Shepherd of Israel
And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob.
And he said, Here I am.
And he said, I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up again…
At the beginning of Israel’s journey, when he was known only as Jacob, he received similar assurance from God:
And behold, I am with you, and will guard you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken to you.
Israel the man represents Israel the people. What has God has promised here to Israel? To be the Shepherd of Israel (Gen. 48:15, 49:24), and as such to be with his people wherever they go; that is, to go with them, even into exile, even into bondage, and in time to deliver them, to bring them back to their land.
The picture of God as the Shepherd of Israel points forward to the exodus:
Psalm 77:21 MT "You led (guided) your people like a flock in the care of Moses and Aaron."
Psalm 78:52 "He led forth his people like sheep, he drove them like a flock through the wilderness."
A. The Shepherd
Psalm 80:2a MT "Give ear, Shepherd of Israel, who leads (drives) Joseph like a flock!"
As the Shepherd, God relates to Israel in numerous and remarkable ways:
1. Purchases and Owns. The shepherd cares for the sheep because he owns them. He will not abandon the sheep. So God chose and purchased Israel; as owner, God calls Israel by name and delights in his treasured possession. Psalm 74:2 "Remember your congregation, [the people] you purchased long ago, the tribe you redeemed as your inheritance..."
2. Tends and Provides. The shepherd prepares pasture for the sheep. So God provided manna in the wilderness and taught Israel that "man does not live on bread alone, but ... on anything that the Lord decrees" (Deut. 8:3, NJPS).
3. Leads and Guides. The shepherd guides the flock wisely along right paths (Psalm 23:3). So God guides Israel by their daily practice of the commandments. Psalm 119:35 “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.”
4. Gathers and Carries (cf. Gen. 46:5). Isaiah 40:11 "Like a shepherd he tends his flock: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." God is a gentle shepherd.
5. Watches and Guards (cf. Gen. 28:15). The shepherd stands guard over the flock by day and by night. So "the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." (Psalm 121:4) God has covenanted with Israel to be their guardian, to make their concerns and interests his own.
6. Seeks and Returns. Sheep tend to stray and require continual attention from the shepherd. When we like sheep stray, repentance is the path of return. Psalm 119:176 “I have strayed like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments.”
7. Stops and Restores. Psalm 23:2-3a “He lays me down in green pastures, he leads me beside tranquil waters, he restores my soul.” As the shepherd provides his flock rest in lush surroundings, so God has given Israel the Sabbath. The prophet Isaiah brings to my mind the Shepherd of Israel when he describes the Sabbath commandment as a “delight” in which we “feast on the inheritance of Jacob” (Isaiah 58:13-14).
What is most remarkable about the metaphor of God as Shepherd? That the lowly, earthy existence of a shepherd wandering about with his flock should be applied to the Awesome One who fills the universe with his glory. Even so, it is by such earth-bound metaphors (so-called anthropomorphisms) that we catch a glimpse, not of God in essence, but of the ways in which God relates to Israel, as understood by Israel.
B. The names Jacob and Israel
Note that in the passage quoted at the beginning, God spoke to Israel but called him by his other name Jacob. This should be surprising, for when the new name Israel was revealed to Jacob, God said (in both versions of the event): “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” (Gen. 32:28, 35:10) When Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, the original name was no longer used. But that is not the case with Jacob: both names are used interchangeably, not only in Genesis, but throughout the Hebrew Bible. Both names are used in reference to the man, and both are used, often in parallel, to designate the people.
It is important to recognize that the name Israel is not in essence an ethnic designation. The latter might be true of another name, Hebrew, which is used often in Genesis and Exodus, and also appears in Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Jeremiah, and Jonah. But even in the narrative of Genesis, the name Israel has to do with a community of nations (q’hal goyim, Gen. 35:11), which is represented by the twelve sons of the one man Israel. The name Israel has an ethnic component, in the transmission of the name from generation to generation, but the name is both broader and deeper than mere ethnicity.
1. Broader. Membership in the community is open to outsiders.
Isaiah 14:1 For the Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and again choose Israel, and settle them in their own land; and the stranger will join with them, and they will unite with the house of Jacob.2. Deeper. Membership is not by birth but by initiation into the covenant (represented by circumcision), and is further defined by a body of teachings collectively known as the Torah, through which Israel knows itself and worships God.
This one will say, I am the Lord’s, and another will call [himself] by the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand The Lord’s, and identify himself by the name of Israel.
Psalm 78:5-7 For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a Torah in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to make them known to their children; in order that the next generation might know them, the children yet to be born. They will rise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.