The malignant myth of the leg-breaking shepherd

No, shepherds did not break the legs of wandering sheep… and neither does the Lord.

Myth: “Shepherds in ancient Israel would break the leg of a sheep that kept wandering away. While the sheep’s leg was healing, the shepherd would nurture it back to health and carry it close to his heart. In the process, the sheep would become endeared to the shepherd.”

The most poisonous myths never seem to die off quickly. Such is the case of the afflicting, malignant myth of the shepherd who broke the leg of a sheep to keep it from wandering; a grievous figuration of the Lord which has been percolating Western Christianity for 65 years.

Likely originating in a book written by Robert Boyd Munger, entitled What Jesus Said (1955), the fallacious fable became carcinogenic to Christianity in 1979, with the publication of a book written for pastors by Paul Lee Tan, entitled Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations. (Tan’s book continues to be used by professors.)

Jesus, the Good Shepherd
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Over time, this calamitous concoction of ahistorical, unbiblical, sentimentalist fiction spread far and wide.

Although the retelling of this myth is often done as a well-meaning gesture of comfort, the myth is nonetheless injurious. Knowingly or unknowingly, those who pass along the violent tale:

  1. assign authorship of evil and suffering to God (which is usually misleadingly labeled as “Grace” and/or “sovereignty” within deterministic/fatalistic theologies); and/or
  2. justify authoritarian and abusive conceptualizations of church leadership and discipline.

Consider the following few examples.

“Remember the pictures in Sunday School of ‘Jesus and the Lost Lamb’? He’s probably on his way to (or from) breaking a leg. Because he loves that little rascal. And he wants it to follow him when they move around. Because that lamb is an integral part of his breeding and flock development programme.” 

Daniel D. New, “The Old Testament Shepherd was no wimp

This is the difficult part of the calling for you elders. You are called to teach us the ways of righteousness, and when we stray, it is your job, sirs, to break our legs, and bring us back into the flock, and feed us.” 

– Matthew Mantooth, “The call of our Shepherd’s psalm 23,” sermon published by Faithlife.com 

Some might regard the shepherd’s actions in bringing suffering into the sheep’s life as cruel. But the shepherd’s action in fact saves the sheep. The reality is that the shepherd is good. The shepherd brings suffering into the sheep’s life in order to preserve the sheep’s life.” 

– Andrew Groves, “The Shepherd breaks the lamb’s leg and this is grace

“Could it be you are broken today,

And you cannot understand

The painful blow of the Shepherd’s rod

Nor believe it came from His hand?” 

– “A Straying Lamb” by BibleBelievers.com

The results of the continuous propagation of this lamentable myth include:

  1. the distortion of God’s character;
  2. the distortion of God’s love;
  3. the distortion of Christ as the Good Shepherd (and what it means to be a good shepherd);
  4. the distortion of events in reality, past and present (including events which may require conscientious action for one’s own well-being);
  5. the distortion of human relationship and authority; and
  6. the conflation of love and violence.

“Feed My lambs. … Take care of My sheep. … Feed My sheep.”  (John 21:15–17)

Truth # 1: Ancient Jewish shepherds never purposefully broke the legs of wandering sheep.

Had ancient Israeli shepherds crippled their wandering sheep, there would be a record of this practice. Yet, no record or other evidence exists. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary found in the Midrash (an ancient commentary on the Hebrew scriptures). In the Midrash, it is written of Moses (as a shepherd):

“One day, a kid ran away from the flock under Moses’ care.  Moses chased after it, until it came to a spring and began to drink.  When Moses reached the kid he cried: ‘Oh, I did not know that you were thirsty!’  He cradled the runaway kid in his arms and carried it to the flock.  Said the Almighty:  ‘You are merciful in tending sheep—you will tend My flock, the people of Israel.’”  (Shemot Rabbah 2:2)

Renowned Talmudic scholar, Rev. Lubavitcher Rebbe, further explicated:

“Moses realized that the kid did not run away from the flock out of malice or wickedness—it was merely thirsty. … Only a shepherd who hastens not to judge the runaway kid, who is sensitive to the causes of its desertion, can mercifully lift it into his arms and bring it back home.”  (Chabad)

Beside Still Waters is a painting by Greg Olsen
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Additionally, purposefully disabling a sheep would handicap both the sheep and the shepherd. Sheep can weigh up to 75 pounds. The shepherd would be required to carry the sheep for a lengthy period of time. This is both impractical. Resultantly, not only would the crippled sheep be susceptible to predators, but the shepherd would be rendered unable to care for his remaining sheep, endangering the entire flock. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that a broken leg would heal correctly.

“He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young.”  (Isaiah 40:11)

Truth # 2: Violence never builds trust.

Contrary to popular belief, a shepherd’s rod and staff were not disciplinary tools. Rather, these were tools used by shepherds to ward off predators. Moreover, sheep are known to have an excellent memory, eliminating the chance that an abused sheep would “forget” who had broken her leg, much less ever come to trust or appreciate her abusive, staff-wielding master. A shepherd who intentionally harms his sheep is a shepherd who has intentionally forfeited that sheep’s trust in him. Violence never results in trust.

The Good Shepherd
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“I will place over them one shepherd, My servant David, and He will tend them; He will tend them and be their shepherd.”  (Ezekiel 34:23)

Truth # 3: A shepherd self-sacrificially loves his sheep.

Providing insight into the character of a good shepherd is David, who risked his life to protect his sheep from wild beasts.

This is a reproduction of Elizabeth Jane Gardner’s The Shepherd David of about 1895.
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For a shepherd, his sheep are his treasure, his most precious Sheep are the most precious assets. A good shepherd is a protector of sheep, not a source of harm. Shepherds of Ancient Israel were known to create a sheepfold (an enclosure that may be topped by thorns and serves to keep the sheep safely inside at night and the predators out). In fact, the shepherds would selflessly sleep upon the ground, across the entrance of the sheepfold, at night to protect their treasured flock.

Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a good shepherd for Israel.

“…be their shepherd and carry them forever.”  (Psalm 28:9)

Truth # 4: Christ is our Good Shepherd.

At great personal sacrifice, the shepherd is responsible for his flock. Our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated this self-sacrificial love to us. He came down from heaven, into the muck of humanity, like a loving shepherd who sleeps in the dirt with his flock. He sacrificed His life for us, His sheep, on the Cross at Calvary. 

Christ will never abandon us or forsake us. He will never break our legs to keep us from wandering. Jesus is God – not the “God Father.” Rather, He beckons his scattered sheep with love and forgiveness, and He rejoices over the return of every wandering sheep, like the father of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11–32) He rejoices in finding what was lost and precious to Him.

The image above is from the stalls of the Thisle Chapel in Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral. 
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Let us pray:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known,

and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our

hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may

perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name;

through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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