From swaddled lambs to practical lessons, delve into the real story behind the manger, discovering profound truths for the holiday season.
For the last couple of years, I’ve received copies of an essay about newborn lambs raised by shepherds outside Bethlehem. The essay stated that shepherds in ancient Israel looked for perfect lambs that could be used for sacrifice. They would place newborn lambs in a stone manger to search for defects. If they found none, the lamb would be swaddled and kept in the manger to be protected.
So, the essay said, when angels told the shepherds to look for a baby swaddled and lying in a manger, they knew immediately where to go and what they would find—the perfect Lamb of God, intended for sacrifice.
The Ideal Lamb and the Manger Misconception
That’s a lovely word picture, but it doesn’t mesh with what we know about Bethlehem shepherds and their flocks. Nearly all the flocks around Bethlehem—sheep, cattle, and oxen—were intended for Temple sacrifice. The shepherds didn’t have to search for “perfect” sacrificial candidates because unless an animal was sickly, scarred, or disfigured, it would qualify.
Newborn lambs must bond with their mothers within the first thirty minutes after birth, so no shepherd would ever separate a ewe from her offspring. Unless the lamb can bond with another ewe, it will die. Why would anyone keep a newborn lamb in a manger?
Were lambs ever swaddled? I was astounded to learn they often were—but not immediately after birth. They weren’t completely swaddled because they needed to be able to walk and nurse. But just as puppies and kittens are born with fuzzy fur, a lamb’s birth coat is especially soft, embellished with long, fine hairs that form a gentle “halo” around the lamb’s body.
The practice of collecting this “halo hair” wool began as early as the fourth century before Christ and continues today. This wrapping averted the need for repeated washing and helped the halo-hair wool retain important lanolin. These coverings were replaced as the lamb grew, and when the animal was old enough, the extra-soft wool was shorn and sold.
I shook my head when I first read about swaddled lambs. I pictured a tiny, mummified lamb lying stiff-legged in a stone trough, unable to walk or nurse. Poor thing!
The Practicality of Lamb Swaddling
But the shepherds’ actual historic practice of lamb-swaddling considers the lamb’s need for nourishment, exercise, and emotional bonding with its mother. The covering is both protective and practical.
How many times have we asked God to protect us from life’s bumps and bruises? In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “I am not asking that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).
We do not need to be so protected that we lie helpless in a stone structure, unable to interact with the world. What we do need is to be able to walk, talk, and engage with new acquaintances so we can share the truth of Christmas. We need to be protected from evil so we can courageously interact with those who don’t know our Savior.
The world is what Jesus came to save. The world is filled with people our Father loves. Venture into it with joy and gladness, listening for the voice of your Father.
Father, we don’t want to be mummified lambs. Don’t let us retreat into the safety of our homes, our churches, or our neighborhoods, but give us eyes and ears for the people within and without our local areas.
We offer this Christmas season to you. Show us how we can reach people outside our families and lead us to those who need to be reminded of the real reason for this holy season. Amen.
In His Word
When you can find a few moments in your day, read Luke 2:1-21. Meditate on these words and then answer the next section.
In Your Life
Have you ever wished you could stay in your comfort zone rather than step into the discomfort of something new? God calls us to growth and to have courage when we interact with the world, so we can spread His Good news.
As we approach Christmas, how are you keeping your eyes open to the needs of others? The Christmas season is the perfect time to bless others, both with the good news of Jesus’ birth and with material goods they may need.
Want to learn more about the real history of Christmas during this Advent season? Check out Star of Wonder: An Advent Devotional to Illuminate the People, Places, and Purpose of the First Christmas by Angela Hunt.
Angela Hunt is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 160 books. She and her husband live in Florida with mastiffs and chickens. Please join Angela to get to know her better on her website or on her Facebook page.