“I am indeed the shepherd who brings peace, whose scepter is just. My benevolent shade was spread over my city, I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap… May any wronged man who has a case come before my statue as king of justice, and may he have my inscribed stele read aloud to him. May he hear my precious words and my stele clarify his case for him. May he examine his lawsuit and may he calm his (troubled) heart. May he say: ‘Hammurabi… provided just ways for the land.’”
This inscription is found on the stele of Hammurabi, now in the Louvre. Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC), was the Bronze Age king of Babylon whose 282 rules (the “Code of Hammurabi”) are known to schoolchildren as the oldest collection of written laws. They comprise the balance of the text carved into this black stone pillar.
Hammurabi’s self-portrayal as a just shepherd could be described as propaganda, but at worst it shows us what he thought people of his day believed a ruler should be.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the judgment of the gods falls on the poem’s protagonist because he is fiercely arrogant when he is supposed to be “shepherd of Uruk the sheepfold.”
The Homeric poems frequently characterize a king as a poimēn laōn, shepherd of people. The main job of an Achilles, Agamemnon, or Hector was to take care of his people, protect them from predators—even at the cost of his own life.
When Dio Chrysostom, a Hellenistic philosopher who was a younger contemporary of St. Paul, describes kings of shepherds of people in his Discourses on Kingship, he shows that the ancient shepherd motif is still current in the world of the New Testament.
The Old Testament is one of the most important elements of the world of the New Testament. Everyone knows that the archetypal Israelite king—the “man after God’s own heart” who despite his failings becomes the standard against which every later king is judged and the type of the coming anointed one—began his career as a shepherd and was not meant to stop being a shepherd when he became king: “You will shepherd my people, and you will be Israel’s leader” (2 Samuel 5:7).
The classic text on kings as shepherds in the Old Testament is Ezekiel 34. A portion of this chapter from the King James version:
“And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them. . . . Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand.”
“Shepherds” here translates Hebrew roē. In the Greek version the word is plural of poimēn. In the Latin version: pastor.
I have not tried to find the shepherd motif in early American treatises on government. I don’t know whether it would have occurred to the framers of the US Constitution to invoke shepherd and healer motifs when describing the presidency. Perhaps not, because they certainly did not want to make the president a king! And contemporary American Christians certainly should not substitute “United States” for “Israel” in their reading of scripture or attempt to turn our republic into a theocracy.
But should Christians in America set aside their biblically derived understanding of virtue in general or leadership in particular when they speak and act as citizens?
How could an American Christian leader, believing that all legitimate authority derives from God, and believing that the Bible sets forth God’s standards for leadership, and knowing the texts mentioned above, ever advise followers that in choosing a president they should not be seeking a pastor? Would a real Christian leader no only excuse but positively insist on the election and reelection of a person who eats the fat, clothes himself with the wool, but feeds not the flock, nor strengthens the diseased, nor heals that which was sick, nor brings again that which was driven away, not seeks the lost, but rules with force and cruelty, and scatters rather than draws together?
Even secular American journalists know that “Americans typically expect their president to be not just an enforcer but also a unifier and a healer.”
Why would anyone want a lower standard?
On the Babylonian and Greek sources:
Johannes Haubold, “Shepherds of the People”: Greek and Mesopotamian Perspectives. https://www.academia.edu/22766467/Shepherds_of_the_People_Greek_and_Mesopotamian_Perspectives
Bernaud Aubert, The Shepherd-Flock Motif in the Miletus Discourse (Acts 20:17–38) against Its Historical Background (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), especially chapters 5 (“The Background of the Shepherd-Flock Motif: Ancient Period”) and 6 (“The Background of the Shepherd-Flock Motif: Hellenistic Period”).
The photograph: https://twitter.com/carolemadge/status/780031368214487045/photo/1: Fragmentary statue of Hermes carrying a ram on his shoulders (Kriophoros), Roman copy of the Kriophoros of Kalamis, found near Rome. Early Christian art transformed this pagan motif into Christ the Good Shepherd.