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David, The Lonely Shepherd: Myth or Reality?
by Cate Russell-Cole
3/21/2016 / Bible Studies
The life of a shepherd can be portrayed as a romanticised, low demand, idyllic one. I didn't realise how much, until someone left this comment on an article I'd put on the King David Project's Facebook page: "...alone as a shepherd spending a lot of time with the Lord in isolation."
Without thinking too deeply, I questioned that view: "Actually, it is not known how much of that time was alone. It would be ridiculous to leave a young teenager alone in charge of a valuable herd, so it's possible that his brothers, or hired men, were with him." The commenter agreed on the basis that in Luke, the angels visited groups of shepherds to announce Jesus' birth. They weren't alone. That verse was where I'd sourced my response from too.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that to put a young teenager alone in a dangerous place with an incredibly valuable flock, in any era, was just nuts! Jesus talked about robbers who took sheep. David battled a lion and bear to protect his flock, and when he met Abigail, he, as an armed man with a band of other armed men, were working protecting Nabal's flocks in the wilderness of Maon. [Ref: 1 Samuel 25]
I started to research whether or not isolated shepherding was normal in David's time, to see if this was another misunderstanding of David's story, which needed to be addressed. *'Manners and Customs of Bible Lands' was very helpful. "The youngest boy in the family becomes shepherd of the sheep... As the older son grows up he transfers his energies from sheep raising to helping the father with sowing, ploughing, and harvesting the crops, and passes on the shepherd's task to the next younger boy. And so the job is passed from older to younger until the youngest of all becomes the family shepherd." What is missing is the age at which the youngest son took that job.
The volume of shepherd imagery in the Bible is a clue as to the importance of shepherding to everyone. Jesus repeatedly uses sheep analogies, as the value of sheep was still critical to the economy and welfare of Isra'el in His time. Sheep were both a potential source of income and a means of meeting the most basic needs, such as providing wool for clothes, sheepskin for coats, meat for feasts, special occasions and sacrifices; plus milk to make into cheese, and rams horns for carrying liquid, or to be used as a shofar.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (1915 - 1988) points out that that to slaughter a sheep to feed a guest was "generous hospitality" and use of a sheep as a sacrifice was very expensive. It also goes on to say, "That a shepherd might not return alive from his shepherding was well understood. (Genesis 37:33) Shepherding was serious, demanding and strenuous work. Nevertheless, the true or faithful shepherd was thought to have a disposition that was altogether admirable: thoughtful, tender, gentle, strong, resourceful in times of danger..."
This confirms how dangerous the position was and again I ask, would you entrust your precious flock to one person?
In John 10:13, we learn that people were hired to assist in flock care. Back to * 'Bible Customs...': "When the flock is small, the shepherd handles his sheep without any help but if the flock becomes too large, then it becomes necessary for him to hire someone to help him with the sheep. One man can usually handle from fifty to one hundred sheep, but when he has more than one hundred, he usually seeks a helper."
In 1 Samuel 17, it says, "One day Jesse said to David, "Take this basket of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread, and carry them quickly to your brothers." then in verse 20 it says, "So David left the sheep with another shepherd and set out early the next morning with the gifts, as Jesse had directed him." So who was this other shepherd? Did this mean David wasn't alone?
The sheep could have been watched by another shepherd who had their own flock in the same vicinity. They may, or may not have been family. [Example: Genesis 29:1-3] For safety, and probably company, shepherds intermingled and associated with each other, especially at night. It sounds like the lonely shepherd myth is busted, doesn't it? Actually, I don't know. I have no idea how wealthy Jesse was, or the flock size, or what really went on.
There is one indicator of the possible number of sheep in 1 Samuel 17: 28. "But when David's oldest brother, Eliab, heard David talking to the men (asking about Goliath on the battlefield), he was angry. "What are you doing around here anyway?" he demanded. "What about those few sheep you're supposed to be taking care of? I know about your pride and deceit. You just want to see the battle!"
That Scripture verse could be a clue as to the flock size, but it also sounds like Eliab may have been indulging in sibling rivalry and exaggeration. "What have I done now?" David replied. "I was only asking a question!" Consider this: David's brothers know that he's been anointed by Samuel to be King of Isra'el, and was chosen over them. How would you expect older brothers to react to that? It's highly likely that they assailed David with their ruffled feathers, carrying out one of the Devil's favourite assaults: making us question God's will and our worth. "It can never happen; you're too young, you're not worthy. Who do you think you are?" Doesn't he do that to all of us? Thus, I place no faith in the accuracy of Eliab's statement.
* 'Bible Customs...' gives us one last helpful clue as to whether or not this time shaped David's spiritual life. "The shepherd is so constantly with his sheep that sometimes his life with them becomes monotonous." Even if David was rarely lonely, monotony could certainly have lead him to spending time with the Lord and it leaves time for David to hone his musical craft.
The lesson I learnt from trying to squash a myth was this: we need to study the Word carefully to do it justice. So much information has not been written down, or has been lost in time, that getting to the roots of people's motivation and experiences becomes impossible. However, if we take the time to study the Word in detail, (not just rely on commentaries, or our memories of a story,) we can come up with helpful new revelations. This study was not a wild goose chase for me. I learned more about what Jesus was trying to get across to us, and I understood the foundational training that built David so much better. It was an investigation well worth the time.
- * Manners and Customs of Bible Lands by Fred H. Wight, Copyright 1953 Read it here: http://www.baptistbiblebelievers.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=qDQAYzDf0WM%3D
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Copyright 1915 - 1988, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Volume 4, Page 463-4 "sheep / shepherd"
For more information on King David, please have a meander through the King David Project Facebook page, our web site and our blog, "Masada Rain." The blog houses many useful resources on studying, David plus bits and pieces of information which don't neatly fit into article form. Please ignore dates and use the search feature to find what you want. The web site has resources on David's family tree, life and the Psalms. All content is creative commons and non-profit. Sharing of the project's work would be deeply appreciated.
Masada Rain Blog: https://masadarain.wordpress.com
The project web site: http://cateartios.wix.com/kingdavidproject
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/fromdespairtodeliverance
This article by Cate Russell-Cole is under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Written in Australian English.
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