The Shepherds

The Shepherds

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2: 8)

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2: 8) If you saw an advert in the Bethlehem Post “Shepherds Wanted” you would have to be fairly desperate to apply for the job. Even if you were the outdoor type, apart from the very unsociable hours that the job entailed, there were several good reasons why you would think twice about pursuing a career as a shepherd in the culture of the day. It was nothing to do with the rigours of the job itself – watching over sheep is not particularly demanding, other than having to deal with the occasional predator such as lions or bears (remember the story of David as a shepherd?). So what was the problem? Israel had become a very religious nation. God had given them very clear guidelines for living which had become enshrined in “the Law”, and the priests, particularly the Pharisees, applied that law very stringently. And this problem was caused by a section of the law that defined “ritual defilement” or ritual uncleanness. In the book of Leviticus you can read about a multitude of things that Israel had to do to please the Lord. Among these were prohibitions about making contact with faeces or dead things. If anyone had contact with these things there were specific purification rites that had to be observed before you could be declared “clean”. So in a society that had become fanatical about correct observation of the Law, shepherds had become outcasts. They were never “clean” – it was impossible; they were constantly walking about in excrement and having to touch dead things, both of which left them in a state of permanent ritual impurity. Therefore because of their uncleanness they were not allowed to go to the Temple or synagogue, and they could not offer sacrifices. They were effectively cut off from being able to worship God as part of the community of Israel. So for these reasons, shepherds were labelled as being unclean and unable to come into the presence of God. However, it would be those unclean, ritually contaminated shepherds of Bethlehem – the lowest of the low in the eyes of those who administered the things of God to the ordinary people - that would be the first to hear the good news of Messiah’s birth! It was seen as shocking for God to do this! These Bethlehem shepherds were seen as the last people that God should bring this revelation to. Surely God would first choose those “intellectual giants” who could be found in the Temple: the Pharisees, the chief priests. These men knew everything there was to know about God, or so they thought. After all, they would sit for hours and discuss the nature of God. In fact, they knew so much about God that they knew exactly when God expected them to offer their sacrifices to God and exactly the right moment to chant their songs and their prayers. They knew these things because they had studied the sacred traditions of the Jews.  So, they believed that they did everything in the right. The fact is, they were right; they were dead right! Their religion and religious practices had killed any hope they had ever had of forging a relationship with God. But they did not see this - they were proud of their religion. However, when God looked at this religion of theirs, He thought, “This disgusts me - all your offerings and religious activities are a stench in my nostrils.” So, these people may have been doing everything right in an external sense, but the relationship was missing.  No, God was having none of it – that is why he sent his angel to the shepherds on the hillside that night – to tell them that the Shepherd of Israel had been born! Now, that angelic visitation was quite something! In the preceding weeks Gabri’el had been sent to deliver messages to Zachariah and to Miriam, and in both of those instances he had had to be relatively restrained in his appearance. But not tonight! Tonight he could let rip with the full works – an angelic appearance with the glory of the Lord shining all around!! Out in the open air, with the darkness of night as a backdrop, Gabri’el made his dramatic entrance in the full glory of the Lord! He was surrounded by the brilliance of glory bathing the whole hillside with light, iridescent, transcendent, waves of fire encircling him, shimmering against the night sky. No wonder those shepherds were filled with fear! Awe-struck they listened to the angel’s words:” in the City of David… A saviour… Christ the Lord… a sign… a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths… lying in a manger”. As the shepherds were trying to take it all in, overawed by what was happening, suddenly the hillside was full of angels, shouting, singing, praising God, swelling to the chorus “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” – louder and louder grew the chorus, swelling to a great crescendo, and then – suddenly they were gone! All was quiet. Now, you and I would have loved to have been there to witness real heavenly worship, how it really should be done. What would we give to experience angelic worship on that scale! But the shepherds were stunned; it took them a few moments to recover their senses. But then, as one, they said – “Come on, let’s go – we’ve got to see this!” And they made haste as fast as they could from the hillside and into the town. And there they found Miriam and Joseph, with Yeshua lying in a manger, just as the angel had told them. And so, the outcast, rejected shepherds were the first to come and worship the new born King. They brought no gifts, they simply brought themselves in response to God’s word to them. That’s the heart of worship – it’s not what we have in our hands that God wants – but what is in our hearts. Now there are a couple of other things that we can learn from these few verses in Luke’s gospel. The first is something that the shepherds would have got straightaway, but we who live in a completely different culture would miss entirely. The sheep that were being watched over on those Bethlehem hills were the sheep that were reared to provide the sacrificial lambs for the Temple. Two lambs were required each day for the sacrifice, and Bethlehem was one of the breeding-grounds that supplied these lambs. We are all probably familiar with the prophecy from Micah 5 that Yeshua would be born in Bethlehem. But did you know there is another verse in Micah that is relevant to our story here? Micah 4: 8 says this: “And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.” Close to where the shepherds were that night, in the northern part of Bethlehem was a tower known as Migdal Eder – which when translated into English means “watch-tower of the flock”.  This was where the shepherds brought their sheep destined for the sacrifices in Jerusalem, males for burn-offerings and females for peace-offerings. The shepherds were specifically trained for the task of rearing lambs that met the stringent rules about being spotless and without blemish, suitable for sacrifice. It was their job to make sure none of these animals were hurt, damaged or blemished. So at lambing time, the ewes were brought to the Migdal Eder because the lower floor was the birthing area for these sacrificial lambs. As soon as they were born, the lambs were wrapped in swaddling cloths, which is a soft gauze-like cloth, to prevent them from thrashing about and damaging themselves. They would then be laid for a short while in a shallow depression in the rock known as the “manger” until they had calmed down. They would then be inspected to make sure they were without spot or blemish. The deep significance of the words used by the angel, and the reality of what they found in Bethlehem would not have been lost on the shepherds. Couched in the language of the vernacular of the shepherds, God concealed a hidden mystery. How we so desperately need to connect with the Hebrew roots of our faith to understand fully the “mystery of godliness”! The last thing to say regarding the shepherds has to do with the time of year that we are talking about here. The season of bringing the sheep out onto the hills began in the spring, when the Passover lambs were reared. They would then have stayed out on the hills during the summer months up until the time of the first rains, usually towards the end of October. For the rest of the year the sheep were brought together into centrally located pens (corrals) for protection during the colder, wetter months. As Luke specifically mentions that the shepherds were out on the hills at that time, he was clearly indicating the season from Passover (say April) to about September. There would have been no shepherds out on the hills in that region in December. I have already outlined the case for Yeshua being born in late September, and again Luke adds another detail to help us in our understanding.
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