Rachel the Shepherdess

by Meredith Storrs
The Israelite matriarch Rachel is renowned for her beauty. She was the younger daughter of a man named Laban, and the woman Jacob hustled for seven years to marry—only to double down for another seven years after Laban tricked him into wedding Rachel’s sister Leah instead. It’s a wild story. But when we first meet Rachel in the book of Genesis, before we learn about her beauty, we read about her vocation. Rachel was a shepherdess.

The work of shepherding has a very long history going back at least 5,000 years. In Rachel’s day, extended families lived together in tribal communities, where everyone contributed their labors for the flourishing of the entire group. Sometimes, a family would have a small flock of sheep to use for wool, milk, and occasionally meat. Younger, unmarried members of the family tended to the animals while the rest of the clan worked in the fields, vineyard, or workshop to provide trade and income. However, in Rachel’s case, shepherding was the family business. Laban’s flocks provided significant profit, especially once Jacob started multiplying them so fruitfully. The work of caring for that many sheep required as many hands as possible. Any available sisters and aunts, which included Rachel in the years before she had children, joined the work of shepherding.

As a longtime city-dweller myself, perhaps the best vision I can offer for the life and work of a shepherd comes from a National Geographic series my children enjoyed when they were younger — Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet. This reality show followed the work of Dr. Michelle Oakley, who, as the title suggests, cares for animals in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Dr. Oakley reset broken bones, resolved indigestion issues, birthed babies, cleaned infections, dressed wounds, and more. Her work sometimes required a gentle touch and sometimes wild, backwoods strength. She was willing to put her hands in places that would make your grandma blush, if it meant that she could save or heal her patients. And because the area Dr. Oakley served was so remote, she often had to apply her expertise in less-than-ideal circumstances, working with whatever materials and extra hands she had available. Caregiving was her ultimate goal, but Dr. Oakley’s job was not what we would usually consider domestic.

Tending to sheep in the Ancient Near East would have required a similar ingenuity. Yes, some days might have passed peacefully as the sheep grazed along the hillside and dutifully returned to the safety of their pen at night. But there were certainly other days that required the kind of medical care we would expect from a modern veterinarian. Rachel’s family was fortunate to have so many hands to help. Maybe a couple of the strongest uncles would chase off opportunistic wolves. A gentle young cousin might be the go-to for wrapping wounds. The exacting, detail-oriented brother took charge of brushing brambles out of the sheep’s wool. And maybe one of the sisters was a little like Dr. Oakley, the only one with the guts to castrate a diseased ram they didn’t want to continue breeding.

Sheep herding was an important part of Rachel’s life. For many years after her complicated marriage, she probably woke each day and dressed for her work out in the fields. She watched longingly as her sister conceived again and again, nursing precious babies at home. Just like us, she may have loved her work on some days and resented it on others. Eventually, when Rachel experienced a season of joyful motherhood, she had to shift away from certain work tasks to make space for the new work of raising her first son, Joseph.

Through it all, Rachel’s work pointed to something bigger than herself. You see, shepherding is also an important theme that develops throughout the Old Testament. Rachel joins a number of Biblical figures who tend sheep, the most famous of whom was King David himself. Jesus calls to mind one of David’s most famous psalms when he names himself our Good Shepherd. Jesus offers abundant life, calling his people by name and leading them safely to pasture. His rich and beautiful analogy elaborates upon David’s poem and, in doing so, also asserts Jesus’ deity. David sang about the Lord’s provision and comfort, how God makes it possible for him to lay down in green pastures and find peace. Jesus came to firmly establish that peace by laying down his own life for the sheep.

In a recent sermon on Psalm 23, Pastor Reggie drew our attention to three ways that the Lord is our Shepherd: he pastors, protects, and provides. As I listened to him describe the nuances of these three actions, I could not help but think of Rachel. These verbs often surface in our conversations about masculinity in the church, but they can also describe the ways both men and women express their created differences for the sake of others. When used as an adjective, not a title, pastoral work is essentially soul-care. It’s the assignment given to all Christians to mentor, encourage, and teach our children and younger brothers and sisters in the faith. And protection certainly requires more than brute strength, just as provision requires more than money. Our church needs men and women who protect the flock against the ideals of our culture and warn us when sin’s temptation draws near. We need spiritual fathers and mothers who provide for social and emotional needs just as much as the physical and financial ones. To pastor, protect, and provide well—that is, to reflect Christ through our work—we need to harness the skills of a multiplicity of men and women in collaboration, just like a family in Biblical times would have.

On the hillsides of ancient Israel, families relied on the gifts and skills of both male and female shepherds to get the job done. In the church family today, the same is true. As workers in all kinds of vocations, we join the trade given to God’s first image bearers, Adam and Eve, to cultivate what God created. We join Rachel, who went out into the pastures to tend sheep with her family all those years ago. We are shepherds under the Great Shepherd tending the flock together. Each day we wake and dress for work, now in a whole new set of fields, but our goal has not changed. We are to invest in the people around us and produce beauty from the gardens we tend.

Rachel’s life ended tragically. She died giving birth to her second son, whom she named Ben-oni with her dying breath, “Son of my Sorrow.” She was buried on the road to Bethlehem. Generations later, another band of shepherds encountered a host of angels on those very same fields. This awestruck group likely counted women in their numbers, some of whom were perhaps descended daughters of Rachel herself.

During the third week of Advent, we light the Shepherd’s candle and meditate on the joy of Jesus’s birth — not a son of sorrow, but the beloved Son of God. This was the beginning of the great reversal. Into the world’s brokenness and pain came a reason to celebrate. The shepherds experienced joy at the angels’ good news because they understood, at least in part, the richness of what it meant. They had been waiting for the promised heir to the throne of David for hundreds of years. They had been following the prophecies about the coming Messiah and longed to see God’s kingdom established on earth. And now he was here! The joy of Christmas comes from the reality of Christ’s birth, the very child that the shepherds saw in flesh and blood. It’s more than a vague hope that “it will get better” or that “good will triumph in the end.” It’s God himself, pleased to dwell with us. A Savior who pays the penalty of our sin and restores our relationship with God. The Prince of Peace who welcomes us as fellow heirs into the family. And of all things, a Good Shepherd, greater than Rachel or King David, who is able to offer us green pastures, still waters, and peace on earth to all who labor below.
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