Shepherding in the Biblical Narrative

In my small church group bible study, we are going through the gospel of John. This week we were entering chapter 10 and the “Good Shepherd Discourse”. This got me to start thinking more heavily on this and reopen a study I have been working on. These are my reflections as I have revisited this topic after a while.

I would be unqualified and actually unable to really tell you with any certainty what the role of the modern shepherd is today. No doubt in certain countries and contexts this will be more familiar to people. But I do know that in the biblical story, this idea is paramount to understanding relationships, both between God himself and us, and also ours with each other. I will attempt to explain what I mean if you do not already know where I am going with this.

From the first pages of Genesis, we are introduced to Abel, who was a tender of sheep. In turn, since the beginning of biblical and therefore humankind’s history, men have been in this trade of keeping sheep for various reasons. Not having to move too far through the Hebrew Scriptures, we are confronted with men of this type all over. The patriarchs are especially of note for my purposes. Then, when the narrative has proceeded almost all the way through Genesis, we come across Jacob and his blessing of Joseph and his sons, and then also the eschatological oracles given to each of his sons. Within the oracle to Joseph, which is itself another blessing, and the initial blessing to Joseph, Jacob portrays God in each of these as THE Shepherd(GEN 48:15, 49:24). He acknowledges that in the same way that he and his fathers before him, have kept flocks in the wilderness anticipating the promise of God; God himself has kept them, and been with him all of his life! This is beautiful imagery of God that will be repeated significantly in different ways throughout the rest of the Bible. In a few cases in Genesis, we see that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each have quarrels with another group of shepherds, and this I think prefigures the conflict between those who are God’s shepherds and everyone else, since God himself has set the standard.

Moses follows suit after the patriarchs only after he has been chased out of Egypt for slaughtering the Egyptian to save a Hebrew slave. So now this that is told to us in GEN 46:34 is an abomination, namely shepherds, Moses becomes after having grown up in the house of Pharaoh’s daughter. For the sake of space, I will condense lots of the story, although it’s tempting to recite as much as I can remember. But Moses after leading the Israelites through their many rebellions and judgments, would himself rebel and was prohibited from entering the land. As God reveals to him the time and place of his death, Moses gives his last request. In NUM 27:17, Moses gives plea to God for a successor, “so that the community of the LORD would not be like sheep without a shepherd.” Here it is that the man closest to God on the earth, who would speak to God face to face, requests for God’s people a leader who will “go out and come in before them”. I think this reveals something about God’s desire for his people as he promptly answers and Joshua is appointed in the sight of all the people.

In this way, the leaders of God’s people were to have this duty of shepherding from the time of the judges, and finding its pinnacle in David(1 SAM 5:2, 7:7-8). But after Solomon, and the dividing of the kingdom, Israel fell into gross idolatry, and was even led into it. So the next important story is that of Ahab and Micaiah. In 1 KINGS 21:17, Micaiah is brought before the king’s counsel and told to prophesy. He tells the king, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep without a shepherd.” So at this point, a height of idolatry, Micaiah has a vision and sees Moses’ greatest fear! There is no able man set in place to lead Israel in proper relationship to Yahweh. Over and over again, the motif of Micaiah’s angst of heart is repeated in the prophets.(JER 25:34, EZE 34:5-12, ZEC 10:2, ZEC 11:16 etc.) But this is set over against the hope that God will install the shepherd of shepherds, the one who will lead Israel in correct relationship with her God.(MIC 5:4, EZE 34:23, 37:24) Ultimately, this will fulfill Moses’ request in a final and lasting way!

Now we get to the NT, where in John 10, Jesus takes up this mantle. “I am the good shepherd” (JOHN 10:11a). “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” Not just in John is this apparent, but Matthew and Mark also draw on Moses and Micaiah’s language when they say that Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion on them “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (MAT 9:36, MAR 6:34) The obvious reference to the deity of Christ is not to be overlooked here in this imagery, either from the reaction of the Jews to Jesus’ saying these things or the numerous times the God of Israel is portrayed as the Shepherd; (PS 23, ISA 40:11, GEN 48:15) yet I would provoke us to allow ourselves to be like sheep, vulnerable, to be led by God in Christ foremost, and secondly by those shepherds to whom God has placed our care. And to encourage them to do this in a way that will be pleasing to our God. God desires those who can compassionately keep the flock going to its destination, but boldly will leave the others that are safe for one(s) who have been lost and wrench them from the jaws of the evil one. This God did for us in Christ, so let us have this mind when we see wayward Christians and those who do not know God at all.

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