SHEPHERD SYMBOLISM FROM THE FIRST CHRISTMAS
by Rod L. Meldrum
As we approach this sacred season of celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, may we reflect on the miracle and blessing He was and is. As I’ve pondered on His holy birth, and the circumstances around it, I am reminded again of how the Lord goes about his mighty works.
The Holy Son of the most glorified and powerful eternal being, our Father in Heaven, was not provided with a wondrous palace, security, wealth and privilege befitting his status as God’s first born son, but rather He showed his everlasting power through the simple, the meek, the lowly and the weak things of this world. His sacred Son wasn’t born amid the tumult and praise of the political, secular or religious superiors of his day, but in obscurity, vulnerability and to parents who were powerless because of their circumstances to provide much more than the most basic necessities of life at his birth.
I am reminded of how the Jews were anticipating a mighty king who was prophesied to deliver them. They presumed that God’s Son would enter this world provided with what men supposed would be needed to carry out this deliverance. Why would they not expect their deliverer to be born to parents who could provide a world-class education, money sufficient to procure status, authority and prestige so that other men would know of his leadership and knowledge and thus follow him?
Instead His Holy Child was born in a stable and lovingly laid in a manger of hay by honest, hard-working parents of common status among the Jewish throngs. Indeed, His pre-mortal status was hidden and utterly concealed from the world. How ashamed many Jews must have felt when they realized they had been looking for the wrong identifying features of this humble Son of God sent to deliver them.
In like manner some have supposed that the Nephite civilization of the Book of Mormon should be identified by grand features and majestic ruins, signs of an overpowering and influential people that the world can look to because of their triumphant accomplishments. Yet the Book of Mormon speaks of a humble people who obeyed the Laws of Moses, dressed in inconspicuous clothing, and built homes and temples and cities of wood. It was the unrighteous that built large and spacious palaces to demonstrate their own greatness. In contrast to impressive structures, the righteous Nephites seemed to follow the Lord’s ways in putting people as a higher priority that power; of salvation over worldly possessions.
May we, as followers of Christ, strive to emulate and understand the true power of God’s example of His Son by humbly submitting ourselves and meekly seeking His will, realizing our weaknesses and asking for his grace to attend us. This is, I believe, a most wonderful way to celebrate His birth.
WHO WERE THE SHEPHERDS IN THE CHRISTMAS STORY?
The Christmas story as taken from Luke 2:8-20:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it,they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
Most of us are very familiar with this passage, as reading it is a Christmas Eve tradition for many families. But who were the shepherds? Why were these men privileged to have angels appear to them? Was there any significance to these shepherds other than being humble keepers of sheep? Did the angels announce the birth of the Savior throughout the land, but this was the only account that was recorded in scripture? Or was there a greater purpose to the angelic revelation specific to these shepherds?
The Christmas story takes on added meaning when we consider that the shepherds who were abiding by their flocks in the fields were perhaps watching overtemple sheep, sheep that were being bred and protected to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. The noted information relies heavily on the research of Cooper P. Abrams III in his article Where was the Birth Place of the Lord Jesus?
These shepherds may have been men who were accustomed to preparing lambs which symbolically represented the Messiah in their cleanliness, perfection, and their sacrifice on the altar of the temple. This gives added depth of meaning, if true, to these scriptures which tell of the angels who came to these shepherds to proclaim the birth of the Lamb of God, the Savior of mankind, who would offer the last and ultimate sacrifice.
But there are more interesting details. The place where the angels appeared to the shepherds is traditionally known as the Tower of the Flock, or Migdal Edar, which is very near Bethlehem. One commentator notes: “This watch tower from ancient times was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts. It was the place ewes were brought to give birth to the lambs. In this sheltered building/cave the priests would bring in the ewes which were about to lamb for protection. These special lambs came from a unique flock which were designated for sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem.“
According to Edersheim in The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, in Book 2, Chapter 6, it states, “This Migdal Edar was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks that pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but it lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage from the Mishnah (Shekelim 7:4) leads to the conclusion that the flocks which pastured there were destined for Temple sacrifices.“
What are we to make of all of this information from the writings of the rabbis? First, we know that Migdal Edar was the watchtower that guarded the Temple flocks that were being raised to serve as sacrificial animals in the Temple. These were not just any flock. The shepherds who kept them were men who were specifically trained for this royal task. They were educated in what an animal, that was to be sacrificed, had to be and it was their job to make sure that none of the animals were hurt, damaged, or blemished. These lambs were apparently wrapped in swaddling cloths to protect them from injury which, or course, was also used to wrap the Christchild.
Thus, with the establishment of Temple worship in Jerusalem, the fields outside of Bethlehem became the place where a special group of shepherds raised the lambs that were sacrificed in the Temple. Being themselves under special Rabbinical care, they would strictly maintain a ceremonially clean stable for a birthing place. The Tower of the Flock was used for birthing ewes, and the surrounding fields were where these shepherds grazed their flocks. These shepherds customarily kept their flocks outdoors twenty-four hours a day every day of the year, but brought the ewes in to deliver their lambs where they could be gently cared for. It was to this place that Joseph took Mary. It was in this special stable at “Migdal Edar” that Christ may have been born!
Luke 2:8-18 records that there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their sheep by night. Who then were these shepherds? Without question these were shepherds who resided near Bethlehem. They were none other than the shepherds from “Migdal Edar” who were well aware that the Targum hinted and many of the rabbis taught that the Messiah might well be announced from “Migdal Edar” at Bethlehem. The angels only told the shepherds that they would find the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. There was no need for the angels to give these shepherds directions to the birth place because they already knew. These were the men who raised sacrificial lambs that were sacrificed in the Temple. When the angelic announcement came, they knew exactly where to go, as Luke 2 indicates, for the sign of a manger could only mean their manger at the tower of the flock! You cannot explain the meaning or direction of the sign they were given or their response unless you have the right manger and the right shepherds!
Prophetically, Migdal Edar is the exact place in Bethlehem for Christ to be born. Micah was God’s prophet who was warning Israel of the coming captivity. He used the authenticating prophecy of the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom (soon to occur when he foretold it) to serve as a reminder to Israel of God’s promised Kingdom. God wanted them to know that even though they would be taken from their land because of their disobedience that He would restore them in time. Micah 4:7 establishes the context of the passage and clearly is a Messianic prophecy of the coming of the Millennial Kingdom when Jesus Christ will reign over Jerusalem forever. The…LORD shall reign over them in mount Zion from henceforth, even for ever. In other words God was assuring Israel that He would fulfill His promises to them of the Kingdom. In Micah 4:8 the word is rendered “tower of the flock” (marg., “Edar”), and is used as a designation of Bethlehem, which figuratively represents the royal line of David as sprung from Bethlehem.
In this setting, Micah (Micah 4:8) uses the prophecy of the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom as a pledge to guarantee (authenticating prophecy) of the birth of Christ at Migdal Edar at Bethlehem which is exactly where it took place! Micah prophesied that as surely as Assyrians would soon carry away Israel in the North, so the Messiah would come and establish His kingdom, the “first dominion, the kingdom shall come to Jerusalem.” The verse states that as surely as Babylon would carry away the Judah, in the South, into captivity, so the Messiah would arrive at the Tower of the Flock. This prophecy was but one other evidence that later proved that Jesus was the Messiah, but one that Israel ignored in rejecting Him as their Messiah.
Typically, “Migdal Edar”, (the tower of the flock) at Bethlehem is the perfect place for Christ to be born. He was born in the very birthplace where tens of thousands of lambs, which had been sacrificed to prefigure Him. God promised it, pictured it and performed it at “Migdal Edar”. It all fits together, for that’s the place where sacrificial lambs were born! Jesus may not have been born, as has often been assumed, behind an inn, in a smelly stable where the donkeys of travelers and other animals were kept. He was most likely born in Bethlehem, at the birthing place of the sacrificial lambs that were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem which Micah 4:8 calls the tower of the flock.
John the Baptist in John 1:29 proclaimed of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Jesus is presented in the Bible as being likened to a sacrificial lamb. It was not by chance but by choice that Christ identified His death with the time of the observance of the Passover. Peter spoke of our redemption as wrought by the “precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” ( 1 Pet. 1:19); and Paul told us that “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” ( 1 Cor. 5:7). Even the first fulfilled type by which Christ is to be revealed in Heaven is as the Lamb (Rev. 5:6-13) Over 33 references in the Book of Mormon speak of Christ as the “Lamb of God” and as such the significance of this sacred prophesied birthplace on the outskirts of Bethlehem takes on new meaning.
Enjoy the Christmas holiday!
Rod L. Meldrum
The FIRM Foundation