The rocky plains around Bethlehem were (and still are) used as grazing land for sheep. Located only a short distance from Jerusalem, Bethlehem was a popular place for raising sheep for the sacrificial slaughter at the Jewish temple.
Shepherding was not a prestigious job in the ancient world. The task was always pawned off on the youngest son (1 Sam 16:10-11) or daughters. Farmers and city dwellers detested shepherds (Gen 46:34), and by the time of the prophets, shepherds were considered fully both second-class and untrustworthy.
Shepherds suffered from cruel stereotypes, and shepherding was even outlawed in Israel except on desert plains. The Jewish Mishnah (commentary on the Law of Moses) refers to shepherds in belittling terms, describes them as “incompetent” and notes that if a shepherd was found hurt or injured, there was no legal or moral responsibility to help him. They were unable to hold public office, forbidden to testify in court, had no civil rights, and were considered worse sinners than tax-collectors and prostitutes.
Yet, strangely, it was to a group of shepherds that the Father chose to announce the Incarnation of His Son.
We are most impressed with the message of someone rich or famous, powerful or successful. They are paraded before crowds at churches and evangelistic events and given time on Christian tv. What fools we are!
When God had chosen His man to be king of Israel, Samuel’s prejudice came out. God had to remind him to be careful in his judgments, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). And who did God choose? A young shepherd named David who would later write, The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23:1).