Summary: Now we have our eyes open. Now we know that God is with us. Now we know to look for him in everything that happens. When God wants us to do something else, something we can’t see now, he’ll let us know. But from now on, everything we do will be holy.
Zach and his flock were the last into the fold for the night. One hundred and thirteen sheep, just the same as last night and the night before. He pushed the last one into the enclosure and pulled the dried thornbush into the space between the two rough stone walls. On the way up to the heavy woolen tent that served as their nightly shelter, he checked the perimeter to make sure there were no gaps big enough for a sheep to wriggle through. For such stupid animals, they somehow knew exactly where every weak spot was.
Zach glanced upward and saw that his grandsons had already built the small fire that would keep them warm through the cold night. Abner and Dan were doing the same thing on the far side of the fold; and Caleb’s sons had already finished bedding their sheep down for the night.
The old shepherd lowered himself wearily to the ground and reached over for the bread and cheese that Sam and Tobias had laid out for him. He felt old, somehow, older and more tired than usual, and looked forward to the day when they would be grown enough to take the lead as keepers of the flock. Sam at twelve was almost ready, he thought. Next month they’d see how he did taking Hannah’s winter stock of woven cloth and spun yarn up to Jerusalem to the big market there. Sam had done well enough last fall at the smaller fair in Bethlehem, but the prices were better in Jerusalem, and if he could handle his temper with the abuse that shepherds routinely got from the city-dwellers it would be worth the trip. Things were pretty tense, what with the recent rebellion up in Galilee, but not actively dangerous. He hoped.
Zach remembered to his last trip to Jerusalem, when he had run into a patrol of Roman soldiers just outside the city. They had roughed him up a bit, and scattered his merchandise on the ground, kicking it around on the dusty road until they were satisfied, they said, that he wasn’t carrying contraband. “Contraband!” thought Zach scornfully. They were probably just bored and looking for something to brighten up their day. Everybody knew that shepherds never had as much as two mina to rub together. Fortunately nothing was torn, and after shaking out the cloth, refolding it into rough bales, he made the rest of the trip without incident. Well, except for being the butt of some city boys’ horseplay, holding their noses, pointing, and shouting “stinky stinky” as he passed. “Fools,” thought Zach mildly. He knew what they thought of shepherds. But how would they like it if there weren’t any? Just leave him alone and give him a fair price for his goods, that’s all he wanted. As stupid as they were, sheep were smarter than most of the city folks he had met.
But did Sam understand that? Was he in danger of following in his uncles’ footsteps? Zach still grieved over their loss. Levi had gotten killed three years ago in an anti-Roman riot in Jericho. Probably leading it, Zach thought grimly. He never could become reconciled to Judah’s loss of freedom, and he had hated Herod only a little less passionately than he did the Roman occupiers. Reuben had taken the opposite tack, abandoning the traditions of their fathers; the last Zach had heard, he was tending camels for an Idumean merchant on the Hebron-Alexandria run. The boys’ mother, Hannah, was the only child he had left, and she was married to a shiftless ne-er-do-well whose only talents were boasting in the local tavern and getting another child on her every year. Hannah’s gift for spinning and weaving was the only thing that kept the family afloat. Selling unprocessed wool, which was what Zach would otherwise have had to do, was an invitation to starvation. And with five girls to provide for! If anything happened to him, to Zachariah, how would they survive? He had to make sure Sam and Toby were able to shoulder the load. In a couple of years the twins could join them. Even at five they could start learning how to use a slingshot and how to mix the ointments shepherds used on cuts and insect bites.
Suddenly Zach was startled out of his revery. The sky was filled with light, brighter than the dawn which wasn’t due for hours yet. He fell back and felt the boys trying to burrowing under him like chickens under a hen’s wings. He threw his arm over his eyes and squinted underneath it, trying to see past the glare. And a voice as loud as a shofar, the ram’s horn the priests blew on feast days, but as sweet as the flutes the shepherds played to calm the sheep, filled the cold night. “Do not be afraid!” it said into the sudden silence. There was nothing around them but the voice and the light. Afterwards Zach wondered at the stillness of the sheep; they neither stirred nor bleated with fear. It was as if the whole world were holding its breath.