From Bible Manners and Customs
George M. Mackie
In the Bible the allusions to shepherd life and the figurative terms borrowed from it refer chiefly to its peaceful aspects. Its enemies were wild animals and robbers. The chief occasion of strife among the shepherds, as among the farmers, was connected with the water supply, the right of access to wells, springs, and brooks (Genesis 13:7, 29:8, Exodus 2:17). The care of the flocks and the work of the field flourished side by side. The shepherd belonged to the village, and was maintained in his right to feed his sheep and goats among the rocks and trees of neighboring hills, and in the cornfields lying bare after the harvest in May.
The personal appearance of the Eastern shepherd has changed as little as his sheep and his simple duties towards them.
1) Cloak – He still wraps himself in his large cloak of sheepskin, or thick material woven of wool, goat-hair, or camel-hair. This protects him from cold and rain by day, and is his blanket at night. The inner pouch in the breast is large enough to hold a new-born lamb or kid when it has to be helped over rough places, or on account of sickness or injury has to be taken to a place of shelter, or nursed by the family at home (Isaiah 40:11).
2) Scrip – In the summer he may remain in the mountains a month at a time, his only communication with the village being when a fresh supply of bread is brought to him. This he puts into a bag which hangs at his side, the shepherd’s scrip (I Samuel 17:40), used also by muleteers and others on a journey. It is a bag made of the dressed skin of a kid, and into it he puts his stock of bread, olives, cheese, raisins, and dried figs.
3) Gourd – As a drinking vessel for holding either water or mild he carries a light unbreakable pitcher made of a gourd. Its shape seems to be the original of the vases in glass and earthenware.
4) Rod – Hanging by his side, or sheathed in a long narrow pouch attached to his cloak, is his oak club. It is carefully chosen, a straight young tree being often torn up for this purpose and the bulb at the beginning of the root being trimmed to make the head of the club. The handle is dressed to the required thickness, with a hole at the end by which it is tied to the belt, or hangs from the wrist like a riding whip. Into the head he drives nails with large heads like those of a horseshoe. It is the “rod” of Psalm 23:4. It appears in Assyrian sculpture, as the emblem of power in the hand of the king, and was the original of the sceptre, mace and baton.
5) Staff -- The “staff,” mentioned along with the rod in Psalm 23, is made of the same wood, but is about six feet long, quite plain, rarely with a fork or crook at one end. It is a help in clambering over rocks, in striking off leaves and small branches, in chastising loitering sheep and fighting goats, and on it the shepherd leans as he stands watching his flock. The ordinary walking staff of Orientals is rather longer than that used in the West, is held by the thin end a few inches from the top, and serves the double purpose of rod and staff, a weapon of defense and a support when standing or walking. Such was the staff in the hand of the prophet as he journeyed from place to place (II Kings 4:29) – a peaceful help on the toilsome and dusty road. The two uses, for leaning upon and for striking, are contrasted in Exodus 21:19, 20. Both are included in the metaphors suggested by it. Pharaoh is compared to an untrustworthy staff of bruised reed (Isaiah 36:6); and bread is a staff (Psalm 60:16) “which strengtheneth man’s heart” (Psalm 54:15).
6) Sling – the shepherd’s sling, with which David was familiar, and in the use of which the men of Benjamin were so skillful (Judges 20:16), was made of goat-hair. The pad for the stone was of a rounded, diamond shape, with a small slit in the middle, so that when a stone was pressed into it, it closed around like a bag. It received its name in Hebrew, as in Arabic, from the slightly concave form in which it was woven. It was “the hollow of a sling” (I Samuel 24:29, R.V.) In the two strings strands of white and black hair were artistically interwoven, one of them at least having an opening at the end for the fingers. Besides being used against robbers and wild animals, it did the work of the Western sheep dog, for with it the shepherd could drop a stone near a sheep lagging behind, and startle it into a sense of loneliness and danger. At the present day, when a quarrel arises between the youth of neighboring villages, a sortie of lads is sometimes made from each, and sling practice is indulged in, usually at long range.
The leading idea of the Oriental sling, in a figurative sense, is distance, rather than accuracy of direction. An Arabic proverb describes the habitual talebearer as one who puts a secret in a sling. He tries how far he can throw it. This is the thought of Proverbs 26:8, and the translation given in the Authorized Version, and in the margin of the Revised, seems to be the correct one. The more firmly the stone is packed into the sling, the better it is discharged from it, and so it happens when honour is thrust upon a fool, that is a man who has no idea of religious duty and moral consequences.
The use of the sling was exactly the opposite of that of the scrip –the one throwing out, the other keeping what was put into it. This is probably the meaning of Abigail’s words to David, when she contrasted “the bundle of life” and its contents with the sling and its stones (I Samuel 25:29). The man standing in front of her most likely had both his sling and provision pouch on his person, and while the souls of his enemies would be like stones in the sling, things to be thrown away, his soul would be guarded and kept by the Great Shepherd like the necessaries in the scrip of life. The meaning in one case is so precise and picturesque that an allusion equally exact and obvious is required for the other.
The Shepherd’s Protection
As he is always with them, he is constantly providing for them. He is not only ready to protect them but conducts them to the most suitable ground by the best way; gives them music on his reed flute, to which the younger ones sometimes respond by capering around him; strips leaves from the branches; leads them at noon to the shelter of a cliff, or to the shade of a walnut or willow tree beside the well or brook; and in every possible way lives among them and for them. At sunset he conducts them back to the fold, where, during the night, they may lie down in safety, and mix with several other flocks.
The sheepfold is often a large cave, or an enclosure in a sheltered hollow made by a rough stone wall, which has, along the top, a formidable fringe of thorns like furze and blackthorn, kept in position by stones laid upon it. At the mouth of the cave, or at the side of the wall near the entrance, the shepherds have a covered place made of branches, a tabernacle such as Peter wished to make on the Mount of Transfiguration, and here, as on the night of the Nativity at Bethlehem, they keep watch over their flocks by night. The sheep require this constant and complete protection, as they have no thought of defending themselves. While goats, on the appearance of a wolf, will run together and form a solid mass, with horns to the front, the sheep are immediately scattered and fall an easy prey (John 10;12).
One of the most interesting sights of shepherd life is to watch a flock fording a stream. The shepherd leads as usual, and the sheep follow in a string at his heels, but in the middle of the stream they begin to lose their footing and drift with the current. The shepherd hurries forward, grasping first one and then another, pushing as many as he can reach in front of him and hauling others up against the pressure of the water. As soon as he reaches the opposite side he hastens along the bank and draws out those that have been swept down, and have reached the other side faint with the struggle. The sheep fare best that keep nearest the shepherd. Such a deliverance seems to be referred to in Psalm 28:16, “He took me, He drew me out of many waters.”