They were affectionate, fluffy, and usually white—those sheep of ancient Palestine. Their wool made fine-woven cloth that was warm and beautiful. But the sheep needed very special care. Without someone to lead them each day to fresh pasturage and clean water, they couldn't survive in the arid and dusty climate. They'd wander off and get lost. Or they'd fall prey to attacks by wolves or lions.
So from the days of Abraham onward, there were heroic Israelites —"shepherds," or "pastors" (which really means "feeders of the sheep")—who protected and fed the herds. These shepherds cared for their sheep with the greatest kindness—guiding them with long rods, calling each one a special name, watching over the weaker members of the flock. Many times each day, the shepherds would count the sheep. And if even one was missing, the pastor would scour the countryside till he found it.
It's no wonder that, over the centuries, the Hebrew people often described God as an infinitely kind Shepherd. And they thought of themselves as sheep who needed more than anything else to follow God with the humble trust and love of sheep. One of the best-loved psalms in the Bible uses the shepherd-sheep image. "The Lord is my shepherd," the Psalmist writes, "I shall not want." Ps 3:1.