Much has changed in Palestine since the first century, but some things remain beautifully the same. In the hills surrounding the fields of Bethlehem, shepherding is practiced in much the same way it was 2,000 years ago. Even today, one can go there and see where families have established thier family sheepfolds in the caves that dot these hills. Once a family chooses a cave for the fold, they use rocks to build a semicircular stone wall out from it with the cave at the back. An opening will be left in the wall through which the sheep will be led each night to find safety and shelter. The shepherd will position himself in the gap of the wall on the ground, his back propped against one side and his feet on the other. Here he will sleep, serving as the door for his sheep. No predator or theif will come near them without crossing him first.
The pattern is followed day after day. The sheep are led out to graze in the morning, and back into the family fold for safety at night.
So why on earth were the sheep in Luke 2 in the fields at night?
“And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock.” Luke 2:8 ASV
The word “abide” here is the Greek word “agrauleo”which means “to camp out”. Why weren’t these sheep in their family fold? Why were the shepherds “camping out”?
One explanation is that it was the summer lambing season. Most lambs are born between January and March but there is a brief window of time in the summer when ewes give birth.
There is another, remarkable expalnation though. Bethlehem is only six miles from Jerusalem and these fields were historically used for the temple sheep. If these were indeed the pure lambs destined for sacrifice it would make perfect sense why they had no family sheep fold in which to take refuge for the night. These sheep would also need constant supervision from sleepy shepherds camping out in the fields to ensure their purity.
Countless sheep had been raised, and slaughtered. Oceans of blood had washed the temple courts, but as the author of Hebrews tells us, it was only a reminder of a greater sacrifice to come.
“For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” Hebrews 10:4
If indeed these were the temple sheep an astounding moment in history was all the more powerful. The old order was passing away. The stain of sin would at long last be washed clean. The Holy Lamb of God had come.