Stories and examples of lambs, sheep, and shepherding are woven through the Bible from start to finish. Already in the occupation and the worship of Abel in Genesis 4, there is a bookend in Scripture that focuses our attention on the righteous sacrifice of a lamb and the murder of a shepherd. It is a sad introduction to the realities of sin, but it also hints at the difficulties to come for sheep and shepherds. The patriarchs’ identity as shepherds made them an abomination to the Egyptians (Gen. 46:24). The greatest national leaders of the Old Testament, Moses and David, both spent hard time as actual shepherds before they served as prophet and king of Israel. They saw their people, and even themselves, as like sheep in need of a shepherd (Num. 27:17; Ps. 23). From the time of the exodus onward, the Passover feast focused believers even more clearly on the need for the lamb to take their place in the face of judgment. Throughout their history, the Israelites survived by keeping sheep, eating sheep, and sacrificing sheep, and through this they were taught to think of themselves as like sheep.
The reality is that the metaphors that draw on this experience largely humble the believer. If we had more experience with sheep, as many Israelites did, I think we would have a much richer and more realistic understanding of the comparisons. My own experience was limited to a few hours of trying to help a farmer on shearing day. I learned that sheep really do wander, they get into all kinds of trouble, they get very dirty, and they can even be aggressive. Beautiful little lambs were trampled to death by other sheep. I heard about threats from wolves, coyotes, and even ravens. The reality is that the biblical use of sheep as a metaphor is not as sentimental as we might want to think it is. Many of the metaphors and comparisons assume the weaknesses of sheep, their propensity toward self-destruction, and the difficulty of shepherding.