Brightness on the edge of town

A supporter recently asked if we could publish an article in the Herald about the shepherds to whom the angels announced the birth of Messiah. We always like to please our readers if we can and, in this article, Mike Moore discovers that the shepherds to whom the heavenly host appeared were far from being the band of rustic cavaliers portrayed on greetings cards and in nativity plays.

Living in a culture far removed both in time and distance from that in which Messiah was born, we are unfamiliar with life in biblical times and it is easy for us to accept without question the traditional romanticised images that have come down to us about the events surrounding the birth of Messiah and persons who appear in the Gospel accounts. Our lack of knowledge can leave us vulnerable to all manner of alternative and bizarre teaching. For example, in the magazine of a mainline Christian denomination a couple of years ago, a writer stated that he knew Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem who were descended from shepherds to whom the angels appeared!

It’s a shepherd’s life                                

Although some of Israel’s greatest men – including Jacob, Moses, David and the prophet Amos – were shepherds, in the great collections of rabbinic law the Mishnah and the Talmud, shepherding was a despised profession. According to tractate “Kidushin” in the Mishnah, “A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, or a camel driver, or a hairdresser, or a sailor, or a shepherd, or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of robbers.”

Because many shepherds were hirelings and the flocks they tended were not their own, it was easy for them to steal wool, milk and goats and blame the loss on bandits. Therefore tractate “Baba Kamma” forbids buying wool, milk or goats from shepherds. A Jewish commentary on Psalm 23:2 says: “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd”.

New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias describes a biblical shepherd’s life as independent, responsible and – in view of the threat from wild beasts and robbers – dangerous. Although some sheep owners looked after their flock themselves, the job was usually was done by hired shepherds, who often did not justify the confidence reposed in them, as Jesus indicates in John 10:12-13. Also, shepherds couldn’t help but tread in sheep excrement and touch dead animals which, according to the book of Leviticus, placed them in a permanent state of ritual impurity and ceremonial defilement. Because of that, shepherds were excluded from the temple and the synagogues.

The Tower of the Flock

Bethlehem had a long association with shepherds and the grazing of sheep. The patriarch Jacob pastured his flocks there almost 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, and Genesis 35:19-21 records that when Jacob’s wife Rachel died, she “was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”

The “tower of Eder”, Migdal Eder, means “tower of the flock” and was a watch-tower built for the protection of flocks against robbers or wild beasts. Tractate “Shekelim” in the Mishnah tells us that the flocks for the temple sacrifices were pastured there: “Of the herds, in the space between Jerusalem and ‘the tower of the flock’ and on both sides, the males are for burnt-offerings, the female for peace-offerings. R[abbi]. Jehuda says, whatever male animals are found (there) thirty days before the passover fit for it, are to be used thereto.”

In the book of Micah, the passage that speaks of Israel’s ruler being born in Bethlehem also states in the eighth verse of chapter 4: “And you, O Migdal Eder, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.” On the basis of this prophecy of dominion returning to Migdal Eder, the Targum of Jonathan declared the Tower of the Flock would be the place where “King Messiah will reveal Himself at the end of days.”

In the bleak midwinter?

The fact that there were shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born suggests that the traditional date for the nativity is probably wrong.

Bethlehem, the “House of Bread”, was surrounded by rich agricultural lands on which flocks were allowed to graze after the crops had been harvested, thus providing abundant fertiliser for the following year. Shepherds in ancient Israel normally kept their flocks in the fields at night from early spring to the end of autumn. Barley was sown at the end of November and harvested between late March and the end of April, close to Passover. Wheat was sown around the last week of October and harvested near the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost in late May/early June.

Luke’s Gospel says that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem because of a census declared by Augustus Caesar. Although the Caesars ruled the empire with a rod of iron, they did their best to avoid unnecessary provocation of their subjects. So, for example, because the Jews were strict monotheists, they were exempted from offering incense to Caesar. It is unlikely that Augustus would have upset the inhabitants of ancient Judea by calling for a census that involved large numbers of the population travelling long distances on frozen, muddy roads. Next to Mount Hermon, Jerusalem is the highest point in the land and often sees snow in winter, as evidenced by this issue’s cover. Bethlehem is only a few miles to the east and also gets cold. The likelihood is that Caesar’s census took place in summer and that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem in July or August.

According to Luke 2, “While they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered”. It is possible, of course, that Mary gave birth five or six months later in December but the fact that shepherds normally kept their flocks in the fields at night until the end of autumn would seem to rule out a late December date. It is quite possible, then, as some Jewish believers suggest, that Messiah was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, which falls in late September or early October.

Down to zero

The “House of Bread” became the birthplace of the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was born within a couple of miles of the place in which the sacrificial lambs for the temple were pastured.

Outside town, close to Migdal Eder, the glory of God was seen by the permanently defiled who were denied access to the temple, the place where the glory of God glory resided. Adonai, the Shepherd of Israel, chose to reveal King Messiah to some of the most despised people in the land. To them, the shepherds, was born in the city of David the Saviour who was the Messiah, the Lord.

The events surrounding the birth of Jesus were typical of his later earthly ministry. Jesus would identify himself as the “Good Shepherd” who would gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel into the Father’s fold. He would befriend those the pious looked down on. He would heal those who, by reason of their diseases, were excluded from the temple and the presence of God, such as the lepers, the blind, the lame, and a woman with an issue of blood. He sat at table and ate with the outcasts and the common people whom the religious elite despised and rejected.

Today, Messiah’s own people, the Jews, are arguably the most vilified people in the world. Anti-Semitism is spreading its tentacles around Europe and the Arab world: “the Jews” were responsible for 9/11; they are responsible for the current economic recession; Israel set up the first filed hospital in Haiti after the earthquake in order to harvest human organs; the “Jewish Lobby” manipulates US and UK foreign policy; Israel is a pariah state and we should all boycott Israeli products. And so it goes on. Thank God that the message of Messiah is still for the despised and rejected, therefore we can joyfully declare to that universally despised people that to them was born in the city of David the Saviour who is Messiah, Adonai!

This article first appeared in the winter Herald 2010

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