What I find most interesting about the appearance of the angels to the shepherds is their message and their song, because the angels’ message and song unlock the secret of why the shepherds were important to St. Luke.
The angels’ message is “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The angels’ song is “Glory to God in the highest, / and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.”
This combination of a message and a song echoes the other angelic appearances in the stories about Jesus’ birth. The “angel of the Lord” appears to Zechariah and prophesies John the Baptist’s birth. The story is told in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and after the message and the birth comes the Song of Zechariah. In the same chapter, the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, and after the angelic message comes Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
This method of storytelling has its roots in the Old Testament and most often accompanies a supernatural intervention. After some great action of the Lord, the story is recounted in the form of both prose storytelling and an accompanying version in the form of a hymn or poem. So when the Israelites are delivered from slavery in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea, the story of their salvation is related, and Moses and his sister Miriam echo the story with a song of praise.
Likewise, when the Lord gives the judge Deborah victory over Israel’s enemy Sisera, Deborah retells the story in a song of praise. When Samuel’s mother, Hannah, has her prayer for a son answered, she echoes the story with her song of thanksgiving. This pattern is completed in the story of Jesus’ birth when Mary and Joseph take the Child to be presented in the Temple. There they meet the holy old man Simeon and Anna the prophetess. After they see the child, the event is remembered in Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word . . .”
Why are the poem songs following the story of God’s intervention important? Because they help us understand how people in ancient societies passed on the important events to the next generation.
Narrative poetry is evident as a primary mode of storytelling in most ancient civilizations. The younger generation memorize the stories that retell the important history of their people in the form of narrative poetry.
Clinton Bailey is an American scholar who has lived and worked among the Bedouin people in the land of Palestine for more than forty years. In his book Bedouin Culture and the Bible, he tracks hundreds of similarities between the culture of the Bedouin tribes and the Hebrew religion and customs recorded in the Old Testament.
To understand how important his work is, we need to understand the antiquity of the Bedouin culture. Although present-day Bedouin are mostly Muslims, their lifestyle is more than seven thousand years old. Their way of life is rooted in the religion and customs of the nomadic tribes who lived in the ancient Middle East from Old Testament times. The way they live today as nomadic and seminomadic shepherds is largely unchanged from the time of the biblical patriarchs. Put simply, Clinton Bailey shows how Bedouin culture parallels what we know of early Hebrew culture. The Jewish people emerged from the same roots as the Bedouin, and their family likeness continued right through to New Testament times.
Bailey records how the Bedouin use memorized genealogies, proverbs, and poetry to pass on their traditions and history. Memorization is important when most of the population are illiterate. The memorized genealogies, proverbs, and poems are balanced with more expansive prose storytelling. The Bedouin are especially interested in passing on stories of exceptional events—the heroism and cleverness of one of their patriarchs or a supernatural event that transformed the life and culture.
If we want to get a picture of a Bethlehem shepherd, it is not an Englishman dressed in tweeds with his sheepdog on a mountainside in Yorkshire. It is a Bedouin herdsman living in a tent or a cave house in the unforgiving climate and countryside of Palestine, Jordan, Syria, or Western Arabia.
The vision and message of the angels would have been passed down from generation to generation of shepherds, and the combination of genealogies, narrative poems, and storytelling in the infancy narratives shows that they were initially part of the folklore of the local herdsmen.
The angel’s message to the shepherds and their song of praise fits the picture of God’s interaction with the Hebrew people down through history, and the angels’ song of praise is complemented by the message announcing the Messiah’s birth—a message that is accompanied by a mysterious sign.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.