The myth of the Shepherd breaking his sheep’s legs

There is an illustration that I’ve heard many times throughout the course of my life, and that is the illustration of the shepherd and the way he disciplines a wayward sheep. The story has several different variations and applications, but the long and short of is that if there is a sheep that is constantly running off and being chronically disobedient, that the shepherd will break the legs of the sheep so that it can no longer run off, and then the shepherd will nurse the sheep back to health so that the sheep will come to love and trust the shepherd.

There are multiple problems with this concept, chief among them the lack of any documentation or primary sources whatsoever that suggest such a thing even happened. As far as I can tell it is pure myth, much like the myth of the disruptive Corinthian women, and the myth of the eye of the needle gate. It is certainly not a biblical practice and has no scriptural attestation, and yet it is often repeated by pastors and teachers wanting to offer insight into the sheep/shepherd relationship. Good intentions side, it seems to me that unless this story and practice can be corroborated as legitimate, then you are lying to your congregation and to other people when you say it.

The earliest record of it I could find [and seemingly the origin] was in the 1955 book “What Jesus Said” , written by Robert Boyd Munger.  The illustration was popularized in 1979 when Paul Lee Tan included it in his book for pastors Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations. It appears in Munger’s book, verbatim:

“A Foreigner traveling in Syria who became acquainted with a shepherd. Each morning he noticed the shepherd taking food to a sheep that had a broken leg. As he looked at the animal, he asked the shepherd, “How did the sheep break its leg? Did it meet with an accident, fall into a hole, or did some animal break its leg?”

“No,” said the shepherd, “I broke this sheep’s leg myself.”

“You broke it yourself?” queried the surprised traveler.

“Yes, you see, this is a wayward sheep; it would not stay with the flock, but would lead the sheep astray. Then it would not let me near it so I had to break the sheep’s leg so that it would allow me, day by day to feed it. In doing this it will get to know me as its shepherd, trust me as its guide, and keep with the flock.”

That’s it. No primary or secondary sources. In fact it doesn’t even claim to be factual or historical, but rather is recounted as a quaint vignette.  Perhaps the illustration appears earlier than that, but I’ve yet to be able to find it.

Other problems are those that involve  biological practicality and theological accuracy.

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ Luke 15:4-6.

The scriptures doesn’t insert somewhere in there that after he finds his sheep, lays it on his shoulders, and rejoices  “Then the almighty graspeth the forelegs of the naughty sheep and snappeth them.”  Instead we see love and tenderness and joy. Breaking a four footed creatures leg is a risky thing. The animal may well die from the trauma of the injury, and if not trauma then infection can set in and kill it that way. Or the sheep could very well be crippled for life, or have his legs heal in a deformed manner. One variation of the story is that the shepherd carries around the sheep on its back until it is ready to walk again. That works in a story where a shepherd leaves the rest to find one, and then carries it back home. But carrying a 50-75 pound weight on your shoulders is extremely impractical to do for weeks if not months at a time while you wait for the leg to mend.  And what if there are two sheep that go astray? Or six? Will the shepherd break all their legs and carry them all? The story presupposes that there is only one sole solitary bad sheep in the flock, but with flocks capable of being up there in the hundreds or thousands, it doesn’t seem likely.

Exegetically, all of Luke 15 is linked. The characters change…a shepherd finds a lost sheep, a woman finds a lost coin and a father restores a lost son…but the theme doesn’t change and the main point is the same. The main point is the joy of Heaven over lost sinners being restored. Listen, the first two-thirds of John 10 is all about our relationship to Christ as his sheep. Verse 11 says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” Verse 14 says “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” We’re mixing metaphors here, but the story itself mixes them, so we need to be aware of them. The scripture reveals that Christ is known to the sheep, and that they know him. He doesn’t need to break their legs to get him to follow him; especially after he finds and saves them. If they are indeed his sheep when he finds them they will necessarily follow him. Not as misbehaving recalcitrant animals, but rather as willing, eager and imperfect heirs. The illustration of believers being sheep occurs hundreds of times in the New Testament, and depending on the application of this leg-breaking illustration, can mean to refer to different categories of who and what is a sheep, how the Lord treats them, and their relationship to him.

But one thing is certain, absent historical records,  primary sources, or even the most basic support for the accuracy and legitimacy of this illustration, this story remains a myth. It you can’t back it up from your pulpit, then you shouldn’t say it.

29 thoughts on “The myth of the Shepherd breaking his sheep’s legs

  1. This is a good post. But I am cracking up because the add underneath is was something I thought you put in! It’s for “Crunchy Nut Cereal”, and I totally thought you were putting it in your post to send some sort of message. Haha.

  2. just goes to show how nice sounding stories can easily be mistaken for biblical principles and be repeated as gospel truth when christians don’t read their bibles.
    When we are more familiar with what comes from the pulpit than with what comes from the Word of God

  3. Thank you for presenting another perspective. It will generate a great deal of discussion at our church. You are right if we as pastors don’t illustrate, but stick to the word, people would get a consistent message of who God is and a clearer picture of who Jesus really is.

  4. I totally agree. I will be 70 in January and I have heard it all. I wish preachers would stick to the black and white areas of the word and quit telling stories like this as truth. It sometimes confuses young christians and it doesn’t portray a loving God.

  5. I heard this illustration again this week ,it made me angry, it makes my loving Savior out to be a bit of a monster. Those who are willing to die for you don’t hurt you to cement a relationship.

  6. Great point. David, a shepherd boy himself, makes a statement in Psalms 51:8 saying “God breaking his bones so that they may rejoice”. Not a specific reference to a shepherd breaking the legs of a sheep but could it be an illusion to it? Again, thanks for reminding is to not go beyond the word and make implications or teachings fit to what we want versus what God wants.

  7. is the last sentence grammatically correct ? It? Or if ? Also I believe as Christians we should work out or own salvation everyday ,and if I may , make sure we aren’t taken as fools believing lies ,yet if we are , to recognize it and call it out as you are . Nice work

  8. I agree with the bottom line that most have posted, but would like to add an experience of mine. We had a small herd of Saanen milk goats (our very own “Green Acres” experiment) that were all very close to home and never wayward…until someone gave us a mature “billy” who was truly a vile creature. He gave us reason to get rid of him, not unlike casting an unrepentant sinner out of the church (has anyone EVER seen that occur, or are we mistaking our softness for the disobedience and lack of worshipful fear of YHVH that it is?). Well, notwithstanding the difference between sheep and goats, this Billy goat led all of our good goats astray and they were last seen zooming down our road in the pick-up bed of a construction worker and his laughing friends. I often wonder if their waywardness changed their contribution of milk to a contribution of deep-fried cabrito. That is the other side of wondering if our Creator would “break our legs” to save us from being fried…eternally. If this doesn’t set well with your concept of YHVH, please prove His Holy Fearfulness to yourself, soon. It is all right there in His Word…and is the beginning (prerequisite) of wisdom. The gentle Lamb that John reclined upon caused him to FAINT in fear upon the vision of His return as Judge…drenched in the blood of His enemies this time…not His own! PTL
    Don’t mistake the mercy and grace of Christ for softness. Ultimately, holiness is the harshest thing imaginable to sinful man…and angels too for that matter. Don’t forget about that part of the equation.

    • You don’t know the same Jesus I do then, Jesus did not die so he could unleash the Harshness of Holiness! His Sacrifice Reconciled all things scripture says so, it says that the Father is Not willing that anyone should perish and that is why It Pleased the Father to send his Son, to Die As Us, so we didn’t have to die without a Redeemer.

      We are saved by Grace not intimidated by this perception of harsh holiness. The only harshness Jesus had was directed at the Religious leaders, that Brood of Vipers, the equivalent of today’s so called Bible Believing, but Biblical Bully’s, Pastors and “Leaders” that want to be Harsh to their flock of sheep just so they know who is in charge.

      Jesus said I am Meek and Lowly of Heart, not I am knowledgeable and full of teaching and you can obey me or I will unleash the Harshness of my Holiness on you!

      What He offered and still offers is “a Light Yoke” which in that day was like saying “you wont notice you are carrying my Yoke it is so light”. Yokes by their nature are a burdensome thing.

      So the Yoke of Christs offering is Newness of Life, a New Creation that is Good.

      I spent 18 years in a fellowship that mixed the covenants of old and new and justified Harshness in the Name Of Love, it does not set anyone free, it is not Biblical to bully and I hope the fullness of Grace will melt everyone who reads this.

      “Be of Good Cheer I have overcome the world”,

      It seems we must “Love the Pastor and Hate The Sin” so often the leaders of flocks are screwed up with their Religion, just like the control freak Pharisees, having lost all knowledge of the God they Claim to serve whilst the congregation try to work out how the God that lovingly saved them with Grace and peace and a sense of belonging, had become such a Monster.

      “Peter feed my Sheep, Feed my lambs, DON’T BREAK THEM”

      Mike Jarvis
      Agents for Change

  9. If God was going to break anyone’s leg, it would have been Adam’s before he threw the entire human race into the dominion of sin and death.

  10. I was just thinking of this “principle” the other day, & believe it has been on our Fathers heart to set this straight. Along what you’ve written; we See the Lamb sacrificed for us at Golgotha, we also see by the passage that it was tradition for the pagan practice of the Romans to break the legs of those who weren’t expiring fast enough- thus by breaking their legs they would “die faster”. Flash: Jesus legs were Not broken. They remained whole fulfilling prophesy. Father save us & others from our ignorance- Jesus said,” you err because you don’t know the Word or the Power.”
    Thus the children lose their innocence by the traditions of man…. : (
    Oh that we may Know Him….

  11. The first time I ever heard this illustration, it was at a christian school board meeting. Some guy, the brother-in-law of one of the board members stood up and for nearly an hour preached to the ‘congregation’ about how apparently he had heard that shepherds in Peru used to break the legs of the lambs to stop the flock from going over the steep mountain ravines and how this was a great principle to use to stop our children from going astray also. he joked that he wasn’t advocating physical abuse, but in fact he was advocating abuse in principle. I felt physically sick after hearing this and rushed out of the church auditorium where the meeting was being held and drove home crying and shaking with both anger and pain.

    My husband and family and I had recently come out of an abusive church and were recovering as best we could. To hear an apparently normal christian man preach this utter unsubstantiated and unbiblical drivel was more than I could bear. The Jesus I knew did not break a little lamb’s legs in order to discipline it.

    One other point I would like to make here. And all those who think this twaddle about lambs apparently disruptive ways need to take heed of this.
    Jesus spoke a parable about the good shepherd who left the ninety nine sheep in order to go and find the ONE which had strayed. If sheep are that dumb that they will all follow the little lamb who runs off to it’s own destruction then why were the other ninety nine sheep still with the shepherd, and why did the shepherd have to go and look for the one who was lost?

  12. http://www.moodymedia.org/transcripts/shepherdandsheep.html

    Above is a link to the moody website with a written message… As you read it you will find the story of the shepherd that broke the leg of a sheep. As stated by the original author of this post, the story has no scriptural basis.

    We shepherds need to be very careful how we discipline our flocks. Sooner or later the master of the flock will want an account of ALL His sheep that were has left in our care. I can only imagine the number of excuses some pastors will have who were ruthless with their flocks (Read Matthew 25 for example).

    Matt 25:45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    In this passage the master eventually punished individuals for NOT having ministered to the least. How then will he punish those who mistreated His little ones?

    Hebrews 4:12
    12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

    The word of God, when well spoken, is enough to contrite the hearts of men. Pastors… Let the living word do its work and you do yours; bring your flocks to greener PASTURES.

    Here is a warning…
    Jeremiah 23:2
    2 Therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel against the shepherds who feed My people: “You have scattered My flock, driven them away, and not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for the evil of your doings,” says The Lord.

  13. Ours is a better covenant a covenant of grace, we are corrected by the new Nature, the New Creation is a covenant of Grace and growth to maturity like a babe grows to adulthood.

    Is Jesus a mafioso now? does he make us obedient by kneecapping and threatening our families “verily I say be good or the toddler gets it” “or attend prayer group or I’ll break your legs and leave you by the lectern”

    poppycock and wrong covenant stinking thinking

    its a new and living way and our obedience is loved in and loved out by Him Loving on us not breaking our bones – so stupid
    MJ

    • I love your comment, Mike. The Father has laid all our iniquity upon Christ; He has poured out ALL of His wrath upon Christ. If He has any wrath left to pour out upon us, then He is trampling under the cross of Christ and making that shed blood common and insignificant. While not every one accepts and lives in reconciliation with God, it does not change the fact that the way God views all of creation is as being reconciled with Him for He has made peace all things through the blood of the cross (Colossians 1:20).

      The problem is this: it is so hard for the human nature to truly wrap it’s brain around this concept that it reverts to that relationship with which it is most comfortable and operates in best because of the sin nature – the conditional Old Covenant with its blessings and cursings. Because of Christ, that old nature is dead and all of its operations and tendencies and in its place is the new creation, of whose characteristics you have spoken so well in this and previous comments here.

  14. Thanks because last year I broke my ankle and I did go astray from the word of God: so I thought it to be true, and I am so thankful for this site and to find other believers.

    • no problem. Its important for people to trust the word and not their traditions, or to recite rotely what they have heard without scriptural backup.

  15. Pingback: The Myth of the Burning Garbage Dump of Gehenna | The Paperthin Hymn

  16. When I first heard this I did not believe it. Having farmed for years it seemed like one of the dumbest things I’d ever heard. Glad to hear no sheeps legs had been broken, because trust me, healing broken bones in livestock rarely worth the time for the amount of success. :) Also, love Luke 15:4-6, God is waiting for our hearts to turn to Him and live in obedience, that He may bless us in return.

  17. I don’t know the truth about all this, but I do know that God does break bones (Psa 51:8) and I know he does wound and heal (Job 5:18).

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