Prophets as Shepherds:
A Common Theme Across All Religions
The end of April is a good time to reflect back on all the religious and nonreligious holidays we celebrated this month. Spring is all about growth and rebirth and celebrating the natural world and our roles as caretakers of it.
A great metaphor for this across religions is that of the shepherd, who spends a lot of time in nature and is a caretaker of sheep. More specifically, the description of prophets as shepherds — both literally and metaphorically — is a common theme across religions. Like the shepherd, the prophet gently leads his flock of followers. (S)he is a leader but does not attempt to dominate. (S)he brings them to the right path and keeps them united. (S)he enables them to graze and even wander, but eventually brings them home.
The imagery abounds across all faiths. In the Bible, Jesus refers to himself as “The Good Shepherd.” God was assured of Moses’ ability as a prophet for the people upon seeing how he treated his sheep while working as a shepherd. The Islamic Prophet Muhammad worked as a shepherd. So did Confucius. The wise Hindu God Krishna was also a shepherd or, more specifically, a cowherd. In Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are sometimes described as shepherds for their compassionate desire to see that all humanity is shepherded along towards a state of enlightenment.
Shepherding is humble, blue-collar work. In religious symbology, it reminds us that we can all be leaders and caretakers of one another, regardless of our place in society. It also reminds us that we are all one family. Both Moses and Muhammad managed to unite many disparate and competing people into a single nation under the conviction that all should belong to the same flock. And that spiritual message of unity is shared by all religions.
“Could it be said that Moses was not a real Shepherd and that He did not gather these scattered people together? Christ was a real Shepherd. At the time of His manifestation, the Greeks, Romans, Assyrians and Egyptians were like so many scattered flocks. Christ breathed upon them the spirit of unity and harmonized them. Therefore, it is evident that the Prophets of God have come to unite the children of men and not to disperse them, to establish the law of love and not enmity. Consequently, we must lay aside all prejudice — whether it be religious, racial, political or patriotic; we must become the cause of the unification of the human race.”
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“Each of you is a shepherd, and all of you are responsible for your flocks.”
— The Prophet Muhammad
“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. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
— Hebrew Bible (Psalm 23:1–3), Jewish text
“The Holy One then said: Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become shepherd of Israel, the flock that is Mine.”
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture […] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
— The New Testament (John 10:9–11), Christian text
“Have you seen a shepherd at work? He can control several hundred sheep by getting a child to prod them gently from behind with a bamboo stick. The entire flock will move in the direction he wants them to go. On the other hand, if you try to lead each sheep, you will not be able to get the flock moving.”
— Lieh-tzu, Daoist text
“To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher