Summary: A contextual Christmas Eve meditation on the birth of Jesus from the perspective of the shepherds- based on an article by Doug Greenwald
Born Identity: Savior
When Luke tells us in 2:8 that there “were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night”, he is giving us clues about when Jesus was born and why he was born. Any first-century Middle Eastern villager reading this text would wonder why sheep were in the fields at night. Normal practice would to keep the sheep in sheepfolds at night for protection. Furthermore, sheep were not allowed in the wheat fields around Bethlehem because they would trample the grain thus lessening the harvest yield. So what is Luke telling us with these seemingly innocuous details?
What might have caused the shepherds to keep their sheep out in Bethlehem’s fields that birth night? Two possibilities are suggested. These herds were too large to fit in even the largest of sheepfolds and it was birthing time for the sheep. There is strong indication from the Mishnah3 that these sheep in Bethlehem’s fields may have been one of many large Temple flocks kept in the greater Jerusalem area (remember Bethlehem is only 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Some estimates suggest that 200,000+ newborn Pascal lambs were needed every year for Passover sacrifice because the influx of pilgrims at Passover from all over the world was several times the population of Jerusalem. Consequently, Temple flocks had to be enormous in size for tens of thousands of lambs to be birthed each year. Since no one field could hold all these sheep, they were dispersed to various fields around Jerusalem. Yet even these dispersed flocks were so sizeable that no sheepfold was large enough to hold them for night-time protection. So on the same night that Jesus – the Lamb of God – was born, most likely Pascal lambs destined for the Passover sacrifice were also being born in Bethlehem’s wheat fields. The connectedness of Christmas and Easter is already established, the very reason Jesus was born to die.
The “Good News” of the birth of Jesus was first announced to these Temple shepherds. Now shepherding was viewed as a despised profession – one scorned by observant Jews as unclean.6 There were also rabbis during this time who held that shepherds, because of the wandering trespass nature of their profession, could never be forgiven because they could never make retribution for the grasses their flocks ate (stole) from someone else’s land.7 The religious culture of that day therefore considered the shepherds reprehensible people practicing a shameful profession. It was to just this kind of a hopeless person living in chronic, cultural shame that God directed the angels to announce His incredible Good News! These Temple shepherds were expected to provide 24/7 watches over these flocks and the Pascal lambs being born to ensure their unblemished nature and suitability for Passover sacrifice. How ironic that these very same Temple shepherds nevertheless decide to leave those Temple sheep and newborn lambs to come and pay homage to the newly-born perfect Pascal Lamb who would also be sacrificed without blemish.