Ezekiel 34:2-6 records a message given to that ancient Hebrew prophet:
“Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were … meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.”
Since Israel’s shepherds, its selfish leaders, had failed to care for their flock, the Lord tells Ezekiel (in verses 11-16) that he himself will become the people’s shepherd:
“Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the people, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel. I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God. I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick.”
It’s perhaps against that background that we should read one of the most beloved portions of the story of Christ’s nativity. For the sake of freshness, I quote from J.B. Phillips’s translation of Luke 2:8-17:
"There were some shepherds living in the same part of the country, keeping guard throughout the night over their flocks in the open fields. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood by their side, the splendour of the Lord blazed around them, and they were terror-stricken. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid! Listen, I bring you glorious news of great joy which is for all the people. This very day, in David’s town, a Saviour has been born for you. He is Christ, the Lord. Let this prove it to you: you will find a baby, wrapped up and lying in a manger.' And in a flash there appeared with the angel a vast host of the armies of Heaven, praising God, saying, 'Glory to God in the highest Heaven! Peace upon earth among men of goodwill!'"
When those literal ancient Jewish shepherds hastened to the place where Jesus was, the text seems to suggest, they recognized him as Israel’s true shepherd. And so he was, because he was God, literally come to earth. This is an identification that Jesus himself not only welcomed but proclaimed: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14).
It was and is a remarkable assertion; the Psalmist (23:1) had famously identified none other than the Lord, Jehovah or Yahweh, as his shepherd.
In the gospel of Matthew, by contrast, it isn’t humble Hebrew shepherds who venerate the newborn Jesus but, rather, “magi” or “wise men” from “the east,” who “fell down, and worshipped him” (2:11). The magi can be plausibly understood as representing all the prior wisdom and religion of humankind (perhaps, since they may have been Persian Zoroastrian priests, specifically of non-Israelite humanity), humbling themselves before the incarnate Son of God.
In these two New Testament stories, then, so well-known to us, Christ’s advent is acknowledged by both the most sophisticated of world elites and the humblest local shepherds, and it’s accompanied by the rejoicing of heaven itself. Glory to God in the highest!
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.