It’s said that the idea goes all the way back to the twelfth century, and later on, it even shows up in the classic tale of Don Quixote, though Cervantes substituted “goat” for “sheep” in his account. Likewise, thanks to countless cartoons and comics, the notion of “counting sheep” in order to induce sleep is now thoroughly engrained in the common culture as well.
Having just led a study group hiking through Israel for two weeks, however, I’m fairly convinced that it works the other way. For after numerous times of tallying up the pilgrims in our little group each day, I found myself counting to forty even after I had fallen asleep each night.
But then, maybe that’s what shepherds are supposed to do. For clearly if there is one task that a shepherd has in life, it is to keep track of those assigned to him or her, even when they may wander off or put themselves in perilous positions.
That’s why a shepherd would usually carry a rod with them, or as my friends in Kenya call it, a “rungu.” Carved and whittled down with great care and patience, such rods were shaped to exactly fit the hand of the shepherd who selected it. For after spending hours practicing with it, a good shepherd could learn how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy, driving away predators such as coyotes, wolves, and cougars, as well as beating down the brush to discourage snakes from disturbing the flock.
Likewise, the rod could be used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep. For if a shepherd saw one of his flock wandering away, or headed towards poisonous weeds, or indeed getting too close to danger of any sort, that club could go whistling through the air to send them scurrying back to join the bunch.
Perhaps even more significantly, however, the rod was used to examine and count the sheep. Ezekiel 20.37 tells us, in fact, that God even used this imagery when He told the Israelites that He would cause them to “pass under the rod” as He brought them each into the bond of the covenant.
What’s more, when it came time for judgment, the rod was used to part the sheep’s long wool in order to check for any disease or wounds or defects that a particular animal might have. For to put it more plainly, a good shepherd never let any of his charges “pull the wool” over his eyes.
It’s no wonder then that the shepherd king David so famously observed that the rod and staff of God were a comfort to him. For truly, it was the rod–ever ready in the shepherd’s hand– that provided not only for the safety of each of the sheep but for their inclusion within the community as well.
Tomorrow morning all across the Methodist connection, numerous pastors will begin new appointments in congregations that may for all the world look a bit like nervous sheep as they await a word from their new shepherds. Here’s praying therefore that the promise of Jeremiah 3.15 will be an encouragement to them all: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
Even if they have to throw that rungu every once in a while as well.