The Shepherd Imagery in the Bible
In the Ancient Near East (ANE), where Palestine belonged, shepherding was considered one of the oldest of human occupations. Cows, sheep and goats, including horses, asses, and camels were considered the herd animals in Palestine and other Near Eastern societies. But the principal animal, owing to its size, abundance, and usefulness, was the sheep. It is no wonder, then, that the shepherd imagery ―was used in a figurative way throughout the ancient Near East and in the Hellenistic world; it is, therefore, quite natural that the OT and NT should also use shepherd imagery. This post describes shepherding in the Ancient near East societies, and in both the OT and NT.
Shepherds in the ANE
Ancient Near East refers to places like ―Mesopotamia, including the modern country of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Iran. This is what we call today, ―Middle East. In the ANE shepherding was considered not only as a human occupation, but also the economic foundation of these societies. Nomadic peoples (e.g., Amalekites and Midianites) were shepherds. Sheep provided for the ancient peoples meat, milk, fat, wool, skins, and horns. The economic importance of sheep, besides its being sacrificial animal, cannot be underestimated. Thus, as Timothy Laniak affirms, ―Everyone who lived in the ancient Near East would have either lived in a household that owned flocks or seen shepherds who led their sheep to graze along the edges of settled areas.
While shepherds were predominantly men, it is an occupation not exclusively for them. It is said that among the Bedouin (desert-dwelling Arabian ethnic groups of the Middle Eastern deserts), a young girl of eight to ten years old begin herding as a trainee, and continue to herd until fifteen or sixteen by which time she would usually be married and begin housekeeping and childrearing. This can likewise be seen in the OT stories about Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and Jethro‘s daughters.
The shepherds herding the flock may not necessarily be owners of the flock. They could simply be hired by the herd owner (e.g., Gen 29-30 where Jacob was hired by Laban to pasture the sheep). It could happen that those hired to care for herds did not always care for them as an owner would. Thus, we have the distinction between the good shepherd and the bad shepherd. Shepherding could be a dangerous and demanding occupation.
Shepherds were always on the lookout for predators in the form of both wild animals and human thieves. Since sheep were easy prey for wild animals, shepherds had to constantly care and keep watch on their herds (see 1 Sam 17:34-35). Because of the dangers one had to face, hired shepherds sometimes chose to save their own skins rather than risk themselves for their flocks. We find in the Gospel of John an example of this: ―The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired man does not care for the sheep‖ (John 10:11-13).
The good shepherd‘s primary duties are to guide, provide food and water, protect and deliver, gather back to the herd those that were lost, and to nurture and provide security.11 This is reflected in the first five verses of the famous Psalm 23: ―He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he leads me in right path….‖
Shepherds had always to look for new grazing fields since low-lying ground vegetation is the primary means of sustenance of sheep. The shepherd in caring for the sheep sees to it that they are not overdriven. Thus, shepherd carries helpless lambs in his arms (cf. Isa 40:11), or on his shoulders. At the end of the day, the good shepherd counts each animal as it passed under his hand (Jer 31:13 – ―flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them…‖). The shepherd kept his flock intact and sought for the lost ones.
Because predators were always a threat to shepherds, the ANE shepherds always had implement of protection, like a rod and staff at hand, a sling to scare small predators, and a pouch for food. The shepherd‘s staff was important in traversing rocky terrain, while the rod was primarily used as a defense against threats.
It was very natural then that because tending the flock was a routine of daily life among the ancients that an ―extensive and complex stock of shepherd and flock imagery developed throughout ANE. It was one of human‘s earliest symbols, and is used repeatedly in the Bible to picture God, or national leaders ruling over their people. Indeed, the shepherd imagery was a common motif of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. It was widely used for wise kings, and also often for kings at war, like King David.