by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books


Chapter 9 | Contents | Chapter 11

The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Special Edition



A Picturesque Conductor—How They Dress in Southern PalestineMilk, Sour and SweetCheese and ButterWady GhuzzehA Bible WildernessShepherds, Good and BadRobbers and Wild BeastsWatching Flocks by Night"Putting Forth" Sheep in the Morning"Rod and Staff"Taking Care of the LambsGoats—The Bright and the Dark Side of a Shepherd's LifeHow Shepherds are PaidSheep with Huge TailsStatisticsSeething a Kid in his Mother's Milk—Basis of the Prohibition

The centre of the district in which Isaac lived during nearly the whole of his quiet, uneventful career, and which is known as Gerar, has been identified with Umm-el-Jerrar, a few miles on the way to Beersheba, which is about thirty miles south-east of Gaza. Hiring horses at the rate of about seven shillings a day for three, including the wage of a gaily-dressed guide, we set off in the early morning. Our conductor's appearance was certainly striking: a pink-striped under-tunic covered his cotton leggings and shirt, a blue jacket, with black braid, surmounting it; a red sash set off his waist, with two flint horse-pistols, silver-mounted, but very old, stuck in his girdle; a yellow silk striped "kefiyeh" covered his head, its golden ends fluttering over his shoulders, with the usual cincture of soft camels'-hair rope round his brow, keeping all in place: a romantic costume with which the decidedly shabby pair of elastic boots that held his lower extremities was hardly in keeping. The horse he rode seemed as fiery as himself, but it had to lament the indignity of a closely-docked tail, the only instance of this I met with in the East.

The road lay to the south, through sandy lanes, between orchards concealed by huge cactus-hedges. Women passed, duly veiled, with jars of water, or with bundles of firewood from pruned trees, on their head or shoulders; asses, with stones in each coarse pannier, from some surface quarry or old ruin. Larks sang in the air and on the ground. An Arab stood beside two small cows which were feeding at the roadside; his coat a sheep's skin, with the wool inside, over his "abba." The cold of the mornings and nights, which causes rheumatism to be very general among the fellahin, makes such warm clothing a necessity for those who are exposed to the weather. Still more asses, laden with stones, went past; small boys, in blue shirts and old fezzes, driving them. A light plough was being drawn by a camel at one place, by under-sized oxen at another. The telegraph-poles of the line to Egypt ran alongside the track. On the right were the sand-hills, blowing farther inland each year. Donkeys with sour milk in skin bottles;* two women planting vegetable marrows, cucumbers, and the like; five dirty peasants on asses, riding into Gaza; Arab shepherds in old brown "abbas" tending their flocks on the slope to the left, after we had reached the open country; their tents, black and low, close at hand, behind; more ploughs, drawn by camels; and an Arab on a camel, riding into Gaza—gave life to the landscape as we rode on; miles, however, intervening between the first and the last of this motley succession.

* Homer speaks of skin bottles. The heralds bore the covenant sacrifices of the gods through the city: two lambs, and, in goat-skin bottles, the wine of the field that cheers man (Iliad, iii. 247).
In Southern Palestine dress is very much alike for all classes. A turban, fez, or "kefiyeh"; a cotton shirt, with, at times, a coloured cotton tunic over it; a cloth jacket in some cases, an "abba" in others, a long blouse of blue cotton in most; cotton drawers, with or without the luxury of coloured cotton trousers, short-legged, over them; the blouse hiding the body, even when it is the only garment—form the limited wardrobe of the general population. The sole difference with the richer people is a finer quality of the material. Women seem to have merely one long blue cotton sack, neither tight nor very loose, its sleeves at times tied over the head, its lower part reaching the feet. A veil hangs from their eyes down their breast, though at times a moustache-like nose-veil is thought enough, while at others even the brow is hidden as well as the cheeks. Arms and feet are bare in both sexes, only a few persons using leather slippers, without backs or heels—for the boots of our guide were a phenomenon, a gift, no doubt, from some dignified friend, whom they had served faithfully till he was tired of them.

The sour milk of which I have spoken is dear to the heart of all natives. They call it "leben"—the "halab" known to the Hebrews from the earliest ages. Milk, indeed, in different forms and preparations, was a main article of food among the ancient Jews. Children were not weaned, at least in some cases, till they were three years old, as is expressly stated by a mother in Maccabees (7:27); and throughout the whole of life, milk of the herd or flock continued one of the great staples of food; as at this day it constitutes almost the sole nourishment of the Bedouin. "Such of the Arabs of the central portion of the great desert of El-Tih" (on the south of Palestine), says Prof. E. H. Palmer, "as are not fortunate enough to participate in the profits of conveying the pilgrim caravan across the desert to Akabah, on its way from Egypt to Meccah, live almost entirely on the milk of their sheep and camels. In many other parts of the desert milk forms the sole article of diet obtainable by the Bedouin, and I have heard a well-authenticated case of an Arab in the north of Syria, who for three years had not tasted either water or solid food. So long as the flocks and herds can find an abundance of succulent herbage, they can dispense to a great extent with drink."* "The Arabs inhabiting the mountains of Moab are essentially a pastoral people...Every other consideration is, therefore, sacrificed to the safety and welfare of their flocks and herds, and the spots selected for their encampments are nearly always the most elevated portions of the plateau, the vicinity of which affords good and extensive pasturage. These are necessarily remote from the streams and water-springs...Sour or fresh milk is always plentiful, and placed at the disposal of the visitor, but often, on asking for a drink of water, I have found that such a thing has not been seen for days in the encampment."**

* Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, i. 294.

** Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, i. 488.

It was thus natural for Abraham to take the favourite "sour, curdled milk"—"leben"—and sweet milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set them before his guests (Gen 18:8). It was, in fact, precisely the same welcome as a Bedouin sheikh now gives to strangers he wishes to honour—a calf being the rare sign of high distinction substituted for the more ordinary male kid.* That "the teeth" of Judah should be "white with milk," was just such a blessing as the patriarch Jacob, a "plain man dwelling in tents" (Gen 49:12, 25:27), would think best worth giving. "Curdled milk of kine, and milk of sheep" (Deut 32:14), were declared special glories of the Land in the last song of Moses; and it was exactly what an Arab woman would have done to-day when Jael, on Sisera's asking for "a little water, because he was thirsty," opened a skin of "leben" and gave him drink. Perhaps it was an undesigned aid to her contemplated treachery that this favourite beverage, as I have already noticed, is strongly soporific. A clergyman who drank freely of it in a Bedouin camp, when suffering much from sleeplessness and nervous excitement, brought on by great fatigue, was so overcome by its drowsy effects that, after resting for half an hour, it was only with the greatest difficulty he roused himself to continue his journey.** Jael may, however, have had no water to give her unfortunate guest, so that possibly we may acquit her of astute contrivance in this particular. Her craft and falseness are bad enough without any aggravation; glorious, perhaps, in the eyes of a contemporary like Deborah, with elementary ideas of right and wrong, and lauded by the black-eyed women of the tents, who were only rough Arabs of more than 3,000 years ago, but very far from the morality of the New Testament. "The principal things for the whole use of man's life," says the Son of Sirach, "are water, fire, iron, and salt, flour of wheat, honey, milk, the blood of the grape, and oil, and clothing";*** so that flour, honey, milk, and oil, embraced all the solid food of his Hebrew fellow-countrymen in this wonderfully wise writer's day. Flesh is not even mentioned, nor are vegetables. That the Land should be so often glorified as "flowing with milk and honey" implies the same notions of living (Exo 3:8,17, 13:5, 33:3; Song 4:11, 5:1; Joel 3:18; Num 13:27, 14:8, 16:13,14; Deut 6:3, 11:9, 26:15, 27:3, 31:20; Josh 5:6; Jer 11:5, 32:22; Eze 20:6,15).
* Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, i. 489.

** Neil, Palestine Explored, p. 12.

*** Ecclus. xxxix. 26, written about BC 199. Riehm, p. 726.

As it cannot be doubted that milk-farming is conducted still in the same way as for thousands of years past, it is to be assumed that the Hebrews made not only different kinds of cheese, the skimmed and the rich, but also butter, though I hope they took more care in freeing it from hairs and other defilements than is usual with the peasants or Arabs of to-day. No churns, however, are employed, as our version would seem to imply (Prov 30:33), where it speaks of the "churning of butter." The milk is merely shaken backwards and forwards in a goat-skin bottle hung between poles, or pressed to and fro, first in one direction and then in another, till the globules of fat are separated. The Bedouins make great use of the butter thus obtained—which is rather fat or oil in so warm a climate—pouring it over their bread, or dipping the bread in it.* Cheese, also, is made by them in large quantities, but it is very inferior; little more, in fact, than curdled milk. A quantity of sour milk, or "leben," is put in a goat-skin bottle, and shaken till the whey separates and can be poured out. Then more sour milk is added, and the shaking and emptying of the whey continue till cheese enough is provided. This, when afterwards dried in the sun, is much used to mix with water as a cooling and strengthening drink on journeys, or is put into flour to make cheesecakes, in which shape it is a very concentrated form of food, easily carried about.** Shaw tells us that in Barbary, "instead of rennet, especially in the summer season, they turn the milk with the flowers of the great-headed thistle, or wild artichoke, and putting the curds afterwards into small baskets made with rushes, or with the dwarf palm, they bind them up close and press them. These cheeses are rarely above two or three pounds in weight, and in shape and size like our penny loaves."*** May the ten cheeses carried by David to his brothers in Saul's camp have been of this kind? (1 Sam 17:18) In the unchanging East it is very probable. The making of butter among the Berbers may also help us to realise the mode used in Bible times, as it is identical*** with the practice of the Arabs in Palestine at the present day.
* The two words in Hebrew for milk, "halab" and "hemah," often leave it doubtful whether sour milk, "leben," or sweet, is intended.

** Burckhardt, Travels, p. 697. Niebuhr, Reisen, ii. 373.

***Shaw, Travels, i. 308. The first edition was published in 1738, in folio.

At about five miles from Gaza we had to cross the torrent-bed known as Wady Ghuzzeh; a veritable dry river-bed, with banks cut deep through the sandy earth, and a broad level channel between. Quite dry when I rode my horse across it, no better illustration of "a deceitful brook" could be imagined, though Job's words more strictly mean, "My brethren have deceived me like a torrent-bed"—Expecting water I have found none; "as the rush of water in torrent-beds, their friendship has passed away" (Job 6:15). It helped one also to understand the cry of the Psalmist: "Turn again," or rather, "Cause to return again our captivity, as streams of rushing water return to the dry beds of the wadys in the Negeb" (Psa 126:4), the very region in which I was travelling. The country, without its people, was then like the wady as I saw it; would that they might return to it in tumultuous, multitudinous force, like the torrent that in winter would fill the wady in all its breadth!

We are apt to imagine that "wilderness" in the Bible is the same as desert, but it really means, even etymologically, only a region given up to wild creatures,* and although used by our translators as the equivalent of five different Hebrew words, it often stands rather for a pastoral region, such as the district from Gaza south, than for an arid waste. The fact is, all the open country of the plains, the Shephelah, or the Negeb, is pasture and wilderness by turn; spring covering it with thin grass and a bright tapestry of flowers, but the hot summer burning up one part after another, so that shepherds have ever to lead their flocks to new districts,** the wonder being how, in some of these, the creatures find enough to keep them alive. "The pastures of the wildernesses" (Psa 65:12; Joel 2:22), therefore, included such tracts as those through which I was passing; the very region in which Isaac spent his long shepherd life; flocks of sheep and goats and herds of cattle on every slope showing how rich it is in spring, though in the hot months the Arab tents would be moved to other parts of the country, where, from experience, it was known that herbage would be longer green.

* From A. S. "wilder"—a wild animal.

** "Midbar," the usual word for wilderness available for pasture, comes from a root, "to drive"—that is, to drive flocks or herds.

It was delightful to ride on through the fresh air, with the boundless horizon all to one's self but for a stray human figure or a small Arab encampment. I had admirable opportunities for studying the shepherd of Isaac's district, and he certainly was not very poetical. One ragged Arab in an "abba," tending some sheep and goats, told us how one of the latter had been stolen from him by a man of another tribe; how he had traced it, and got back, not only the goat, but its worth in money. But this did not content him, for revenge is sweet even in the wilderness of Gerar. He was on the lookout for a horse or camel of the offending tribesman, or of one of his encampment, and when he found one he would steal it! Another shepherd, armed with two pistols and a long-barrelled gun, stood playing on a reed pipe to a large flock of sheep and goats, which followed the music as he stalked slowly on before. It may have been that the simple reed pipe—one or two lengths of thick reed, pierced with holes, and closed at the top by a piece of smaller diameter, one side of which was cut through to cause vibration—was "the organ" invented by Jubal (Gen 4:21), but, if so, it had remained exceedingly primitive. Its compass was only a few changes in a higher or deeper drone, simply distressing to unaccustomed ears. It was clearly, however, a delight to the sons of the desert (Job 21:12), and formed in ancient times, with the harp (1 Sam 16:16) and timbrel (Job 21:12), the music of the dance before the tents, when the herds and flocks had come home, or of shepherds amusing themselves on the pastures. Each sex, it must be understood, still dances alone.

To see the sheep following the shepherd brought back to one's mind the words of our Lord, especially when I found that the he-goat, or ram, which led the flock, and some others that followed the shepherd closely, had a name to which they answered when called by him: "The sheep hear his voice, and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out" (John 10:3). As there are no fences, and many flocks, it is necessary that each flock should learn to follow its own shepherd; nor must it wander off to the open patches of wheat or barley, as it would if not thus trained. To go astray in the open plain brings danger, for a lost sheep is a ready prey to some chance wild beast from the mountains. But if it be lost in the desolate hills its destruction is almost certain if it be not found again, for there wolves and jackals abound, while leopards still prowl in the hills of Gilead, in those round the Dead Sea, and about Carmel and the hills of Galilee. Anciently indeed these fierce creatures seem to have been numerous, for we read of a town called Beth Nimra, "the House of the Leopard,"* and the stream that runs past it is to this day called Nahr Nimrin, "the River of the Leopards." There was another Nimrin, "the Leopards," in Moab (Isa 15:6; Jer 48:34); while Song of Songs speaks of "the Mountains of the Leopard" (4:8), and we find a place called "Nimeirah" at the south of the Dead Sea. If the shepherd sees a sheep or goat wandering, he calls it back; should it still keep on its course, he hurls a stone from his sling, so as to frighten it back.

* Num 32:3,36. The same as Betha-bara, "the House of the Ford," where John baptised. Nimrin also means "Clear Waters."
The fidelity of Eastern shepherds to their flocks is proverbial. Not a few manage to obtain an old long-barrelled gun, or a pistol, especially in districts exposed to the Bedouins, as for instance to the south of Gaza; but most of them have, in addition, a strong oaken club or bludgeon, two feet or more in length, its round or oblong head stuck full of heavy iron nails—a terrible weapon in the hands of a strong, brave man. A loop at the handle serves to hang it to the "leathern girdle" (Matt 3:4; Mark 1:6) universally worn by peasants and the humbler classes, to bind together the unbleached cotton shirt which is their whole dress by day. When it is passed over the wrist, this loop is also a security that the weapon shall not be lost, even if knocked out of the hand in a struggle. I was struck, when encamped on the Hill of Samaria, with the dangerous look of this club. The people around bear an indifferent name, so that watchmen had been appointed, without my knowledge, to protect the tent. That two peasants should be prowling around it in the darkness seemed awkward. Why were they doing so? To settle the matter I rose and went out in the dark to the nearer of the two. In a moment, pushing aside his "abba," he explained his presence by the production of a bludgeon with a head as large as a melon, and rough with iron—a common shepherd's club extemporised into a policeman's baton! He pointed to it and to the houses near, and I at once understood his office.

On the lonely unfenced hills and stony mountains, the danger that wild beasts will attack the flock is always sufficient to make a careful guard necessary. The yell of the hyæna and the shriek of the jackal may, even at this day, be heard close to Jerusalem, and venomous snakes are common in the hot season. The limestone rocks and chalky hills afford the serpent tribe the very haunts they love, and in summer they become very dangerous. The deadly cobra—perhaps the "asp" of the Bible—the viper in two varieties, and six other poisonous snakes, are more or less common; one of them, the horned snake, only twelve or eighteen inches long, being so deadly that a man bitten by it dies in half an hour. Besides these, the shepherd has to guard against huge birds of prey, which swoop down on a stray kid or lamb, and need all the vigour of the shepherd to beat them off. But none of these foes terrifies the brave protector of the flock, who, if it be small, is generally either its owner, or one of the family,—for though "hirelings" are necessary when flocks are large, they cannot always be trusted. "He that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep" (John 10:12). "But the good shepherd," it is in effect added, "knoweth his sheep, and is known by them, and is willing to lay down his life for his sheep" (John 10:14,15). There are no lions in Palestine now, and bears are only seen in the upper gorges of Lebanon, but the shepherds of to-day are often as manly and faithful as David, long ago, when he went out, single-handed, at one time after a lion, and at another after a bear, and delivered the lambs out of their mouths, catching the lion by the beard when it turned on him, and smiting and slaying it (1 Sam 17:35). "The Arabs," says Thevenot, "fear a lion so little that they often pursue him with only a club in their hand, and kill him."*

* Rosenmuller, A. u. N. Morgenland, iii. 45, where various cases of like bravery are given.
But wild beasts are not the only danger to a flock. The hills abound in caves and hiding-places which are often the resort of robbers, and the wandering Bedouins, in their black tents, are always ready to steal goats, sheep, or cattle, when opportunity offers. In a country so thinly-populated, moreover, the shepherd often can only trust to his single-handed bravery to defend his charge if the thief approach. Indeed, it is necessary in some parts still to pay blackmail to the roving Arabs to keep them from driving off herds and flocks alike. It is so round Kerak, in Moab, the sheepmasters of which give so much a year to the Bedouin sheikhs to secure that these hereditary thieves shall not harry the folds, a state of things exactly like that of which David speaks when he reproaches Nabal at Carmel, in the Negeb, for refusing his followers food and refreshment. "I have heard," says he, "that thou hast shearers: now thy shepherds, who were with us, we hurt them not, neither was there ought missing unto them all the while they were in Carmel" (1 Sam 25:7). Not to have attacked the shepherds and carried off their sheep was held to entitle the Adullam band that followed David to a liberal recompense. There was, however a better ground for claiming bounty, for the sturdy claimants had, besides, been "a wall to Nabal's men, both by night and day," protecting them from attack by other bands (1 Sam 25:15,16). Shepherds, even now, tell similar tales of their encounters with beasts or with robbers, or of their protection by friendly encampments, as their predecessors did thousands of years ago. I heard of a case which happened only a short time since, where a poor fellow defended his flock so valiantly against several Bedouin robbers that he died of his wounds in the midst of his sheep. The good shepherd still "giveth his life for the sheep" (John 10:11).

Shepherds often, like Jacob, or like the shepherds of Bethlehem, abide in the field, or open country, keeping watch over their flock by night (Luke 2:8); the parching drought consuming them by day and the frost by night (Gen 31:40). In the early spring the best pasturage is on the sea-coast plains; but as the heat increases, the flocks, as I have said, are driven higher and higher, till the hot summer finds them on the tops of the mountains. When no sheepfold is near, a ring of thorny bushes is heaped up, but the wolf, after all, may leap into the guarded circle, though the dogs of the flock be watching outside. On the lowland plains the ruins of ancient towns and cities supply stones for permanent folds, the walls of which are often protected by a ring of thorns laid above them. A slight shelter near at hand is frequently all the protection through the night for their guardians; indeed, in the highest ridges of Lebanon, far above human habitations, they often have to content themselves with the shelter of some slight bend in the ground, setting stones round it, and strewing rushes within, for a bed. A fire kindled in the centre, so that they can lie with their feet to it, is their only comfort, and their furniture consists of nothing more than a few pots and pans, some sheep-skins and old rugs under charge of faithful dogs during the day, when the shepherds are, perhaps, miles away. In the south, they often sleep in the open air throughout the year.

With the dawn of day the shepherds wake, and each of them "putteth forth" his own sheep, counting them as he lets them pass slowly out under his rod, through the one doorway. To help him in doing so "he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out" (John 10:3), for flocks of different shepherds may have rested through the night in the same fold. Unlike the thief or robber, who stealthily climbs the wall, he goes in through the door to bring out his flock; the shepherd who for the time is acting as gatekeeper gladly opening to him as he approaches. Once outside, he begins his daily march at the head of his goats and sheep, the old he-goats and rams, which, often decked with bells, lead the rest, keeping close behind him, like so many dogs. It is one of the amusements of his monotonous day to play with them at times, for they are his only companions. Pretending to run away, he will soon be overtaken and surrounded by the sheep; setting out to climb the rocks, he is presently followed by the goats, and at last, when he rests, all the flock—goats and sheep alike—circle round him, gambolling in delight. Such a picture enables us to read with fresh pleasure how Jehovah leads His people like a flock, for so He led them once "by the hand of Moses and Aaron" (Psa 77:20, 80). In the hill-country—and most of Palestine is hilly—the natural caves of the rocks, once the dwelling of the ancient Horites, are the common folds, as they were in the old days when Saul, in pursuing David, "came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave" (1 Sam 24:3). Across the Jordan, on the other hand, where caves are not to be had, Reuben determined to "build sheepfolds for their cattle" (Num 32:16).

In the mountains, cleft as they often are by narrow impassable ravines, a sheep may easily wander too near the edge, and be in danger of falling into the gloomy depth below. Dr. Duff noticed an interesting incident associated with such a scene. "When on a narrow bridle-path," says he, "cut out on the face of a precipitous ridge, I observed a native shepherd with his flock, which, as usual, followed him. He frequently stopped and looked back; and if he saw a sheep creeping up too far, or coming too near the edge, would go back, and, putting the crook round one of its hind legs, would gently pull it to him."* This is the shepherd's staff; sometimes bent, thus, into a crook, but more commonly a long, stout, straight oak stick, often cased at its lower end in iron, to beat off the thief or wild beast. This staff to help and the club to protect are the staff and the rod with which God comforts His people (Psa 23:4).

* Life of Dr. Duff, ii. 165.
In lambing-time the greatest care of his flock is taken by the shepherd. The ewes are driven slowly, to prevent their being injured (Gen 33:13), and you will often see the shepherd carrying a lamb under his arm, and others in the bosom of his cotton shirt, the girdle making a pocket of it; just as Highland shepherds carry helpless lambs in the folds of their plaids. So the prophet pictures the Messiah: "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young" (Isa 40:11). As the shepherd does so, he often calls them, if necessary; but, indeed, they know him so well that they commonly follow close behind of their own accord. It would be idle, however, for one unknown to them to take the shepherd's place: "A stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:5). Any one who visits Palestine may readily find with what truth this picture is painted.

It is common to see a shepherd followed by separate flocks, one of goats and the other of sheep, which he has divided one from another to lead them to some part where each will find the pasture it prefers. The goat thrives best on rocky slopes, and is so fond of young leaves that he seeks them above all things, sometimes even managing to get up into a tree to obtain them, whereas sheep prefer the fresh grass of the plains or mountains. Hence the west side of Palestine, from Hebron to Hermon, with its bushy and grassless hills, is specially suited for the goat, while the eastern table-land, beyond the Jordan, destitute of trees or underwood, but rich in short grass and herbs, is the paradise of sheep; as the coast-plains of Sharon and Philistia, dotted with spots in which the grass is specially strong and full of sap, have, in all ages, been specially adapted for cattle (2 Kings 3:4; 2 Chron 26:10). But there are many parts where both sheep and goats can be pastured by the same shepherd, so that it is not uncommon to see a flock of black goats feeding in the open scrub, while a flock of white sheep nibble the grass a little way off; the shepherd standing midway between the two to watch both. I could never witness this without thinking how our Lord must have taken note of it in His journeys, as is shown in His awful words respecting the goats being set on the left hand, and the sheep on the right, at the Great Day (Matt 25:32,33).

Goats feed all day long, seldom thinking of the heat or seeking shade, and are led into the fold at night, to be brought out again in the morning. It is only in the cool months, on the contrary, that sheep feed through the day. In the greater part of the year they are led out to pasture only towards sunset, returning home in the morning, or if they be led out in the morning they lie during the hot hours in the shade of some tree or rock, or in the rude shelter of bushes prepared for them (Song 1:7). They are taken into the warmth of caves or under other cover during the coldest part of winter. The lambs are born between January and the beginning of March, and need to be kept with the ewes in the field, that the mothers may get nutriment enough to support the poor weak creatures, which cannot be taken to and from the pasturage, but must remain on it. That many of them die is inevitable, in spite of the shepherd's utmost care, for snow and frost on the uplands, and heavy rain on the plains, are very fatal to them. Nor is their guardian less to be pitied. He cannot leave them, day or night, and often has no shelter. At times, when on his weary watch, he may be able to gather branches enough to make a comparatively dry spot on which to stand in the wild weather, but this is not always the case. I have heard of the skin peeling completely from a poor man's feet, from continued exposure. By night, as we have seen, he has often, in outlying places, to sleep on whatever brush he may gather; his sheep-skin coat, or an old rug or coverlet, his only protection. Perhaps it fared thus with the shepherds of Bethlehem, eighteen hundred years ago, when they were "abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8-12).

It is at this season, moreover, amidst the storms and rains of winter, that the jackal and the wolf are specially alert, as in old times was the lion, which came up from the thickets of Jordan. The shepherd may have found shelter in some rude mud cabin, his sheep feeding outside, the bells on the necks of their leaders tinkling as they do so. The dogs, drenched and sleepy, seek the shelter of any bush or tree. Thick darkness rests around. Sleep above all things is needed by the shepherd, but he dares not rest (Nahum 3:18). From time to time he anxiously shouts to the dogs, to keep them awake. A rush of sheep takes place; the dogs give angry voice; it may be the wolf. The shepherd is at once out to call back his flock, and to drive off the wild beast, if the alarm has been well founded. The good shepherd has no thought for himself, but only for his trust. In Bible ages towers were often built in the centre of the fold, when it was large, so that the shepherds might offer a better defence, when their flocks were around them, within the guardian wall,* and in this case of course they were protected, more or less, from the weather; but few could have been thus fortunate.

* Isa 1:8: "a besieged city" is translated by Hitzig, "a shepherd's watch-tower." Gen 35:21: "the tower of Edar" means "a shepherd's tower." See also 2 Kings 17:9, 18:8; 2 Chron 26:10.
Yet there is a bright as well as a dark side to the shepherd's life. No occupation could be more delightful to the simple mind to which the flock is the chief concern in the universe, than when he leads forth his sheep or goats to green pastures, and beside still waters as they glide over the stones in some still-flowing brook (Psa 23:2). The patient sheep follow meekly; even among the lively goats some do so, and the rest follow them. His charge once busy feeding, the shepherd can take his pipe and play artless melodies, or cheer himself by his simple songs. In the rare case of genius, the glory of the morning or evening may wake higher aspirations, as it once did in the soul of David, calling forth some of his wondrous Psalms first sung to his own accompaniment on the harp which he had himself invented (Psa 33:2; 1 Sam 16:18; Amos 6:5). In the burning heat of noon, on the treeless plain or hill-side (Gen 31:40), the shepherd leads the sheep to the shadow of some great rock in the weary land, as I have often seen; the panting creatures pressing close to the cold stone, alike for deeper shadow and to feel its natural coolness (Isa 32:2, 25:4, 49:2; Psa 91:1). Often, indeed, in these overpowering hours, I have noticed them crowding into the open caves which abound everywhere in the chalky hills. When evening falls they follow their guide to the nearest well, if there be no running water—not unfrequently to find other flocks there before them. In such a case strife as to priority often arises, in a land where water is so scarce; as in the old days with the "herdmen of Abram's cattle" and those of the cattle of Lot (Gen 13:7), or with the Philistine herdsmen of Gerar and those of Isaac (Gen 26:20). Sometimes the deep wells are covered by a great stone, so heavy that it can only be moved by the joint strength of several men; thus securing the water against the selfishness of any single shepherd, and forcing him to wait till his brethren who have an equal right to it have arrived (Gen 29:2,3). If it be the season for leading them to the fold by night, the sheep are guided thither as evening falls, the shepherd standing at the rude gate with outstretched staff, counting them on entering, as in the morning (Lev 27:32. Knobel). Then comes the watch by night, till the next morning brings back the same daily occupation.

An Eastern shepherd is responsible for every mishap to his flock, and he is generally paid by a share of the young lambs, or of the wool, or of both. Apart from the natural sympathy with the only living creatures linked to him by daily companionship, self-interest thus prompts him to unwearying care and brave fidelity in his calling. He will wander for hours after a sheep that has strayed into some waterless hollow in the wilderness, or some gloomy and desolate ravine in the mountains, and when he has found it, will bear the exhausted creature home on his shoulders, rejoicing that it is restored to the flock: a type, as our Saviour tells us, of heavenly love, seeking and saving the human soul (Luke 15:4). With pity, however, more common elements might well be mingled in the shepherd, for in old times, as now, the judge might sentence him to make good to his master that which was lost, though by the law of Moses he was not held responsible for sheep destroyed by wild beasts, if he produced some fragment to show that they really had been so destroyed (Exo 22:9-13). Yet Jacob had to make good to his covetous uncle, Laban, "the white" Syrian, even such of the flock as beasts of prey had killed (Gen 31:39). It should be added that along with conscientious shepherds, there have doubtless been some, in all ages, as in the days of Ezekiel and Zechariah, who "ate the milk and butter, and clothed themselves with the wool; who killed the fatted sheep, and did not feed the flock, or strengthen the weak, or heal the sick, or bind up the injured, or lead back the strayed, or seek the lost."*

* Eze 34:3,4; Zech 11:16. See Geikie's Hours with the Bible, vi. 218, for translation of the passages.
At the best, the calling of the shepherd is a poor one. It required a service of twenty-one years, and all his special astuteness, to give Jacob independence. In a time of famine the prodigal son could only obtain for himself the dry pods of the carob, lying below the tree, the food of the swine he was tending (Luke 15:16). Amos added to his shepherding the piercing of sycamore figs, to increase his wages, that he might live (7:14). The share in the flock allowed as the reward of the herdsman is small, though years may increase it to a flock of his own. Meanwhile he has milk from the goats for his maintenance, and a sheep-skin or two from which to make a coat against the winter's cold, and slowly toils through long poverty to what is to him independence. Few, we may rest assured, have Jacob's wit or opportunity to gain flocks and herds by increasing the number of the spotted and speckled (Gen 30:32). Still, to tend sheep has always been honourable in a country like Palestine, so that, to-day, we see the daughters of a sheikh, or of the foremost men of a tribe, thinking the work worthy of them, as Rachel did long ago in the Hauran, and Moses in Midian (Gen 29:9; Exo 3:1, 2:16). There is indeed, in the East, such a sense of the dignity of manhood in itself, apart from all accidents of birth or position, that any calling not obviously dishonourable is ennobled by becoming a human vocation. The poorest beggar has a quiet self-respect which commands respect from others.

The sheep of Palestine are longer in the head than ours, and have tails from five inches broad at the narrowest part, to fifteen inches at the widest, the weight being in proportion, and ranging generally from ten to fourteen pounds,* but sometimes extending to thirty pounds.** The tails are, in fact, huge masses of fat, for supporting which, in some parts, small carts are said to be used tied behind the animal.*** Dr. van Lennep, however, ridicules this, though he tells us that the tail, "though usually not more than twenty pounds in weight, is not unfrequently three and even four times as heavy"!**** This is on a par with the statement of Herodotus, that the tail is three cubits—or four feet and a half—long. Instead of this, it simply reaches to the knees or a little below them, standing out as a great broad mass, its tip coming to a point turned slightly out. This amazing appendage is used as grease, and also for lamps and cooking; the Arabs even eat it as a delicacy, when fried in slices, though it tastes much like fried tallow. With such a tail it is no wonder that the rest of the carcase weighs only from sixty to seventy pounds. The rams alone have horns; the colour of the breed is white, but some have brown faces.

* Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 144.

** Riehm, p. 1384.

*** Rosenmuller, Bib. Naturgeschichte, pt. ii. 76. See also Herod., iii. 113.

**** Bible Lands, p. 196.

The portion of the Holy Land once held by Israel is not rich in pasture suited for cattle, so that it could never have supported great herds. But its dry, chalky soil, growing sparse aromatic plants and salt-containing herbs, its stunted brush, and stretches of light hill-grasses, offered abundant food for sheep and goats. The extent to which these characteristics of their country were utilised by the Hebrews, and the importance of the part which sheep and goats fill in their history, may be judged from the fact that they are mentioned in the Bible more than 500 times. Sheep always come first in the statement of the wealth of the patriarchs (Gen 26:14, 33:13), as they do also in the case of Job (1:3, 42:12). Nabal's flocks in Carmel, south of Judæa, consisted of 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats (1 Sam 25:2). David's flocks were so large that it was necessary for him to have a special overseer of his shepherds (1 Chron 27:31); and Hezekiah thought it worth while to provide "cotes" for his sheep and goats on a royal scale (2 Chron 32:28). Solomon offered 120,000 sheep at the dedication of the Temple, and required 36,500 a year for his table (1 Kings 4:23, 8:63; 2 Chron 7:5); and many thousand sheep are recorded to have been offered as sacrifices on one occasion by various Jewish kings (2 Chron 15:11, 30:24).

But if the Jewish mountains and plains, and the uplands of the Negeb, were thus dotted with flocks, the number of sheep and goats reared in the districts east of the Jordan was much greater, from the smallness of the population in proportion to the extent and richness of the pasturage. Job, in the Hauran, had latterly 14,000 sheep; and King Mesha, of Moab, was laid under a tribute to Ahab of 100,000 lambs a year, and the wool of 100,000 rams (Job 42:12; 2 Kings 3:4). But the wandering Arabs, in those days, were specially wealthy in flocks, rivalling the great sheep-masters of Australia, where, thirty years ago, there were already 16,000,000 sheep.* The Israelites, under Moses, we are told, carried off from the Midianites 675,000 sheep (Num 31:32), and the tribe of Reuben swept away from the "Hagarites" 250,000 (1 Chron 5:21). The flocks of Kedar—a wandering tribe of Arabs in Northern Arabia—and the rams of Nebaioth, another great Arab tribe, are noted by Isaiah (60:7); the former specially supplying the vast demand of Tyre for "lambs and rams and goats" (Eze 27:21), while Damascus was its great market for white wool (Eze 27:18). That these numbers and statements are by no means exaggerated is strangely corroborated by the Assyrian inscriptions, which often give quite as great numbers of sheep as being carried off from conquered peoples. Indeed, they are sometimes greater, for Sennacherib informs us, in a cylinder discovered in Nineveh, that in the war with Merodach Baladan he carried off, from Babylonian and Syrian tribes, no fewer than 800,600 sheep and goats.**

* Chambers' Encycl.: art. "Australia."

** Schrader, A. T. Keilinschriften, p. 221.

It may be a wonder with some, as it used to be with myself, how such enormous sacrifices of sheep as the Bible records could have been burnt on any number of altars. If we turn, however, to the Law, we shall find that only the internal and external fat, the rump or great tail, the kidneys, and the "caul that is above the liver," were actually consumed; the animal as a whole being reserved as food for the priests and the officers (Lev 7:3-6), as we see in the case of the Passover lambs.

Flocks of goats are very numerous in Palestine at this day, as they were in former ages. We see them everywhere on the mountains, in smaller or larger numbers (1 Kings 20:27; Song 4:1, 6:5); at times, also, along with sheep, as one flock, in which case it is usually a he-goat that is the special leader of the whole (Jer 50:8; Prov 30:31), walking before it as gravely as a sexton before the white flock of a church choir. It is from the custom that Isaiah speaks of kings as the "he-goats of the earth" (Isa 14:9, "chief ones"=he-goats); a name applied to them by Zechariah also (10:3), and to Alexander the Great by Daniel, who describes him as a he-goat from the west, with a notable horn between his eyes (8:5): a fitting symbol of his irresistible power at the head of the Macedonian army. The quarrelsomeness of the he-goats, often shown in violence towards the patient sheep, supplied, further, an apt symbol of a cruel and oppressive prince (Eze 34:17), and as these characteristics made it necessary for the shepherd to separate the goats from the sheep in the fold, this may have been the immediate source of the solemn picture in our Lord's discourse, of the separation of the goats from the sheep at the Judgment-day (Matt 25:32). The usual colour of the goat in Palestine is black, so that the comparison in Song of Songs of the locks of the Beloved, hanging in rich abundance over her shoulders, to a flock of long-haired goats, feeding on the slopes of the Gilead hills, one above the other, was as natural to a poet of the country as it is beautiful. The Beloved herself, exposed to the scorching heat, in the vineyards of which her brothers had made her keeper, says, as she thinks of her complexion, burnt black "because the sun hath looked upon her," that she is like the tents of Kedar, "beautiful" in their outline as an encampment, though the tent-coverings, woven of goats' hair, were black, like her own sun-tanned features (Song 1:5). One specially useful purpose once served by goats' hair is told us in David's history, when his wife Michal took one of the household images, or teraphim, and having duly laid it on a bed, under the bedclothes, put on its head an extemporised wig of goats' hair, no doubt like his own in colour, so that the counterfeit passed off as the young hero himself, and saved him from the emissaries of Saul, to bless the Church with his glorious Psalms (1 Sam 19:13-16). It must, however, have been the hair of a reddish-brown goat, not of a black one, that Michal used, as David had auburn hair (1 Sam 16:12, 17:42, "ruddy"=red-haired). There is a kind of goat with such brownish-red hair, and there are also goats pied and speckled, like those which Jacob had for his share, though the black ones greatly predominate.

Goats were in much demand among the Hebrews as offerings, a kid eight days old being fit for this use, though the Passover goat, when a lamb was not used, was required to be a yearling (Lev 22:27; Judg 6:19, 13:15,19; Exo 12:5). The thrice-repeated command that a kid should not be "seethed [or cooked] in his mother's milk" (Exo 23:19, 34:26; Deut 14:21), may have been given, in part, as a protest against the seeming cruelty of using the milk that should have been the creature's nourishment, as the medium of its preparation for human food; but there were other and deeper grounds. Like all the Mosaic rules about food, it doubtless had a religious basis; perhaps to guard the Hebrews against a practice associated with some heathen superstition prevalent around them. Jewish tradition, reaching back to hoary antiquity, seems to justify this belief, kids being said to have been seethed by the heathen in their mothers' milk, at the fruit harvest, in order to get a blessing on the crop or on the fields over which the milk was sprinkled.*

* Riehm, Speisegesetze, p. 1515.


Chapter 9 | Contents | Chapter 11


Notes on Revelation | Judeo-Christian Research

This online book is original to this site.
This online book has been edited.

1997-2006 NOR/JCR