Sheep on Mt. Nebo.

SHEEP. A number of Heb. and Gr. words are used:

עַתּוּד, H6966, which is tr. in the KJV twice as ram and in the RSV as he-goat, which is correct;

אַ֫יִל, H380, which is tr. ram in all Eng. VSS. Of more than 150 occurrences, thirteen are fig., mostly symbolic in prophecy, six refer to the rams’ skins for the Tabernacle covering, five are used generally, and the rest for a wide range of sacrifices;

Aram. אִמְּרִ֣ין is tr. lamb in Ezra only. It speaks of the burnt offering at the dedication of the rebuilt Temple;

כֶּ֫בֶשׂ, H3897, lamb 102 times and sheep twice. The word is used in a proverbial sense once, fig. four times and as a sacrifice ninety-seven times. This is used for nearly all types, including cleansing of the leper and first-fruits.

כִּשְׂבָּה, H4167, is tr. as the ewe lamb six times and lamb twice. It is also used for cleansing leper once, Nazirite vow once, sealing covenant three times, and in the parable told to David three times (2 Sam 12:3);

כֶּ֫שֶׂב, H4166. This is a transposition of כֶּ֫בֶשׂ, H3897, lamb, four times and sheep, eight times. It is used mostly for sacrifice, but some lit. includes sheep bred by Jacob (Gen 30:32);

כִּשְׂבָּה, H4167, f., is used only once—for trespass offering;

שֶׂה, H8445, see Cattle. This word is used for the individual member of a flock, almost always sing.: the Passover lamb (Exod 12) and a lamb led to the slaughter (Isa 53:7). In both vv. the tr. could be either sheep or goat. Sometimes it is particularized by attaching to עֵז, H6436, or כֶּ֫בֶשׂ, H3897;

טָלֶה, H3231, (sing.) and טְלָאִ֔ים (pl.). This word is used for very young lambs, prob. not weaned: “He will gather the lambs in his arms” (Isa 40:11);

עָלֹ֖ות, ewes, great with young. Sheep is inferred from the context; elsewhere it means milch camels and cows. The Eng. names for sheep have not changed since early Eng. VSS. The male is ram and the female is ewe; young is lamb. In farming communities other names are also used to signify ages and types, and many breeds are carefully named.

The NT word for sheep is πρόβατον, G4585.

Origin and early history.

This is complex and many views have been published about possible wild ancestors, and their period and place of origin. Zeuner’s work is most complete and unlikely to be superseded unless some radically new material or method is found. The following paragraph owes much to his research, which includes a full review of the lit. Although several wild sheep have contributed to the stock, two species are the main ancestors. Urial (Ovis orientalis) is the more important; this is Central and W Asiatic species, living mostly in mountains, from W Tibet to Transcaspia. The adult sheep stands nearly three ft. at the shoulder, with strongly wrinkled horns curled in typical “Ammon” shape at the sides of the head; reddish in summer, with whitish underparts; grayish brown in winter. The other is the mouflon, now found only in Corsica, Sardinia, and Asia Minor: the smallest wild sheep and is dark reddish brown. In winter the adult rams have white or cream side patches. The problem of early dating is discussed under goat (q.v.). The Belt Cave in N Iran supplies earliest known evidence of domesticated sheep, and this is near Urial country. By the Neolithic pottery age (c. 5000 b.c.) sheep were being herded, prob. by dogs, and breeding under some control had started. They then spread rapidly, meeting with other groups domesticated independently, and finally few breeds could be regarded as purely from one source.

Characteristics of domestic sheep.


Figurative meaning.

The sheep became pre-eminent in offerings and sacrifices, and very large numbers were used every year. Certain classes were wholly burnt (see Sacrifice and Offerings), but in others most of the meat was used by offerer or priest. Some Heb. names are seldom used except in this connection. Above all, the sheep has deep metaphorical significance. Typified in OT by the whole of Psalm 23 and Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray”; in the NT by John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God” and 10:14: “I am the good shepherd.” Of seventy-four mentions in NT, only one is lit.—sheep sold in the Temple court (2:14). See NBD p. 1174 for detailed development.


F. E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals, ch. 7. (See comment in par. 2 above.)

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Names:

The usual Hebrew word is tso’n, which is often translated "flock," e.g. "Abel .... brought of the firstlings of his flock" (Ge 4:4); "butter of the herd, and milk of the flock" (De 32:14). The King James Version and the English Revised Version have "milk of sheep." Compare Arabic da’n. The Greek word is probaton. For other names, see notes under CATTLE; EWE; LAMB; RAM.

2. Zoology:

The origin of domestic sheep is unknown. There are 11 wild species, the majority of which are found in Asia, and it is conceivable that they may have spread from the highlands of Central Asia to the other portions of their habitat. In North America is found the "bighorn," which is very closely related to a Kamschatkan species. One species, the urial or sha, is found in India. The Barbary sheep, Ovis tragelaphus, also known as the aoudad or arui, inhabits the Atlas Mountains of Northwest Africa. It is thought by Tristram to be zemer, English Versions of the Bible "chamois" of De 14:5, but there is no good evidence that this animal ranges eastward into Bible lands. Geographically nearest is the Armenian wild sheep, Ovis gmelini, of Asia Minor and Persia. The Cyprian wild sheep may be only a variety of the last, and the mouflon of Corsica and Sardinia is an allied species. It is not easy to draw the line between wild sheep and wild goats. Among the more obvious distinctions are the chin beard and strong odor of male goats. The pelage of all wild sheep consists of hair, not wool, and this indeed is true of some domestic sheep as the fat-rumped short-tailed sheep of Abyssinia and Central Asia. The young lambs of this breed have short curly wool which is the astrachan of commerce. Sheep are geologically recent, their bones and teeth not being found in earlier deposits than the pleiocene or pleistocene. They were, however, among the first of domesticated animals.

3. Sheep of Palestine:

The sheep of Syria and Palestine are characterized by the possession of an enormous fat tail which weighs many pounds and is known in Arabic as ’alyat, or commonly, liyat. This is the ’alyah, "fat tail" (the King James Version "rump") (Ex 29:22; Le 3:9; 7:3; 8:25; 9:19), which was burned in sacrifice. This is at the present day esteemed a great delicacy. Sheep are kept in large numbers by the Bedouin, but a large portion of the supply of mutton for the cities is from the sheep of Armenia and Kurdistan, of which great droves are brought down to the coast in easy stages. Among the Moslems every well-to-do family sacrifices a sheep at the feast of al-’adcha’, the 10th day of the month dhu-l-chijjat, 40 days after the end of ramadan, the month of fasting. In Lebanon every peasant family during the summer fattens a young ram, which is literally crammed by one of the women of the household, who keeps the creature’s jaw moving with one hand while with the other she stuffs its mouth with vine or mulberry leaves. Every afternoon she washes it at the village fountain. When slaughtered in the fall it is called ma`luf, "fed," and is very fat and the flesh very tender. Some of the meat and fat are eaten at once, but the greater part, fat and lean, is cut up fine, cooked together in a large vessel with pepper and salt, and stored in an earthen jar. This, the so-called qauramat, is used as needed through the winter.

In the mountains the sheep are gathered at night into folds, which may be caves or enclosures of rough stones. Fierce dogs assist the shepherd in warding off the attacks of wolves, and remain at the fold through the day to guard the slight bedding and simple utensils. In going to pasture the sheep are not driven but are led, following the shepherd as he walks before them and calls to them. "When he hath put forth all his own, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice" (Joh 10:4).

4. Old Testament References:

The sheepfolds of Reuben on the plain of Gilead are referred to in Nu 32:16 and Jud 5:16. A cave is mentioned in 1Sa 24:3 in connection with the pursuit of David by Saul. The shepherd origin of David is referred to in Ps 78:70:

"He chose David also his servant,

And took him from the sheepfolds."

Compare also 2Sa 7:8 and 1Ch 17:7.

The shearing of the sheep was a large operation and evidently became a sort of festival. Absalom invited the king’s sons to his sheep-shearing in Baal-hazor in order that he might find an opportunity to put Amnon to death while his heart was "merry with wine" (2Sa 13:23-29). The character of the occasion is evident also from the indignation of David at Nabal when the latter refused to provide entertainment at his sheep-shearing for David’s young men who had previously protected the flocks of Nabal (1Sa 25:2-13). There is also mention of the sheep-shearing of Judah (Ge 38:12) and of Laban (Ge 31:19), on which occasion Jacob stole away with his wives and children and his flocks.

Sheep were the most important sacrificial animals, a ram or a young male being often specified. Ewes are mentioned in Le 3:6; 4:32; 5:6; 14:10; 22:28; Nu 6:14.

In the Books of Chronicles we find statements of enormous numbers of animals consumed in sacrifice: "And king Solomon offered a sacrifice of twenty and two thousand oxen, and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep" (2Ch 7:5); "And they sacrificed unto Yahweh in that day (in the reign of Asa) .... seven hundred oxen and seven thousand sheep" (2Ch 15:11); at the cleansing of the temple by Hezekiah "the consecrated things were six hundred oxen and three thousand sheep. But the priests were too few, so that they could not flay all the burnt-offerings: wherefore their brethren the Levites did help them" (2Ch 29:33 f); and "Hezekiah king of Judah did give to the assembly for offerings a thousand bullocks and seven thousand sheep; and the princes gave to the assembly a thousand bullocks and ten thousand sheep" (2Ch 30:24). In the account of the war of the sons of Reuben and their allies with the Hagrites, we read: "And they took away their cattle; of their camels fifty thousand, and of sheep two hundred and fifty thousand, and of asses two thousand, and of men a hundred thousand" (1Ch 5:21). Mesha king of Moab is called a "sheep-master," and we read that "he rendered unto the king of Israel the wool of a hundred thousand lambs, and of a hundred thousand rams" (2Ki 3:4).

5. Figurative:

See also

  • Animals