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Life in Bible Times​—The Shepherd

Life in Bible Times​—The Shepherd

“Like a shepherd he will shepherd his own drove. With his arm he will collect together the lambs; and in his bosom he will carry them.”​—ISAIAH 40:11.

SHEPHERDS are mentioned dozens of times throughout the Bible, from the first book, Genesis, to the last, Revelation. (Genesis 4:2; Revelation 12:5) Great men such as Abraham, Moses, and King David were shepherds. The psalmist David beautifully expressed the responsibilities and concerns of a good shepherd. And a psalm ascribed to Asaph mentions David as a shepherd over God’s people of ancient times.​—Psalm 78:70-72.

Later, in Jesus’ day, shepherding was still a vital occupation. Jesus referred to himself as “the fine shepherd” and often used the qualities of a good shepherd to teach important lessons. (John 10:2-4, 11) Even the Almighty, Jehovah God, is likened to “a shepherd.”​—Isaiah 40:10, 11; Psalm 23:1-4.

What kinds of animals did a shepherd care for? What did his job involve? And what can we learn from those hard workers?

Sheep and Goats

Shepherds in ancient Israel likely worked with, among others, the broadtail Syrian variety of sheep, which have large fatty tails and a thick fleece. The rams of this breed are horned, and the ewes are not. These docile animals are easily led and completely at the mercy of their environment and predators.

Shepherds also cared for goats. The goats were uniformly black or brown. Their long, flapping ears easily got torn on thorns and briar bushes as they clambered on rocky hillsides and grazed on shrubbery.

The shepherd faced the ongoing challenge of teaching the sheep and goats to obey his commands. Even so, good shepherds took tender care of the animals in their charge, even giving them names to which they would respond.​—John 10:14, 16.

The Seasons of the Shepherd

In spring, each day a shepherd might take his flock from a pen near his home to graze on the fresh, succulent growth in the nearby village pastures. During this season, the birth of lambs and kids would expand the size of the flock. At that time, workers would also shear the winter fleece from the sheep, and this was an occasion to celebrate!

A villager might own only a few sheep. So he would hire a shepherd who would add the small flock to another one. Hired shepherds had a reputation for showing less concern for the animals of others than for their own.​—John 10:12, 13.

After the fields near the village were harvested, the shepherd would allow his sheep to graze on new shoots and on grain left among the stubble. When summer heat set in, shepherds moved their flocks to cooler pastures on higher ground. For days on end, shepherds would work and sleep outdoors, allowing the flock to graze on the steep green slopes and spending the nights guarding the open sheepfolds. At times, the shepherd might shelter his flock overnight in a cave, where they would be protected from jackals and hyenas. If the howl of a hyena panicked the flock of sheep in the dark of night, the shepherd’s calm reassuring voice would still them.

Each evening, the shepherd counted the sheep and checked the health of the animals. In the morning, he would call, and the flock would follow him to the pasture ground. (John 10:3, 4) At midday, shepherds led the animals to cool pools of water to drink. When the pools dried up, the shepherd guided them to a well and drew water for them.

Toward the end of the dry season, a shepherd might move his flock to the coastal plains and valleys. When the cold rains began, he would lead them back home to winter indoors. Otherwise, the animals could perish outside in the lashing rains, hailstorms, and snow. From November till spring, shepherds would not graze their flocks outdoors.

Equipped for Work

The shepherd’s clothing was simple but robust. To protect him from rain and the frigid night air, he may have worn a mantle made of sheepskin, with the fleece turned inward. Against his skin, he wore a tunic. Sandals protected his feet from sharp rocks and thorns, and he wrapped his head in a woven woolen cloth.

The shepherd’s equipment usually included the following: A scrip, or leather bag, that contained food supplies, such as bread, olives, dried fruit, and cheese; a rod, which was a formidable weapon, usually three feet (1 m) long with sharp slate embedded in the bulbous end; a knife; a staff, which the shepherd leaned on while walking and climbing; a personal water container; a collapsible leather bucket for drawing water from deep wells; a sling, which he used to lob stones near the straying sheep or goats to frighten them back to the flock or to drive off prowling wild animals; and a reed pipe, which he played to entertain himself and to soothe the flock.

In return for the shepherd’s care, the animals provided the necessities of life​—such products as milk and meat for the table. The fleece and skins were used as a medium of exchange and for clothing and bottles. Goat’s hair was spun into cloth, and both sheep and goats were used for sacrifices.

A Model to Follow

Good shepherds were diligent, dependable, and brave. They even risked their lives to protect the flock.​—1 Samuel 17:34-36.

Little wonder, then, that Jesus and his disciples used the shepherd as a model for Christian overseers. (John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28) Like a good shepherd in Bible times, congregation overseers today strive to “shepherd the flock of God in [their] care, not under compulsion, but willingly; neither for love of dishonest gain, but eagerly.”​—1 Peter 5:2.