And in the same 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
No Christmas program 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 the see the 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.
It may seem like a stretch of the imagination, but try it anyway: If you were God and could announce the arrival of the Savior of humanity, would you send your messengers to some shepherds out in the fields as they whiled away their nighttime watch? Why not instead send angels to an assembly of the religious council in Jerusalem? Why not to the megalomaniac King Herod? How about Caesar? Wouldn’t that be a night’s work – to blow open the doorways of society; to change everything with a few simple words.
Yet God chose the shepherds. Rough characters at that time; laborers who performed the tedious tasks that many others were unwilling to do. They appeared ragged, smelled of the flocks, and were used to sleeping on the cold, hard ground.
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. Only Luke mentions them.
During the time of the Patriarchs, shepherding 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 (Gen. 30:29; 37:12). Jethro, the priest of Midian, employed his daughters as shepherdesses (Ex. 2:16).
When the twelve tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered a lifestyle foreign to them. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops. Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. The first murder in history erupted from a farmer’s resentment of a shepherd (Gen 4:1-8).
Egyptians considered sheep worthless for food and sacrifice. Egyptian art forms and historical records portray shepherds negatively. Neighboring Arabs–their enemy–were shepherds, and Egyptian hatred 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, “All shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34, NIV).
In the course of four hundred years, the Egyptians prejudiced the Israelites’ attitude toward shepherding. Jacob’s descendants became accustomed to a settled lifestyle and forgot their nomadic roots. When Israel later settled in Canaan (c. 1400 B.C.), the few tribes still retaining a fondness for pastoral life chose to live in the Transjordan (Num. 32:1-42).
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.
Often, the Bible tells of extraordinary shepherds. A millennia earlier, David, the “shepherd-king” of Israel, had cared for his people, just as he had cared for sheep when he was a boy shepherd in the fields outside Bethlehem. David could write the incredible words of Psalm 23, because he knew what it meant to be a good shepherd, and he knew that God was his good shepherd.
David tells us, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters” (vs. 1-2). And that isn’t all. The Lord guides. He protects with his rod and staff.
Jesus, the descendant of David, came to be the good shepherd. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said that he knows us as his sheep, and we are to know him (10:14-15). He promised to defend us from wolves, and not run away. But most importantly, he said that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
So consider this: On the night Jesus’ life began in this world, an inexorable process was set in motion-leading to the day when he would lay down his life for the world. All this in the fashion of a truly good shepherd. So an angelic visitation to shepherds in Bethlehem-men who understood feeding and guiding and saving-was the best way for Chapter One to begin.