Dr Suzanna Millar, Chancellor’s Fellow in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at the University of Edinburgh, reflects upon the relationship between humans and sheep in the Old Testament and explains how compassionate care for animals was taken very seriously by the ancient Hebrews.
The Old Testament is not known for its animal ethics. It has been characterised as anthropocentric and as bloody with animal sacrifice. And yet, it contains glimpses of compassion for other species which I think should be taken seriously. In this article, I’ll explore two texts which present examples of humans caring deeply for their sheep.
In 2 Samuel 12:1-4, the prophet Nathan tells a story to king David. He describes a rich man with abundant livestock and poor man with a single ewe lamb. This man treats the lamb like a daughter, holding her in his arms and feeding her from his own cup. Proverbs 27:23-27 addresses a pastoralist, counselling care for his livestock. English translations often obscure the Hebrew here, but he is commended literally: “know well the faces of your sheep and set your heart upon your flocks” (27:23).
These passages reflect the daily life of Israel’s agro-pastoral society, where human and animal lives were entangled. Animals shared homes with their humans and structured the community’s daily and seasonal rhythms. This created a relational infrastructure where ethics could happen. Humans and animals depended on one another.
On the one hand, humans depended on animals. The rich man’s “very abundant flocks and herds” (2 Sam 12:2) and the pastoralist’s sheep and goats (Prov 27:26) gave products and labour throughout their lives. Herds ploughed the ground for crop production and their dung was collected for pottery, plaster, fertiliser, and fuel. Sheep provided wool, indispensable for textile production (27:26). And both sheep and goats offered milk, a vital source of fat, protein, and nutrients (27:27). The poor man’s lamb (2 Sam 12:4)—though probably too young to lactate—is specified as a ewe, raising a hopeful expectation of her dairying potential.
On the other hand, animals depended on humans. Most obviously, pastoralists provided for their livestock’s physical needs. Sometimes they might share their own food. Scientists have analysed ancient animal dung and found within in remnants of the cultivated crops that we typically think of as being human food. In 2 Samuel 12, the poor man hand-feeds the ewe lamb, sharing his own morsel and cup (12:3), her inability to feed herself suggesting vulnerability and dependence. In Proverbs, the pastoralist is commended to observe the animals’ physical condition: to know his sheep’s “faces” (panim; Prov 27:23) and elsewhere his cattle’s “soul/life” (nephesh; Prov 12:10).
But the possible meanings of panim and nephesh go beyond the physical. In the Old Testament, the “face” and “soul” manifest emotions and desires, and can even refer to a person’s whole being. To know your sheep’s face is, furthermore, to enter relationship with him or her. Those who know someone “face-to-face” enjoy a privileged intimacy (e.g. Exod 33:11; Deut 34:10). Indeed, activities like shearing and milking are most successful in an atmosphere of relationship and mutual trust.
The literary art of 2 Samuel 12 also suggests affectionate partnership between lamb and man. Time is slowed; camera zooms in; we observe the details as she eats from his morsel, drinks from his cup, lies in his bosom (12:3). Habitual handling and feeding have been shown to foster inter-species bonds, and the embrace in the bosom mirrors the closeness between parent and child, husband and wife. Indeed, animals can become emotionally bonded to humans and vice versa. Sometimes a lamb latches onto a human as though to a biological mother, particularly if human care is given from infancy onwards. Particularly, that is, if the lamb “grows up with” her human caregiver and is “like a daughter to him” (12:3). The lamb here is almost adopted as kin.
Such relationships entail emotional involvement from both parties, with implications for conduct. Proverbs 27 exhorts the human caregiver to “set his heart upon” his herds—a phrase which can simply mean “consider, think about,” but which often suggests “consider important, occupy your attention with.” Equally, it commends him to “truly know” his sheep’s faces (27:23), using a verb (yada’) which can suggest knowledge deeper than the cognitive, and a verbal form which underscores intensity.
We might look here at the sheep’s face with the ethics of Levinas. While Levinas did not include animals within his ethics, we might extend them in this direction. Levinas stressed the vulnerability in the face of the Other, which presents ethical imperatives. He spoke of the “total nudity of [the] defenceless eyes” which stare at you with the demand “do not kill me.” For Levinas, this face belongs to the vulnerable, the biblical triad of “widow, orphan, or stranger,” and its gaze resists your claims to sovereign mastery. “[T]he face” he said “presents itself, and demands justice.”
Of course, this demand is too often ignored, both in biblical texts and in the contemporary world. In 1 Samuel 12, a rich man, devoid of compassion, takes and kills the poor man’s lamb (12:4). In Proverbs 27, the kind treatment of the flocks is ultimately for human gain (27:26-27). Nonetheless, we can hear the demand for justice when we look into animals’ eyes. And we can follow the exemplar of the poor man and the pastoralist if we treat animals as kin and know well the faces of our flocks.
Dr Suzanna Millar is a Chancellor’s Fellow in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She is the author of Genre and Openness in Proverbs 10:1-22:16 (SBL, 2020) and is currently working on a monograph about power dynamics and nonhuman animals in the Books of Samuel.