We’ve been taking our time looking at the various characters in the Nativity story; we’ve learned about who the Magi were, where they came from and why they were so interested in the birth of Jesus. We’ve learned about King Herod’s role and what this event may have meant to both him and the Romans governing and trying to maintain peace in Judea at the time of Jesus birth. We spent some time in our last program learning about the priesthood and how they ran the Temple and how corrupt they’d become by the time Jesus was born and in this program, we’re going to spend some time learning about the shepherds.
If the hypothesis from our previous program is correct, that the priesthood was in fact running a breeding program of lambs, goats and pigeons to be sold for sacrifices at the Temple, then said breeding program would have been located in the nearby shepherding town of Bethlehem which is about 8-9km from the heart of Jerusalem. King David was from the town of Bethlehem, he himself was a shepherd and so was his family.
Who would have coordinated and managed this breeding program? Shepherds who probably were from the Tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. Their job would have been to ensure enough lambs would be available to be sold to Jews needing to make offerings for sacrifice and most especially, for sacrifice during the Feast of Passover.
The requirements for the sacrifice at Passover was that of a lamb, 1 year old, male, and the first lamb to be born to its mother, without any defect at all.
Exodus 12:5, ‘You lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.’
Some people wonder why it was ok for the sacrifice to be either a lamb or a goat? Prophetically and with hindsight in our rearview mirror, we see that Jesus is called the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and the “Lamb who was slain”. (Rev 5:12, 13:8)
We also know that the Feasts of the Lord are all symbolic of and are fulfilled by Jesus. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is about the sacrifice of a ‘goat’ – the scapegoat – whose blood is spilled on behalf of the people for the atonement and removal of their sin. In this particular feast, the sacrifice representing Jesus is a goat. (Lev 16:7-10) Scripture also seems to juxtapose sheep as being righteous as opposed to goats as being unrighteous. How does that fit with the Passover sacrifice being either a lamb or a goat? Jesus is perfect and righteous as represented by an unblemished lamb, but He also “became sin” on our behalf and as such, received the condemnation that should have been upon us. He became our Scapegoat. (2 Cor 5:21)
Timber wasn’t a common building material in Israel, in fact timber is not a common building material anywhere in the Middle East. Much of the region is desert or rocky countryside, and stone was always the primary building source. For this reason, above ground ‘stables’ were not common. In the town of Bethlehem, most people had their own animals and housed them in pens and had mangers (feeding troughs) that were chiseled out of stone.
Farmers, whose business – such as the shepherds working for the Temple – would have housed their flocks primarily in the many caves that are prevalent in the area, and in warmer weather, they wandered the surround areas looking for fresh grazing land. Caves were very practical because they had privacy, they were easy to keep predators out of, especially when the ewes were birthing their babies, and they also provided excellent protection and warmth during the coldest times of the year, which is between December and February.
In the warmer times of the year, when the babies were a bit older, the caves would have been stiflingly hot in the warmer months, especially from about June to September. Then the shepherds would have them outside in the pastures, and the shepherds themselves became the source of protection for their flocks.
At the time of Jesus birth, the shepherds were out in the fields because it was too warm to be inside, this is how we know it wasn’t during the winter and therefore, not in December. Jesus was most likely born around the end of September when the days were still very hot. This timeframe has been worked out according to the courses or divisions or rosters of the priests that David had set in place, including the course of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father who filled the role of High Priest for a time. Dr Missler has a very interesting teaching on the timeline for the birth of Jesus. (Luke 1:5)
A census was called for by Caesar Augustus for the purpose of increasing revenue for the Romans, requiring the population to return to their home town of origin to register. Bethlehem was not a big town, so when people began returning to register, it filled up really fast.
The shepherds were out of the town in the surrounding hills looking after their sheep. Like the rest of their Jewish countrymen, they know about and were longing for the arrival of their Messiah, especially as they were Levites! They hated the Romans, they were sick of the corruption of their religious elite rulers and they wanted freedom, they were desperate for their redemption to finally come. They also hated and resented Herod the Great because he was cruel and bloodthirsty, he was a tyrant who would kill anyone who he even assumed was opposed to him. If the shepherds were in fact of the Tribe of Levi, they would have been particularly well-versed on the arrival of and role of the Messiah.
When Jesus was born, His parents had no other option but to find shelter in a place that typically housed animals. We know this because when He was born, He was placed in a manger – a feeding trough for animals. These were not something you’d find inside a person’s home, but outside on their property. However, Jesus wasn’t born in someone’s backyard where the family cow was tied up. (Luke 2:6-7)
Right at that time, the shepherds in the fields were shocked to their core when the skies suddenly lit up with angels, they were terrified! The angel calmed them down, telling them not to be afraid and that they had the most wonderful news to tell them. Their Messiah had just been born in the City of David – Bethlehem – and that they’d be able to find Him and identify Him because He was wrapped in swaddling cloths and was lying in a manger. It was not a common practice to use a manger as a cot, so this was a very unusual sign of identification.
Interestingly, the shepherds didn’t ask which manger…they apparently knew exactly which manger the angel was referring to because I suggest, it was the manger they themselves kept filled with feed when they were at the caves where they tended to the lambs they were tasked with caring for, on behalf of the priesthood.
The shepherds immediately went to find Jesus and He was exactly where the angels said He’d be.
The Magi came at a later time, because when the Shepherds worshipped Him, He was just born and laying in the manger in the lambing cave, when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem they found the “Child with Mary His mother” in a “house”. That’s where they left the gifts and it explains why Herod ordered all the baby boys 2 years old and under to be killed.
The shepherds knew the identity of Jesus. They knew Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah and Redeemer because the angels had told them specifically who He was. They kept His identity a secret, ensuring that He and His parents, Joseph and Mary, were protected right up until the Magi arrived and duped King Herod.
When Joseph secreted his family away to Egypt, who was left behind in Bethlehem to bear the wrath and fury of King Herod? The shepherds. Whose baby boys were slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers? Possibly the shepherds who’d protected Jesus from the day of His birth.
To finish, my hypothetical question is this…is it possible that the God of all creation revealed the identity of His Son to the Temple shepherds in Bethlehem, so they would protect Him during the first two years of His life, ensuring His safety and anonymity from both Herod the Butcher, and the Roman occupiers?
In the next program we’re going to look more closely at Jesus human parents, Mary and Joseph.