The theme of shepherds permeates the Bible; firmly established in the Old Testament and elaborate on throughout the New Testament.
As early as Gen 4:2 we read: ‘Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.’ Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and offered it to Adonai and He respected the fact that Abel gave of his best. Cain we are told just brought some of his fruit as an offering. As we know, Cain killed Abel and so the victim of the first murder in the Bible was a shepherd.
We see that Moses had the ‘burning bush experience’ while functioning as a shepherd as Exodus 3:1 records: ’Now Moses was tending (shepherding) the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. Moses was taught about shepherding before the Lord called Him to play that significant role in leading the children of Israel from Egypt.
David wrote the well-known Psalm 23:1: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’; David’s background before becoming king of Israel was also that of a shepherd. In 1 Sam 17:34 it is written: ‘Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went after it and struck it and delivered the lamb from its mouth.’
In Isaiah 56:11 we see a description of irresponsible and uncaring leaders: ‘And they are shepherds who cannot understand; they all look to their own way, everyone for his own gain, from his own territory.’
In Ezekiel 34:10 a warning is issued:’ Behold I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand ; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.’
In Matthew 25: 32 we see a separation process or judgment:’ All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.’ In Mark 6:34 we read about Yeshua’s compassion for the people:’ And Yeshua, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd.’
Undoubtedly the event that put shepherds on the map is the account of the announcement of the birth of the Messiah. In Luke 2:8-13 it is written: ‘Now there were in the same country (Bethlehem area) shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the (Sh’khinah) glory of Adonai shone around them and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’
Randy Alcorn (2008) explains that in Messiah’s day (first century),’shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.’ Again, we see heaven bypassing the elite and religious establishment of the day and bringing the biggest announcement ever to these lowly shepherds. That day was also the fulfillment of the promise made about 1600 years before by Adonai to Abram that Messiah will be born from his descendants.
It is clear from the metaphor that there is something about human beings that reminds of sheep and that is our vulnerability and tendency to always want to ‘go astray’. Yeshua referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd as recorded in John 10:11 who ‘gives His life for the sheep’; notice that He does not just talk about it philosophically but actually becomes the Lamb that was (physically) slain. Peter called Him the Chief Shepherd (HaRo’eh HaTov)
Even in Revelations (7:17) we are told: ‘For the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.’