Away in a Tower?

Was Jesus born in the tower of the sheep where sacrificial lambs were wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in mangers?

I recently heard an account of Jesus’ birth I that found fascinating. The story goes like this:

Migdal Eder?Angels appeared to shepherds in the field and told them to go to Bethlehem and they’d find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in the manger. How did the shepherds know which manger to look in? Because these were Levitical shepherds who tended the flocks that would be used for sacrifices in the temple. And in Bethlehem there was a special place for those sheep, the Tower of the Flock or Migdal Eder in Hebrew. During lambing season, the bottom level of this tower was used for birthing the sacrificial sheep and when a perfect lamb was born, it was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger so it couldn’t be harmed. So the shepherds went and found the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world just as Micah 4:8 promised.

Not familiar with this version of the Christmas-time story? Neither was I so I investigated. This story turns up on a handful of websites, and in a few self-published books. One site had a PDF of a paper with footnotes showing some sources so that’s the one I used to try to track this down.

The Flocks

The paper said “Migdal Eder was a watchtower located in the northern part of Bethlehem built to protect the Temple flocks” and the footnote referred to Alfred Edersheim’s 1883 book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, book 2, page 131. The book can be found here and this is the relevant part:

That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah (Shek.7:4) leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds.

Edersheim’s claim that the sacrificial flocks were pastured there is based on his inference from the Mishnah, so lets see what Shekalim 7.4 says:

An animal that was found between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, or a similar distance in any direction, the males are [considered] burnt offerings. The females are [considered] peace offerings. Rabbi Yehuda says, those which are fitting as a Pesach offering are [considered] Pesach offerings if it is thirty days before the festival.

Does that lead to Edersheim’s conclusion? The Shekalim is in the section of the Mishnah that deals with festivals. Shekalim 7 sets rules for handling things found during festivals. For example, Shekalim 7.1 stipulates that money found between two offering chests belongs in the chest it is nearest. Shekalim 7.4 says that an animal found within a certain radius of Jerusalem may used for a burnt offering or a peace offering depending on its sex. Migdal Eder is used to establish that boundary but the Mishnah says nothing about shepherding flocks there. It seems to be reporting the opposite of shepherding flocks, it is talking about lost animals and how they may be used in sacrifice.

Levitical Shepherds?

What of Edersheim’s claim that these were no ordinary shepherds?  He makes his case:

The latter [ordinary shepherds] were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible.

This argument works only if the sheep under discussion were herded specifically for the sacrificial system but as we’ve seen above, that’s far from certain. If these are ordinary sheep then ordinary shepherds are not a problem.

The next curious quote in the paper follows from its first, “During lambing season the sheep were brought there from the fields, as the lower level functioned as the birthing room for sacrificial lambs.”

The citation for this pointed to an article that cites Edersheim for the location of Migdal Eder, but Edersheim doesn’t make this claim. If Migdal Eder was used as Edersheim said, then this seems a reasonable conclusion but it cannot be verified as fact.

Lambs in Swaddling Clothes

The next annotated claim really caught my attention: “Priestly shepherds ‘would wrap the newborn lambs in swaddling clothes’ and place them in a manger ‘until they calmed down.'”

This is something I’d never heard before. The source cited was Jimmy DeYoung’s newsletter, “Jimmy’s Prophetic Perspective on the News,” December 23, 2005. Here’s the quote:

The shepherds would wrap the newborn lambs in swaddling clothes to protect the body of the lambs which would be offered as sacrifice at the Temple just four miles away in Jerusalem. Wrapped in swaddling clothes to keep the new lambs without spot or blemish, they would be laid in a manger until they had calmed down.

DeYoung offers no reference for this so I wasn’t able to find a source. I emailed two ministries that DeYoung seems to be closely associated with and am waiting to hear from either of them. Every other description of this practice, when a reference was provided, pointed to DeYoung’s email.  For DeYoung’s claim to be credible, “priestly shepherds” would have to exist which is a claim that remains unsubstantiated. I also looked at a few books on first century Jewish shepherding and found nothing about “priestly shepherd” or any practice of wrapping lambs. Since DeYoung gives us no references, we again cannot verify this claim.

In or Under?

The final statement that is footnoted says:

In fact the angels did not have to tell the shepherds precisely where to go in Bethlehem to find Jesus, because there was only one manger where sacrificial lambs were birthed, the cave under the watch tower of Migdal Edar.

The reference for this is a web post by Cooper P. Abrams III titled, “Where was the Birth Place of the Lord Jesus?” Abrams says pretty much what is quoted above and cites Edersheim’s book. But Edersheim never offers this argument. Notice, too, that the location for birthing the lambs has changed from the “lower level” to a cave beneath the tower. Cooper says, “It is entirely possible that this cave or grotto…is where the tower of the flock was located, but it has not been proved.” It could be that the cave and tower are the same thing but it doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like inconsistent stories.

And that inconsistency makes sense because as Cooper says, “The tower of the flock…does not exist today and archaeology has not found its ruins.” We don’t know where the tower was nor, I might add, do we know if the tower stood in the days of Jesus’ birth.

This leads me to the conclusion that there is very little support for this story. It originates from a nineteenth century book that makes a weak inference from an third century Jewish book that records an oral tradition. An additional detail originates from an unsubstantiated statement in a 2005 email.

Compared to Scripture

How does this story compare to the scriptures? The best way to examine that is by looking at the Biblical evidence offered in support of it: two verses in Micah.

There should be no dispute that Micah 5:2 is about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Edersheim claimed that the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem was a “settled conviction,” and, he said, “Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.'” In a footnote, Edersheim cites the Targum of Jonathan on Genesis 35:21 as support. That Targum says, “the place from whence, it is to be, the King Meshiha will be revealed at the end of the days.” Is any of that speaking of Jesus’ birth being at Migdal Eder? Edersheim and those who cite him assume it is. I’m not so sure.

Micah 4 is Hebrew poetry so the first phrase of 4:8, “O tower of the flock,” is related to the second phrase, “hill of the daughter of Zion.” The tower is parallel to the hill and the flock is parallel to the daughter of Zion. The daughter of Zion is another name for Israel and the hill would be Jerusalem. That could mean that “tower of the flock” in Micah 4 isn’t a site in Bethlehem but rather a description of Jerusalem as the place where God gathers and protects his flock. Numerous commentaries support this interpretation.

And then there is the New Testament telling of Jesus’ birth. Luke 2 says there was no place for them at the inn or guest room. Luke doesn’t tell us where he was born, simply where he wasn’t; Jesus wasn’t born in a house or inn. In Matthew 2, when the Magi arrive, the chief priests and scribes say the Christ was to be born is Bethlehem because of Micah 5. Yet if Edersheim is correct, Micah 4 would have given them not just the town, but the very street address if “revealed from Migdal Eder” meant “born at” and “tower of the flock” was a location in Bethlehem rather than a metaphor to describe Jerusalem under God’s care. Which they don’t.

As interesting as the story of Migdal Eder is, support for it seems threadbare.

Update 12/17/2021

A friend linked to a brief article written a four years before this one and it included a link to a video. The link was broke but I found the video. Here is Jimmy DeYoung in “Bethlehem: Beyond the Christmas Story” telling his story of Migdal Eder.

If Not The Tower, Then Where?

If Jesus wasn’t born in a tower for sheep, then where was he born? Our traditional crèches place his birth in an animal shed, away from the comforts of the city. Dr. Ian Paul, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary makes a very good case that it was neither in a shepherds’ tower nor in a stable but in a house in Bethlehem. He builds his case on actual history of first century Palestine rather than speculation about it. His analysis also rests on how homes were really built and used, not on the supposed use of a tower whose location and function is currently unknown. The article is worth reading but here is Dr. Paul’s summary:

It means that many, like Joseph and Mary, have travelled to Bethlehem, and the family guest room is already full, probably with other relatives who arrived earlier. So Joseph and Mary must stay with the family itself, in the main room of the house, and there Mary gives birth. The most natural place to lay the baby is in the hay-filled depressions at the lower end of the house where the animals are fed.

Neither the tower, nor the stable, nor the family home really answer the question of how the shepherds knew where to find the baby in Bethlehem. In Luke 2:11-12, the angel only told them that the baby had been born in Bethlehem and would be found in a manger. Actually, this question needn’t be answered because it is demands more of Luke 2:8-20 than the text offers. We don’t necessarily have a transcript of every word the angel uttered to the shepherds so they might have told them where to find the newborn Savior and Lord. Or, perhaps, like the magi, the shepherds were lead to the location supernaturally. Or maybe they went in to town and asked where a baby had just been born. We don’t know and we don’t need to know or God would have told us.

Where’s The Harm?

And in the end, I think that’s what bothered me enough to dig into the tale of the tower. It seemed to go beyond what the scriptures tell us to try to make the story more interesting. But the scriptures are sufficient, the Bible tells us what we need to know for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Finding these fanciful tales to fill in some of the gaps doesn’t help us understand the Bible better, it borders on devoting ourselves “to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:4).

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  • I have also recently come across all this as I have been preparing a series of sermons on the Incarnation this year looking at prophecies. I have also failed to find basic external support for the Priestly shepherds, the swaddling of the lamb, the secondary use of a manger and meany other aspects of this theory.

    I find some of it probable, specifically that this location was probably a mile north of Bethlehem and even that the shepherds could have been looking after sheep destined for the temple. But I find it more likely that they were looking after the flock from this tower and then left for Bethlehem.

    Its fitting that shepherds would visit the good shepherd at his birth and that shepherds would visit “the Lamb of God” and “the Passover lamb”. But I too am finding little supporting evidence and lots of article claiming it (the above debunked claims) true.

    I appreciate your article and your research. I think this is a lesson for all of us to check our sources! some one makes something up it gets shared lots until the shares supporte the lie. I ran into the same thing with research into the attributes of the wood of the Sycamore fig. It gets confused with the american sycamore and the maple fig and a few others that are completely other trees. you spend hours reading articles based on other articles of preachers (like my self) who just took someone else’s word.

  • Thank you Michael! The story isn’t harmful but it isn’t true either. I had fun researching it and I’m so glad you found it helpful. May God bless your preaching of his word.

  • Thank you. While in Israel many years ago I was taken to a place purported to be “Migdal Eder,” or at least the ruins of it. I had heard the account of “levitical shepherds” and flocks raised for sacrifice. Actually finding hard evidence has proven unfruitful. It appears to be one of those things that if not true, “ought to be.” Thank you for a well written, researched and reasoned article. As a pastor, my challenge and goal is to adhere to the word, not speculation.

  • Thank you Anthony. We are charged to avoid speculation and myths and preach the truth, I agree. As I said, this story is not harmful in that it doesn’t deny a Biblical truth, but this kind of thing can erode confidence in the clarity and sufficiency of scripture. I’m glad you found the post helpful.

  • Excellent work, Mr. Etherington. Thank you for doing all of this research so I can get on with my day. I must say, this hypothesis seems plausible, though not yet proven. It got me to thinking – there is definitely something to this topic. All scripture is God breathed, and infinitely clever and wonderful just like God. It is likely there was a lot of attention devoted to raising the Pesach lamb, (i.e. the main lamb for the Passover temple sacrifice). It seems unlikely such an important event wouldn’t have great pomp and circumstance. No doubt, the Jews likely had some significant procedure to select the Pesach and protect it. We do know certain things as fact: The angles appeared to shepherds. Significant, as the Jesus was the sacrifice lamb. Also, He was to shepherd God’s people. We know the shepherds were in the fields near Bethlehem. We know he baby was placed in a manger. We know Jewish religious scholars were aware the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. It is likely, but not fact, the sacrificial lambs were brought in from Bethlehem, due to its close proximity to the Temple and the quote from the Mishna. This brings up some interesting insight into the entrance of Jesus into the world. Jesus entered the earth as the perfect Pesach lamb. He was placed in an animal food trough. That is significant. He was the perfect Pesach promised to Adam and Eve. It shows us the depravity of our sin, that God would need to become as an animal, born to be slaughtered, such was the wrath of God to our sin, yet Jesus took it all. This is deeply moving.

    It also brought up an interesting question: why mention swaddling? All newborns are swaddled. You could just as easily have said “and wearing a diaper”. That’s hardly a sign. Mentioning swaddling must have some sort of significance.

    Lastly, thank you for showing that it is a slippery slope to venture into trusting history over scripture. This is a common wrong done in our time and many prominent and faithful gospel preachers are guilty of it.

  • Thank you for your research on this topic. You have saved me so much time.

  • You’re very welcome, Chad. My pleasure.

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