Matt. 12:12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep!
Skeptics allege that this and other passages that compare men to sheep (like Ps. 23) are "repulsive" -- which reflects nicely our modern disgust for sheep, but not how sheep were viewed in ancient times, where they were valued and often beloved pets as well. It didn't matter that they may have smelled bad (men did, too, since soap was still not invented yet), or that they followed their leader unwaveringly (men did as well; loyalty was a paramount virtue) or that they were often ultimately eaten or deprived of wool (we provide God our service as well, to the point of giving Him our lives). The ancients did not view sheep in as bad a light as we do, so these passages are hardly denigrating; indeed they are complimentary to men.
Let's reinforce this point with some data from the Anchor Bible Dictionary and it's article on sheep (V. 5, 1187-1190):
- The principal duty of a shepherd was to make sure that the sheep were watered and fed, and protected from wild animals and thieves. The best shepherd would not overdrive his animals, or would carry the helpless lambs in his arms or on his shoulders.
- The ANE featured an "extensive and common stock of shepherd and flock imagery" based on this special care. Here is some of that imagery from other nations (who clearly didn't share the Skeptics' distaste):
- Mesopotamia: The shepherd image "was commonly used to designate gods and kings; and as a title for kings this use is attested from practically every period." The symbol "suggests the concept of righteous government and often appears in contexts where the subject of justice is prominent." The king as shepherd was supposed to rule kindly, counsel, protect, and by "guiding the people through every difficulty." Hammurabi was one of many leaders called a shepherd. Numerous Sumerian deities were regarded with positive shepherd imagery.
- Egypt: As in Mesopotamia, the imagery was used for gods, kings, and other leading figures. The shepherd's crook was used "as an insignia of kings, princes, and chieftains." The symbol is again associated with protection, kindness, and "even intimate personal feeling by the ruler for his subjects..."
- Greece: In the Iliad and the Odyssey, ship captains are called "shepherds of ships". Euripides refers to a ruler of a city as a "valiant shepherd." Plato uses the shepherd analogy to define justice in the Republic, and in the Statesman uses it to symbolize the work of a good ruler. The Greeks often portrayed shepherds as heroes.
Objection: It's still a horrifying analogy because sheep were raised to be eaten.
No, they weren't. As Glenn Miller has noted in this article: Sheep were raised for their wool and milk, not for meat and hides (although hides and bone were obviously re-cycled wherever possible). The average person rarely ate meat in the ancient world, since animals were far more valuable for their secondary products.
Sheep were regarded as too valuable to kill for food in the ancient world -- obviously this is no longer the case today.