Shepherding is one of man’s oldest occupations, second only to gardening and farming. Abel was the first in the Bible to keep sheep. But the first mention of a nomadic herdsman came later in Genesis chapter 4 with Jabal: the father of those who live in tents and have lifestock. Afterward, nomadic stock keeping quickly became a common occupation.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the early Patriarchs were nomadic shepherds and herdsmen whose livelihood was dependent on their livestock and sheep.
Sheep were important
After their exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites became more settled, they turned more to farming and craftsmanship, becoming carpenters, potters, coppersmiths, tent-makers, and fishermen.
And because these newer occupations required stronger backs or greater skill, those who could usually left the care of sheep and livestock to the women, children, or servants.
Any men who remained primarily shepherds belonged to the lower class of people, both financially and socially – even though sheep were such an important part of Israel’s economy, regular diet, and religious life.
Less educated and often with rough manners, acquired from long hours alone in the wilderness, they were often looked down upon by others.
Life of a Shepherd
The life of a sheperd or shepherdess was not easy. They spent most of their time outdoors, watching over the sheep and goats, and sleeping on the ground in all kinds of weather. And they often had to protect the animals from robbers or ferocious beasts with nothing but their rod and staff, a slingshot, and their bare hands.
The Shepherd’s Tasks:
1. Feeding the sheep
During the rainy season (from November through March) when green pastures were abundant, shepherds moved their flocks closer to towns. After the grain was reaped and the poor gleaned their food, the flocks were also allowed to graze on the stubble and leftovers in the fields.
But in the dry season (April through October), the shepherds had to keep moving their flocks through the wildnerness, in search of food. Which at first glance would seem an insurmountable task in such barren, brown wasteland. Yet knowing that a few tufts of grass always grow near rocks and streams, they lead the animals there. And when necessary, took them home to feed on hay and grain.
2. Watering the sheep
While on the go, the shepherd also had to lead his sheep to water. Either to an existing well, or to the still waters Psalm 23 speaks of, for noisy fast-moving water tended to agitate the nervous and easily-frightened sheep.
3. Protecting and caring for the sheep
Sheep are defenceless, so the shepherd had to protect them from predators, and keep them from straying or walking into peril. He also had to treat their wounds with olive oil, toted along in a ram’s horn. And wrap the newborn, wounded, or sick lambs, carrying them close to his warm body for faster healing.
4. Making of sheepfolds
Shepherds kept numerous sheepfolds, or shelters. A permanent sheepfold would be made of rocks or in a cave or cliffside near the shepherd’s home. And along his wilderness routes, he would costruct them of sticks. A quick, makeshift sheepfold could also be made of thorns.
The shepherd’s tools and gear
Always on the go and out in the open, the shepherd’s clothing had to protect him head to toe, with sturdy leather sandles for his feet and a cloth turban to protect his head from the hot sun.
The rest of his garb was quite simple. A cotton tunic held in place by a leather girdle or belt tied around his waist. Plus an outer garment made of animal skins or a roomy, hooded, wool cloak, which could be used as a blanket. He could also wrap and carry a sick, injured, or newborn lamb in his cloak.
The shepherd’s rod
This long heavy stick, made of oak or other hardwood, was one of the shepherd’s most important tools. He used it to protect himself and the sheep, and to count the sheep each evening as they entered the sheepfold, and again in the morning when he took them out, or as a disciplinary tool on stubborn sheep.
The shepherd’s staff
The staff is also referred to as the shepherd’s crook because of the crook it often had on one end. Primarily used as the shepherd’s walking stick, it was also useful in handling the sheep, to rescue one after it has fallen, or to pull a wayward sheep back on to the path.
The shepherd’s sling
Made out of a piece leather with rope or leather thongs tied on, this tool was another useful weapon of defense. But the shepherd would also use it to throw stones near a lagging or straying sheep to keep them on the right path.
The shepherd’s bag, water pouch, and ram’s horn
His leather carrying bag was also an important part of his gear, for carrying food: cheese, bread, olives, and dried fruit. And it was here that he also kept his flute and a few stones to throw with his sling.
He also carried a small skin pouch with his drinking water and a ram’s horn filled with olive oil for medicinal purposes.
And he usually had a flute as well. At night or during resting times, the shepherd would pull out his flute and play music both to calm the sheep and to keep himself company.
a hard and often lonely life
The shepherd’s was a hard and often lonely life. But in many ways also a rewarding one. He loved his sheep and had the satisfaction of knowing that they knew his voice and would follow him anywhere. Often a few shepherds would keep their sheep in the same sheepfold. But when it was time to take them out, the sheep knew their own master’s voice and readily followed him.
May we also know our shepherd’s voice and readily follow wherever he may lead.
All images in this post by David Padfield from FreeBibleImages.org.
10 thoughts on “A Shepherd’s Life in Bible Times”
Such great insight into a shepherd’s life. It makes so much of what they did and how they did it make sense. I could picture David sitting among his sheep, playing his flute, enjoying the calm of well-tended flocks. Thanks, Sheila!
Thanks Dayle! I love studying about life in Bible times. It brings richness and depth to the Bible stories! Like David and his flute!
I love studying life in Bible times, Dayle. It offers so much insight into the Scripture. And yes, when we think of shepherds – how could we not think of David and his flute!! Glad you enjoyed it!
Sheila, A beautiful post. Thank you for the reminder that our Good Shepherd lovingly leads us. Bless you. Karen
Thank you, Karen. The Good Shepherd is, indeed, some of the most beautiful imagery in Scripture. It displays so much of God’s love and care toward his sheep – even when we are wayward! Bless you, my friend.
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Beautifully written and your scripture selection is on of my favorites. Because my husband was a pastor many years ago the Lord made me to know He would be my Shepherd. He fills me with peace. God bless you.
Thank you! John 10 on the shepherd is one of my favorites too. And yes, he is our faithful shepherd, who never leaves us. Blessings to you today!
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Thank you for the blessing.
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Love this! Thank you for sharing about shepherds. Very hard workers and dedicated to their sheep.
Thank you Mimi. Yes, they are very hard workers and their dedication is awesome. My husband chuckled when he read the part of shepherding getting turned over to the unskilled family members. It actually takes a lot of skill and knowledge to care for sheep! They are really fairly delicate animals.
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