As we ponder the birth of Jesus, I pause to remember a favorite activity of mine this time of year. I was introduced to a quiz as a young teenager that challenged my thinking about how accurate my viewpoint was on the biblical account. How much of what I thought I knew was influenced by media and Christmas plays? And then again, how much was really accurate? I saw many things that surprised me and realized how much my view was tainted by things outside of the actual biblical account. It was a seed planted then that really made me decide later on to pursue truth as much as was possible. In that spirit, I’d love to present a different twist on the birth of Jesus you may or may not have considered before.
It is my belief that it is far more likely that Jesus was born in the fall season, rather than in December. But since this is the season people have it on their minds, I thought I’d write about it now.
The book of Micah is a prophetic book, both about the judgment of wicked nations and the restoration of God’s people. Tucked between all of these verses are references to the coming Messiah and the place He would be born. Micah 5:2 specifically mentions the town of Bethlehem (also translated as Ephrathah) as the birthplace of Jesus.
Micah 5:2-4 (ESV) But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is of old, from ancient days. 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
However, Micah 4:8 contains an often overlooked reference to another place that is likely just as significant as the town in which the Savior would make His appearance on earth.
Micah 4:8-10 (ESV) And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you it shall come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem. 9 Now why do you cry aloud? Is there no king in you? Has your counselor perished, that pain seized you like a woman in labor? 10 Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in labor, for now you shall go out from the city and dwell in the open country; you shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued; there the LORD will redeem you from the hands of your enemies.
The tower of the flock (whose name in Hebrew is ‘Migdal Eder’) was a watch tower located on the road at Bethlehem. One of the main roads in Israel at that time was often called ‘the kings’ highway’…for good reason. It was a road that followed the top of the mountains. If you were traveling that road, you would have the advantage of knowing where an enemy was located, because they would be below you. It was a much more advantageous position than being in the valley, trying to see above. Watch towers were located along that road in different towns…at times used militarily for the safety of country, and for notification throughout Israel of new moons and the beginning of biblical festivals. But, one of their lesser known uses to us also includes the watch tower being used to watch over large flocks of sheep. Migdal Eder was that tower in Bethlehem.
Migdal Eder (the tower of the flock) is mentioned earlier in the Bible. We see the account in Genesis 35:19 of Rachel giving birth to the youngest son of Israel (Jacob). She dies after delivering Benjamin, and is buried ‘in the way to Ephrath’. Ephrath is an ancient name used for the town later called Bethlehem. Genesis 35:21 relates that Israel (Jacob) made his camp near the tower of Eder and stayed there to mourn Rachel’s death. This is the watch tower of Migdal Eder.
If we look once again at the passages from Micah that speak of the location of the birth of the Messiah, there is another striking parallel that is revealed. Both speak specifically of childbirth in relation to Bethlehem, and the tower of the flock (Migdal Eder). We also see childbirth (Rachel) related to the vicinity of this specific tower in Genesis 35. I admit, the evidence may seem circumstantial, but is striking nonetheless.
This tower was used by shepherds to keep watch and protect their flocks. The tract of land for the grazing of sheep in the area was large, so the tower would be helpful when needed to assist in this task. Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ due to it being the major producer of grains for the temple sacrifices at that time. It was also where the lambs for both daily and annual (Passover) sacrifices were born and raised.
The shepherds that cared for these flocks would have been trained for their job, because their task was enormous. You see, the sheep that were born here were destined to become sacrifices to the LORD. Bethlehem was the birthplace of these lambs, and since their final destination was being offered to the LORD in the temple at Jerusalem, special care had to be taken to make sure only those without blemish would be offered. Only perfect lambs would be acceptable.
Temple ritual would have required the birthing place for these lambs be ceremonially clean, so a lamb used for sacrifice would likely not be born in a dirty environment as we would think of a stable in our Western mindset. Nor would there have been the mixing of swine or other animals considered unclean in the arrangement. According to historic writings, underneath the watch tower itself was a cave-like lower portion. This is where the ewes would be taken to be protected and cared for while they delivered their newborn lambs. At some point they would have to be examined by a priest to ensure they were fit for use as a sacrifice. I saw many articles claiming that newborn lambs were wrapped in strips of cloth (called swaddling clothes) to protect them immediately after birth, but I have been unable to find a reputable reference for that.
Luke 2:7-18 tells us explicitly about the shepherds and what happened when they heard the announcement of the birth of Messiah. Verse 8 says they were ‘in the same country’. This doesn’t mean they happened to also be in Israel. It literally means the rural area surrounding a town, or a tract of land. So, according to this, they would have already been nearby when they received the glorious announcement. Verse 12 alerts us to the sign by which the shepherds would know him…“And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” A sign is defined as something by which a thing or person is known. These two things would be the sign to know they were seeing the Messiah.
The angel stated explicitly that this was a sign FOR the shepherds. We have no indication in this passage of scripture that the shepherds needed directions on where to find Him. I believe they knew exactly where He was! Since they would have been familiar with the process of caring for sacrificial lambs, and they would have also likely been aware of the prophecies about the birth of the Messiah, it would have made perfect sense to them that the newborn King would be born in the birthplace of lambs destined to be sacrificed for the sin of man. He, the ultimate sacrificial Lamb, fits perfectly one translation of Migdal Eder, given in an historic document…”The Anointed One of the flock of Israel”!
As I pondered both the account of Israel (Jacob) and Rachel, and Joseph and Mary as they related to Migdal Eder, I wondered if there could be another connection. His still, small voice said to me, “Look up the meanings of their names”. So I did…and what I found totally stunned and excited me!
A reading of Genesis 35 tells us that God renames Jacob, giving him the new name Israel. Israel builds an altar and calls the name of the place Bethel. Genesis 35:17-20 gives us the short story. After they left Bethel, and were nearing Bethlehem, Rachel went into labor:
Genesis 35:17-20 (ESV) And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” 18 And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Benoni, but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem) 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
Here are the meanings of the names involved in this account:
Bethel – House of God
Israel – God prevails
Rachel – ewe
Benoni – ‘son of my sorrow’
Benjamin – ‘son of the right hand’
I immediately saw a parallel between both of these births recorded in Scripture: both in Bethlehem, both related to the tower of the flock (Migdal Eder). Rachel, the ‘ewe’, is carrying her little ‘lamb’, who leaves the ‘house of God’ to be born in Bethlehem (the ‘house of bread’). When children were born in biblical times, they were often named by the circumstances in which they were born. Knowing she would be dying, Rachel named her little ‘lamb’ Benoni (son of my sorrow). But Israel (‘God prevails’) renames him Benjamin, ‘son of the right hand’.
In a striking parallel, we see Mary carrying the Son of God Himself, a gift straight from the house of God. He is born as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world in the place called Bethlehem. He called Himself the ‘bread of life’, born in the ‘house of bread’. When Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple for his dedication at around 40 days old (according to the law), Simeon makes a statement to Mary:
Luke 2:34-35 (ESV) And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
‘A sword will pierce through your own soul also’…this child would become ‘the son of sorrow’ for Mary just as Benoni was for Rachel. But oh, the love of the Father that said no! Although there would certainly be sorrow, that is not how He will be named. He is the son of the Father’s right hand!
God’s accuracy is so incredible! I pray we can all slow down and realize what gift we have been given in Jesus our Messiah and rejoice in His provision for us! May God bless you abundantly.
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