part two of a reflection on W. Phillip Keller's A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 ...
We looked at the juxtaposition of Keller's compassionate and biblical animal husbandry to modern industrial animal farming in the last post. This time, I'd like to point to another contrast Keller raises between his own model of tending sheep and other far more careless methods he came in contact with personally.
Keller first makes the point that sheep need more careful attention than any other kind of farm animal, a theme which resonates in Keller's description of sheep throughout the rest of the book, and which is constantly used to shed light on human nature as few other analogies could. Whereas Keller sought to be the type of shepherd who, like David, was "gentle, kind, intelligent, brave, and selfless in their devotion to their stock," he remembers sadly his experience with one callous neighbor in particular:
In memory I can still see one of the sheep ranches in our district which was operated by a tenant sheepman. He ought never to have been allowed to keep sheep. His stock were always thin, weak, and riddled with disease or parasites. Again and again they would come and stand at the fence staring blankly through the woven wire at the green lush pastures which my flock enjoyed. ...
He ignored their needs - he couldn't care less. Why should he - they were just sheep - fit only for the slaughterhouse. (pg. 17, 21-22, 28-29)
There were moments when I wondered, from the outside looking in admittedly, if Keller could have adopted more humane practices in a few instances himself, such as when he mentions marking his sheep's ears with a knife to identify them, or eventually killing an endlessly straying ewe who was a distraction to the rest of his sheep, even "driv(ing) off or shoot(ing) other stray dogs that came to molest or disturb the sheep" (23, 34, 36). But again, I have never been a shepherd, let alone in charge of the wellbeing of an entire flock.
Of perhaps more concern, Keller never explicitly states what his inevitable purpose for tending sheep was, other than that it was his livelihood. I know there are some concerns about the excessive sheering of wool, though at other times it's done in the animals' best interest as Keller notes. But I assume Keller's sheep, and David's, were in large part being raised for eventual slaughter.
At first thought this fate seems to run completely contrary to the idea of consistently tending to the animals' welfare. But I think it's important to remember the time and setting in which both of these men worked, one in which livestock were often necessary to survive economically and physically. The use of animals for sustenance was hardly questioned in their contexts, if at all, and was biblically supported if done humanely. And both David and Keller should be commended for going to such self-sacrificing lengths to be as attentive and humane as possible in their shepherding.
I'd like to mention one more testament to their compassionate example. With Psalm 23, Keller mentions how important the shepherd's staff is to many vital aspects of tending sheep. Aside from guiding and gently correcting the routes sheep take in treacherous territory, it's also used for reuniting disconnected newborn lambs with their mothers, and bringing bashful sheep closer for inspection. But I found the following use of a staff especially touching:
Sometimes I have been fascinated to see how a shepherd will actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a special pet or favorite, simply so that they "are in touch." They will walk along this way almost as though it were "hand-in-hand." The sheep obviously enjoys this special attention from the shepherd and revels in the close, personal, intimate contact between them. (99-100)