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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.

Rain

Let us now fear the LORD our God, Who gives rain, both the former and the latter, in its season.

The Weather Channel provides a valuable service by forecasting storms and their likely severity. Because of the changeable weather in the United States, TWC gives up-to-the-minute data about what’s ahead and how to plan for it.

The weather in Israel is more predictable than here in the States. Israel has a long, dry summer with cloudless skies from April to October. This is followed by a cooler, wetter winter from November to March. The Bible describes this as a dry season followed by a rainy season, which begins with the former rains and ends with the latter rains. With all of winter being wet, is there any difference between rain that begins the season and rain that ends the season?

Yes, there is. The rains differ in importance. The latter rains of March and April are of “far more importance to the country than all the rains of the winter months.”[1] These rains “serve to swell the grain then coming to maturity.”[2] The latter rains come at the right time to stimulate the growth of grass and grain.

Ask the LORD for rain in the time of the latter rain. The LORD will make flashing clouds; He will give them showers of rain, grass in the field for everyone (Zech.10:1).

Both rains are essential, however. The former rain beginning in October loosens the soil hardened during the summer. Once the soil is softened, farmers plow and plant. “The sowing began after the Feast of Tabernacles (the end of October and in November), in the time when the autumn rains come gradually, thus leaving the farmer time to sow his wheat and barley.”[3]

The yoreh (former) and the malgosh (latter) rains are mentioned eight times in the Bible. The words former and latter rains are stated together in four scriptures (Deut. 11:14, Jer. 5:24, Joel 2:23 and James 5:7). The latter rains are referred to in Jer. 3:3, Prov. 16:15, Job 29:23. The former rains are not cited alone as they are less significant in the agricultural cycle. Both rains are necessary, however.

Then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled (Deut. 11:14-15).

Be glad then, you children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God; for He has given you the former rain faithfully, and He will cause the rain to come down for you—the former rain, and the latter rain in the first month. The threshing floors shall be full of wheat, and the vats shall overflow with new wine and oil (Joel 2:2-3).

 Were women affected by the rainfall pattern?

I believe women then felt a lifting of spirits when the rainy season ended just as many of us do today. A number of online references discuss Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a feeling of listlessness associated with insufficient sunlight. This mild depression ends when the sun shines again and gloomy weather is over. Scripture doesn’t discuss mood swings linked to sunlight, but Solomon comes close when he talks about rejoicing when the rainy season was over.

For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell. Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away! (Song of Solomon 2:11)

TWC reports that spring is a great time to visit Israel. “During February and the beginning of March, the entire country seems to turn green from the winter rains, and the wildflower displays in the Galilee and the Golan regions are truly spectacular.”[4]

עברית: פרחי בר באביב.

עברית: פרחי בר באביב. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Food Preparation

Women were busy with food preparation in the summer. Some portions of harvested grain were parboiled and stored for later use. Lentils and legumes were dried and put away. Women processed fruit, beginning with apricots and plums in May through grapes and figs in early September. Fruit was dried and threaded on strings, boiled into syrup, made into wine, and pressed into cakes.

Milk and cream became available in spring. Women fermented milk into a drink and boiled cream to make clarified butter for cooking. They made cheeses from curdled milk and hardened them in the sun.

In hot weather, women dried reeds for weaving into baskets and mats. They dried flax stalks for making linen and sun-bleached the finished material.

Family Dynamics

The thunder and lightning

The thunder and lightning (Photo credit: RonAlmog)

 The ending of the rainy season changed some family patterns. Shepherds, who kept their flocks close to home in the winter, moved them out to graze on “wilderness pasture” in the hills. They camped out with the sheep while grass was available and the weather was dry (Luke 2:8). As David’s experience show, shepherds were separated from their families periodically (1 Sam.16:11, 17:15, 17:34-35).

On a sober note, the kings of ancient Israel went to war when the rain was over (2 Sam.11:1). The ground was dry enough by then for soldiers to march. Men could find grass for their horses and early fruit and grain for themselves. I believe Israelite women felt the same anxiety that women have always felt when their men leave for war. Some of the battles in Israel were epic—thousands killed, leaving thousands of widows and children.

Weather is a powerful influence. It’s reassuring to know that eventually it will all be good. ♦ Mary Hendren

 

 

 


[1] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Rain,” p. 1061

[2] Easton’s Bible Dictionary, “Rain,” BibleStudyTools.com

[3] The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Agriculture,” p. 34

[4] The Weather Channel online, “Best Time to Visit Israel”

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