The occupation of caring for domesticated animals predates the earliest records of Middle Eastern civilization. When the people of Israel first entered the land of Canaan from Mesopotamia, they were nomadic herdsmen, moving their flocks and herds according to the water and forage resources. The sheep of the Middle East are generally broadtailed, able to live off meager herbage in dry, mountainous terrain. The animals are used as food-eaten roasted, stewed, or raw; they provide clothing from wool and skins-and shelter-also from their skins; and in biblical times the people offered them as tribute and religious sacrifices. A lamb had to be at least eight days old before it could be offered as a sacrifice.
Sheep adapted easily and could survive in the harsh environment of the mountains and deserts. But when following their own instincts, they quickly became lost and could not find their way back to their shepherd by themselves. This characteristic led ancient writers to speak of foolish people as "sheep" who had lost their way in life without a benevolent shepherd to guide them. Jesus used this picture in describing the people of Israel as sheep and in calling himself the "Good Shepherd."
The earliest Israelites were shepherds, and the people always honored the calling. King David was a shepherd in his youth. The prophet Amos was a shepherd from the village of Tekoa. The kings of Mesopotamia called themselves shepherds of their people, and the Israelites called God the Shepherd of Israel (Psalm 23.1). Middle Eastern shepherds led their flocks to places where forage and water could be found. They led their animals by calling to them, often giving each one a name. They protected the flocks from such wild animals as wolves and lions, by using slingshots and staffs. The sheepfold was usually a small stone-wall corral with a single break in the wall that served as the gate. The shepherd made the flock enter the sheepfold by walking under his staff, which he held across the opening. In this way he examined the condition of each animal and made sure he accounted for the entire flock. At night, after the fire had died down, the shepherd usually slept across the opening, thus, himself becoming the gate. He would be awakened by any sheep who was tempted to wander at night or by a wild animal who was about to attack the flock.
Jesus spoke of himself not only as the Good Shepherd who knew his sheep by name but also as the door of the sheepfold. "By me if any man enter in," he said, "he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture." One of his most memorable parables is about the Good Shepherd who searched for the lost sheep and called for general rejoicing when he found it and brought it safely back.
Jesus, following the example of the Old Testament Scriptures, spoke scathingly of "false shepherds, " hired men who did not genuinely care for the welfare of their flocks. He compared some of the religious leaders of his day to such false shepherds, much to their discomfort and anger.