Devotional: The Shepherds

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2: 8-11).

The shepherds of the story of the birth of Jesus were living in the fields. Most of the residents of the community of Bethlehem were farmers, tradesmen, skilled workers, or businessmen. While the farmers of the community may have also had a few sheep or goats, they are not the shepherds of this story. They would be living in their hillside homes and not in the fields.

Shepherds who were living in the fields were nomadic. They were most likely similar to the Bedouin, who to this day live in tents and observe the traditional the nomadic desert life. While some Bedouin are more settled, traditionally they move their tents and flocks to the desert between December and June; and to the fields from July to November.

A nomadic shepherd family in the fields

In the land, conflict between the shepherds and farmers is ongoing. Because there is limited food for the flock in the desert, shepherds are eager to bring their flocks to the field. Because flocks arriving before harvest destroy crops, farmers and shepherds clash. Still, flocks provide fertilizer in the right season, and so the farmer and shepherd have a love/hate relationship.

The primary harvest in the biblical story was the wheat harvest. It coincided with Pentecost (late May or early June). For two weeks after the harvest, the poor were given access to the fields for gleaning. After that, the nomadic shepherds were welcomed.

The winter rains were prayed for in the fall (aligned with the Jewish feast of Sukkot). When God sent rain, it began in late November and continued through February. The seed had to be in the ground before the rains. The shepherds were expected to leave the fields and return to the desert (wilderness) before December.

The nomadic shepherds traveled and lived in their family groups. The shepherds living in the fields that night were unlikely to be a just a few middle-aged men. The angels of the story more likely appeared to one or more family groups.

Nomadic shepherds were on the lower rung of society. Nomadic life was not easy. There was little water, so these folks were not very clean or well-groomed by village standards. It was more important for the precious supply of water to provide a drink to the family’s flock.

God chose shepherds to be in the story of Jesus’ birth. While angels appeared to both Mary and Joseph to announce the conception of Jesus, the gospels do not place angels at the manger. Instead, God sent them to announce the good news to a shepherd family.

Who is Jesus to these shepherds? He is the one true Messiah and Son of God. He was born in a shepherd’s cave. It was a place to escape the coldness of night. But more so, it was symbolic of the world he came to save: a sin-sick world illustrated by the manure and stinking soot of the cave. Jesus was not born in a palatial palace, but in a dirty place used for temporary shelter by shepherds.

Shepherds are lower-class, ordinary folks. Jesus died for all who believe – rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, young and old, Jew and Gentile. There was no better picture of the gift of God to all humanity than the appearance to the lowly family of nomadic shepherds.

Throughout the Old Testament, God uses the metaphor of shepherd and flock to describe his relationship to his children. God chose under-shepherds to guide his human flock. Moses was trained as a shepherd of sheep and goats for 40 years before being entrusted with his flock of chosen people.

God appointed priests to be shepherds of his people Israel. Ezekiel prophesied a warning to them that God himself would come and replace them and be the shepherd to his own people. They failed; God came. Jesus was born. Jesus later declared, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

Jesus was born in a shepherd’s cave. The Good Shepherd was first announced to shepherds. The Good Shepherd came to do what God’s appointed leaders had failed to do. Jesus came to loving care for His flock. Jesus came to protect, guard, and lead His flock. Jesus came to be both shepherd and lamb.

Who is Jesus? “I am the Good Shepherd and I will lay down my own life for my sheep,” declared Jesus. It is the best news in the story of his birth.

Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services

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