(Investigator 112, 2007 January)


Sheep are the most-mentioned animal in the Bible. They were domesticated about 5000 B.C. from wild species that have since died out. The Bible says that Abel, son of Adam and Eve, was a "breeder of sheep" (Genesis 4:3). Since the oldest human fossils go back over 40,000 years it's possible that the date for the domestication of sheep will eventually be revised.

The 20th-century world had about 450 breeds of sheep. Bardorff (1950) says: "The sheep likes dry high-lying areas more than low-lying wet areas. Of middle European plants it eats 237 types and rejects 141." (pp 319-320)

The sheep in the Bible were mostly broad-tailed. They were important in the religious sacrifices of Israel's religion and also supplied wool, skins, mutton, fat and milk. In this species only the rams have horns but Palestine also had other sheep varieties where both ewes and rams had horns. Horns were used as trumpets and as containers for oil and wine. (Joshua 6:4; 1 Samuel 16:1).

In early Old Testament times white sheep were a minority. Black sheep and spotted sheep including white spots on black animals were the majority.


Jesus spoke of sheep recognizing the shepherd's voice and responding to it but not to some other voice:
…the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. (John 10:3-5)
A sectarian publication reported:
A traveler to the Holy Land recently experienced the accuracy of those words. He reports: "We wanted to film some sheep and tried to make them come near. But they did not follow us because they did not know our voices. Then a small shepherd boy came along; hardly had he called them when they followed along. We recorded the shepherd's voice on a tape recorder and afterwards played it. To our great surprise, now the sheep followed even us!" (The Watchtower, July 15, 1975)
James Freeman (1972) writes:
Travelers have noticed the wonderful readiness with which the sheep of a large flock will recognize the shepherd's voice. Though several flocks are mingled they speedily separate at the command of the shepherd, while the word of a stranger would have no effect on them. Porter thus describes a scene he witnessed among the hills of Bashan: "The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view, and we watched them and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there, grouped in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering as he advanced a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken by some internal convulsions; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders." – Giant Cities of Bashan, p. 45.


In England shepherds went behind their sheep whereas Jesus said, "He goes before them and the sheep follow him".

However, customs and procedures varied:
In our country at this day, shepherds generally follow their sheep, which go before him. In other countries, as France, it is otherwise at this day; the shepherds go before their flocks, and their flocks follow them, upon some sounds they make. (Poole 1685)
In ancient Palestine both methods operated. (Psalm 77:20; 80:1; Genesis 33:13)

What about Jesus' words "He calls his own sheep by name"? This doesn't happen on large sheep stations but it did when flocks were small. Smith's Bible Dictionary says:
The following quotation from Hartley's Researches in Greece and the Levant, p. 321, is strikingly illustrative of the allusions in John x.1-16: "Having had my attention directed last night to the words in John x.3, I asked my man if it was usual in Greece to give names to the sheep. He informed me it was, and that the sheep obeyed the shepherd when he called them by their names.
This morning I had an opportunity of verifying the truth of this remark. Passing by a flock of sheep I asked the shepherd the same question which I had put to the servant, and he gave me the same answer. I then bade him call one of the sheep. He did so, and it instantly left its pasturage and its companions and ran up to the hands of the shepherd with signs of pleasure and with a prompt obedience which I had never before observed in any other animal. It is also true in this country that ‘a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him.'
The shepherd told me that many of his sheep were still wild, that they had not yet learned their names, but that by teaching them they would all learn them." (p. 631)


The Bible describes an instance, often considered implausible, of a herd of pigs running off a cliff. (Matthew 8:28-34)

The Sunday Mail reported a similar instance but of sheep:
ISTANBUL: A flock of 1500 sheep have stunned Turkish shepherds by leaping off a 20m cliff, according to the Aksam newspaper. About 45 sheep died but the rest survived as the pile built up. The incident is believed to have happened near the town of Gevas, in eastern Turkey. (July 10, 2005, p. 42)

If on rare occasions sheep stampede off a cliff perhaps on rare occasions pigs do too!


Jesus implied wolves are dangerous to sheep. (John 10:10-14) Bardorff (1950) bears this out:
Sometimes the wolf makes livestock tending truly impossible. In this way an attempt to raise the so-useful reindeer on the southern hills of Norway or contain them in herds was thwarted by wolves. In ...1823 the authorities were notified of animals fallen prey to wolves: 15182 sheep, 1807 cattle, 1841 horses, 3270 sheep lambs and goats, 4190 pigs, 703 dogs and 1873 geese and hens. (Bardorff 1950)
The book The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo (c. 1980) says:
In Israel there are still wolves living wild, coming in from the north in winter or roaming the desert, sometimes alone and sometimes in small packs. Such wild wolves cannot be kept in cages or live in a zoo at all. (p. 55)
Yet the Bible describes future peace using the illustration of a wolf dwelling with a lamb:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6-8; 65:25)
This is literally possible if the predators are young:
The Jerusalem Zoo has put panthers and goats together with wolf-cubs and lambs in an enclosure among the rocks. While panthers and wolf-cubs are still young, they can safely be left with goats and lambs. As soon as their instincts come to the fore, at the age of about eight months, they must be removed to their own enclosures. (p. 70)

"Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the rods.  He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the runnels, that is, the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink.  And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted." (Gen. 30:37-39).
Kirk Straughen (Investigator 63 p. 39) calls this "superstitious nonsense" because:  "the colour of a sheep's fleece is determined by the genes it inherits from its parents, and no amount of rods, peeled or otherwise, will effect the outcome."

Jacob had been a shepherd for 20 years and would have understood flock genetics. Nevertheless what actually happened is unclear. In Investigator 64 (p. 16) and 66 (p. 34) I gave five possible explanations including "We should not entirely discount epigenesis – the environment of the parents influencing the inheritance of the offspring" and I cited Vines (1998).

Eight years have passed and epigenetics is now a recognized branch of genetics.

For a century Mendel's laws of inheritance underlay genetics and taught that the genes or DNA of parents dictate the characteristics of the offspring. That's still true but it's no longer the whole truth. Now, geneticists research "epigenetic effects" which are environmental factors that affect gene expression.

New Scientist, for example, describes how scientists bred brown-tailed mice and spotted tailed mice and got unexpected results. (May 27, 2006, p. 16) Another breeding experiment erased the usual effects of the mouse "agouti gene" – which makes mice "ravenous and yellow and renders them prone to cancer and diabetes" – by changing the female's diet. (Watters 2006)

Watters writes:
More and more, researchers are finding that an extra bit of vitamin, a brief exposure to a toxin, even an added dose of mothering can tweak the epigenome – and thereby alter the software of our genes – in ways that affect an individual's body and brain for life. The even greater surprise is the recent discovery that epigenetic signals from the environment can be passed on from one generation to the next, sometimes for several generations, without changing a single gene sequence. (p. 34)
These discoveries have not yet been applied to Jacob's sheep and goats, but they do suggest that more may be said in future.


Bardorff, W. 1950 Brehms Tierleben, Safari-Verlag, Berlin

Freeman, J M 1972 Manners and Customs of the Bible, Logos, p. 429

Poole, M. 1685/1963 A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Volume 3, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 331

Smith, W. 1967 Smith's Bible Dictionary, Spire edition, pp 631-632

Vines, G Hidden Inheritance, New Scientist, 28 November, 1998, pp 26-30

Watters, E. DNA Is Not Destiny, Discover, November 2006, 33-37, 75.

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