The colours of dawn streaked the sky in hues of pink, blue and mauve. A cool, gentle breeze tousled the trees and birds twittered softly. Not a voice could be heard as Benjamin shifted silently off his mat.
Eli was gone.
Benjamin’s heart skipped a beat as he frantically dashed outside, the air much colder than it had felt in the house. He stumbled to a halt and ducked back inside, peering around the wall. Eli knelt a short distance from the house, his face in his hands. When he raised his head, Benjamin heard him suck in a sob and then let out a shuddering breath. He slowly rose, wiped his cheeks with his broad palms and looked up at the clouds. His chin crumpled despite his efforts to compose himself and fresh tears coursed down his cheeks.
“Why?” he moaned, “Why did you take her? And my son?”
Benjamin swallowed his own tears. He had only seen his father cry once. It was the day he saw an eight-day-old baby cradled in his mother’s arms in the court of Jerusalem’s temple. It was his circumcision day. Benjamin had never seen such a small baby before although he had seen plenty since. Clearly it had been a long time since his father had seen one too. He left Benjamin in the court and hastily made his way out, choking back tears. Benjamin found him in the shade of an oak tree sobbing into his palm. He was much younger then and didn’t understand why his father was crying. But he hugged his legs, trying to comfort him. Eli had picked him up, squeezed him so tight that he couldn’t breathe and cried into his neck.
Today, Benjamin didn’t know what to do. He was conflicted. There was part of him that wanted to comfort his father. There was an ache in his heart to be embraced like that day years ago. And then, the older side of him cautioned him against interrupting his father’s privacy. In the end, he suppressed the emotions coursing through his mind and went back inside to his mat – back to where his father would expect to find him when he returned.
Amid the chaos of the morning, Benjamin didn’t have time to eat. He had been sweeping out the house, washing down the mats the guests would use and filling water jars. The first guests had arrived mid-morning. Now that it was midday, Benjamin was famished and tired. He scooped water from a clay jar and splashed his face. Then he drank the cool water and wiped the drops from his brow. Eli had given him permission to go to the market place to have some lunch with Esther in return for his hard work done without complaint. He had also instructed him to return with some fresh fruit, bread and wine.
Benjamin walked slowly to the market place, drinking in the fresh air and the chance to catch his breath. But the market place was far from a relaxing place to be. It was packed with people. Benjamin had no idea how he would be home quickly with such a long list of things to get and having to wade through the crowds.
He found Esther hard at work too. People had come to buy baskets to carry their purchases. Hannah saw Benjamin out of the corner of her eye. She tapped Esther’s back, smiled compassionately at her and said something Benjamin couldn’t hear from where he stood. Esther turned and grinned at Benjamin as she set her weaving aside. She went into a room behind the stall and emerged moments later with a loaf of bread, a jar of water and a small basket filled with olives. She made her way to Benjamin who was still trying to push his way through the crowd.
“Hello! I’m so glad my mother said I could take a break with you! Let’s go!”
The children picked their way through the throng and found a shady spot away from the bustle of the town. They flopped down on the grass dappled with sunlight and ravenously devoured their small meal.
“So, how was Jerusalem?” Esther asked, in between mouthfuls.
Benjamin’s eyes grew wide.
“It was crazy! If you think there are a lot of people here, you can just imagine how busy it was there!”
Esther flicked at clods of dirt on the ground.
“Why did you go to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice anyway? It wasn’t a festival or anything…”
Benjamin heaved a sigh and felt a lump grow in his throat.
“Every year, around the time my mother and baby brother died, he offers a sacrifice. I don’t know much more than that,” and then he said more softly, “My father doesn’t like to talk about it.”
His mind flashed back to what he’d seen early that morning.
Esther wrapped her arms around her knees and studied Benjamin for a moment. He wouldn’t make eye contact with her.
“Does your father even believe in Yahweh?”
Benjamin shrugged and his mouth dipped,
“I don’t know…” he threw a stone into the brush, “I think he believes that He exists. But he doesn’t like Him very much. I think he’s angry that Yahweh took my mother and brother away from us.”
Esther stirred the dirt with a twig as she thought for a few moments. Benjamin wiped his nose with the back of his hand and went back to throwing stones. Resting her chin on her knees, Esther’s voice softened,
“Keep praying, Benjamin. Yahweh loves your father even if he doesn’t love Him. Maybe we just need to be patient and keep praying that Yahweh will work in his heart.”
There was a string of people waiting outside the Eli’s inn when Benjamin returned, laden with goods. Eli was far from pleased that it had taken Benjamin so long to return. He was put to work straight away. He laid out the clean mats, took watered wine and some bread and fruit to the guests and made sure they were all comfortable. By the time he and Eli sat down to eat, it was late.
“It was so busy in town today! It took me ages to get all that you asked. But it’s nice to have business.”
Eli shook his head, pursing his lips,
“Yes, it’s nice to have business! But not at the expense of all these people who have had to pick up their lives regardless of how tiny their children are or how old they are! And some people staying in the inn have travelled for weeks! These Romans! All of this chaos just so they can brag about how big their empire is!”
There was silence between the two of them for a moment. Then Benjamin nervously spoke up,
“I learnt a good psalm today…”
Eli didn’t respond but Benjamin knew he had his attention.
“I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock…”
Eli almost choked on his mouthful of bread. He swallowed hastily.
“Since when did Yahweh hear our cries?!?” He was incredulous,
“We have been crying out to him and what has He done? Allowed the Romans to crush us, that’s what! So much for being his chosen people…”
Benjamin’s hand shook as he nervously picked at his piece of bread.
“It says we must wait patiently, Father,” he offered softly, “Maybe it isn’t the right time yet. His timing is perfect.”
Eli waved his piece of bread in Benjamin’s direction, his eyes narrowing,
“Yahweh has forgotten us! For years no prophet has prophesied; no Saviour has come. He has allowed bad things to happen to us. He has made out lives miserable! Just look at us…”
He covered his mouth as he heard his voice break and turned away.
Benjamin picked at a loose thread on his tunic. It was silent for a long time. Then, mustering up courage, he spoke barely above a whisper,
“Mother believed the Saviour would come to rescue us. Why don’t you?”
Eli’s eyes widened in angry disbelief.
“What was that?” he asked warningly,
Benjamin swallowed, his voice slightly louder this time.
“I said…Mother believed the Saviour would come so why don’t you?”
It took a moment for Eli to respond and Benjamin could see the fire blazing in his eyes. Then he roared,
“GO to bed!”
Benjamin almost fell off his seat and scrambled inside.
Shivering from shock he lay down on his mat and curled up into a foetal position. Tears slid down over the bridge of his nose, down his cheek and onto the mat.
“Abba, why won’t he listen? Why won’t he just believe? I know you are there. Mother knew you cared. Why can’t he? Abba, forgive him. Please. Show him that if he waits patiently and believes, you will save us.”
Eli stood in the doorway listening, his cheeks wet and his heart broken.
The inn filled up completely the next morning and Eli and Benjamin were kept busy between caring for their guests and turning away couple after couple, family after family. At first, they sent them to inns that still had room. But by midday, they received word that all the inns in town were full.
It was late that evening while Benjamin and Eli ate that they saw a man approaching tugging a donkey. On its broad back was a woman clutching her swollen belly. Each step the man took was weary and slow as if he was battling to put one foot in front of the other. Eli called out before the man had even crossed the boundary onto their plot.
“We have nothing! There is no more room.”
The man stopped in his tracks in despair. Then he dropped the rope and walked towards Eli and Benjamin, leaving the woman and donkey.
“Shalom, my brother.” He put his hands together as he greeted Eli.
“We have no room. I am sorry.” Eli responded.
The man wasn’t deterred but came closer. Grit collected where perspiration had beaded on his brow and under his eyes. Mud and dust covered his large feet and blisters formed on his burly hands.
“Please,” he pleaded, “I have nowhere else to go…”
Eli tried to interject but the man continued,
“I have tried everywhere. But now I am desperate. My wife…” he paused,
“She is with child. Her time is near…”
Eli looked up in surprise. Clearly he hadn’t noticed her protruding belly. His expression softened and, for a moment, he drifted off into his thoughts.
“Please, we will take anything. Any place where we have shelter from the night air.”
Eli snapped from his daze and turned to the man. He sighed,
“I can only offer you my stable. I have nothing else. It’s not much but it will give you the shelter you seek.”
The man’s eyes lit up at once. He hurried back to the woman, now leaning against the donkey’s neck, rubbing her stomach. He led the beast past them.
The woman was exhausted but she smiled nonetheless as they made their way past. Her seemingly long, dark hair peeked out under her head covering, matted from the dirt of the journey. Her piercing eyes made contact with Eli then Benjamin and she mouthed a tired ‘Thank you’ as they made their way alongside the house and behind to the humble stable.
Benjamin ran ahead with a torch and pulled some new straw into a heap away from the lowing cattle. Eli came through the door moments later with some warm bread and a skin of wine. The husband was trying to help the woman off the donkey’s back. Eli hastily set the food down and went to them. Between himself and the woman’s husband, they gently lifted her off the donkey as she winced in pain and laid her down on the cloth Benjamin had flapped out over the straw.
She closed her eyes, breathing purposely then opened them slowly. An appreciative smile moved across her lips.
“You have no idea how we are blessed by your kindness. This is warm and comfortable. Thank you.”
Eli nodded. That was all he managed. The husband glowed despite his exhaustion. Relief and peace marked his face now that his wife was safe and warm. Without a word, Eli placed his hand gently on Benjamin’s shoulder and led him out into the night as they left the couple to rest.
Tags: birth, Christmas, Christmas time, innkeeper, Jesus, Joseph, Mary, narrative, nativity, nativity story, story