Many experts in organizational management believe that the imagery of shepherd and flock is outdated and even condescending in contemporary organizational settings. But it is key leadership imagery in the Church. Dr. Richard Benton looks to Ezekiel 34 to understand the responsibility of the 'ebed (Hebrew equivalent to the Greek word doulos, meaning servant or slave) who the Lord places as shepherd over the flock. The Lord Himself serves as the True Shepherd, protecting His flock and judging those who would devour it. Richard Benton holds a PhD in Hebrew and Old Testament from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is co-host of The Bible as Literature Podcast and serves as an IT scrum master for a global company based in St. Paul, MN.
Read thefull episode transcript.
Hollie Benton 0:12
This is Hollie Benton of Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative bringing to you Doulos, a podcast at the Ephesus School Network. With me today is a very special guest, my husband, Dr. Richard Benton. He has a PhD in Hebrew and Semitic studies from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. We were actually at seminary together, we decided today to look at a metaphor of leadership that we find in the Bible. That is the metaphor of the shepherd and his flock. And I know that it's a metaphor that can be a little disconcerting for people in this age, where we all like to lead ourselves and put off authority of any kind. So I know that we sat in Ezekiel over 20 years ago at St. Vladimir's seminary together. And what I'd like to discuss today is Ezekiel 34. And this motif of the shepherd and his flock and how that plays into leadership as described in Scripture.
Dr. Richard Benton 1:16
And I do remember those days with Father Paul and Ezekiel class back in the 90s. And it was nice to spend time together that way, what better way to court one's future wife than over the text of Ezekiel? When we look at Ezekiel 34, there's a few different things going on. We have this dynamic about what duty one has to others. What I always think is most important is to start with what we're seeing in Scripture and then start to apply the different categories. I don't want to say, Hey, where is leadership in Ezekiel 34? The questions that Scripture is asking are not the same questions that we're asking. And so we have to be really careful not to impose immediately our questions on to Scripture, which I'm sure you're aware of. But I just love to reiterate that with the audience as often as I can. The way that this works in Ezekiel 34 is, the Lord owns a flock of sheep. While the Lord is away, there is someone competent, who's in charge of that flock. The Lord begins by saying, "What are the signs of competence for someone who's going to be taking care of that flock?" It's a lot about shepherds, and the shepherds of Israel. The problem requires that Ezekiel come and tell the shepherds what they were supposed to have been doing. So clearly the shepherds of Israel. So Israel then would be the flock. And the shepherds would be the rulers, they're doing the wrong thing. In verse two "Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves, should not the shepherds feed the flocks?" And I love this reversal. Because this dichotomy, this stark dichotomy distinguishes a good shepherd from a bad shepherd. Is the shepherd profiting from the sheep? Or is the shepherd keeping the flock alive, even sacrificing himself? I mean, remember that David talked about how he could fight off a bear if he needed to? Did he fight off a bear? Because he wanted the glory of being the Great Bear fighter? No, is because that was his job as shepherd, and that's what he saw his job to be. So this is the diagnostic of a good shepherd: "Does the shepherd take care of the sheep? Or does the shepherd take care of himself and his own belly with the sheep?"
Hollie Benton 3:57
Yeah, and verse three, "You eat the fat and you clothe you with the wool, you kill them that are fed, but ye feed not the flock." The problem is the shepherd who is using who he is supposed to be caring for as a way to care for himself. You know, in this day and age, and with all of the political divisions that are happening right now, even though people may resist using the metaphor, shepherd and flock, right now in our political climate, it really does seem like we are lost sheep without a shepherd. There's just so many voices, so many buzz out there is just this cacophony of sheep crying out for their Shepherd really, and there's no clear voice of a shepherd.
Dr. Richard Benton 4:46
The problems that the sheep are facing right now, come directly from a lack of shepherd and Shepherd ism, if we want to go that far, and maybe we could even extrapolate it to leadership. In great fashion Ezekiel goes and expands on this ideas. "You haven't healed the one that was sick, you didn't strengthen the one that was diseased." This is all verse four: "You didn't bind up what was broken or brought back what was driven away, you didn't seek what was lost, but with force and with cruelty, have you ruled them." And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd. And they became meat to all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. So leadership, when it's the case of the sheep, and the shepherd, is the shepherds main job is to make sure that the flock is doing well, because that is his duty. Now, this is going to be very different from corporate life. Because one of the reasons why the executive leader wants his team to do well is so he gets his bonus. We have incentivized leaders to lead well, and to lead their flock, their team, by making sure that they get a reward. This is where it's going to be difficult right away, because in corporate life, leaders are taught that you shepherd your flock, so that you can do well yourself. But in this case, the good shepherd doesn't benefit. The bad shepherd benefits. So already, when we think about leadership, from a corporate point of view, this model is going to be problematic, because the first thing the corporate leader is going to say, "Well, what's in it for the shepherd? What is the shepherd get out of this?" Nothing. That's how the Lord is different than a corporate leader. Because he only incentivizes the shepherds by giving them a duty, by choosing them to do this job. It's completely different from corporate life, because these shepherds don't own the sheep. The owner of the sheep is the Lord. And the Lord decides who benefits from the sheep, not the shepherd. The director doesn't get to give himself his own bonus, it's those above him. But in this case, there is no guarantee that the shepherd is going to benefit. It's so easy for us to think "Well, what does the shepherd get out of it?" And the difference here is that not that the shepherds benefited from the flock too early. Doesn't say that. It simply says that they are availing themselves of the sheep now, and that's the problem.
Hollie Benton 7:41
I think verse eight here is very interesting: "As I live, saith the LORD surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd. Neither did my shepherds search for my flock. But the shepherds fed themselves and fed not my flock. Therefore, oh, ye shepherds hear the word of the Lord. We have a flock without a shepherd. They become prey to every beast of the field. And the shepherds themselves are the predators to that flock, feeding on them for themselves."
Dr. Richard Benton 8:16
Yeah, I think it's interesting, because while we have shepherds, it also says there was no shepherd. You're either a shepherd or you're not a shepherd. There's no such thing as good shepherds and bad shepherds. It says, "There was no Shepherd, neither did my shepherd search for my flock." If they are functioning as a shepherd, that is, they're taking care of the flock, then they're a shepherd. If they're not taking care of the flock, they are not a shepherd. They're not a bad shepherd. They're just not a shepherd. And I think it's interesting the tie you made Hollie, because you tied in the beasts of the field that eat the sheep, but also the shepherd that eats the sheep, because to the Lord who owns the flock, what's the difference? Is it a bear that ate the sheep? Or is it a guy who ate the sheep? The Lord doesn't care, he loses it either way. Neither the lion nor the bad shepherd takes care of the flock, therefore, neither the lion nor the bad shepherd is functionally a shepherd. And so we have this functionalism you are either taking care of the Lord's flock, or you are no shepherd. This is, again, if we're going to be thinking about leadership in a secular context. This is tricky because we talk about good leaders and bad leaders and terrible leaders and adequate leaders and we have levels of leadership. In Ezekiel 34. It's black and white. Now, maybe elsewhere. You can find other nuances in Scripture, but at least here in this passage, it is black and white. You're either taking care of the sheep as a shepherd, or you're not taking care of the sheep. As a lion. There's no middle ground and one thing that can't be glossed over too quickly is in verse 10: "I am against the shepherds. And I will require my flock at their hand and cause them to cease from feeding the flock, neither shall the shepherds feed themselves, for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, but they may not be meat for them." God's going to have to take care of the flock, ultimately. He can't take care of the shepherds. So he's not even saying that I'm going to have to turn it over to the good shepherds. There are no actual shepherds, there are no shepherds. There is One who cares about taking care of the flock without benefiting or profiting himself. And that is the Lord alone.
Hollie Benton 10:44
And as we see in the following verses, "the Lord is the one who is the True Shepherd, the one caring for his flock. He is the one who is delivering them out of the places where they've been scattered in the cloudy and dark day, he is the one gathering them from the countries and bringing them into their own land, he is the one feeding them he is the one giving them a place by the water. He is the one to feed his flock and causes them to lie down. And he is the one who looks for the lost and drives away the enemy, that drives away the predator." But here, it's interesting. In verse 16, he says, "I will destroy the fat and the strong, I'll feed them with judgment." It seems like God is also going to be dealing with the flock, the flock, as they are sheep, and how they treat each other. "I will judge between cattle and cattle between the rams and the he-goats." It looks like he's judging the goats who have tred down the pastures with their feet, and who have fouled the waters with their feet. God is dealing with the flock carrying for it but then turns and judges even his own flock, the ones who are thrusting with side and shoulder against the other members of the flock. It seems like there's also some reckoning to do with the entire flock itself.
Dr. Richard Benton 12:04
Yeah, and you know, there's a translation problem here. But it's hard to pick up on if you're not reading the Hebrew. In verse 16, in King James here that you and I are using, "But I will destroy the fat and the strong, I will feed them with a judgment." This is a poor translation on the second half there, because it's really, I will shepherd them with justice. And I think that makes a lot more sense. The word is mishpat, which is justice clearly. The Lord is going to not only take care of the sheep and make sure that those that are broken and sick are taken care of. But also I will destroy the fat and the strong. Yeah, what you're saying Hollie is really important. God is going to level the injustice's among the sheep themselves. This is part of the kings job. When the king is not using justice to rule to make sure that the weak are not being taken advantage of by the strong among them, then the king isn't doing his job. And this we see in Hosea talks about how the people try to get the king to be excited and hot. And the couriers try to make the king be favorable towards them. And on the other hand, Deuteronomy says that there is one measure of justice for everyone. You're not allowed to show partiality. This is where God is going to show himself to be different than the king.
Hollie Benton 13:31
Growing up on a farm in southwest Idaho, we had 500 head of cattle, and I do remember the shepherd, my father, taking some bullying cattle out of the pen and separating them into another pen. So let's look at verse 23, here: "and I will set up one Shepherd over them and he shall feed them even my servant David, he shall feed them and he shall be their shepherd." That word servant is ebed and that's actually the word for slave. Correct?
Dr. Richard Benton 14:02
Yeah, ebed means slave. Yeah. So in 23, he says he's going to set up one shepherd, and he will shepherd them. Indeed, my slave, David. We have to be careful thinking about David the king, because a lot of times, then all these images are going to come to mind. The criteria that we just saw a moment ago about what distinguishes a good shepherd from a non-shepherd. We also have to remember that transformation that David went through where he began as a shepherd, and ended as a king. When he was a shepherd, and he counted on his sling in his stone, he trusted in the Lord. But after that he took advantage of his station and things went downhill. It's no coincidence that the story that Nathan told David when David took advantage of Uriah the Hittite and his wife, Bathsheba, was of a shepherd, who took advantage of the weaker shepherd next door and stole his sheep. It's a robbing shepherd that David was in the story. So when we hear "even my servant David, even my slave, David" we have to remember this is the David, that will take care of the flock in precisely the way that the shepherds to this point, were not able to shepherd or refuse to shepherd, functionally did not shepherd. And this is the only way he's going to show himself to be the slave of God.
Hollie Benton 15:37
So in many ways, this terminology of Shepherd, God is is the owner of the flock or the True Shepherd, as we can see in chapter 34. It seems to me that the references around shepherd and being made the shepherd like God takes his servant his slave, David and places them a shepherd over his flock in the way that Christ was Shepherd over a flock and is called the Good Shepherd. With God as the owner, it brings those references of the New Testament about being stewards who's caring for the land until the Lord returns.
Dr. Richard Benton 16:13
Yeah, and it's important because we see this parallel both with Jesus and with David, because in 24, it's significant because it's my slave, David, a prince among them, it's not a king, among them, the word is nasi not melech. This is what I think Ezekiel is using in order to emphasize the fact that it's not King David, that he's harkening to, its slave, David, who's going to be a shepherd. And that's what's important. Previous verses, it was talking about how the sheep were mistreating each other, and you had rams that we're keeping some sheep from eating or from drinking, by being bullies. And so having these bullying sheep is something the shepherd needs to take care of. How does it work in corporate life and political life? You use bullies, you allow bullies, I mean, I've seen I've seen teams myself, where there's one person on the team who's pushing other people around and telling other people what to do, and then the boss doesn't do what they're supposed to do. And it causes chaos. I mean, I see it happen. For a corporate leader to actually say, Okay, this is how things have to be like, we don't have an option here. This is the only just way of doing things. And if you don't like it, you're out. I mean, how often is a leader going to do that? How often is a priest going to do that? How often is a priest going to take a parishioner aside and say "you are a bully, you're pushing everybody around, and you are the problem" and then deal with it. And what's interesting is it doesn't say David the egomaniac, who is then telling the sheep what to do. David is the Lord's slave telling the sheep what to do. Being a slave doesn't mean your passive. Being a slave means doing your duty that's handed to you, by your master, by your kyrios. And, or your adon in Hebrew, your job is to take care of business. The priest who wants to be humble, and not take on the parish council bully is not a slave of God. He's not the slave of God, because he was put there to be a pastor. A pastor is a shepherd. And a shepherd takes care of the flock and they take care of the flock by feeding them, helping those who are hurt or injured, or need help and shepherding with justice, those who are bullies among the flock.
Hollie Benton 18:47
So looking at the end of chapter 34, here in Ezekiel, the Lord makes it clear that his flock shall no more be a prey to the heathen, neither shall the beast of the land devour them, but they that shall dwell safely, and none shall make them afraid. So it just seems to be this reiteration that the Lord is the one, ultimately, who was going to care for his flock by putting shepherds, his slaves in charge of caring for his flock.
Dr. Richard Benton 19:18
Right, and we can see that ultimately, God is the shepherd, what He's going to do and impose on nature is going to be exactly what the shepherd needs to do. And that's to make sure that they are no longer prey to the heathen, that they're no longer going to be devoured by the beasts, that they're going to dwell safely, that they're going to have rains, that there's plenty of pasture for them to feed off of. The Lord is going to provide them safety, is going to provide them healing, is going to provide them food. And this is what the shepherd is supposed to be doing based on the model of the Lord. So the Lord is truly the referent of what it means to be a shepherd. The Lord is the shepherd, not because he's the big boss, He is the shepherd because He ensures the safety of the flock, from outside forces, and also from inside forces.
Hollie Benton 20:21
How do you see this playing out today, in terms of our local parishes, in the shepherds that we have for each of the flocks? The flock is often very distressed and frustrated with their shepherd, using their horns and their shoulders to butt him out of being shepherd. So say a little bit more about how this plays out in the church today.
Unknown Speaker 20:46
I think one thing that's very significant in this chapter is that we never hear the opinion of the sheep. The sheep are a mass, they're not individuals. They do not have a will. They are to be taken care of. And some of them may have a will of their own. But those are the ones you have to go and chase after and bring them back to the flock. When a man becomes a priest, and is leading a parish, and is called upon to be a shepherd, the shepherd must be there to feed and protect his flock. Every member must be taken care of. Now, sometimes there are bullying sheep, and you gave a great example Hollie of a bull that's pushing around the other cattle and you have to remove it. I think that not only is that good practical knowledge, but I think this is exactly what Paul says in Corinthians, you know, when you have someone who is refusing to get along with the rest of the flock. Priests feel like to be good leaders, they want to be servant leaders, which means to follow the flock or follow the sheep, follow the people, what the people want to do you want to support them. But this isn't saying to support what the sheep want. It's to make sure that sheep have what they need so that they can survive. Understanding that job number one is taking care of the flock. You give them what they need, you feed them, just like Jesus said to Peter, "Feed my sheep."
Hollie Benton 22:27
And what is it that the flock needs?
Dr. Richard Benton 22:30
Well, we know that the blessing that the Lord ultimately provides is His Scripture, His Law, His will and that's provided. The human food is bread. And that is what the Lord provides in Torah, Torah is the bread. That is what feeds the people, the teaching that is taught by Jesus. This is what feeds them. It's also the Justice by which the Lord's servant, the shepherd, must shepherd. Well, that means at his disposal, that's how he creates order in the flock. And so ultimately, it comes down to the Lord's Torah, His teaching scripture, and that's what everyone always has to begin with. The correct Shepherd, the Good Shepherd is eschatological. Your priest is not David, is not the slave of God. He's probably trying to be the slave of God. But he's not successful. He still has his own will. Just like Jesus told His people, when it comes to the Pharisees, do what they tell you, do what they teach from Scripture. But don't watch how they do it.
Hollie Benton 23:51
That's a that's a good way to end this. Thank you so much for being my guest on my podcast today and I want to make sure our listeners know that you and Fr. Marc Boulos together co-host the "Bible as Literature" podcast that you can download weekly from the Ephesus School Network. Rich also has a forthcoming commentary on the book of Hosea and I encourage you to get a hold of that.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai