Sheep played an integral role in the culture and economy of the ancient peoples of Bible lands. The were highly prized and used for everything from their skin and wool for clothing, to their meat and fat for cooking. Just as importantly, they were bred to fulfill the sacrificial requirements as prescribed by God for his people, Israel.
As such, the job of the shepherd was critical. It was his role not only to tend the sheep, but most importantly, to protect them (with his very life, if necessary).
By day, the sheep might graze openly under the shepherd’s watchful eye. By night, however, they would have to be gathered into sheepfolds (i.e., “pens”) for protection from thieves and a variety of animal predators. The shepherds would construct their enclosures by loosely stacking rocks and stones or by piling jagged limbs and sticks and topping them with layers of briers for extra protection. A doorway, or gate, a few feet in width, would be left as the only opening to the fold. Therein the shepherd would lay himself down, effectively making himself the very door or gate by which anyone or anything should either exit or enter. Any thief or predator would either have to scale the jagged, thorny rocks and sticks, or would have to try to actually step over the watchful shepherd himself.
Often times, shepherds would pool their resources and build a single, enlarged fold for their collective flocks to gather. They would then take turns watching or laying in the doorway to protect the sheep.
Come morning, explains bible-history.com, when it was time for the sheep to return to grazing, “One shepherd after another will stand up and call out: ‘Tahhoo! Tahhoo!’ or a similar call of his own choosing. The sheep lift up their heads, and after a general scramble, begin following each one his own shepherd. They are thoroughly familiar with their own shepherd's tone of voice. Strangers have often used the same call, but their attempts to get the sheep to follow them always fail.”
Click here for images of both ancient and modern sheepfolds.
Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture" (John 10:7-9).