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Sheep and Goats

A Mingled Flock

Stephen Broyles
Sheep and goats easily mingle together in the same flock.


Sheep and goats were tamed very early in the Near East. In one of the earliest episodes of the Bible, Cain became a tiller of the soil, whereas Abel became a keeper of the flock (Genesis 4:2).

The flock, here and elsewhere in the Bible, can be composed of either sheep or goats, or of both together. The mosaic panel called the Standard of Ur—centuries old and buried underground already by the time Abraham was born—shows sheep and goats being driven together. A slate votive tablet from Nippur shows the same animals driven by two men, one with a staff in his hand, the other with a milk pail on his head. Man and flock go back together a very long time.

In Hebrew life the flocks of sheep and goats had many uses. Both animals were a source of milk, meat, and fabrics (Isaiah 7:21-22; Proverbs 27:27; Deuteronomy 14:4; Leviticus 13:47; Exodus 25:4). The sheep provided wool for garments to keep out chilly nights and windy days. The goat provided bottles in which to store liquids. The uncut hide of either animal might have been the wineskin of Jesus’ parable (Mark 2:22 = Matthew 9:17 = Luke 5:37-38).

These and other commodities taken from the flock were so important to early Hebrew pastoral economy that to have a large flock of sheep and goats was a sign of wealth. Jacob was described as an exceedingly rich man because he possessed “large flocks, maidservants and menservants, and camels and asses” (Genesis 30:43). In the case of the rich man Nabal we find statistics: “He had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats” (1 Samuel 25:2).

In Hebrew law we find the prohibition against boiling a kid in its own mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). People have given various explanations of the intent of this ruling. From rabbinic times Orthodox Jews have observed this law by not serving meat and milk dishes together (Mishnah Hullin 8:4). Philo of Alexandria (first century a.d.) taught that the law must have something to do with the affront to natural affection between the mother goat and her kid: Israel was to show mercy in their treatment of animals as well as of each other (On the Virtues 125-44). Still others have imagined that the law was a prohibition against pagan ritual. Among the texts from ancient Ugarit is what appears to be a rite insuring abundant milk from the goddess Athirat-and-Rachmay: “Over the fire seven times the sacrificers cook a kid in milk and mint in butter and over the cauldron seven times fresh water is poured.” But this is not close enough to be proof, since what we need is a ritual in which the kid is cooked in its own mother’s milk, and this text does not say that. (The text is in G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends, Old Testament Studies No. 3 [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956], 121. See also p. 22.) Until something better turns up, I will stick with Philo.

The center of gravity of the Hebrew religious calendar is the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). Among the sacrifices on this day in ancient Israel, two goats played an especially important role. First the priest offered a bull and with its blood atoned for his own sins and the sins of his family. Then he selected one of the goats  by lot and with its blood atoned for the sins of the people. He sent the other goat away into the wilderness, symbolizing that the sins of the people were carried far from them. A later development of this practice is detailed in the Mishnah: to keep the symbolic goat from coming back into town, bringing the sins of the people with it, a man was hired to lead it to a ravine outside Jerusalem and push the goat over a cliff (Mishnah Yoma 5.3-6).

By the first century, Palestine was more like what we would recognize as a money economy. The rich man was known by his imported Egyptian underwear or by the money he gave into the temple treasury (Luke 16:19; 21:1). But flocks and shepherds were still a part of the Judean way of life and provided familiar materials for many of Jesus’ parables.

One of the best known of these is Jesus’ teaching about the judging of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46). The peoples will be gathered before the Son of Man, and he will separate them “one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Since at least the time of John Chrysostom (ca. 344/354-407), commentators have sought to explain why the goats should stand for the rejected on Judgment Day. One says it is because of the goat’s unruly nature, another because of his lust and bad smell. But the image of sheep versus goat is possibly not as complicated as that. Both animals mingle together in the same herd—just as righteous people and otherwise mingle together in the world—but the great Shepherd and Judge can easily tell the difference.





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