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From Chris's Heart

December 2008
The Real Shepherds of Bethlehem
by Nick Harris

On the first Christmas night, there were shepherds tending huge flocks of sheep in the fields near the village of Bethlehem. This was odd since in those days it was unusual for shepherds to tend large flocks near towns and villages. There was a reason for this. The odors of very large flocks fouled the air so badly that people could not breathe. So these large flocks were confined to areas far from the places where the general populace resided.

However, the village of Bethlehem was an exception. For thirty days, one time a year, an enormous flock of one year old lambs were allowed to graze near Bethlehem, and that time of year was the thirty days prior to the feast of Passover. The sheep that grazed in that
particular location belonged to the High Priest and his family. Every lamb had been declared by the priests to be unblemished and they were separated to be sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem or eaten as Passover lambs. The sizes of these flocks of lambs required a great host of shepherds that worked in shifts. Some watched the sheep while the others slept.

Bethlehem, itself, was/is a very interesting place. In the time of Jesus it was a picturesque place. It sits on a high cliff composed of limestone, and for that reason Bethlehem can be seen for miles in all directions.

The grazing fields where the Temple shepherds tended these flocks are in the valley south and east of this town beneath the limestone cliff. In the middle if this grazing area was a structure known as the MIGDAL EDER or the “Tower of the Flock.” This tower was used by the priests who oversaw the shepherds. By remaining in the MIGDAL EDER the priests were able to keep themselves from becoming ritually defiled.

So what is ritual defilement? Well, if one reads the book of Leviticus carefully, it becomes clear that there were a multitude of things
people living under the Law had to do to please the Lord. Among those were prohibitions against making contact with feces or dead things. When these things occurred, there were a number of purification rites that had to be strictly observed.

In a society fanatical about cleanliness, shepherds stood aside. They were never clean; it was impossible. They were constantly walking
about in excrement and touching dead things, and both activities left them in a state of ritual impurity.

Because of their defiled conditions, shepherds were not allowed to go to the Temple, to offer sacrifices, or to go to the synagogues, so any
religious experience a shepherd might enjoy had to be between himself and God. But to a Jew of that time and especially the Temple authorities the idea of worshipping God apart from the Temple was thought to be anathema. True religion was not a personal thing in their eyes, it was corporate.

So, for all these reasons, even the most pious shepherds were labeled as being unclean, and could not come into the presence of God. However, it would be these unclean, ritually contaminated shepherds of Bethlehem that would be the first persons God would assign to visit his Son.

It was seen as shocking for God to do this! These Bethlehem shepherds were seen as the last people that God should assign to this task. Most people would think that God would send those “intellectual giants” who could be found in the Temple. These men knew everything there was to know about God, or so they thought. After all, they would sit for hours and discuss the nature of God.

In fact, they knew so much about God that they knew exactly when God expected them to offer their sacrifices to God and exactly the right
moment to chant their songs and their prayers. They knew these things because they had studied the sacred traditions of the Jews.

After all, their sacred traditions came directly from God, or so they thought. So, they believed that they did everything in the right. The fact is, they were right; they were dead right. Their religion and religious practices had killed any hope they had ever had of forging a relationship with God. But they did not see this---they were proud of their religion.

However, when God, Himself, looked at this religion of theirs, He thought, “This disgusts me---all your offerings and religious activities are a stench in my nostrils.” So, these people may have been doing everything right in an external sense, but the relationship was missing.

Therefore, they had no real love for their God or their neighbors. They were simply doing their religious thing, and God said, “That disgusts me.” That is why God snubbed their religion, and that is why He still snubs religion.

Thank God that he chose to invite the lowest of the low, the irreligious to the birthday celebration of His Son. That means that the least among us are invited to have a relationship with His son. None of us are excluded. We do not need to be theologians to enjoy this Christmas relationship; we must simply be willing to come to Him as we are.

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