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Middle Eastern shepherd boy with his flock of sheep

A young Middle Eastern boy with his flock of sheep


Shepherds and their flocks were a common feature of everyday life in biblical times.  A flock depended utterly on its shepherd for safety, food and daily care, so the shepherd became a common symbol of God's care for humanity and all creation.

The two most famous uses of this symbol are in Psalm 23 and in John 10. Both of these passages link the good Shepherd with divine care:

"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff - they comfort me." Psalms 23:1-4

 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away - and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep."  John 10:11-15


Women at harvest timeA woman in 1st century Nazareth would have performed all the small tasks expected of any woman in a farming community.

  • she washed clothes, probably in an open-air communal water-trough; these wash-troughs all over the Mediterranean world were hot-beds of camaraderie and gossip.
  • she carted water from the ancient spring that served everyone in Nazareth.
  • she cooked food - steaming bread cakes were a daily item. A primitive sort of popcorn, made by putting fresh grain on a hot metal plate, was popular. 
  • she dried food; at certain times of the year the women were swamped with the task of drying grapes, dates and figs. Olives were eaten fresh or pickled. There was a wide range of vegetables, eaten fresh or dried: beans, lentils and peas, onions and leeks, melons and cucumbers. These were made into spicy soups. Goat cheese and yogurt were eaten fresh because of the heat. Dried fish and eggs were sources of protein, with chicken, mutton and lamb for special occasions. The food may have been simple, but the taste was strong, seasoned with rock salt, vinegar, mint, dill and cumin.
  • she made clothes; the clothes of the day were simple, but they are made from scratch by the women of each family.
  • she tended the goats and sheep who grew the wool, clipped the animals, carded and spun the wool, wove the cloth, shaped and sewed the clothes, mended them when they showed signs of wear….. Each house was a thriving little production center.
  • every Jewish woman, young and old, knew the small tasks involved in caring for the elderly, and for family members who were ill - sponging their face and hands, combing their hair, keeping the room where they lay as quiet as possible.

The work may have been shared among all the women, but it was still heavy work, and Mary of Nazareth probably ate her food with a hearty appetite at the end of the day.


Tomb of Sennedjem, Amarna; man reaping grainAlmost everyone in Nazareth was, to some extent, a farmer. They had to be, since very little was imported from outside the village.

It was heavy, continuous work, and Jesus was certainly familiar with it. He probably even worked in the fields as a boy, judging from the Parable of the Sower:


Luke 8:4  While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:
5  "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.
6  Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
7  Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
8  Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown."   When he said this, he called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Ploughing was done in the wet season, from October to April. This was also the time for sowing seed, harrowing and weeding. Flax and barley were harvested in April and May, then wheat.

Vines had to be pruned and tended during the growing season, then the grapes picked from July to October. Grapes were used as dried fruits, and for making wine. Most people also grew fig and olive trees in their plots of land.

There is a full description of ancient farming, with photographs and archaeological drawings, at Bible Archaeology: Agriculture


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