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40440Fw: Word Study - Shepherds

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  • Ruby Haskins
    Dec 26, 2013
      Luke 2:8 “And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock.”
          I remember as a child in church during Christmas time singing the song, While Shepherds Washed Their Socks By Night and wondering about this.  Eventually, I got my words right, but I still had questions.  Simple childlike questions like, “Why was the night watch so important that the Bible made sure to mention it and when did the shepherds sleep if they stayed up all night watching their sheep?”  But a question which was more important was, “Why did the angels appear to this particular group of shepherds and why to shepherds in the first place?”  Another question is that I thought shepherds worked alone, why were they grouped together watching the same flock?
          These were some of the key questions I planned to ask once I got to Bible college, but somehow the answers I got just did not satisfy me, you know stuff like they watched by night during certain times of the years.  Shepherds often let their sheep graze together and when they did they used the opportunity to share local gossip.  As to why God chose to reveal the birth of His Son to shepherds, well shepherds were the lowest class of people, sometimes they were even criminals and outcast. They were filthy, dirty scum of the earth types. After hearing that I really did not want to call my Jesus a Shepherd nor did I want to call my pastor a shepherd (although I met a few pastors I would call a shepherd in that context).  I soon learned about something called Christian audibles. Christians hate to admit that they do not have an answer for everything, especially Christian professors, so they will formulate some sort of answer that borders very close to I am not sure. I know some who used to be a Christian professor and developed quite a skill at calling Christian audibles. You usually know you have been given a Christian audible by that funny taste you get in your mouth after hearing the answer.
          So after tasting Papa Commentary Bear’s portage which tasted too hot, and Momma Christian teacher Bear’s portage which tasted too cold I went to Baby Jewish Teaching Bear’s portage which tasted just right. Of course I will admit that some people do like their portage too hot or too cold and that is just right for them.
          First we need to look at the word shepherd that is used here.  The Greek uses the word poimenes which means to feed, to protect. It is also a word for pastures as that is where the shepherd feds his sheep.  The Latin word for shepherd is pastor as in pasture where we get the idea that your pastor is your shepherd whose job it is to spiritually feed you.
          These shepherds in Luke were good shepherds because they were keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Actually, I am not sure where the idea of shepherds being the scum of the earth came from.  Often a shepherd was a young teenager, usually the youngest of the family who were charged with keeping watch over the family enterprise.  If no son were available some outsider would be hired.  Sure you might get some dirt bag who would dummy up his resume but for the most part you ran as much of a background check as you could on your candidate as you were entrusting him with your whole store.  I mean if you own a 24 hour convenience store you are not going to hire some ex-con to manage your store who will walk home with a bag of groceries after closing up for the night.  You are going to hire someone you can trust.  In fact from my study of ancient cultures I find that a shepherd was a well-respected profession in those days, every mother dreamed of her son becoming a shepherd, seriously.  So the idea that God sent his angels to the lowest scum to announce the birth of his Son just doesn’t hold water.
          The next question then is why did God reveal the birth of his son to shepherds and to these particular shepherds and why were they grouped together.  I think I found the answer to that in the Jewish Talmud. It was there I learned that the sheep which were to be used for the daily sacrifice in the temple were to be feed in the Bethlehem pastures.  These shepherds had charge of the most important sheep of all, the sacrificial sheep.  Such sheep were not left entrusted to just one shepherd but a team of shepherds, most likely from the tribe of Levi. They provided round the clock watch. There were four night watches where the shepherds worked in shifts.  There was the evening watch, the midnight watch, the cock crowing watch and the morning watch.  I have seen many a nativity play where the shepherds are laying on the ground fast asleep when suddenly they are awakened by a bright light.  Boloney!  The Bible clearly says they were watching their sheep by night.  The Greek words used here is phulassontes phuloakas which literally means guarding in the guardhouses of the night.  The shepherds in Bethlehem who were guarding (not watching) these sacrificial lambs worked around the clock sleeping in established guard houses when not on their shift.  These pastures were specifically owned by the temple for the raising of the yearling ewe lambs. These were not your nomadic shepherds wandering all over the place.  A sacrificial lamb had to be without blemish and without spot so they required extra special care and only the best of the best shepherds were chosen for this elite task of guarding these telah (little lambs)
          The Aramaic word used in the Peshitta for shepherd is ra’a.  This comes from a Semitic root which expresses the idea of a deep passion.  These are the good shepherds who feel such passion for their sheep and their duty to guard these sheep that they would lay down their lives for these sheep. Jesus as the good shepherd was a ra’a.
          The angels appeared to the best of the best of these elite Levitical shepherds, I know they were the best of the best because they had the most difficult watch, the midnight watch.  You see there is an ancient Jewish tradition that the Messiah would come at midnight, so it is very likely that Jesus was born at midnight.
          Here’s the real kicker, for these elite, dedicated ra’a (shepherds) to leave their telahs (sacrificial lambs) to abandon their duties, they must have been convinced that they were going to worship the true ra’a (shepherd) and telah (sacrificial lamb).  They probably realized that their jobs were done, there was no longer a need for the telah (sacrificial lambs) for the true telah had arrived.

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