Shepherding in the ancient world (Ezekiel 34)

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Illustration: Drawing of a shepherd with his flock

The keeping of sheep was widespread in the ancient world from earliest history; shepherding was practiced from Mesopotamia to the Roman world. Sheep provided meat, wool, milk and cheese. Shepherds practiced transhumance (seasonal movement of livestock between lowland pastures and mountains) and lived as nomads, but often they did not. Shepherds led their sheep to pasture and water, protected them from wild animals, kept a careful count of them and gave special attention to those needing help, such as ewes about to lamb. At bight the shepherd often stayed with the sheep, sometimes settling them in simple enclosures or even in caves. In a shepherding family, both boys and girls could be required to work with the flock (e.g. Rachel in Genesis 29:6 and David in 1 Samuel 16:11). A shepherd’s life could be arduous, requiring long hours outdoors.

On the other hand, shepherding was often idealized, as in the pastoral poetry of Greece and Rome (e.g. Virgil’s ten eclogues: poetry in which sheep converse with each other). Shepherds apparently spent a good deal of their idle time creating music and poetry while watching the sheep graze; the shield of Achilles featured an image of two piping shepherds (Homer’s Illiad, 18.525), and David’s career as the psalmist of Israel began among sheep and other shepherds.

In the ancient world the shepherd was a standard metaphor for a ruler. The Mesopotamian lawgivers Lipit-Ishtar of Isin and Hammurabi of Babylon were both called “shepherds”, and the crook held by the pharaoh may have represented the shepherd’s staff. In Babylonian mythology, Marduk was said to be a shepherd of the gods, while in the Old Testament God is referred to as the shepherd both of Israel (Psalm 80:1) and of the faithful believer (Psalm 23). At the same time, God expected the kings of Israel to function as shepherds of His people (2 Samuel 5:2) and harshly condemned those who abused that authority (Ezekiel 34). Jesus, in fulfilment og Ezekiel 34:11-16, proclaimed Himself to be the good Shepherd (John 10:1-18).


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