With the town so crowded and noisy the past few days, the young men were glad to be in the fields. A few lights still flickered in Bethlehem, but gradually the town was growing dark as lamps were extinguished. The census had caused the City of Bread to overflow with people, and noise.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people." Luke 2:8-10 NKJV
Living in the pasture was their life with few warm meals, away from family most of the time, performing a job that was often overlooked, unappreciated and considered unclean. In Aramaic the word for shepherd is ra’a, רעיא. Ra'a comes from the Hebrew word expressing the idea of a deep passion, to watch, guard and to work for the LORD. Good shepherds had sincere passion and commitment to guard the flock entrusted to them. Lambs often wandered off to fall into one of the ravines around the hill country, thus demanding constant watchfulness and quick responses. Shepherds knew the risks, their life might be required to rescue or protect the animals entrusted to them.
The "nearby" fields, filled with the soft bleating of lambs was considered part of Bethlehem proper. In the midst of the field stood Migdal Eder, the Tower (migdal) of the Flock (eder). It was a strong stone structure used as a watch tower on top with enclosed, birthing stalls below. While family flocks were kept in pastures further from town, these shepherds enjoyed the valley down the hill between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The young men watching this flock were part of a long ancestral heritage of Levitical shepherds selected to care for the Temple sheep. It was not a glamorous job, but these men took pride knowing they had been chosen for this special task.
"As for you, watchtower of the flock (Migdal Eder), stronghold of Daughter Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.” Micah 4:8 NIV
These Levitical shepherds understood the importance of the sheep in their care, so the lambs were guarded by teams working in shifts. The Greek word translated as watch in Luke 2:8 is "phulake" which actually means to guard, prevent from escape. The shepherds, understanding the value of these lambs, were organized into teams working four shifts. There was the morning watch, the evening watch, the midnight watch, and the cock crowing watch.
These men cared for lambs destined to be offered for Pesach, Passover. Each spring, first born, male lambs born in the sacred stable of the tower, were carefully examined then wrapped in cloth, keeping them protected so they could be presented without blemish for holy sacrifices the following spring.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be our peace. Micah 5:2-5a NIV
Jewish tradition taught the Messiah would come at midnight. As the shepherds guarded the pascal lambs during the midnight watch, how often did they look to the sky at night and wonder if this night would be the night?
“ ‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’ ” Ezekiel 37:24-28 NIV
After a year of the tenderly caring for these animals, knowing each one by sight and sound, the shepherds would take the first-born, perfect male lambs up the road to Jerusalem to be purchased for sacrifices, on the same hill where Abraham had been willing to offer his son Isaac. The cycle continued as the LORD had ordained.
O LORD, You bless ordinary men who are watching for You, those who know Your Word, see Your heart and walk in obedience to Your will. Our jobs may not be glamorous or pretty, but when we cooperate with Your good plans, we will see You. Please shine Your light upon our lives that we may see the Salvation You have sent to us. Fill us with Your joy, and help us to know Your love for us, to seek Your face, not the gifts from Your hands. Thank You for Your Presence. We praise You and give thanks for Your abundant love for us which provide for our salvation through Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen