ONE MAY WONDER WHY the shepherd of ancient Israel was so marginalized, the lowest rung on the social ladder, when the qualities of the lowly shepherd were the gauge by which the rest of society was measured—caring, watchful, responsive, responsible. Because the people of Biblical times lived a pastoral life and witnessed firsthand the dependency of sheep on their shepherd, it was natural for the people to draw parallels between the literal shepherd's care of his sheep and their dependency on God to care for them. Jacob, in blessing his son Joseph, referred to "the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day." Gen. 48:15 (NRSV).
Even in the earliest Biblical record, there is an inherent consciousness of God as Shepherd. Shepherd imagery was so strong in the minds of the people that the prophets used this imagery to warn the people of the exile, to sustain them through it, and to restore them after the devastation. When Israel fell to the Assyrians, Micah prayed, "Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old." Mic. 7:14 (NRSV).
As the exiles prepared for the long trek home, Isaiah assured them that God would "feed his flock like a shepherd; he [would] gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep." Isa. 40:11 (NRSV). Like a good shepherd, God would provide food and drink and carry those who could not keep up, and mothers with young would not be hard driven.