Do Good Shepherds Break the Legs of Sheep Who Wander?
Bible prophecy about the coming of the Messiah prepares us to think of Him as a Shepherd, such as this prophetic announcement in the book of Ezekiel:
“I will place over them one shepherd, My servant David, and He will tend them; He will tend them and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23)
“There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord.’” (Luke 2:8, 10–11)
But why do the prophets ask us to think of Messiah as our Good Shepherd?
The shepherd is a prominent, meaningful metaphor in the Bible.
In fact, Adonai is referred to as a shepherd in Genesis 49:24 and Isaiah 40:11. In the latter, God is described as a tender shepherd who cares for His people, the flock.
“He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11)
In Psalm 23, the Psalmist tells us that the Lord is our shepherd and He protects His flock from evil.
Why is God’s flock compared to sheep and not cattle, chickens, or horses?
Sheep are in need of leadership. Without it, they wander off and are injured or killed. Isaiah explains that we “all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). This was just as true in his time, 700 years before the birth of Yeshua, as it is now.
It takes special qualities to be a shepherd of sheep and of people. In ancient Israel, God often appointed those who demonstrated skill and wisdom in their leadership and care for their sheep with the privilege of leading God’s people.
Why Shepherds Can Become Great Leaders
So many great Jewish leaders were shepherds.
What is it about shepherds that they can slip so easily into a leadership role?
For one, shepherds have a lot of time to think as they watch over their animals. According to Rabbi Ken Spiro, time to think is a prerequisite for leadership.
“To elevate oneself to the highest level, where one transcends the physical reality and enters a higher dimension of communicating with the Infinite, requires a huge amount of work, and a lot of time to think.” (Aish)
Spiro further highlights that shepherds have a great deal of practice managing large groups of living creatures.
“One of the great lessons that we need to learn from Jewish history is the difficulty and the challenges of unifying and trying to lead the most individualistic nation on earth. Being a shepherd is good practice for this daunting task,” adds Spiro.
Although Moses was a prince of Egypt, and likely well-versed in the principles of Egyptian leadership, God prepared him for the task of leading the Israelites through a 40-year position as a shepherd.
It was likely very humbling, and humility is an important quality of a great leader.
Then, when he was ready, God appeared to him in the burning bush and ushered him into the role of leading the Israelites to freedom.
A Good King Praises His Good Shepherd
David was also a shepherd called to lead Israel.
David, who risked his life to protect his sheep from predators such as lions and bears, provides insight into the characteristics of a good shepherd in Psalm 23.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.” (v. 1–3a)
David’s solitude as a shepherd helped him to deeply understand that God was his shepherd. He understood that he was His sheep. It is a touching metaphor.
Like sheep, we are totally dependent on our Shepherd to provide our sustenance. The Shepherd is attentive to our needs. When we enter the flock of the Good Shepherd, His very words feed our soul; His Spirit quenches our thirst, revealing to us mysteries that even the prophets and angels longed to know (1 Peter 1:10–12).
“He guides me along the right paths for His name’s sake.” (v. 3b)
David perhaps realizes his own restlessness, and as He turned to God trusting Him with his life, he rested in His faithfulness.
Like sheep, people are restless, prone to wander, always searching for greener grass, and too often oblivious to danger. Shepherds are watchful, keeping their flock safe from their own tendency to wander. This protects them from dangerous terrain and waiting predators.
As well, shepherds would customarily create a sheepfold at night or enclosure topped by thorns to keep the sheep in and predators out. They would sleep across the entrance becoming the door to the fold, effectively barring the entrance so predators could not creep up on them as they slept.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (v. 4)
When sheep do wander into dangerous circumstances, getting caught in a thicket, floating down a river, passing near a predator, the Shepherd uses his tools—the rod and staff—to defend, rescue and bring his sheep back into his protection.
People likewise find themselves in perilous circumstances they never imagined or are unprepared for. God never abandons us to face those challenges alone.
The rod, often considered a disciplinary tool, is in reality a weapon used to defend sheep by warding off predators. The staff is used to hook a sheep’s neck or leg to redirect, hold, or nudge them—not to hurt them, but rather to keep them safe.
A popular myth would have us believe that shepherds in ancient Israel broke the leg of a sheep who wanders. While the leg is healing, it is said that the sheep would become endeared to the shepherd as he nurtures them back to health, carrying the disabled sheep close to his heart.
In reality, it is highly impractical and counterproductive to break a sheep’s leg. They can weigh up to 75 pounds, so carrying even one disabled sheep would handicap a shepherd, preventing him from caring for his other sheep for several weeks.
Imagine if a shepherd were caring for multiple sheep in this condition!
Moreover, the sheep’s leg might not heal properly which would permanently handicap it from responding to predators. And, in the end, the sheep might associate the rod and staff with punishment, not comfort and protection, making a shepherd’s job much more difficult.
If shepherds in ancient Israel did disable their sheep by breaking their legs, we would see it reflected in Jewish tradition. What we see instead is this Midrash written nearly 1,000 years ago about Moses as a shepherd:
“One day, a kid ran away from the flock under Moses’ care. Moses chased after it, until it came to a spring and began to drink. When Moses reached the kid he cried: ‘Oh, I did not know that you were thirsty!’ He cradled the runaway kid in his arms and carried it to the flock. Said the Almighty: ‘You are merciful in tending sheep—you will tend My flock, the people of Israel.’” (Shemot Rabbah 2:2)
The revered Lubavitcher Rebbe of the past century helps us understand the more Biblical truth about shepherding:
“Moses realized that the kid did not run away from the flock out of malice or wickedness—it was merely thirsty. … Only a shepherd who hastens not to judge the runaway kid, who is sensitive to the causes of its desertion, can mercifully lift it into his arms and bring it back home.” (Chabad)
What an incredible lesson for us as well. Before we judge and condemn our own sheep for what seems to be backsliding, rebellion, or lack of judgment, we have an opportunity to discover the reason for their action so we can more effectively lead them into greener pastures and quieter waters, not into a prison or hospital bed.
Isaiah (40:11) sums up our duties when he says a good shepherd “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
As we continue to read through Psalm 23, David, the shepherd and king, writes:
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” (v. 5a)
A shepherd will never betray his sheep by allowing him to be taken by a predator; instead, he will keep predators at bay while he leads his sheep to graze. Though people will fail to protect us in this way or even lead us into danger, our Good Shepherd never does.
“You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (v. 5b)
When sheep strayed and were injured, shepherds would use oil as a balm to help soothe the pain and heal the hurt. This gesture is also a symbol of lavish generosity and goodness on the part of a host.
In David’s case, this shepherd was eventually anointed with oil as king.
Likewise, although Yeshua is the King of Kings, He came as a humble shepherd. When He returns, His exalted kingship will be evident to all.
But we can bring this lesson back to our own level, as well. God can and does exalt even the most humble of people, much to the chagrin of those who despise them.
“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (v. 6)
Sheep are the most precious and valuable asset a shepherd has; therefore, a good shepherd treats them as a treasure.
At great personal sacrifice, he is responsible for his flock throughout their lifespan, similar to nurses who watch over critically ill patients throughout the night, even after their 12-hour shift is finished to make sure their patients make it to their next treatment.
Likewise, Yeshua is such a Shepherd. He will never abandon us, providing for us sacrificially. He has even laid down His life for us. (John 10)
The Prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah confirm that God looks on leadership like shepherding. He is so concerned that leaders take the responsibility of shepherding seriously that He says He abhors shepherds who fail to care for their flock:
“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.
“You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.
“So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.” (Ezekiel 34:3–5)
But He also promises to send the Good Shepherd to care for His sheep:
“I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and He will tend them; He will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.” (Ezekiel 34:23–24)
This servant shepherd is Yeshua HaMashiach, Jesus the Messiah, who as promised came from the line of David.
Yeshua: The Good Shepherd
Yeshua came in fulfillment of God’s promise to send a good Shepherd to Israel.
In the period He was born, however, the shopkeeper and doctor had been raised up in social status while the religious leaders despised and mistrusted shepherds, officially condemning them as “sinners.”
Yet, Yeshua did not come to exalt Himself in the eyes of the religious establishment. He fully understood His role as the Good Shepherd, coming humbly to “seek and save the lost”—His sheep (Luke 19:10).
Yeshua explained it this way: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders.” (Luke 15:4–7)
The joy in finding what is lost but precious is further illustrated by the parable of the father who throws a grand banquet for his wandering son who returns home. No punishment. No shaming. Just pure joy. (Luke 15:11–32; see also vv. 8–10)
And even though He first came to the Jewish People as the Shepherd King of Israel, Yeshua made it clear that some of His sheep are not Jewish:
“I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.” (John 10:16; see also Deuteronomy 32:21; Zechariah 2:11; Isaiah 49:22, 62:6–7)
Certainly, in the last 2,000 years, we have seen a great number from the nations hear the call of Yeshua and accept Him as their Messiah. And we understand that when the fullness of the Gentiles is complete, all Israel will also be saved.
That prophetic time is not far off. In the meantime, we are to care for the flock of the Shepherd of Israel.
Indeed, Yeshua instructed: “Feed My lambs. … Take care of My sheep. … Feed My sheep.” (John 21:15–17)
And while we are caring for the sheep under our watch — employees, students, patients, and children — we must continue to bless Israel.
“Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever.” (Psalm 28:9)