Sunday, April 25, 2010

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

Sheep make me homesick. I’ve been reading Mum’s reminiscences about growing up at Raeshaw, the family property at Fulham, a few miles west of Sale in East Gippsland. She wrote: “It was enjoyable going in the jinker with Dad, and also riding with him to round up the sheep. I remember going out with him to check on the new lambs. There was a ewe with a half-delivered lamb. Dad had to get off his horse and chase the ewe to act as midwife. We often had poddy lambs to feed. They would be brought in nearly dead and put in cartons lined with old blanket near the range in the kitchen. They would be fed cows’ milk from tomato sauce bottles with rubber teats. You had to keep pulling the teat out of the lamb’s mouth to let the air into the bottle…The poddy calves were fed the same way when really tiny, but soon learned to drink from a bucket if you put your hand in and let them start sucking your fingers.” This must have been in about 193436. I can’t find the spot where Mum recalls her father once remarking that he far preferred cattle to sheep because sheep are stupid—maybe she once told me this; I don’t remember. In any case, with the greatest respect to Jesus, who, at the Feast of the Dedication (John 10:27) speaks explicitly as a shepherd, these days few Australians would reasonably expect any sheep to respond in this way to the sound of a human voice. But the text of John is unequivocal: “τα προβατα τα εμα της φωνης μου ακουουσιν καγω γινωσκω αυτα και ακολουθουσιν μοι”—ακουουσιν, like acoustic, i.e. hear, and ακολουθουσιν, like acolyte, i.e. follow. This dual, hear-and-follow concept glides straight into the Vulgate: “Oves meae vocem meam audiunt, et ego conosco eas, et sequuntur me.” No doubt about it: Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, and obediently follow. Is this even possible? I didn’t think so, but according to my indispensible Hastings ancient flocks could be as large as Australian ones; the author of Job thought it plausible that his subject started off with 7,000 head, and happily finished up with 14,000. And, incredible as it may seem, Jewish shepherds did indeed manage somehow to train sheep, and to shift flocks from place to place, even to divide them into more manageable, carefully differentiated squads, most often to be watered from troughs at wells. In other words by means of gesture, signaling, and vocal commands Jewish shepherds led sheep there and back again. I suspect Granddad would have been extremely skeptical about this, but as recently as the 1910s ethnographers and Biblical archaeologists observed this going on in Palestine, and had no reason to doubt that the technique was exceedingly ancient. In Australia as far as I can see we’ve always relied on brilliantly clever, well-trained sheepdogs, and in turn the ear-piercing stockman’s whistle (to handle the dogs), but so too did Jewish shepherds (Job 30:1). However in the Holy Land it seems that dogs were used more to protect flocks against wild animals and thieves at night than actually to round up and drive the animals during the day. Maybe nobody in Australia ever attempted to train sheep, but the ancient Israelites clearly knew how it could be done. So too did Jesus, and the authors of John.

No comments:

Post a Comment