A blazing sun beat upon the desert sands, painting strange images across an overheated horizon. A lonely figure walked with determined step along a trackless path toward his destination. His loose brown pullover shirt, his tan pants, his sandals seemed out of place in the desert. Only his desert headgear seemed to fit the scene. He was humming a light tune as he walked briskly along, looking here and there as if for something to distract him from the monotony of the barren wasteland.
Off to the right a young lamb staggered along the top of a dune, confused and obviously lost. The man walked toward the frightened animal, bent down, cuddled its head between his hands, and rubbed its ears gently. The animal didn't resist, merely looked up at him as if pleading. Picking up the lamb, he placed it on his shoulders, and continued on his way.
Hills of sand stretched endlessly on every side. How could anyone find his way in such a place, with no reference points? But the wanderer pushed on, knowing precisely where his steps were leading as if he had lived here all his life. Over one more sand dune, then another, and finally in the distance, an oasis: tall palm trees shooting majestically from the sand, tents spread like giant mushrooms around a pool of cool water that glistened like an emerald in the setting sun.
An old man sat pensively on an Oriental rug before a fire, with legs crossed, smoking a water pipe. His face was thin and taut, his fingers gnarled and tough like leather. The stranger approached him, and bowing, greeted him in Arabic, "Salaam aleichem, my friend. My name is Joshua. Wandering through the desert I found this lamb walking aimlessly. I thought it might belong to your family, so I am leaving it with you."
With that, Joshua took the lamb from his shoulders and placed it on the ground. The lamb spotted a little girl about nine years old and immediately ran over to her. The girl noticed it and screamed in delight.
The old man turned toward Joshua, eyed him critically, looking deeply into his eyes, and introduced himself. "My name is Ibrahim Saud. These are my family," he said as he proudly motioned with a sweep of his arm toward the hundred or so people milling around the camp. "I am grateful to you for bringing back my granddaughter's lamb. It is her pet and has been lost since early morning. She has been crying all day. I would be honored if you would stay and eat with us. It is getting dark, and the desert is treacherous. Sleep here for the night. It will be safer."
Children were walking timidly toward Joshua from different directions. When he noticed them, he turned and smiled. Gradually they walked over and surrounded him and the old man.
Speaking in Arabic, Joshua asked their names. The girl who owned the lamb told Joshua her name was Miriam.
"That is a beautiful name," Joshua told her. "It is my mother's name."
"Is your mother beautiful?" the girl asked as she kept stroking the lamb in her arms.
"Yes, she is very beautiful," Joshua answered.
"Where did you find my lamb?" she asked. She eyed Joshua from head to foot, noticing how different he looked.
"Not too far away, just over that hill and the next one beyond," Joshua responded.
"Was he looking for me?" she continued.
"He was looking everywhere but could not find you," Joshua reassured the girl, to her delight, then continued, "Couldn't you tell how glad he was to see you?"
"Yes, he means more to me than anything in this world," she told him. "He was my birthday present. My grandfather gave him to me."
"Isqar, your look tells me you have a thousand questions to ask me," Joshua said to a boy who kept staring at him.
"Yes," the boy replied, surprised that the stranger knew his name. "Where were you coming from, and where are you going? People don't just wander around the desert. The nearest bedouin family is miles away from here, and you aren't one of them."
"I am just passing on, stopping here and there wherever I am welcome," Joshua told the boy.
"Where are you going?" the boy went on.
"Visiting places I remember from long ago," he replied.
"From long ago?" Isqar said, surprised. "You're only a young man. How could you have been here long ago?"
Joshua laughed. "I may be older than I look."
As Joshua continued talking to the children, a wiry young man whose face was bronzed and wrinkled from constant exposure to the sun approached the old man.
"Father, that man is not one of us," he blurted out angrily. "He's a Jew. How can you show kindness to an enemy? How can you share with him our family hospitality?"
"My son," the old man said calmly, "I don't know he's our enemy, and he doesn't look very Jewish to me, though I suppose you are right. His accent is Jewish. Do you have any reasons that would convince me he is our enemy? He did return the child's lamb. He did not even ask for a favor in return. When you grow as old as I am, my son, you will see things the young cannot see. This man is not an evil man, nor is he an ordinary traveler. Allah walks in his shadow. As soon as I looked into his eyes, I saw the presence of God."
"In a Jew, Father?" the young man protested.
"Allah does not see Jew or Arab," his father answered. "We are all formed by the hand of God, fashioned in God's heart. Whoever opens his heart to His goodness, Allah blesses them with His presence. And this man is close to God. There is no evil in him. It is when we hate we drive God from our heart, and become like broken tools. Then we begin to do the work of Satan. Now, go, Khalil, my son, and leave me in peace. Your anger troubles me deeply."
Others in the family, just as curious as the children, began to encircle Joshua, asking him all kinds of questions. They were all wondering what a Jew was doing wandering the desert full of Arab bedouins.
Joshua took their questions good-naturedly, laughing at their last concern. "I walk through the world as a pilgrim. I have no hatred in my heart. I see a child of God in everyone I meet. My innocence threatens no one. Where I see hurt, I heal, if the heart is open to God's healing. Where there is no room for God, I walk on."
"You're a strange man, pilgrim," one man said. "Where are you going?"
"Passing through," Joshua replied, "wandering through places I remember from long ago, remembering the events that happened here."
"You are heading in the direction of Jerusalem. To visit Jews?" the man continued.
"To visit whomever I meet along the way. To bring God's message of peace," Joshua answered patiently.
"Do you think people will listen to your message of peace, pilgrim?"
"Yes, people want peace. Only sick people thrive on hate. Someday, however, when fathers learn to love their children more than their hatreds, then peace will come."
Khalil overheard Joshua's comment but said nothing, merely smirked cynically.
Miriam's lamb left her side and walked over to Joshua and started nibbling at his toes, which were exposed between the sandal straps. Joshua bent down and picked up the lamb. Everyone was surprised that the lamb took so easily to a stranger.
"See," Joshua said, "the lamb makes no distinction. Neither does God." The animal relaxed in Joshua's arms.
The old man had been listening to everything that transpired, and smiled as the lamb fell asleep in Joshua's arms. He called out to his wife, who came immediately.
"My husband, you called?" she asked.
"This stranger has found our child's lamb," the old man said to his wife. "Prepare a place for him at supper. He will be our guest tonight. Prepare a bed for him as well. It is not right that we send him out into the darkness of the desert."
The woman shot a furtive glance at Joshua, who was watching her. She left and disappeared into one of the tents, with some of the women following her. They were all curious about this stranger. She could tell them nothing more than her husband told her, and that he would be a guest for the night. The women, too, were surprised that the sheik would welcome a Jew.
The supper turned into a celebration. After the sun set, a cool breeze swept through the camp. Lamps hung on poles lighted up the oasis, creating a festive air. Simple instruments, most handmade, were used for the music. One woman played panpipes that held the whole family spellbound. Men danced spontaneously with one another. Some of the more friendly ones even grabbed Joshua to dance with them, which he did and enjoyed immensely. The fragrance of meat heavily laced with garlic cooking on a huge spit filled the atmosphere. Wine flowed freely.
When the party ended, everyone was ready for sleep. In no time, a vast chorus of snores broke the silence of the cool desert air. Everyone slept soundly.
In the middle of the night, the quiet was shattered by a child's piercing scream. Lanterns and flashlights were turned on in every tent. A little girl was crying uncontrollably, pointing to two tiny punctures on her arm. With his flashlight one of the men found the snake slithering out from under the tent. Running outside, he clubbed the viper with a shepherd's crook. It was a deadly snake whose bite was almost always fatal, especially for a child. Bedouins feared these deadly creatures more than their worst enemy. They struck without warning in the dark of night when no one could see them. People went to sleep at night in fear, wondering and praying about these snakes that wandered unseen and unheard in the darkness.
There were no doctors in the camp, and no medicines that would help. Without hospital care the girl would surely die. But the nearest hospital was a two-hour journey by camel. One old four-wheel truck wouldn't be much faster, even if they could find their way in the dark.
Awakened by the commotion, Joshua walked over to the tent where the girl was still screaming. Her arm was turning redder each minute and was extremely painful. Women wailed, and children cried in fright, afraid to walk on the ground in the dark.
As Joshua entered the tent, the girl's father was asking everyone if they had any experience with such a thing, or any medicine that might be a cure for the deadly bite. No one could help. The old man was standing next to Joshua, who seemed so calm. "Joshua, on your travels, have you learned of anything that might save our little girl?" Ibrahim asked his guest.
"Once, a very long time ago, I came across a family who carried medicine with them as they crossed the desert," Joshua said. "Has no one here any medicine?"
"No one," the old man said.
"Then trust God to heal her," Joshua said quietly.
A woman nearby laughed cynically.
"Young man, I have faith. I trust Allah, but would He heal a snakebite?" Ibrahim said to Joshua, not questioning but wondering if God would concern Himself with a matter so trivial to Him.
"Nothing in a child's life is trivial to God. He loves you and cares tenderly for you. A child's life is not a little matter. It is precious to God. If you trust Him, He will help your child," Joshua said reassuringly.
"I do trust in Allah," Ibrahim said, "and I also know that you are a holy man. I could tell the moment I met you. Can you help? Is there something you can do for our child?"
"Do you believe strongly in God?" Joshua asked.
"With all my heart," the old man answered, to which the whole family boldly assented. "We believe in Allah. Do you think He will help our child?"
"Just trust Him." Joshua walked over to the girl, who was sitting on her mother's lap, and touched her badly swollen arm, saying simply, "Little one, be well."
Immediately, the swelling went down, and the pain ceased. The two bite marks disappeared, and the girl relaxed and slowly stopped crying. Her mother hugged her frantically, almost smothering the little girl between her breasts.
The whole camp was overcome with awe. Ibrahim's initial respect for Joshua was more than vindicated. He thanked Joshua profusely and pledged his family's eternal gratitude. Joshua tried to downplay this display of his powers, attributing it to God's care and the family's faith. After a few minutes the camp was quiet again, as everyone retreated to their tents. Khalil was the only one not impressed. He was sulking in the corner of the tent, more angry now than ever that a Jew could be an instrument of God, and that his family now owed a debt to a Jew. The old man noticed the look in his son's eyes and grew sad.
The rest of the night was long, as everyone found it difficult not to imagine creeping things crawling through their tents. Joshua fell asleep immediately, to the amazement of everyone in his tent.
As soon as the sun rose, the camp came back to life and in no time was buzzing like a hive of agitated bees. People looked at Joshua with almost a reverence, which only his lighthearted humor was able to dispel. The little girl had no trace of the snakebite and was busy playing with her friends. After their breakfast of various cheeses and fruits and coarse bread and strong, sweet coffee, Joshua prepared to take leave of his new family. Though they had known him but a few hours, they had already learned to love him as one of their own.
The old man kissed Joshua on both cheeks and hugged him like an old friend. "Joshua, you are welcome in my family at any time. You have saved the life of our little child. My whole family is in your eternal debt. Should you ever need us, we will give our lives for you." The sheik removed a gold coin from deep inside his robes. "Only twelve such coins have ever been minted. Twelve coins for twelve saintly men. Wherever you go among Arab people they will respect this medal," Ibrahim told Joshua. Joshua accepted the gift, and read the words inscribed on the face: "Forever our friend. May Allah protect him," and on the reverse, "Sheik Ibrahim Saud." The old man placed it around Joshua's neck and kissed him.
"May God bless you, my friend, and your whole family for your kindness to me," Joshua said gratefully. "I shall never forget you. And I know that one day our paths will cross again. Till then, may God walk in your midst."
Miriam ran over to Joshua and threw her arms around him. Joshua bent down and hugged her.
"Thank you, Joshua, for finding my lamb, and bringing him back to me. I will never forget you."
Joshua walked out of the camp into the desert. A teenage boy ran out to him. "Joshua, Joshua, I want you to have this," the boy shouted, holding out a container of water.
"This is my favorite canteen. I've had it since I was a little boy. I want you to have it. It's full of cold water. The desert is hot and you will need it."
Touched by the boy's thoughtfulness, Joshua thanked him and, caressing his face, blessed him. "God will richly reward you, Isaac, for your kindness."
Joshua walked off. The boy stood there watching him as he disappeared over the hill, surprised that he remembered his name. Everyone knew he was walking toward Jerusalem, and wondered.
Copyright © 1992 by Joseph F. Girzone