A person who tends, feeds, and guards sheep or flocks of both sheep and goats. (Ge 30:35, 36; Mt 25:32; see SHEEP.) The occupation of shepherds dates back to Adam’s son Abel. (Ge 4:2) Although looked upon honorably elsewhere, in agricultural Egypt shepherds were viewed with disdain.—Ge 46:34.
Often the owner, his children (both sons and daughters), or another relative cared for the flock. (Ge 29:9; 30:31; 1Sa 16:11) Among the wealthy, as in Nabal’s case, servants worked as shepherds, and there may have been a chief or principal shepherd over the others. (1Sa 21:7; 25:7, 14-17) When the owner or members of his family shepherded the animals, the flock usually fared well. But a hired man did not always have the same personal interest in the flock, which therefore suffered at times.—Joh 10:12, 13.
The shepherd’s equipment might include a tent (Isa 38:12), a garment in which he could wrap himself (Jer 43:12), a rod and a sling for defense, a bag for keeping provisions of food (1Sa 17:40; Ps 23:4), and a long curved staff or crook used in guiding the flock (Le 27:32; Mic 7:14).
Nomadic shepherds, like Abraham, dwelt in tents and moved about from one location to another to find pasturage for their flocks. (Ge 13:2, 3, 18) However, at times the owner of the animals remained at a certain location, his home or base camp, whereas his servants or some family members traveled with the flock.—Ge 37:12-17; 1Sa 25:2, 3, 7, 15, 16.
Do sheep really know the voice of their particular shepherd?
The flocks of several shepherds were sometimes penned in the same sheepfold for the night, with a doorkeeper to watch over them. When the shepherds arrived in the morning, they called to their flock, and the sheep responded to their shepherd and to him only. Walking ahead of the flock, the shepherd led it to pasture. (Joh 10:1-5) From personal observations in Syria and Palestine in the nineteenth century, W. M. Thomson wrote: “[The sheep] are so tame and so trained that they follow their keeper with the utmost docility. He leads them forth from the fold, or from their houses in the villages, just where he pleases. As there are many flocks in such a place as this, each one takes a different path; and it is his business to find pasture for them. It is necessary, therefore, that they should be taught to follow, and not to stray away into the unfenced fields of corn which lie so temptingly on either side. Any one that thus wanders is sure to get into trouble. The shepherd calls sharply from time to time to remind them of his presence. They know his voice, and follow on; but if a stranger call, they stop short, lift up their heads in alarm, and, if it is repeated, they turn and flee, because they know not the voice of a stranger. This is not the fanciful costume of a parable; it is simple fact. I have made the experiment repeatedly. The shepherd goes before, not merely to point out the way but to see that it is practicable and safe.”—The Land and the Book, revised by J. Grande, 1910, p. 179.
Similarly, J. L. Porter, in The Giant Cities of Bashan and Syria’s Holy Places, observes: “The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view, and we watched them and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there, grouped in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering as he advanced a shrill peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved, as if shaken by some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders.”—1868, p. 45.
In the evening the shepherd brought the animals back to the sheepfold, where he stationed himself at the door and counted the sheep as they passed beneath his crook or his hands.—Le 27:32; Jer 33:13; see SHEEPFOLD.
A Rigorous Life. The shepherd’s life was not an easy one. He was exposed to both heat and cold, as well as to sleepless nights. (Ge 31:40; Lu 2:8) With personal danger to himself, he protected the flock from predators, such as lions, wolves, and bears, as well as from thieves. (Ge 31:39; 1Sa 17:34-36; Isa 31:4; Am 3:12; Joh 10:10-12) The shepherd had to keep the flock from scattering (1Ki 22:17), look for lost sheep (Lu 15:4), carry feeble or weary lambs in his bosom (Isa 40:11), and care for the sick and injured—bandaging broken limbs and rubbing injuries with olive oil. (Ps 23:5; Eze 34:3, 4; Zec 11:16) He had to exercise care when shepherding ewes giving suck. (Ge 33:13) Daily, generally around noon, the shepherd watered the flock. (Ge 29:3, 7, 8) If the animals were watered at wells, gutters in the ground or troughs had to be filled with water. (Ex 2:16-19; compare Ge 24:20.) At the wells there sometimes were unpleasant encounters with other shepherds.—Ge 26:20, 21.
The shepherd was entitled to a share of the flock’s produce (1Co 9:7), and often his wages were paid in animals (Ge 30:28, 31-33; 31:41), although sometimes also in money. (Zec 11:7, 12) He might have to make compensation for losses (Ge 31:39), but under the Law covenant no compensation was required for an animal torn by a wild beast.—Ex 22:13.
What has been said concerning the shepherd can generally be applied to the herdsman. However, the occupation of herdsman was not restricted to tending sheep and goats. There were also herders of cattle, asses, camels, and swine.—Ge 12:16; 13:7, 8; Mt 8:32, 33.
Figurative and Illustrative. Jehovah is a Shepherd who lovingly cares for his sheep, that is, his people. (Ps 23:1-6; 80:1; Jer 31:10; Eze 34:11-16; 1Pe 2:25) His Son Jesus Christ is “the great shepherd” (Heb 13:20) and “the chief shepherd,” under whose direction the overseers in Christian congregations shepherd the flock of God, willingly, unselfishly, and eagerly. (1Pe 5:2-4) Jesus referred to himself as “the fine shepherd,” one who really has compassion for “the sheep” and demonstrated this by surrendering his soul in their behalf. (Joh 10:11; see Mt 9:36.) But as foretold, the striking of “the fine shepherd” caused the flock to scatter.—Zec 13:7; Mt 26:31.
In the Bible, the term “shepherds” at times denotes the rulers and leaders of the Israelites, both faithful and unfaithful. (Isa 63:11; Jer 23:1-4; 50:6; Eze 34:2-10; compare Nu 27:16-18; Ps 78:70-72.) Similarly, the term “shepherds” applies to leaders of other nations. (Jer 25:34-36; 49:19; Na 3:18; compare Isa 44:28.) At Jeremiah 6:3, “the shepherds” seem to represent the commanders of invading armies. The presence of shepherds with their flocks figures in a picture of restoration (Jer 33:12), whereas Babylon’s desolation was foretold to be so complete that ‘not even a shepherd would make his flock lie down there.’—Isa 13:20.