The shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem, to this day, play a central role in the Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. The historian Alfred Eusebius linked these fields to a unique biblical location called Migdal Eder, which translated means the “tower of the flock”.
The first time Migdal Eder, the tower of the flock, is mentioned in the Bible is in the account of Rachel, who died after giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob.
So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. Genesis 25:19–21
In the context the “tower of Eder” or “tower of the flock” was located near Bethlehem.
Fulfillment of a Promise
About a thousand years after Rachel’s death the prophet Micah spoke about the still-future birth of Israel’s Messiah. Here Micah also predicted the reappearance of God’s kingdom at Migdal Eder—the tower of the flock:
And as for you, tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you it will come—even the former dominion will come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem. Micah 4:8
According to Micah, this place called Migdal-Edar, or tower of the flock, carries not only significance, but also a promise. Considering this verse, might it be likely that the angels would have proclaimed the fulfillment of the promise to a certain group of people who would understand the significance?
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, [though] thou be little among the thousands of Judah, [yet] out of thee shall he come forth unto me [that is] to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth [have been] from of old, from everlasting. Micah 5:2
According to the Mishnah, Jewish sacred writings which include the Torah, all cattle found in the area surrounding Jerusalem “as far as Migdal Eder” were deemed to be holy and consecrated and could only be used for sacrifices in the Temple, in particular for the peace and Passover sacrifices. Thus, there was a special, consecrated circle around the city of Jerusalem.
One of the best known and most important references on the life of Christ was written by Edersheim. His “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” is a storehouse of information on the background of the New Testament. His work portrays the streets, the marketplaces, the religious conflicts, the people, and the places of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Here he talks about the relevance of Migdal Eder:
But as we pass from the sacred gloom of the cave [i.e., he was just talking about the birth of Jesus in a cave] out into the night, its sky all aglow with starry brightness, its loneliness is peopled, and its silence made vocal from heaven. There is nothing now to conceal, but much to reveal, though the manner of it would seem strangely incongruous to Jewish thinking. And yet Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, “the tower of the flock.” This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds. The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible. The same Mishnaic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before the Passover—that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine the average rainfall is nearly greatest. Thus, Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder, where shepherds watched the Temple-flocks all the year round. Of the deep symbolic significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak. ~Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, pp. 186-87
Edersheim suggests that the flocks kept at Migdal Eder were destined for temple sacrifice. The shepherds keeping watch over these sheep knew the purpose for the lambs under their care. They wrapped the newborn lambs in swaddling ‘cloths’ to protect the body of the lambs which would be offered as sacrifice at the Temple. Wrapped in swaddling cloths to keep the new lambs without spot or blemish, they would be laid in a manger until they had calmed down.
Rabbi Mike Short, writes, “We know that Migdal Eder was the watchtower that guarded the Temple flocks-those who were being raised to serve as sacrificial animals in the Temple. These were not just any flock and herd. The shepherds who kept them were men who were specifically trained for this royal task. They were educated in what an animal that was to be sacrificed had to be and it was their job to make sure that none of the animals were hurt, damaged, or blemished.” (Migdal Eder, Rabbi Mike L. Short, Beth El Messianic Congregation, Glendale, AZ)
The shepherds keeping watch over the temple sacrifices were the ones to whom God announced the birth of the ultimate “sacrificial lamb”. The angelic announcement gave simple shepherds a profound revelation of who this Messiah would be. He was proclaimed to be both King and Priest. That he was both Christ and Lord, the Son of Man but also the Son of God. He would be the Savior of humanity, but also the Shepherd of all those who would follow his voice.
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. 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. Luke 2:8-12
It was not just a declaration of the Good News to simple shepherds. It was a powerful prophetic sign to all of Israel.
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. Luke 2:15-20
As we celebrate the birth of the Savior, the question is, just as the shepherds made known to others as it had been told them, will you make it known to others as it has been told to you?
While Shepherds Watched Their Flock by Night
While shepherds watched
Their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around
And glory shone around
“Fear not,” he said,
For mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind,
To you and all mankind.”
“To you in David’s
Town this day
Is born of David’s line
The Savior who is Christ the Lord
And this shall be the sign
And this shall be the sign.”
“The heavenly Babe
You there shall find
To human view displayed
And meanly wrapped
In swathing bands
And in a manger laid
And in a manger laid.”
Thus spake the seraph,
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song
Addressed their joyful song
“All glory be to
God on high
And to the earth be peace;
From heaven to men
Begin and never cease
Begin and never cease!”
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