I have four children. They all went to toddler groups, nursery, school and Sunday school and I estimate that over the past twenty years I’ve seen approximately thirty nativity plays. So with such a vast experience of the Christmas story you would expect me to know the tale quite well, but I’m reading Luke’s gospel at the moment and learning some new things about the characters that populate this all too familiar story. With a little extra study and help from some well grounded Biblical scholars I have been reading the first century Jewish context (rather than their tea-towel-on-the-head nativity play context) into the account.
Some Christians are nervous of too much academic input into our reading of scripture and rightly so where intellectualisation of the Bible has robbed it of the power to speak faith to us. We do not study the historical context of the books of the Bible to fuel our fire with proud arguments, clever reasoning or to distance ourselves from real lives, our own lives and the lived out realities of the everyday people of God. Instead we consider the historical Jewish backgrounds of the people and events in the Bible because the writers were themselves Jewish and their language of faith was layered with centuries of experiences, customs, traditions and language quite different from our own.
The first New Testament readers or even earlier hearers of this Christmas story would have their own particular associations with places, people and events in the story and these associations could be quite different from our own. Even individual word choice had the possibility of opening up whole universes of meaning for the original hearers that would be completely closed to us. For example, when they heard the story of the shepherds and the words of the angel, “Today in the town of David a saviour has been born” the town and the idea of a saviour were not random. Instantly they would have have linked the nativity shepherds to King David, who lived about 1000 years prior to the birth of Christ and to associated ideas of a Messiah and a future kingdom expectation. The biblical King David began life as a shepherd boy in the hills around Bethlehem. He was an unlikely candidate for kingship but went on to become eulogised as Israel’s most glorious and successful king. He united the people of Israel, led them to victory in battle, conquered land and paved the way for his son, Solomon, to build the Temple in Jerusalem. All the Messianic hope of the Jews of that time was focused on the House of David. In short they were expecting a Messiah who would be like David. After the death of Jesus the new theologians of the church began to piece together an understanding of the new covenant that could build a parallel between the life of David, shepherd boy turned king, and the life of Jesus, the Good Shepherd of John 10. It was a parallel that made new sense of the coming kingdom of God. It was the lynch pin in the turning of their hearts from the old covenant with an earthly King, an earthly temple and a written law to a new covenant with a heavenly King, inner worship and a transformed heart.
So the 18 short verses in the gospel of Luke chapter two that give us the account of how the shepherds came to visit the infant Jesus are much more than an example of God choosing a ragamuffin bunch of semi-vagrant agricultural workers to witness the first facts of the incarnation. In fact, a little study reveals that the social status of the shepherds was unique, complex and in many ways a social and religious contradiction, revealing to us some big picture truths about what God would achieve through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
It was unusual in Biblical times for livestock to be raised close to a town. People may have kept a few animals near to where they lived, but large numbers of animals would never have been reared close to human settlements because of the smell and faeces which presented a challenge to the religious laws of the time regarding cleanliness. Bethlehem however was an exception. The lambs raised in the lime stone hills around Bethlehem were destined for sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem, just six miles away and as such they and their keepers had special status. In the month leading up to passover the lambs would be made ready for the festival, for sacrifice or for eating at the passover meal. The shepherds who tended these specifically purposed flocks understood their responsibilities and they worked with the rabbis and priests to ensure that only perfect specimen were sent to the temple. These perfect lambs would be wrapped in swaddling clothes, just like the swaddling clothes of Luke 2.7 that Mary used to wrap her son.
Jewish tradition in the Talmund and Christian tradition in the writings of the early church historian Eusebius identify the area around Bethlehem as Migdal Eder meaning “tower of the flock”. This is the place where Jacob went after Rachel died, “Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder” (Genesis 35.21). It is also the place referred to by the prophet Micah when he says, “As for you, O watchtower of the flock (Migdal Eder), O stronghold of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you, kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem”. Archeologists and historians are unable to agree on the exact location of this place though it is reasonable to assume there would actually have been a tower there. This tower could have been for the shepherds to use in their work managing and protecting the flock, but some scholars have suggested it was provided for priests involved in the selection of temple lambs and essential in keeping these holy men separate from the unclean activities of shepherding.
Whatever the procedures it is certain that the shepherds lived firmly outside the city walls because the work they did left them unclean according to Jewish laws. The demands of their job and the time scales that they worked to would make it virtually impossible for them to visit the synagogue or the temple in Jerusalem. This would have isolated them from worship and faith practices that provided for the forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God. Ironically the shepherds whose lives were inexorably bound up in providing the sacrificial lambs that took away sin of the people were unable to personally receive this forgiveness for themselves.
So, when we read, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”, we understand that the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world will be born in Bethlehem because that is where all the sacrificial lambs come from. What an amazing message for anyone who has felt excluded from the loving kindness of God! Furthermore, as the shepherds get up off the ground and make their way to find the child, they are walking out of the old covenant that separated them from God and into the new covenant and a new relationship with God and new possibilities of complete forgiveness for sin and un-hindered access to God.
So if you have ever wondered about the unusual details of the nativity story consider how God likes to show rather than tell. Notice the breadth and depth of what he is able to show us when he has shepherd visit the infant Jesus. Consider the greatness of the kingdom truths and the impossible task of communicating them to fragile minds. He is not a wordy God of long theological explanations but he writes his truths for us in human lives and especially in the human life of his son Jesus.
Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then he sat down right beside God and waited for his enemies to cave in. It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process. The Holy Spirit confirms this:
This new plan I’m making with Israel
isn’t going to be written on paper,
isn’t going to be chiseled in stone;
This time “I’m writing out the plan in them,
carving it on the lining of their hearts.”
I’ll forever wipe the slate clean of their sins.
Hebrews 10.11-18 The Message
You can read more about Migdal Eder on Biblical Geographic.
Some scholars have explored the possibility of Jesus being born at Migdal Eder rather than in Bethlehem. Bill Blankschaen provides a short introduction to their arguments here.