From Bible Encyclopedia
Are of different varieties. Probably the flocks of Abraham and Isaac were of the wild species found still in the mountain regions of Persia and Kurdistan. After the Exodus, and as a result of intercourse with surrounding nations, other species were no doubt introduced into the herds of the people of Israel. They 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, Psalm 23:2; Psalm 74:1; Psalm 77:20; Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 53:6; John 10:1-5, John 10:7-16).
“The sheep of Palestine are longer in the head than ours, and have tails from 5 inches broad at the narrowest part to 15 inches at the widest, the weight being in proportion, and ranging generally from 10 to 14 lb., but sometimes extending to 30 lb. The tails are indeed huge masses of fat” (Geikie's Holy Land, etc.). The tail was no doubt the “rump” so frequently referred to in the Levitical sacrifices (Exodus 29:22; Leviticus 3:9; Leviticus 7:3; Leviticus 9:19).
The usual Hebrew word is צאן, cō'n, which is often translated “flock,” e.g. “Abel ... brought of the firstlings of his flock” (Genesis 4:4); “butter of the herd, and milk of the flock” (Deuteronomy 32:14). The King James Version and the English Revised Version have “milk of sheep.” Compare Arabic ḍa'n. The Greek word is πρόβατον, próbaton.
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 Deuteronomy 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, līyat. This is the אליה, 'alyāh, “fat tail” (the King James Version “rump”) (Exodus 29:22; Leviticus 3:9; Leviticus 7:3; Leviticus 8:25; Leviticus 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 Muslims every well-to-do family sacrifices a sheep at the feast of al-'adḥa', the 10th day of the month dhû-l-ḥijjat, 40 days after the end of ramaḍân, 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‛lûf, “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 ḳauramat, 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” (John 10:4).
4. Old Testament References:
The sheepfolds of Reuben on the plain of Gilead are referred to in Numbers 32:16 and Judges 5:16. A cave is mentioned in 1 Samuel 24:3 in connection with the pursuit of David by Saul. The shepherd origin of David is referred to in Psalm 78:70 :
“He chose David also his servant,
And took him from the sheepfolds.”
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” (2 Samuel 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 (1 Samuel 25:2-13). There is also mention of the sheep-shearing of Judah (Genesis 38:12) and of Laban (Genesis 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 Leviticus 3:6; Leviticus 4:32; Leviticus 5:6; Leviticus 14:10; Leviticus 22:28; Numbers 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” (2 Chronicles 7:5); “And they sacrificed unto Yahweh in that day (in the reign of Asa)...seven hundred oxen and seven thousand sheep” (2 Chronicles 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” (2 Chronicles 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” (2 Chronicles 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” (1 Chronicles 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” (2 Kings 3:4).
Christ is represented as the Lamb of God (Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; Revelation 5:6). Some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible represent God as a shepherd: “From thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel” (Genesis 49:24); “Yahweh is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1; compare Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:12-16). Jesus said “I am the good shepherd; and I know mine own, and mine own know me ... and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14 f). The people without leaders are likened to sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Ezekiel 34:5). Jesus at the Last Supper applies to Himself the words of Zechariah 13:7; “I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad” (Matthew 26:31; Mark 14:27). The enemies of Yahweh are compared to the fat of the sacrifice that is consumed away in smoke (Psalm 37:20). God's people are “the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 79:13; Psalm 95:7; Psalm 100:3). In sinning they become like lost sheep (Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 50:6; Ezekiel 34:6; Luke 15:3 ff). In the mouth of Nathan the poor man's one little ewe lamb is a vivid image of the treasure of which the king David has robbed Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 12:3). In Song Of Songs 6:6, the teeth of the bride are likened to a flock of ewes. It is prophesied that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6) and that “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (Isaiah 65:25). Jesus says to His disciples, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16; compare Luke 10:3). In the parable of the Good Shepherd we read: “He that is a hireling, and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, beholdeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth” (John 10:12).