MAYFIELD, Ky. – The account of the shepherds in Luke’s nativity passage (Luke 2:8-20) continues to fascinate modern readers. Receiving an angelic message that the Messiah was born in nearby Bethlehem, these shepherds left their closely guarded flocks of sheep to seek the good news themselves.
Theologians tell us that the angel’s message represented God’s annunciation of his Son’s birth to the common people of Israel, but who were these shepherds?
The shepherds of Bethlehem persisted in an honorable occupation that also claimed various Old Testament figures, including Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, David, Job and Amos – just to name a few.
They largely kept flocks of the broad-tailed sheep (ovis laticaudata) that can still be found in the Holy Land today. Allusions to the highly prized “fat tail” of these sheep can be found in Exodus 29:22 and Leviticus 3:9.
In terms of their daily and nightly chores, shepherds were responsible for grazing and watering their charges, protecting them from human theft and animal predation, shearing the sheep at the appropriate time, milking them for dairy products and providing them for ritual sacrifices and/or human consumption during important feasts. As a general rule, dairy-producing and wool-producing sheep were too valuable to be a daily menu item.
Although the Old and New Testaments ascribe great personal honor to the men and women of this occupation, the shepherds of the era of Christ’s birth appeared to be less honored in the Jewish tradition.
The rabbis who produced the Talmudic literature (written around A.D. 200-500 but containing oral traditions from before, during and after the earthly lifetime of Jesus) often regarded shepherds as dishonest and prone to violating Jewish law.
Likewise, Philo, a Jewish sage in Egypt and a contemporary of Jesus, wrote that shepherds “are held to be mean and inglorious” (On Husbandry, 61).
Nevertheless, God often uses unlikely vessels to further His will. According to the Jewish Mishnah (A.D. 200 but also containing longstanding oral traditions of previous ages), animals in the vicinity of Bethlehem (specifically Migdal Eder – “Tower of the Flock”) could be offered for Temple sacrifices (Shekalim 7:4).
According to Eusebius, a Palestinian Christian leader of the fourth century in his work, “Concerning the Place-names in Sacred Scriptures” (Section B, 196), Migdal Eder was located one Roman mile east of Bethlehem (a Roman mile of 1,000 paces is a little short of our mile by 143 yards).
If the shepherds of Luke’s account were those who kept flocks potentially destined for the Temple at Migdal Eder, they especially would have been receptive to the angel’s message.
Both the geographical locations of Bethlehem and nearby Migdal Eder are mentioned in Micah’s prophecy of the Messiah (Micah 5:2 and 4:8). In regard to Migdal Eder, this locale too is linked to the coming of the King.
If the shepherds tending the flocks for the Temple stationed at Migdal Eder constitute the shepherds of the Luke account, then the annunciation to the shepherds would fulfill that aspect of messianic prophecy.
When the angel of the Lord appeared to these shepherds, accompanied by a great light (Luke 2:9), their first reaction was sheer terror. Nevertheless, the angel calmed them and told them that the Messiah had just been born in nearby Bethlehem.
While not revealing the exact location in the city for the child, the angel related that the child was the one swaddled in binding cloths and lying in a manger (v. 12). After the angel was briefly joined by a heavenly host that praised God, they left the shepherds.
The befuddled shepherds, however, decided to view the Christ child. They could not pass up the opportunity to view the “Lamb of God.” After a short walk to the city (only about one mile if Eusebius is correct), they found the child with his parents.
They not only praised God for both the angelic message and visit with the child, they shared this news with others (v. 17-20). Those hearing this account by the shepherds also were amazed.
The annunciation to the shepherds of Bethlehem demonstrated God’s love for the common people. Previous annunciations of the Lord's birth had occurred only to family members like Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth.
The first annunciation to those outside of the family were not to the priestly establishment in Jerusalem or those of Herod’s royal house or to the rich landowners of Judea but rather to these common shepherds whom the rabbinic tradition had tarnished.
Indeed, the good news was not to be a respecter of persons. Simple shepherds, like the later fishermen and farmers among the disciples of Jesus, would be both the recipients and purveyors of the gospel.
Today many shepherds in the Bethlehem area and in other parts of Israel/Palestine still seek and profess Christianity, and their stories can be located on the Internet and in the popular press. In the 20th and 21st centuries, many of them achieved some recognition from the evangelical Christian community in the United States.
For instance, Stephen A. Haboush chronicled his experience as a Palestinian shepherd in his work “My Shepherd Life in Galilee.” The long tradition of shepherds seeking to follow God in faith extends from Abel, the son of Adam, to the present day. The shepherds located near Bethlehem on the night of the Lord’s nativity were a very important chapter of that long tradition.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Stephen Douglas Wilson is dean emeritus and chair of the history department of Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and a member of the SBC Executive Committee.)