In Christ's day, shepherds were
menial, despised. But Father God
picked them to first hear the
•by Randy C. Alcorn
o Christmas program is complete without its little band of gunnysack shepherds who, although frightened by the angel's sudden appearance, marvel at the good news they hear and rush to Bethlehem to see the Savior-King.
As they return to their flocks, they praise God and tell all who will listen about the birth of the , chosen Child.
Once they're through with their part, we let them leave the stage and hardly give them another thought. We've always been quick to dismiss those quaint Christmas shepherds.
But, actually, why did the announcement come to them at all? Why not to priests and kings?
In Christ's day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them.
Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of the glory of God?
Shepherds are mentioned early in Scripture. Genesis 4:20
calls Jabal the father of those living in tents and raising livestock. During the time of the Patriarchs, shepherding was a noble occupation.
In nomadic societies, everyone—whether sheikh or slave— was a shepherd. The wealthy sons of Isaac and Jacob tended flocks (Gen. 30:29; 37:12). Jethro, the priest of Midian, employed his daughters as shepherdesses (Exod. 2:16).
When Israel migrated to Egypt, the tribes encountered a foreign lifestyle. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding; sheep and goats meant death to crops. Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. The first murder in history erupted from a farmer's resentment of a shepherd (Gen. 4:1-8).
Egyptian art forms and historical records portray shepherds negatively. Neighboring Arabs, their enemies, were shepherds, and Egyptian hatred climaxed when shepherd kings seized lower Egypt.
Egyptians considered sheep worthless for food and sacrifice. Pharaoh's clean-shaved court looked down on the rugged shepherd sons of Jacob. Joseph matter-of-factly informed his brothers, "Every shepherd is detestable to
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the Egyptians" (Gen. 46:34 NIV).
In the course of 400 years, the Egyptians prejudiced the Israelites' attitude toward shepherding. Jacobs descendants became accustomed to a settled lifestyle and forgot their nomadic roots.
When Israel later settled in Canaan (c. 1400 B.C.), the few tribes still retaining a fondness for pastoral life chose to live in the Transjordan (Num. 32:1 ff).
In The Geography of the Bible, Dennis Baly states that after the settling in Palestine "there was a strong swing-over and pastoral-ism ceased to hold the prominent position in the thinking of the people." As the Israelites acquired more farmland, pasturing decreased. Shepherding became a menial vocation of the laboring class.
Around 1000 B.C., David's emergence as king temporarily raised the shepherd's image. The lowliness of this trade made David's promotion striking (2 Sam. 7:8). While poetic sections of Scripture record positive allusions to shepherding, scholars believe these references reflect a literary ideal, not reality.
In the days of the Prophets, sheep herders symbolized judgment and social desolation (Zeph. 2:6). Amos contrasted his high calling as prophet with his former role as a shepherd (Amos 7:14).
Shepherding not only lost its widespread appeal, but eventually forfeited its social acceptability. A strong prejudice materialized in Israel. In Kittel's Theological Dictionary oi the New Testament, Dr. Joachim Jeremias says shepherds were "despised in everyday life." In general, they were considered second-class and untrustworthy.
Some shepherds earned their poor reputations, but others became victims of a cruel stereotype. The religious leaders maligned the shepherd's good name; rabbis banned pasturing sheep and goats in Israel, except on desert plains.
The Mishnah also reflects this prejudice, referring to shepherds in belittling and demeaning terms. One passage describes them as "incompetent"; another says no one should ever feel obli-
gated to rescue a shepherd who has fallen into a pit.
Jeremias documents the fact that shepherds were deprived of all civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses.
"To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property," he wrote.
In another work, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, Jeremias notes: "The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was called 'my shepherd' in Psalm 23:1."
Shepherds were officially labeled sinners. Smug religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folk.
Into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, God's Son stepped forth.
How surprising and significant, then, that Father God hand-picked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to first hear the joyous news: "It's a boy, and He's Messiah!"
What an affront to the religious leaders who were so conspicuously absent from the divine mailing list. Even from birth, Christ moved among the lowly. It was sinners, not the self-righteous. He came to save (Mark 2:17).
The proud religionists of Christ's day have faded into obscurity, but the shepherd figure colors church life today as pastors "shepherd their flocks."
That figure was immortalized by the Lord Jesus when He said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11).
Christ is also the Great Shepherd (Heb. 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). No other illustration so vividly portrays His tender care and guiding hand.
As we gaze on nativity scenes and smile at those gunnysack shepherds, let's not lose sight of the striking, irony. A handful of shepherds, condemned by the social and religious elite as without worth, was chosen to break the silence of centuries, heralding Messiah's birth. D
MOODY / DECEMBER 1982