Summary: As the scriptures say, the shepherds were the first to be told that the Christ child had been born. But why shepherds, and why these shepherds in particular?
Style: Dramatic (with touches of humour) Duration: 7min.
Actors: 4M, 1M/F
Four shepherds: (Reuben, Josh, Caleb, Asher)
(Background Note: Why did the angels appear first to the shepherds? Bethlehem was a centre for the production of wheat and barley but also a place where sheep were raised. But these weren't just ordinary sheep. They were lambs destined to be sacrificed in Jerusalem at the temple. The law required that every household had to sacrifice a lamb at Passover time - if they could afford to do so. This amounted to a very large number of lambs. Moreover, the regulations dictated that each lamb had to be without blemish. (Ex 12:5).
The corrupt sacrificial system which was in operation during the time of Jesus ensured that the Temple always made a fat profit. If you brought your own lamb to sacrifice, it was inspected by one of the Temple priests and the chances were high that it would be rejected as having some blemish. You were therefore forced to buy a lamb from the Temple itself. These lambs, naturally, commanded a high price and you couldn't just buy one with ordinary money. You first had to change your money into Temple money - at a disadvantageous exchange rate! These are the moneychangers referred to in passages such as Matt 21:12 and it was these types of "sharp" practices which made Jesus so angry.
Many of the Temple lambs were reared in fields near Bethlehem by shepherds who effectively worked for the Temple in Jerusalem. Whenever a new lamb was born, it was the duty of the shepherds to immediately inspect it to determine whether it had any blemish. A lamb which had some deformity (no matter how slight) was of absolutely no use for Temple sacrifice. It was slaughtered immediately.
The place where the angels appeared to the shepherds is traditionally known as the “Tower of the Flock,” or Migdal Edar, very near Bethlehem. One commentator notes:
This watch tower from ancient times was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts. It was the place ewes were brought to give birth to the lambs. In this sheltered building/cave the priests would bring in the ewes which were about to lamb for protection.
According to Edersheim in The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, in Book 2, Chapter 6, states, “This Migdal Edar was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks that pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but it lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. The flocks which pastured there were destined for Temple sacrifices…”
…The shepherds who kept them were men 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. These lambs were apparently wrapped in “swaddling cloths” to protect them from injury and also used to wrap the Lord Jesus.
Thus, with the establishment of Temple worship in Jerusalem, the fields outside of Bethlehem became the place where a special group of shepherds raised the lambs that were sacrificed in the Temple. Being themselves under special Rabbinical care, they would strictly maintain a ceremonially clean stable for a birthing place. The Tower of the Flock was used for birthing ewes, and the surround fields were where these shepherds grazed their flocks. These shepherds customarily kept their flocks outdoors twenty-four hours a day every day of the year, but brought the ewes in to deliver their lambs where they could be carefully cared for. It was to this place that Joseph took Mary. It was in this special stable at “Migdal Edar” that Christ was born!
(Two shepherds are standing round a fire.)
Josh: What on earth's keeping Caleb? We send him to get some takeaways and he's gone half the night. I'm starving. I'd have slaughtered one of these sheep long ago if they weren't sacred.
Reuben: You shouldn't have ordered Chinese. You know they haven't reached Israel yet.
(Caleb enters at the run, highly excited)
Caleb: I've got it, I've passed!
Reuben: You've passed something, all right – I can smell it on you.
Josh: Hand over the tucker and let's get into it.
Caleb: Umm…. I haven't got it. I forgot.
Reuben/Josh: (in unison) You forgot!!
Josh: How could you forget? We're starving. (Advances on Caleb, who backs away waving a piece of paper.)
Caleb: Wait, it's not my fault. I was waylaid by good news.
Josh: The only good news I want is a couple of mega-burgers.
Caleb: No, look. I picked up the mail on my way… and there's a certificate here for me. I've passed my Level 3 in Sacrificial Assessment.
Reuben: (Begrudgingly) Well, I suppose that's something – it took us a couple of years to qualify, too. Those exams are tough. But a certificate doesn't fill the stomach.
Josh: I vote we put one of these sacrificial lambs to good use.
Caleb: (Horrified) No, you can't! You know these are reserved for the Temple. We've been given a sacred trust to look after them. If anything happens to one, you know what’ll happen to us.
Josh: C’mon, who’s going to see.
Reuben/Caleb: We will.
Asher: (Has entered unnoticed by the others) And so will the Lord ... and me – and as far as you’re concerned, there won’t be much difference.
Josh: Oh crumbs, it’s Asher. I was only joking, your honour, you know I’d guard these lambs with my life. I would only have looked for one that had a bad blemish, and you know we have to kill any that are not fit for the Temple sacrifice.
Asher: I ought to know, I’m the one who’s taught you everything about this job. And don’t try and butter me up. You’re just lucky I’m in a good mood tonight.
Reuben: But what are you doing out here so late at night, Asher?
Asher: I came out to congratulate Caleb on passing his exam. He’s now fully qualified.
Josh: For whatever that’s worth. We might be highly trained, but we’re still outcasts as far as (mocking) “polite society” is concerned.
Reuben: And I’ve never heard of any of us getting a pay rise when we graduate.
Asher: Well, I can offer the next best thing. Seeing your hunger might have led you into some wayward paths, it’s fortunate I brought you a little something by way of celebration.
Josh: (Mutters) And here was me doubting you were really human!
Asher: I heard that, Josh, but for the sake of tonight I’ll ignore it.
(Asher unloads some food from a backpack.)
Caleb: Asher, I’ve got a question.
Caleb: You know one of Isaiah’s prophecies says, “He shall lead His flock like a shepherd.” Does that mean Yahweh is like one of us?
Asher: What on earth brought that on? You’re getting close to blasphemy there, Caleb. God is not like us – He is higher in all His ways, and it’s not for you to question.
Reuben: Anway, that prophecy is talking about the Messiah. That one day he will come and restore hope to Israel. Heaven knows, with this Roman occupation, we need hope...
Josh: ... and a deliverer.
Caleb: Why is God silent? It’s been 400 years since we heard His voice.
Asher: Who can answer? But in the meantime we go on doing what we have to do, and that includes not letting a single one of these lambs come to harm.
Josh: Anyway, I’m not one for theological discussion. Let’s eat.
(They are about to eat when there’s a bright flash of light, and Gabriel enters. The four shepherds fall the ground, with loud exclamations of terror. They try to hide behind each other, or whatever else they can find.)
Gabriel: Come out from hiding, there’s no need to be afraid. I have good news for you, a message that will fill the whole world with joy. You’ve been waiting for the Messiah – well, today he has been born. The Saviour, Christ the Lord, has been born right here, in this town of Bethlehem, the city of David.
Shepherds: (various exclamations) Here!? Bethlehem!? How can it be? Etc...
Gabriel: Go and see him. You’ll find the baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. Your Lord, the hope that you have been waiting for.
(The light flashes again, accompanied by a loud choir praising God. As the shepherds marvel, Gabriel leaves.)
Caleb: (Shakes his head, trying to get his mind straight) The Messiah! I can’t believe it, after all this time. Come on, we’ve got to go and see this – it’s a miracle too big for words.
Asher: The priests are not going to be happy they were not told first about this. There’s something wrong here – that the likes of you....
Reuben: Enough talking already.
(Caleb, Reuben and Josh turn and start off. Josh suddenly turns back and picks up a piece of food before rejoining the others. Asher hangs back.)
Asher: You’re all going to desert your posts? The priests will not be happy when they hear.
Josh: You’re going to put us on report, after all this?
Asher: I won’t tell, if you keep this to yourselves.
Caleb: Keep it to ourselves!! If this is true, the whole world won’t be able to contain it.
(They exit, while Asher leaves in the opposite direction).
© Copyright John McNeil, all rights reserved. The script may not be reproduced, translated or copied in any medium, including books, CDs and on the Internet, without written permission of the author.