It’s well known that the Old Testament pictures God as a shepherd, and insists that David is a good ruler precisely because he is a shepherd-king. It’s with his shepherd staff and stone-bag that he defeats Goliath in 1 Samuel. And this image of shepherding goes on to be important not only for David but for those after him who were called to lead the people. This culminates, for Christians, in the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus.
It’s also well known that shepherding as an image of rule was well known in the Ancient Near East – note the shepherd’s crook below…
But how does shepherding imagery picture rule? What is particularly productive about this image? From Psalm 23 and Jesus’ story of the Good Shepherd, we would have to conclude that it pictures gentle, trustworthy oversight. But this doesn’t necessarily exhaust the image in all its instances – how might people who were used to the imagery of shepherd-rulers have thought of things?
Plato pictures statesmen as somewhat like shepherds in his Statesman, showing that it was also a common image in Greece. But interestingly, in Critias, he indicates in passing that shepherding was a more violent image of rule than ‘captaining’:
Once they [that is, ruling gods] had settled them [that is, the people of earth], they began to raise us as their own chattel and livestock, as do shepherds their sheep. But they did not compel us by exerting bodily force on our bodies, as do shepherds who drive their flocks to pasture by blows, but rather, by what makes a creature turn course more easily; as they pursued their own plans, they directed us from the stern, as if they were applying to the soul the rudder of Persuasion. And in this manner they directed everything mortal as do helmsmen their ships. (Critias 109b-c; Cooper’s edition, 1295)