Unlike cattle, sheep require up-close-and-personal care. For instance, sheep lack the ability to regulate how much they eat. If food is out, they will eat it. And if they eat too much, they will die. In addition, they have sensitive stomachs. So a shepherd must feed them the right amount of the right food.
Also, sheep have no ability to protect themselves. They are frail and slow, and they cannot kick, claw or bite. They are easily spooked. They will scatter in panic and, once cornered, sit petrified while staring at their predator. A shepherd is required to protect them. This is why sheep must be penned at night and watched over by day. On our farm the field in which the sheep ran during the day was protected by good fences to keep out dogs and other predators, but we still penned them up every evening.
Sheep give birth to little lambs, which are truly the cutest things in the world. However, the lambing season falls in the winter. When it was time for the ewes on our farm to give birth, we had to watch them closely. I cannot count the late nights when my dad would put on his coat “one more time” and head out to the barn to check if any new lambs were about to enter the world. They often needed help getting up so they could take their first milk, especially on cold days and nights.
Sheep are loud. They are intellectually challenged (scientific fact). They are prone to wander off. They stink. Oh my, do they stink. Just imagine four inches of wool at the end of a long rainy winter. Sheep are the only farm animal that requires annual shearing. This can be a good thing because it provides a source of income, but it also illustrates the kind of special care a shepherd provides that is not required for other animals. This one biological characteristic demonstrates how sheep cannot live on their own. If somehow sheep got smarter and developed the ability to protect themselves, they still could not survive in the wild. If the wool were not shorn, it would grow so long that it would get top heavy. Then when it got wet, they would fall over, legs flailing. They would die helplessly waiting for a shepherd to come and turn them over.
One more thing: sheep cannot be driven. It’s not easy to force them to go anywhere. If you drive them, they will scatter. In his book They Smell Like Sheep, Lynn Anderson tells the story of a tour he was leading in Israel where he was teaching people about the ancient practices of shepherding. While talking, he looked out the window of the tour bus and saw a man driving sheep. He was irate and told the bus driver to stop. He walked over to the man and told him how shepherds were not supposed to drive sheep. The man responded, “I’m not a shepherd. I’m a butcher !”3
M. Scott Boren, Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).