Not Your Ordinary Shepherds, These Guys Were Special

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Shepherds In Fields Near Bethlehem (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)

Fact Checking

Everyone loves to “fact check,” and it is usually done for good reasons.  God is expressly specific throughout the Bible, He includes dates, places, people and customs.  He has fleshed out inspired passages with facts that can be historically checked.  Doesn’t it peak your interest when you read in John’s Gospel that the disciples netted 153 fish?  That is definitely a precise fact….one that theologians and Biblical scholars have spent centuries trying to figure out.  Or another of John’s details…the five-sided pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate, why not just record that the miracle happened at a Jerusalem pool?  No, John’s description was so specific that it helped archaeologists excavating the Pools of Bethesda solve the puzzling configuration.  Then there are the descriptive, prophetic details of Jesus’ birth, a census, a tiny village, shepherds, a manger and swaddling bands.

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Ancient Papyrus

Prophetic Fine Points

God doesn’t skimp on prophetic fine points that miraculously bear up under the scrutiny of history.  Micah prophesied 800 years prior to His arrival, that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem, Micah 5: 2 “ 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”  and that the Migdal Eder or watchtower of the flock would play a significant role in the birth, Micah 4:8 “As for you, watchtower of the flock, stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem”.

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Bethlehem (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)

Location, Location, Location

Prominent Jewish writers concluded from Micah’s prophesy that of all the places in Israel, the Messiah’s birth would be declared first from the Migdal Eder.  The tower’s location is pinpointed in Genesis 35, the passage that recounts Rachel’s death during the birth of Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin; “Then Jacob journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”  Additionally, 4th century church historian, Eusebius, narrowed the Migdal Eder location to the fields between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

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Shepherds in Bethlehem Fields (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)

Temple Shepherds

As countless sermons at Christmas tell us, shepherds held a pretty lowly place in society throughout the ancient world in general and the Hebrew world specifically.  Consigned to the fringes of Jewish life, their work with animals rendered them unclean and unable to participate in religious activities, especially the birth of the Messiah!  However, the shepherds of Migdal Eder were a special group of Levites and temple assistants granted a priestly dispensation to care for the temple flock yet not be considered impure because of their vocation.   Additionally, and bearing out more prophetic detail, shepherds commonly observed their flocks from watchtowers, either lookout towers left by armies, or watchtowers like Uzziah built purposely to “watch his many animals,”  2nd Chronicles 26: 10.

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Limestone Manger (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)

Sacrificial Lambing

Built with two levels, the tower of the flock played a particular role in the shepherd’s ability to care for their flocks.   The top “lookout” level allowed them to view the surrounding fields where the sheep grazed.  One shepherd could watch a lot of sheep!  The bottom of the tower was a warm clean place to birth and care for newborn lambs.  In this lower space, the Temple assistant shepherds would bind the lambs in “swaddling bands,” safeguarding them from injuries in order to keep them sacrificially “unblemished,” and then place them in carved limestone mangers.

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Terraced Hillside Near Bethlehem (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)

Right Guys, Right Place

The angel’s appearance and announcement of the birth of Jesus to these special shepherds makes perfect sense when you realize that, they were the right guys in the right place!   All the details in the announcement fulfilled what they had studied and how they went about doing their job.  They knew exactly where to find a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling bands.

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Shepherd and His Flock Near Bethlehem (Courtesy of Bible Lands Pictorial Library)

God’s Gift

Dr. David Jeremiah in his sermon, God’s Gift of Love, reminds us that Jesus came to bring His gift of salvation to everyone, the sophisticated, the wise, the wealthy, the spiritual, the simple, the common and the lowly.  The Christmas story includes all of the above, the intellectual Magi who arrived later to worship Him, Simeon and Anna, two faithful souls who waited in the Temple for years and were overjoyed to see the Messiah, a trusting  teenage girl, a good man who didn’t question God’s Word and special shepherds watching over sacrificial lambs in the fields.  No one is left out and no detail is omitted.

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