“Such an ordinary sheep run, or rather, as we have seen it is in the Hebrew Bible, ‘sheep drive,’ the wilderness of Judea, extends for fifteen miles from Jerusalem to Jericho, and stretches away south for some forty miles, with an average breadth of ten to twelve miles; and, though traversed at the north end by an important highway, was, and still is, a very dangerous place.  The outlaws and the nomad and semi-nomad bedaween Arabs, who wander, like David and his exile band wandered, over these wild wilderness pasture lands of Eastern Judea, are seldom so scrupulous as the followers of the future king of Israel.  When the son of Jesse sent to Nabal, who fed his sheep at Carmel, the modern Karmul, some eight miles south of Hebron, on the border of this same Judean wilderness, to ask for the customary backsheesh, or ‘present,’ at shearing time, he did so on the following grounds: – ‘Thy shepherds who were with us, we hurt them not, neither was there ought missing to them all the days they were in Carmel.’ Inmates of some other similar camps would not have been so forbearing, and the occasional presence of such wanderers in all the principal pastures explains the stalwart shepherd’s need for a weapon of defence.

“Wild animals or ‘beasts of the fields’ constitute perhaps a still greater danger.  These to this day infest all the pastures.  The screech of the hyena and the yell of the jackal till quite recently were heard around the very walls of Jerusalem.  Fierce Syrian bears and powerful leopards, including the dreaded cheetah, or hunting leopard, prowl in the less frequented parts.  The lion is now never met with west of the Jordan, but was once the terror of the deserts of the land of Israel….Huge birds of prey, with the formidable lammergeyer (the ossifrage) at their head, still hover above the deserts, out of sight at ordinary times, but ready with lightning speed to swoop down on the faint amongst the flock; or even to do desperate battle on the edge of some precipice with the shepherd himself.  Hence the obvious need for this being armed; and, as we have seen, the principal weapon which he carries, indeed often the only one beside a sling, is the club, or bludgeon.”[1]

This club, the shaivet or shevet of the Hebrew Bible, the naboot of the modern Arabs, is a very formidable weapon in the hand of a stalwart shepherd.  It is generally made of oak from the woods of Bashan or Gilead.  It is about two feet long, with a huge rounded head, into which are driven a number of heavy iron nails.   It is easily attached to the shepherd’s leather belt, or girdle, by a noose of cord passed through a small hole in the end by which it is grasped.  It hangs in this way from the girdle during the day, when he carries the staff or crook, called by the Arabs assayah, in his hand; for this staff he employs on behalf of the sheep, pointing them the way with it, using it to rescue them from danger, to rule the stragglers into order, and at times to administer needed chastisement to the disobedient.  But at night, thrusting the staff down his back under his kamise, or cotton shirt, and taking the club from his girdle and twisting its cord noose, like a sword knot, twice round his wrist, so that if it is struck out of his hand in a fight it will not be dropped, he stands prepared to do battle with bedaween or bear, and ready as a “good shepherd” to “lay down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11, 15, 17)

It is in the light of this environment that we must read all Bible allusions to shepherd and sheep life, and notable the Twenty-third Psalm, in which David, the whilom shepherd boy, so vividly describes Jehovah’s care, under the allegory of a shepherd’s watch over his flock.  It has been hitherto supposed that the allegory ends at the fourth verse, but surely this is a mistake.  In the words, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” “table” stands, by an unmistakable and familiar metonymy, for a “meal,” and shows how food is found for the flock though surrounded by formidable desert foes.  In the same way, “Thou anointest my head with oil” alludes to the medicinal remedy which each night the good shepherd, before folding the sheep, applies to any wounds or bruises they may have received during the day; “head,” the part, being put by synecdoche for “the whole body”; just as the words “My cup runneth over” refer to the shepherd giving, at the same time, a good long drink out of a large wooden bowl, which he has by his side ready for the occasion at this evening hour, to those of his charge who are faint and weary.

Our picture illustrates Psalm 23:4: –

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me, Thy club [shaivet] and They staff [mish’eneth], they comfort me.”

The word for “valley” here is gay, the Arabic jye, a “deep ravine” or “gorge-like glen.”  The wilderness of Judea abounds with such ravines.  “The gay of the shadow of death” is the genitive of character for “the very dark ravine of gorge.”  Sometimes these rocky glens have for their sides precipitous cliffs, rising on either hand to a height of 800 feet, whilst their bottoms are in some parts scarce three yards wide, and even in daylight are dark and gloomy.  Woe to the strayed sheep caught by wild beasts alone in such a perilous place!

The figure here of “the very dark ravine” does not, as so many commentators have supposed, specially signify the dissolution of the body, although the words may be thus applied.  It would appear more properly to mean any time of dire temptation or persecution, any season of gloom, imminent danger, and rather applies to life than death.  “The figure – a very familiar one to the dweller amid the fastnesses of Judea, and one which must have stamped itself with indelible force upon the mind of David, the whole of whose earlier life was passed among such surroundings – is that of a dark, rocky defile, where the path narrows, the cliffs almost meet towering overhead, and where the trembling sheep, lost upon the mountains, is peculiarly exposed to the assaults of enemies.  Places of this kind occur repeatedly in the gorges with which the wilderness pastures abound, and the well-known going down from Jerusalem to Jericho affords several striking examples.  Huge hyenas, deadly foes to the flock, which hunt at night in small packs, some going before and some waiting behind, easily entrap the sheep in these gloomy gullies.  David, therefore, when declaring his fearlessness, what time he was to go ‘through the very dark ravine,’ is, by a bold and beautiful metaphor, expressing his confidence in Jehovah’s protection in every time of danger.”[2]

The “club and staff” of the shepherd are very beautiful figures of the twofold Divine care: “The staff” or “crook” for “the sheep of His pasture,” “the club” for their foes – “the club” His might, “the staff” His mercy, both alike necessary for our preservation in this wilderness world.  Thus pregnant with meaning are those words of the shepherd psalm, “Thy club and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

In view of this aspect of Eastern pastoral life it is very important to notice that the words ra’ah in the Old Testament, and poimainein in the New, should not be rendered “feed,” but, rather, “shepherd,” that is, “do all that is involved in the office of an Eastern shepherd,” which is mainly the protection of the sheep.  Thus, in Micah,

“Shepherd [ra’ah] Thy people with Thy club [shaivet-barzel]”

means drive out their foes and bring them back to their land, as we learn from the following verses.  So the proper reading of Psalm 2:9 is –

“Thou shalt shepherd them with a club of iron [shaivet-barzel].”

This is true not only of the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, but also of all ministers of the Gospel, all pastors of the Church, in every age.  This was the force of the Master’s words, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me…Shepherd My sheep.”  This was the significance of Paul’s warning cry to the Ephesian elders: “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the Church of God [or ‘the Lord’], which He purchased with His own blood.  For I know this, that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock.”  Here the “shepherding” chiefly refers to defending the flock courageously against their spiritual foes.  We need pastors now of David’s spirit.  “Thy servant,” he tells Saul, “has been a shepherd to his father among the sheep, and the lion came and the bear, and took a sheep out of the flock, and I went out after him, and smote him, a delivered [it] out of his mouth.”


[1] Palestine Explored, 13th edition, pp. 259-62

[2] Palestine Explored, 13th edition, pp. 265, 266