Arriving at the half-way point at the junction with the road to Bethany, the shepherds turned the sheep into a pasture by a small stream. By this time the sheep were beginning to tire and, for many, the call of the tender spring grasses was too much of a distraction for their hungry stomachs. As they began to graze, the shepherds each sought a comfortable resting spot, preferably under the shade of a low-hanging tree.
This was hardly the first time the shepherds had taken this excursion, and Benjamin and the others had anticipated the need for this rest stop. But their lack of progress was more than a little surprising and they found themselves questioning whether they would be able to complete the Jerusalem leg of their journey before the temple closed and those who would receive the sheep had gone to their homes for the evening.
As the sheep foraged for a meal, the shepherds sat themselves down to enjoy whatever foodstuffs they had packed. Eleazar’s mother had anticipated her son’s need and assembled for him a hearty meal of cold chicken and goat cheese, with dried figs. He downed the food without so much as a thought of his mother’s kindness, so absorbed was he contemplating what he assumed lay ahead for himself.
In his anxious mind he envisioned this, what he believed would be his last shepherding trip to Jerusalem, as the final exclamation mark on his short career, and the opening chapter on his new life of freedom and fulfillment. Ostensibly he was doing it for his mother, but had he been more honest with himself, he would have been forced to admit the truth that this was at least equally about satisfying his own desires.
Finishing the last bite of his meal, he rose from his resting spot to survey his surroundings. The sheep were feeding peacefully and the dogs were resting beside the other shepherds, who themselves were reclined and enjoying a brief nap. Looking back toward the highway, Eleazar could see a herd of about ten camels moving toward Jerusalem. Two drivers on camels, one at the front of the herd and the other at the rear, were the only keepers of the notoriously unruly creatures. Each camel wore a braided collar with a brass ring. A rope was strung between the rings and attached at either end to the drivers’ camels, which seemed to maintain perfect order in the procession. Approaching the shepherds’ position, Eleazar was fascinated at how a single command from the leader brought the entire herd, in near-perfect unison, off the highway and onto the path leading to the shepherds’ resting place.
Approaching Eleazar, the only shepherd who wasn’t napping, the lead driver asked, “May I assume that there is water in this place?”
“Yes,” Eleazar replied, pointing. “There’s a small stream just past that stand of trees.”
“May I also assume then that this stream can be used to water my camels?”
“Sure,” Eleazar responded, “take all you want. But I thought camels didn’t need much water.”
“Oh, they need as much as any animal, it’s just that they can store it up so that they don’t need to drink as often as your other beasts of burden. It’s been three days since our last watering and I’d like these animals to get their fill before we get into the confusion of Jerusalem. Camels are ornery enough even when they’re not thirsty. Watering them now will eliminate at least one potential distraction when we arrive.”
“Well, help yourself then. I’ll move the sheep back to make room.”
“I appreciate your kindness, sir,” the camel driver said as his camel kneeled, allowing him to dismount. It was the first time Eleazar had ever been addressed so formally and he rather enjoyed the feeling.
The driver then removed the rope to free the animals. The camels needed no further invitation to partake. In their haste they overtook Eleazar, beating him to the stream and effectively driving off the sheep themselves. The large beasts were generally unfamiliar to the sheep and, being intimidated, the smaller animals willingly retreated to a place several paces away from the stream. The camels were soon wading into the stream for their fill of the cool water.
“Well, it looks like your camels have done my job for me,” said Eleazar, a bit surprised at the rather orderly exchange between the sheep and camels.
“I’m afraid they are generally used to getting their way,” the driver admitted, as he stepped lightly from his kneeling animal. “It’s one trait of the species that breeding doesn’t seem to effect. What I wouldn’t give to have a camel that was docile and obedient like your sheep.”
“Would you also have it be stupid and helpless like a sheep?” Eleazar asked sarcastically.
“Well, I’m no expert on sheep, but I perceive them not as stupid and helpless, but as humble and meek, easy to be entreated. They seek peace, whereas my camels are arrogant and argumentative, always looking for a way to assert their dominance.”
“The sheep are meek,” Eleazar admitted, “but I think it’s just a reflection of their big, empty heads.”
Approaching the shepherd, the camel driver chuckled, extended his hand and said, “My name is Asher.”
Returning the gesture, Eleazar gripped his hand and said, “I’m Eleazar.”
Just then the rear driver approached and held out his hand. “Shalom. I’m Ishmael,” he said. “You have some fine-looking sheep there.”
“Only the best will do for the temple,” Eleazar responded, sarcastically.
Ignoring Eleazar’s apparent cynicism, Ishmael remarked with surprise and respect, “Do you mean that you and your companions are the shepherds who raise sheep for temple sacrifice? I am so honored to meet you!”
“Don’t be,” Eleazar remarked. “We’re nothing but lowly shepherds.”
“Oh but that can’t be true,” Ishmael replied. “You are the honored ones who guard The Lord’s flock.”
“Yes,” Eleazar replied incredulously, hoping to swiftly end this nonsense. “We are the shepherds who watch ‘The Lord’s sheep,’ from the moment of their birth making sure nothing bad happens to them, keeping them pure and protected, coddling and cuddling them their whole lives and delivering them safe and sound to the temple…so that men with sharp knives can slit their throats.” Eleazar, looking his questioner straight in the eyes, concluded his speech with a wry smile.
“Well,” Ishmael responded, sheepishly, looking alternately between the ground and Asher’s understanding face, “it sounds like, uh, well, maybe you have some rather well-formed opinions on the matter. Uh…thank you, yes, thank you for sharing them.”
With that he turned and walked toward the stream to look after the camels.
“My friend,” Asher said, trying to soften the situation, “you must forgive my partner. He is a very devout man who holds rather strong views of his faith. Sometimes he forgets that not all Jews share his zeal.”
Recognizing how caustic his response must have sounded to one so faithful, Eleazar hung his head and said, “I understand. I once was like your friend. I should be more careful about others’ feelings.”
Encouraged, Asher added, “I hope you know that your work truly does matter. Me, I drive camels to market where I haggle with potential buyers all day. In the end, I may be a little richer and the merchant may have a new camel, but that is where the blessing ends. Nothing of lasting value comes of it for either of us. But you, though you seldom see the ultimate result of your work, you provide a service that blesses lives. Your efforts bring satisfaction and peace to hearts that need mending. True, it is all symbolic, but symbols are powerful motivators for they speak of a reality that cannot be seen. You and your companions—you bring that reality to life.”
Humbled, Eleazar could only thank Asher for his thoughts and wish him well on his journey. By this time, Ishmael had the camels roped together again and was preparing to mount his own animal. Asher gave the command for his camel to kneel at which point he swung his leg over the animal’s shaggy back, then ordered the beast to rise. The camel let out a barking groan as it stood, dust falling from its hairy coat.
As the caravan slowly made its way back onto the highway, Asher waved and called to Eleazar, “God be with you, temple shepherd! Shalom!”
“Yes, shalom,” Eleazar whispered, as he waved to the departing men.
When he’s not writing, he has a large family to love, gardens to grow, fun places to see, ancestors to discover, and even chickens to raise! He also has a full-time job that occupies the bulk of his waking hours. Though still a few years off, retirement beckons with aspirations of writing (with all the fun imagining and discovery that goes with it) becoming his full-time pursuit.