Excerpts from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Sheep were important in biblical times. They provided not just wool, but also meat and milk. Their horns were used as musical instruments or to hold oil. The skins were made into clothing and coverings for walls.
If you read the Bible today, you'll find that sheep and shepherds are mentioned many times. One person who counted says the Bible talks about sheep and shepherds 247 times.
The first part of the Bible, called the Hebrew scripture, includes a famous song called the twenty-third Psalm. It begins with these words: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures." In other words, people are like sheep, cared for by God.
The second part of the Bible is the Christian scripture. It tells about Jesus' life and teachings. In one famous story told by the disciple John, Jesus calls himself a shepherd. He says these famous words: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
Of course, when Jesus said "Father," he meant God. But it wasn't always easy to know exactly what Jesus meant. That is because he often taught by telling stories called parables. One of the best known is called "The Parable of the Lost Sheep." Here is the way the disciple Luke tells the story:
So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance."
Why is this story so important? There are two reasons. The first is that it helps people know the difference between right and wrong. When there is a problem, the story says, you should not go away and ignore it. You should actively try to fix it.
The second is that the story talks about God's forgiveness. If you do something wrong, that is bad. But if you repent, God will celebrate. Repenting means feeling badly about what you did. If you repent, you admit that you were wrong, you say you are sorry, and you find ways to make things better.
So sheep in biblical times were good for more than meat, milk, wool, and skin. They and their shepherds were a big help to religious leaders and teachers who wanted people to know the difference between right and wrong.