Eli blindly tossed the straw around on the musty floor of the stable completely oblivious to the lowing of the cattle around him. A hen or two skittered around him as the dust stirred and swirled in the air. Eli worked vigorously, his muscles taut in his arms weathered from hard work. He stopped for a moment and fiercely rubbed the burning sensation from his eyes with his gritty forearm. He couldn’t see through his watery eyes. Much as he tried to believe they pooled from the scratchiness of the air in the stable, his heart was stabbed with pain.
She was gone. There was no bringing her back.
The wail of an infant pierced through his thoughts and drove him deeper into the vigour propelling his arms. A cold hardness tore through his veins. He knew he would never be the same. And then, his body went numb.
* * *
Benjamin darted through the field, ears of wheat catching between his fingers. The sunlight flashed across his face as he glanced over his shoulder. Esther’s laughter danced in the afternoon breeze as she tried to keep up with him.
“Wait,” she gasped, “I.can’t.run.any.more.”
Benjamin stopped, panting in breathless delight.
“You win,” Esther puffed, as she slid to a halt and fell to the ground.
Benjamin bent over, his hands on his knees, sucking in air as he grinned boyishly at her.
“I knew it! I win!” he declared.
“I know!” muttered Esther, slightly annoyed, “That’s what I said.”
Benjamin collapsed beside her and rolled onto his back between the rows of golden stalks. Esther flopped down beside him and they watched the clouds roll across the sky.
“I’m surprised your father let you get away,” said Esther, as she began to draw in the dry earth with her finger.
Benjamin’s expression changed and clouded with solemnity. He loved his father but he wasn’t sure the feeling was mutual. Some days he wondered if his father would really care if he wasn’t there. Maybe he was just useful to have around when the inn hosted guests. He certainly didn’t feel like a son. His father didn’t look fondly on him the way Esther’s mother looked at her. He didn’t tousle his hair like the other boys’ fathers either. He didn’t even care if he was taught the Torah. Not that he’d ever admit that. It was merely to keep up appearances that Benjamin had learnt what he had. In fact, Benjamin wondered if Yahweh was feared by his father.
Esther’s voice snapped him out of his world of thought.
“He said that if I had any energy, it needed to be out of me before tonight. We expect the first guests to arrive today. And from tomorrow, I’ll have to sneak out if I want to do anything other than fetch and carry.”
“I’m excited,” Esther grinned, “Imagine! It will feel like Jerusalem at Passover! So many people in our small town!”
Benjamin beamed at the thought. Life around here wouldn’t be dull for the next while.
By the time Benjamin and Esther returned to the town, the small market place teemed with people.
Dates, pomegranates and figs overflowed from woven baskets. New skins of wine were for sale. Egyptian fabrics were draped over rods. And there were perspiring bodies pressed shoulder to shoulder along the main street. Benjamin and Esther made quick work of the crowds, weaving their small bodies in and out until they reached Esther’s mother. She sat under the shade of her stall weaving baskets with nimble fingers. She set her work aside when the two breathless children arrived.
“Benjamin, your father will be relieved to find you! He’s been looking for you everywhere!”
‘Relieved’ was not the word Benjamin would have chosen. ‘Angry’ may have been more appropriate by the sounds of things.
No sooner had Hannah spoken than Eli’s voice boomed over the street.
“You, boy! Where have you been?”
Eli took long strides over to Benjamin and glowered at him. Benjamin crumbled under the harsh tone.
“Father, I am sorry! I thought you said that I should go and get rid of my energy.”
Eli glared at him.
“You know we need to go to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice! Don’t disappear again, understand?”
Eli clipped his ear and Benjamin hushed instantly. He fell into step behind Eli in silence.
Mordecai hustled bleating goats as they chewed on scraps and tied a rope around Eli’s chosen animal. The stubborn-headed goat dug its hooves into the sand as Mordecai tugged. Benjamin turned to watch the bustle of bodies swarm around the market place. If today was anything to go by, the inns in town would soon be turning people away. Benjamin saw Esther far back across the street alongside her mother, working quickly with her fingers as she finished off a basket she had been making. Her melodious laughter echoed across the street amid the din of animals and townsfolk.
Benjamin wished he was there listening as Hannah, no doubt, was recounting a story of old to her daughter about Abraham, Moses or Joshua. Yesterday, when he joined them for a meal, Hannah, a gifted storyteller, recited Isaiah’s words about the coming Messiah.
“…And the government shall rest on His shoulders,” she smiled, “The prophet said He’d be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Eli had come into town for some fresh fruit and overheard Hannah talking to the children. He laughed harshly.
“What Messiah! Prince of Peace?!? Look at us! Look at God’s people. We’re at the mercy of the tyranny of the Roman rule! Don’t listen to this nonsense, Benjamin! God has forgotten about us!”
He threw up his hand and shook his head.
“No, we live in fear! No one has prophesied for years! And I won’t blame a soul for losing hope. Our prayers mean nothing.”
A muscle twitched in Hannah’s jaw but she smiled almost sympathetically at the hard face of a hurting man.
“His ways are higher than our ways, Eli,” she offered, gently, “We need to trust His judgement and be patient…”
Eli’s face twisted in pain as he shook his head. And, for the first time in years, Benjamin saw his eyes shimmer ever so slightly. He cleared his throat gruffly and didn’t listen to another word. He marched off without acknowledging Benjamin.
Benjamin bit his lip nervously, unable to make eye contact with Hannah after his father’s performance. He scratched at the sand with a piece of straw and felt tears burn his eyes. Hannah’s gentle hand rubbed his back as he heard her move closer to him. He fiercely rubbed the hot tears.
“How do we know He’s coming? How do we know God does care? What if my Father is right?”
Hannah brushed Benjamin’s dark hair with her hand. Her presence comforted him in a way he couldn’t comprehend. Her warm touch left him aching for his mother. How different his life might have been! How different his father might have been!
“Oh Benjamin,” her words soothed his wounded heart, “God has not forgotten us. He hears our prayers. Your father is blinded by the pain of losing your mother and the baby she was birthing. He can’t see the goodness of God because he blames God for it all. But you have seen how God has answered prayers. You have told me about the comfort you have felt from Him. You have told me how God has loved you. Don’t be disheartened because of your father. God has promised never to leave us; never to forsake us. He is faithful and He will keep His promises.”
Esther, who had been quietly listening, shifted her position and asked,
“Mother, tell us more about the Messiah. What has God promised?”
Benjamin rubbed his eyes once more with his arm and sat up to listen. Hannah smiled warmly, reaching for a bowl of dried figs and offered both the children a handful. As Benjamin and Esther sat at her feet, her fingers wove effortlessly as she picked up on the words of Isaiah again.
“For unto us a child is born; unto us a Son is given and the government will rest on His shoulders…”
Esther interjected as she swallowed hastily,
“But what do all those names that you told us earlier mean? How does one person have so many names?”
Hannah laughed and nudged Esther’s chin,
“My little one, your curiosity outruns your patience!”
Hannah set the half woven basket in her lap and dusted some straw from her shift. Then, she took a few figs in her hand and continued,
“The names describe Him, dear one. He will care for us. He will father us as His children. And He will bring us a peace that will last.”
Benjamin snapped back into reality as Eli thrust the rope holding the goat into his hands. The goat snuffled around his feet and tugged in the direction of peelings in the dirt. Eli slipped his hand into his skin purse and dropped a few coins onto the rough wooden table alongside the pen.
As Mordecai counted the coins, he looked up at Eli.
“You will be getting a lot of business tomorrow, brother. Count yourself lucky! Joel’s inn is already full.”
Eli stroked his beard and pursed his lips as he stared across the throng.
“These Romans! They uproot these poor people just to count them!”
He held out his hand at a weary family. The father held a small child fast asleep on his shoulder with another two in tow. They were whining for food. The dust caked on the feet and streaked across their faces were indicative of days of travel. The mother sank to the floor against a wall to nurse a hungry baby.
“Look at them,” Eli remarked, shaking his head, “These Romans are heartless. They don’t care that it’s at the expense of others. Their empire; their prestige among the nations is all that matters to those selfish brutes.”
Eli tapped Benjamin on the back.
“Best we get going, boy. We have a lot to do!”
He nodded his appreciation to Mordecai and, with his hand firmly grasping Benjamin’s shoulder, he ushered him into the crowd.Tags: birth, Christmas, Christmas time, innkeeper, Jesus, Joseph, Mary, narrative, nativity, nativity story, story