Why were the shepherds in the field at night when the angel came?

by S. Kent Brown

At first glance, the scene pictured in Luke 2:8 seems unusual: “Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Why? Because usually an older child or young teenager in the family stays with the sheep through the night rather than an adult (see 1 Sam. 16:11 and 17:15, where the Hebrew text reads that young David “watches over his father’s sheep”). Even today, children of Middle Eastern shepherds mind the sheep through the night, whereas the adults spend nights out of doors only during the birthing period or during a crisis. Luke’s description features adult shepherds who are with the sheep. Therefore, the nighttime scene points to the lambing season, the springtime. In fact, the Greek expression that is translated “keeping watch over their flock by night” reads literally, “guarding watches of the night over their flock.” Because ancient Jewish people divided the nighttime hours into three watches, the language implies the shepherds are with their flock all night. Ewes are basically helpless when giving birth. So the shepherds stay with them to see that the newborn lambs are dried off and kept warm during that first cold night. One of the important benefits of Luke’s notation is that it suggests the general time of Jesus’ birth: the spring of the year.