The Good Shepherd, Kenneth E. Bailey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: A study of the theme of the good shepherd beginning with Psalm 23 and considering consecutively eight other passages in which this theme is found.
We lost a giant of biblical scholarship this spring (2016) with the passing of Kenneth E. Bailey. Raised in the Middle East, he taught New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He brought to his scholarship an intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern culture, Arabic works, and the scriptures that shed fresh light on everything from the Nativity to the dearly loved Psalm that many of us memorized as children and have clung to in our darkest hours, Psalm 23.
Beginning with Psalm 23, Bailey considers eight other passages in the Old and New Testaments in which the theme is f0und of the shepherd and the sheep. These include Jeremiah 23:1-8, Ezekiel 34, Zechariah 10:2-12, Luke 15:1-10, Mark 6:7-52 (the feeding of the 5,000), Matthew 18:10-14, John 10:1-18, and 1 Peter 5:1-4. Bailey contends that in these ten dramatic elements recur in most of these passages:
- The good shepherd.
- The lost sheep (or lost flock)
- The opponents of the shepherd
- The good host(ess?)
- The incarnation (promised or realized)
- The high cost the shepherd sustains to find and restore the lost
- The theme of repentance/return
- Bad sheep
- A celebration
- The end of the story (in a house, in the land, or with God)
Bailey then exegetes each passage. Over and over he finds a “ring” or chiasmus structure in these passages and draws out the meaning of the passage cameo by cameo. Along the way, his background knowledge of the Middle Eastern setting of these passages comes in as he describes the skittishness of sheep, who will only drink at still pools of water, the mace-like rod of the shepherd with which he fights off wolves and other predators, repentance as a willingness to be found, and the supreme risk of the shepherd in John 10, who of his own volition lays down his life for his sheep. I loved this description of the good shepherd:
“The good shepherd ‘leads me’; he does not ‘drive me.’ There is a marked difference. In Egypt where this is no open pasture land I have often seen shepherds driving sheep from behind with sticks. But in the open wilderness of the Holy Land the shepherd walks slowly ahead of his sheep and either plays his own ten-second tune on a pipe or (more often) sings his own unique ‘call.’ The sheep appear to be attracted primarily by the voice of the shepherd, which they know and are eager to follow” (p. 41).
One often doesn’t think of the shepherd theme in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Bailey draws out both the contrast with the evil banquet of Herod at which John the Baptist was beheaded, which precedes this miracle, and the counter-cultural statement of the feeding of the 5,000, in the green grass, by the Sea of Galilee, where the people eat their fill and are led in paths of righteousness. In contrast to decadent Herod, Jesus reveals himself as the Good Shepherd of Israel.
Likewise, I and many others have puzzled over the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine for the one lost sheep. Yes, sheep are valuable. Yet so are the ninety-nine. But what would it mean to the ninety-nine, Bailey asks, that the shepherd went after the lost one? It meant that should they get lost, the shepherd would search for them as well. Every sheep mattered.
This is both good scholarship and good devotional reading that leads one to praise the Great Shepherd and to aspire to be a good shepherd to the extent that God gives that opportunity. I do not know if there are further works of Bailey’s that will be published posthumously. But in this final major publication Bailey sums up a life of devotion and fine scholarship in a book that is a gift to the church and her shepherds.