How can a shepherd be lord of the people? To the western ethic, this concept may seemingly contradict itself. One appears to be the least of these while the other appears to be of high honor.
However, various cultures of the ancient near east viewed God as both shepherd and suzerain, including worshipers of Yahweh, as we see in Psalm 23 with the phrase, “The Lord is my Shepherd…” A suzerain is described to be a feudal overlord; a sovereign or stated exercising political control over a dependent state. And a shepherd or רוֹעֶה or Ra`ah in the Hebrew is defined to be a herdsman, ruler, or close friend (Brown, Ra`ah).
Where else do we see this imagery of God? Israel is not a culture solely to itself but is a puzzle piece within a larger regional culture.
Let’s take a look at a few of the surrounding cultures historically, to further understand the biblical theme of the Suzerain Shepherd.
In Egyptian, pharaoh was not only ruler but the Son of Ra, the solar god. During the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian rulers were often called “Son of Ra.” Pharaoh who was also Son of Ra was also shepherd of the people. Sen-Usert I (1991-1961 BC. say that Amon ‘appointed me shepherd of this land” (Breasted, 1:243, 502). Amen-Hotel III (1398-1361 B.C.) is “the good shepherd vigilant for all people, whom the maker thereof has placed under his authority” (Breasted, 2:365-66, 900). This royal shepherd attribute continues after death. On pyramid tests records a monarch’s statement at the arrival of the afterlife as saying, “I have come to you u father…Place the crook in my hand that the head of Lower and Upper Egypt may be bowed” (Faulkner, 49-50). . This crook is seen on the sarcophagus’ of the pharaohs.
The suzerain or royal shepherd theme is also seen in ancient Mesopotamia. In a Sumerian poem from the fourth millennium B.C., the god Dumuzi becomes the supreme shepherd. Like pharaoh, that are illustrated with shepherd crooks to symbolized. (Niehaus, 41). These rulers are to keep the sheep. These Mesopotamian sheep are referred to , “the dark heeded people” and they are to keep them in order. (Niehaus, 42).
In our own lives, is it one or the other or both? It is easier to see God a King vs Shepherd,? I pray that God to reveal to us the truth of His character, which is both a King who rules and a Shepherd who tenderly cares.
Brown, Driver, Briggs and Gesenius. “Hebrew Lexicon entry for Ra`ah”.”The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, “The NAS Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon”.
Breasted, James H., ed. and trans. Ancient Records of the Egypt: History Documents for the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest. 5 vols., Chicago: University of Chicagos Press, 1906.
Faulkner, R.O. Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Text, Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.
Niehaus, Jeffery J., Ancient Near Eastern Themes In Biblical Theology, Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2008.