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Sheep in Ancient Israel

Ancient Israelites are known for their distinctive relation to farming and herding. The most popular occupation of those times was sheep-breeding. In addition, sheep is the most mentioned animal in the Bible. It is historically known that sheep were domesticated and tamed about 5000 B.C. from wild species. The Biblical Encyclopedia gives the following explanation of sheep: “The sheep is the first animal mentioned by name in the Bible, and was among the Hebrews' most treasured possessions. The patriarchs counted their sheep by the thousands, and they moved from place to place as pasture for this was needed” (as qtd. in Hollis 1). Sheep were revered in the Early East, and the first referencing of these animals can be noticed in the earliest episodes in the book of Genesis: “And Abel was a keeper of sheep” (The Bible in Basic English, Genesis 4.2). The numerous herds of the ancient Jews were considered the main wealth of every family. Therefore, sheep breeding among the Hebrews was the most long-standing and respected occupation. Some examples from the Old Testament are the clear evidence of this. Thus, Rebecca, Rachel and all the seven daughters of the priest Jethro were engaged in sheep farming. “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and filled the troughs to water their father's flock”(New American Standard Bible, Exodus 2.16). Definition of wealth of the Jews in the Holy Scripture begins with sheep possessing as the main domain. For example, Nabal had “three thousand sheep and a thousand goats”(The Bible in Basic English, 1Samuel 25.2); Job was blessed by the Lord for having “14,000 sheep and 6,000 camels and 1,000 oxen”(NASB, Job 42.12). Therefore, it is obvious that the ancient Israelites cultured sheep excessively. It is worth to discover the reasons of such an interest. In the life of Hebrews, the flocks of goats and sheep had many uses. These animals were the source of milk, meat, fat and textile. Owing to the sheep wool, people could get good garments for keeping out the windy days and chilly nights. Horns of the rams were used as bottles for oil or wine and trumpets. A large number of mountain pasture in Canaan, the country west of the Jordan and the Dead Sea contributed to sheep breeding. The lasting need to find food for the animals featured the shepherds’ lifestyle as seminomadic, making them follow the same paths every year, down to the Dead Sea and then back home.   

The process of taking care after the sheep was considered a matter of honor between Israelites. If a sheep got wounded, the shepherd used olive oil as the most common remedy. Sheep needed special guidance if crossing streams of water. If any lamb had been swept away, the herder rescued it without hesitation, carrying it to the shore in his bosom. So does the divine Shepherd if His sheep have to get over difficulties: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee” (as qtd. in Wright, 160).

One of the traditional rituals relatively sheep was their shearing process. Time of sheep shearing was accompanied by a festival. The ancient Israelites considered the shearing process as a reward for the hard work of shepherds caring for the sheep within a year. The procedure of shearing took place in an open ring-fence which was called sheepfold yard. Sheep's wool, in most cases, white in color, was used for the manufacture of clothing. Sheep wool was highly regarded and was a part of the taxes that were paid by Moab to Israel, and has been the subject of trade in the East.

The Bible often mentions the image of the sheep as a symbol of humility, patience, simplicity and sacrifice. Sheep, in the eyes of the Jews, had those merits, which were considered as the ideal model of human behavior. The prophet Isaiah sees the image of the coming Christ exactly like this: “He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth” (Holy Bible: New Living Translation, Isaiah 53.7).

Ancient Israelites used sheep for sacrifices. “Every well-to-do family sacrificed a sheep at the feast of al-'adcha', the 10th day of the month dhu-l-chijjat, 40 days after the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting”(Orr, n.p.). For example, Solomon sacrificed many sheep for the dedication of the temple, “And Solomon gave to the Lord for peace-offerings, twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the children of Israel kept the feast of the opening of the Lord's house” (The Bible in Basic English, 1Kings 8.63). For sacrifices Israelites used the so-called Syrian sheep. It is featured by a large and wide tail containing a lot of fat. This fat was considered the most valuable raw material for the sacrifice. There was a gate in the ancient Jerusalem, through which animals entered for sacrifice. Those lambs coming through the Sheep Gate had never come back, since were sacrificed for the sins of human beings. Jesus tells about the gate for people, thus, making an allegory with sheep. “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture” (NASB, John 10.7-9).  As the sheepfold had no doors, the true shepherd after having counted  the animals used to lie down in the doorway and herewith created an “alive door.” Strangers, who wanted to get in, were met and stopped by the shepherd at first. Those who looked for another way of getting inside the sheepfold were thieves or bandits. The same can be applied to the concept of coming to the God Father through Jesus. Metaphorically Christ is a good shepherd, and he will let no evil get to the Kingdom of heaven by deceptive means. As the sheep always recognize the shepherd’s voice, so should we, people, recognize and follow Christ’s teaching. Here, it is appropriate to mention that those who do not come after Jesus are considered a lost sheep. Lost Sheep, as mentioned in the Bible, symbolizes a person that descended from the right path of life or in other words, left the herd, thus being apostate from the faith and God. “Like sheep we had all wandered away, each going its own way, but the Lord let fall on him all our crimes” (Bible Dictionary: The Common English Bible, Isaiah 53.6). Messiah gives a precise characterization of the false prophets, pointing out that they might come in sheep's clothing, however, inwardly being ravening wolves. Indication that the false prophets might come in sheep’s clothing shows that the lying benefactors try to represent their false doctrines under the canopy of helpfulness and truthfulness. In other words, they relate their teaching with concepts such as utility and holiness to those applied by the ancient Jews to such a popular and revered animal like a sheep. In fact, the false prophets inherently are ravenous wolves. Wolf on representations of the ancient Hebrew people was considered a disgusting animal for its rapacity, cruelty, wild temper and vile habits. Once in the sheepfold corral, wolf brought damage to the herd killing the sheep in a greater amount than he could eat. Therefore, the Christ compares the false prophets with the ravenous wolves that destroy not only theirs, but other people's souls in large numbers.

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As it is obvious from the written above, sheep were of great importance in the lives of ancient Israelites. These animals were considered useful and revered animals, undemanding in maintenance and ensuring a Jewish family with meat, wool, hide and milk. Constant mentioning of sheep in the Bible tinctures some holiness to this animal. Thus, sheep is metaphorically compared with a human being, who requires care and guidance of the shepherd understood as God. In addition, behavior of sheep and Christ set the pattern of obedience and patience towards others. Any sheep can be lost during pasturage if it does not recognize the voice of the shepherd. Thus, the term a “lost sheep” is applied to the people as well, since all of us can stray from the narrow path if not following the commandments of the God.

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