Shepherding is one of man’s oldest occupations, second only to gardening and farming. Abel was the first in the Bible to keep sheep. But the first mention of a nomadic herdsman came later in Genesis chapter 4 with Jabal: the father of those who live in tents and have lifestock. Afterward, nomadic stock keeping quickly became a common occupation.
Sheep and shepherds were important to Ancient Israel’s economy.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the early Patriarchs were nomadic shepherds and herdsmen, whose livelihood was dependent on their livestock and sheep, from which they got food, milk, skins, and wool.
After their exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites became more settled, they turned more to farming and craftsmanship, such as carpentry, coppersmiths, potters, tent-makers, and fishing. Occupations which required either stronger backs or greater skill. And so the care of sheep and livestock was turned over to servants or to younger or weaker family members: women and children.
Although the patriarchs became well-to-do through their stock keeping, later shepherds didn’t seem to fare as well. Shepherds were usually in the lower class of people, both financially and socially. Less educated and often with rough manners, acquired from long hours alone in the wilderness, they were often looked down upon by others. Even though they filled an important role in raising the sheep that remained an important part of Israel’s economy, daily diet, and religious life.
The Shepherd’s Life
The life of a sheperd or shepherdess was not easy. They spent most of their time outdoors, watching over the sheep and goats, and sleeping on the ground in all kinds of weather. And they often had to protect the animals from robbers or ferocious beasts with nothing but their rod and staff, a slingshot, and their bare hands.
The Shepherd’s Tasks
1. feeding the sheep.
During the rainy season (from November through March) when green pastures were abundant, shepherds moved their flocks closer to towns. After the grain was reaped and the poor gleaned their food, the flocks were also allowed to graze on the stubble and leftovers in the fields.
But in the dry season (April through October), the shepherds had to keep moving their flocks through the wildnerness, in search of food. Which at first glance would seem an insurmountable task in such barren, brown wasteland. Yet knowing that a few tufts of grass always grow near rocks and streams, they lead the animals there. And when necessary, took them home to feed on hay and grain.
2. Watering the sheep.
While on the go, the shepherd also had to lead his sheep to water. Either to an existing well, or to the still waters Psalm 23 speaks of, for noisy fast-moving water tended to agitate the nervous and easily-frightened sheep.
3. Protecting, healing and caring for the sheep.
Sheep are defenceless, so the shepherd had to protect them from predators, and keep them from straying or walking into peril. He also had to treat their wounds with olive oil, toted along in a ram’s horn. And wrap the newborn, wounded, or sick lambs, carrying them close to his warm body for faster healing.
4. Making of sheepfolds.
Shepherds kept numerous sheepfolds, or shelters. A permanent sheepfold would be made of rocks or in a cave or cliffside near the shepherd’s home. And along his wilderness routes, he would costruct them of sticks. A quick, makeshift sheepfold could also be made of thorns.
The Shepherd’s Tools and Gear
1. His clothing
Always on the go and out in the open, the shepherd’s clothing had to protect him head to toe, with sturdy leather sandles for his feet and a cloth turban to protect his head from the hot sun.
The rest of his garb was quite simple. A cotton tunic held in place by a leather girdle or belt tied around his waist. Plus an outer garment made of animal skins or a roomy, hooded, wool cloak, which could be used as a blanket. He could also wrap and carry a sick, injured, or newborn lamb in his cloak.
2. The shepherd’s rod.
This long heavy stick, made of oak or other hardwood, was one of the shepherd’s most important tools. He used it to protect himself and the sheep, and to count the sheep each evening as they entered the sheepfold, and again in the morning when he took them out, or as a disciplinary tool on stubborn sheep.
3. The shepherd’s staff.
The staff is also referred to as the shepherd’s crook because of the crook it often had on one end. Primarily used as the shepherd’s walking stick, it was also useful in handling the sheep, to rescue one after it has fallen, or to pull a wayward sheep back on to the path.
4. The shepherd’s sling.
Made out of a piece leather with rope or leather thongs tied on, this tool was another useful weapon of defense. But the shepherd would also use it to throw stones near a lagging or straying sheep to keep them on the right path.
5. The shepherd’s bag, water pouch, and ram’s horn.
His leather carrying bag was also an important part of his gear, for carrying food: cheese, bread, olives, and dried fruit. And it was here that he also kept his flute and a few stones to throw with his sling.
He also carried a small skin pouch with his drinking water and a ram’s horn filled with olive oil for medicinal purposes.
6. The shepherd’s flute
At night or during resting times, the shepherd would pull out his flute and play music both to calm the sheep and to keep himself company.
The shepherd’s was a hard and often lonely life. But in many ways, I’m sure, a rewarding one. He loved his sheep and had the satisfaction of knowing that they knew his voice and would follow him anywhere. Often a few shepherds would keep their sheep in the same sheepfold. But when it was time to take them out, the sheep knew their own master’s voice and readily followed him.
May we become like sheep who know their shepherd’s voice and readily follow wherever he may lead.
Resources: Occupations and Professions in the Bible, Holman Bible Dictionary; How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus, American Bible Society Resources; Shepherd Life; the care of sheep and goats, Exceprts from Customs and Manners of Bible Lands, by Fred H. Wright.