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A keeper of sheep. The first keeper of sheep in the Bible was Adam's son Abel (Genesis 4:2 ). Shepherding was the chief occupation of the Israelites in the early days of the patriarchs: Abraham (Genesis 12:16 ); Rachel (Genesis 29:9 ); Jacob (Genesis 30:31-40 ); Moses (Exodus 3:1 ).

As cultivation of crops increased, shepherding fell from favor and was assigned to younger sons, hirelings, and slaves (compare David in 1 Samuel 16:11-13 ). Farmers such as in Egypt even hated shepherds (Genesis 46:34 ).

The Bible mentions shepherds and shepherding over 200 times. However, the Hebrew word for shepherding is often translated, “feeding.” Shepherds led sheep to pasture and water (Psalm 23:1 ) and protected them from wild animals (1 Samuel 17:34-35 ). Shepherds guarded their flocks at night whether in the open (Luke 2:8 ) or in sheepfolds (Zephaniah 2:6 ) where they counted the sheep as they entered (Jeremiah 33:13 ). They took care of the sheep and even carried weak lambs in their arms (Isaiah 40:11 ).

Shepherd came to designate not only persons who herded sheep but also kings (2 Samuel 5:2 ) and God Himself (Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 40:11 ). Later prophets referred to Israel's leaders as shepherds (Jeremiah 23:1; Ezekiel 34:1 ).

In Bible times the sheep cared for by shepherds represented wealth. They provided food (1 Samuel 14:32 ), milk to drink (Isaiah 7:21-22 ), wool for clothing (Job 31:20 ), hides for rough clothing (Matthew 7:15 ), and leather for tents (Exodus 26:14 ). Furthermore, sheep were major offerings in the sacrificial system (Exodus 20:24 ). They were offered as burnt offerings (Leviticus 1:10 ), sin offerings (Leviticus 4:32 ), guilt offerings (Leviticus 5:15 ), and peace offerings (Leviticus 22:21 ).

The New Testament mentions shepherds 16 times. They were among the first to visit Jesus at His birth (Luke 2:8-20 ). Some New Testament references used a shepherd and the sheep to illustrate Christ's relationship to His followers who referred to Him as “our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20 ). Jesus spoke of Himself as “the good shepherd” who knew His sheep and would lay down His life for them (John 10:7-18 ). Jesus commissioned Peter to feed His sheep (John 21:1 ). Paul likened the church and its leaders to a flock with shepherds (Acts 20:28 ). The Latin word transliterated “pastor” means shepherd.

Elmer Gray

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Shepherd'. Holman Bible Dictionary.​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​s/shepherd.html. 1991.