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Emmanuel: A Shepherd’s Story

Note: This is a two part column. For online reader's who prefer instant gratification, the entire text is available online in an illustrated version here Emmanuel: A Shepherd's Story.

“Seventy five, seventy six, seventy seven. They’re all in.” Moshe called out.

“Pull those bushes in close and then gather some wood for a fire.” Samuel commanded.

“Not yet Samuel,” came the voice from the gathering darkness.

What now, Samuel thought. That old man is never content. “Why not Eleazar? The sheep are all in. It’s getting dark. You’re the one who likes to set up these brush walls.”

Surrounding the sheep with a wall of tangled brush was Eleazar’s way of tending sheep. None of the other shepherds did it, at least not anymore. The brush walls did get the sheep to settle down easier, but it was too much work, just to save one, maybe two sheep a year. Joel bar Amoz knew they would loose some of his sheep to wild animals, every sheep owner did. If the owner didn’t care, why should the shepherd? But that wasn’t Eleazar’s way.

“We have seventy-eight sheep now Samuel,” Eleazar said. “I have reminded you of this every night for the three nights since the new lamb was born, and I will keep on reminding you until you can get it into that thick skull of yours. It’s not too much for a shepherd to remember the sheep in his care.”

Eleazar did not understand this. The flock is not merely how a shepherd makes his living; the flock is a shepherd’s life. Eleazar had been watching sheep for 42 years. He had no other life. Would have no other life.

“Watch the opening on the enclosure while Moshe gets the firewood,” Eleazar said. “I’ll handle this one.”

Not a lamb. Eleazar was sure of that. The ewes were usually good about keeping their lambs close. He had counted all twenty-nine lambs anyway. The one three days earlier was a late lamb, the last one of the season.

Nearly half the flock were lambs by year’s end. They were timed just right for Passover. This was a trick of Eleazar’s that made a good profit for Joel bar Amoz and assured Eleazar that he would always have a good flock to tend.

It would probably be Jonah. Eleazar named the young ram who tended to wander Jonah, for the prophet who headed west when God called him to go north. Eleazar wandered into back along the path they had followed in the late afternoon, trying to get his eyes to pick out the landscape in the blue dark. Only the evening star yet shown in the night sky.

Joel bar Amoz always bragged in Eleazar’s presence that he was the best of shepherds because he thought like a sheep. He was pretty sure that the wealthy man meant it as a compliment. Eleazar knew that the truth was something deeper, something hidden from most of the men and boys who called themselves shepherds.

Ever since he could walk, Eleazar had lived among sheep. His father had been a shepherd and when his mother died giving birth to him. Eleazar had gone to live with an aunt. But just after his third birthday, his father had come for him.

“A shepherd should grow up among the sheep,” his father had declared, cutting off the arguments of his wife’s sister and her husband.

So Eleazar had grown up among the sheep. The rhythm of their lives was the rhythm of his life. He knew their hopes and fears instinctively and could not understand why the other shepherds were so unknowing about the herds they guarded.

The shepherd’s job was straightforward enough. Make sure they get the food and water they need and protect them from wild animals and thieves. That summed it up. But most of the shepherds Eleazar worked with over the years watched the sheep without really noticing them. They pushed the sheep too hard. They didn’t care when they lost a few sheep each year to their own carelessness. Eleazar realized long ago that the key to tending sheep was not to watch them, nor to think like them. The key to tending sheep was to become the sheep. He knew he could not really become a sheep, but it would be the best way to care for them, the shepherd who was both sheep and shepherd.

When Eleazar was a boy, running to keep up with the herds, he learned to know when the sheep were hungry, or thirsty, or frightened. He never had to watch the hillside to see if any animals posed a danger to his flock. He watched the sheep. Most of them would not know danger until it was too late, but if you knew the sheep to watch, their was always a wiser ram or ewe who just knew when danger was in the air. After watching those wise sheep for enough years, Eleazar could feel it as well. He did not wonder when danger was present. He just knew. Eleazar could sense it on the wind.

Sometime over the past 42 years, Eleazar had set becoming the sheep as his goal. He wasn’t there yet. The herd still had a surprise for him every once in a while. But not on this night. For there is where Jonah would be. Eleazar was sure of it. He could see a little side trail leading down to the wadi, a dry riverbed. Just the sort of place where a sheep daydreaming of lying down beside still waters would head.

Eleazar picked his way down the rocky hillside and soon found his Jonah. He shooed the ram ahead of him and the two started back to camp. Jonah was a good ram, he knew to go where the shepherd led him, at least when darkness was settling in. By the time they got back to their makeshift sheep pen the night was dark and the stars shown brightly even over the fire Moshe had blazing.

“That same ram?” Samuel asked.

“Yes, our Jonah headed west again,” Eleazar answered, noting that Samuel knew their flock better than he let on some times.

Next week Eleazar’s story continues as angels appear in the night sky announcing to him and his fellow shepherds, the birth of the promised Messiah.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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