If you look back to the ancient world, whether reading the Bible or studying ancient literature, you will learn that herding was a normal part of every day life for almost everyone. Abraham was a shepherd, as was Jacob, so were Moses and David, the children of Fatima–on and on and on. Eumaios was one of the only men who remained faithful to Odysseus and he was a swineherd. They’re just the famous ones. It’s not that God picked shepherds, but that most people were shepherds at some point in their lives, because it was a natural part of agrarian society.
Where are all of the herders today? How many children grow up leading sheep, goats , pigs and cattle about as so many did through history? What are the effects of this lost experience? Those are good questions for us to ask.
First, modern farming ideas have eliminated shepherding by making farms expensive operations that replace people with equipment and machines. Animals are managed with fences and chutes and are fed with purchased feeds that serves a quick-to-market business plan. In different times, money was not spent on animal food, but the animals were both the sources of wealth–and the wealth itself. They were taken out by their owners to eat whatever could be found and turn it into meat, milk and wool. The herdsmen were the fences and they had a normal routine based on the nature that guided their daily work.
My children spend hours each day herding animals. We set the sheep out with our 5 and 7 yo boys to get their daily pasturing. My daughters lead the goats through the woods and into the harvested fields to clean up. My sons lead out the horses and make sure they have quality grass to eat. They lead them all to water and back to their stables when they are full. Even the chickens are herded as they range about their coop. It’s a part of every day life.
The lessons the children learn from shepherding are invaluable. First of all, they learn to be responsible for others. Cain famously asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the answer is, of course, “Yes.” We are our brothers’ keepers and we need to learn how to keep others, which begins with learning to be responsible for others–especially those who cannot care for themselves.
Secondly, children learn that our instincts in leading others do not work. Everyone imagines that the way to get people to move is either to chase and beat them, or to coddle and feed them. Both of these errors are quickly learned to be such by anyone who herds animals. First, all beating and chasing does is scatter members of the group. It leads no one anywhere. Second, indulging creates bad habits that God’s intention for each of his creatures were to not be influenced by. Animals spoiled with rich commercial feeds need to be kept in stables because they become wild in the pursuit of that feed. They need the rhythm and routine which God intended.
Third, children learn to see the characters of different animals and they become lessons in understanding different aspects of their own characters. To see the impulsive stupidity of panicking sheep, trying to leap through a fence when the open gate is 2 feet away is a good lesson in how many of us behave. The moral lessons of the natural world are found throughout sacred Scripture and classic works like Aesop’s fables. These are not accidental, but an intended part of God’s wisely created world. The plants and animals are not mere sources of food for gluttonous and stupid people to fill themselves with, but for those who work with them as God intended for man to do, they are teachers of wisdom.
The lack of this natural and moral wisdom is responsible for much of the moral chaos in modern society and, most certainly relativism. Relativism is only possible when men become idle and think to settle questions by talk rather than by deeds. All religions and ideas may be well represented in academic debates and magazine articles, but it is on the ground where we find the true value of different religions and ideas. Islam may sound better than Christianity in a book, but not when you see it worked out in a Muslim nation where it can be judged by its fruits. Likewise, individuals can be “wise in their own eyes” when disagreements are a matter of words and theories, rather than achievements and production. We say, “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” and most people’s imaginary wisdom exists only in the birds they have in their bushes.
The farm makes everything so simple. Nature, as Xenophon said, “rewards the righteous”. Right and wrong are taught to us by nature. Those who rebel against nature cannot sustain their ideas for long, but are eventually crushed by the steady movement of the elements, which support only those who understand their courses and characteristics. This is why David said that the wise man who does God’s will is like a fruitful tree planted beside rivers of water, while the ungodly are like chaff which the wind drives away.
The strength of the wise is in waiting, for all of their enemies simply run out of gas in due time. We have seen a massive modern movement suggest that everything will be different with science and industry as our guides, but this will run out of gas and wither away. The ancient shepherds moving their animals about through the day, and ploughman leading his trained horses, the housewife turning her mill and spinning her wool, whose ways are in harmony with the natural world around them, will outlast the innovators and those who believe their promises.
“What is it that hath been? The same thing that shall be. What is it that hath been done? The same that shall be done. Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: ‘Behold this is new!’. For it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us.”
Do we believe Solomon, or not? I do.