Having grown up “a city kid,” I’ll be the first to confess I don’t know a lot about goats. Well, I didn’t know a lot about goats—until I started writing this Bible study.
As I explored Abraham’s family drama leading up to Tamar’s entrance into the story, goats seemed to jump up all over the place. (Perhaps this isn’t so surprising given their tendency to jump).
First, it was Jacob covered in goat skins in order to deceive his father Isaac into thinking he was his firstborn son, Esau (he did this in order to steal Esau’s blessing).
Next, it was Judah and his brothers dipping their little brother Joseph’s coat in goat blood in order to convince their father he was dead (they actually sold Joseph into slavery).
And then, in the story of Tamar and Judah: another goat shows up!
I began to wonder, what’s with all the goats in the Bible?
During my research, I learned a lot about goats in the Bible. In biblical times, goats were highly prized for food, milk, and skins, and were permitted by God for sacrifice (Lev. 16:7-10; Heb. 10:3-4). At the same time, keeping goats—even to this day—has its challenges. The animals are highly destructive. They do not just eat plants and grasses above the soil but left to themselves, they would eat every last living thing, right down to the roots. Although sheep and goats typically graze in the same areas, the animals often need to be separated due to the goats’ aggressive disposition, making them a real danger to the sheep.
In fact, in the Old Testament, goats sometimes symbolically represented oppressors and wicked men (Ezekiel 34:17 and 39:18) and even demons (Leviticus 17:7).
Why did Jesus use sheep and goats?
In the New Testament, goats are mentioned a number of times. Perhaps most memorably by Jesus who, in speaking of the final judgment in Matthew chapter 25, announces that as King, “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
What does God separating the sheep from the goats mean?
Here, the sheep represent believers who will enter God’s Kingdom; the goats are unbelievers who enter eternal damnation. For the crowd listening to Jesus’s words, this would have been a powerful visual. Today, specialized breeding has rendered sheep and goats quite distinguishable, but this was not the case in biblical times. The sheep and goats in Jesus’s day shared so many physical features that they looked virtually identical; so much so that often only a shepherd could tell them apart.
What’s with all the goats in the Bible?
As I was chasing goats along my biblical “rabbit trail,” I learned something else. Besides being highly destructive to land and a danger to the sheep with which they roam, this last distinction between the animals could not be more telling. If you want to know the difference between a goat and a sheep, you need only to see who is following who. Goats go where they wish and the goat herder follows behind. Sheep, on the other hand, follow their shepherd and listen for his voice.
“. . . he goes ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:4)