By: J.R. Hyland
Although Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, human
chauvinism has managed to ignore the message inherent in that
association: the biblical message of God's concern for animal, as
well as for human, beings.
In both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, the care and concern of
the Creator is compared to that which a good shepherd shows for
his flock. The kind of loving attention inherent in that concept
has made it a universal Christian symbol, eulogized in prose and
poetry and portrayed in various art forms.
But at the same time that hearts are touched by this loving
symbol, Christians ignore the fact that if God treated us the way
we treat His lambs, we would run in horror from Him. We treat
them as objects that are born only to die, in order to satisfy
our desire for their flesh. And if that desire is for young
flesh, they will die as yearlings. Alternatively, they may be
allowed to live long enough to mature to the point that they can
provide an entire meal from one limb: they will be transmuted
into a leg-of-lamb.
And even beyond that maturity, if they live for many years,
subjected to the kind of production-line shearing that can be
both painful and frightening, they too will be sent off to endure
the final cruelties of the slaughterhouse. Their mature flesh--
mutton--may not be as desirable as the flesh of spring lamb,
nevertheless, it will find its place at the dinner table.
Many Christians would like to believe that those who speak out
against this ruthless treatment of God's creatures are aligned
with a kind of New Age mentality that has nothing to do with
biblical values. But they are wrong. Aside from the fact that God
created human beings to be herbivores (Genesis 1:29) many
prophets denounced the sacrificial worship that was a prelude to
eating the flesh of its victims (*see endnotes).
Typical is the prophet Hosea, who spoke out in the name of God:
"I write down countless teachings for the people but they reject
them as strange and foreign. They offer sacrifices to me and eat
the meat of the sacrifices. But I the Lord am not pleased with
them and I will remember their sin." (Hosea 8:12,13).
Although many prophets denounced those sacrifices, the man who
most clearly spoke about the abuse of animals entrusted to human
care was Zechariah. He prophesied circa 520 BC and used the
relationship of sheep and shepherd to make the point that just as
the lambs suffered at the hands of a merciless shepherd, so also
the people of Judah would suffer at the hands of merciless men if
they did not stop their sinful behavior.
"The Lord my God said to me, 'Act the part of the shepherd of a
flock of sheep that are going to be butchered. Their owners kill
them and go unpunished. They sell the meat and say 'Praise the
Lord, we are rich." Their own shepherds have no pity on them."
Zec 11: 4,5 TEV
Zechariah went on to tell the people: "Then the Lord said to me
'once again act the part of a shepherd who is worthless. I have
put a shepherd in charge of my flock, but he does not help the
sheep that are threatened by destruction; nor does he look for
the lost, or help those that are hurt, or feed the survivors.
Instead, he eats the meat of the fattest sheep and tears off
their hoofs. That worthless shepherd is doomed! He has totally
abandoned his flock. " Zec 11:15-17.TEV.
In the time of Zechariah, sheep were generally raised for their
wool, not for the consumption of their flesh---with the exception
of those raised for Temple sacrifices. Those raised to be
slaughtered were pastured close to the place of sacrifice and the
men who tended them were the kind of whom Zechariah said "Their
own shepherds have no pity on them." They kept the sheep watered
and fed only so they could live long enough to be butchered. They
were hardly the type of men eulogized by Jesus and the Prophets,
or offered by them as symbols of God's care for His creatures.
The compassionate shepherds that they compared to a loving God
were the kind of men who tended their flocks far from the towns;
the kind of men to whom the angels first announced the birth of
Christ. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Vol.
4) describes the character and the lifestyle of the conscientious
shepherd of biblical times. "Shepherding was serious, demanding
and strenuous work. Nevertheless, the true or faithful shepherd
needed to have a disposition that was altogether admirable,
thoughtful, tender, gentle, strong, resourceful in times of
danger." These were men whose character was the antithesis of the
shepherds who tended the flocks destined for Temple slaughter:
the men whom Zechariah denounced as being merciless.
It was the selfless and protective caretaker that Jesus had in
mind when he called himself the Good Shepherd and said that the
sheep knew his voice and would follow him. When he said this,
Christ was not using a metaphor to make his point. The flock that
was cared for and protected from harm, literally did know and
trust the voice of their shepherd. Those men, whose lives were
often lonely and sometimes dangerous, formed a loving bond with
the sheep of their flock in those long periods of time that they
were far from any town and without human companionship.
The bonds they forged with their flocks were much like the kind
of relationship contemporary persons have with their cats and
dogs. And although that kind of bonding with lambs was not usual
among the general populace of Palestine, it was usual in Egypt
where they were often treasured, household pets. Not
surprisingly, the eating of lamb was not widespread in Egypt.
This variance in the way that certain animals were treated--or
mistreated--has its counterpart in our modern culture. And the
criterion that determines the way domestic animals are treated,
most often has to do with whether or not it is culturally
acceptable to eat their flesh.
In our western society, we are horrified at the suffering of the
cats and dogs who are callously marketed and sometimes tortured
to death in eastern cultures because they are regarded only as
food products. But while we are horrified at this treatment of
animals we know are feeling, cognizant beings, we have no such
reaction against the marketing of animals that our own culture
has taught us to regard only as food products; as flesh to please
If we were not conditioned to regard some creatures only as means
to our own selfish ends, not even dire need would allow us to
violate their right to life. This was an ethos embraced by the
good shepherds of biblical times. The ISBE relates that "the
responsible shepherd did not kill and eat his sheep, no matter
how rigorous conditions might become. (Gen. 31-38-40; Ezek. 34:2-
10; Amos 3:12)." Clearly, even in biblical times there was a
choice to be made between compassion and carnivorism.
The testimony of the prophet Ezekiel affirms that choice and like
Zechariah, his oracles condemn those who ate the flesh of their
flock. "You are doomed, you shepherds of Israel. You take care of
yourselves, but never tend the sheep. You drink the milk, wear
clothes made from the wool then kill and eat the finest
sheep....So listen to me, you Shepherds. I, the Sovereign Lord,
declare that I am your enemy. I will rescue my sheep from you and
not let you eat them" (Ezek 34:2,3,10).
In our own time, choices between compassion and the consumption
of flesh continue to be made. Although there was no paschal lamb
lying dead on the table of the Good Shepherd, at the Last Supper,
many Christians choose to celebrate the Easter resurrection by
feasting on the flesh of young lambs. They, like the carnivorous
shepherds, give no thought to the creatures who were butchered
for their pleasure. And they give witness to the power of long-
standing cultural practices to be accepted uncritically, no
matter how abusive they may be.
The Bible speaks of those "whose minds have been kept in the dark
by the evil god of this world." (2 Co 4:4) And when enough people
agree to call that darkness, light, consensus overrides morality
and even the most abhorrent practices can become acceptable. This
was true of slavery and the subjugation of women, but our western
culture finally recognized the immorality of what were once
societal norms. Although they had economic, political and
religious support, those things were finally outlawed.
So, also, the religious, political, and economic forces
determined to preserve a sinful and carnivorous status quo will
have to yield to the evolutionary Spirit of love and compassion
for all creatures. Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven was like a
leavening agent--it gradually affects the mass into which it is
introduced, and ultimately transforms it.
And, ultimately, it is the Good Shepherd who will prevail.
Copyright 2002, Viatoris Ministries
Go on to: The Christmas Story: Glad Tidings for All Creatures
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