Published on December 6th, 2014 | by Seth Campbell7
First Christmas: The Shepherds
For me, Christmas is a mix of emotions. Joy and hope and a host of other positive ones for more obvious reasons. But as someone who is passionate about the Biblical culture and understanding the Old and New Testaments, Moses, The Gospels, Jesus, Isaiah, Paul, and all the rest in their cultural context, Christmas gets under my skin. This is because no other holiday or celebration reveals to me how far off we are culturally from the first century than Christmas. Part of this is just me being nit picky and obnoxious, but another part is me legitimately concerned that we are missing the point. We don’t have any idea what that First Christmas really felt like. So, in an effort to inform, educate, and potentially properly vent some of my frustrations, I’m going to be doing a series on the First Christmas. Just so you know which direction this road goes, I’ll start with the shepherds. Then, I’ll move to dates, times, locations, and their significance. I’ll also touch on the magi and, at the end, attempt to wrap all of this up in a neat little bow…pun intended. All throughout, my goal is to draw your attention to certain facts, some you may know and some you may not, for the purpose of getting you to feel the story rather than just know the story. For those of you familiar with my personal blog, you will surely recognize this as a very Eastern and Jewish goal. And you would be right.
When God took the children of Israel into the Promised Land, he told them it would be a land flowing with milk and honey. This meant that this land would allow for the flourishing of two groups of people. The shepherds would be able to herd sheep and goats who in turn would supply milk. The farmers would be able to raise crops like figs and dates. What does that have to do with honey? Well, there are two kinds of honey described by the word “honey” in the text of Scripture. There is bee honey which we’re all familiar with and the kind of honey we see in the Samson story, and there is second kind which is probably better translated by the English word jam. It’s produced primarily from the figs and dates and fruit trees of the land of Israel. Personally, I believe that this second type is the type mainly referred to in Scripture. God says this land he’s taking them to is so good, it’s flowing with milk and honey. So, in the mind of the original hearer, that means there’s a lot of room. There’s enough for everyone to flourish. The farmer and the shepherd.
After the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land, they recognize that there were natural divisions in the land already. Moving west from the Dead Sea you would cross the Judah Wilderness (David flees from Saul & Absalom, John the Baptizer is raised, Jesus’ temptation) up the Judah Mountains (climbing from 1400 feet below sea level to about 3200 feet above sea level) down the other side to the foothills, or shephelah, arriving at the coastal plains bordering the Mediterranean Sea. There are a lot of geographical changes in a short amount of time.
Interestingly, each of those places were designated for someone to live and work. The costal plains is where the pagans lived (the Philistines for example). The farmers occupied the higher portions of the shephalah and the nomadic shepherds wandered the Judah Mountains and Wilderness. Bethlehem is an interesting location because it sits right on the border of farm country and shepherd country which is why you can have the story of David the shepherd boy and Boaz (and Ruth) the farmer(s) happening in the same location.
One of the things that’s fascinating when looking at this story as a whole is how so little has changed between the first century and modern day Israel. They still use the same farming techniques. They still use the same shepherding techniques. They farm and shepherd in the same places. It’s all still very intact, and yet, in the West, we rarely return to this well to better understand the richness of the Biblical story.
Shepherds were then and still are today nomads. They wander the mountains and wilderness between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. You can actually see the Dead Sea from Bethlehem. It’s only about 15 miles away and the shepherds would wander this area with their flocks. Shepherds are nomadic because they are in search of “green pastures.” Forget the image of fattened sheep lazily eating and sleeping in more grass than they could ever consume. The fields in Israel were for farming and so the shepherd country was the Judean wilderness. Therefore, it was the responsibility of the shepherd to lead the sheep where there was food enough to get them through and keep them alive. (Sidebar: Great teaching on this by Ray VanderLaan in this video)
Because shepherds are nomadic and away for long periods of time, they become ceremonially unclean and many neglect the Law of God. However, there are exceptions. We all know that David used his time shepherding alone with his flock to mediate on and delight in the Law of God.
The flocks consisted of both sheep and goats. All shepherds have both because both serve different purposes for the shepherd and their family. This enters directly into the Biblical story because it becomes a metaphor for Jesus in his parable. If you want to know why, all you need to do is watch the shepherd with their flock. You will see a stark and interesting difference between sheep and goats. Sheep are never driven. They are almost always led exclusively by the shepherds voice. Goats, however, are always driven because they almost never obey the shepherd. In his parable, Jesus says he will separate the sheep from the goats. How? What will distinguish one from the other? Simple. One will obey his voice and one won’t. Jesus is clear that his sheep know his voice.
Lastly, shepherds, in this culture, if they are men, are sitting in the shade supervising. The actual work of shepherding is done almost without exception by little girls, little boys, young women, and old women. Early Christian and Jewish Cultural historian Ray VanderLaan, whose video I cited above, says, “I have never seen, in that bedouin culture, an adult male shepherding sheep.” In the days of the patriarchs, all of the people of Israel were shepherds. But even then, it wasn’t a noble or desired profession. It’s clear that the farming Egyptians hated the shepherding Israelites (Genesis 46:34). After Israel entered the promised land and began farming, shepherding became less desirable was handed down to young children, servants, and slaves. For instance, shepherding was done by David, the youngest of all Jesse’s sons (1 Sam. 16:11). King Saul’s flocks were watched, not by him, but by a servant from Edom (1 Sam. 21:7). Shepherds were undesired people in an undesired position.
One of the reasons I wanted to tie all this information about shepherds back to the original culture is because I believe when we do that, the true message of what God was doing on that First Christmas leaps out like never before. What that First Christmas was about, and what I think we miss with our porcelain nativity sets, is God inviting the weak and the nobodies to be a part of his story. Herod wasn’t there that night. The priests weren’t there. It’s shepherds. Dirty, unwashed, unkepmt, homeless people. People that couldn’t even enter the Temple without jumping through hoops. And quite possibly not men either. Maybe preteen boys or girls with their older sisters or grandmothers. And who are the other players? A pregnant 8th grade girl and an unknown builder from Nazareth. God has chosen to bring and proclaim the salvation of the universe through the instrument of average, ordinary people.
Next week: Dates, times, locations of the First Christmas and the potential significance of each.