The old wizard leaned forward on his granite throne and spoke a word of arcane power. The coals in a brazier to his left ignited, and the flames began to grow until they rose almost three feet high. Tongues of fire began to curl in upon themselves until an opening appeared in the center of the flames, revealing a lone shepherd boy keeping watch over his father’s small flock. With a wave of his hand, a scroll rose from an urn just to the right of the throne and began to unroll. His ancient eyes went back and forth between the scene in the flames and the scroll.
“The time is at hand for the prophecy to be fulfilled,” he said, and although he appeared to be alone, it was clear that his words were intended for other ears.
Rising from his throne of stone, the wizard stepped down from the dais upon which it rested and vanished.
“I hope you’ve chosen well,” a hellish voice rasped from the shadows, “for the game has begun.”
Joel led his father’s small flock down a low hill to a babbling stream that wound through the countryside, his eyes darting back and forth, watching for any signs of danger. Once he was satisfied for his flock’s safety, he climbed up on a large boulder jutting up out of the ground and pulled a reed flute from his belt. He took a seat, wrapping his cloak about him, and soon melodious notes began to fill the air as the sheep drank their fill.
Every few minutes, Joel would pause long enough to stand and survey the land around him. After an hour of observing, he saw someone off in the distance. As the man drew nearer and nearer, he would occasionally vanish behind one of the hills, only to crest its summit moments later.
The shepherd boy continued to play his flute, but remained standing from the moment he first saw the stranger. It wasn’t long before an old man leaning heavily on his staff approached the opposite side of the stream. He saw Joel watching him and raised his hand in greeting.
Tucking his flute back in his belt, Joel hopped down from his rocky perch.
“You play well,” the old man said as he paused across from the boy.
“Thank you, sir,” Joel replied, smiling.
The old man looked downstream and then upstream before spotting a line of not-quite-submerged stones that he could use to cross to the other side. Using his staff for balance, he soon crossed over.
“You would be young Joel, son of Zechariah,” the old man said as he approached the boy.
“Are you a friend of my father’s?” Joel asked.
The old man smiled. “I know of him. I know he raised a fine son.”
Joel smiled at the compliment. “I was about to have a bite to eat. It isn’t much, but I would gladly share my bread and cheese with you.”
“I would be honored to break bread with you,” the old man said.
As the two ate, their talk was mainly of the condition of the sheep and the business of shepherding in general. Joel determined, during their conversation, that there was more to his companion than he had first thought.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” the boy said, “what in the world would make you leave your nice warm home to wander the hills?”
“I don’t mind the question at all,” the old man said. “I came looking for you.”
Joel’s mouth dropped open at the old man’s declaration, and a piece of soggy bread fell to the ground. It took him a moment to recover his composure, and when he did, the first thing he did was ask a question.
“Why would anyone be looking for me?”
The old man grew serious. “I sought you out because you are such a fine boy.” When he saw that Joel was becoming nervous, he explained further. “You are a boy who is pure of heart,” he said, “a boy who is honest and true, without a deceptive bone in your body.”
“It was the way I was raised,” was all Joel could say in response.
“I also know that you hold fast to your people’s beliefs,” the old man continued. “To you, they are more than just stories; they are the principles by which you live.”
“What did you say your name was?”
The old man smiled. “I didn’t, but I shall in a minute.”
“I know you’ve told me about myself, about how you think I am,” Joel said, “but you haven’t told me why you were looking for me.”
“I need you to undertake a very dangerous mission,” the old man said. “It is of vital importance, and, if you fail, the repercussions could be disastrous.”
Joel thought for a moment. It was obvious that his companion was touched in the head, but he couldn’t explain how the old man had described his life and beliefs so perfectly. “You do realize that I am only a shepherd, don’t you?”
“Heh-heh-heh,” the old man laughed. “I’m sure that if you thought for a moment, you would realize how ironic those words truly are. Did not a certain ancient king have that same thought when he was called on to defend his people?”
“Yes,” Joel said, “I guess he did. But, remember, I’m no David.”
“Neither was he until he did what he had to do.”
Joel thought about that for a moment. “What would you have me do?”
“Say my name,” the old man said.
“But, you haven’t told me your name,” Joel reminded him.
The old man leaned in and whispered in the shepherd’s ear, then stepped back. “Now,” he said, “say my name.”
Joel repeated the name in his head a few times before allowing it to cross his lips. When he felt comfortable with how he thought it should sound when he said it, he did as the old man told him.
The heavens seemed to respond to the name with a crash of thunder that set the sheep to bleating, but only for a moment, and a bolt of lightning that engulfed the shepherd boy. And in that moment, in the twinkling of an eye, Joel was transformed.
Gone was the gangly youth whose sole purpose was to watch over his father’s sheep, and in his place stood a man as tall as any Roman soldier in Caesar’s army. Joel stretched his arms out and began to look at himself. His dark red winter tunic clung to his muscular chest and biceps, falling just below his knees. Beneath the tunic, also hanging just below the knees for added warmth, was a white skirt. Around his waist, Joel wore a yellow belt, a gift from his grandmother, and across his shoulders was draped his light and dark brown cloak of wool. Ankle-high leather boots protected his feet, and all of these had grown to accommodate the man he had become. In addition to their increased size, his garments seemed to be of such a quality that they would have been fit for royalty. The one thing that caught Joel’s attention the most was the golden lightning bolt emblazoned on his tunic. After admiring himself, he noticed that his shepherd’s crook had also been transformed. It seemed balanced, a perfect fit for his hands, and sturdier than before.
“Are you a prophet to perform such miracles?” Joel asked, his voice now much deeper than that of a boy.
“After a fashion, I suppose,” Shazam replied.
Joel started to speak again, when he heard a sound that stopped him in his tracks; it was the bleating of his sheep. Looking around, he realized that, in his rashness, he had failed to remember his duty to his father’s flock. “While this is truly beyond words,” he said, “I seem to have neglected my first duty, the sheep.”
Shazam put his hand on the Shepherd’s shoulder. “I know the importance of these sheep to your father and your family, and I promise you that they will be well cared for.”
Joel nodded. “I trust that speaking your name brought about this transformation for a reason.”
“Mordecai’s wisdom shines through already,” Shazam said.
“By saying my name, you have gained several gifts,” Shazam said. “You have Samson’s strength, Hosea’s capacity for great forgiveness, Araunah’s generosity, Zechariah’s faithfulness, Asa’s dedication, and, of course, Mordecai’s wisdom.”
Joel recognized each name Shazam mentioned. They were men of old, kings and prophets, judges and guides, and each had set himself apart in doing the work of Jehovah.
“In addition to this,” the old man continued, “your shepherd’s crook has also been changed. By gripping it tight in your hand, you can command it to carry you aloft until you are able to soar like the birds. It will also allow you to call down the rays of the sun to smite your enemies.”
“This is all wonderful and amazing,” Joel said, “but what is my purpose?”
Shazam turned and pointed beyond the hills from which he came. “Beyond those hills, and the hills just beyond those, there is a road that passes through Bethlehem. Upon that road a couple travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem to pay their taxes. He is a carpenter by trade and is accompanied by his young wife, who is with child.
“It has come to my attention that their lives are in peril, and so I call upon you to act as their protector,” Shazam told him.
“Then I shall go to meet them right away,” Joel said as he lifted his staff above his head.
“Ah, but you can do no such thing,” the old man said.
“But you said I was to protect them.”
“I did,” Shazam assured him, “but at no time are you to allow them to see you.”
It made no sense to Joel, but with a nod he let Shazam know that he would do as he was instructed.
“Then go,” Shazam said. “Ride high the winds, and do as I have bid.”
Holding his shepherd’s crook aloft, Joel felt himself rising into the air. The air was cold, but refreshing, and he was soon high enough to see for miles. For a few brief minutes, he simply looked around, taking in a view that no other people had ever seen. As he did so, a lone hawk flew near him to investigate, and, after watching the majestic bird tilt its body to one side or the other to change direction, he decided to see if such movements would work for him. In no time, the shepherd boy in a man’s body was keeping pace with the bird of prey.
Joel decided to seek out the couple he was to protect, so he turned north and headed toward Nazareth. He thought about the route the travelers would take and decided the wisest choice would be to follow the Jordan River and then head west from Beth Shean over the mountains.
It was as he was crossing the mountains that he first saw the carpenter and his wife. Joel’s first thought upon seeing the couple was that her condition didn’t seem to be hindering their progress much.
“Perhaps I should return to the ground and follow them on foot,” Joel said, speaking his thoughts aloud. “All it would take would be for one of them to look skyward for the old man’s plans to fall through.”
From his vantage point, the Shepherd found a spot where he could land and remain unseen by the couple without losing sight of them for very long. As he drew nearer to the mountainside, he spotted what appeared to be a giant scorpion. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The evil-looking creature actually appeared to be waiting in ambush for the couple.
This can’t be good, he thought.
It only took him a moment to decide on a course of action. Dropping from the sky like a stone, Joel drove the tip of his staff into the space between the chitinous armor that covered the monster’s head and back. With his free hand, the secret protector grabbed the venomous tail and snapped it off just below the barb. Using the staff as a lever, he pried at the joint until he heard it crack, and then stabbed at the exposed scorpion flesh beneath with the barb. Although it was immune to its own poison, the monster couldn’t withstand the driving force of the hero’s strength. In less than a minute, the creature was dead. Joel, covered in the gore of his vanquished foe, built a small altar and gave thanks to Jehovah for the victory.
The couple, unaware of their unseen guardian, made it safely to Beth Shean, where they turned south and crossed the Jordan River. From there, they continued south toward Jericho.
The road was well-traveled and, although the carpenter and his wife were making the journey alone, they were never more than a mile from their fellow travelers. At times, they would find comfort in the evenings by being invited to share a camp with others going south. When day came, however, the carpenter would thank their hosts, and he and his wife would be on their way, not wanting to slow them down because of her condition. While the presence of others along the way brought a sense of security to Joel, it made his task of remaining unseen more difficult.