Sheep: Not So Stupid

Over 60 years ago, I attended a VBS where the speaker wore a straw hat, red plaid shirt, and blue jeans and spoke with a “country twang.” He told us about the high-walled sheepfold that shepherds in Bible times needed to protect their flock from predators at night. He emphasized that it was the way sheep entered the sheepfold that illustrated their lack of intelligence. The first sheep had to jump a low rung to get in. Then, in single file the rest of the flock proceeded nose to tail to execute the same jump to enter the fold. Even after the shepherd removed the rung, the sheep still jumped to get in. I still remember the speaker repeatedly proclaiming, “Stupid! Sheep are so stupid that all they know to do is to follow the sheep in front of them!” I do not remember his application, but his “stupid sheep” idea stuck in my mind.

Later sermon and Bible lesson illustrations reinforced the idea of sheep needing a shepherd because they lacked mental ability. In time, one begins to question why God made such a “stupid” animal? Perhaps that is the reason why one of Adam’s sons became “a keeper of sheep.” Without a shepherd’s care, sheep could not have survived. Really?

Measuring Intelligence

Animal intelligence tests are notoriously lopsided. A classic example involves suspended food. Putting a hungry animal in a room with movable objects and food suspended just out of its reach was deemed an equitable test of animals’ mental abilities. Rabbits ignored the food as they explored the room. The dog jumped at the food for a while and then lay down and watched the food. The ape looked at the food, moved some objects, climbed on them, and got the food. Problem-solving, the ape was deemed intelligent. The others—not so much.

Wild apes move around in trees to get to the proper vantage point to reach for their food. Canines catch food when it is available. In the experiment, the dog was waiting for a change so he could get the food. Rabbits generally forage until they run into food and then eat it. Although scientists thought the need of food would make the test equitable, the test favored animals with depth- perceiving vision, movable arms and legs, and opposable thumbs and toes. Can we really say that the other animals lack intelligence because God did not give them those attributes?

Although sheep probably would not have scored well on the out-of-reach food test, today their mental score is higher than it used to be. Tests have shown that sheep can recognize face pictures of about two dozen different sheep and retain memory of them for over two years. Sheep have been judged to have a range of feelings: fear to anger, despair to happiness, interest to boredom. They appear to form long-term relationships. When needed, they intervene on behalf of friends, but ignore the same situation when a sheep they do not know is involved.

A Sheep’s Niche

Today’s domesticated sheep are descendants of mountain dwelling ancestors that lived in small groups and were able to climb steep inclines to reach tiny patches of grass. Sheep have been bred for characteristics that humans want in them: lack of horns and the year-round production of fleece which does not fall off. But sheep retain many characteristics that were useful when they lived in their wild, God- ordained niche.

In the mountains when a predator approached, the sheep would run single file, nose to tail along a narrow path. It was the flock’s main means of escape. The lead sheep could see an obstacle or ravine and easily jump it. But the next sheep had no chance to make such judgments. It could not stop, take a few steps back, then muster the momentum to jump without putting the last sheep in the predator’s jaws. By instinct, each sheep would put its hooves in the same place and make the exact same maneuver as the sheep in front of it. Lacking that instinct, predators were often stymied, and the sheep could escape. Were the sheep intelligent for working out this tactic? Did they learn to execute it by drill and practice? No. Despite what I learned in VBS, this behavior is not an indicator of sheep’s mental abilities; it is a demonstration of their Creator’s wisdom and power.

Some people believe Bible passages describing sheep and shepherds are implying that sheep lack intelligence. Look carefully at the passages. Try to forget the illustrations of sheep “stupidity” you may have heard and remember that God did not make animals stupid or intelligent as we generally apply those terms. God created and mentally programmed each animal to thrive in the niche He intended for it to inhabit. If the animal needs to be able to reach and grab its food, it can do so. If it needs to execute incredible gymnastic feats to escape predators, it can do that. Credit goes to the Designer-Creator, not to the creature’s intelligence or lack thereof.

Flocks of Sheep

As mankind sought more wool, milk, and meat they gathered sheep into large flocks. Large flocks require large pastures and sheep in large pastures must be protected from predators, led to places to graze, and supplied with water. When a shepherd brings sheep to an environment they were not designed for, many of their natural behaviors are no longer useful. Tiny flocks of sheep in rugged mountains survive without a shepherd, but for the larger flocks a shepherd must provide for his sheep.

As Christ compares Christians to sheep, He is not indicating that we lack intelligence. Look carefully at passages like Psalm 23 and John 10. Often, He is pointing out the shepherd’s obligation to the sheep because of the situation the sheep are in. Once a person is saved, he belongs in God’s heavenly Kingdom; however, God’s plan for most of us is to remain in this earthly pasture for a time. He wants us to be a testimony for Him while we grow to love and trust Him more. We are placed here for His purposes.

Through direct instruction, examples, and parables, Christ teaches us how He wants us to live in this pasture. In all we do, we are to serve Him first. We are to love our neighbors and even pray for our enemies which “despitefully use” us. We are to offer “the other cheek” and give our “coat also” (Luke 6:27-38). These practices do not always square with worldly intelligence, but it is by seeking to live by these standards that we grow spiritually and are the testimony He wants us to be.

For example, a Christian with just enough income to supply his needs gives a tithe to the Lord and then works with what is left. The world says he should let those with abundance support the church, while he should save that tithe money for an emergency. Christians, however, trust their Shepherd’s promise to supply the needs of His sheep. Giving to the Lord will measure and strengthen a Christian’s faith and be a testimony to the world. But the world seeks to apply the same intelligence test to all (as the suspended food test sought to do for animals) and is amazed that a seemingly intelligent person does not prepare for the future. Christians should prepare for the future. But in choosing to do what God wants and trusting Him for our future, we may make decisions that seem foolish to the world, but reflect an intelligence that the world’s test does not measure. Until the unsaved realize the wisdom of trusting God, they will not understand all the choices an obedient Christian makes.

Sheep of His Pasture

Just as sheep in a large pasture are not in their natural environment and their normal behaviors are out of place, so Christians are not yet in our spiritual home and our behaviors often seem to display a lack of intelligence. Such godly behaviors may cause the world to pass by, wagging their heads. This can be hurtful to some Christians. They need consolation and comfort from the Shepherd. Sometimes godly behavior will put Christians at risk of life or limb (think of past, present, and future martyrs). These Christians need an extra measure of strength and grace to be the testimony God has called them to be. Our Shepherd will supply their needs.

Modern scientists are often surprised as they discover a sheep’s God-given abilities. The world is often surprised at what Christians do. Yet the individual and the church thrives, often in ways the world does not understand. Eventually some nonbelievers will realize that this is because of our Shepherd—One who cares for each of us individually and is capable of supplying all the needs of the entire flock. Jesus proclaimed that He is that Good Shepherd, and we are blessed to be the sheep of His pasture.

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By William Pinkston

Mr. William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.