One of the principal animals of pastoral life. (Ge 24:35; 26:14) Sheep are ruminants, or cud chewers. As is the case today, the predominant variety of ancient Palestine may have been the broad-tailed sheep, distinguished by its prominent fatty tail, generally weighing about 5 kg (11 lb) or more. (Compare Ex 29:22; Le 3:9.) Generally sheep were white in color (Ca 6:6), though there were also dark-brown and parti-colored ones. (Ge 30:32) In a pastoral society men of great wealth, such as Job, had thousands of sheep. (Job 1:3, 16; 42:12) The Israelites probably kept some lambs as pets.—2Sa 12:3; Jer 11:19.
Without a shepherd, domestic sheep are helpless and fearful. They get lost and scattered and are at the complete mercy of their enemies. (Nu 27:16, 17; Jer 23:4; Eze 34:5, 6, 8; Mic 5:8) Sheep allow themselves to be led, and they faithfully follow their shepherd. They can learn to recognize his voice and to respond to him alone. (Joh 10:2-5) Illustrating this is a passage from Researches in Greece and the Levant, by J. Hartley (London, 1831, pp. 321, 322):
“Having had my attention directed last night to the words [in] John x. 3 . . . I asked my man if it was usual in Greece to give names to the sheep. He informed me that it was, and that the sheep obeyed the shepherd when he called them by their names. This morning I had an opportunity of verifying the truth of this remark. Passing by a flock of sheep, I asked the shepherd the same question which I had put to my servant, and he gave me the same answer. I then bade him to call one of his sheep. He did so, and it instantly left its pasturage and its companions, and ran up to the hand of the shepherd, with signs of pleasure, and with a prompt obedience which I had never before observed in any other animal. It is also true of the sheep in this country, that a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him . . . The shepherd told me, that many of his sheep are still wild; that they had not yet learned their names; but that, by teaching, they would all learn them.”—See SHEPHERD.
Areas anciently suited to the raising of sheep included the Negeb (1Sa 15:7, 9), Haran (Ge 29:2-4), the land of Midian (Ex 2:16), the mountainous region of Judah, where the city of Carmel was located (1Sa 25:2), the land of Uz (Job 1:1, 3), as well as Bashan and Gilead (De 32:14; Mic 7:14).
Sheep provided the Hebrews and other peoples with numerous products. From the horns of the ram, containers and sounding horns were made. (Jos 6:4-6, 8, 13; 1Sa 16:1) Sheepskins sometimes served as clothing (Heb 11:37), and ram skins that had been dyed red were used in the construction of the tabernacle. (Ex 26:14) Sheep’s wool furnished the fiber for what was probably the most common material for clothing. (Job 31:20; Pr 27:26) Sheep served as an important item of trade (Eze 27:21), and they were even used to pay tribute. (2Ki 3:4; 2Ch 17:11) Both the milk and the meat of sheep were items of diet. (De 14:4; 32:14; 2Sa 17:29; Isa 7:21, 22) Mutton and lamb were enjoyed regularly by kings, governors, and others.—1Sa 8:17; 1Ki 4:22, 23; Ne 5:18; Am 6:4.
The meat was prepared by boiling or roasting. For the Passover, a year-old ram or a male goat was roasted whole after the skin was removed and the internal organs were cleaned. (Ex 12:5, 9) When a sheep was prepared by boiling, the animal was first skinned and then disjointed. At times the bones were cracked open to free the marrow. Both the flesh and the bones were boiled in a large vessel. (Eze 24:3-6, 10; Mic 3:1-3) Once the meat was cooked, it was removed from the pot, and the remaining broth was served separately. (Compare Jg 6:19.) Serving lamb to a guest was a gesture of hospitality.—2Sa 12:4.
The Mosaic Law prohibited eating the fat of sheep (Le 7:23-25), as well as slaughtering a sheep and its young one on the same day. (Le 22:28) It also included provisions for handling matters involving straying sheep and loss, maiming, or theft of sheep. (Ex 22:1, 4, 9-13; De 22:1, 2) Israel’s obedience to God’s laws determined whether their flocks and herds would be blessed or cursed.—De 7:12, 13; 28:2, 4, 15, 18, 31, 51.
Sheep have from earliest times been offered in sacrifice. (Ge 4:2, 4; 22:7, 8, 13; Job 42:8) Under the Law, all firstborn male lambs were to be sacrificed, but not until at least eight days old. To redeem a firstborn male ass, a sheep was to be offered. (Ex 34:19, 20; Le 22:27) Rams were presented as guilt offerings (Le 5:15, 16, 18; 6:6), burnt offerings (Le 9:3; 16:3; 23:12), and communion sacrifices (Le 9:4); and a ram served as an installation offering for the Aaronic priesthood. (Ex 29:22; Le 8:22-28) Daily, two year-old rams constituted the constant burnt offering. (Ex 29:38-42) At the start of the months and in connection with the annual festivals, aside from the constant burnt offering, rams and male lambs were sacrificed. (Nu 28:11, 17-19, 26, 27; 29:1-38) The ram was such a prominent feature of Israel’s offerings that the prophet Samuel used “fat of rams” in parallel with “sacrifice.” (1Sa 15:22) However, at times female lambs could be presented as communion sacrifices (Le 3:6), sin offerings (Le 4:32; Nu 6:14), and guilt offerings (Le 5:6).
Prophetic and Figurative Use. In the Scriptures, “sheep” often denote the defenseless, innocent, and, at times, abused people of Jehovah. (2Sa 24:17; Ps 44:11, 22; 95:7; 119:176; Mt 10:6, 16; Joh 21:16, 17; Ro 8:36) Under unfaithful shepherds or leaders, the Israelites as God’s sheep suffered greatly. Through his prophet Ezekiel, Jehovah presents a most pathetic picture of neglect: “The flock itself you do not feed. The sickened ones you have not strengthened, and the ailing one you have not healed, and the broken one you have not bandaged, and the dispersed one you have not brought back, and the lost one you have not sought to find, but with harshness you have had them in subjection, even with tyranny. And they were gradually scattered because of there being no shepherd, so that they became food for every wild beast of the field.” (Eze 34:3-5) By contrast, Jesus’ sheep, both the “little flock” and the “other sheep,” who follow his lead, are well cared for. (Lu 12:32; Joh 10:4, 14, 16; Re 7:16, 17) Jesus compared those doing good toward the least of his brothers to sheep, whereas those refusing to do so he likened to goats.—Mt 25:31-45.
“Rams” sometimes represent persons, particularly oppressive leaders of a nation who are destined for destruction. (Jer 51:40; Eze 39:18) At Ezekiel 34:17-22, the rams, the he-goats, and the plump sheep stand for the unfaithful leaders of Israel who appropriated the best for themselves and then befouled what was left for the lean and sick sheep, that is, the people who were oppressed, exploited, and shoved about.
Jesus Christ was prophetically spoken of as a sheep brought to the slaughtering and as a ewe that remains mute before her shearers. (Isa 53:7; Ac 8:32, 35; compare 1Pe 2:23.) Because of Jesus’ sacrificial role, John the Baptizer identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,” and in the book of Revelation the Son of God is repeatedly called “the Lamb.”—Joh 1:29; Re 5:6; 6:16; 7:14, 17; 14:1; 17:14; 19:7.
The Medo-Persian World Power was depicted under the figure of a ram with two horns of unequal height. The taller horn evidently signified the ascendancy of the Persian kings. (Da 8:3-7, 20) At Revelation 13:11, the wild beast out of the earth is shown as having two horns like a lamb, suggestive of a pretense of inoffensiveness. Similarly, Jesus spoke of false prophets as wolves in sheep’s covering, hence dangerous, although appearing to be harmless.—Mt 7:15.
The trembling of Mount Sinai at the time of Jehovah’s giving the Law to Israel (Ex 19:18) seems to be alluded to under the figure of ‘mountains skipping about like rams.’—Ps 114:4-6; compare Ps 29:5, 6; 68:8.
Wild Sheep. The Hebrew word teʼohʹ has been variously translated “wild bull” (KJ), “antelope” (AS), and “gazelle” (Ro). However, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, by Koehler and Baumgartner (Leiden, 1958, p. 1016), gives “wild sheep” as a possible rendering, and it is thus translated at Deuteronomy 14:5 and Isaiah 51:20.
Wild sheep are distinguished from domestic sheep by their outer coat, which is of coarse hair rather than wool. The variety of wild sheep that is now geographically closest to Palestine is the Armenian wild sheep (Ovis gmelini), found in the mountain ridges of Asia Minor and eastern Iran. The ram of this variety measures less than 0.9 m (3 ft) high at the shoulder.