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Life as a Shepherdess 1

In ancient Israel it was not unusual for women to work outside the home, young women at least. When a girl was eight to ten years old, she began leading the family herd out to nearby pasture. At the end of the day, the shepherdess brought her sheep back home. At night the animals were “housed in stone-walled pens attached to buildings or compounds, or on the ground floor of houses in the cities,”[1] or corralled in thorny, fence-like enclosures typical of nomadic enclosures.

A shepherdess with her flock, grazing - oil on...

A shepherdess with her flock, grazing – oil on canvas, 41 x 56.5 cm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tending the family herd was reserved primarily for girls, and they continued this work until married at age fifteen or sixteen.[2] As a young shepherdess, Rachel met Jacob when she came to water her sheep (Genesis 29:9). Moses’s wife Zipporah was one of seven daughters who tended their father’s sheep (Exodus 2:16-21). Some scholars speculate that Rebekah and Leah were also shepherdesses.[3] In Solomon’s ancient love poem, he refers to the Shulamite as being dark skinned from a life outdoors, tending the vineyard and caring for her flock of goats (Song of Solomon 1:5-8).

Shepherdess walking with spindle in hand.

Shepherdess walking with spindle in hand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Besides pasturing the flocks, watering and watching them, tending minor injuries and sheltering them at night, a shepherdess also had the womanly duty of spinning. Equipped with her drop spindle and a bundle of wool, she could spin yarn during her hours in the field.[4]

Seeking greener pastures

In times when local grass was insufficient, men took the herds further afield. Abraham, Lot and Isaac moved about with very large herds. Commenting on the size of nomadic herds, Borowski states, “Herds can be very large, from 150,000 to 200,000 animals, and they are comprised of one species or are mixed.[5] The young nomadic women worked close to home.

Jacob: profile of a sheepherder

After working fourteen years for Laban as a sheepherder, Jacob established his own home and engaged in semi-nomadic herding. When necessary he moved his sheep away from home base to distant fields, camping out until bad weather brought herds and shepherds home.

Technically a shepherd is different than a sheepherder, although they share some of the same duties. Rachel was a shepherdess before she married Jacob who became a sheepherder. Jacob managed large flocks that belonged to others along with his own animals. He had the knowledge and experience to build and handle herds numbering many thousands of animals.

A sheepherder decided when to move the herds and found suitable grazing. He determined which animals to slaughter and sell. He strengthened the herd through careful breeding. He treated animal diseases, located lost sheep, and protected the flocks from wolves, hyenas, lions and bears. He disciplined subordinate shepherds and dealt with thieves.

Pros and cons of life as a shepherdess

Clearly the work of a shepherdess, though less extensive than that of a sheepherder, was important. It prepared her for marriage and independence from her family. It developed her sense of purpose and responsibility. It built her strength and health. It instilled the appreciation for quiet companionship… the sheepy kind, at least. However, Bible accounts indicate the lives of some shepherdesses also had a few downsides—mostly involving men.

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. And they came and drew water, and they filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock (Exodus 2:16-17).

I wonder how often Jethro’s daughters endured the scenario of laboriously filling the watering troughs from the well, pitcher-full by pitcher-full, only to have their flocks pushed aside by surly shepherds, too lazy to draw their own water. It must have been often because Jethro asked them why they were back home so soon.

An Egyptian delivered us from the hand of the shepherds, and he also drew enough water for us and watered the flock (Exodus 2:18-19).

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father's Herds

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Access to water was a source of contention (Genesis 26:12-33). Because of the scarcity of water, communal wells were often protected. When Jacob met Rachel at the well, he questioned why all the sheep were laying around rather than being watered. Rachel pointed to the great stone that covered the well.

We cannot [water the sheep] until all the flocks are gathered together, and they have rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, then we water the sheep…[so] Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother (Genesis 29:8-10).

Regular or occasional unmannerly treatment of young women at the wells, and the heavy stone barricades sealing off some of the water sources certainly presented major difficulties for the shepherdess.

A Awassi ram in Kuwait.

A Awassi ram in Kuwait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Part 2 to follow

As mentioned before, the Awassi sheep are excellent milk producers. In Part 2 we’ll note that Rebekah’s name relates to milking and consider what might have been done with the milk her sheep produced.—Mary Hendren



[1] Oded Borowski, Every Living Thing (1998), p. 45.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Her fat-tailed Awassi sheep were raised primarily for milk and meat. These hardy sheep were good grazers, but the quality of their wool is inferior by today’s standard. Awassi sheep are double-coated with only a thin layer of fleece under an outer coat of coarse hair. The wool of double-coated sheep is known as “carpet wool” in contrast to the fine wool of Merino sheep used in today’s expensive clothing. Happily, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Zipporah and other ladies who spun the Awassi fleece had nothing to compare it with. Their wool well spun and woven was fine wool.

[5] Borowski, p. 43.

Leah and Rachel: Part 2

Prologue: Leah had one week alone with her new husband. Was it filled with stress and anger, tears and rejection? Did she regret her part in the subterfuge? Were there any pleasant moments at all? Here the Bible is silent, leaving readers to their own pondering of these tragic events. It does say, unequivocally, Jacob loved Rachel, and she entered his tent a week later, thereby pushing Leah aside.

Though Leah lived in the constant comparison to her beautiful sister, she was not hidden from God’s eyes. He saw her suffering and gave her the one thing Rachel did not have—a fertile womb.

Names from the heart

The declarations she made after the birth of her first four sons speak to the depth of her heartache and anguish:

  • Reuben: “The Lord has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me.”
  • Simeon: “Because the Lord has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.”
  • Levi: “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.”
  • Judah: “Now I will praise the Lord.”

Leah’s last comment indicates the point when she accepted a miserable situation for what it was, and turned her eyes to God.

Or else I die!

Meanwhile Rachel’s envy raged. Why was she barren? How can Leah be so fruitful? “Give me children, or else I die,” she cried to Jacob, to which he retorted, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”

Desperate measures

Driven to desperate measures, Rachel seized on a remedy for her obsession. She gave her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob as a secondary wife, knowing that any child resulting from that union was legally hers. With no recorded resistance to the idea, Jacob soon fathered two sons. Her declarations after each birth give glimpses into the workings of her mind:

  • Dan: “God has judged my case, and He has also heard my voice and given me a son.”
  • Naphatali: “With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed.”

Leah’s unrequited yearning for Jacob’s love resulted in a sort of “tit for tat”: she gave her handmaid Zilpah secondary wife status. Zilpah also bore two sons. Listen to Leah’s exaltation as she named each son:

  • Gad: “A troop comes!”
  • Asher: “I am happy, for the daughters will call me blessed.”

A precious find

The final round in the fight for status and affection began when Leah’s Reuben happened upon the ultimate weapon—mandrakes, long thought a fertility aid. Rachel learned of the precious find and proceeded to bargain in way that is difficult to fathom: Jacob would spend the night in Leah’s tent in exchange for the coveted aphrodisiac.

Jacob fulfilled his part of the negotiations and Leah produced two more sons. Her words express her undying hope for his love:

  • Issachar: “God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband.” 
  • Zebulun: “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.”

    Jacob Blesses His Sons, as in Genesis 49:1-2: ...

    Jacob Blesses His Sons, as in Genesis 49:1-2: “And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father.”; illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others, and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At long last

Scripture records, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb.” She bore Jacob these sons:

  • Joseph (Finally, she could say, “God has taken away my reproach.”)
  • Benjamin (Some years later, as Rachel was dying in childbirth, she named this son BenOni, son of my sorrow. Jacob renamed him Benjamin, son of the right hand.)

(The account of Leah and Rachel is found in Genesis 28-35.)


Part 3 will tie up some loose ends.


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