Shepherds were often regarded as untrustworthy during Bible times, and to be one was degrading. Yet as an icon in Israel, and in teaching ideals, they were always noble and respected. Analyzing this inconsistency has unexpected value.
During all ancient periods most surrounding nations regarded shepherds as robbers. Also they did this in Israel during the first century. Why? Animals could steal or ruin the fruits of farming. Shepherds were held responsible for their animals’ behavior. The animals truly guilty of ruining produce could be wild. But without eye witnesses the shepherd was frequently guilty until proven innocent. That’s why the Egyptians hated the Israelites (Genesis 46:34). Even King David’s older brother disdained David partly for being a shepherd boy (cf. 1 Samuel 17:28).
After the Israelites settled in the land and until the captivity, they still generally upheld their value of shepherding. They inherited this occupation from Abraham, and three fourths of the land was arid enough to make farming impossible (virtually, if not entirely). From Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage,
the shepherd was considered so important and honorable that it became the symbol of ideal leadership…. In every settlement straddling the boundary of the mountains and the desert, shepherd and farmer coexisted. Mixed farmholds were common: the youngsters led the herds to pasture…while the adults farmed…around the settlement.
But in the first century there were outside influences from Greek culture and Rome. This corrupted the leadership and left the Jews without any real form of justice. The “justice” they had meant the rich almost always won. This has a demoralizing effect, just like the effect of always being guilty until proven innocent. From Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus,
herdsmen…did not enjoy a very good reputation…most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds on to other people’s land…. For this reason it was forbidden to buy wool, milk or kids from them.
Talk is cheap, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be, but often it is. Shepherds were supposed to be good leaders for the community, and instead they were disdained as untrustworthy. Difficult circumstances brought the worst out of them as it does all of us. But that doesn’t change their responsibility—or ours—to do what’s right no matter what.
The more our talk deteriorates, the more we become cynical. In contrast, the more we guard our words and even thoughts, the more we can and do believe God does care about everything. Then the easier it is to trust God to keep his promises. James 1:26-27 and 3:1-12 describes true religion and spirituality. So does 1 Corinthians 13.
How much do you control your tongue?
The above picture was scanned from Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage. Goats strip foliage from many trees in Israel up to about 6 feet.