Sheep were essential to life in the ancient Middle East and are mentioned more than any other animal in the Bible. They provided families with both food (lamb, mutton, milk) and clothing (wool, sheepskin). Furthermore, because their complex four-stomached digestive systems were able to process vegetation that other animals couldn’t, sheep were ideal livestock for the arid terrain. However, unlike modern sheep that have been bred strictly for white wool, ancient sheep were likely white, brown, black, or a combination of colors. They also had long tails, unlike today’s sheep that have their tails clipped as lambs for improved hygiene. In fact, fat sheep tails were prized as choice cuts of meat and often sacrificed as burnt offerings to God.
Shepherding, therefore, was a major industry. Because of their nomadic and solitary lifestyle, shepherds were often young sons of peasants or hired hands who had no children. Sheep are notoriously defenseless animals, prone to wander off into trouble if not carefully guarded. But because they’re flock animals, with a strong natural instinct to follow a leader, sheep were easily domesticated as livestock. Early shepherds wouldn’t drive their sheep from behind, but led them from out front – the sheep, familiar with their shepherd’s voice, would follow them when he called.
A major task of ancient shepherds was to find regular fresh water for their flocks. However, because sheep bite off plants so close to the ground, flocks always had to be on the move and rotated through pastures to prevent destruction of flora by overgrazing. Thus shepherds were familiar with the location of wells and streams over a wide area.
At night, sheep would typically be housed in a sheepfold to protect against predators and thieves. Permanent sheepfolds were courtyards (aule probaton) enclosed by stone walls and open to the sky. A single entrance allowed the shepherd to guard access to his flock by sleeping in the doorway. If multiple flocks were penned overnight, each shepherd would call their own sheep in the morning to separate them out.
The Old Testament often used the analogy of a shepherd as the caretaker and leader of God’s people. Furthermore, many of Israel’s most prominent rulers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David) worked as actual shepherds before assuming leadership of the nation. False shepherds, who led the people astray, were harshly denounced in the Bible.
The Lord God says this: “Look, I’ll search for and seek my sheep myself. Like a shepherd cares for his herd in the day he’s among his scattered sheep, so I’ll care for my sheep and take them from all the places they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. I’ll bring them from the people and gather them from the countries, bringing them into their land. I’ll feed them on Israel’s mountains, by the streams and in all the settled land. I’ll feed them in good pasture and their home will be on the high mountains of Israel. They’ll lie there in a good home and eat from fat pastures on Israel’s mountains. I’ll feed my flock and lay them down,” declares the Lord God. “I’ll seek the lost, return the scattered, bandage the broken, and strengthen the sick...
“I’ll set one shepherd over them, David, my servant, and he’ll feed them. He’ll feed them himself and shepherd them. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and David my servant will be a prince among them. I, the Lord, have spoken...
“As for you, my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, you are men and I am your God,” declares the Lord God.
– Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-24, 31