The Shepherds and Their Sheep
Today and tomorrow we’re looking at the exciting events of Holy Night! Today we’re taking a look at the life of a shepherd. Who were they and what does their story have to do with you personally? You’ll be amazed as we take a deeper look at what this message means – I know I was!
1 Samuel 17:15; “But David went and returned from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.”
From the days of Jacob living in Egypt with his sons, shepherding had been the family business. Genesis 46:34 While the Bible gives us stories of great heroes who were shepherds, David,Amos, Abel, Abraham, andIsaac, society looked down on them. The stereotype of the hireling shepherd being shiftless, uneducated, and worthless, was general knowledge that had been passed from one generation to the next for centuries.
Because of their duties, they were ceremonially unclean, making them unfit to enter the temple. Their duties also prevented them from attending temple because their flocks needed a watchful eye 24/7; keeping the letter of the Law wasn’t registering anywhere on their radar.
The occupation of being a shepherd was considered to be the lowliest job onecould ever hold. They rated near the bottom in being the most reputable, with the hireling rating even lower than that. The hireling typically had no emotional ties to the job he was doing, and had no other vested interest other than to collect money. Most were hired if the owner’s flock was too large to take care of himself. This is why Jesus made a distinction between the two, and warned us in the Bible of the differences.
John 10:11-13; “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. 12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. 13 The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.”
The Shepherds in the Field
By and large, the reputation of a shepherd usually preceded them wherever they went. Most of the hirelings were notorious for taking advantage of people by swindling money from the unsuspecting, and being untrustworthy. and those are just a few of the reasons for their bad reputations. The websiteJesusWalk.com reveals even more unsavory details, giving us a robust visual on why the angels that appeared to the shepherds, who were looked down upon, was such a miraculous event –
“Jeremias cites Rabbinic sources stating “most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land. Because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock. Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property.” …
Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses.  A midrash on Psalm 23:2 reads, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.”  Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria (25 BC – 45 AD), wrote about looking after sheep and goats, “Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious.” ”
Adding insult to injury, the reason shepherds weren’t allowed to be admitted as witnesses in court is because people believed they were too incompetent to put 2+2 together. Their lives were spent outside the upper echelon, they were hated and despised, and at the same time they were an absolute necessity to the economy, if not Israel itself. Without shepherds, Israelites would be unable to fulfill the strict demands God had set forth to make sacrifices to be forgiven of their sins.
The shepherd’s experience on that Holy Night is a great reminder that God sees each of us intimately, and knows who we are. While society looked down on shepherds, Jesus made sure we knew the importance He placed on them by using a parable of how much the shepherd cares for his flock.
Luke 15:3-7; “And he spake this parable unto them, saying, 4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? 5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. 7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”
The narrative in Luke’s gospel reveals while these men might have been unclean to enter the temple, it didn’t mean they weren’t insensitive to the Lord. They were blessed with the job of telling everyone in the village about the countless angels who appeared to them personally, and told them about the arrival of the Messiah. God knew who they were, and had chosen them above everyone else to witness His glory!
Duties of a Shepherd
The majority of a shepherd’s life was spent outdoors, living in the fields with their charge in the lush green Judean hillsides. Bethlehem, six miles south and 100’ higher than Jerusalem, has always been well known for being the perfect spot tograze animals.
Ezekiel 34:14; “I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.”
At the end of each day shepherds would gather their flock and place them in a sheepcote which was made up of either a tangled clump of thorny bushes, or in the mouth of a cave, so common in the region.
1 Samuel 24:3; “And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave.”
John 10:1-3; “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. 2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.”
Shepherds in the eastern regions would never drive the herd as they do in the west. The shepherd was always there providing guidance and care. This isn’t to say he was always walking in front of them. There were a few times he would walk alongside them, and at night he’d walk behind them to catch any stragglers so they wouldn’t be picked off by wild animals.
Isaiah 52:12; “For ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight: for the LORD will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rereward.”
The Shepherd Knows Each Name
It was a well known fact the shepherd knew his sheep so well he could pick out each one while blindfolded. He loved all of them and was deeply concerned for their wellbeing, and would often give each of them a name. Likewise, the sheep knew their master, and wouldn’t follow anyone but him. The sound of his voice was all they needed to follow and obey.
John 10:4-5; “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. 5 And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.”
It’ also been noted while out in the fields, the shepherd might actually play with the sheep to break up the monotony of his job. He did this by pretending to run away, but then allowing the sheep to overtake him. (Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible, Vol. I, p. 222.)
At that time of year (April to November), fields were pregnant with countless herds and their dutiful shepherds keeping watch over them. It’s safe to say this particular herd and their masters on this night weren’t far from the temple, being fattened for upcoming temple sacrifices.
Luke 2:8; “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
The Greek word for abiding is ‘agrauleo’ which means to ‘camp out’ and keeping watch in the Greek is the word phylassō, meaning ‘the idea of isolation; to watch, i.e. be on guard (literal or figurative); by implication to preserve, obey, avoid :- beware, keep (self), observe, save.’
These two words together carry the idea the shepherds made sure the sheep were safe from wandering, or harming themselves.
Written in the Mishnah (codification of the Jewish Law), was a rule that any animal found grazing, or otherwise, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem was subject to being used as an animal sacrifice regardless of who owned it, or why it was there. If the rabbis found there were more people than available animal sacrifices, they had the right to take the animal. To get an idea of how many sheep dotted the landscape, imagine the year Jesus was crucified. Depending on where you retrieve your info, the number of people at Passover the year Jesus was crucified ranged anywhere from 250,000 to 2.7 million.
Shepherds Become Evangelists
Imagine being the one chosen to deliver the message the Messiah was born that very night in your village! The sheep they were tending were a foreshadowing of what would happen just three decades or so later.
Going into town to declare the good news the Messiah had arrived was an over the top big deal. It was rare to see a shepherd in town, not to mention a few of them out looking for a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Luke 2:15-17; “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. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.”
There was no doubt in the minds of the shepherds what the angels told them. They left straightaway, and dutifully performed their job just as they had always done watching over their flocks.
Are you as willing to share the Good News with those who haven’t heard?
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at events that took place with the angels and God’s glory!