This is the second post in a four-part series describing details surrounding the birth and death of Jesus Christ. The first post focused on Mary's Pondering.
I admit, when I started thinking about writing the parallels between details of Christ’s birth and His death, I had a basic idea that I would write about His mother, Mary (see last week's post), the strips of cloth, events in the heavens, and the presence of myrrh. I had a very simplistic idea, as I hadn’t begun any research; I was going on my observations and first impressions as a reader. As I began to read and research, however, one portion took a different twist than I had originally assumed it would, and that was concerning the strips of cloth.
Reading from Luke 2, we learn that Mary wrapped Jesus in ‘swaddling cloths’ (verse 7). Fast forward 33 years to the crucifixion of Christ, and we read in Mark 15 that a respected member of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish High Court, Joseph of Arimathea, received permission from Pilate to take Jesus down from the cross. Joseph then wrapped Him in a linen cloth, or shroud. Originally I took this to be possibly a symbolic connection between the birth of Christ and His death. After all, we read that Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, exited the tomb in which he had been for four days with “his hands and feet tightly wrapped in burial cloths (linen strips)…”, and Jesus instructed those with Him to “unwrap him and release him” John 11:44 [AMP]. Indeed, the gospel of John describes Peter and John entering the tomb of Jesus and seeing the “linen wrappings [neatly] lying there; and the [burial] face-cloth which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the [other] linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself” John 20:6-7 [AMP]. So in some ways that connection could be made, I believe.
Upon further research about the account of the birth of Christ, however, I came upon an absolutely mind-blowing detail that sent me in another direction.
Let’s take a fresh look at Luke 2:1-7:
“Now in those days a decree went out from [the emperor] Caesar Augustus, that all the inhabited world (the Roman Empire) should be registered [in a census]. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to register for the census, each to his own city. So Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register with Mary, who was betrothed to him, and was with child. While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to give birth, and she gave birth to her Son, her firstborn; and she wrapped Him in [swaddling] cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no [private] room for them in the inn.” [AMP].
In the West, we often will swaddle a baby with a blanket to keep them snug, mimicking the coziness of the womb. It helps them to feel comfortable and helps them (in my observation) to sleep. In fact, when my children were newborns, I was so excited that I could swaddle them so securely, and we joked that they were tucked in so snugly that we could probably stand them up in there!
Historians have noted that in the East, newborns were washed, rubbed with a powdered salt which was thought to help strengthen their skin, and placed on a diagonal square of most likely cotton cloth. The cloth was folded around them and tied securely with strips of cloth, keeping the arms and legs bound tightly against the rest of the baby’s body. This was believed to help them be safe and grow strong. Swaddling them this way kept babies from hurting themselves by flailing their arms or legs or inadvertently rolling. It also later enabled the mother to work while the baby was securely attached to her back. Interesting detail, right?
But here’s the mind-blowing part:
There was a similar procedure performed by shepherds who were assigned the duties of caring for the lambs chosen for the Passover. To give some context, In Exodus 12, on the day before the Israelites were to flee Egypt, the Lord gave instructions to Moses and Aaron for the Israelites to sacrifice a year-old lamb or goat for each household; it was to be without blemish or bodily defect. Once sacrificed, the people were to take the lamb’s blood and paint the two doorposts and the area above the door of their houses. That night, the Lord would see the blood of the lamb and pass over the house, sparing the lives of all inside.
Later, after the Israelites had escaped from Egyptian slavery, they celebrated the feast of Passover every year in remembrance of when the Lord passed over the homes of the Israelites, sparing them from the destroyer that brought death to every Egyptian household. Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the practice of sacrificing the Passover lamb took place there, performed by the Levitical priests.
Now we come to the role of shepherds and their connection with the birth (and death) of Christ.
The Levites were the only ones designated by God to carry out the function of priests on behalf of Israel. Only men from the tribe of Levi could have anything to do with duties in the Temple. This included raising and caring for the and lambs for the Passover. Now, Bethlehem is about five and a half miles from Jerusalem, so it would be reasonable that lambs raised in Bethlehem, a more rural area, would be transported to Jerusalem, a city, at Passover. Although there could have been any number of shepherds living and working in Bethlehem, Levitical shepherds would have been the ones familiar with the specific procedures involved with the birth and care of Passover lambs. Here’s where the swaddling cloths come into play.
As soon as a future sacrificial lamb was born, Levitical shepherds would wrap the newborn lamb in swaddling cloths to calm it and protect its body from blemish, injury, or defect. In addition, it was to be placed in a manger apart from the other lambs. Then the lamb would settle down, the swaddling cloths were removed, and the lamb was given to its mother. From this point on, the lamb would receive special care from the shepherds until it would ultimately be delivered to the Temple for the sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people.
This helps us see one connection between the practice of swaddling babies and swaddling Passover lambs. This helps clarify the significance of the angel telling the shepherds to look for a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, as found in Luke 2:8-12:
“In the same region there were shepherds staying out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord flashed and shone around them, and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people. For this day in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord (the Messiah). And this will be a sign for you [by which you will recognize Him]: you will find a Baby wrapped in [swaddling] cloths and lying in a manger” [AMP].
But wait, there’s more!
The location of the Savior’s birth may also be significant. I’ve always assumed that Jesus was born in a shed or barn-type structure adjacent to the capacity-filled inn. Upon further research, however, I read that the location may have been a specific place, the lower floor of a place called Migdal Edar, or the “tower of the flock” of Israel. This was not a town, but rather, a specific location, a watchtower, where Levitical shepherds would oversee the flocks in the fields. In fact, Micah 4:8 makes a seemingly insignificant, but prophetic, reference to it:
As for you, tower of the flock [of Israel],
Hill and stronghold of the Daughter of Zion (Jerusalem’s inhabitants),
To you the former dominion shall come,
The kingdom of the Daughter of Jerusalem [when the Messiah reigns in Jerusalem, and the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled].
What if this was the same location as that of the birthing area of the Passover lambs! So if these shepherds were Levites, they would easily recognize the “sign” given to them by the angel: a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in THE manger.
Upon arriving at the location, these shepherds, familiar with the process of birthing and caring for the Passover lambs, would see the full picture: The Savior of the world would be wrapped in swaddling cloths, just as the lambs in their care would have been, born in the location that the lambs in their care would have been, and prepared to be the ultimate Sacrifice, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world! No wonder they left the scene glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and witnessed! May we leave with that same sense of awe and urgency to tell others about Him!