The Rest of the Story: Shepherds Abiding in the Field

Luke 2:8, Shepherds living out in the fields. According to the Mishnah (a rabbinic Jewish legal-historical document from the end of the second century AD), these were no ordinary sheep or shepherds, but were shepherds who watched over sheep that were destined to become burnt offerings, peace offerings and the Passover offering for the temple service in Jerusalem (Mishnah Sheq 7:4; The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Alfred Edersheim, pp. 132–133).

Shepherds and angel silhouette

Such sheep were kept in the environs of Jerusalem including Bethlehem which lies just five miles south of that city.

These sheep were apparently kept outdoors all year round. Presumably they were carefully watched over to keep them safe from incurring any blemish that might render them unusable for the temple service.

Imagine the spiritual and prophetic significance of heaven’s angelic messenger revealing to these shepherds the birth in Bethlehem of the spotless and sin-free Lamb of Elohim who was destined to be sacrificed from the beginning of the world (Rev 13:8; John 1:29; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 3:5). The angel announced that this newborn child was YHVH the Messiah (Isa 53:1; Christ the Lord)—the Savior (Luke 2:8 cp. Isa 53:6, 10–11). He once and for all would take away the sins of the world (Heb 10:10, 12), thus rendering their jobs as temple shepherds unnecessary.


5 thoughts on “The Rest of the Story: Shepherds Abiding in the Field

  1. I am currently researching the shepherds from Luke and shepherds/shepherding throughout the Bible. There is a teaching in the modern church that shepherds were outcasts, sinners, untrustworthy, banned from the Temple because they smelled and were unclean. It seems to me they have picked thru the oral law to fit their narrative of how fitting it was that God gave the message to the lowest of the low. I have had issue with that view for a long time. I am trying to find evidence in the Talmud and Mishah but it is long and difficult. One one hand it says that shepherding of small cattle was a decent profession to earn a living. On the other hand it mentions that many were considered thieves and also that they had the potential to cause strife with their neighbor because of grazing on their field; also citing an instance (if I remember correctly) in Galilee were they had to go thru private land to get to the open fields and therefore causing strife. Edersheim says the sheep watched were for sacrifice. If this was so then, it makes no sense that they would be outcasts since they were doing a service and raising product for Temple service and service for the people.

    • In the book of Exodus, we read that the Israelite shepherds were outcasts and detestable to the Egyptians, but I doubt this could have been the case in Israel, since raising sheep and other livestock was one of the main economic activities there. Yes, sheep are smelly, but so are every other animal. I grew up on a farm and we raised sheep. I’ll take sheep smell any day over that of chickens, for example. Pig smell is the worst! Thankfully, on our farm, we only raised biblically kosher animals, so there were no pigs. I suspect that shepherds and other lower class peasant type people might have been outcasts to the super-Pharisaical types who, like the Brahmam class in Hinduism, considered anyone belonging to a lower social-religious class to be vitally an untouchable.

      • The shekalim 7:7 of the Mishnah does not suggest that Migdal-Eder was used as a permanent location for sacrificial lambs. It seems it was a place for lost livestock (Mishnah Elucidated). In fact, any livestock found in a 6.8 mile radius of Jerusalem could be used for whole burnt offerings or peace offerings, depending on the sex of the animal for which offering. The idea was to restore the livestock to its owner. People finding free livestock would want to offer something they did not have to pay for. Once they would know to purchase the libation and meal offering, this would be out of pocket expense, they would then abandon the animal.

        Nothing suggests there were full time special shepherds enlisted to keep watch over sheep. It seems (?) a month in advance of Pesach (Nisan), sheep may have been left there by shepherds. I doubt lambs were born in Adar. Usually Iyar-Sivan (our April-June) are birthing months for ewes. So the lambs offered for Pesach were around 9-11 months old.

        The rabbis did not ban shepherds. According to the Mishnah Baba Kama, they banned livestock. Rather odd since there must be livestock for the altar: daily sacrifices and unintentional sin offerings. The Mishnah states it is because livestock eats crops. Their solution was to keep livestock in the wilderness, or Syria, etc. Reference the Gemara.

        Oh yeah, some circulate that the special shepherds were priests. Not true. Their function was to serve in the Temple, even those with certain challenges. They attended other tasks not related to the incense or sacrificial service.

      • Actually it’s Mishnah Shekalim/Sheqalim 7:4 that you’re referencing. And yes, no mention is made specifically of Bethlehem here, as Alfred Edershiem mentions in his book and which I quote. I am taking for granted that Edersheim, who was a rabbinic Jew and expert scholar turned Christian scholar, knew what he was talking about when I quoted him for my article. Maybe he didn’t. Don’t know.

        At the same time, Mish. Sheq. 7:4 mentions none of the other facts that you suggest in your comment, so I’m not sure where you’re getting that from. You reference the Gemara, etc. and give no references, so I can’t look it up to verify anything, and I like to verify everything either directly from original sources or from experts who have a good reputation in their field of study for being accurate historically, like Edersheim.

        By the way, I grew up on a sheep farm and shepherded them for 15 years. Ewe sheep come into estrus or heat cycle beginning in the fall season (in North America in Oct/Nov) when the days begin to shorten. The diminishing sunlight in their eyes due to the changing seasons triggers hormones that kick the ewe into heat. The heat cycle averages about 17 days and she is fertile or receptive to the ram during that period for only 24 to 36 hours. She will remain in this estrus cycle until she becomes pregnant. On our farm, we generally kept the rams with the ewes all the time. When the ewes would come into heat, the rams would sense this, and mate. Gestation period for a ewe is about 5 months. This means that she’d be giving birth to the lambs in February to March. Now this is for N. America. Don’t know about the Middle East; I never bred and raised sheep there.

        With regards to shepherds in the field and what Luke 2 says about that, no mention is made of lambs in this biblical passage or in Mish. Sheq 7:4, nor anything about priests.

        Beyond this, and with regard to the other points you raise in your comment, you’ll have to provide specific references from the Mishnah and Gemara, so that I can look them up, or else I’m just taking your word for it, like I did for that of Alfred Edersheim.

        As far as shepherds keeping sheep in the fields as Luke 2 mentions, sheep can stay outdoors all year due to their heavy wool coats, so this piece of info the Luke records isn’t strange to me. Sheep can handle cold and wet weather just fine. Just go to the highlands of Scotland or to N. Ireland!

        Thank you for your comments.

Share your thoughts...