The Significance of Shepherds and Sheep in the Bible
By Margaret Feinberg
Before my in-depth study, shepherds and sheep were merely token characters in a handful of biblical stories—part of the landscape, the lifestyle. Like the animal figurines in my family’s Christmas crèche, they could be pushed to the back to make room for more central characters. But as I dug deeper, I began to realize that sheep are integral to the stories of God. The early church even embraced the shepherd as one of its primary images.
Sheep graze throughout the pages of the Bible, beginning in Genesis. Though sheep are not specifically mentioned in the account of creation, God made these animals a valuable source of food and clothing. Because of their worth, contention soon came. The original bloody conflict between brothers Cain and Abel is over an offering; Abel’s acceptable gift from the flock versus Cain’s rejected gift from the field. The split between Lot and Abram is also sheep-related, as the duo discovers the land can’t sustain both of their flocks.
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Bible is a Modern Culinary Manual, God is “First Foodie”: An Interview with Margaret Feinberg]
Sheep were also used to garner goodwill. When Pharaoh wants to win favor with Abram, he gives him sheep, among other gifts. Sheep were not only used to reconcile human relationships, but also our relationship with God. Remember that heart-stopping moment when God asks Abraham to raise his knife on his own son, Isaac, as a sacrifice? In Canaanite culture, the fertility god of the day could demand a portion of the bounty of the land in sacrifice—including animals, grain, and even human life. So the request from God was shocking to Abraham, but not nearly as flabbergasting as it would be to us today. Abraham is clearly distraught by the request, and, as he begins to obey, is relieved when an angel commands him to stop. Moments later, Abraham discovers a ram trapped in a nearby thicket. The ram becomes a substitute offering, a symbolic foretelling of the Messiah who is to come. Abraham memorializes the place as “The Lord Will Provide.”[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, A Fresh Foodie Bible Study Adventure: An Interview with Margaret Feinberg]
Sheep continue their prominence when the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, many generations after Joseph’s time. After the story of the exodus begins, Moses goes on the run because he killed an Egyptian in anger. Settling in the land of Midian, he sees another injustice: the daughters of the local priest struggling to water their flocks because of pushy shepherds. Moses helps them and is taken in by the family—marrying one of the daughters and becoming the very thing the Egyptians who raised him despised: a shepherd. Yet while pasturing a flock, God appears to Moses in flames of fire in the midst of a bush and calls him to set the Israelites free. When Moses protests that the people won’t believe him, God instructs Moses to use the staff in his hand to convince them, a sign that Moses would become a shepherd over God’s people.[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, The Significance of Olives in the Bible]
Through a wild series of miracles, Pharaoh grants Moses’ demand. God’s people are set free but are not permitted to take their flocks or herds. Though the Egyptians detest the shepherds, they obviously know the value of their sheep. Moses refuses to leave without the sheep, and when the Israelites enter the Promised Land, their flocks are with them.[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Is Your Definition of Joy Too Narrow?: An Interview with Margaret Feinberg]
Why is that so important? Because on their way out of slavery, the Israelites are commanded to eat for the first time what would become a powerful institution for God’s people: the Passover, which included taking a one-year- old male lamb without defect, draining its blood, and placing the blood on the doorposts of the home; then roasting the meat and eating it with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast.
The inhabitants of those houses marked by the blood are spared from death and loss on that fateful evening when God passes by. The meal is meant to remind God’s people for generations to come of his love for them—even for those who did not directly participate in the exodus from Egypt—as well as to create a powerful foretelling of the Lamb of God who would one day die for the sins of the world.
Many of the prophets, including Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Nahum, and Zechariah, use shepherd imagery. Even Amos, one of the most offbeat guys in the Bible, is a shepherd-turned-prophet. Waiting for the Messiah, the people eagerly anticipated the one who would “shepherd” Israel. This Promised One is Jesus, the Son of God, the Good Shepherd. Given the importance of sheep and shepherds like Moses and David in the Old Testament, it should be no wonder that shepherds are an integral part of the account of Jesus’ birth and life. Upon seeing his cousin, John the Baptist declares, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Throughout his teaching, Jesus refers to shepherds and sheep regularly in ways the people understand. In their writings, Paul and Peter speak of these animals and the tender care of them. Imprisoned on the island of Patmos, John continually mentions the Lamb he keeps seeing in his apocalyptic visions.
Taken from Scouting the Divine: Searching for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey by Margaret Feinberg. Click here to learn more about this title.
Beloved Bible teacher Margaret Feinberg invites you on a remarkable spiritual adventure to live more courageous and free.
The Bible is full of clever plots and compelling stories, laced with historic insights and literary beauty. But despite its richness and depth, many of us struggle to close the gap between the ancient world and our own. What does it mean to know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd when the only place you’ve encountered sheep is at a petting zoo? How can you understand the promise of a land overflowing with honey when you buy yours in a bear-shaped bottle? Can you grasp the urgency of Jesus’ invitation to abide in the vine when you shop for grapes at a local grocery store?
Margaret invites you to accompany her on the adventure of a lifetime — across the nation to herd sheep in Oregon, harvest fields with a Nebraska farmer, prune vines in California, and explore hives with a veteran beekeeper in Colorado. Along the way, you’ll explore how ancient livelihoods illuminate meaningful truths that apply to life today.
“I asked one question to each person, ‘How do you read the Scriptures in light of what you do every day?’” she writes. “Their answers changed the way I read the Bible forever.”
With her trademark humor and vulnerability, you’ll learn the secret of how to live like you have a shepherd, unlock the sweetest promises of God, and discover the gift of divine timing. You’ll move from simply reading Scripture to entering stories that can be touched and tasted, smelled and savored. Scouting the Divine will revolutionize the way you understand the Bible — and leave you wonderstruck by the magnificence of God.
Margaret Feinberg, one of America’s most beloved Bible teachers, speaks at churches and leading conferences including Catalyst, Thrive, and Women of Joy. Her books, including Wonderstruck, Fight Back With Joy, and Scouting the Divine and their corresponding Bible studies, have sold more than one million copies and received critical acclaim and national media coverage from CNN, Associated Press, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and more. She was named one of fifty women most shaping culture and the church today by Christianity Today. Her latest book, Taste and See, is a delicious read that includes dozens of recipes for those who, like Margaret, believe some of life’s richest moments are spent savoring a meal with those you love. Margaret savors life with Leif, a pastor in Park City, Utah, and their superpup, Hershey. Learn more at MargaretFeinberg.com.
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