How did the shepherds know where to go? It’s a good question but we seldom ask it. And it’s a question that we would do well to ask.
We are so familiar with the story that anything remotely different is difficult to picture. The Christmas story that we know has Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a wooden barn-like stable filled with straw and surrounded by the obligatory sheep, donkey and 2 cows. The shepherds are there, so too the 3 wise men, the star and normally a couple of angels. That’s about it isn’t it? Just think about every single nativity set. They’re all the same. The problem is that this overly sentimental scene is not very accurate.
The difficulty first arises with the word inn. We picture an old type of hotel/pub kinda thing. This may be right but the word can also be translated as house, or extended family, or dwelling. We picture the manger as an elevated wooden box filled with straw, but it is more like a feeding trough. It may have been a box but equally as simple as a groove in the floor to hold the feed. All of this is simply to say that the Bible’s story isn’t as clear as the nativity sets present it.
But back to the original question – how did the shepherds know where to go? The angel didn’t tell them. They just said that somewhere in Bethlehem was a baby wrapped in cloth. Did they go to where the star was? Well, Matthew allows up to 2 years for the wise men to come, so it’s unlikely. Could they see the 2 angels from the nativity set? Well, there’s no indication that there were angels hanging around the manger. Did they go door to door asking if there was a baby inside??? The way the Bible reads is as though they had some kind of idea where to go.
Alfred Edersheim, a 19th Century Jewish Christian, was a theologian and historian who specialised on Judea around the time of Jesus. Through his knowledge of the Old Testament and prominent Jewish writings proposed that the location of Jesus’ birth was at a place called Migdal Eder. Literally translated as ‘Tower of the Flock’, Midgal Eder was probably an old military structure located just outside the town of Bethlehem. Although Edersheim’s proposal can’t be verified, it is worth considering.
Migdal Eder is mentioned in Genesis 35 as the place where Rachel died giving birth to a son Benjamin. The name Benjamin means ‘Son of my Right Hand’ but it wasn’t his original name. He was first called Ben-Oni meaning ‘Son of Sorrow’. Somehow there is a connection between Migdal Eder, Bethlehem and a child who is both a ‘Son of Sorrow’ and ‘Son of my Right Hand’.
Micah 4 establishes the expectation of a Godly King intrinsically linked with Migdal Eder who would ultimately restore God’s people and lead them victorious over evil. This Messianic figure would bring ultimate peace because he would establish God’s rule among the nations.
According to Jewish writings, the shepherds of Bethlehem would tend the sheep for the Temple sacrifices. In addition, it was said that when a lamb which met the requirements for the Passover sacrifice was born, the shepherd would wrap it in cloth and lay it in a feeding groove on the floor of Migdal Eder to prevent it from any harm.
Edersheim suggested that, given these 3 connections with Migdal Eder, when the angel announced the birth of a Davidic king who was wrapped in cloth and in an animal feeding place, the shepherd’s minds would have been drawn to Migdal Eder. It’s far from certain but the idea has merit. Most of all it helps us see that Jesus’ birth and mission was not simply a matter of a lot of coincidences but the work of a God who has consistently been working to bring people into relationship with him.