Since I’ve been living in Niger, sheep have been on my mind. They’re everywhere.
As the nation’s capital, Niamey is the city where the country’s infrastructure is at its highest. Yet pastoralism is abundant. Beyond the steady, often aggressive, buzz of high-speed motorcycles, pristine aqua blue swimming pools, and cabana-themed restaurants, sheep line and cross the paved and dirt streets without care.
They are swift to get out of the line of fire of oncoming traffic and congregate on dusty back roads until evening comes when their owners and the lure of fodder call them home.
In Niger, herding sheep is a way of life. Pastoral shepherding, an occupation that a number of tribes have traditionally practiced since Christ’s death and resurrection on earth, comes in at a close second as the primary means of livelihood for Nigeriens.
It’s amazing that for the first time in my life, I’m living in a world that has many similarities to the lives of biblical figures. Shepherds in New York City just do not exist. They don’t even exist in the traditional sense in the countryside where I grew up outside of New York.
As in Niger, shepherding was a primary way of life in biblical times, and in the Bible, we can see sheep represented in three different ways.
First, sheep were an indicator of personal wealth, both in the Old and New Testament. In Genesis, God established his Israeli nation through one man, Abraham, who was a herder. Scripture tells us that “the Lord [had] blessed [Abraham] greatly, and he [had] become great. He [gave] him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys” (Genesis 24:35, NKJV).
Abraham’s descendants in Genesis followed suit. Most were herders and their wealth was marked by the number of livestock in their possession. Even King David was a shepherd before he became a king. In Niger too, wealth is often still measured by the amount of livestock one has.
By the time of Exodus, sheep were not only a way of life and a mark of wealth but were also intricately woven into the fabric of Israeli identity. I can now imagine how the Hebrew settlements may have once looked. Dusty roads and edifices constructed with similar colored mud bricks and sand to the ones found here in Niger. Sheep would have crossed, wandered, and gathered in those roads among the rest of everyday life.
A Sheep, a Sacrifice
A different kind of sheep is introduced in Exodus: the perfect, spotless lamb whose blood acts as atonement for sin. We see this in the Passover (Exodus 12:5-6). So in addition to being a wealth indicator, sheep became analogous to sacrifice, reestablishing the bond between a Holy God and sinful man.
Even though sheep and other livestock continued to be sacrificed as sin atonements throughout the rest of the Old Testament, we know that the Passover and the subsequent sacrifices are allegorical of Jesus Christ’s one final sacrifice and sin atonement to come: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7, ESV).
Though still a symbol of wealth and sin atonement in New Testament Israel, the sheep’s role becomes further amplified, even revolutionized, first in the notion of the good shepherd and his sheep. Shepherds, humble and hardworking people, have always played a prominent role in the Old Testament. Continuing this theme, God selects them above all other important figures of the day, including Caesar himself, to be present at the nativity scene. God searches them out, sending angels to their fields at night to share with them the great joy and news of Christ’s birth.
As Jesus, the image of the living God, begins his ministry, He uses sheep and shepherds in a number of analogies, dedicating three parables to them alone (the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Shepherd and His Flock, the Sheep and the Goats).
God is likened to the caring, protecting shepherd, while his flock, the sheep, is those who put confidence in Him and believe in Him. His sheep are followers, not blind, but trusting in the guidance and direction of a wiser, all-knowing Shepherd.
I often wonder how the sheep in Niamey, that appear to be lost and scattered on the roads, find their way back to their homes each evening. But as the sun draws its curtains and darkness blankets the sky, no sheep is left behind on the road. Their masters know them and can set them apart from the others; they bring them into safety and away from harm.
But what the New Testament has that Niger’s sheep do not is this one final comparison. The Son of God calls Himself the Lamb. Blameless and spotless, like the Passover lamb, God uses the image of the sheep, the simple everyday sheep that cross the roads, to proclaim His glory.
As the Lamb, an animal that meant so much to the Jewish people, He sacrifices His own life in one final act of redemption. Through that act, we’re eternally able to communicate with a Holy God. The bond of man’s sin is broken: “He was led as a Lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7, NKJV).
Being a Sheep
This past October, I was able to get a glimpse of Tabaski, the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the two most important holidays of the Muslim faith. Using the event of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael as its cornerstone (Ishmael’s sacrifice, rather than Isaac’s, is a traditional belief of Islam), faithful Muslims in Niger will save up their money for weeks, even months, to buy one or more rams to sacrifice for their family and poor neighbors.
No self-respecting Muslim would give anything short of his best for this sacrifice, in the hopes that he and his loved ones’ sins can be atoned. Yet the New Testament tells us that this sacrifice is already completed: “who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Hebrews 7:27, NKJV).
Despite the fact that I often confuse the local breed here with the goats, I’m comforted in knowing that through the image of this animal, God chose to reveal His nature and, ultimately, His love. The thing about sheep is that we’re all called to be one. And as such, we too will find everlasting comfort in our Savior’s protecting arms.
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