Word Study #163 — Sheep — their characteristics and care

This is not really a linguistic study, but I think it is needed, due to many misunderstandings. In few cases is it more obvious that Bible translators and/or “scholars” are city people and academics with no real experience of rural life than when they turn to sheep. Some well-meaning folks through the years have undertaken to try to enlighten them – but even these cite only their experience with large commercial operations. Although wealthy individuals (like Abraham) in Biblical times, did own very large flocks and herds which were tended by others, this was not the norm in first century Palestine, especially among the “ordinary” folks who gathered to listen to Jesus. Most of them could have identified more readily with the poor man in Nathan’s parable (II Sam.12:3) who had made a pet of his only ewe lamb. Common people lived very close to their few animals, not infrequently even sharing a section of their dwellings. Consequently, I think that my years of caring for a small flock (2-5 ewes and their lambs) can provide helpful, and even perhaps useful insight on these teachings.

My sheep were all pets – to the great amusement of the neighbors, many of whom were “real” farmers. It is not possible to become “personally acquainted” with individual animals in a large operation, where they are more likely to be numbered than named – so they were amazed when my sheep came running in response to being called by name (Jn.10:3). And they gradually stopped laughing when, due to close attention and careful observation, I began to experience more successful lambing and survival rates.

Sheep, whether wild or domestic, are flocking creatures. They seldom go off on their own. But as Jesus noted in parables, they can and do get lost (Mt.12:11-12, Lk.15:4-6). Interestingly, in neither case does Jesus say how it happened. Unlike many who claim to represent him, Jesus does not blame the victim! Perhaps the “lost sheep” was fleeing in panic from a predator (real or perceived). Maybe it was injured or weak, and simply could not keep up with the rest. Or it could have lingered too long in an especially tasty section of the pasture, and been inadvertently left behind. If it was a lamb, it might have been rejected by its mother ewe, or pushed aside by a stronger sibling. A lamb’s exuberant bouncing and climbing could have taken it too close to the edge of a precipitous path. I saw most of these things among my own sheep – as well as seeing (or experiencing) them in churches!

For these, and many other reasons,sheep really need the care of a skilled and loving shepherd! I have had to physically restrain a reluctant ewe to get her to allow her lambs to nurse. It was not unusual that one needed help with a difficult delivery. Occasionally, my ignorance or inexperience was the unfortunate cause of the loss of a lamb, or even a mother. I had to learn by experience to remove poisonous plants from the pasture, to take proper care of an injury to avoid infection, to keep their feet in good condition, and to separate the boy lambs from their sire before he attacked them as rivals!
It is also easy for me to identify with the shepherds (Lk.2) who were watching their flocks overnight! Normally, the flocks would have been herded into a sort of open courtyard at night, where a few men could guard them all (Jn.10:1-10). But that would not be done in lambing season (which is good evidence that Jesus must have been born in early spring!) A crowded sheepfold could cause a newborn lamb to be stepped-on, a distressed ewe to be overlooked, or make it very difficult to sort out which lambs belonged to which mothers! Careful shepherds always spend the night with sheep who are near to delivery. The lives of both mother and babies depend on it!

Jesus remarked with great insight upon the plight of “sheep without a shepherd” (Mt.9:36,26:31; Mk.6:34, 14:27), and of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt.10:6, 15:24) who had yet to recognize (or had refused to follow) the true Shepherd of the flock. Sheep depend on the shepherd constantly – for safety, for pasture, for shelter, for care. Most people who preach thundering warnings about the shepherd’s “rod” are unaware that it is an instrument for the protection and defense of the sheep, not their punishment! With his rod, the shepherd held wild animals at bay, often at the risk of his own life (Jn.10:15). He could also use it to lift an injured animal to safety. The rod was used FOR – NOT ON – the sheep!

The translations of the associated verb, poimaino, also reveal the ignorance of the translators, who 7x call it simply “feed” (Lk.17:7, Jn.21:16, Ac.20:28, I Cor.9:7, I Pet.5:2, Jude 12, Rv.7:17), or 4x – wholly without linguistic justification – “rule” (Mt.2:6, Rv.2:27, 12:5, 19:15), despite the lexical definitions (L/S) “to tend and cherish, to guide and govern, to soothe or beguile”! Classical writers understood that sheep can only successfully be “tended/shepherded” with loving care! Nobody “rules over” them!
And folks who complain about not being “fed” in churches – or who advertise how well they are “fed” – are likewise missing the point. There are three different words that refer to “feeding” (providing nourishment).
Bosko, “to feed, nourish, or graze”, appears 8x: six of them referring to pigs (Mt.8:30, Mk.5:11, 14; Lk.8:32,24 and 15:15), and only twice to people (Jn.21:15,17).
Trepho, “to bring up or rear, to cause to grow, breed, or produce”, refers twice to birds (Mt.6:26, Lk.12:24), once to the woman in the desert (Rv.12:6), and once to the needy (Mt.25:37).
Psomizo, “to feed by hand” (implying very personal involvement) is used in Rom.12:20 of caring for one’s enemy, and in I Cor.13:3 of caring for the poor.

The job of “shepherding” is much more comprehensive than that. He must be a vet, a midwife, a guide, a companion, and even a referee or mediator! Mopsy was our first sheep, and considered herself to be the absolute monarch of the barnyard. For years, a new sheep, or even the calf who arrived later, and the family puppy, had to be introduced to Mopsy and to pass her inspection before any of the others would accept their presence. If she lowered her head or stomped her foot, only prompt intervention would prevent the others from harassing the newcomer. Peacemaking could be a real challenge! But eventually, she apparently came to feel more secure, and showed less hostility to new arrivals. Even if successful at peacemaking, though, a good shepherd can guide his flock to good, healthful pasture, and drive off the predators, but the sheep must then do the grazing! Poimaino is a cooperative, not a passive, operation!

The flock” is only referenced ten times – 3x referring to (4-legged) sheep (Lk.2:8, I Cor.9:7, 20), and the rest to a group of the faithful. Five of these latter use the diminutive form of poimne “flock”, poimnion. The use of the diminutive may simply indicate the small size of the group, but it is also frequently a term of endearment like the Spanish suffix -ito, -ita, or the German -chen. This is significant in Jesus’ use of the term in Lk.12:32 : “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom!” After a discourse about the trials they will face, this is intended to be an encouragement to those for whose welfare he cares deeply.

The safety – indeed, the very survival – of the flock depends upon their being kept together, where the shepherd can defend them, and see to their care. Perhaps these multiple responsibilities are part of the reason why Paul addresses the elders of Ephesus (Ac.20:28) and Peter writes to fellow-elders (I Pet.5:2) as a plural charge. Note (#42) that elders are always plural, and addressed together as a group. They are charged with the care and protection of their congregations, urged to “watch over the little flock” and be an example to them of godly living. Peter also specifically warns against any domineering or profit-making on their part.
Although Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is clearly capable of handling all these challenges and more, Jn.10:16 is illustrative that even he may find it a daunting task to build all of his”sheep”/followers into a single flock! He paid a high price for that accomplishment!
I think Peter may have glimpsed that reality when he addressed the elders at the end of his first letter. Review that entire chapter (I Pet.5) in the light of shepherds defending a flock both from predators and from their own ignorance or stubbornness (of which both 4-legged and 2-legged “sheep” have an abundant supply!), remembering that Jesus himself is the only “Chief Shepherd”!

The goal is a single flock, together, waiting to greet their Chief Shepherd with joy – both his and theirs!


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