Sheep are cute, but why are we ‘sheep’?

The Lord is my shepherd (again)

The twenty-third psalm is up again for next Sunday, another slightly different version. I’ve mentioned before how our idea of the Shepherd is different from Jesus’ (and from any Jewish reading of the psalm, and it was theirs long before it was also ours), but this time I want to look at the sheep.  In the Psalms, God is the shepherd and we are the sheep.

Illumination of sheep and shepherds
orderly sheep for once
Sheep are cute, sheep are beaut

My title is from a children’s song by the Australian musician Don Spencer.  We were given a cassette when the children were little and we were doing a lot of car journeys.  I think the whole family can still sing it word-perfect.  In fact, the real title of the song is Bob the Kelpie, because it’s actually about the sheepdog, and if we’d had YouTube in those days, I’m sure the children would have adored the film, although I find it slightly surreal with the singer lounging in a doorway with his guitar while the hard work of shearing goes on inside the shed.

We call it ‘Sheep are cute sheep are beaut’, not just because it’s the first line, has a catchy tune or because it’s an audacious rhyme (we love those).  Mainly  I think it sticks in the mind  because those aren’t the obvious adjectives anyone would use about sheep.  Lambs are cute and cuddly (in cartoons and at a distance).  I particularly like the way their tails rotate when they feed (babies can only grunt and knead with their fists in similar circumstances).  Adult sheep however are not the most attractive of animals.

Features of adult sheep

There are more human sheep than real mountain sheep in the psalms, by a small margin.  Why are we so often described as sheep?  In the rest of the Old Testament,  it’s the standard image to describe the relationship between God and his people.  Sheep aren’t stupid, by any means; you only have to look at a sheep to see the crafty intelligence in its eyes; but they are wilful and wayward.  They need a shepherd to give them any sort of higher purpose and to make them worthwhile.  They can’t even shed their own skin, as a snake can do.  A neglected sheep just gets woolier and woolier, not good for the sheep or for anyone else.  The parallels are easy to draw!

Music demonstrating sheep qualities

All we like sheep have gone astray is one of the best choruses to sing in the whole Messiah, with all the exciting dodging about; and in He shall feed his flock, the difference between unlimited careering around and the order brought by the shepherd is demonstrated clearly by the music in its peaceful linear progression.  As they say to aspiring film directors, show, don’t tell, and Handel is brilliant at this.

No poems about sheep

There are plenty of poems about horses (e.g. The Arab’s farewell to his steed), dogs (e.g. To Flush, my dog), and even cats (e.g. My cat Jeoffry).  There are poems about lambs (Blake springing immediately to mind), but though there are lots of poems where sheep figure as part of the landscape, I can’t think of any where they star, apart from nursery rhymes (Baa baa black sheep, incidentally the first song to be played on a computer) or joke poems.  Sentiment seems to be the usual driver for animal poems, apart from some rare exceptions, and sheep are not sentimental.  Chesterton could maybe have written one as a companion piece to his donkey poem, but he didn’t as far as I know.

When we talk about people being like sheep in a modern context, it is not usually complimentary.  But I think this is because we are no longer an agricultural society.  If you read about what shepherds or farmers think about sheep, a different picture emerges.  For them, sheep are important and precious, of worth not only monetary.

Sheep virtues

Sheep are patient, tenacious, vegetarian, pacifist and sociable.  They co-operate with each other.  They are so collective that the singular noun is the same as the plural, like fish.  They have some intelligence.  Welsh mountain sheep are bred to learn their own mountain area and do not stray even without walls or fences.  They are defenceless against predators.  They recognise their own shepherd, and they leave the job of fighting to him.  This is one reason why they figure in landscapes : because they demonstrate peace and tranquillity.  If there were a threat, they would all be running away, like the herbivorous dinosaurs in Jurassic Park when a carnivore arrives.

There is a famous and popular picture by Shishkin, entitled Morning in a Pine Forest.  When he painted it, his friend added young bears to it, and it instantly became one of the favourite pictures in the gallery.  The bears give scale and a sort of human touch  (they also make the picture more chocolate-boxy).  My point here is that sheep turn up in so many landscapes for similar reasons, even if they were painted from the beginning rather than added later, and even if they were real sheep that the artist was looking at. Sheep may safely graze and the scene is all set.  And it’s not just pictures.  The Staffordshire potters are using the same shorthand.

Spode Blue Italian dish
I don’t know what the people are doing, but the sheep are safely grazing
Sheep in the mists of time

Animals don’t alter as much and as fast as people do, so I think we can reckon that a flock of sheep in the days of Abel, Jacob, Moses, David and indeed in Jesus’ own time, would have operated in very similar ways.  Even nowadays, the sheep and the people are similar, even if the modern shepherd has access to new technology.

Doodled sheep
This sheep doodle is mediaeval, but could have been drawn yesterday

Sheepdogs vary only by breed around the world, and Welsh collies tend to be gentler than the Georgian shepherd’s dogs, but then the latter might have to cope with wolves and lynxes instead of foxes.  Some shepherds nowadays use quad bikes, but most will still be walking, and the dog is there to save their legs and keep the sheep together.

This gives a shepherd a lot of time to think and plenty of fresh air (I’m sure too much sometimes). He or she is usually working in beautiful surroundings, hills and mountains, because sheep flourish there where the grass is not rich enough for cattle.  (But there’s also a flock of sheep that grazes the perimeter at Heathrow, which I find unexpected but delightful.)  There’s one British Member of Parliament who is a part-time shepherd, and you can see the attraction of the contrast between herding sheep and the House of Commons.  More than one shepherd has been a poet.  And David of course, King and psalm writer and composer, was a shepherd in his youth.

Shepherd piping to his flock; angels in the sky
Playing to a captive audience and the dog joining in

The link between shepherds and music is very strong.  Many shepherd crib figures for Christmas will have a pipe of some kind.  Often they have two they can play at once (I’ve seen this in Georgia and Serbia, and it’s very impressive).

Shepherd playing double pipe, another dancing
the sheep aren’t paying much attention, but the shepherds are making music and dancing too

Sometimes it’s a version of bagpipes. The illustrations of shepherds in manuscripts often show them playing and dancing.  Much more unlikely, but great fun, are the pictures of sheep playing musical instruments, and the psalmist has singing sheep in Ps 99/100.

Sheep playing the bagpipes
What tunes would he be playing?
Jesus does it too

Why does Jesus talk about sheep?   Mostly because of the OT references, but also through observation, I think.  When he spends time alone in the desert, when he walks the mountains with the disciples, when he goes off on his own, he would often have come across flocks of sheep and their shepherds.

He uses sheep in parables because everyone would have known what he was talking about.  It is interesting that one psalm (118/119) contains in close proximity a reference to God’s word as a treasure  (‘I take delight in your promise like one who finds a treasure’) and  an appeal for help ‘I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant’.   In the New Testament, we have the parables of the pearl of great price, the treasure found in a field (Matthew 13) and later of the lost single sheep in the flock of ninety-nine (Mtt 18).

In the Old Testament, the great Shepherd is God.  This would have been Jesus’ understanding of Ps 22/23 too.  So when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd’, it is indeed a mindblowing claim  for the Jews who are listening to him. It means that he is leader, protector, defender….and God.  But in case we find this too intimidating, he says, ‘I know my own, and my own know me’.  Sheep don’t worry about, or argue with their shepherd.  They trust him, because they know him.  Sometimes they even run off and get themselves lost; but he will find them again, and bring them home.  It’s a very comforting image.

Shepherds with flock in fold
All are safely gathered in

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe writes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines.

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