researched and written by Donna Gawell
For years, I’ve imagined Jesus’ humble birth and the manger scene all wrong. Like most people who grew up with an heirloom nativity set, I envisioned Baby Jesus in a tattered wooden shack surrounded by Mary, Joseph, shepherd boys, the wise men, and all the requisite animals: lambs, camels, cows, etc.
My version of the nativity story was colored by my modern, Americanized understanding of Jesus’ birth. I was told Mary and Joseph were forced to seek a room in Bethlehem, where they were repeatedly told there was no room for them. A grumpy but somewhat sympathetic innkeeper probably pointed at the shabby wooden stable behind his building and agreed to let the poor couple stay there. Then, an angel told the shepherd boys in the fields about the birth, and they joined up with the wise men to adore and honor the baby and deliver gifts. It is a nice story but one colored by my western understanding.
The historically accurate story is not only more fascinating but also fulfilled prophesy and places Jesus’ birth in the proper cultural context. Perhaps, God intended for there to be no room in the inn. Maybe, He wanted His Son to be born in a stone manger in a very special place: Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock as the paschal lamb of God.
A tower similar to what Migdal Eder might have looked like
Scripture tells us Caesar Augustus issued a royal decree for all his citizens to go to the town of their ancestors to be counted and taxed in a special census. Joseph, as a descendant of David, traveled with his very pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem. David, Joseph’s ancestor, was born in Bethlehem, where he served as a shepherd boy before meeting Goliath.
A Modern Sheephold shows how the Levitical shepherds tended the flocks in the
fields of the Shepherds near Bethlehen in Israel.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem had a population of about three hundred and was the area where Levitical shepherds raised lambs for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. These special shepherds were trained and tasked with the responsibility of discerning which lambs were suitable for sacrifice as only an unblemished lamb was acceptable.
Keeping the young lambs safe and clean was not an easy task in this rocky area, so the chosen lambs were kept protected by wrapping them in strips of cloth known as swaddling cloth. The cloths or bands kept the lamb warm and calm. Any blemish from a scrape or injury would require the lamb to be rejected and sent out with the other lambs and sheep who were just ordinary stock. A passage in the Mishnah also verifies the conclusion that the flocks of sheep were destined for Temple sacrifices.
As we reimagine that night over 2,000 years ago, envision the young couple arriving in the town of Bethlehem as Mary was about to give birth. Mary and Joseph likely didn’t go knocking on every door, and there were no hotels or inns as we know today. Their only option was to find a relative who might have welcomed them in or to find a stranger would have willingly offered them a room in their home for a price. But we know that didn’t happen.
To complicate the overcrowding in Bethlehem because of the census, there was a greater problem for the young couple. Any Jew would have recognized Mary was about to give birth, and that meant blood would be shed, making their host’s home ceremonially unclean. Mary and Joseph’s option was to accept the only accommodation available: a stable or cave of some sort.
Caves and stones were the building materials of most structures back in ancient times. Jesus’ birthplace may have been a cave for the livestock with a person’s house built on top, but it is most likely Jesus was born at Migdal Eder or the Tower of the Flock. This watchtower from ancient times was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts who stalked the flocks. It was also where they brought the ewes to deliver their lambs.
Migdal Eder, located about 2,000 paces from Bethlehem, was a tower on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and is mentioned in the Old Testament by the prophet Micah who foretold the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and He would come to “the tower of the flock.”
Micah 4:8 “And thou, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.” As a Christian, we know that all the prophesies concerning the Messiah Jesus would be fulfilled, so this one cannot be ignored.
In earlier ancient times, Migdal Eder was a military tower erected to view into the valley on the edge of Bethlehem to protect the city. This structure was first mentioned in Genesis 35:21, “And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Eder.”
After Jacob left Bethel, he came to Eder (the tower), and there Rachel delivered Benjamin and then died. After burying Rachel, Jacob moved his flocks beyond the tower of Eder. This pinpoints the location as being just north of present-day Bethlehem.
Jesus, the Messiah, was born as a sacrificial lamb in the same place where all other unspotted and unblemished lambs were born and then consecrated for sacrifice. John the Baptist grew up knowing the stories and prophesies of Jesus, his cousin. When he saw Jesus, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
Scripture tells us Jesus was born in a manger, or stall or crib where animals are kept, like that of Migdal Eder. The manger was likely the stone structure where the lambs were inspected by the Levitical shepherds within the Tower of the Flocks. The swaddling cloths or bands intended to protect the chosen sacrificial lambs hung on posts and were used on this holy night to cover and warm the baby Jesus.
The Levitical shepherds who watched over the lambs and sheep in the fields and hills near the Tower of Flocks would have been well acquainted with the prophecies concerning the birth of the Messiah. They understood the signs the angels had given them. When the angel of the Lord came to them, they knew exactly where they would find the baby.
Every prophesied detail came true before their eyes as these special shepherds found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. Like the lambs all around him, Jesus lived a sinless and spotless life. When His time had come, he became the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.
The scriptures, history, and setting all fit together. Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, at Migdal Eder, and then placed in the stone manger used only for the birth of sacrificial lambs. The significance of Jesus’ birth is that in God’s time, His son came exactly as the Father had promised. Surely as his past promises have been kept, so will God’s promises for the future. That was the promise of Micah 4:8, and Galatians 4:4-5 provides believers comfort and assurance:
“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”
At Christmas time, we celebrate that Jesus is the shepherd of our souls (1 Peter 2:25) who died for our sins and who redeems us to reign and rule with Him for eternity. The ruins of the Tower of the Flock at Migdal Eder may never be unearthed but scripture has already verified the authenticity of its existence. The shepherds from the first to fourth centuries kept the location alive in their stories and a Byzantine monastery was built over Migdal Eder in the fourth century.
The historical details of Jesus’ birth add clarity and a sense of wonder and awe to the revised story. Indeed, this is very Good News!
This article is based on research conducted by the author when she visited Bethlehem in December 2019. Thank you to Lahdo L. Shio, our Christian guide in Bethlehem who verified this information and taught me some important insights shared in this story.
Negev, A. (1990). In The Archaeological encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.). New York: Prentice Hall Press
The Sign Given to the Shepherds (Dec 25, 2019) Bible.org
A Visual Guide to Bible Events (2009) Martin, Beck and Hansen, Baker Publishing
Holy Land Lecture Series by Pastor Dan Travis, Blacklick, Ohio