Posted in theology

A Day in the Life of a: Shepherd

By Elizabeth Prata

Third in a series

What was a day in the life like for a person who lived in New Testament Bible times? It depended on what trade the person made their living. The first time I looked at the woman of Thyatira, Lydia, a seller of purple. Then we looked at tanners, such as Simon the Tanner whom Peter lodged with. Today I’m interested in what a day in the life of a shepherd would be like.

EPrata photo

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions in the Bible. The first was gardener or overseer. God told Adam to keep the Garden (Genesis 2:15). Shepherd is mentioned second. Genesis 4:2 says, “Now Abel was a keeper of flocks…”

Many of the men and women of the Bible were shepherds. Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Lot, Laban, Moses, Rachel, David, Amos are a few examples of shepherds in the Bible. Of course we know the angels came to announce the birth of Christ to unnamed shepherds protecting their flocks by night near Bethlehem.

Life in Palestine was lived mainly outdoors, and animal husbandry was a major occupation. Even so, by the time of Jesus, that profession was considered unskilled. Shepherds were relegated to the lower socio-economic strata of society. It is therefore poignant that God chose to send angels to shepherds for the first announcement of the Savior’s appearance on earth.

Shepherding was hard.

The duties of a shepherd in an unenclosed country like Palestine were very onerous. In early morning he led forth the flock from the fold, marching at its head to the spot where they were to be pastured. Here he watched them all day, taking care that none of the sheep strayed, and if any for a time eluded his watch and wandered away from the rest, seeking diligently till he found and brought it back. King James Bible Dictionary

David mentions that one duty of the shepherd was to protect the sheep from predators, of which there were many. Lions, bears, wolves, hyenas, and leopards were all interested in a sheep dinner. Sheep won’t fight back, run, or hide. Instead, when a predator appeared, they gather together, giving the predator a big choice on which sheep to pick for his dinner.

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EPrata photo

David said he had protected the flock from lions and bears, single-handedly fighting off both at different times (1 Sam 17:34-37). Wolves were the worst enemy of the flock. They were more numerous than lions or bears. They were canny, constant, and fierce. They rarely left off trying to invade the fold and make off with a lamb or young sheep. Wolves are often mentioned in scripture as a symbol of treachery.

In those lands sheep require to be supplied regularly with water, and the shepherd for this purpose has to guide them either to some running stream or to wells dug in the wilderness and furnished with troughs.
King James Bible Dictionary

Water was always in short supply in desert lands. That is why it was a special trouble for Isaac when the Philistines, who envied his healthy flocks and herds, stopped up the wells. (Genesis 26:14-15). And it couldn’t be just any water, running water as in a stream or river would spook the sheep. They prefer still water, but it also has to be clean.

The shepherd is not only always on guard against predators (of which are also the human kind, thieves) but he or she must protect the sheep from themselves. If a sheep falls into running water, it will drown, their wooly coats soak up quickly and sheep cannot swim. He needs to be led to calm waters. (Psalm 23:2-3).

Drinking from puddles would give the sheep parasites and they become ill. If the shepherd moves his flocks to the pasture early enough in the morning, the dew-laden grass would contain enough moisture for the sheep.

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EPrata photo

Sheep eat a lot of grass, they are totally focused on eating. Because they are so absorbed in nibbling grass, all day, all the time, one or two usually tend to wander away from the flock and get lost. (Luke 15:3-6).

After eating, the sheep needs to digest what he has eaten by lying down, but sometimes he won’t lie down on his own. He needs to be made to lie down. (Psalm 23:2-3).

At night he brought the flock home to the fold, counting them as they passed under the rod at the door to assure himself that none were missing. Nor did his labours always end with sunset. Often he had to guard the fold through the dark hours from the attack of wild beasts, or the wily attempts of the prowling thief (see 1 Samuel 17:34). King James Bible Dictionary

A good shepherd also delivers the lambs, (Isaiah 40:11), grooms and shears the sheep. (Deuteronomy 18:4; 1 Samuel 25:4)

He has an extra incentive to be extra vigilant. If a sheep goes missing, and the shepherd cannot prove it was shredded by predators, the shepherd must pay for the sheep himself. (Genesis 31:38-39, Exodus 22:10-13). That is one reason he is so careful to count them as he brings them into the fold at night. He uses the rod or staff to lower on each one in a careful count. He also runs the rod along the wool so he can examine the condition of the skin and the wool.

When his day is done and all sheep are accounted for, whatever kind of sheepfold he has brought he flock into (enclosed shed, circle of stones with a crude roof of boughs of thorns, cave, etc) the shepherd will sleep across the door to protect the sheep while they sleep. If a predator tries to enter, the shepherd will awaken and beat it back. He will do the same against thieves too. (John 10:1-2).

Sometimes the shepherd will mix in with other shepherds and split the night watches. It is not a problem separating out the sheep the next morning as the sheep know their own shepherd’s voice. (Genesis 29:1-3; John 10:27-28).

When Jesus preached using shepherd allusions, the local people all over Palestine knew exactly what He was speaking about. There are many examples of shepherds and their duties (which were numerous and constant) so it is no wonder that the word ‘pastor’ is often used interchangeably with shepherd.

A day in the life of a shepherd was strenuous, but worthwhile. God chose to give many of our Bible heroes the job of shepherd, and to One, He gave the highest job of all. Jesus is THE GOOD SHEPHERD.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:11-18)


Previous entries in the series:

A Day in the Life of a: Seller of Purple

A Day in the Life of a: Tanner


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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