The Shepherd of Israel

March 31, 2024

This verse is part of an extended prophecy of Ezekiel in which God likens Himself to a shepherd and the Jewish people to His sheep. 

Shepherd = Leadership

The metaphor of a shepherd for leadership is one of the most common in the Bible. For example, when Moses was nearing the end of his life and turned to God to ask him to choose the next leader of Israel, he used the metaphor of a shepherd:

Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them and go in before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.Numbers 27:16-17

But beyond being a metaphor for leadership, we also see that God chose actual shepherds for many of the primary roles of leadership over Israel. For example, Moses and King David, the two most prominent paradigms of leadership in the entire Bible, both started out as shepherds. And of course, in what is likely the best-known passage in the entire Bible, God Himself is compared to a shepherd:

Shepherds were menial laborers

We should note that in the ancient world, as well as today, the role of a shepherd was considered a position for a low-level laborer. It was not a job that was viewed with any respect. It was often the role of servants or members of a family who had no real skills. The job of a shepherd is to graze the flock and to protect it from danger. Comparing someone to a shepherd is not necessarily a compliment. 

For example, Ezekiel 34 opens with a rebuke by God of the corrupt leaders of Israel, the bad shepherds, who abused the people and led to their exile:

The word of the Lord was with me, saying: Son of man, prophesy concerning the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, to the shepherds: “So said the Lord God: ‘Woe! Shepherds of Israel who have been shepherding themselves, isn’t it the flocks that the shepherd should shepherd? You eat the fat, and you wear the wool, you slaughter the fat ones but you do not shepherd the flocks. The weak you did not strengthen, the ill you did not heal, and the injured you did not bind; the outcast you did not return, and the lost you did not seek. You subjugated them forcefully and with travail.Ezekiel 34: 1-4

Good vs Bad Shepherds

Shepherds have a lot of freedom. In the Middle East, where it does not rain for much of the year, a shepherd is out with the flock for long periods with no supervision, often for days at a time. The shepherd travels with the flock, sleeps where they sleep, and is always on guard for dangers. Because the shepherd is out alone with the flock, a dishonest shepherd who lost a few sheep, or even killed and ate from the flock, could plausibly deny any responsibility. He could easily claim that a dangerous wild animal or roaming thieves attacked the flock, and there is not much the owner can say to object. 

The point here is that the difference between good and bad shepherds is extreme. A good shepherd has a dangerous job, will get no honor, and must protect and care for the needs of the entire flock. A bad shepherd, if he so chooses, will use the sheep for his own benefit with impunity.

Leadership is meant to serve

Political leaders, like shepherds, are supposed to serve the flock that they lead. Their purpose is to care for the people, not to abuse them for their own benefit. But just like shepherds, political leaders have ample opportunity for corruption. The examples of this are too numerous to mention here. Corrupt leadership that takes advantage of the people instead of caring for them, leads to the destruction of society. In the case of the people of Israel, as Ezekiel tells us, it leads to exile from the land.

The promise of redemption spelled out in this chapter of Ezekiel is not merely one more among the many passages in the Bible that foretell the return of the nation of Israel to the promised land. By choosing to metaphorically refer to God as a shepherd, Ezekiel draws our attention to the contrast between good and bad leadership. 

The leadership of God is that of a good shepherd. He cares for us. He protects us. He brings us back home.

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Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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