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 one 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, they 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 flock 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  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.

Animals in the Psalms

The animals went in two by two

Ever since we had the psalm with the seas and whatever moves in them in the last line (Ps 68/69), I have been thinking about the animals in the psalms, so I went back and had a systematic look; and it’s amazing how many there are. They fall into three main categories : creepy-crawlies, birds, and beasts, which is what you would expect.

Beasts, raging and otherwise

The beasts are the most frequent characters on the scene, and they range from sheep and goats to raging beasts. To be specific, we see bulls, cattle, beasts of the field, calves, the young wild ox, mules, wild asses, oxen and deer. We have boars, lions, rabbits (possibly rock hyraxes, in one translation.  I like hyraxes, we came across them in Africa, and they are like overgrown guinea pigs or small wombats), horses and dogs.  At the exciting end of the spectrum we have lions and raging beasts (as a category in their own right), we have monsters in the sea (Ps 73/74) and monsters to play with (Ps 103/104, clearly my kind of psalmist there), we have a dragon (Ps 90/91) and we have Leviathan .  I’ve included sea creatures here, as there are also unspecified fish and the creatures moving in the deep, who set off this line of inquiry in the first place. Interestingly, we do not have any cats in the Psalms, and I think this is more likely to be a reaction against the importance of cats in Egyptian religion than anything else.

Insects and things that sting

I am also using creepy-crawly as a general term, and including not just gnats, dogflies, worms, moths, good bees and bad bees (interesting), grubs, locusts,  but also frogs, adders and vipers.  I suppose you could make out a case for the fish, dragon and Leviathan fitting better into this category (dragons are loathly worms in Malory and old ballads), but I think scale means they fit better among the beasts.

Feathered creatures

In my third category :  apart from the generic ‘birds of the air’, we have sparrows, swallows, hawks and doves, pelicans (very glad to see them.  I have always had a soft spot for that verse in the Adoro te devote which addresses the Lord as a pelican), storks, owls, young ravens, quail (sadly, only in there for meat, and I think God could have given the Israelites something a little less labour-intensive), eagles and another generic, the ‘birds of heaven’, which is the same thing but in a different translation.

Positive and negative

That’s quite a line-up.  I’m sticking rigidly to the Psalms, because if I try and take in a wider part of the Bible, this would be a book rather than a blog;  but even so, that’s quite a lot of variety and differentiation.  The creatures are all real ones (I include the dragon here, as so many animals have been discovered that the psalmist would not have known about that I think it’s only fair to allow him all the ones he names).  What are they there for?  The birds are usually there as an example of praising God, but also the psalmist describes himself as clamouring and moaning like a dove.  The insects are usually there as a bad thing, reminiscences of the plagues of Egypt; the bees are ambiguous because they produce honey from the comb, which is the sweetest thing that the psalmist can think of to compare to the sweetness of God’s law and the joy of obeying it, so they have a good side, as well as being a stinging danger.

Good and bad animals

The beasts fall into two camps.  Like the birds, they can rejoice in creation and give thanks to God.  Beasts of the field are usually entirely positive, because they are there ‘to serve man’s need’, very much according to the original model at creation.  Horses are usually creatures of war.  A horse in war array was the nearest ancient equivalent to the modern tank, and equally devastating if you were a humble foot-soldier, but the psalmist warns that even if it is on your side,’ a vain hope…is the horse, despite its power it cannot save’, and God is the only real source of victory.

Dogs tend to move in packs (sometimes they are even translated as jackals), and they are a threat to a wounded man or a lone traveller.  This reflects reality even today, particularly in mountainous lonely areas.  Raging beasts are obviously a challenge, but they are often generalised because they are metaphorical.

Men more dangerous than animals

One of the striking things about looking at the animals in the psalms is that it is clear the main threat to the good man is from evil men, and they are the problem that he most often calls to God to help with.  The lion roams about roaring and seeking whom he may devour, but it’s just dangerous, it’s not personal spite (unless it’s a metaphor for the devil).  Evil men lurk and prowl like the lion, but without any metaphor they seek your life, take away your good name, deprive you of any pleasure in life so that you might as well be dead, make plots against you;  and God does not move to protect the victim as quickly or completely as he would like.   This is the free will problem.  People cause trouble, and God can help you to deal with the consequences, but he can’t (unlike Superman) change the fact once happened that a wicked person has done something wicked.  Salvation history in a nutshell.

Animal metaphors

One interesting reference to sheep and goats, since herds were usually mixed, is in Psalm 22/23, where they represent us (also in Ps 73, where we are only sheep with no ambiguity).  Usually they are just there as a sort of chorus line or part of the scenery to show peace and tranquillity.  Lambs are emblems of innocence, sometimes joy,  and patient suffering.  They gambol in the fields or they are sacrificed.  It’s very unsentimental.   On the whole though, the animals in the psalms are there as animals, not as representations of something else.  They reflect real observation and experience.  The psalmists are all observant people, and they see all creation as part of God’s plan, either praising him directly  (even inanimate mountains clapping their hands) or just witnessing to him by existing, like the stars.  The lion stands in for the devil, but then it’s difficult to talk about supernatural beings without metaphor (look at what we do when talking about God).  Mostly, evil men are referred to as precisely that, because they can choose to be evil; the animals are all behaving according to their nature, so they can be dangerous but not sinful.

God the ruler over all

God is described as a ‘mighty man’, a ‘man of war’ (I’m accepting the Canticles as part of my psalm corpus again here).   As they say, God made man in his own image and man has been returning the compliment ever since.  He would not be described as any sort of animal (exceptionally he is ‘like a moth’ in Ps 38/39) because I think that would be regarded as disrespectful, with man seen as so clearly the top of the tree.  (I think the moth simile is allowed because the scale makes it so clear that it is indeed merely a simile, not a real comparison.)  C.S.Lewis embodies Christ as a lion, because he’s thinking in more African terms about the lion as the king of beasts (with the mane like an aureole around his face), but God the Father never actually appears in the Narnia universe; he is a shadowy off-stage figure like the point at which parallel lines meet.  The psalmists’ lion is more of a mountain lion, a big and fearsome lynx-like creature, dangerous but not so impressive, not kingly.  In the psalms, where obviously the emphasis is on the Father rather than the Son, we don’t talk about what he looks like, except in human terms of role (the shepherd, the King, the warrior, the judge).  After all, in Jewish tradition, you never try to portray the Almighty.  He’s always modestly wrapped in a cloud, even in the text.

God’s mighty wings

There is one exception to this though:  the Lord has pinions, has mighty wings, (in some translations, feathers, which is a bit too concrete) with which he shelters and rescues us.  (I think this is why it is always the eagles who sort things out at the end of Tolkien’s stories.) God is never described directly as an eagle in the Psalms.  The eagles are one of the parts of creation that do his bidding, sailing in with supplies for the starving prophet  (sorry, that’s not in Psalms, I’m cheating) or being a metaphor for deliverance.   God has pinions.  ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ is a most comforting verse for many.  But I love the dynamism of ‘he will conceal you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Ps 90/91).  You don’t need the wings of a dove (Ps 54/55) for yourself, if the Lord is there to enfold you in soft warmth and carry you to safety.  But imagine how wonderfully exciting it would be.

© 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.