"The Good Shepherd"
The Jewish concept of shepherds starts all the way at the beginning of the Bible. Adam and Eve had two boys named Cain and Abel. In a subtle detail that’s easy to overlook, we learn that “Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.” That means Abel was a shepherd and his brother, Cain, was a farmer. They both brought sacrifices to worship God, but God liked Abel’s better because he gave his best. This made Cain furious with jealousy and he decided to kill his brother.
The first murder in Biblical history is a farmer killing a shepherd.
This escalates again when Joseph found himself down on his luck. His brothers sold him into slavery but he eventually became the right-hand man to Pharaoh in Egypt. A severe drought brought many people to Egypt, including the very brothers who had betrayed him. Joseph forgives them and invites them to move to Egypt. But there was one problem. The Egyptians were a farming culture, and Joseph’s brothers were shepherds. So Joseph shrewdly coached his brothers on what to say and do so they were allowed to live in Egypt. Joseph’s wisdom prevented the tension between farmers and shepherds from becoming an issue.
Years passed, and eventually a pharaoh came to power who knew nothing of Joseph and what he had done for Egypt. Pharaoh realized the Israelites, who were still primarily shepherds, had become so numerous that they were a threat to him culturally and politically. He made them slaves to the Egyptian farmers, and again we see the farmers with the upper hand. However, God called a man named Moses to lead these Israelites into a land of their own.
After a dramatic series of events the Israelites left Egypt and wandered through the wilderness for a generation. Eventually they received a land of their own, and then the biblical role of shepherds began to decline. The Israelites became farmers themselves. As the years passed, the role of shepherds continued to diminish until they become virtually a subclass of people by the time of the New Testament.
Why, in view of all this, would Jesus ever attach the image of a shepherd to Himself? Jesus used the flawed image of a shepherd to contrast the limitless nature of His own goodness. He’s so good He’s even a good shepherd (which many might have thought to be an oxymoron).