On the Fourth Day of Christmas, please indulge me in some rambling thoughts about shepherds and angels and how their collective story reveals the amazing lovingkindness and tender mercy of GOD.
Maybe it is because of all those cheesy children’s Christmas pageants. Kids in oversized bathrobes or costumes provided by some seamstress mother’s estimation of what 4th century BC shepherds wore.
The Nativity miracle and mystery plays that I read in grad school certainly didn’t help. Shepherds in most medieval literature were at best, goofy, and at worst, more randy than the critters that roamed the Judean hillside! (Yes, there is some very naughty medieval literature. Who ever said English majors were boring?)
Maybe shepherds were portrayed that way deliberately to entertain the less pietistic among the English while still trying to convey the truth of the Christmas story? In any case, such portrayals have colored my perception of the shepherds that were in the fields outside of Bethlehem in the narratives about the birth of Christ.
While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night
For most of my life, I thought of the shepherds to whom the angelic host proclaimed the arrival of Messiah as a kind of bumbling, Biblical Three Stooges. My friends and I laughingly substituted the phrase above for the words of the Christmas carol, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.”
That’s what they were doing, and suddenly, their evening was broken into by a sky full of angels. And I would bet my life that when angels take on human appearance they do NOT look like slightly (or not-so-slightly) plump Renaissance women!
A Healthy Fear of Angels!
A small detour here to encourage more accurate depiction of angels: These are beings that engage in hand-to-hand combat with demons! These are heavenly messengers aka warriors such as Gabriel (Gavri’el: God is my Strength) and Archangel Michael (Mikha’el: Who is Like God?).
Gabriel appears first in the Hebrew Scriptures. He interprets the prophet Daniel’s disturbing dreams that point to the coming Messiah.
Then, in the New Testament, he comes to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah, being from the tribe of Levi, is a priest – hence, doing his gig in the Temple. When BAM! Gabriel is there. The angel reveals to the old – very old – priest that he and his very old wife will soon have a son. That son will go before the coming Messiah to prepare people. Zechariah’s doubts about this do not go over very well with Gabriel. The priest is literally dumbstruck until John is born.
And of course, Gabriel is the one who tells Mary that she will be the mother of her own Savior and Messiah. He addresses Mary as “highly favored” by God. Author Tyler Kenney compares and contrasts Zechariah’s and Mary’s responses to Gabriel.
As much as I would like to write about Michael since he’s my favorite, let it suffice to say that he is a hard-core battalion leader of the Special Operations Command in God’s army. Think of him with one very muscular leg planted on top of the neck of a dragon!
No Need to Ask for Directions
Do you think any of us would do any better than the shepherds if we met these guys? I doubt it. Every time there is a close encounter of an angelic kind in the Bible, they begin with “Fear Not!”
But getting back to my image of the shepherds. . . I thought of them running around like Larry, Moe, and especially Curly, shouting “woo, woo, woo,” and passing out when angels filled the sky over their heads.
And when the shepherds recovered enough to pay attention, an angel tells them:
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
We all find it praiseworthy that the shepherds went immediately to Bethlehem and found “Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in a manger.” But what I did not realize until recently, is that these shepherds did not have to tootle around Bethlehem, checking out every animal stall and manger in town until they finally managed to stumble on the right one.
They knew exactly where to go because of that “sign” the angels gave them. They said to each other, “let’s go see this thing,” not, “let’s go try to find this thing.”
After hearing the truth about the shepherds in a Christmas sermon last year, I was blown away by the kindness of God that these details demonstrate. I wanted to find out every detail and nuance that we miss by the way that we take for granted that we know all there is to know about the Christmas story.
A Baby Wrapped in Swaddling Cloths. . . Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink
The angels didn’t say, “This will be a SIGN unto you,” as if they were inviting the shepherds into some wild and holy scavenger hunt.
They said, “This will be a sign unto YOU.” This was a sign personally for the shepherds. How so? Do we ever stop to question why a baby in a manger, wrapped up in strips of swaddling cloth, would be a sign to shepherds?
Even if they didn’t spend their childhood watching The Three Stooges, I am sure that most people still have a somewhat condescending view of the shepherds. I’ve heard or read depictions of them as “smelly shepherds,” the outcasts of society, etc.
But the shepherds in fields outside of Bethlehem (still known today as “Shepherds’ Fields”) were “Levitical shepherds,” special, priestly shepherds that served the Mosaic covenant. They took care of the sheep from which the lambs came who were destined to be sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Sacrifice Lambs and THE Sacrifice Lamb
The shepherds were in the fields at night because it was lambing season. They had to be there when the ewes gave birth. When it was time for the lambs to be born, the shepherds would bring the ewes into the shepherd’s caves, which were ceremonially clean, (not a stable) for the birth.
The lambs had to be pure and spotless in order to be sacrificed on behalf of the sins of the people. So the shepherds wrapped the lambs in bands of fabric, swaddling cloths, so that they could not harm themselves. And then they were – you guessed it – lain in mangers (usually indentations in the floor or stone troughs) to calm them until they were inspected for purity.
So, there was no need for directions to baby Jesus from the angel. No need for a GPS. The shepherds, by this sign, knew exactly where to go – to the place where they themselves had wrapped pure, spotless little lambs in swaddling cloths.
Migdal Eder: Tower of the Flock
It is very possible that the place where Jesus was born was the actual birthing room that the shepherds used for the Temple sacrifice lambs in a place called Migdal Eder, or Tower of the Flock. The 19th century historian Alfred Edersheim talks about this in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah.
Migdal Eder has quite a Biblical pedigree. It is mentioned in Genesis 35 in the account of the death of Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel (whose name, incidentally, means “ewe lamb”). Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son. “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb. Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.”
Then, 700 years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Hebrew prophet Micah prophesied, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
The prophecy was not just about the “little town of Bethlehem.” Micah also prophesied about where in Bethlehem the Messiah would arrive, “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.”
The prophecies connecting the Tower of the Flock and the Messiah are also in the Targumim, the vernacular commentary/paraphrase of Hebrew scripture, and the Mishnah, the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions.
This was the incredible kindness of God, for the angels to give this sign to the shepherds.
God knew that those Jewish Levitical shepherds would totally get it! They would understand that this Baby that they were going to go see was the pure and spotless Lamb of God, as his cousin John would later call Him.
But this was not just a sign for the shepherds. It was for us all. Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the Final Sacrifice, who takes away the sin of the whole world throughout eternity. His death and resurrection vanquish the power of sin to destroy the soul. And He is the Promised One, demonstrating God’s faithfulness, God’s chesed, to His people, Israel, and through Israel, to all people.
(From Luke 1, the Song of Zechariah: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David as he said through his holy prophets of long ago. . . because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.)