A Midwife’s Tale by Leeann Betts
I wrote this story a few years back and just recently revisited it. In fact, I had to take out some stuff I’d put in from my Christian worldview that wouldn’t have been the worldview of the characters in this story, including my understanding of the Lamb of God.
I don’t know why, but this story resonates with my soul.
Join me as we travel back into time and hear from a character who isn’t mentioned in the Christmas story. True, I don’t know if this woman even existed, at least in this form. But she could have. So sit back and suspend your disbelief for a few minutes. . .
Frantic pounding on the door downstairs woke me. In the dim light from the full moon outside, I squinted at my husband. He grunted and turned over, pulling the itchy wool blanket with him.
My name is Hannah, and I am a midwife in Bethlehem. I am accustomed to being called out at all hours to help women through their labor, to deliver babies into a world ruled by cruel overseers from Rome. Sometimes it is too late by the time I get there, and all I can do is usher the mother or child, often both, into the hereafter.
No matter how long I do this work, it is never easy to be dragged from my bed in the dark of night. Why does it seem babies always wait until the wee hours to make their appearance? It is almost as if they hold on as long as they can—perhaps these little Jewish babies know where they are best off.
I pulled my day shift on and tied my head wrap around my hair as I trudged down the steps to answer the door. Pausing at the table in the eating area, I lit a small oil lamp that just a few hours before my children had sat around, practicing their letters for school the next day. Grabbing the rough wooden handle of the solid door, I winced at the stab of a splinter in my palm. Pulling my hand to my mouth, I sucked at the spot where the sliver of wood stuck me. Spitting out the intruding wood, I watched as a drop of blood oozed out, shining nearly black in the dark. Amazing how much that small spike could hurt.
The pounding on the door started again, pulling me from my contemplation of my pain. I wrenched open the door, a retort ready on my tongue.
My sharp words fell to the ground like dust at the sight of the man on my doorstep.
A hooded figure faced me, clothes dusty, beard slightly unkempt. In the flickering flame of the lamp, I could just barely make out his eyes and mouth. Worry and hard work had lined his face, and the weave of his cloak suggested he was not from Bethlehem.
He clasped his hands together in front of his chest, bowed his head, and fell to one knee. “I most humbly beg your pardon, but are you the midwife?”
Sarcasm and criticism boiled to the top again, threatening to spill over. Anyone who lived in Bethlehem knew I was not only a midwife, but one of the best.
I pointed to the small sign next to the portal. “Can’t you read?”
The words “Midwife for hire” had been painstakingly carved into a flat piece of olive wood by my oldest son as a practice piece. The letters may have been crooked, and the last word cramped together as evidence he needed more work on his spacing, but they were clear enough.
The stranger didn’t raise his head. He didn’t answer my question, either. Instead, he reached one hand into a money pouch hanging around his neck and withdrew a small silver coin, holding it in the palm of his hand. “Is this enough?”
Enough? A hundred times that was not enough for being roused from your sleep in the dead chill of night. And if it was a difficult birth, a thousand times would not cover my time and energy. But if it ended badly, I would not take even this small morsel.
Still, the unspoken creed of a midwife is, “God gives life freely, and the midwife merely does His will.” As such, I am honor-bound to deliver any child, no matter how small the thank offering.
I pushed his hand away. “We will not defile the labor bed with talk of money. Children are not bought like slaves, even if it will likely live as one.” I pulled the door closed behind me. “Come, let us go. You can express your gratitude to me after the birth.”
I snatched my supply satchel from the hook near the door and slipped my cloak over my shoulders.
He turned on his heel and hurried up the narrow path to the main street. Pausing occasionally to look over his shoulder to make sure I was keeping up, he continued along the dusty walk.
I wrapped my cloak closer around me to ward off the chill night air. After several blocks, he paused and looked around, confusion evident on his face.
I stopped beside him. “Which way?”
My breath blew a white cloud in the dark.
“I’m not sure.”
“Not sure? How can you not be sure?”
“I am not from Bethlehem.”
Ah, my earlier observation was confirmed, and my earlier criticism evaporated. “Where are you staying?”
“Near the inn in the market square.”
“This way.” I grabbed the sleeve of his cloak and turned to the left. “The inn is just over here.”
Another turn at the next corner, and we were there.
I paused. “Are you here for the census?”
“You were lucky to find a room.”
“I did not find a room.”
“Then where are you staying?”
Horror filled my heart at the thought of delivering a baby out in the open, like a lamb for the slaughter.
Now it was his turn to direct me, past the inn, down a dark alley, into a small courtyard behind. He pointed to a small hole carved in the wall.
My heart leaped in my throat. This was worse than I had feared. “In the stable? Animals, dirt, mold. This is not a fit place for a child to be born.”
He nodded, eyes downcast, his embarrassment evident.
“If you are here for the census, you have family. Why not stay with them?”
“We were detained on the road because my wife could not travel quickly. When we got here yesterday, there was no room for us anywhere.”
I nodded. The city was filled to overflowing. Even my own small house, tight quarters for me, my husband, and my four children ordinarily, now housed two extra families in response to the decree for everyone in Judea to return to the city of their forefathers and be counted. More than likely a new tax would be the result. I might be a simple Jew, but I’m not stupid.
The man reached the entrance to the small cave-like structure and stopped. He called softly, almost a whisper. “Mary, it is me, Joseph. I have brought the midwife.”
He stooped over and disappeared inside. I waited a moment, then followed.
The first thing that struck me was how quiet it was in this small structure. The man lit a small lamp, and the shadows danced in the corners. The strong smell of hay tickled my nose, and the dust stirred up by my feet danced on beams of light filtering through an opening carved in the stone. In the far corner, a ewe hovered over its lamb, their eyes reflecting amber in the dim light.
In the center of the small shed knelt the woman. Crouched over, her forehead nearly touching the hay-strewn floor, dust fringed the edge of her skirt. She looked up, her face white. Perspiration glowed on her forehead and upper lip, and an ugly grimace crossed her face as another spasm came over her. I waited until the wave of pain passed, giving her the respect due her at this time.
A low moan escaped her lips, and my eye caught a restless movement in the corner. The lamb stood and pressed closer to its mother. The ewe nuzzled the infant, and it settled to its knees again in the hay.
The young woman moaned again, and my training took over. I knelt beside her and looked deep into her eyes. Laying my hand on her forehead, I was glad to feel the coolness of her skin beneath my fingers.
I looked to her husband. “Wait outside.”
He cast an anxious look at his wife.
She nodded at him, then turned to face me again, her dark eyes filled with worry. “Tell me what to do.”
I set my satchel beside her head and loosened the strings. “Is this your first child?”
I pulled a small sheet from the bag. “Have you ever assisted at a birth?”
She shook her head, eyes closed. A tear ran down her cheek.
I forced a smile I didn’t feel. “Fear will steal your joy. Don’t be afraid. You are in good hands. I am one of the best midwives in Bethlehem.”
She opened her eyes and smiled at me. “I don’t know you, but I trust God, and I trust Joseph, and so I will trust you.”
I laid a hand on her protruding belly. Deep inside, the contractions that would soon increase to push this baby into the world pulsed. “Sit for a moment, take a rest. This baby isn’t going to come this minute.”
She relaxed onto one hip, and I leaned my head to her stomach and listened. Her heart beat regularly, and there—the baby’s heartbeat, strong and sure.
Sitting back on my heels, I patted her hand. “Everything sounds fine. Now, let’s get you in position to deliver this baby.”
We worked together, this frightened young woman and I, to get her in the delivery position. I went over the stages of labor she could expect, and how long each might be expected to last. As scared as she was, I left out the description of what could go wrong.
She had enough on her mind right now not to deal with that.
When she was as comfortable as she was going to get in this dark, damp cave, we knelt together, two women alone in the dark, as Joseph paced outside, and the sheep in the corner nodded.
In between her contractions, when she could speak, we did what women do, what they have done for eons.
I learned that Mary was a new wife, married only six months before. My eyebrows raised at that, let me tell you. She told me the story of the baby she was carrying, about an angel of the Lord, and that she was to name him Jesus, the Lord saves. I thought she was just trying to cover her indiscretion.
Joseph poked his head in through the doorway, and Mary smiled at him. “She doesn’t believe about our baby, Joseph. Tell her about your dream.”
And so Joseph related the details of a most extraordinary dream he’d had, of God confirming Mary’s story about the child in her womb being conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Okay, so I really wasn’t in any position to contradict their story. I hadn’t been there. And, I had a cousin who swore she was still a virgin after she had her first baby, even though we all knew better. Who was I to limit God?
The thing that really convinced me was their complete and unshakeable belief that God not only could but would work through them. Joseph was a carpenter, not an educated man filled with prophecy, able to argue the scriptures to prove his point. Many hours of hard work had toughened his hands. His strong fingers bore the marks of chisels and planes.
All he knew was what he believed God had told him in his dream.
And he believed Mary when she told him about the visit by the angel.
This was the first time I had seen anyone risk their entire being for their belief in God. Their faith humbled me.
After another hour of minor contractions, Mary’s labor began in earnest.
I ushered Joseph out into the dark. “Pray that God will ease her pain and make this child come soon.”
Joseph’s wan smile filled my heart. “Nothing will go wrong.”
His simple words of faith and his complete trust in God pricked at my conscience. Here I was, a woman whose faith was none too evident in her life, a woman confident of her career, secure in her marriage, successful and comfortable, feeling a little envious of the uncomplicated faith of a carpenter and his wife in a stable in Bethlehem.
I wanted what they had.
Within a short time, Mary had put every ounce of strength she had into pushing a tiny baby boy into the world. His full head of dark hair heralded his coming, and his strong cry soon filled the stable. Joseph came into the cave at the first cry, the worry lines erased. Kneeling beside his wife and new son, tears streamed down his face. He reached for the child, and Mary passed the infant gently to its father.
Joseph stared into the child’s face for several moments as Mary and I watched. The infant reached a tiny hand to his father’s beard, grasping it between his miniature fingers.
Joseph smiled, then raised the child over his head. He closed his eyes and looked toward heaven. “Elohenu.” Blessed are You, O Lord our God.
That was strange. He was praying the traditional Passover blessing over his child.
But this was not Passover.
And this child was not—
“Thank You for entrusting us with this gift from You, Yahweh. You have favored us with Your presence in the form of this child. We will raise him and train him to hear You. He is Emmanuel, and He will save His people.”
I was spellbound with this dedication of the child to God. I knelt before them, my heart full and my eyes overflowing. I may not know much about the ways of God, but at that moment, I knew I was in His presence as never before. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I was speechless.
I don’t know how long I knelt there, praising God in my heart. All I know for sure is that when I finally stirred, the sun was peeking over the eastern gate.
I rose stiffly, knees protesting the hours spent on the floor. Mary and Joseph slept side by side on the hay, and the infant lay in a manger, wrapped in old cloths Joseph had found tucked in a small box.
This didn’t make any sense to me. Why would he treat this child like a lamb for the slaughter?
Outside the stable, I heard footsteps. I walked toward the opening of the cave and peered out.
Several men dressed in shepherd’s garb paused outside the stable. They looked back at the fields surrounding the city and then back to the stable.
The oldest one spoke. “Is this where the Christ child can be found?”
Christ child? I knew about the Christ. The one promised who would set the Jews free, who would operate in the anointing of God.
“What do you know of this child?”
Another shepherd stepped forward. “An angel appeared to us while we were standing watch over our sheep. He told us to come here to see the Christ.” He gestured to his fellow shepherds. “Then more angels heralded the child’s praises.”
More angels. This couldn’t be any ordinary baby. “Is that how you came to be here?”
The youngest nodded. “The angel told us to look for a baby wrapped in lamb’s rags and lying in a manger. We have spent many hours searching every stable in the city.”
I pointed to the baby inside. “He is in there.”
I wandered out into the courtyard area, listening to the sounds of the city coming awake for another day. I felt sorry for the people. I’m pretty sure they had missed a miracle.
I’m going to keep an eye on this Christ-child. I think He is destined for something bigger than His parents, than these shepherds, even than I can imagine.
And I want to be there when that happens.
Leeann Betts writes contemporary suspense, while her real-life persona, Donna Schlachter, pens historical suspense. She has released four titles in her By the Numbers series, with Broke, Busted, and Disgusted releasing November 2016. In addition, Leeann has written a devotional for accountants, bookkeepers, and financial folk, Counting the Days, and with her real-life persona, Donna Schlachter, has published a book on writing, Nuggets of Writing Gold, a compilation of essays, articles, and exercises on the craft. She publishes a free quarterly newsletter that includes a book review and articles on writing and books of interest to readers and writers. You can subscribe at www.LeeannBetts.com or follow Leeann at www.AllBettsAreOff.wordpress.com All books are available on Amazon.com in digital and print.