I’ve been to the Estes Park Wool Market festival and to the National Western Stock Show, so I have seen some sheep judging (and sheering and bleating). Usually the judges are looking for well-bred animals that conform to the specifications for their category of sheep. Symmetry, good wool, proper bone structure are all rewarded with blue ribbons.
But what about sheep judging in the Bible? Normally, our minds would go straight to Jesus in Matt 25, saying that he will judge between sheep and goat:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the s
heep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matt 25:31-33 ESV)
Here, the “Son of Man” is not looking for good breeding, but for righteousness and for service to the poor. It’s interesting to put our eternal judgment in metaphorical perspective…it’s like sheep judging. Ok, but what about the OLD Testament?
Interesting you should ask. The OT actually provides a rich sheep-judging background in Ezekiel 34:
17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet? 20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Ezek 34:17-22 ESV)
So the image of eternal judgment as sheep judging in Matthew 25 is not new, but it does modify the picture Ezekiel paints. For Ezekiel, the Lord judges between “sheep and sheep” – meaning that they are all the same species, but he’s making judgments on an individual basis. In Matt 25, the judging is between “sheep and goats”–a distinction rooted in Ezek 34:17. For Matt 25, the sheep are the “good guys” and the goats are the “bad guys.” The goats end up “on his left” and get condemned (Matt 25:41), while the sheep are “on his right” (Matt 25:33). Matthew’s gospel develops Ezekiel’s metaphor–now a person’s actions reveal his/her true identity as a sheep or a goat.