The Good Shepherd – Part One

I taught this series on The Good Shepherd in a Church in 2014. I decided to re-visit the series because I think the message is still a good one and still relevant to us today. I hope you enjoy and learn something new from these notes on The Good Shepherd.

In the book of Genesis, Chs. 46:33-34 and Genesis Ch. 47:3 we read that Joseph was warning his family about the types of questions Pharaoh was going to ask them. Joseph told them, Pharaoh is going to ask you, “What is your occupation”? The children of Israel at this point had just arrived in Egypt, and for the Egyptians an individual’s occupation was extremely important. A person’s occupation determined their status in society; like where they lived for example.  The answer the Children of Israel gave to Pharaoh was, “Both we and our fathers before us were Shepherds.”  Shepherds! Shepherds were not highly esteemed and only a little better than slaves.

Today, if we asked people, “What is your occupation? Different ones would say … “I am an accountant, a chef, an engineer, a nurse, a teacher, a student.” I think you would all agree with me that almost none of them would say that they are a Shepherd. And yet, the number one occupation of God’s people in the Bible was that of a Shepherd. Abel was a Shepherd, Abraham was a Shepherd, Jacob was a Shepherd, Joseph and all his brothers were Shepherds. Moses, David, they were all Shepherds. It was while they were Shepherding that God found them and called them into their respective ministries. All these great Shepherds can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Then there is the New Testament, in which Jesus was and still is the greatest Shepherd of them all. The Good Shepherd, in the Hebrew he is called the ha Ro’eh ha tov!

But what about the ladies? Any lady Shepherds in the Bible? It stands to reason in a physical sense at least that if your husband is a Shepherd, then the wife would also need to like sheep. Otherwise, she would be in for a rough time. In the Bible some ladies like Rachel were Shepherds even before they got married. It was unusual for that day and age, but it was not beyond the realms of possibility for women to do the work of a Shepherd. And as I will point out later in the series, that it is the same word that has been translated into the Greek and then into the English as the word, Pastor.

Now to fill in the blanks. When Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau, He sought refuge amongst his brethren in Haran. Whilst looking for his uncle Laban he saw Rachel coming towards him, bringing her father’s sheep to be watered and fed, Genesis Ch. 29:9. Rachel was doing the work of a Shepherd and the Bible calls her a Shepherdess (Ra’ah he). But we will be politically correct and call Rachel a Shepherd. The moment Jacob saw her he was not only taken by her beauty, but he was taken by the fact that she was doing a job so familiar to him. Rachel was a Shepherd like he was.

Isaac and Rebecca had trained him well and he knew what credentials to look for in a wife. Jacob kissed Rachel and it was all very Hollywood like 😊 He then lifted his voice and cried. Must have been some kiss, huh? I am not sure whether it was just a peck on the cheek or some big pash, but that encounter changed Jacob forever. There he was thinking he was alone in the world, and that day he not only met the woman of his dreams but also someone who was happy to tend to sheep.

I think it is an important model to work from, I believe Jacob chose Rachel first for her occupation. So often, when we choose a partner, we choose someone quite different to ourselves. Then we think we can change that person and that person thinks they can change us, and so the games begin. Not so for Jacob and Rachel, they shared a common bond from the very beginning. There were many obstacles in the way of these two Shepherds. The enemy (our enemy, call him what you will) hates Shepherds. He has a habit of killing Shepherds. If those two Shepherds had offspring, it would be another Shepherd. And as we know that is exactly what happened with the beautiful Shepherd named Joseph. 

We are all familiar with the Jacob story. He finds himself having to work seven years to marry Rachel, only to discover he was tricked by Laban and he was married to Rachel’s sister Leah, instead. The moral of this story must be not to get drunk on your wedding night and for goodness sake keep the light on, so you know who you are marrying. Now, there was nothing wrong with Leah per-se, but the Bible says she had delicate eyes. Delicate eyes as in, she could not see very well? I am certain Leah was a wonderful woman and she is the mother of most of the tribes of Israel, but unfortunately, and I do not mean this in a derogatory sense, her name means ‘wild cow’ in Strong’s Concordance. That does not mean she was a nasty person, I believe it simply means, she was more suited to cattle than sheep. Rachel’s name means Ewe and she was more suited to sheep.

Personally, I concluded that Leah had weak eyes, as in not being able to watch the sheep very well. It takes good eyes to watch sheep. Cattle are bigger than sheep, so they are easier to watch, they also have less predators than sheep. It is easy for a wolf or a lion to carry away a sheep, but they might find it harder to carry away cattle. Whatever Leah’s problems were we might never fully know, but nonetheless Laban decided as she was the oldest, she had to be married off first.

Rachel was the youngest, and the youngest, usually male child was left to look after the father’s sheep. Since Laban did not have any sons, Rachel was his youngest, so she took the place of a son and did what was traditionally a man’s job. Later, in Genesis we read that Laban had sons, we do not know where these came from, whether they were babies when Rachel was watching sheep, or were they born after she married Jacob? Based on my understanding, I believe Laban had no sons for the following reasons:

  1. The sons of Laban that are mentioned are his grandsons. There was no word for grandson, they were all simply ‘bens’ as in sons.
  2. Laban also ran after the girls, if he had sons, he would have let them go, it was commonplace for girls to leave home anyway.
  3. Then there is the situation with the ‘gods’ or Teraphiym that Rachel stole from her father (Genesis Ch. 31:14). These were in fact family heirlooms and were part of the inheritance of sons. Although some related to fertility, safe travel, it is clear from Genesis Ch. 31:19 it was inheritance.

In Genesis Ch. 31:19, Rachel and Leah answer Laban and say to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? This is followed by the stealing of the idol gods. As far as Rachel was concerned, Jacob was now the head of Laban’s family and since the family were moving on, she took the idols. As the scripture also reads, that Laban was back tending to sheep, because he had lost his shepherds Jacob and Rachel. It is interesting to note that this patriarchal family, had tendencies towards polytheism and superstition, so common in the Ancient Near East. 

Rachel was the main point of contention between Laban and Jacob. That is because Rachel was an asset so both men wanted her. Leah was a liability, so Laban was happy to get rid of her. And even though this story reads that Rachel was beautiful, and I do not doubt that she was, I am certain her beauty was not the main reason for this story. There were plenty of beautiful woman in the Middle East, then as now, but they were not shepherds. Rachel imbued the characteristics of an Ancient Shepherd, which has carried on into the New Covenant. The concept has not changed, the function has not changed.   

In the end Jacob would serve a total of fourteen years for Rachel, only to find there was yet another obstacle in the way of these two Shepherds. Rachel was unable to conceive. But God prevailed and eventually Rachel gave birth to a beautiful Shepherd boy by the name of Joseph. We also know that Rachel died whilst giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. It was not uncommon for woman to die in childbirth then and it was no different for the Matriarch Rachel. Archaeologists have discovered many female skeletons from ancient times with baby skeletons still trapped in the birth canal. Also discovered are female skeletons lying next to a baby skeleton. Unlike some of these unfortunate finds, Benjamin survived his childbirth ordeal, but grew up never knowing his mother. And let us not forget that little Joseph also lost his mother on that tragic day.

Rachel would always be the most loved wife of Jacob. And her legacy would live on in Joseph. Some things are inherent, like the heart of a Shepherd. You either have the heart of a Shepherd or you do not. And I am convinced that just like Jacob went in search of a Shepherd wife, so also our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has eyes that roam to and fro on the earth, looking for those individuals who inherently have the heart of a Shepherd.

A Shepherd either loves dealing with the daily watering, feeding, cleaning of the sheep or loathes it. There is no middle road in shepherding.

Shepherding was a big part of Israelite culture. And what Ancient Israel did in the physical, we the people of the New Covenant do in the spiritual. So, shepherding then becomes for us a metaphor for caring for God’s people, human sheep. I hope I have not offended you by calling you sheep. I have heard people say, “Don’t call me sheep, sheep are stupid, I am not a sheep.” We read in Ezekiel Ch.34:31 “And you are my flock, the flock of my pasture, are men and I am your God, says the Lord.” Most translations say, “Human Sheep.” That is what the Bible calls us, to us, God is like a Shepherd and we are like Sheep. That is the analogy He uses to describe the relationship. Forget about the animal, focus on the role and the function. The Biblical Hebrew language is about FUNCTION!

If you do not like people, then I am sorry to say you are not a Shepherd. To put it another way, can a shepherd not love his sheep?

Can you imagine how miserable a Shepherd would be if he did not love his job. He is out in the elements, the sun, rain, storms, looking for shelter, looking for water, looking for food, day in and day out. The Shepherd is watching for predators, predators who want to steal away the sheep. Predators are stalking them. He cannot sleep, if he lets his guard down for one minute, one of the sheep could go missing. If he is an accountable Shepherd, then he must go and find that lost sheep and bring it back into the fold. That is exactly what Jesus said, did He not? He would leave the ninety-nine sheep and go find that one sheep that strayed.

Caring for sheep is a difficult job, in comparison to the Bedouin or Arab cultures who raised camels for example. Camels can travel longer distances, requiring less food and water along the way. I recall reading some of William Albright’s material on what he called, ‘Camel Nomads’, and I recall thinking how different it was to shepherding sheep. Sheep are so much more vulnerable and have so many more needs.  

This concludes Part One. Thank you for reading.

If you prefer to listen to the video, here is the link to my YouTube Channel.

Cheryl Mason.

All images used are either free-images or purchased from iSock photography.

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