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“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” —Luke 2:8-9
EVERY CHRISTMAS PAGEANT
No Christmas pageant is complete without its little band of gunnysack shepherds. Frightened by the angel’s sudden appearance, they marvel at the good news from the angel and rush to Bethlehem to see their Savior-King. As they return to their flocks, they praise God and tell all who will listen about the birth of the chosen Child.
They finish spreading the good tidings, leave the stage, and we hardly give them another thought. But why did the announcement come to them at all? Shouldn’t the angels have gone to priests and kings instead? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement? In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Of the four evangelists, only Luke mentions them.
ISRAEL AS A NATION OF SHEPHERDS
During the time of the Patriarchs, sheepherding was a noble occupation. Shepherds are mentioned early in Genesis 4:20 where Jabal is called the father of those living in tents and raising livestock. In nomadic societies, everyone—whether sheikh or slave—was a shepherd. The wealthy sons of Isaac and Jacob tended flocks (Genesis 30:29; 37:12). Jethro, the priest of Midian, employed his daughters as shepherdesses (Exodus 2:16).
When the twelve tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered a lifestyle foreign to them. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, growers of crops, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats grazed on the crops.
Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. The first murder in history erupted over a farmer’s resentment of a shepherd (Genesis 4:1-8). Egyptians considered sheep worthless for food and sacrifice. Egyptian art forms and historical records portray shepherds in a negative light. Neighboring Arabs, the Egyptian’s enemy, were shepherds. Egyptian hatred of sheep herders climaxed when shepherd kings seized Lower Egypt.
Pharaoh’s clean-shaven court looked down on the rugged shepherd sons of Jacob. Joseph matter-of-factly informed his brothers, “Every shepherd is detestable to the Egyptians.” (Genesis 46:34) Over the course of 400 years, the Egyptian prejudices rubbed off on the Israelites’ and affected their attitude toward shepherding. Unbelievably, Jacob’s descendants became accustomed to a settled lifestyle and forgot their nomadic roots.
When the Israelites settled in Canaan (c. 1400 BC), the few tribes that still retained a fondness for the pastoral lifestyle chose to live in the Trans-Jordan (Numbers 32:1). After settling in Palestine, shepherding ceased to hold its prominent position. As the Israelites acquired more farmland, pasturing decreased. Shepherding became a menial vocation for the laboring class.
FROM HERDING SHEEP TO LEADING A NATION
Around 1000 BC, former shepherd David emerged as king and temporarily raised the shepherd’s image. The lowliness of his trade made David’s promotion all the more striking (2 Samuel 7:8). While poetic sections of Scripture record positive allusions to shepherding, scholars believe these references reflect a literary ideal, not reality.
THE PROPHECTIC VIEW
In the days of the Prophets, sheepherders symbolized judgment and social desolation (Zephaniah 2:6). Amos contrasted his high calling as prophet with his former role as a shepherd (Amos 7:14). In general, shepherds were considered second-class citizens and unworthy of trust. Sheep herding had not just lost its appeal; it eventually forfeited its social acceptability. Some shepherds earned their poor reputations, but others became victims of a cruel stereotype. The religious leaders maligned the shepherd’s good name; rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on the desert plains.
AN ENDURING PREJUDICE
The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, also reflects this prejudice, referring to shepherds in belittling terms. One passage describes them as incompetent; another says no one should ever feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit. Shepherds were deprived of their civil rights. They could not hold judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses. It was written, “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.”
In Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, the rabbis asked with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one could explain why God was called my shepherd in Psalm 23. Smug religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folk. Shepherds were officially labeled sinners, a technical term for a class of despised people. Into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, Jesus stepped forth. How surprising and significant that God handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to first hear the joyous news that the long-awaited Mashiach had been born.
|The Good Shepherd|
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Christ is also the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). No other illustration so vividly portrays His tender care and guiding hand as that of the shepherd.
On Friday we'll be examining the Mummers as we head into the New Year's weekend.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings
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