SHEPHERD רֹעֶ֤ה, herdsman; tender, grazer from the Heb. verb meaning “to pasture” or “tend” a flock. The form is the present active participle of the verb. It is usually, though not always, translated “shepherd” in the Bible.
In the literal sense of one who cares for a flock of sheep, it is first found in Genesis 4:2 to describe the occupation of Abel. Later Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons are identified as shepherds (Gen 13:7; 26:20; 30:36; 37:22ff.). Because of their occupation the sons of Jacob, when they went to Egypt, were not allowed to dwell near the Egyptians, who considered shepherds unclean (Gen 46:34).
The shepherd was known for his feeding and protecting the flock (Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:2); for seeking out the lost sheep (Ezek 34:12) and for rescuing those which were attacked (Amos 3:12).
Moses was a shepherd when God called him to lead Israel out of Egypt (Exod 3:1). David was also a shepherd when God called him to be king of Israel (1 Sam 16:11ff.). The life of the shepherd was excellent preparation for one who should lead God’s people (cf. Amos 1:1).
From the idea of the shepherd as a protector and leader of the flock, came the concept of God as the Shepherd of Israel. Shepherds themselves first declared this likeness. Jacob so addressed God in the days just before his death (Gen 48:15). David called God his Shepherd in the well-known twenty-third Psalm (Ps 23:1) and Asaph did in Psalm 80:1.
Isaiah expanded on this view of God who is described by him as the shepherd who feeds Israel (Isa 40:11). Jeremiah speaks of God as one like a shepherd who protects His flock (Jer 31:10). Ezekiel completes the view of God as a shepherd by describing Him as a God who seeks out His flock (Ezek 34:12).
In keeping with this concept one finds in the Old Testament many passages which speak of the leaders of God’s people as shepherds under God. In Numbers 27:17 and 1 Kings 22:17, the plight of Israel without leaders is likened to sheep without a shepherd. Later, the prophets, priests, and kings who had failed God and God’s people were condemned as shepherds who deserted or misled the flock (Jer 2:8; 10:21; 23:1ff.; Ezek 34:2ff., etc.).
It is not surprising then that in the New Testament we find our Lord described as a shepherd (ποιμήν, G4478). He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep (John 10:2, 11, 14, 16). He divides His sheep like a shepherd (Matt 25:32); and He suffers for the sake of the sheep as a good Shepherd (26:31).
The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13:20). Peter also calls him “the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Pet 2:25).
Jesus is spoken of as the good shepherd (Joh 10:14); chief shepherd (1Pe 5:4); great shepherd (Heb 13:20); the one shepherd (Joh 10:16). "He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and will gently lead those that have their young" (Isa 40:11) is a picture drawn from pastoral life of Yahweh’s care over His children. A strong sympathy for helpless animals, though sometimes misdirected, is a marked characteristic of the people of Bible lands. The birth of offspring in a flock often occurs far off on the mountain side. The shepherd solicitously guards the mother during her helpless moments and picks up the lamb and carries it to the fold. For the few days, until it is able to walk, he may carry it in his arms or in the loose folds of his coat above his girdle.
D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957), 94, 104, 107, 108.