The motif of sheep and shepherding is a common one in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, though as a metaphor it is by no means exclusive to those religions that rely on those books as Scripture. Shepherding was something ancient peoples of the Middle East understood; they got shepherding, the way we...I don't know, get retail clerking or some other ubiquitous job.

Sheep are not necessarily stupid, but they do have a tendency to wander if left to their own devices, and have few defenses against predators and other hazards. Likewise, the nation of Israel was portrayed as having a tendency to ignore the guidance provided by God and stray into danger.

Given these tendencies, we see all the more clearly the need for a shepherd who will lead the flock, feed it, care for it, heal its wounds and protect it. In the Bible, the ultimate shepherd is of course God. He has, however, delegated authority to human shepherds, earthly authorities both religious and secular.

You may think at this point that the message is that people should follow authority blindly, but that isn't what the authors are getting at here. The Bible devotes several passages to the difference between good and bad shepherds, bad shepherds being the ones who guide their flock using harshness and force, endanger it through carelessness, exploit it for their own ends, or who fail to lead it entirely and let the flock scatter. A good shepherd is devoted to his flock, seeing to its needs first, guiding it safely, even risking his life for it if need be.

So what's up with the goats?

Well, apparently shepherds kept flocks consisting of both sheep and goats, mingled together (and still may, for all I know). Eventually it would be necessary to separate the two. This is the source of Jesus' famous image of the Last Judgement, in which the sheep -- those who served God by caring for those in need -- are separated from the goats, who are defined as those who proved their faithlessness by acting in a cold-hearted manner toward their fellows.

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