belongings. Old Levi the Inn Keeper, he was making a lot of money, with all of the visitors to Bethlehem. Most nights his Inn was overflowing, and people were even staying in some of the caves that dot the side of the hill below Bethlehem.
The night was clear and cool. The stars were bright in the clear sky, and two of my grandsons Enoch and Joshua along with an assortment of great-grandchildren, had built a fire at the mouth of our rock shelter, and they were staying-up to watch over the flock.
“Enoch,” I asked, why do you stay up so late tonight?”
“Ah,” he replied, several of the ewes have given birth this week and Joshua thought he heard wolves or wild dogs in the hills over there. Yacob and Dan will relieve us at Midnight. You are welcome ‘Old One’ to watch with us. Our wives will bring dinner for you also.”
So we kept watch over the flock by night. Two great-grandchildren fell asleep, one on either side of me, and after eating my dinner, I dozed fitfully. About mid-night, as Yacob, Dan, and two of my other great-grandchildren joined us, a bright light appeared in field just beyond the light of our campfire.
“What is that light,” I demanded! Yacob and Dan went to see.
“Come quickly,” they called. “Come and see.”
With my two canes and one great-grandchild on each arm I hobbled out beyond the light of our campfire to see what was there. Standing like a giant at least seven feet tall and exuding a bright white light was what I could only conclude was a spirit, an angel or a jinn.
“‘Old One,’” the being of light called to me, “Do not be afraid. I come from heaven to bring you good tidings of a great joy. The Messiah has been born this night in Bethlehem, a true descendent of the Great King David.”
“But how can we know this is true?” asked Dan.
“This will be a sign for you,” continued the Being of Light, “You will find a new born infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This is the Messiah for whom you have waited.”
With that the Being of Light seemed to multiply into a hundred a thousand points of light in the night sky and we could hear a singing, a haunting melody that seemed to say, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people of good will.”
After a few minutes the lights faded until only the bright stars were overhead. “Old One,” asked Yacob, “what can this mean?”
“Enoch and Joshua,” I ordered, “go get your brothers. We will leave a guard here and go over to the caves to investigate.”
“But why the caves,” asked Dan?
“You heard the angel or Jinn or whatever it was. It said, ‘A new born infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ That means this baby is in one of those caves being used as a stable. We will organized a search.”
My son Benyamin, and my ten grandsons gathered in the sheepfold. “Enoch and Joshua will stay here with all of the great-grandchildren, except Judah and Asher who will help me walk. The rest of us will form three groups take torches and go and search those caves. If we find something we will send back a group to allow Enoch, Joshua and those left behind to come and see.”
Slowly and painfully with Judah and Asher assisting me, we made our way over to and up the hill that overshadowed our sheepfold. After ten minutes we heard Dan shouting, “Over here, over here, we’ve found it over here!” It was the cave used as a stable by the Inn Keeper Levi.
This cave actually wound its way deep into the hillside with many connecting passages. But there near the opening of the cave lying on a bed of straw in a manger was a new born child. Rebecca the midwife was attending to the mother, who looked tired. The father looked frightened as he listened to Dan tell the story of the announcement of the angels.
I had seen many babies in my time, but this child seemed strangely peaceful. I edged over toward Rebecca the midwife and I said, “Rebecca, this one seems special.”
“Yes, Old One,” she replied, “this child is different. Maybe the angel you heard is correct.”
Just then in the distance we could hear the sound of wolves. “Quickly Benyamin take Yacob and Dan and relieve Enoch and Joshua, there are wolves about. We must be watchful tonight. Judah and Asher gather some wood and light a fire in the entrance of this cave. The wolves will pick up the scent of blood and the after birth. We must protect them.”
After my great-grandsons had kindled a fire, we left the little family, and returned to the sheepfold. As old as I am, I never dreamed that I would see an angel or live to see the coming of the Messiah. What an extraordinary life. If you can forgive an old man, however, the call of nature, I will return to share the rest of my story.
Several days after the birth of the child, we noticed a strange caravan coming from the direction of Jerusalem. There were camels and donkeys and many servants dressed in strange clothes. The leaders of the caravan appeared to be very rich, Kings or Princes perhaps. They pitched tents made of expensive and colorful materials.
The next day a servant from the caravan came to our sheepfold to negotiate the purchase of a sheep. The servant told us his Masters had traveled from Persia following a star, and they were seeking the King of the Jews. And quite unexpectedly they found a newly born child in one of the caves on the hill side. Joshua told the servant about the appearance of the angel the night the child was born. How we had visited the cave and found the baby as the angel had told us. Concluding his purchase the servant took the sheep and returned to his Masters.
The next day, however, two of the princes came to our sheepfold to ask about the message of the angels. They seemed concerned whether it had been an angel or a jinn – a desert spirit. I told them, “I do not know such things for sure, but the being of light who gave us the message did not feel evil in anyway, and following the sign given to us we found the child almost right away.”
One of the princes thanked me and asked for my name. “They call me ‘Old One,’ I replied.”
“Well, ‘Old One,’” he said, “we are going to leave tomorrow. We were originally supposed to carry news of this to King Herod in Jerusalem, but an angel came to me in a dream last night and warned me to depart from here and return home without returning to Jerusalem.”
“Then I can well believe the angel in your dream,” I replied, “for Herod is an evil ruler. He will search for the child to do it harm.”
The Princes thanked us and returned to their tents, and I began to consider how we might protect the man, the woman and their child. That night when the sheep returned to the fold I called for a family meeting.
“My children,” I began, “I now understand why the angel appeared to us. The Princes have been warned that Herod will come to try to do harm to the child. We must help them to escape. Let us gather together what extra food we can give them, and then Benyamin you take Judah and Asher and lead the family by way of the South Mountain meadow to the road to Hebron. If you set out early in the morning with some of the sheep, no one will notice what direction the family is leaving.”
Everyone agreed to the plan. Judah and Asher went to the cave and told the family they would come back for them with supplies in the morning. The Princes’ caravan left in the night, and the next morning Benyamin, Judah, and Asher with the family set out going south. I gave them my blessing and told them not to stop until they had left Herod’s Kingdom.
Unsure of what might happen next, we sent the rest of our flock and our family into the hills. Enoch, Joshua, myself and a dozen sheep stayed in the sheepfold to see what would happen. By late afternoon we saw a detail of Herod’s soldiers approaching Bethlehem from the North. There were the sounds of struggling and wailing from the town. We saw soldiers begin searching the caves on the side of the hill. I told Enoch and Joshua to hide in our cave. Then three of Herod’s soldiers approached the sheepfold.
“Hey you, old man,” they called out, “where is everyone?”
“Eh?” I queried.
“I said,” yelled the soldier, “Where is everyone?”
“Where is who?” I yelled back.
“Everyone else,” the soldier yelled again, “all of your people, where have they gone?”
“Eh, gone where?” I asked in return.
“That’s what we want to know,” shouted the soldier in exasperation!
“They call me the old one,” I replied, “I was born long ago, no one tells me anything.”
“The old man’s mind is addled,” said the soldier to his companions, “we might as well be talking to one of these sheep. Let’s go.”
And so the soldiers of Herod left. The little family escaped to Egypt. After several days my family returned from the hills with the rest of the sheep and the great-grandchildren. And so on this special night, when we remember the birth of that special baby so long ago, let my prayer for you be that you live long enough to bless your great-grandchildren, and may each one of you live so that you hear the angels sing!