Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and as I think back on past Christmas pageants, it was usually boys who played the roles of the shepherds and wise men; girls were given the roles of angels. When I was looking for women in the gospels in writing my biblical fiction, it never occurred to me that the shepherds may have been women and girls.
Today, Pastor Erick Schuringa pointed out that being a shepherd was an ordinary, lowly job often done by young women and girls. What is extraordinary is that the first people to whom God announces the good news of the Messiah's birth are little girls. Laban's daughter, Rachel, was a shepherd (Genesis 29:9) and all shepherds were detestable to Egyptians (Genesis 46:33-34). God reaches out to the people we least expect, in the places we least expect. God uses the most humble, lowly people to bring the way of peace to powerful empires.
What Kind of People Were Shepherds?
In many places, women, girls, and young boys were shepherds. Traditionally, the oldest sons did the more skilled work, such as sowing and harvesting crops. The job of shepherding was relatively easy, though it was dirty and lonely, and it was shifted to the youngest in the family. The job of sheep herding was often done by the youngest son, the one with the smallest claim to any inheritance. When God sends Samuel to anoint one of Jesse's sons to be the next king, Jesse proudly introduces him to seven sons. He would not have thought of introducing his youngest son, David, and had to have him fetched from the sheep field at Samuel's request.
What if being a shepherd was the most detestable, despised and dishonourable job? Being a shepherd didn't pay well, it made you smelly and dirty, as well isolated. It was suitable for someone who was not good enough for anything else. Through the centuries, historians have raised the idea that shepherds were religious outcasts and ritually impure. They were considered unreliable and their testimony was not admissible in court. Educated urbanites may have scoffed at shepherds as dirty, rural, uneducated farm folk. Randy Alcorn was quoted as saying that shepherds were at "the bottom rung of the social ladder", comparable to tax collectors.
Most Christian scholars discredit these ideas and instead provide scholarship that honours the role of shepherd. It was done by great patriarchs such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. David was not only a shepherd himself, but he called the Lord his Shepherd in Psalm 23. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, and church pastors can compare themselves to Jesus and the great patriarchs when they call themselves shepherds. Christians revere shepherds as leaders, protectors, and caregivers who lead their flocks of believers.
But what if the Bible uses shepherds to demonstrate how God lifts up the lowly and uses the people of the lowest class to be models to follow?
How Does it Affect us Today?
The role of Pastor, minister, or clergy is described in Christian churches as a Shepherd to a church congregation. It is one of the roles that many churches prohibit women from performing. What if Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd to compare himself to a female caregiver who nurtured and protected her flock? If the job of being a shepherd was typically done by women and girls, what does that say about who may do the job of being a pastor? Is that why Christian theologians are so quick to discredit the idea that shepherds were considered lowly, immoral or unreliable?
What if the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20 were girls and young women? What if God chose women as the first ones to receive and share the message of the Messiah's birth? What if that mirrored how God chose women as the first ones to hear and share the message of the Messiah's resurrection? What if, in the prophetic words of Mary, God was demonstrating how he would scatter the proud, bring down rulers and lift up the humble (Luke 1:51-52)? What if God showed us from the very birth of Jesus that women were called to be shepherds, leading and protecting flocks of believers? What if God preordained that women and men share the roles of receiving God's news and sharing it?
May you ponder all these things in your hearts during advent, as you wait for the coming of the one who lifts up the lowly.