Thursday, December 25, 2014

Minding Sheep

Looking back, we were pretty ignorant about the whole thing. But we had an old farm house, a small pasture with good grass, readily available irrigation, and we had read that sheep were easy to raise. We drove to a local farmers' auction, dead-set on getting some lambs. Surprisingly, we took the bid on a nice little flock of three, loaded them into the back of our small pickup, and home we came. Unloading them into the field, the fun began - those little lambs, in a strange place and separated from others of their kind, began a loud, plaintive bleating that we were sure could be heard in the next county; it went on for hours. Who knew???
That first tentative step into raising sheep taught us much, and when we moved from Idaho to Washington, we tried again - in fact, we tried several times. Each time, we managed to raise them to butchering size and were satisfied that we got a big pile of wool to spin and a good batch of meat for the freezer. This is not to say we were highly-knowledgeable sheep farmers. Far from it!
Two thousand years ago, on the other side of the world, the shepherd's equipment was very simple: a cloak woven from wool or made from sheepskins, a lighter, short-sleeved coat, a staff or club, a sling of goat's hair, a skin pouch or bag for his belongings, and sometimes a musical pipe.

In those days, shepherds knew their sheep. Unless he could afford to delegate the work to his relatives or hirelings, the sheep owner tended his flocks himself. If others watched them, they well may have been neglected or abused, but the owner had a personal interest in the well-being of the animals and if he herded them they usually had good care.

Either way, the main job of the shepherd was to see that the sheep found plenty to eat and drink. The flocks are not fed in pens or folds, but depended on foraging both summer and winter. Sheep are fairly helpless on their own and do not possess the instinct of many other animals for finding their way, so they need to be led to good grazing and watered at least once a day. This was an easy matter on mountain tops with melting snows or if there were springs or streams, but in other places they depended on deep wells. Often the nearest water was hours away. Sometimes it could be found by digging shallow wells and the shepherd would carry a container from which the sheep could drink.

The usual time for watering was at noon. After drinking, the animals huddled together in the shade of a rock while the shepherd slept. At the first sound of his call, usually a peculiar guttural sound, the flocks followed him to new feeding-grounds. They never mistook their own master's voice, even if the sheep intermingled and two shepherds called their flocks at the same time.

In the mountains, flocks were gathered at night into folds, which were caves or enclosures of rough stones. Where there was no danger the sheep huddled together in the open until daylight, while the shepherd watched over them. Lambs were often born far off on a mountain side. The shepherd guarded the mother during her labor, picked up the newborn and carried it to the fold. He might carry it in his arms or in the loose folds of his coat for a few days until it grew strong.
So very long ago - I often wish I had been there...

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."...The shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them...The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.                      Luke 2:10-12, 15-18, 20

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