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Category Archives: Shepherds

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.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 5

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shepherds abiding in the fields

The shepherds did what they had done for endless days and nights—too many to remember—for a lifetime, really. That meant the constant search for food and water, and protection from thieves and varmints.  In the spring it was not so bad. Pastures were lush and green, and a flock ideally could graze near the home of its shepherd. And when the grain harvest was over, and the poor had gleaned their fill, the sheep came along behind and took care of the leftovers. Later the searing heat of summer transformed standing fields of grass into hay. A good shepherd[1] expertly navigated his flock through these cycles, in first one location and then another. He knew where fresh water flowed, and where wells with watering troughs were situated. Autumn and winter, however, presented the most challenge.

As the temperature began to moderate, and the nights grew cooler, the shepherd knew it would only be a matter of time before the winter rains, and the survival of his flock rested squarely on his shoulders. First he must find shelter, ideally in a cave turned sheepcote. If not that, then he would have to find a protected site, perhaps in a valley or on a sunny hillside, and build a sheepfold of large stones piled three to four feet high, secured with a gate, and topped with thorn branches to discourage predators, both men and beasts. (The bandits of Israel were known to climb stealthily over the walls of a sheepfold, drop in among the sheep, kill[2] as many of the hapless animals as possible by slitting their throats, heave them up and over the stonework into the arms of awaiting accomplices, and fade away without being caught.[3])

Sheep and lambs spring 2011

Sheep and lambs spring 2011 (Photo credit: Ambersky235)

Unlike goats that will hunt for the best feeding grounds, sheep had to be led by their shepherds to food and water. If there was little in the way of grasses to be found, the resilient caretakers must scour the countryside for anything edible including leafy trees and bushes—quite an undertaking if the flock was large. At the end of a day of foraging, the animals were led back to shelter, carefully counted and safely secured behind gated walls. Both animals and herders could then settle in for a night’s rest.[4]

Visitors from another realm

And so it was, on a seemingly routine fall night somewhere in the countryside near Bethlehem, that a particular group of shepherds bedded down with their flocks, tired and ready for sleep.[5] Tradition[6] has it that these were no ordinary shepherds; that these men were charged with tending flocks destined to be used as sacrifices during the Passover season in Jerusalem.[7] Newborn lambs demanded the most care and scrutiny because only the perfect males of the first year could be used for the Passover sacrifice itself, and thousands would be needed. Any shepherds responsible for such a flock would be held to strict account when they delivered their charges to the priesthood and the Temple.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a being like none they had ever seen before appeared, and said: “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 Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” The very glory of the Lord shone all around the terrified shepherds; their hearts quickened as they heard the exuberant praises of an innumerable multitude of angels fill the night air. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”   (Luke 2:10-15). As though an invisible curtain had dropped, the heavenly host was gone, and all was quiet once again.

Though stunned by fright and amazement, the shepherds’ instant response was one of faith: to personally witness the event that had surely come to pass in Bethlehem.  Luke says, “They came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (2:16). They could not contain themselves. Everywhere they went, they heralded the glorious news:  A Savior has been born! Spread the word! He has come!

When at last they returned to their flocks they continued to praise and glorify God concerning the things they had heard and witnessed that astonishing night. What unlikely messengers—social outcasts—of the gospel of peace.

Meanwhile Mary kept all these things in her heart, pondering the workings of God in her young life.

Sedition afoot?

It didn’t take long for word of the shepherds’ cosmic encounter to reach Jerusalem and create a buzz of excitement throughout its environs. Herod’s ubiquitous spies hastily brought him a detailed report, and he, too, pondered these things—but not as the workings of Israel’s God. This smacked of nothing less than sedition. He, Herod the Great, would know more about this so-called “Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

(To be continued.)

[1] Society held a certain disdain for the lowly shepherd class. See The Woman’s Study Bible (1995), p. 1690. “Shepherds were often viewed as outcasts, and as dishonest, and unclean according to the Law.”

[2] It is interesting to note Jesus’ later reference to this nefarious activity in John 10:7-10: “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’”

[4] Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 231. “…the shepherd also had to look after the sick sheep and those that were hurt, take care of the gravid ewes and the new-born lambs, make wethers of the male lambs that were not to be kept for rams, and tithe the flock according to the Law, which was done by making all the animals pass through a narrow gate, every tenth beast being set aside for the priests.”

[5] If the flock was particularly large or perhaps a combining of several different flocks (which, in regard to this event, the Bible doesn’t indicate) each shepherd would stand his designated watch to insure safety throughout the night from thieves and predators. See Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 230.

[6] See Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), pp. 80-81; also Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (updated edition, 1993), p. 131; and The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, note on Luke 2:8, p. 845.

[7] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, in their book, Killing Jesus (2013), mention that the high priests controlled the sale of Temple lambs at Passover and received a cut of every exchange made by money changers. They owned vast farms and estates which garnered additional profits for their bottomless coffers (p. 228). It is possible that this flock was owned by some temple official.

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