Shifra’s Story is a story of advent, written through the lens of a birth assistant. It is unique in that it is an attempt to retell the Christmas story through a female lens, focusing on the very real, very messy parts of the story that the gospels skip over. This is chapter 3 of 6.
The next few days seemed to blend into one another. The scenery was much the same as we travelled south, but we slowly came upon one mile marker and then another, and were thankful for the small mercy that our Roman overlords had at least improved the roads over the past few years – though certainly not on account of us!
On our eighth day after leaving Nazareth, and our second Sabbath on the road, we were able to camp just east of Jericho, on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Jacob and the other men agreed that we had about two days’ walk left ahead of ourselves once the Sabbath ended – if we could keep up the pace.
While we were resting by the Jordan the next morning, Mariam turned to me and said, “I never told you about how I spent last summer, did I?” I waited, knowing she would continue at her own pace, and not wanting to rush her, in case she decided not to tell me.
“I went to spend the summer with my cousin, Elizabeth. I say she’s my cousin, but really she’s my mother’s cousin – and older than my mother, at that! Not only is she that old, but she has never had any children, and then, lo and behold, she was pregnant!”
I raised my eyes in surprise. I thought about what Mariam had said. For a couple to not have children was always immensely sad. Many thought it was a sign that God was displeased with them, and would blame the couple (well, usually the woman) for her failing. But for her to have a child at such a late age could only be a miracle – and why would God visit a miracle upon someone He was displeased with? It didn’t make any sense!
“My cousin’s husband is a Levite – the man I told you about last week. He was serving at the temple one day. He went in able to speak, and came back out unable to say a word. But given that his duty time at the temple was about three months, it must have been in the weeks after he came home that they finally conceived. My mother joked that with Zachariah unable to talk, they finally found another activity to do together!”
I laughed quietly at this – and noticed the blush on Mariam’s cheeks at the thought of such things.
“Elizabeth gave birth towards harvest time, and it was a boy! Everyone assumed he would be named Zachariah, after his father, but my cousin’s husband stepped into the ring of arguing men with a sweep of his hands, ‘no!’ He seemed to be trying to tell them something, so they got a tablet for him, and he wrote, ‘his name is John’. As soon as he had written the name, Zachariah was able to speak again.”
I looked at Mariam carefully. Her story seemed far-fetched, if you asked me, but she seemed so sincere. Could it be true?
“Apparently while he was serving the Sanctuary of the Temple, an angel had visited him, telling him that he was going to be a father. He said, ‘I didn’t believe the angel, so it struck me speechless for my lack of faith.’ Then, as soon as the story was out, Zachariah went jumping and shouting and praising God! He hired musicians to play in honor of his son’s birth, and held a great big feast to give thanks. That was when he sang his song.”
“But how was your cousin Elizabeth? Did she survive the birth? She was so old to be having a baby for the first time!” I thought about my last birth, eight years ago, and how difficult that had been at age 35. I couldn’t imagine how much harder it would have been for this woman at over 40, having never had a baby before in her life.
“She did so well, Shifrah! She made the midwife proud! Her labor was long – three days – but the midwife was very skilled, very experienced, and by the time her lying-in was over, Elizabeth was well enough to be able to care for baby John and the household, and I was able to come back home.”
Looking in her eyes, I decided I had to believe Mariam’s story – as unbelievable as it sounded. She had obviously decided she could trust me with a story not easily told, and I was honored and amazed at what she had told me.
“There’s one more thing, Shifrah. There was another part to my cousin’s song. It finished like this: ‘And you, my child, ‘Prophet of the Highest,’ will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways, to present the offer of salvation to his people, the forgiveness of their sins. Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one step at a time, down the path of peace.’ That was the final part of the song, Shifrah. The song that he sang over his son, John.”
I did not think I could believe this. How could this be true? Mariam was claiming that her cousin’s son was the prophet who was to come ahead of the Messiah. It was a ludicrous claim – one no poor peasant girl had the right to make, even if her cousin was a Levite. I turned to reprimand her – to tell her off for making a joke of something so serious, and yet something in her eyes told me to check myself. Could it be? Was it possible? Mariam obviously believed it – and it filled her with hope. But could I? Well, that was almost irrelevant wasn’t it? Perhaps it would give her courage in the days to come. That was something she definitely needed.
And so I patted her gently on the leg, and muttered some unclear sound under my breath so that she knew that I had heard without actually agreeing with her or disagreeing. I wasn’t ready to take that risk.
The rest of the day passed by uneventfully, but as we lay around the campfire the second night, I heard Mariam’s breathing catch a few times. I wondered whether her time would come here, tonight. It hadn’t escaped my notice that her baby had dropped as we’d crossed the Jordan the first time. Nor had I failed to observe her walk turn into a waddle. I had tried many times to lighten her burdens, by enlisting the help of Samuel, and even Ruth and Micah from time to time (I left Abigail alone, as she struggled herself with the lightest of our bundles). With yet another catch in her breath, I tip-toed over Jacob, and Mariam’s husband Joseph, and put my hand reassuringly on Mariam’s shoulder, running it slowly down her arm – stroking her gently until her breathing settled again. I lay beside her that night as she slept, praying to a God I wasn’t sure would answer, that this little babe would stay inside until we got to a safe place.