What Can We Learn From Shepherd, Sheep, and Lamb Imagery in the Bible?

This year, we’ll be observing Passover just after sunset on April 4. That’s less than six weeks away. As I began thinking about Passover, I started musing on the shepherd, sheep, and lamb imagery found throughout the Bible. It’s central to Passover; the Old Covenant sacrifice for Passover was a young male from the flock and Jesus fulfilled that with His sacrifice as the Lamb of God, becoming the center of the New Covenant Passover.

That’s not the only place sheep, lambs, and shepherds show up, though. They’re found throughout the scriptures. Much of it’s literal, as we’d expect since God wrote the Bible through people who lived in an agrarian and herding society. These animals were also closely tied to religious worship since sheep and goats were one of the acceptable (and in some cases the commanded) animals used for sacrifice in the Old Testament. There are also important figurative and symbolic meanings. As mentioned already, Jesus is called the Lamb of God. God also casts Himself as a shepherd to His people throughout Old Covenant books and it’s a role Jesus claims in the New Covenant. And this seems an appropriate time of year to dig into all that a bit more.

OT Background on Sheep

Once I started looking into the Hebrew words translated sheep and lamb, I felt a little lost. There are so many different words! The Jewish Encyclopedia helped me make sense of them all:

The most usual terms for the sheep are “seh” and “kebes” (“keseb”); “kar” (Deut. xxxii. 14; Isa. lviii. 7) denotes the young lamb in pasture; “ṭeleh” (Isa. xl. 11 et al.), the suckling lamb; “ayil,” the ram; “raḥel,” the ewe. In the Aramaic portions of the Old Testament the term “emer” occurs (Ezra vii. 17), which term is found also in the cognate languages. The word “ẓon” is used collectively for small cattle, including sheep and goats.

“SHEEP” by Emil G. Hirsch and I. M. Casanowicz

Getting into more detail for how these words are used, I turned to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Kebs appears 128 times and “only 17 do not occur in the context of sacrifice” (TWOT 949). The (most likely) related keseb is used 13 times and in all but two places it’s used “where a distinction is being drawn between the two kinds of animals of the flock: sheep and goats” (TWOT 950). One of the other words, seh is a little less specific; it can mean lamb, sheep, or goat (TWOT 2237). Seh is the word used of the Passover sacrifice (Ex. 12:3) and of the Messiah (Is. 53:7). Finally, son or zon is a more generic word for “small cattle,” but it’s use typically emphasizes the meaning of flocks of sheep (TWOT 1864).

Your lamb (seh) shall be without defect, a male a year old. You shall take it from the sheep (kebs) or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening. … This is how you shall eat it: with your belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is Yahweh’s Passover.

Exodus 12:5-6, 11, WEB

All we like sheep (zon) have gone astray.
    Everyone has turned to his own way;
    and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed,
    yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth.
As a lamb (seh) that is led to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he didn’t open his mouth.

Isaiah 53:6-7, WEB

Those two verses talking about Passover and Jesus’s sacrifice use the three main Hebrew words for “sheep.” That gives you an idea of how they’re used both literally and figuratively.

Pasturing the Flock

Continuing to explore how the Hebrew words are used, I find it interesting how different the Hebrew word for “shepherd” is than the English one. In English, we get to “shepherd” from sheep+herd–the word means someone who herds sheep (Online Etymology Dictionary). In Hebrew, the word translated “shepherd” is connected to the words for pasture, tend, and graze (TWOT 852). The shepherd is one who makes sure the flocks are fed in good pastures. Practically, there probably isn’t much difference in how shepherd and râ‛âh are used but I find it interesting to think of the Hebrew/Biblical shepherd primarily as one who provides pasture rather than one who herds sheep. The foundational understanding of what a shepherd does and why is a little different in each language.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. The word “pastor” comes into English from the same Latin root as “pasture” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So really, “pastor” might be a more exact translation of râ‛âh than “shepherd” is, though the way those English words are used today makes shepherd the less confusing choice. But I suspect this original connection between pastoring and feeding (which is lost in modern use of the word) is why the KJV translators used “feed the church of God” where modern translations use “shepherd” (Acts 20:28). This understanding of a shepherd’s primary role makes God’s condemnation of poor shepherds stand out to me even more than it did before.

Yahweh’s word came to me, saying, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and tell them, even the shepherds, ‘The Lord Yahweh says: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat. You clothe yourself with the wool. You kill the fatlings, but you don’t feed the sheep. …

“As I live,” says the Lord Yahweh, “surely because my sheep became a prey, and my sheep became food to all the animals of the field, because there was no shepherd, and my shepherds didn’t search for my sheep, but the shepherds fed themselves, and didn’t feed my sheep.” Therefore, you shepherds, hear Yahweh’s word: The Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, I am against the shepherds. I will require my sheep at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the sheep. The shepherds won’t feed themselves any more. I will deliver my sheep from their mouth, that they may not be food for them.”

“‘For the Lord Yahweh says: “Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. … I will feed them with good pasture; and their fold will be on the mountains of the height of Israel. There they will lie down in a good fold. They will feed on fat pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will cause them to lie down,” says the Lord Yahweh. “I will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong. I will feed them in justice.”’

Ezekiel 34:1-3, 8-11, 14-16, WEB

Those are just a few of the things Yahweh says to the shepherds of His people in Ezekiel 34; I encourage you to read the whole chapter along with Jeremiah 23:1-8. God is deeply concerned with the welfare of His sheep, particularly how well they’re being fed. Jesus emphasized this as well, when He told Peter three times “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep” (John 21:13-17, WEB). The word translated “tend” in WEB is the Greek verb for tending a flock that’s often translated “shepherd” (G4165, poimainō), but the one translated “feed” is specifically used for taking animals to a pasture to graze (G1006, boskō). In other words, Jesus is telling Peter that it’s his role to pasture and tend the people of God. And then later, Peter told his “fellow elders” to feed or “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:1-3).

The Role of Shepherds

As I muse on the role of shepherds in “pasturing” the flock, I’m reminded of how often David in Psalm 23 speaks of being fully satisfied by the food and drink that God provides. The good, perfect shepherd fills His sheep’s needs. The people He lets work under His authority and supervision have a similar role, though Jesus doesn’t delegate everything. He stays the Chief Shepherd, though other shepherds get the chance to work with Him to help care for His flock. “Caring for a flock” is what the Greek word for shepherd means (G4166, poimēn). It’s also the root word for a flock of sheep or spiritual group of people (G4167, poimnē and G4168, poimnion) and for chief shepherd (G750 archipoimēn). That last word is only used once.

So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away.

1 Peter 5:1-4, NET

Peter got to spend time with the Chief Shepherd firsthand. He was most likely right there when Jesus spoke about His own role as “the good shepherd” who guards, gives life, takes the sheep to pastures, and never abandons His flock (John 10:1-18).

“The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. The doorkeeper opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him, because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice.” …

“I am the door for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. …

“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. I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd.”

John 10:2-5, 7-9, 14-16, NET

The Role of Sheep

Discussing John 10 gives us a natural transition from talking about the role of Shepherd to the role of His sheep. There isn’t a whole lot we need to do as sheep. The Greek word translated sheep is probaton. It literally means “whatever walks forward,” but most usually means sheep or people who could be endearingly compared to those animals (Zodhiates, G4263). We just need to listen to the shepherd and walk after Him. Remember Isaiah 53:6? “All we like sheep have gone astray,” and the Lord laid our iniquities on the Messiah as the sacrificial lamb. Peter quotes that verse in his letter before giving his advice to fellow shepherds.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

1 Peter 2:24-25, NET; bold italics represent quotes from Isaiah 53

We’ve now come full-circle to where we began with “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7, NET). As John the Baptist said, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NET). It’s a key title for Him, one that’s used 13 times just in Revelation.

I got a bit side-tracked while writing this post. I’d meant to tie it all back to Passover, which we did here at the end, but I hardly touched on Jesus’s role as the Lamb. I got so interested in the shepherd-pastor part of the discussion. We might need to come back to this next week. I hope you found this post, rambling as it was, interesting 🙂

Featured image by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz from Pixabay

2 thoughts on “What Can We Learn From Shepherd, Sheep, and Lamb Imagery in the Bible?

  • Thanks for this exploration and insight. It’s quite interesting. Is it the start of a series as there seems to be a lot to explore in more depth? I’ve been wondering about pastors in terms of their roles, perceptions and expectations. What you’ve described, regarding a shepherd, seems to be more “passive” than what one would expect. Exploring the roles and functions could go a long way to providing clarity on how a church could work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment Judith 🙂 I wasn’t originally planning a series but, as you pointed out, there’s a lot more here to study. I’m focusing on Jesus’s role as the Lamb in my studies this week, but I suspect I may circle back around to pastors next.


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