8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
After two or three decades’ worth of nativity plays and services of lessons and carols, the Christmas story may seem familiar and comforting, yet increasingly threadbare to our ears, the dazzling wonder of its material dulled by much hearing. However, as we listen to these stories again, from a new vantage point, we may find ourselves surprised to notice things that we never have seen before.
The story of the shepherds is one such story, a story that has new facets that are made visible when seen from the perspective of other related scriptural narratives. Here I will concentrate upon two other biblical stories that have significant yet perhaps unexpected parallels: one comes from the account of the Exodus, the other from the end of Luke’s gospel.
Parallels between the Exodus and the narrative of the birth of Christ are prominent throughout, especially in the Matthean account. There is the dreamer Joseph who leads his family into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14). There is a new Miriam (Mary), a young woman who protects the new-born who will deliver his people. There is a infanticidal king. There is the instruction to return to the land once danger has passed (Matthew 2:19-21; cf. Exodus 4:19-20). There is the divine Son brought out of Egypt (Matthew 2:15; cf. Exodus 4:22-23).
In Luke’s gospel, 1 Samuel provides a more prominent intertext. However, Exodus themes are not absent. One of the places where we encounter these is in the story of the shepherds.
While fisherman are prominent in the New Testament, in which the gospel goes out beyond the land to reach the Gentile peoples, shepherds dominate the Old Testament. The patriarchs were shepherds, and distinguished from the Egyptians by that fact (Genesis 46:32-34; 47:3). Moses was a shepherd, as was David. In a familiar Old Testament image, both God and the leaders of Israel were regarded as shepherds of the people, with the nation as their ‘flock’ (e.g. Psalm 23; Jeremiah 3:15; 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34).
Moses was a shepherd (Exodus 3:1) and he delivered Israel from Pharaoh as a shepherd, using a shepherd’s rod to strike the enemy of his people and leading Israel through the wilderness like a flock (Isaiah 63:11-13).
Moses’ first encounter with YHWH was while keeping watch over his father-in-law’s flock. He saw an angelic appearance with glory phenomena, something that probably occurred at night, considering the appearance of the fire (Exodus 3:2). He was given the further sign that he would later worship YHWH on Mount Horeb with the people after bringing them out of Egypt (3:12).
The shepherds in Luke are watching their flocks, when they see an angelic appearance, accompanied with the glory of YHWH, and are also given a further sign. Here we should note the parallel between Exodus 3:12 and Luke 2:12:
[A]nd this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
The contrast within the parallel is striking, however. The sign received by Luke’s shepherds is that of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. The sign given to Moses—the pyrotechnics of Israel’s encounter with and worship of YHWH at Sinai—is eclipsed by the sign of an infant in a feeding trough. In both cases shepherds are led to an encounter with YHWH: in the first YHWH is shrouded in the dread darkness of the thundering and fiery glory cloud, in the second he has come as a swaddled child in a manger.
The significance of the sign of the swaddled child in a Bethlehem manger being given to shepherds probably arises from Old Testament prophecy. The Old Testament foretold the coming of a Messianic shepherd from the line and the town of David:
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.
An infant in a sheep’s manger in Bethlehem, the town of David’s own birth, is a sign that ‘she who is in labor has brought forth.’ The shepherds, symbolizing the leaders of Israel, encounter the promised Great Shepherd. However, there is a surprise: the one who was to feed the people as his flock is himself in the feeding trough. The Messiah will feed his flock, but not in the way that people might have expected: he himself will be their food.
Moses had a significant and foreshadowing encounter with shepherds at a well in Midian, prior his encounter with YHWH at the burning bush (Exodus 2:15-19). He delivered the seven daughters of Jethro from the abusive shepherds and watered their flocks. The one drawn from the water became the one who gave water in the wilderness. Moses’ later ministry involved resisting false shepherds and leading and watering the people as YHWH’s flock in the wilderness.
There is a striking foreshadowing element to Luke’s account of the shepherds too. Later in Luke’s gospel he describes Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body of Jesus of Pilate:
Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.
The comparison with the description of the birth of Jesus is marked—“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). The child wrapped in linen clothes and laid in the manger is later wrapped in linen garments and laid in the tomb.
The comparisons don’t end here. Shortly after the wrapping of the body of Jesus and laying it with the manger or tomb, there is the dazzling appearance of angels (Luke 2:9-14; 24:4). Once again, a sign is given, but the sign is no longer the wrapped body of Jesus in a stone container, but the unwrapped linen garments and the empty tomb (24:12).
The women within Luke’s resurrection account both receive the angelic message and serve as the angels to the apostolic ‘shepherds’. In both cases the result is ‘marvelling’ (Luke 2:18; 24:12).
The conclusion of Luke’s gospel also recalls the story of the shepherds. There the apostolic shepherds are charged as witnesses of the resurrection, who will make widely known the fulfilled sign concerning the Son (24:45-49; cf. 2:17). The gospel ends with words that echo the end of the account of the shepherds’ visit:
And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke’s account of the shepherds is the story of a wondrous and remarkable sign, reminiscent of the sign of the burning bush, anticipatory of the sign of the empty tomb, and revelatory of the promised arrival of the Davidic Shepherd. The shepherd Moses’ burning bush anticipated the greater sign of the burning mountain of Sinai, as YHWH’s presence later descended upon it, appearing to the people Moses shepherded out of Egypt. The wrapped child in the manger seen by the Bethlehem shepherds anticipated the greater sign of the unwrapped linen garments in the empty tomb to the apostolic shepherds.
We are called to be like angels to the ‘shepherds’ of our days, bearing glad tidings of great joy for all people. To the presidents, the prime ministers, the politicians, the business leaders, and all other rulers in our world we declare the advent of a new kingdom.
We declare a sign to them: not the sign of a burning bush or even a smoking mountain, but the sign of an infant in swaddling clothes in a manger and the sign of unwrapped linen garments in an empty tomb. The signs of the Good Shepherd, the signs of the Prince of Peace.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.