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Sheep

 

Harperís Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

sheep, a ruminant mammal related to the goat. Sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than five hundred times and a large variety of terms are employed to describe the different breeds, age, and sex types. While most of the references in the ot are literal, practically all references in the nt are metaphors comparing the relationship of Christ and his followers to that of the shepherd and his flock.

The earliest evidence for the domestication of the sheep comes from Zawi Chemi Shanidar in northern Iraq and dates back to about 9000 b.c. Until recently it was believed that the sheep was imported to Palestine as an already domesticated animal, but recent finds from southern Jordan suggest that wild sheep were once living in the area and might have given rise to independent domestication. Sheep were originally domesticated to provide a steady supply of meat. Wild sheep do not have real wool, just a woolly undercoat, and it was probably not until 4000 b.c. that the animalís potential in this respect was discovered and they were bred especially for wool production. Another domestic trait is the fat tail, which is common to most breeds in the Near East, including the Awassi sheep, which is raised today in Israel. The fat tail is considered a delicacy and was sometimes required as a sacrifice (Exod. 29:22-25).

In contrast to the goat, the sheep prefers flat or gently rolling grazing grounds and eats plants down to the root, thriving on the stubble left over from the barley and wheat harvest. The Bible provides several references to the skill of the shepherd, who knows each of his animals by name, whose voice is recognized by his sheep (John 10:3-4), and who take care of them in illness (Ezek. 34:15-16). The constant search for greener pastures is a regular task for those who tend sheep (1 Chron. 4:39-40). The importance of finding adequate shelter for the night is often alluded to (Luke 2:8; Num. 32:24). Sometimes natural caves were used for this purpose (1 Sam. 24:3), a practice that continues to the present day. A very moving picture of the relationship between a lamb and its owner is painted in 2 Sam. 12 (cf. Ps. 23:2, 5).

Like goats, sheep provided most necessities of life: milk (Deut. 32:14; Isa. 7:21, 22), meat (1 Sam. 14:32), hides (Exod. 25:5; Heb. 11:37), and wool (Lev. 13:47-48; Job 31:20). Even their horns were used as containers for oil (1 Sam. 16:1) or as musical instruments (Josh. 6:4). The skins were usually made into clothing and the inner covering of the tabernacle was made from skins that had been dyed red (Exod. 26:14).

Wool especially was a precious good and trade object. The Moabite king Mesha had to pay to the king of Israel an annual tribute of the wool of a hundred thousand rams (2 Kings 3:4). The shearing always was a special occasion and Jacob used it to escape from his uncle Laban, whose attention was on the shearing (Gen. 31:19).

Jacob can be considered the first systematic animal breeder in the Bible. Genesis 30 tells how he tried to manipulate the quality of his flock by selecting the strong individuals for reproduction (vv. 41-42). He also attempted to induce his ewes to produce offspring of a certain color by placing a similar color in front of them (vv. 37-39).

Throughout the nt the sheep is used in a figurative sense for human beings. Jesus compared Israel to sheep lost (Matt. 10:6; cf. Isa. 53:6) and without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). Sheep also play a role in several parables of Jesus (Matt. 12:11; 18:12; 25:33) and the Gospel of John pictures Jesus as a protecting shepherd, willing to give his life for his sheep (10:7-9; cf. Ezek. 37:24; Ps. 23:1; Heb. 13:20). The people whom Jesus fed he compared to sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34) and he is himself compared to a sheep led to slaughter (Acts 8:32; cf. Isa. 53:7).

 

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