Sheep, shepherd and lamb

The Bible was written by various authors in and around the Middle East, where sheep-farming was common. For this reason, both the Old Testament and the New Testament frequently use images like sheep and shepherds as illustrations. This imagery has permeated Western literary traditions and culture.

The image of the ‘shepherd'

God as shepherd

In the Old Testament, God is depicted as the shepherd of his people – perhaps best known from Psalms 23:1-6, ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.'

Jesus the ‘Good Shepherd'

In the Gospels, Jesus describes himself as the ‘Good Shepherd' who cares for his sheep (often understood to refer to the church):

‘I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away … I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me' (John 10:11-14).

Bishops in the Christian church often carry a staff shaped like a shepherd's crook to express this symbolism.

The image of the ‘lamb'

Lambs and sacrifice

LambIn Old Testament times, lambs and sheep were frequently sacrificed to God, as can be seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac, recorded in the book of Genesis (Genesis 22:1-19). In this story, Abraham is preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to God. Isaac doesn't realise what his father is planning to do and thus asks the famous question, ‘Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?', a question which Wilfried Owen's The Old Man and the Young picks up on.

Jesus the ‘Lamb of God'

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world' (John 1:29), and throughout the book of Revelation he is equally pictured as a lamb who has been sacrificed for humankind and is now honoured and worshipped (i.e. Revelation 5:6; Revelation 22:1). This image is used to compare the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross to a lamb being sacrificed. (see Big ideas: Cross, crucifixion; Sin; Atonement and sacrifice).

The image of the shepherd and the lamb in literature

Milton's Lycidas

Milton's poem Lycidas uses the image of the ‘hired hand' who does not really care for the sheep (John 10:11-14) to attack bishops, saying that they:

‘scarce know how to hold / A sheep-hook, or have learnt aught else the least / That to the faithful herdsman's art belonged … The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.'

Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd

The way faithful shepherds are associated with care and compassion is used by writers such as Thomas Hardy, who in Far From the Madding Crowd depicts Gabriel Oak (whose first name suggests angelic qualities and whose last name suggests strength) as the reliable and honest friend of Bathsheba (who bears another another biblical name – Bathsheba was the wife of King David (see Big ideas: Women in the Bible).

Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

Similarly, in The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare chooses to have the innocent Perdita found and cared for by shepherds, whose innocence and compassion contrast sharply with the spiritual corruption which Leontes has introduced to his court.

Owen's The Old Man and the Young

Writing his sonnet The Old Man and the Young during the First World War, Wilfred Owen relied on his readers knowing the story of Abraham and Isaac in such detail that they would perceive exactly where he inserted military images.

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

In this way he turns the story into a bitter satire on the ‘old men', the army leaders, who, in their intransigent pride, sacrificed ‘half the seed of Europe, one by one'.

Related topics

Big ideas: Cross, crucifixion; Atonement and sacrifice; Women in the Bible; Passover; Sin

Other cultural references

Milton's Lycidas

Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd

Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

Owen's The Old Man and the Young

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.