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Category Archives: Holy Days

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 5

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shepherds abiding in the fields

The shepherds did what they had done for endless days and nights—too many to remember—for a lifetime, really. That meant the constant search for food and water, and protection from thieves and varmints.  In the spring it was not so bad. Pastures were lush and green, and a flock ideally could graze near the home of its shepherd. And when the grain harvest was over, and the poor had gleaned their fill, the sheep came along behind and took care of the leftovers. Later the searing heat of summer transformed standing fields of grass into hay. A good shepherd[1] expertly navigated his flock through these cycles, in first one location and then another. He knew where fresh water flowed, and where wells with watering troughs were situated. Autumn and winter, however, presented the most challenge.

As the temperature began to moderate, and the nights grew cooler, the shepherd knew it would only be a matter of time before the winter rains, and the survival of his flock rested squarely on his shoulders. First he must find shelter, ideally in a cave turned sheepcote. If not that, then he would have to find a protected site, perhaps in a valley or on a sunny hillside, and build a sheepfold of large stones piled three to four feet high, secured with a gate, and topped with thorn branches to discourage predators, both men and beasts. (The bandits of Israel were known to climb stealthily over the walls of a sheepfold, drop in among the sheep, kill[2] as many of the hapless animals as possible by slitting their throats, heave them up and over the stonework into the arms of awaiting accomplices, and fade away without being caught.[3])

Sheep and lambs spring 2011

Sheep and lambs spring 2011 (Photo credit: Ambersky235)

Unlike goats that will hunt for the best feeding grounds, sheep had to be led by their shepherds to food and water. If there was little in the way of grasses to be found, the resilient caretakers must scour the countryside for anything edible including leafy trees and bushes—quite an undertaking if the flock was large. At the end of a day of foraging, the animals were led back to shelter, carefully counted and safely secured behind gated walls. Both animals and herders could then settle in for a night’s rest.[4]

Visitors from another realm

And so it was, on a seemingly routine fall night somewhere in the countryside near Bethlehem, that a particular group of shepherds bedded down with their flocks, tired and ready for sleep.[5] Tradition[6] has it that these were no ordinary shepherds; that these men were charged with tending flocks destined to be used as sacrifices during the Passover season in Jerusalem.[7] Newborn lambs demanded the most care and scrutiny because only the perfect males of the first year could be used for the Passover sacrifice itself, and thousands would be needed. Any shepherds responsible for such a flock would be held to strict account when they delivered their charges to the priesthood and the Temple.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a being like none they had ever seen before appeared, and said: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” The very glory of the Lord shone all around the terrified shepherds; their hearts quickened as they heard the exuberant praises of an innumerable multitude of angels fill the night air. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”   (Luke 2:10-15). As though an invisible curtain had dropped, the heavenly host was gone, and all was quiet once again.

Though stunned by fright and amazement, the shepherds’ instant response was one of faith: to personally witness the event that had surely come to pass in Bethlehem.  Luke says, “They came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (2:16). They could not contain themselves. Everywhere they went, they heralded the glorious news:  A Savior has been born! Spread the word! He has come!

When at last they returned to their flocks they continued to praise and glorify God concerning the things they had heard and witnessed that astonishing night. What unlikely messengers—social outcasts—of the gospel of peace.

Meanwhile Mary kept all these things in her heart, pondering the workings of God in her young life.

Sedition afoot?

It didn’t take long for word of the shepherds’ cosmic encounter to reach Jerusalem and create a buzz of excitement throughout its environs. Herod’s ubiquitous spies hastily brought him a detailed report, and he, too, pondered these things—but not as the workings of Israel’s God. This smacked of nothing less than sedition. He, Herod the Great, would know more about this so-called “Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

(To be continued.)


[1] Society held a certain disdain for the lowly shepherd class. See The Woman’s Study Bible (1995), p. 1690. “Shepherds were often viewed as outcasts, and as dishonest, and unclean according to the Law.”

[2] It is interesting to note Jesus’ later reference to this nefarious activity in John 10:7-10: “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’”

[4] Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 231. “…the shepherd also had to look after the sick sheep and those that were hurt, take care of the gravid ewes and the new-born lambs, make wethers of the male lambs that were not to be kept for rams, and tithe the flock according to the Law, which was done by making all the animals pass through a narrow gate, every tenth beast being set aside for the priests.”

[5] If the flock was particularly large or perhaps a combining of several different flocks (which, in regard to this event, the Bible doesn’t indicate) each shepherd would stand his designated watch to insure safety throughout the night from thieves and predators. See Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 230.

[6] See Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), pp. 80-81; also Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (updated edition, 1993), p. 131; and The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, note on Luke 2:8, p. 845.

[7] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, in their book, Killing Jesus (2013), mention that the high priests controlled the sale of Temple lambs at Passover and received a cut of every exchange made by money changers. They owned vast farms and estates which garnered additional profits for their bottomless coffers (p. 228). It is possible that this flock was owned by some temple official.

Wine and Beer in the Ancient Near East

Harvest celebration

 In ancient Israel the high point of grape harvesting was winemaking, “an activity which was carried out by the vinedresser and his family.”[1] The treading of grapes in the wine press was “accompanied by music.” Grape juice flowed into troughs and was later poured into large jars. Do you picture the vinedresser’s happy family—father, mother, and children—laughing, slipping and sliding on grape skins? It probably didn’t happen that way.

Ancient Wine Bottles

Ancient Wine Bottles (Photo credit: Ryan Opaz)

Production line

 From Egyptian drawings of winemaking, men did most of the work. Men are shown treading the grapes and carrying storage jars to cellars where the wine fermented. If the Egyptians and Israelites followed similar winemaking techniques, men and women picked grapes, but men carried the heavy baskets and treaded the press. Archeologists discovered several wine presses in the cities of Gibeon and Beth-shemesh, (also En-gedi, Samaria, Shiloh and Timnah) suggesting that these areas were centers for wine production in ancient Israel. “Jars discovered in the Gibeon were inscribed with names of winemakers, an indication that these jars were returnable.”[2]

The first wine—a fortuitous accident?

Where did wine come from? In researching the role of women in making and/or providing wine for their families, I was given an article entitled “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt.” The authors wondered if wine came into being by accident. Did ancient people come across wild grapes that had fermented on the vine? When they placed harvested clusters into leather bags, did some of the fruit crush and make juice that fermented at the bottom of the bags? Did the ancient people experiment with wild grapes and fortuitously come up with an intoxicating drink? Researchers can’t prove how wine was discovered, but they have tracked down the earliest evidence of winemaking.

The authors believe that when the ancient peoples moved from a nomadic existence and settled in cities, they became farmers and tillers. They learned how to grow and process food, including how to make wine and beer. The “best candidate for early wine making and viniculture”[3] is in eastern Turkey, somewhere in the region of the Taurus Mountains.  Archeologists found pottery jars there with traces of tartaric acid “which occurs in large amounts in nature only in grapes” and residues in the same jars of “terebinth tree resin,”[4] a preservative that would have extended the life of the wine.

Beginning or revival?

Getting back to the origin of wine, there is a school of thought which hypothesizes that grape domestication, and its attendant wine culture, began in a specific region and spread across the ancient world.

The Bible records that after the Flood, Noah landed on the slopes of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. When Noah settled there, he planted a vineyard and made wine. Whether this was the actual beginning of winemaking, or perhaps a revival of pre-flood viticulture is not addressed by the Bible. [5] It is safe, however, to note that from that time on, wine production eventually spread throughout various existing cultures.

Home brew?

With grape-growing and winemaking an established industry in Palestine, did individuals plant grapes and make a little wine at home? I imagine some families planted grapes to eat as fresh fruit and raisins, to make vinegar and syrup and to press into dried fruit cakes. However, the quantity of grapes needed to make wine, the skill involved and the fermentation time, make it likely that men and women bought wine for the family from a vintner—perhaps in refillable jars?

Israelites also drank beer made from barley and wheat. To celebrate the annual Holy Days, the people set aside money to spend “for whatever your heart desires; for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink.” [6] The Hebrew word sikura or shekar translated similar drink or strong drink includes any number of intoxicating beverages made from apples, honey, dates, wheat and barley.

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on displ...

Wooden brewery model (Middle Kingdom) on display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. Barley beer is being brewed, with the men on the left mashing the yeast starter in a bowl for fermenting, while the ones on the right are bottling. The rightmost figure with a tablet tucked under his arm is a scribe, counting the bottles. RC 483 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was beer a significant beverage in Israel? Some scholars believe beer was as common in Israel as it was in other ancient countries; however, the word beer became associated with drunkenness in general, regardless of the beverage.

Israelites enjoyed a variety of drinks: wines fermented from fruit, some beer-like beverages fermented from grain; and non-alcoholic drinks such as sweet milk, soured milk and water. When used properly, wine had the additional benefits of making the heart glad and settling the stomach (Psalm 104:15, 1 Tim. 5:23).—Mary Hendren


[1] Borowski, Oded “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” p. 110

[2] Same source, p. 112

[3] “The Beginnings of Winemaking and Viniculture in the Ancient Near East and Egypt” (Patrick McGovern, Ulrich Hartung, Virginia R. Badler, Donald L. Glusker, and Lawrence J. Exner) p. 4

[4] Same source and page

[5] Is it possible that the origin went back even farther, and that God told Adam and Eve how to make wine? I’ve wondered about how God helped Adam and Eve learn to till the ground. Did He teach them how to support themselves by tilling the soil? The Bible doesn’t say. Later, when God cleaned up the corruption on earth, I’ve wondered if Noah took on board the ark plant material (grapes, wheat, fruit) for re-establishing staple crops? Again, the Bible doesn’t say how God took care of that.

[6] Deuteronomy 14:26

The sounds of music

In a past post, I referred to an artist’s representation of travelers in route to Jerusalem to observe a Holy Day. While pictures and the descriptions offered by various authors are helpful, there is something missing—the sounds of worship and jubilation.  I regret I can’t flip a switch, and give the reader a sight-and-sound experience, first century-style; I can, however, present examples of how music played a prominent part in the worship of God.

Some early expressions

  • To begin, let’s revisit a scene we all know well—when God delivered Israel from Egypt: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song…” (Exodus 15:1); “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (verse 20).
  • Deborah’s song in Judges 5 after Israel prevailed against Jabin, the king of Canaan.
  • Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 is also referred to as her “song,” or psalm of thanksgiving and praise, by several commentaries, including Barnes’ Notes, Keil & Delitzsch, and Adam Clarke’s.
  • When King David purposed to bring the ark of God back to Zion, he and “all the house of Israel played music before the Lord on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, and on stringed instruments, and on tambourines, and on sistrums, and on cymbals” (2 Samuel 6:5).
  • In my KJV Bible the heading for Luke 1:42 reads: “Mary’s song of thanksgiving.”

All these examples lead me to conclude music was very much a part of an individual’s act of worship. (I believe that holds true today.)

Special music

It is no wonder that psalms—whether chanted or sung—were a part of the three festival seasons. Mary Ellen Chase, in her book, The Psalms for the Common Reader (1962), writes about a group of psalms commonly referred to as “Psalms of Ascent,” “Psalms of Degrees,” or in her terms, “pilgrim songs.” These are Psalms 120 through 134. She says, “No other type of psalm, especially in terms of human significance, rivals or perhaps equals in appeal that type known as the pilgrim song. As its title suggests, it was a psalm sung by those who had journeyed from their homes, sometimes in distant places, to Jerusalem for one or more of the great festivals of the year” (page 58).

The song of Ascents appears in Hebrew and Engl...

The song of Ascents appears in Hebrew and English on the walls at the entrance to the City of David, Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A note in The Woman’s Study Bible regarding Psalm 120 says, “They [the songs of ascent] probably were sung by worshipers as they went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the great festivals each year.”

Anne Punton writes, “What did Jesus see as he looked around the Temple during Succot? The altar of sacrifice was decorated with willow branches. Processions of worshippers circuited the altar waving willow branches while choirs of Levites sang psalms to instrumental accompaniment” (The World Jesus Knew, 1996, page 113).

The importance of music

Musical training was a priority in some families.  “Music was played for all festivals and festivities, often as an accompaniment to singing or dancing. As a part of their education some Jewish children were taught to play one or more musical instruments, including the cymbals, flute and lyre” (Jesus and His Times, Reader’s Digest, page 154). The chapter continues, “In addition, a girl would probably have learned to sing and dance, and to play on an instrument….Music was permitted and even encouraged, provided that it was connected with religious festivities” (page 155).

One of my favorites

Psalm 122, a song of degrees by David, seems to embody the heartsong of all who traveled year after year to observe the commanded festivals in Jerusalem.  I only wish I could have heard it sung.

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go into the house of the LORD.”
2 Our feet have been standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem!
3 Jerusalem is built
As a city that is compact together,
4 Where the tribes go up,
The tribes of the LORD,
To the Testimony of Israel,
To give thanks to the name of the LORD.
5 For thrones are set there for judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls,
Prosperity within your palaces.”
8 For the sake of my brethren and companions,
I will now say, “Peace be within you.”
9 Because of the house of the LORD our God
I will seek your good.

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