Pastoral Life—Shepherds

Sowing seed in a field

[This article was taken from Chapter Two of Bible Manners & Customs by Rev. G.M. Mackie, M.A, 1898 (which we have revised and reprinted)].

In Matthew 13:3, Jesus began his parable with, “…Behold, a sower went forth to sow.” Unlike our farmers in the West who plow first then sow the seed, in the biblical culture the sower went before the plowman, who came after the sower and covered the seed that had been sown. The seed sown by the path was not covered, so the birds came and ate it (Matt. 13:4). If the sower had followed the plowman, the seed sown in the field would not have been covered and the birds would have eaten it just as they ate the seed by the path.

From April until late September or October no rain falls in Israel, and the summer sun bakes the ground hard as a rock. The sower and plowman have to wait until after the soaking rains of October start in order to be able to plant their crop. Plowing before the rains had softened the hard ground would be pointless. Once the autumn rains started falling and the ground softened, planting started. Many times people would try to watch the weather so that they would not sow just before a rain, but Ecclesiastes warns against this: “He that observeth the wind shall not sow…” (Eccles. 11:4).

If a farmer sowed his field just after a rain, many times there were puddles on the ground. The Bible encourages the farmer to sow anyway, saying, “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (Eccles. 11:1). The seed the farmer throws to the ground is called “thy bread” because it was the very food that the farmer and his family ate. Each harvest the farmer had to make the tough decision of how much grain to eat, and how much to save as seed for the next planting. If the harvest was slim, the family would be hungry, and they would tearfully sow into the ground the grain that they would like to have baked and eaten. Nevertheless, they sowed the seed in the dirt, hoping that they would rejoice the next year at a larger harvest. Scripture reflects this basic aspect of farm life when it says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Ps. 126:5). In the autumn the dutiful farmer would cast his seed upon the puddles of water, hoping that in the spring of the year, “many days” away, he would “find” his bread again, in the form of a bountiful harvest.

1. Shepherds and Farmers, Their Mutual Relations. Caring for flocks and farming the soil have always been the two chief employments in Palestine. They were supplementary to each other, one providing clothing, the other food. The Bible shows they are equally ancient (Gen. 4:2). They created the trades, and shaped the civilization of the villages and towns. The duties and dangers of the shepherd and the methods and implements of the farmer are constantly referred to in the Bible when natural objects are used to explain and emphasize spiritual truths.

While the shepherds and farmers flourished side by side, of equal antiquity and mutually helpful, they were nevertheless rival competitors for the soil. Wherever an exclusively pastoral class came in contact with an exclusively agricultural class, the relationship became one of distrust and defiance. This was mainly due to the nature of the land itself.

The plains and valleys where grain grew were open on all sides to the sheep and goats which grazed on the hillsides. With the exception of vineyards and vegetable gardens, farmers never protected their fields with walls and fences. Each man’s property was marked off by boundary stones or natural landmarks (Deut. 19:14, 27:17; Prov. 22:28). There was no rotation of crops; hay was unknown, and there were no fields of meadow-grass. The farmland was surrounded by hills and wildernesses (Hebrew: midbar) suitable for pasture, but to whom did they belong? If strangers wished to occupy them, who could hinder them? The shepherd’s chief thought was to feed his sheep, and he naturally wanted as much of the land as he could get for that purpose. He did not remain in one place, but moved with the season of the year, taking his flock to the higher hills in the hot summer, and in winter going southwards and descending to the warmer plains. Jacob put three days journey between his own and Laban’s flocks (Gen. 30:36), and Jacob’s sons setting out from Hebron went as far north as Shechem and Dothan (Gen. 37:14-17; Dothan was more than 60 miles north).

The different villages had common access to the uncultivated lands around them, and since their flocks were watched over by their owners, or by keepers appointed by them, any trespass upon the local grain fields, or any act of oppression, could be punished by village law. But the case was different when a large pastoral encampment like that of Abraham with over three hundred men approached the borders of a farmer’s land. Such shepherd bands came in force, and as they traveled by, they did not scruple to send their flocks among the standing grain, or to reap and carry off the ripe harvest of the farmer. These were the Children of the East, now called the Bedouin, who are always referred to in the Bible as a menace to social rights and civilized life (Judg. 6:3 and 33, 7:12, 8:10; 1 Kings 4:30; Isa. 11:14). There was no central government ruling over everyone, and each class watched out for its own interests. Might was right. One of the penalties that Israel paid for failing to conquer the whole Land of Promise was that lawless pastoral tribes lived on its eastern border, and they were always ready to pour in and recover lost ground whenever the kingdom was weakened by internal strife or war with its neighbors.

A Bedouin camp, a highly mobile community of shepherds

Because of the danger the rivalry between shepherd and farmer created, the citizenship of the village formed not so much a municipality for the management of internal affairs as a sort of militia for resisting outside oppression. The sheikh of the wandering tribe was met by the sheikh of the village, and in this way the village was able to receive strangers either as guests to be welcomed with honor, or as enemies to be driven off.

To this day when one inquires about the population of a certain village, the answer is given in military terms—that it has so many guns. Its fighting power is its population. On the pastoral side it has been the same ever since Israel marched out of Egypt. Thus shepherds who were bringing their flocks from a distance away, like the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with their retinue of servants and large flocks, had to make a covenant with the local authorities. Abraham strengthened his position by alliance with Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre (Gen. 14:13). Lot seems to have identified himself with Sodom and its peasant proprietors, leaving his tent, and dwelling in a house within the city and sitting in the city gate. [1] When the Israelites left Egypt, the people of Edom would not let them pass through their land, so they had to go around it (Num. 20:14-21). When they came to the territory of the Ammonites and tried to negotiate passage, the Ammonites attacked them, but were defeated (Num. 21:21-26).

2. The Shepherd’s Outfit. In the Bible the allusions to shepherd life and the figurative terms borrowed from it refer chiefly to its peaceful aspects. A shepherd’s enemies were wild animals and robbers. The chief reason for strife among the shepherds, as among the farmers, was connected with the water supply, i.e., the right of access to wells, springs, and brooks (Gen. 13:7-11, 29:8; Exod. 2:17). Although there were pastoral clans, most villages consisted of some farmers, some herdsmen, and some tradesmen, so the care of the flocks and the work of the field flourished side by side. The local shepherd was a member of the village, and was maintained in his right to feed his sheep and goats among the rocks and trees of neighboring hills, and in the grain fields after the harvest. The personal appearance of the Eastern shepherd has changed as little as his sheep and his simple duties towards them.

(A) Cloak. The shepherd still wraps himself in his large cloak of sheepskin, or thick material woven of wool, goat hair, or camel hair. This protects him from cold and rain by day and is his blanket at night. The inner pouch in the breast is large enough to hold a newborn lamb or kid when it has to be helped over rough places, or because of sickness or injury has to be taken to a place of shelter or nursed by the family at home (Isa. 40:11).

(B) Scrip or bag. In the summer the shepherd may remain in the mountains a month at a time, his only communication with the village being when a fresh supply of bread is brought to him. This he puts into a bag that hangs at his side; the shepherd’s scrip (1 Sam. 17:40), used also by muleteers and others on a journey. It is a bag made of the tanned skin of a kid, and into it he puts his stock of bread, olives, cheese, raisins, and dried figs.

(C) Gourd. As a drinking-vessel for holding either water or milk he carries a light unbreakable pitcher made from a gourd. Its shape seems to be the original pattern of the vases made of glass and earthenware.

Gourds and Earthen Pitchers

(D) Rod. Hanging by his side, or sheathed in a long narrow pouch attached to his cloak, is his oak club. It is carefully chosen, a straight young tree being often uprooted for this purpose, and the bulb at the beginning of the root being trimmed to make the head of the club. The handle is trimmed down to the required thickness, and a hole is made at the end by which it is tied to the belt, or hangs from the wrist like a riding whip. Into the head he drives nails with large heads like those of a horseshoe nail. It is the “rod” of Psalm 23:4. [2]

Shepherd’s rod and staff

The rod appears in Assyrian sculpture as the emblem of power in the hand of the king. [3]

(E) Staff. The “staff,” mentioned along with the rod in Psalm 23, is made of the same wood, but is about 6 feet long, quite plain, rarely with a fork or crook at one end. [4] It is a help in clambering over rocks, in striking off leaves and small branches, in chastising loitering sheep, or in fighting goats. On it the shepherd leans as he stands watching his flock. The ordinary walking staff of Easterners is somewhat longer than that used in the West, and they hold it by the thin end a few inches from the top, which is the opposite from the way that Westerners usually hold walking staffs—with the thinnest part down. The staff serves the double purpose of rod and staff, a weapon of defense and a support when standing or walking. Such was the staff in the hand of the prophet as he journeyed from place to place (2 Kings 4:29), a peaceful help on the toilsome and dusty road. The two uses, for leaning upon and for striking, are contrasted in Exodus 21:19 and 20. Both are included in the metaphors suggested by it. Pharaoh is compared to an untrustworthy staff of bruised reed (Isa. 36:6); and bread is a staff (Ps. 105:16) “…which strengtheneth man’s heart” (Ps. 104:15). [5]

(F) Sling. The shepherd’s sling, with which David was familiar, and with which the men of Benjamin were so skillful (Judg. 20:16), was made of goat hair. The pad for the stone was of a rounded, diamond shape, with a small slit in the middle, so that when a stone was pressed into it, it closed around it like a bag. The pad received its name, “…the hollow of a sling” (1 Sam. 25:29-RV), in Hebrew, as in Arabic, from the slightly concave form in which it was woven. In the two strings, strands of white and black hair were artistically interwoven, one of them at least having an opening at the end for the fingers. Besides being used against robbers and wild animals, it did the work of the Western sheepdog, for with it the shepherd could drop a stone near a sheep lagging behind, and startle it into a sense of loneliness and danger. At the present day, when a quarrel arises between the youth of neighboring villages, a sortie of lads is sometimes made from each, and sling practice is indulged in, usually at long range.

The leading idea of the Eastern sling, in a figurative sense, is distance, rather than accuracy of direction. An Arabic proverb describes the habitual gossip as one who puts a secret in a sling. He tries to see how far he can throw it. [6] However, accuracy, not distance is the thought in Proverbs 26:8: “As he that bindeth a stone in a sling, so is he that giveth honour to a fool.” No one would “bind,” or tie, a stone in a sling. What would be the point of that? A stone gets “tied” in a sling when a novice or a slinger who is not paying attention does not maintain the proper wrist and arm motion. This causes the two lines to get twisted, trapping, or “tying,” the rock in the pocket of the sling. Then, when the sling is released, the stone is delayed coming out of the pocket, so it goes in the wrong direction. This can result in the stone hitting the wrong person. The man who gives honor to a fool and the man who ties a stone in the sling are the same: they hit the wrong target.

The use of the sling was exactly the opposite of that of the shepherd’s bag—the one throwing out what was placed in it, the other keeping in what was placed in it. This is probably the meaning of Abigail’s words to David, when she contrasted “…the bundle of life…” and its contents with the sling and its stones (1 Sam. 25:29). When Abigail approached David, he most likely had both his sling and provision pouch on his person, and while the souls of his enemies would be like stones in the sling, things to be thrown away, his soul would be guarded and kept by the Great Shepherd like the necessities in the bag of life. The meaning in one case is so precise and picturesque that an allusion equally exact and obvious is required for the other.

3. Management of the Flock.

(A) The shepherd’s presence. By day and by night the shepherd is always with his sheep. As already explained, this was necessary because of the exposed nature of the land, and the constant danger from wild animals and robbers (Gen. 31:39; 1 Sam. 25:7). One of the most familiar and beautiful sights of the East is that of the shepherd leading his sheep to the pasture. He often has a dog or two with him, especially in the lonely and remote parts of the mountain pasture. But these are large, fierce animals that can offer battle to the wolf, and by night give warning of the approach of thieves. He depends upon the sheep to follow, and they in turn expect him never to leave them. They run after him if he appears to be escaping from them, and are terrified when he is out of sight, or any stranger appears instead of him. He calls to them from time to time to let them know that he is at hand. The sheep listen and continue grazing, but if anyone else tries to produce the same peculiar cries and guttural sounds, they look around with a startled air and begin to scatter.

Shepherd with white sheep and black goats

(B) The shepherd’s protection. Because he is always with them, he is constantly providing for them. He is not only ready to protect them, but conducts them to the most suitable ground by the best way; gives them music on his reed flute, to which the younger ones sometimes respond by capering around him; strips leaves from the branches; leads them at noon to the shelter of a cliff, or to the shade of a walnut or willow tree beside the well or brook; and in every possible way lives among them and for them. At sunset he conducts them back to the fold, where, during the night, they may lie down in safety, and mix with several other flocks.

The sheepfold is often a large cave, or an enclosure in a sheltered hollow made by a rough stone wall, which has, along the top, a formidable fringe of thorns like furze and blackthorn, kept in position by stones laid upon it. At the mouth of the cave, or at the side of the wall near the entrance, the shepherds have a covered place made of branches, a tabernacle such as Peter wished to make on the Mount of Transfiguration, and here, as on the night of the Nativity at Bethlehem, they keep watch over their flocks by night. The sheep require this constant and complete protection, as they have no thought of defending themselves. While goats, at the appearance of a wolf, will run together and form a solid mass, with horns to the front, the sheep are immediately scattered and become easy prey (John 10:12).

One of the most interesting sights of shepherd life is to watch a flock fording a stream. The shepherd leads as usual, and the sheep follow in a string at his heels, but in the middle of the stream they begin to lose their footing and drift with the current. The shepherd hurries forward, grasping first one and then another, pushing as many as he can reach in front of him and hauling others up against the pressure of the water. As soon as he reaches the opposite side he hastens along the bank and draws out those that have been swept down, and have reached the other side faint with the struggle. The sheep that keep nearest to the shepherd fare the best. Such deliverance seems to be referred to in Psalm 18:16, “…he took me, he drew me out of many waters.”

(C) The shepherd’s knowledge. Since he is always with them, and so deeply interested in them, the shepherd comes to know his sheep very intimately. Many of them have pet names suggested either by the appearance or character of the particular sheep, or by some incident connected with it. At sunset the sheep are counted, usually; two by two; but as a rule when they are brought together the absence of anyone is immediately felt. It is not only that one sheep is missing, but the appearance of the whole flock seems to want something. This knowledge is so intimate and instinctively reliable that the formality of counting is often dispensed with. One day a missionary, meeting a shepherd on one of the wildest parts of the Lebanon mountains, asked him various questions about his sheep and if he counted them every night. On answering that he did not, he was asked how he knew they were all there or not. His reply was, “Master, were you to put a cloth over my eyes, and bring me any sheep and only let me put my hands on its face, I could tell in a moment if it was mine or not.” Such is the fullness of meaning in the words of the Good Shepherd, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—” (John 10:14-NIV).

There is, however, the hireling shepherd, and he is as notorious for unfaithfulness as the true shepherd is for fidelity to his charge. His witness, like that of a pigeon breeder (on account of using decoys) is not accepted in an Eastern court of law. He is in a position of duty, but has no sense of duty, and there is no one to oversee how he works. Prowess may earn him no praise, while desertion can be screened by lies. He receives very little pay, and he has frequent opportunities of selling kids and sheep to passing travelers, or of sending them to the market by the hand of relatives. And at the end of the season he accounts for them as stolen by Bedouin, devoured by wolves, or fallen from precipices. Owners may try to demand proof that the sheep were killed by wild animals, but usually with little success. Nevertheless, the attempt to get evidence that the sheep was not stolen is recorded in Amos: “…As a shepherd saves from the lion’s mouth only two leg bones or a piece of an ear…” (Amos 3:12-NIV).

The shepherd’s season of rejoicing is at the time of sheep shearing in May and June. The season’s lambs have increased the flocks; milk, butter, and cheese are abundant; pasture is still plentiful for those who know where to seek it, and the warm summer weather makes outdoor life delightful by day and night. It is the time of invitations and feasting both among the Bedouin and the shepherds of the villages. It was most probably at such a time of rejoicing that Job’s sons met for festivity (Job 1:4 and 5). The time of sheep shearing is referred to in Genesis 31:19, 38:13; and 1 Samuel 25:2.

As might be expected from a calling so important and familiar to the Israelites, many comparisons and lessons are drawn from the pastoral life. The constant presence of the shepherd among his sheep and his protection of them were noteworthy features that were easily transferred to higher relationships. Psalm 23 remains the simplest and most profound expression of trust in God. The dependence of the sheep upon the shepherd is not just a figure for the beginning of our spiritual life, merely to be left behind when we know as we have been known. The redeemed and glorified are still being led to the springs of waters by the Good Shepherd (Rev. 7:17).

The bond between shepherd and sheep was so strong that rebellious Israel could plead, “…why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?” (Ps. 74:1). Everything in the way of devoted love, intimate knowledge, and protective power was summed up in the title, “…Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep…” (Heb. 13:20). The parables of Luke 15:3-7 and John 10:1-18 are in the same vein. Compare also Psalm 79:13, 95:7; and Ezekiel 34:8. When Peter was made glad and strong by forgiveness and restoration, the renewed trust of Christ’s service was given to him in a form rich with chivalrous associations, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16).

The utter helplessness of sheep without a shepherd is very frequently alluded to in the Bible, and the figure is applied in all its fullness to moral and religious matters, such as the manifold facilities for concealment, loitering and error in the wilderness of life, the losses and sorrows that occur when the will is without definite leading and submission, and the evils that attend both false alarms and real dangers (Num. 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ps. 119:176; Isa. 53:6; Ezek. 34:6 and 12).

Finally, there was the dumb submission of the sheep when they were being shorn or about to be killed that was made the emblem of silent resignation and hopeless doom. Israel could often plead the resemblance of its condition to such sealed fate and calm despair; and the figure enters into the great prophecy of Isaiah 53:7. He who sent out his disciples to be “…as sheep in the midst of wolves…” (Matt. 10:16) was to be first “…the Lamb that was slain…” (Rev. 5:12).


[1] Lot had a house in the city, but like the judges and important men, would go and sit in the gate of the city in his free time. It was in the gate that many important judgments and business deals were made, and the men of the gate were readily available to act as witnesses (Ruth 4:1-11). This is not equivalent to sitting in a doorway today, which would only block the entryway. The larger biblical cities had double gates, an inner and an outer, to better help with defense. The area between them was open and quite large, and the shadow of the walls provided welcomed shade. Boaz (Ruth 4:1), King David (1 Kings 22:10), Mordecai (Esther 2:19), the officials of Babylon (Jer. 39:3), and Daniel (Dan. 2:49), are all mentioned as sitting in the gate.
[2] The rod of the biblical shepherd of David’s time would not have nails in it, and, although there would have been great similarities between them, there was no standard way that a rod looked, it was personal preference.
[3] The Hebrew word translated “rod” (shebet) has a wide range of meanings, and could refer to the scepter of the king (Gen. 49:10; Ezek. 19:11), the short spear (2 Sam. 18:14), the pestle used to powder spices (Isa. 28:27), or a staff. The association between the scepter of the ruler and the people he ruled was the reason that the most frequent translation of shebet is “tribe” (Cp. Num. 4:18, 18:2, 32:33; Deut. 3:13; etc.)
[4] The Hebrew word is misheneth, and refers to the ordinary walking staff, which the shepherd might modify for his special needs.
[5] Our common saying that bread is the “staff of life” goes back to the early seventeenth century as an echo of Psalm 105:16 and others similar to it. The Hebrew word for staff in Psalm 105 is matteh, another Hebrew word for staff that is also translated many times as “tribe” (Cp. Exod. 31:2, 35:30; etc.).
[6] I have personally witnessed a sling stone go more than 250 yards, and the slinger was neither a big man nor a slinger from his youth.

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