Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

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

shepherd, one who pastures or tends a flock of sheep and/or goats. Since these were the most important domestic animals in Palestine, there are many references to sheep and shepherds throughout the Bible. Many important figures in Hebrew history were pastoralists, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Moses, and David. The occupation first appears in Gen. 4:2, when Abel, ‘a keeper of sheep,’ comes into conflict with Cain, ‘a tiller of the ground.’ While there has always been competition between shepherds and farmers, these two lifestyles actually exist symbiotically. Indeed, in one way or another, nearly everyone in ancient Palestine was involved in pastoral activity, from the lowly herdsman (cf. Amos 7:14-15) to the master breeder (cf. 2 Kings 3:4). The shepherd’s humble status can be seen in the contrast drawn between David’s pastoral and royal careers (2 Sam. 7:8; cf. Ps. 78:70-71). Nomadic peoples like the Amalekites and Midianites were shepherds, but the economic importance of sheep meant that many villagers and townspeople also tended flocks on a part-time or full-time basis. In addition to being a major sacrificial animal, sheep provided the ancients with meat, milk, fat, wool, skins, and horns.

The economic value of sheep stands in direct proportion to the amount of supervision (i.e., guidance and protection) these beasts require. Sheep become lost easily; once lost, they are defenseless (Ezek. 34:5-6; Matt. 18:12). The unaggressive behavior of sheep is emphasized in Matt. 7:15: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ Perhaps most famous are the sheep’s submissiveness (Isa. 53:7; Jer. 11:19) and its trust in the shepherd (John 10:3-5).

Although the shepherd’s work was often boring, it was undoubtedly a livelihood that called for diligence and endurance. The search for pasturage and water sometimes took the herdsman and his flock far from home. This meant that shepherds put up with simple food, harsh weather (cf. Gen. 31:40), and primitive lodging (Song of Sol. 1:8; Isa. 38:12). Such routine hardships were occasionally accompanied by danger from wild animals, e.g., lions, bears, and wolves (1 Sam. 17:34-35; Isa. 31:4; Amos 3:12; Mic. 5:8; John 10:12). Shepherds also had to be on guard against thieves (Gen. 31:39; John 10:1, 8, 10).

Most of the shepherd’s work involved a routine of leading the sheep to food and water and returning them to the safety of the fold. Because sheep are highly gregarious, the shepherd had to keep alert for strays and check his effort by counting the sheep as they entered their enclosure for the night (Lev. 27:32; Jer. 33:13; Ezek. 20:37). If animals were missing, the herdsman’s duty was to rescue the lost (Ezek. 34:11-12; Matt. 18:11-14). Special attention was given to expectant ewes, newborn lambs, and sick animals (Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:16).

In addition to fieldstone or brush sheepfolds, shepherds used simple but functionally sound equipment. Protection from the elements was provided by a heavy cloak (cf. Jer. 43:12). A staff was used to control the movement of the flock, and a rod was used to ward off enemies (Ps. 23:4). Also important were a bag for food and a sling (1 Sam. 14:40). Shepherds played reed flutes to calm the flocks and while away the hours (cf. Judg. 5:16). Reference should also be made to the use of dogs to help manage the movement of the sheep (Job 30:1).

Shepherd Imagery in the Bible: Pastoral language was used in a figurative way throughout the ancient Near East and in the Hellenistic world; it is, therefore, quite natural that the ot and nt should also use shepherd imagery. In numerous passages the customs of shepherds are used to illustrate spiritual principles; e.g., sheep without a shepherd are like those who have strayed from God (Matt. 9:36; Mark 6:34), and shepherds are compared to spiritual overseers (Num. 27:16-17; Eccles. 12:11; John 21:15-17).

Many ancient peoples affirmed the sovereignty of their deities by referring to them as shepherds (cf. Gen. 48:15; 49:24). Descriptions of the shepherd’s work are often used to describe Yahweh’s activity. The most extended allegories of the shepherd are found in Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34; both passages portray God as one who protects and cares for a helpless flock. In addition to these two chapters, this analogy appears in Psalms quite frequently (e.g., 28:9; 74:1; 77:20; 78:52-53; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; 121:3-8), and it is a favorite literary device of the prophets (e.g., Isa. 40:11; 49:9-10; Jer. 23:1-4; 31:10; 49:19-20; 50:17-19; Mic. 4:6-8; 7:14).

While kings and princes were called shepherds in other ancient Near Eastern literature (cf. Nah. 3:18), the ot normally applies this title to political leaders in a negative way. Since God was the true shepherd of Israel, the subordinate herdsmen (i.e., rulers) often fell short of God’s standards; as such, they were condemned for their stupidity and mismanagement (e.g., Jer. 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; Ezek. 34:1-10; Zech. 10:3; 11:4-17).

Of course, there are exceptions to this negative use of pastoral imagery. David was a shepherd who ruled his people with an ‘upright heart’ and a ‘skillful hand’ (Ps. 78:70-72), and Cyrus was referred to as God’s shepherd (Isa. 44:28). Most important was the promise that God would raise up new shepherds (Jer. 3:15; 23:4), a promise that eventually took on messianic significance (Ezek. 34:23; 37:22, 24). Not only would God’s shepherd be from the Davidic lineage, but he would also suffer on behalf of the sheep (Zech. 13:7; cf. 12:10).

The only literal reference to shepherds in the nt is found in Luke 2:8-20; elsewhere they appear in parables and figures of speech, most often in the Gospels. Jesus claimed that his mission was ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:6; 15:24). The parable of the lost sheep was told to exemplify God’s love (Matt. 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7), while the shepherd’s separation of sheep and goats was compared to judgment (Matt. 25:32-33). In a well-known allegory, Jesus refers to himself as the ‘good shepherd’ who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:1-29; cf. the quotation of Zech. 13:7 in Matt. 26:31 and Mark 14:27). Jesus is called ‘the great shepherd of the sheep’ (Heb. 13:20), ‘the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls’ (1 Pet. 2:25), and ‘the chief Shepherd’ (1 Pet. 5:4).

While issuing a warning about fierce wolves (i.e., false teachers), Paul admonishes the Ephesian elders to oversee and care for the flock, which he equates with ‘the church of God’ (Acts 20:28-30). This same function is encompassed by the English word ‘pastor,’ which is the normal translation given in Eph. 4:11, although the Greek term used there is the same one that is usually rendered ‘shepherd’ (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1-4).


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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