Shepherds' Fields


"I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10).

From the Church of the Nativity we retrace our steps along Paul VI Street past the Lutheran Christmas Church to re-board the bus for the short trip to the large Arab village of Beit Sahour (below). which is thought to be close to the place where, according to the gospel of Luke, an angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds.

Beit Sahour ("House of the Night Watch") is a Palestinian town about one mile east of Bethlehem under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority. The population of 12,367 is 80% Christian and 20% Muslim. Here are three shrines commemorating the angelic announcement to shepherds caring for their flock of sheep in the fields outside Bethlehem. Again, we turn to the account in Luke 2:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:8-20)

Shepherds' Fields

Beit Sahour ("house of vigilance") seems to have been established in the mid-13th century AD, although it is not mentioned in Western literature until 1591 AD. Here is a field said to be where Boaz saw Ruth from Moab gleaning and was attracted to her. Probably nearby David, Jesus' ancestor and shepherd of the family flock, was anointed king by Samuel.

The rolling slopes are dotted with scrubby bushes and individual fields are fenced off by low stone walls or rows of silver-green olive trees. It is not surprising that early Christian tradition designated a particular location to the Christmas shepherds. Reports by numerous pilgrims mention an altar for prayer within a cave set apart by a walled garden area. Later records also mention a Monastery of the Shepherds, and by the 5th century AD Christians held vigils on Christmas Eve in the area before processing to the Church of the Nativity.

* Interestingly, the Hebrew word for watch (ra`ah, pronounced raw-aw') is also the word for shepherd, also "to pasture, tend, graze, feed."
As stated earlier, there are three shrines known as Shepherds' Fields in the eastern part of Beit Sahour one maintained by the Roman Catholics, another by
the Greek Orthodox and a third by the Protestants.

The Catholic chapel (below left) the Sanctuary of the "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," is in an area called Siyar el-Ghanam ("the place for keeping sheep"). Designed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, it was built in 1953 with donations from Canada and its shape is said to be reminiscent of the tents of nomadic Bedouin tribes. The only light in the interior comes from skylights in the dome (below right) symbolizing the relationship between earth and sky.


Paintings over three small altars depict the angel's announcement to the startled shepherds (below left) the shepherds paying homage to the baby Jesus (below center) and the shepherds celebrating the birth of the Messiah (below right).

Beyond the chapel is a cave, with soot-blackened roof (below right) set aside for small group worship.

Adjoining the chapel are the remains of a 4th century AD church (said to have been built by Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor), a larger 6th century AD basilica (destroyed by Persians in 614 AD) and a modest 7th century AD monastery (destroyed in the 10th century AD) (below left) which included a bakery, wine presses, animal pens and baptismal font.

About 1/4 mile south of the Catholic shepherds' fields is the Greek Orthodox shepherds' fields (above right) a site known as Kaniset el-Ruat (Church of the Shepherds). Today's church was built in 1972. According to St. Jerome it was the site of Migdal Eder ("Tower of the Flock"), where Jacob grazed his sheep on his journey south to Hebron after death of his beloved wife, Rachel.

Apparently Migdal Eder was derived from the watchtowers where shepherds kept watch on their grazing sheep. The Mishnah* confirms that blemish-free sacrificial animals for the Temple were grazed at Migdal Eder.

* Mishnah, a Hebrew term meaning "repetition" or "study," is the name given to the oldest post-Biblical compilation of Jewish Oral Law. The prophet Micah alluded to this place when speaking of the coming Messiah:

As for you, O watchtower of the flock, O stronghold of the Daughter of Zion, the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem (Micah 4:8).

After visits to the Catholic and Greek churches, pilgrims can walk eastward to a meadow (below left) on the left filled with pine trees. This is the Protestant Shepherds' Fields at the YMCA Rehabilitation Center; here are a number of large caves (below right) where pottery remains have been found.


Additional background


Those despised shepherds!!!

The Bible is filled with references to shepherds and sheep. Such great Old Testament patriarchs as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds at some time in their lives. Yet, in Jesus' time, shepherds had a bad reputation. Rabbinic literature lists "shepherd" as among the most despised occupations. Most of the time they were thought of as thieves and were generally considered dishonest. Some might steal a sheep and report to its owner that it was lost or eaten by a lion. This is far from the positive image of a shepherd leading his flock to green pastures and still waters presented by the twenty-third Psalm, which remains one of the most beautiful images of shepherding ever written.

It is significant that shepherds were the first to hear the news of the birth of the Messiah, and were the first to bear witness. The most humble and despised became the most honored.

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