A shepherd is a wilderness figure. Distinctive, as they move across the horizon line, while at the same time blending and flowing with and within their surrounding landscape. Always an outsider in terms of mainstream society, yet across the story of human cultures their mystique has left an imprint out of all proportion to their actual power and influence.
Biblically, the concept of the ‘shepherd’ presents a multitude of possible perspectives we might explore, even within the confines of our chosen lectionary passages. However, as a Christian animist I want to focus on a theme of central importance to me, that of ‘relationship’.
Sheep are desert animals. Human relationships with sheep possibly go back some thirteen thousand years; a bond initially nurtured among the rock and sand of ancient Mesopotamia. As a feral pilgrim and watershed disciple I am seeking to understand what an authentic relationship with the Earth and her community truly means. The popular concept of ‘domesticating’ animals seriously troubles me for many reasons, nevertheless, I am eager to discover what ‘imaging God’ actually involves in terms of ‘subduing’ – kabash, ‘having dominion’ – radah, ‘serving’- abad, and ‘taking care’- shamar (Gen 1:27-28; 2:15) within creation. In this I find the shepherd figure important. It certainly does not answer all my questions (I resist any notion of patriarchy or hierarchy), but the biblical-Palestinian shepherd definitely helps me with many of them.
Interestingly, from Mesopotamia through Egypt to Greece and beyond, we have many examples of the divine spoken of as a shepherd (Anchor Bible Dictionary V; 1187-1189). The ancient Hebrews explicitly speak of, and frequently imply, God as the shepherd who both protects the community and provides for their needs (e.g. Gen 48:15; 49:24; Ps 23; Mic 7:14). Across the same sweep of cultures human leaders of various sorts are also spoken of as shepherds: often as personal representatives of the divine (for good or ill). Biblically this is classically seen in Ezekiel 34, where the nation’s leader-shepherds have disastrously failed, so God promises to step in, put things right, and then establish a true Davidic-type shepherd leader to take them into the future.
The early Christian community saw this fulfilled in Jesus, and as our John 10 lectionary passage shows, this shepherd image is one Jesus comfortably identified with, boldly declaring himself, ‘the good shepherd’ (v11); implying he is one who is ‘noble’ and ‘genuine’ (Beasley-Murray: Word Biblical Commentary; 170). It is of course true that Jesus primarily uses the title with reference to his relationship with his disciples and the wider human community. However, we must never forget the title only ever has actual meaning because it always roots back into the reality of a shepherd’s authentic relationship with their sheep, and by extension with the wider and wilder animal world, in fact to the whole ecological environment. First and foremost I see the title ‘good shepherd’ as an example and a call to all relationships humans might have, most certainly including those with the other than human world. It provides important clues as to how we understand and interpret concepts like ‘dominion’, even though that discussion is very much wider than just the shepherd motif.
I want to concentrate on the idea of ‘shepherd as symbol of relationship’ because relationship is at the very heart of any biblical and animist engagement with creation. Today it is increasingly recognised that the totality of the Christian gospel is distilled into the single concept of shalom (c.f. Lk 10:5-6; Acts 10:36; Eph 2:17). The quintessence of the holistic vision of shalom is relationship – with God, with and within ourselves; plus embracing the whole of humanity and wild nature together in integrated and dynamic harmony. Jesus could not have put it more strongly than in his phrase, ‘… the sheep follow (the shepherd) because they know his voice’ (Jn 10:4). In Greek both key concepts, ‘to follow’ and ‘to know’, strongly stress the experience of reciprocal relationship. In terms of this being a model for the community of the Earth it is a call to mutual, lively, developing relationships across creation that we have a responsibility to help enable and to facilitate.
In Luke it is shepherds who are the first people to be given the gospel message of, “Peace to the Earth”, to then share with others (2:8-20); echoing God’s promise to Ezekiel that a shepherd with the title, ‘Prince of Peace,’ would establish a ‘covenant of peace’ with the Earth (34:23-25).
I am persuaded that John 10 is strongly influenced by the imagery of Ezekiel 34, where God as shepherd of the sheep: ‘seeks and rescues the lost (v11-12, 16), feeds the sheep (v14), lets them lie down to rest (v15), binds up the injured, strengthens the weak, feeds them with justice (v16), stops the environment being fouled and destroyed (v18-19), and all relationships are put right (v22). The result is the blessing of watering showers (v26), fruitful trees, bountiful and secure soil, freedom (v27) plus the absence of fear (v27). By the way, all references to ‘wild animals’ (v25; see also Jn 10:12) must be interpreted in the light of wider biblical references (cf. Isa 11:6-9; Job 5:22-23; Mk 1:13). Here we have a truly wonderful interpretation of what ‘having dominion’ – radah (Gen 1:26,28) really means. What an inspiring mandate and vision for eco-mission and creation evangelism!
‘The Fourth Sunday of Easter’ is also known as, ‘The Feast of the Good Shepherd’. I believe the Peacemeal is the only physical thing that Jesus leaves us with which to build local spiritual communities: communities that include within their congregation the whole fauna and flora of their watershed. This needs to be reflected in our Peacemeals. Of course, the words of the Psalmist, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Ps 23:5; see also Ezk 34:14) immediately come to mind. However, for me, our lectionary reading from Acts is equally significant, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:44,46). Read from an ecological perspective they open up exciting fresh and expanding dimensions of interpretation.
Biblically, the wilderness is a uniquely spiritual place. The Jewish eco-scholar Nogah Hareuveni (Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage; 51-52) has illustrated this beautifully by drawing our attention to three harmonizing Hebrew words, each formed from the same ‘root’ created by the three consonants D (dalet), B (bet) and R (reish), and thus intertwined. The words are, midbar – ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’, dobro – ‘a place of pasture (meadow) for gathering and grazing flocks in the wilderness’, and debir – the ‘Holy of Holies’. So the wilderness is a spacious place of gathering and nourishing, far away from any temple; and yet it is the ‘most holy’ of places, indeed it is ‘a Holy of Holies’ itself (see 1Kg 6: 16, 19, 23, 31) where God’s presence is most directly, personally and powerfully encountered.
To share a ‘table in the wilderness’ is to be both ‘at home’ and ‘within the temple’ at the same time; this is the most perfect and complete expression of church. Jesus knew this, and is why he so often shared the Peacemeal in the wild. Here all relationships, human and more than human, are open to be fed, nurtured and grown together. As the ‘good shepherd’ we can do no better than follow him and his example.
Noel Moules is a thinker, teacher and activist for peace, justice and deep ecology. He is creator and director of the Workshop programme for applied spirituality, which he founded in 1983. He is a founder member of the Anabaptist Network UK, and an Associate Tutor at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham UK. He is a member of the steering group of ‘Christian Peacemaker Teams – UK’, and part of the Wild Church Network. Noel is author of Fingerprints of Fire, Footprints of Peace: a spiritual manifesto from a Jesus perspective. He is currently writing, Christian Animism: Jesus spirituality and community within the sacred wild. The biblical vision of ‘shalom’ undergirds his theological understanding. Born in India to missionary parents he spent his childhood in the foothills and forests of the Himalaya. Married with three adult children, Noel is an ethical vegan, loves interfaith conversation, world music and every kind of wilderness.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, Priest in Charge of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.