The little caravan traveled to a distant oasis led by a proud camel. He needed no direction from his rider, for he knew the route and wanted to appear knowledgeable to his eldest offspring. The young camel was on his very first caravan.
As the men and animals approached the greenery, the moon hinted at approaching coolness. Water and rest were close at hand and the men grew anxious for a night beside the well.
Entering the grove, the camel stood still. A driver removed drinking vessels and ran to the well. But hope turned to despair. Despite all efforts, the well yielded not a drop of water.
"We must move on," one man shouted. "Our vessels are dry."
"But what if the nearest well has no water either?" asked another. "What will we do?" The men argued loudly, but finally decided to go.
The little camel's eyes questioned his father. Surely a long night's trip without water was unwise. The elder animal must have agreed, for he sat down in the sand followed by the others.
How the men pushed and shoved! Still the camels refused to budge. The men sat down, bemoaning their fate. Then sleep overtook every man and beast, leaving only the lead camel awake to sit vigilantly beside the well.
Midnight arrived and the alert camel looked heavenward to find a golden burst of celebration filling the winter sky. A sweet angel hovered above the lead camel with a message of hope and faith for every creature on earth. She told of a Saviour born in Bethlehem. The other camels awoke and gazed upon the miracle while the men slept their troubled sleep. The young camel looked upon his father's face. Had his father known all along that a miracle would take place during the night? For reasons he was too young to understand, the caravan was not to leave.
Morning approached. The men awoke to recollections of yesterday's dilemma, coming quickly to their feet. They renewed frantic efforts to get the camels up...until they heard the sound. Water. The well was filled nearly to the brim. And the camels watched as the men drank and rejoiced.
"Come here, kitty," called Esau. A gray cat trotted over to the stablehand and purred loudly as Esau scratched him under the chin. Suddenly the cat spotted a tiny movement under the straw and prepared to pounce. "Go catch the mouse!" whispered Esau as the cat's tail swished back and forth. Two other cats joined Esau as he watched their companion's graceful moves.
These three cats were valuable members of the innkeeper's staff. Mice and other tiny animals loved to hide in nooks and crannies, waiting for an opportunity to eat the animals' expensive grain. Cats kept the mice away and made the stablehand's job a little easier.
"Esau, please come out and help our new guests," called Thaddeus, the innkeeper. "They have arrived for the census, and the only place in all of Bethlehem for them to rest is in our stable. Let's do all we can to make them comfortable." Reluctantly, Esau left the stable to help the guests with their belongings.
Next a man and woman entered the stable, and Esau led their tired donkey into a corner. The cats edged toward the door, uneasy about the strangers. Esau was their friend, but most other people shooed them away.
"Don't be afraid, little cats," coaxed the woman in a soothing voice, "I want to say hello to you." Her gentle manner attracted the animals, and one by one they allowed her to pet them. Esau and the man were spreading a blanket over the straw in the manger. "You will soon have a little baby to look after," said the man as he stroked the brown cat's head. "I trust you will make him feel as welcome in your home as we are."
In a small village in the foothills near Bethlehem lived a poor family of goat herders. Joseph and Miriam were growing old and it became more and more difficult to care for their animals, despite the fact that their herd was their only real wealth. The land was far from being lush, thus Joseph had to move his animals from place to place in search of vegetation. It was a long and arduous process and there was little money to replace the stock as it grew older. One by one, the herd decreased. Soon, Joseph and Miriam had only six animals left.
“My husband, we must think about moving away from beloved home,” Miriam said one night, as she came into their simple house after checking the herd. The six slept, nestled together, just outside the entrance to the house.
“What would you have me do, Miriam?” her weary husband asked. “I cannot become a merchant or a musician at my age. I know only the life of a goat herder and only the land that was my father’s. Be of faith. God will answer our prayers. He will help us survive as He helped my father and my father’s father.”
But a miracle did not happen for Miriam and her husband Joseph. The little herd dwindled to only one male and one female. Soon Miriam could no longer find the strength to believe that a miracle might come.
Joseph had not given up. Each Sabbath eve, he went higher into the foothills to ask God for help. Even into the coldest nights of winter. Over and over Joseph asked for a sign. Over and over he returned to the house shaking his head.
On a particularly dismal night, Joseph went off for his Sabbath prayer. The night turned cold and blustery. It was hard to say the prayers aloud as his teeth chattered and his hands grew icy. He moved into a shallow opening that might have been a cave had the hill been more forgiving, falling asleep from exhaustion and worry.
In his sleep, Joseph saw his two remaining goats and prayed a dreamy prayer that they might multiply. He awakened to find that the two goats had trailed him to his place of solitude. Both lay curled at his feet as though adding their warmth to his body and their souls to his prayer.
“My little ones, you should not have come all this way so late at night,” he said quietly, watching their even breathing. “I am afraid that Miriam was right. We have been abandoned. Perhaps you two shall be the last of our herd.”
For an instant, the words hung in the air. Then from the sky burst a shower of light radiating from a glorious stay. Joseph jumped to his feet. The goats quickly scampered behind him. What was this wondrous stay? The old man reached behind him to reassure the cowering goats. The three stood transfixed in time as angels sang out, “All creatures of the earth shall be fruitful and multiply. This is the word of the Lord on this night of miracles.”
When it finally receded, Joseph could not say how long the star had stayed in the sky. He led the goats back to the courtyard, sitting beside them as they went back to sleep. Looking up, Joseph smiled knowingly. A warmth spread across his heart. His faith, which had almost wavered earlier in the day, was stronger than ever.
The winter gave way to summer. The land was once more green with life. And Joseph delighted in the newborn kids born late in the spring of that year.
The caravan approached King Herod's residence on a dark night several thousand years ago so that its leader might beg for a resting place outside the royal compound. Since it was very late, the guard knew little harm could come of the gesture. He warned the entourage to move on before first light, then turned his back on them in the darkness.
When the sun came up, the gatekeeper looked outside the wall to be sure the caravan had moved on. Imagine his surprise when he found that all the animals and men had vanished, but a single, grey horse remained behind. The beast stood untethered and weary, as though ridden too man miles without a rest.
Horses were as valuable as gold during that era and the guard thought himself a most fortunate man...until he attempted to walk the horse. The poor creature limped so horridly, the man dropped its reins and walked away shaking his head.
Three Wise Men approached Herod's residence that same day. They had come to pay respects on their way to a miraculous birth in the City of David. Tethering their beasts inside the compound, they stayed a short time, to accept Herod's hospitality before taking leave. They were about to head east when Melchior, the eldest, noticed the grey horse standing alone. Dismounting, he walked toward it.
"He is not fit to ride, master," the gatekeeper told him. The warning went unheeded as Melchior approached the animal. He stroked the animal's side and discovered the dirt on the horse's coat.
"Please bring water and wash this animal," Melchior asked quietly. Too afraid to refuste, the gatekeeper quickly returned with water and sheepskins. As the three watched in the growing dark, the animal's grey coat turned to white as the dirt was removed from his now-sleek body.
Just as the sun disappeared, a golden star burst into the sky. The gatekeeper turned and ran in fright as the star's tip touched the lame flank of the horse for but an instant.
Melchior removed the blanket and bridle from the horse he had been riding. Then he smiled at the others and whispered, "It is time to move more quickly my brothers." He climbed atop the beautiful horse as it stepped surely upon the earth with no limp at all. Then Melchior took his place at the head of the pilgrimage to complete their mission of destiny.
The children of the Holy Land were just like today's young adventurers and travelers, running free beyond the safety of home into the summer meadows where family sheep grazed. Having a dog meant livelier playtimes. A small, furry friend could play camel or med a little heart.
All of this considered, Abram and Abra's father would still not hear of it. He considered dogs to be unnecessary burdens, particularly in a home where there was no mother. All the more reason to get one, the twins pleaded. A friend would keep them company each day as their father went out to tend the sheep. The two whispered late into the night about how wonderful a dog of their very own would be.
Perhaps God heard the two talking, for one day, a tiny golden-colored dog found his way to Abra and Abram's house. To their delight, the puppy walked in as though he owned the place! But, what to do about their father?
Winter was fast approaching and it was not a good time of the year to ask for favors. Their mother had died during the winter and the sadness of her departure had left their father's heart broken. The only answer, the children concluded, was to hide the dog until the time was right to tell their father. Thus a small shelter was constructed by the children at the edge of the village.
A conspiracy of love evolved from that day in the early winter. Scraps of food and water, meticulously hidden by the children found their way to the dog's shelter every morning. How the twins loved the visits, and how careful they were not to let townspeople see their treasure, lest their father be alerted.
Along with food, the two carried tenderness and affection to the growing pup. They played with him and stroked his head, returning home reluctantly as the sun dipped into the western sky each day; their secret kept for one day more.
Late one night, a cold north wind swept into the house. Abram awoke, for his bedroll was closest to the yard. He shook Abra. The two wondered if their dog was safe. Putting on their warm wraps quietly as their father slept, off they ran to the little shelter, finding it destroyed by the wild night winds. The dog was gone, too.
Abra began to cry but her brother quickly comforted her. "Don't be afraid, Abra. We will find him very soon." They searched and they searched, but to no avail. The wind whipped about them and they grew cold and tired. Abram insisted that they take shelter, but where?
As though they had asked the question aloud, a shining star came into the heaven, filling the sky with beams of light. Its longest tip pulsated onto a small grove of trees. The children ran to the grove. Upon reaching safe haven, a wondrous band of angels burst into the sky singing wonderful songs of rejoicing. Abra and Abram heard all about a child who had just been born in nearly Bethlehem. Then the wind stopped and the earth stood very still, bathed in a glorious light.
How could the two explain what had happened? Even to each other? Abram took his sister's hand and the pair headed back to the house in the hush hours of the new day.
Waiting for them was their father. He sat with his arm around their flaxen-haired dog. And in a moment, the two knew that there was peace in the house once more.
The raising of sheep was a critical part of the Holy Land's social and agricultural system centuries ago. Sheep provided clothing, food, even milk...and were part of the intricate sacrificial system that governed religious life at the time of Christ's birth.
But these gentle creatures provided more than sustenance. So close was the relationship between man and sheep, it was said that when God's love of man was visualized it was most often depicted as a shepherd with his animals. As further proof of this bond, scholars have found over 500 references to sheep in the New Testament!
The seasons of the sheep were predictable and cyclical in nature. Spring symbolically started the year, for in March and April, ewes, having been breed five months, lambed. The newborns were usually given names at birth and learned to respond to those names in a very short amount of time.
About a month after lambing, adult sheep were shorn in the midst of celebratory feasting and dancing. After shearing, flocks were led to pools where they were dipped in water twice and immediately after the groups emerged from the water, the spring "harvest" festival began.
By autumn, the fields were stripped bare and sheep often relied upon thorns as a food source. Careful to avoid grain fields where crops were nearing harvest, shepherds led their ewes, rams and lambs about the countryside in anticipation of the coming winter when the Judean hills steamed with cold rain.
Although sheep have been depicted through the ages as being meek or bashful, a more apt description might be gentle and loving...vulnerable and dependent upon their shepherd masters. Shepherd's tales, passed down through time, describe the tender and affectionate nature of these loving animals with historical accuracy.
Maybe it was because shepherds spent many solitary hours in the field with their flocks that these particular animals bonded so closely to man...or perhaps God simply gave sheep a special gift of understanding that still exists between the two today.