This Christmas a new story related to be the birth of Jesus was brought to my attention. According to the story, many of the lambs to be offered at the temple in Jerusalem came from nearby Bethlehem. The law of Moses required every lamb that was sacrificed to be free from any defect. The shepherds- or priests, depending on which version of the story you find- would examine the lambs very carefully. To protect the sacrificial lamb from injury it was tightly cocooned in blankets or strips of cloth- it was swaddled. Then the swaddled lamb was laid in a stone feed trough, a manger, to protect it from harm.
When the angel told shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem of the birth of Jesus he said to them, “This shall be a sign unto you, Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” What an incredible dovetailing of circumstances! An event familiar to the shepherds fit perfectly with the birth of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! These simple shepherds would have immediately recognized the significance of a baby swaddled and laid in a manger. As great as this story is little evidence exists to support the tale of swaddled lambs.
An online search will return many articles repeating this story. But none of the sites I perused cited any archaeological or historical evidence for the story or presented any credible evidence of this taking place in ancient Israel. I was unable to find any commentary, Bible dictionary or other scholarly work which referred to this practice. Time to research this story was limited and it is possible there is evidence to back up the story that I have not yet found. I also realize the lack of evidence for something is not the same as proof against it. Possibly shepherds in Bethlehem swaddled sacrificial lambs, but it seems very unlikely to this author.
The story is interesting and compelling. All its little details fit together nicely with the Christmas story to give a marvelous image of the Lamb of God being readied for His sacrifice. But the Bible never mentions lambs being swaddled. The law of Moses did not command sacrifical lambs to be wrapped in cloth or laid in a manger. If sacrificial lambs were swaddled at birth, it was an extra-Biblical custom of the Jews.
While this particular story is probably harmless, the danger of such stories is their tendency to undermine the sufficiency of the Bible. Everything the world needs to know about the birth of Jesus is found in the pages of Scripture. Archeology and history help bridge the gap between events that happened thousands of years ago and our understanding of those events, but the Bible is sufficient in itself to teach everything we need to know about God the Son and the salvation of men. The Bible does not need the help of 20th century discoveries or modern day Rabbies to communicate Divine truth and transform lives.
In the gospel of Matthew the Bible tells of the wise men who came to Jerusalem following a star from the east. Most nativity scenes today show a bright star shining over the stable. The star is mentioned by the wise men, “We have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2) Later, after the wise men left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, the Bible says, “The star which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” (Matthew 2:9) Matthew 2 indicates the wise men saw the star at least a year before they arrived in Jerusalem.
The identity of this mysterious celestial object has given rise to many speculations. The most popular suggestions are that the star of Bethlehem was a comet, a miraculous light or a conjunction of stars and constellations that indicated to the astronomically astute magi that a great king was born in Palestine. What was the star the wise men followed?
One idea involves some sort of conjunction of constellations with stars or planets. The speculation is that a particular star crossed into a constellation like Leo (the Lion) indicating the arrival of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The problems with this are several. Most important, the Bible never gives the Christian, or anyone else, authority to interpret the constellations as messengers of supernatural events. The Bible contains no positive examples of this kind of astrology. The star of Bethlehem could not have been a star, planet or supernova in astrological conjunction. The wise men followed the star from the east. The appearance of a major star in the western sky might have been in the right position to lead the men from the east to Palestine, but after their detour to Jerusalem the star led them to a specific house in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem the star stayed above a single house. What constellation, star, planet or supernova can do that?
A comet is a more plausible suggestion, though it still seems unlikely. Some comets do remain visible for the length of time required for the wise men to follow it to Palestine. However, comets do not hover in one spot. Nor do they have the ability to point out a single house. The star led the wise men and then remained over the house where Jesus lived.
The most likely explanation is that this was a miraculous point of light given by God to guide the magi. This star was another miraculous manifestation from God telling men that the promised Savior was born. However, the Biblical information is limited and no conclusion about the nature of the star can be held with any high degree of certainty. More important than the identity of the star is the identity of the one pointed to by the star. The baby worshiped by the wise men was the promised Savior sent by God the Father to redeem men. He is Jesus, God the Son and God the Savior, worshiped by wise men throughout history.