Sheep. Sheep are mentioned more frequently than any other animal in the Bible– about 750 times. This is only natural since the Hebrew people were known early in their history as a race of wandering herdsmen. Even in the days of the kings, the simple shepherd’s life seemed the ideal calling. The Bible makes many comparisons between the ways of sheep and human beings. In the New Testament the church is often compared to a sheepfold.
Well-suited for Palestine’s dry plains, sheep fed on grass, woods, and shrubs. They could get along for long periods without water. Sheep in clusters are easily led, so a single shepherd could watch over a large flock.
Sheep today are bred for white wool. But the sheep of Bible times were probably brown or a mixture of black and white. Modern farmers clip off the tails of sheep for sanitary reasons, but fat tails were prized on biblical sheep. The Hebrews called this “the whole fat tail.” When they offered this prized part of the sheep as a burnt offering to God, they burned the “entire fat-tail cut off close by the spine” (Lev. 3:9), (NEB).
Sheep were also valuable because they provided meat for the Hebrew diet. Mutton was a nutritious food, and it could be packed away and preserved for winter. And before man learned to spin and weave wool, shepherds wore warm sheepskin jackets.
By nature, sheep are helpless creatures. They depend on shepherds to lead them to water and pasture, to fight off wild beasts, and to anoint their faces with oil when a snake nips them from the grass. Sheep are social animals that gather in flocks, but they tend to wander off and fall into a crevice or get caught in a thorn bush. Then the shepherd must leave the rest of his flock to search for the stray. Jesus used this familiar picture when He described a shepherd who left 99 sheep in the fold to search for one that had wandered off. The God of the Hebrews revealed His nurturing nature by speaking of himself as a shepherd (Psalm 23). Jesus also described Himself as the Good Shepherd who takes care of His sheep (John 10:1-18).
A unique relationship existed between shepherd and sheep. He knew them by name, and they in turn recognized his voice. Sheep were models of submissiveness. Because he demonstrated purity and trustful obedience to the Father, Jesus was also called “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29,36).
Wild sheep, high-spirited and independent, lived among the tall peaks of Palestine’s mountains. Like their domesticated cousins, they flocked together, but their disposition more nearly resembled goats. They are referred to as mountain sheep (Deut. 14:5), (NKJV, RSV, NIV, NASB), chamois (KJV), and rock goat (NEB).
Wild or domestic, the male sheep is called a ram; the female is called a ewe.
I suppose you think you already know as much about sheep and lambs as I can tell you, and perhaps you do. Yet I dare say you never took up your Bible to see how many times they are mentioned there, or how many beautiful things are said about them. Abel, who, as you know, was the third man that lived on the earth, was a “keeper of sheep;” and there have always been a great many shepherds in the world from that time to this. Some of the men who lived in old times had a great many sheep. Job had seven thousand, which God allowed to be taken from him; but afterwards gave him twice as many-fourteen thousand. At the time when Solomon’s beautiful temple was dedicated to God, he offered a sacrifice of a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. If you want to know how many that is, try to think of a pasture with a hundred sheep in it-then think of a hundred pastures, just like it, with just as many sheep in each-then think of those hundred pastures taken twelve times over, and you will begin to understand how many there were. It is not common with us to have persons whose whole business it is to take care of sheep, but that was always the way in Bible countries. This was not done by servants, at least not always; for a great many rich men employed their children as shepherds. Rachel, who was afterwards the wife of Jacob, “kept her father’s sheep”-so did Jacob’s twelve sons-so did Moses for his father-in-law.
When God was about to make David king, he sent Samuel the prophet to do it by anointing him, or putting oil upon his head. David had six brothers, and Samuel did not know which of all the sons was to be king; but both he and their father Jesse supposed it would be one of the older ones, and nobody remembered even to call little David, who had been left with the sheep, until they found that he was the one whom God had chosen. David often spoke of his shepherd-life after he became a king, and even when he was an old man. You remember that most beautiful psalm of his, the twenty-third, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want: he maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.” That is the way they are accustomed to do in those countries: the shepherd walks on, and the sheep follow where he wishes them to go. So Christ says, “And when he (the shepherd) putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”
The sheep in many countries are in danger from wolves, which prowl about and try to carry them off; so it is necessary to watch them by night as well as by day. You remember the shepherds were watching their flocks by night when the bright angels appeared to tell the glad tidings that A SAVIOR had come; and they were the first to hear that sweet song in the stillness of the night, when all around were hushed in sleep.
The sheep is so timid and gentle that it needs the protection of man, and without the care of the shepherd would often stray away and be lost, or devoured by other animals. David says, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep;” and in Isaiah we read, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Is not this true of us-that we have gone away, far away, from Jesus our good shepherd? Perhaps, dear child, you are wandering still; but why should you thus go on, alone, and every hour in danger? Why should you, when he calls you back with his voice of kindness, and is ready to “gather you with his arms, and carry you in his bosom.” as the shepherd does his tender lambs?
[Cook, Scripture Alphabet of Animals]