Christian Churches of God

No. 29




Lambs of God

(Edition 3.0 19940521-20000617-20071220)

This paper was written by a pastoralist who trained sheep and goats for the highly acclaimed award-winning family film, Babe. He examines the lessons relating to sheep husbandry with the biblical message from creation. The roles of the sheep and the shepherd are also examined. The behaviour of sheep and the expectations of a shepherd are developed. The difference between the Egyptian and biblical systems and the spiritual implications are shown.





Christian Churches of God

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(Copyright ã 1994 Storm Cox, ed. 2000, 2007 Wade Cox)


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Lambs of God




From a very young age the writer was exposed to the life of the sheep manager. From his youth and on through to university, and then later working as an animal trainer (of the sheep and goats for the film, Babe), he was closely involved in the management and general husbandry of sheep, as well as most other farm animals. This experience made him ponder on the methods of the biblical agriculturists, which seemed to be the dominant occupation of men in Old Testament times. Such experiences led the writer to consider the meaning of the much-used sheep and shepherd analogies, and in this paper he endeavours to relate his observations to the Church of God.


The origins of the flock


On the fifth day of creation, God willed that the land was to produce living creatures.


Genesis 1:24-26 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.”- And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 26 The God said, “let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”.


The Hebrew word for livestock is miqneh (SHD 4735), which also means possessions, purchase or substance. The word also means flock and herd, which thus incorporates sheep, goats, cattle and all other quadruped (four-legged) ‘clean’ animals. They were separated as animals to be used for consumption. The Hebrew word for sheep is tso'n (SHD 6629), which means sheep, goats and young cattle, unless the word is kaseb (SHD 3775; Gen. 30:32,33,35; Lev. 1:10; 7:23; 22:19,27; Num. 18:17; Deut. 14:4), which applies directly to the sheep as we understand a sheep to be today.


Rachel (7354) means to journey and is attributed to the ewe. It applies to the female animal as kebes (3532) is to the male.


The Hebrew word for cattle is behemah (929), which means a four-legged beast. The point here is that other than the word kaseb, which is used in only nine verses, the words for cattle, sheep, goats, and all other quadruped clean animals are the same. Likewise, in the Greek, the word for sheep used throughout the New Testament is probaton (SGD 4263), the Greek word for the Hebrew behemah, which, as mentioned, means quadruped animal and also applies to all clean livestock.


Deciding what particular species is used in any given verse is a decision on behalf of the translator, depending on the nature of the Scripture.


All cattle, sheep and goats are related biologically, as they are all members of the bovidae family. The characteristics of this family are that they:

1.    Are ruminants,

2.    Have cloven hoofs and,

3.    All have hollow horns.


Each meets the biblical requirements of (spiritual) cleanliness, as outlined in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, and thus can be eaten.


The origins of the shepherd


As we read in Genesis 1:26, man was commissioned by God from the creation to rule over the animals. Therefore, one could assume that it is part of our responsibility to do so in a correct manner. Thus, the occupation of the shepherd was predestined from the beginning of time.


The Hebrew word for shepherd is ra'ah (SHD 7462) and is defined as:


... to tend a flock, i.e. to pasture it; intrans. to graze (lit or fig); gen. to rule; by extens. to associate with (as a friend):-* break, companion, keep company with, devour, eat up, evil entreat, feed, use as a friend, make friendship with, herdsman, keep (sheep) (-er), pastor, + shearing house, shepherd, wander, waste.


Ra'ah stems from the word ra', which means adversity, affliction, bad, calamity and evil. Ra' means to destroy or tear down, whereas ra'ah means to hold together under adversity. The word ra'ah is the feminine of the word ra'  (SHD 7451, from 7489), and thus has opposite connotations.


In the Greek, the word is poimen (pr. poy-mane; SGD 4166), which simply means shepherd or pastor.


Thus far we can see from the Bible the background of the position of the shepherd and his management of the clean animals that God has given to man to eat. Clean animals are God’s gift to us as food, so that we may dwell on His Earth within the system that He organised for our well-being. This is why Abel's offering to God was more pleasing than Cain's in the eyes of the Lord, as sin requires expiation by blood sacrifice, and pointed to Christ (cf. Gen. 4:3-5).


What does it mean to be a sheep?


In biblical times, as today, the chief role of the sheep is to provide wool (Lev. 13:47-48; Job 31:20), meat (1Sam. 14:32), hides (Ex. 25:5; Heb. 11:37), milk (Deut. 32:14; Isa. 7:21-22), and other products such as horns for containers and musical instruments (1Sam. 16:1; Josh. 6:4).


In the days of old, wool was a precious commodity and thus a significant means of trade. We know from 2Kings 3:4 that Mesha, King of Moab, had to pay the King of Israel the wool from a hundred thousand rams each year.


Sheep were also attributed to a man's wealth. In the Bible, a man was blessed if he was the owner of thousands or tens of thousands of sheep (Ps. 144:13).


From the Bible we can gain an understanding of the nature of the animal. In 2Samuel 12:3 we see that sheep were understood to be affectionate. From Isaiah 53:7, Jeremiah 11:19 and John 10:34, sheep are non-aggressive. From Micah 5:8 and Matthew 10:16 sheep are relatively defenceless and, most importantly, in Numbers 27:17, Ezekiel 34:5 and Matthew 9:36 and 26:31 we note that they were in need of constant care and supervision.


In the Old Testament, when a shepherd and his flock were discussed, it was usually in the literal sense. In the New Testament, however, it was nearly always in the figurative.


In the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) on page 464, it quotes Psalm 95:7:


We are the people of his [God’s] Pasture, and the sheep of his hand.


And it goes on to say:


These familiar words use a common biblical metaphor that emphasises the utter dependence of human beings upon God for their existence, survival, and welfare. The Figure gives glad recognition both to the needs of human beings as creatures and to God’s sufficiency as the creator and provider for all human needs. (referring to 2Sam. 24:17, 1Chr. 21:17, Ps 78:52, Ezek. 34:31, Zech. 11:4-17, 13:7 and John 10:10-15).


From this we can see the similarities between the literal and metaphorical relationships between sheep and the people of God.


Much to the surprise of most people, sheep are actually quite intelligent animals. Sheep act erratically at times due to the vulnerability of the animal, as they have the least defence mechanisms of most of the land-faring species. Due to this, sheep are insecure and timid animals. Modern-day management techniques of large flocks using dogs and motorbikes only add to this fearfulness within the animal.


In the days of old, management took a much different form. The shepherd led the sheep from the front. The sheep would hear his voice and follow, secure in his presence. When sheep are secure they will graze in what seems like a daydream and can easily wander off, oblivious to what is happening around them. A human can quite easily catch a sheep in the paddock.


Sheep see, hear, think and learn, as all animals do. Each animal has a different level of intelligence, in much the same way as humans. As a sheep trainer, the writer observed that not all of the animals could pick up some of the behaviour expected of them. Some sheep would take longer periods of time to develop. Some would react quickly. Often it depends on previous experiences with humans and the experiences within their training environment.


Often the bigger the appetite, the more committed the animal would be to learn and thus receive its reward of sweet feed. Hence, ‘blessed is he who hungers and thirsts after righteousness’.


It is also interesting to note that trained sheep, when put back into a flock situation due to its development, will become a leader in the flock and the rest will follow it. Hence, we become ‘fishers of men’.


If a sheep had been treated well by humans it would not be so nervous, and so more ready to have closer contact. If the sheep had been treated aggressively by a human, then it would cower and not wish to communicate. Even after the sheep had been trained for many months, it would still run away if the trainer was in a tense mood or stood over the animal and made too rapid a movement. We were taught to only move towards the animal at eye level, moving slowly and gently. If the trainer was in a bad mood it was better not to train the animal until he was in a more serene mood. It is easy to undo weeks of work by giving the animal a negative experience, even if the animal was scared accidentally.


From this we can conclude that sheep are sensitive, observant and watchful. They have an under-estimated capacity for memory and a more adept sheep will learn in a matter of weeks tasks such as travelling through obstacle paths, being sent to marks, returning on command and also climbing onto blocks.


Sheep are herbivores and thus do not prey on other animals. They are content in a safe environment, and are harmless and unobtrusive. Their demands are simple and they only make a noise when they are hungry or they fear danger.


Sheep instinctively stay close to one another to be safe. When a ewe with lamb is sick or cast (i.e., miscarries the foetus), the other ewes will protect her young unless the danger becomes too severe. Often a pregnant or fat sheep can roll onto its back and will not be able to get back on its feet. Thus, it relies on its human keeper to get it back on its feet. The smallest of birds will kill a sheep if it becomes cast or injured. To run away is a sheep’s only defence. It is such a peaceful animal, totally reliant on its human friend.


The Bible talks of sheep that listen and hear the shepherd's voice (Jn. 10:3), and the shepherds can call their sheep by name (see the paper He Calls Them by Name: A Study of Psalm 23 (No. 18)). This shows how the shepherds and all people can, through symbiosis, form incredible communicative relationships with all types of livestock as part of their management techniques. This is why humans love to have pets so much.


It is of note to point that the Church was used in the context of a flock, not as God's pets, but as a group that only functions properly as a united whole.


One can go on, but surely we can appreciate the comparisons to a Christian and see why the sheep/shepherd analogies were used – peaceful, harmless, united, and watchful for our caring shepherd.


Understanding the nature of the sheep allows us to appreciate the function and importance of the task of the shepherd even more.


What does it mean to be a shepherd?


To understand this, we must first realise the importance of the responsibilities placed on the heads of the shepherds. If we had only a small portion of food to feed ourselves and our families for a given period of time and without which we would starve, then surely we would use every means available to defend our means of sustenance, should somebody break into our house and try to steal it.


The flocks were the lifeblood of the families of the shepherds. The flocks fed and nourished all the people, including the widows, orphans and the lame. If the animals were stolen or died they could not provide enough for all, thus the job of being a shepherd was indeed great.


Another important point to consider before we move on is the attitude or mindset that the shepherding system involved.


Genesis 46:34 That ye shall say, “Thy servants' trade hath been about cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and also our fathers.” that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.


The Hebrew culture of sheep herding was detested by the Egyptian mindset. The Egyptian way of thinking was and is understood throughout the Bible as being an anti-God thought process. The Egyptians were a rich trading nation. They were capitalists (another word could be materialists), who sought wealth and prosperity in the form of physical things. This mentality brought them to enslave Israel. They became rich from the labours of and to the detriment of other nations. We have seen this in more modern times with the enslavement of the Africans by the United States, among other nations. The reason the shepherds were detestable was because, in the management of their flocks and families and general leadership, they expounded a servant-leadership style of government. This is an opposite system to the Egyptians, and thus a total witness against their system.


An animal trainer labours for long hours each day to see that the needs of the animals are met. He becomes a slave to them, and in order to receive from them must give much time and energy. The shepherds, in order to keep their people fed, also had to labour hard and enslave themselves to their flocks, even if it meant death (Jer. 49:19; Amos 3:12; see below).


The shepherds were simply servants to their people, a very humble position, unlike the arrogance of the Egyptians.


From the Bible we know that Jesus Christ is our Shepherd, and we are his flock. However, we too are destined to be shepherds as Christ is. This is outlined in Romans 8:17, where we read:


And if children then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.


From this we can conclude that it is our responsibility now to learn to be a shepherd as Jesus is a shepherd. The analogy was used specifically so that the people – who were predominantly from agrarian backgrounds, as we will also be during the Millennium – could see principles of spiritual management in a physical format that was a part of their everyday existence. Today, many of us do not have that luxury.


What are the functions of a shepherd?


In real terms, the basic functions of a farm manager in terms of caring for his livestock lie in two main categories. They are:

1.    Feed and water, and

2.    Protect and heal

This was, and still is, the function of the shepherds.


1. Feeding and watering the flock

The feeding of the sheep is the paramount responsibility of the shepherd. He must take into consideration what food will be the most beneficial to the animal and provide the most nutritional advantage to it.


The task is to fatten or prepare the sheep for consumption or use, as an acceptable offering to the Lord – if we consider the matter in the biblical sense. This is the basis of the anger of God in Malachi, where the korban of the Lord is held to be contemptible; yet, it is the responsibility of the shepherds themselves to bind up and prepare what the Lord has given them charge of. The Bible is clear about the shepherd’s role. The shepherd must find pasture for his flock (Ezek. 34:2,9,13) and water for his flock. The flock requires quiet water (Ps. 23:3). Sheep, being nervous animals, will not drink readily from fast-moving rivers. Any person who has tried to move large flocks over rivers can testify to this. It can be a long, tedious and often frustrating experience.


When still waters were not close at hand, a skin bucket or trough was used (Gen. 30:38; Ex. 2:16). This is hard and intensive work if we consider that each sheep would require watering at least three times a day, with an extra helping at noon at the height of the day’s heat. This is clarified in Genesis 29:2-10.


Christ’s chief function is to feed his sheep. We know this from John 21:15-17.


John 21:15-17  So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, yea, Lord: thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. 16 He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. 17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.


Christ was emphatic about having his flock fed. It was here that the ministry was commissioned to spread the word of Truth as outlaid in the Bible. As good shepherds were required to nourish the flock, so too the ministry is required to spread the Truth as nourishment for the flock. It is our chief function to spread the Gospel of Truth. If we do not teach the Truth as God would have us do, we become as thieves. Christ tells us of these in John 10:1.


He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.


John 10:10 states:


The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.


The thief is there to deceive us and to steal our crown so that we may not join Christ in the First Resurrection, and so we forfeit our position as part of the elect.


2. Protecting and healing the flock

As we discussed earlier, the task of the shepherds was an important one; the survival of their people was on their heads. Thus, protecting their flocks was an important part of this work.


Jeremiah 49:19 Behold, he shall come up like a lion from the swelling of Jordan against the habitation of the strong: but I will suddenly make him run away from her: and who is a chosen man, that I may appoint over her? for who is like me? and who is that shepherd that will stand before me?


The key words here are lion, shepherd and stand. This verse uses the shepherd as an example of strength. Likewise in Amos 3:12 we read:


Thus saith the Lord; "As the shepherd taketh out of the mouth of the lion two legs ... .”


The general understanding here is that the writer regards the role of the shepherd, in relation to his flock, to be such that he would wrench his sheep out of the mouth of a lion with his bare hands if need be. Indeed, the safety of the flock was taken far more seriously than we would first imagine. With David, we can recollect the story of his shepherd who claimed killing the wild beast with his bare hands to save David's flock. Regardless of the direct message of the story, the implication in this context is the magnitude of the responsibilities of being a shepherd.


The greatest task of the shepherd is the protection of the flock. Today we have the benefit of technologies such as fencing materials, guns to cull the wild animals, spotlights to check the animals at night and a more populated world with known boundaries in a more organised system. However, the task of checking the flocks each day to look for the sick and lame is still as necessary now as it ever was. The job was much more difficult then, but the responsibilities were identical. Without the shepherd, the sheep are helpless. Let us examine Numbers 27:17.


… to go and come in before them, One who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd


The same concept is outlined in 1Kings 22:17, 2Chronicles 18:16, Zechariah 10:2, Matthew 9:36 and Mark 6:34.


Each night the shepherds lead the sheep into what are called sheepfolds (Gen. 31:39; 1Sam. 17:34). A sheepfold is defined as:


an enclosure for sheep against the night hazards of weather, beasts, and robbers. Sometimes jointly used by a number of shepherds for a plurality of flocks and supervised by a single attendant through the night, each shepherd then calling forth his own flock in the morning (John 10:14). Such permanent enclosures are entered by a gate (John 10:2) and may be an area enclosed by stone walls, representing an effort comparable to that of building a city (Num 32:16). (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, p. 316)


Caves were also used as sheepfolds (Isa. 24:3). The opening to the caves was normally guarded by the shepherd himself (Jn. 10:7,9).


It is interesting to note that David, a shepherd, was extremely skilful with a slingshot. His ability to kill Goliath with the slingshot showed his people his competence as a shepherd, as the slingshot and rod or staff were the means by which a shepherd protected his flocks. Thus, by being so proficient, he showed his commitment to his job as a shepherd. Therefore, he was eminently qualified to lead Israel. This story is in Isaiah 17:49.


The general way the shepherd was able to protect the flock most efficiently was through training. I know from my experience as an animal trainer, that after a time I was able to call my sheep to my side as they began to distinguish my voice and understand it as a voice of security and the giver of food and water. It takes time, however.


When we were first given sheep to train, we used to spend an hour to two hours a day just walking and sitting with the animal, constantly talking, reassuring it and familiarising it with our tones. John 10:4 reads


When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.


This indicates a similar training pattern. A bonding process occurred.


Whenever a farmer brings in his flock to drench or shear, he counts them in so as to make certain none were left in the paddock. This same event took place in the days of the Bible. Each night as they entered the sheepfold they were counted and, likewise, each morning when they left. A theory has been advanced (ISBE, Vol. 4, p. 464) that each flock numbered approximately 100 animals (Mat. 18:12; Lk. 15:4). Any discrepancy in flock numbers had to be accounted for by the shepherds (Gen. 31:39; 1Sam. 25:15-21).


It appears that a good shepherd did not eat any of his own animals, no matter how bad the conditions, due to the responsibility to his people (Gen. 31:38-40; Ezek. 34:7-16; Amos 3:12). Jacob’s charge to Laban was the example we are to follow because the sheep were not his (Gen. 31:38-40). Ezekiel 34:7-16 shows what not to do. John 10:12 shows the level of commitment a shepherd had to his sheep.


In terms of healing, we can rely on Veterinarians today. This was not so in the past. The shepherd had to fill the role of the Vet. We know from Isaiah 1:6 and Jeremiah 8:22 that balm, olive oil, or animal fat was needed, as an ointment, usually when the sheep entered hazardous country (Ezek. 34:5; Mat. 12:11; 1Kgs. 15:4).


The clear direction we have is to take care of the sheep of God’s hand. We are judged by how we take care of each other, both as shepherds and as sheep. Each one of us is both shepherd and sheep. Let us love one another as our Shepherd loved us.