Flock of sheep. Photographer: Nima Hatami. Licensed (uns: unsUcQsXKYNgHI)
Flock of sheep in Gilan Gharb, Iran (Persia) —Photographer: Nima Hatami.

Sheep in the Bible

There are different varieties of biblical sheep.

Sheep raised for wool, meat, trade or sacrifice

The flocks of Abraham and Isaac were possibly of the wild species found still in the mountain regions of Iran (Persia) and Kurdistan.

After the Exodus, and as a result of trade with surrounding nations, other species were no doubt introduced into the herds of the people of Israel.

Sheep are frequently mentioned in Scripture.

The care of a shepherd over his flock is referred to as illustrating God’s care over his people (Psalm 23:1-2; 74:1; 77:20; Isaiah 40:11; 53:6; John 10:1-5, 7-16).

“The sheep of Palestine are longer in the head than ours, and have tails from 5 inches [12.7 centimeters] broad at the narrowest part to 15 inches [38.1 centimeters] at the widest, the weight being in proportion, and ranging generally from 10 to 14 lbs., but sometimes extending to 30 lbs. The tails are indeed huge masses of fat.” —John Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible: A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine, (1887, abridged edition: 1903)

The tail was no doubt the “rump” so frequently referred to in the Levitical sacrifices (Exodus 29:22; Leviticus 3:9; 7:3; 9:19). Sheep-shearing was generally an occasion of great festivity (Genesis 31:19; 38:12-13; 1 Samuel 25:4-8; 1 Sam. 25:36; 2 Samuel 13:23-28).

Figurative sheep

Figuratively, people may be like sheep, easily led, one way or the other. In a sense, we have all been like sheep.

All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way… —Isaiah 53:6 NKJV

For the idols speak delusion;
The diviners envision lies,
And tell false dreams;
They comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wend their way like sheep;
They are in trouble because there is no shepherd.
—Zechariah 10:2 NKJV

But when He [Christ] saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. —Matthew 9:36 NKJV

For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. —1 Peter 2:25 NKJV

Sheep and goats in Matthew 25 (judgment at the beginning of the Millennium)

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. —Matthew 25:31-33 NKJV

What does that mean? This is speaking of Christ’s Second Coming. In Christ’s behavior-based analogy, the flocking, obedient sheep are Believers (dependent on The Great Shepherd), and the independent, wandering goats are unbelievers (arrogant, aggressive, rebellious), rejecting the Shepherd and having no interest in His Gospel.

Dr. John F. MacArthur of Grace Community Church and The Master’s Seminary explains,

This verse speaks of the earthly reign of Christ described in Revelation 20:4-6. The judgment described here in verses 32-46 is different from the Great White Throne judgment of Revelation 20:11-15. This judgment precedes Christ’s millennial reign, and the subjects seem to be only those who are alive at His coming. This judgment is sometimes referred to as the judgment of the nations, but Jesus’ verdicts address individuals in the nations, not the nations as a whole (cf. Rev. 20:46). —John F. MacArthur, Litt.D., D.D., The MacArthur Study Bible

Hebrew words for sheep

Greek words for sheep

More information

Article Version: July 17, 2021