Myth Busting 8: Breaking a lamb’s leg

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

It is well-known in Christian circles that before the shepherd placed the lamb on his shoulders, he broke its leg, so it could not run away again. By the time the leg has healed the lamb has learned to stay near the shepherd. This was common practice in Jesus’ day, and so is implied in this and other shepherding texts. Because the shepherd uses this cruel-to-be-kind tactic, we can expect that there will be times when Jesus, our Good Shepherd, will do the same to us. And we, as shepherds of our children, will need to use corporal punishment to teach them not to stray.

However, the whole ‘broken leg’ story is untrue. No one as found any historical evidence to support it. According to the sheep experts at Sheep 101,

There is no such story in the Bible. To do so would be cruel and impractical.

It is in essence a Christian urban legend. The earliest source appears to be a sermon of Brother William Marrion Branham, called ‘The Good Shepherd Of The Sheep’, delivered on Friday, 8th March 1957.

“I guess you’ve heard the story of the shepherd that broke his sheep’s leg one time. Many little stories has been told about it. And was asked this shepherd, “Did the sheep fall off of a mountain and do this?”
He said, “No.”
Said, “What happened?”
He said, “I broke its leg.”
Said, “Why did you break its leg? Are you a cruel shepherd?”
He said, “No, I love the sheep. But the sheep got to running away from me. And he kept straying out to itself. And I know the nature of sheep. And I know if they stray too far away, the wolf will get them. So I had to break the sheep’s leg to keep it with me, to draw it to my bosom, to give it a little special food. And I’ll be so kind to it, that when its leg gets well, it’ll never leave me any more.”

Brother Branham may have heard the story elsewhere or he may have made it up himself. Either way, there is no reason to believe the story is true.

Breaking a lamb’s leg is a dangerous and potentially fatal thing to do. If the sheep lives but ends up lame, it becomes a liability to the shepherd, slowing down the rest of the flock. He might as well just kill it and be done with it! The sheep are the shepherd’s livelihood, he will treat them with the same care you would expect a fine china dealer to show to his wares. Also, far from endearing the sheep to the shepherd, harming it may well have the opposite effect. Again, from Sheep 101:

It is known that animals can instantly recognize the voice of a familiar trusted person. Sheep have excellent memories for faces. They remember their handler. They also remember people who inflict abuse upon them. (emphasis added)

But, even if a shepherd did try this tactic once in desperation, or even if it were common amongst a group of shepherds, that would not mean that we should follow their example. That would be like saying: ‘God calls himself our Father. Many fathers abandon their children, so I can expect God to abandon me, and I should do the same to my own kids.’ Yes, God gives us these metaphors to help us understand him better, but we cannot take the metaphors beyond what the Bible actually says. Instead of painting God in human terms, we need to ‘be holy as he is holy.’

So what does the Bible actually say about sheep and shepherds?

Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever. Ps 28:9

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteouness for is name’s sake… I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Ps 23:1-4
He tends his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in is arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. Is 40:11

I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. Ez 34:16

Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, which lives by itself in a forest, in fertile pasturelands. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in days long ago. Mic 7:14

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. Jn 10:11,14-15

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. Heb 13:20-21

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Rev 7:17

Perhaps the worst thing about the ‘broken leg’ story is the twisted image it gives us of God. The parable of the Lost Sheep, which a quoted in the beginning, is about God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, told in response to the mutterings of the Pharisees. Somehow it becomes a story about punishment. How sad. As the above passages show, God’s shepherding is about a peaceful relationship of love and trust, based on his gentleness. Let us seek to shepherd our children gently and wisely, as our Father leads and guides us.

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About Claire

I'm part-time stay-at-home mum to 3 children under 10. We're trying to raise them with the gentleness and creativity God uses with us. I'm also a part-time nurse and a volunteer breastfeeding advocate. We live not far from the beach or the bush in NW Tasmania.
This entry was posted in For the Bible tells me so., Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

72 Responses to Myth Busting 8: Breaking a lamb’s leg

  1. zooey111ooey says:

    I just shared this on my Facebook status. Thanks to you for an excellent article about a dangerous myth!!

  2. Rita says:

    I am sick and tired of this story and others used to justify hurting kids in the name of God. If you want to spank you child fine. But at least have the integrity to own your decision. Stop hiding behind God told me to do it to shut down discussion. I don’t spank and never will. But you know what it is my choice to do so. I own it and will discuss it without dragging the Almighty into it.

    • Claire says:

      The sad thing, Rita, is that there are people out there who really feel terrible about spanking their kids, and wish they didn’t have to, but they think they must, because they have been taught that is what God says. That is one reason greenegem started this blog – to give us a chance to refute such questionable logic and help people see that there is a better (and more Godly) way.
      I, too, feel frustrated when people (including myself) seem unable to make full use our God-given brains and take responsibility for our decisions. I am even more inclined to be angry at the teachers who fail to check their facts and perpetuate myths like this one, than the people who trustingly follow their teachings.

      • Rita says:

        I agree that people are afraid to go against what they are taught. I was terrified at first. But, the scriptures are full of commandments to test the teachings we hear and not to blindly follow them. The fact is, the only reason that we as Christians spank is because it is wrapped up in some verses. If an unbeliever advocated this, we would be ready to go to war on the behalf of those children. We would call it abuse. And rightly so. But, no because someone who stands in the pulpit says do it, then it is what God wants. Maybe my comment was a little harsh, but the fact is we as Christians have been allowing God’s word to be twisted to justify the hurting of kids.I am really angry with the Church and how it has not only allowed it has advocated the hurting of kids in God’s name. Off my soapbox now.

      • David says:

        Concerning disciplining you children.

        I grew up being spanked and was very grateful for this that my parent because they cared kept me always from the things that would harm me.
        I presumed I would discipline my children the same until my very soon bride to be challenged me on this. I now recognize that spanking is not nessisary but in some situations it might be.
        We have discussed this and have come to he conclusion that each child is unique and special in their own way. Some children may only need a stern voice or time out while in other times when the child realizes that this deters them from going to bed an immediate discipline is nessisary. I have seen this in my niece. And the after affects are not what you might expect. But my niece was within 20 seconds of the spanking happy and listening. She knew she was wrong (in this circumstance) and koodos to my brother who had the heart to care for her.
        My point again is there is no cut and dry answer to disciplining children. Each child is different and according to circumstances you need to discipline accordingly.
        You need to get to know your children to know what they need.

      • Claire says:

        David (or John?), first, congratulations on your upcoming marriage :D. It sounds like you have come a long way in your thinking about discipline :). You are absolutely right that we need to know our children well to discipline them effectively, and we will need different tools for each child and age/stage. May I, as a reformed (well, reforming) spanking/punitive parent, gently suggest that you and your bride-to-be take the opportunity now to start filling your toolbox with positive discipline tools?
        A great place to start is the public forums and articles at http://www.gentlechristianmothers.com , especially the Gentle Discipline FAQ forum, where you will also find a great list of books.
        Who knows? You may one day be amazed to realise that you have an adult child who you haven’t found the need to punish (whether with spanking or time out or removal of privileges etc) at all! (I know, that sounds like the ravings of a lunatic 🙂 Don’t knock it until you’ve read some of the GD Success Stories thread :))

        Thabks for sharing your thoughts, and may God bless you and your future wife 🙂
        cheers
        Claire

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  4. Cindy K says:

    Oh my goodness, I could puke.

    This came from Branham? I think that depending on your religious paradigm, you could argue that “breaking a lamb’s legs” came from the pit of hell. Branham was supposedly a Pentecostal, but he got his “words of knowledge” from an entity who would appear to him on stage. The big Kansas City Prophets group who became his modern day “spiritual descendents” and “caught the mantle of his anointing” (Paul Cain, Bob Jones the charismatic, Rick Joiner, etc.) have carried on his traditions and do the same thing. They talk to an entity that they call “Emma.”

    It figures that this rot came from him. He was miserable. Sierra on NoLongerQuivering.com has written about growing up under his teachings

    • Claire says:

      Goodness, I’d heard some icky stuff about him (particularly his ideas about women), but that’s even worse. Thanks for the info, Cindy.

    • Zooey says:

      Wow, that makes that story even creepier, Cindy.

    • Kenpower67@gmail.com says:

      FYI: Where did you get that info? I don’t reject or endorse those guys. But the fact is… Todd Bentley had the angel emma. Nor did of the KC guys ever say they were Branham’s spiritual offspring/decendants.

  5. Kinda Freaked Out By This Story Right Now says:

    That’s horrible! I’ve never heard anyone tell that story before. I hope I never meet anybody who does – I can’t imagine anyone who would believe a story like that, and believe that it showed a good example, could possibly behave as an overall decent human being! >_< Just… just no! No! Bad storytellers!

    • Claire says:

      You are fortunate to have missed it for so long… I, too, hope I will never hear it again 🙂

    • Carey says:

      Okay – as i read through here, i cannot help but to be filled with shame. Today is the FIRST TIME i have ever read that this was not true. I am filled with HOPE. I was raised to believe this – why would i have doubted it? Just as the Bible is full of stories of God’s love, there are also stories of consequences for our actions when we don’t follow God. Why would i have questioned what was taught to me as a child? Please be careful with your comments of horror – you never know who’s life you may be stepping on.

      • Claire says:

        Carey, I, too, believed in this story my whole life. As you say, why would I question it? Which is why I wrote the article when I discovered I had been deceived. Instead of feeling ashamed, let’s give thanks to God that he has shown us his truth 🙂

  6. TreeMama says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I heard that story multiple times during my childhood, and then I always assumed it was someone taking a metaphor WAY too far. (Since I’m sure most shepherds EAT their sheep sometimes :P) Thank you for pointing out that this is no where to be found in scripture!

  7. Michael G says:

    Claire,
    Thank you sooooo very much for this article! Thanks be to God that He is not really cruel like that!

    Back in November 2009, I was going through a rough patch in life that became full-blown major depression. I spoke to an off-duty police officer who told me, ‘Like a lamb, God broke my leg so I would not run away from Him anymore.’ He told me almost the same story Branham gave as you mention.

    I swallowed that, and ever since, really struggled in my relationship with the Lord. Just now, after reading today’s daily devotional from Joseph Prince and then your article, I know I am on my way to a deeper relationship with the Lord!!!

    Now that I know the Truth (John 8:32), that notion of a trusted Shepherd breaking the leg truly is evil–anything that presents God as anything but who He truly is (blasphemy) comes from Satan; nowhere else.

    • Claire says:

      Wow, Michael, I’m so glad God is revealing the truth about himself to you. And what a privilege to have been part of that process :’-) How great is our God. I agree that this teaching is evil and blasphemous. It’s true that he is with us in the rough times, weeping with us when we are depressed… But *not* breaking us further… He was broken *for* us, and one day he will heal the whole world.
      “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Cor 13:12 I pray God will continue to reveal his true nature to you more and more. Will you pray the same for me? Thanks 🙂

  8. Jaycee Grey says:

    Yeah, Branham is the same guy who taught that the serpent beguiling Eve was a euphemistic way to say he actually had sex with her, and so women are sexually evil at the core. Blargh.

    • Claire says:

      Hi Andy
      Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I’ve been away.
      I gather you feel this verse, which says ‘you have broken me’, is relevant to this discussion. I have a lot of thoughts about that, but in view of your laconic comment, I don’t want to go down too many rabbit trails :). Would you mind explaining exactly what you think that verse means in this context? What damage did God do to David? In what sense did God ‘break his leg’?
      Thanks
      Claire

      • andy says:

        My intent was simply to demonstrate that God has provided very harsh chastening to his choice servants. While there is much debate as to the thought of an historical record of a shepherd breaking a sheep’s leg, and there is some record of that in older documents, the overall concensus of those replying to the post is that God would never do such a thing. A biblical reality is that in what ever sence David meant it, it must be recieved as a severe chastening. To take it to a more direct approach, Jesus Christ suffered greatly on the cross bearing the judgment of God. Those who reject the Gift of God will suffer the pains of hell forever. Following the principle of Colossians 2:6, we understand that we are to walk a life of faith in Christ just as we entered by faith into salvation. When the believer refuses this command, they suffer the wages of sin which is death. (Romans 6:23) Hebrews 12 is a reality, and yes God performs severe judgment against ungodliness in the life of the believer (1Corinthians 11:27-30).

      • Claire says:

        Thank you for expanding, Andy.
        I think there is some confusion here, due no doubt to the briefness necessary in internet posts. Several different questions seem to be overlapping: a) Does God discipline those He loves? b) If so, does he rebuke us as part of that discipline? c) if so, does He also punish us? d) if so, can his chastening or rebuke or punishment reasonably be described or illustrated in terms of a shepherd who breaks his sheep’s leg to teach it not to stray?

        And, without going over the ground of a b and c (since they are not the subject of this post) my answer to d is ‘Absolutely not’. I agree with those above who say He would never do such a thing. Why? Because it is abusive and God is not abusive, God is love. If a shepherd or sheep farmer were to break a sheep’s leg in order to keep it nearby as it healed to endear it to him (even if that worked with sheep, which I haven’t yet seen any evidence for, besides making it pretty near impossible for the shepherd to get on with the job of protecting the rest of the flock) – he would be risking severe fines and possibly jail for cruelty to animals. Because that is cruelty. It is abuse.
        If God went about breaking us so he could heal us to endear himself to us, that would be deliberately inducing Stockholm Syndrome, or ‘traumatic bonding’ (“strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” see this wikipedia article) which is abusive. God is not abusive. God is love. If he can’t woo and discipline us in a healthy way, that grows true healthy love and trust for Him in us, but instead relies on abusive techniques to manufacture unhealthy traumatic bonding, then I want no part of him. But he doesn’t do that. He says ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’ 1 Jn 4:18

        So let’s look at Ps 51. We know the story behind this song of repentance. Not only did David sin extravagantly, but he needed God to send the prophet Nathan to convict him of his guilt. We can also see the overall theme of the poem – David’s immense guilt, and his desire to be washed clean. So did God literally break him, as implied by verse 8? No. The brokenness to which David is referring, from which he wants healing, is his guilt and sinfulness – that is, he did it to himself. He *feels* as if God broke him, because God expossed his wound, and it hurts. David seems to have been quite comfortable until Nathan came along, then suddenly the magnitude of his sin becomes obvious to him, and it *hurts*. And he know the only one who can heal and cleanse him is God, and he knows that God cares more about his repentant heart than perfect theology (like being accused of causing damage that was really David’s fault).
        So the better metaphor here, I think, would be of a shepherd who goes after his wilful, lost sheep, finds that the sheep’s wilfulness has led it to fall down a cliff and break its own leg, and, having compassion on his sheep, he sets the broken leg. The sheep finds the operation painful, but knows that it was necessary for true healing, and is grateful as it is carried home to the fold to heal.
        (Now, later in the story, David’s son died, which does look somewhat punitive, at least at first glance. There are less–punitive explanations, I’m not entirely convinced by them. In any case, that’s not the brokenness/healing David is referring to here in Ps 51, and in fact God didn’t heal the baby, so that part of the story doesn’t fit the ‘break and heal the lamb’ motif either).

        Thank God He has not revealed himself in Scripture as an abusive Father, but as a Good Shepherd!

      • Claire says:

        I will also briefly respond to the other verses you mention:
        ‘The wages of sin is death’ is a statement addressed to non-Christians. That doesn’t mean I don’t take seriously the encouragement to live in Christ of passages like Col 2, but part of that is trusting in his faithfulness on my behalf. If I’m not living in Christ, the wages of that sin is death, but by definition, if I’m a believer, I’m living in Christ, so the wages of sin has been paid to Christ in his death, and in him I am an inheritor of the gift of God, ‘eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

        Heb 12 is a reality – a wonderful encouragement reminding us of God’s ability to redeem even unjust suffering, as he did for the great cloud of witnesses (v1) by growing us through it, ‘so that [we] will not grow weary and lose heart’ (v3).

        As for 1 Cor 11, that does, I admit, sound like punishment for the church. I see natural consequences, you see punishment. We can expect sickness and death as part of living in this world – if we avoid it, that is because of God’s protection – like the sheep who didn’t fall down a cliff because they stayed near the shepherd – and even then, he doesn’t always keep us from all evil – but certainly I don’t believe that God *brings* those things on us, adds them *on top of* the normal run of life. If you do, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

      • Pastor Andy Stevens says:

        Hi Claire,

        The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7) This truth sets forth the nature of all things related to the wisdom of God. The proverb then declares that fools despise wisdom and instruction. You have written a post and a reply to me on the basis that God is Love. This is true, however, God’s love is not his primary characteristic! When you elevate His love in your life above its proper place then you miss the full effect of it. The result is an improper view of God and his word. An example of this is your improper interpretation of Romans 6:23. This verse is written to believers!

        Here is the reality, God’s Holiness is his primary attribute. Read the letter of 1st John. Before he declares that God is love, he declares that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. God’s love demonstrated to us is his own answer to his holiness. The lost man will pay for his own sin by suffering eternal punishment in hell because God’s holiness, demands it! God’s love is how he answered man’s need for being reconciled. The saved man has a responsibility to walk in holiness before his holy Father. Don’t go on in being deceived and deceiving others that God is not to be feared. And before you respond (if you do) please be honest enough to search out the fear of God as it is revealed in the scriptures. You will find that it is a major doctrine of the Bible.

      • Claire says:

        Well, I don’t think abusive behaviour is consistent with God’s holiness, either, do you? Surely if we truly fear the Lord we will stand together against the likes of Branham when they claim God would do such unholy things?

      • andy says:

        It does not matter what anyone thinks, it matters what God says. Have you ever read the book of Lamentations? I encourage you to read chapter three and see the balance of the two aspects of God’s work in the life of his people. Lam 3:4 “he hath broken my bones” (KJV) Lam 3:24 “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.

        The experience of the believer with the LORD is in direct relationship to the walk that the believer has with the LORD.

        Heb 12:5-11 And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:
        6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
        7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
        8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
        9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
        10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
        11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

      • Claire says:

        “It does not matter what anyone thinks, it matters what God says” That would be the point of my post, really – God has never said he breaks his lambs’ legs. So Branham has misrepresented him.

        Yes, I’ve read Lamentations (I’ve read the whole Bible, actually), but not for some time. I’m working my way through The Source NT at the moment (slowly – I have three young children ;)), but after that I think I’ll take your advice and re-read Laments. It’s poetry, though, so I won’t be using it as the basis for theology. The writers of the laments would be astounded if I did. That’s not what they wrote them for. Besides, God didn’t break their bones, their captors did. Natural consequences of stepping outside of God’s protection again – not God placing *extra* affliction on them.

        As I pointed out earlier, the discipline being described in Heb 12 is suffering for doing right – ie persecution – not punishment for wrongdoing. The only way to avoid this conclusion is to start your quote from verse 5 instead of earlier in the passage, like v1 or v4 or ch11. It also helps if you use the KJV, because ‘chasten’ sounds more punitive to modern ears (but actually that is not its only meaning) and of course ‘scourge’. Also those of us who have experienced common Western parenting in which discipline = punishment, when we read ‘our fathers disciplined us as they thought best…’ we immediately think punishment, because that’s what we received. So check out this great post on what the Greek word being used here actually meant to the people who were readig it when it was written – people who had experienced or watched paedeia.

  9. David says:

    Last month I referred to a practice I had seen referenced in several commentaries concerning shepherds breaking the legs of their sheep in order to keep them from wandering off.

    When I was challenged to prove that this practice actually takes place, I spent a good deal of time looking for evidence of such on the internet. While I found many references to such a practice none of these appeared to be from sheepherders. (or appeared to be credible)

    So, I send a letter to Sheep Magizine. ( http://www.sheepmagazine.com/ )

    This is their reply:

    Hello John,

    You asked in an August 2, 2006 message to Sheep Magazine if it was true whether shepherds sometimes break a lamb’s leg to prevent it from wandering off.

    It is not true that any shepherds break a lamb’s leg on purpose.

    What they sometimes do in certain sheep-raising nations is to “brake” a leg. This means they attach a clog or weight to the animal’s leg, which keeps certain “rogue” sheep from getting too far from the shepherd until they learn their names, and not to be afraid of the shepherd.

    Rogue sheep are those that won’t stay with the flock–important to their safety. A single sheep that constantly moves out and away from the others is the certain target of predators, and often is at risk of wandering out of sight (over a hill, into the brush, etc.) in terrain where the shepherd is unable to count the sheep properly. Then the sheep would be surely lost.

    Each shepherd looks after from about 1200 to 3000 sheep. When they’re constantly moving, such large numbers are impossible to count with precision.

    To keep track of such large numbers of sheep, they must be corralled, and then “passed under the rod,” which means the shepherd has them in a narrow chute that enables each sheep to be counted one by one, and even marked with paint, charcoal, etc., for further work if necessary.

    The leg brake is a temporary measure; a lamb with a braked leg (it’s not a “broken” leg!) is still easy pickings for predators at night, because it can’t run as fast as the flock when under attack, and shepherd usually can’t see predators in the dark.

    Yours,
    Nathan Griffith, editor
    Sheep! Magazine

    I have to yield to the authority on such things.

    So the truth is this:

    Good Shepherds do not “break” the leg of a rogue sheep.

    They do however “brake” the leg of a rogue sheep in order to keep it from wandering off.

    John O.

    • Claire says:

      Thank you so much for this useful information, John! And kudos for the humility to accept correction 🙂 (I’ll go and read your other comment, now)

  10. steven says:

    If God is willing to sacrifice His own Son for the flock, and you are unwilling to accept the grace offered from Christ Jesus story….then it may be unfortunate for you that you may have your little sheep leg broken metaphorically. Grow up people ! Its a story, grow from it.

    We are to suffer as Christ suffered and…. die to self daily, but then again from these comments about this sheep story, people probably don’t believe that either.

    • Claire says:

      Steven, I would like to draw your attention to the ‘courtesy’ tab above, specifically the statement, ‘… sarcastic comments will not be approved for display.’ If you are unable to make your comments more resepctful in future, they will be deleted.

      That said, there is a world of difference between the stories that God has placed in the Bible for our edification, and false stories that slander God and also, as it happens, shepherds. It is the job of Christians to bring falsehood into the light. The only way to grow from a story like this is to examine it and recognise where it is wrong so we can learn more about the Truth, which sets us free.

      To that end: There is also a world of difference between A) experiencing the natural consequences of our actions (like breaking a leg because we are out of the Shepherd’s care); B) choosing to die to self (following the Shepherd where He leads, entrusting ourselves to Him when men ‘break our legs’ – revile us, persecute us and even kill us for his name’s sake); and C) having the Shepherd Himself break our legs deliberately. A and B are Truth; C is not.

      The Truth is that when we go astray, the Shepherd comes after us, gathers us up in is arms, tends to any wounds we have sustained, and brings us home. The Truth is that, while following Christ may mean givin up everything we have, even our lives, he holds us close throughout and weeps with us and will restore to us all that we have lost and more in the world to come.

      • steven says:

        Great Claire,

        Not all stories are from the Bible, take for instance movies, Do you have a favorite movie? Does that movie have some deep meaning that people can learn from?

        With that said, You tend to your flock and I will tend to mine. Like i Said originally, it is a story…like many of our own testimonies, they are not from the Bible but have deep meaningful lessons that originate from the Word of God and more importantly the Grace offered to all by the Son Jesus Christ.

        Christ did reference scripture, but even more so spoke in simple stories that people could relate to.
        I’ll stay out of your stream.
        please let me know how I can remove myself from this
        To Corinth: 1 Cor 13:10 / Heb 6:1

      • Claire says:

        Sorry, Steven, I don’t know how to remove yourself from the thread. Perhaps you could tell your email program to trash the notification emails?

        Yes, there are many great extra-biblical stories that illustrate biblical truth. The description in a comment above of ‘braking’ a lamb’s leg is a great example: When we are unable to obey on our own, God helps us – and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate expression of this. We could not make our own way to God, so he made a ‘new and living way’.
        The story of shepherds breaking lambs’ legs is not one of them. It flies in the face of God’s grace. Also, the person who started it and the people who perpetuate it do not identify it as a story. As the comments on this thread show, it is widely believed in the church (including among the clergy) to be true that shepherds did this, when there is no evidence that they ever have, and doing so would definitely be bad shepherding practice. That is why I identified it as slander.

  11. Thank you so much for doing this research – I am so relieved to read this post!! I recently was told this story for the first time and I could not fathom it true, but I could not argue against it. It came up because I do not believe that God wants us to hit our children, and of course I always am quoted the verses from Proverbs. I believe those verses about raising our children are about us shepherding our children and discipling them, not about us beating them. I felt defeated when I was told this story about shepherds breaking the legs of their sheep, and I am so relieved and grateful to know that I now have your post to reference. Not only am I sharing on facebook, where I had the debate, but I’m now following you 🙂 Excellent post – thanks!!

  12. daraco20 says:

    Psalms 51:8
    Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have broken rejoice. So is your rebuttal against God intentionally allowing this to happen through someone else or is it against the idea that God would use this tactic to get our attention on something more important like the thoughts in our heart? Pride comes before the fall and sometimes when you fall you break something. If we believe that God is sovereign then could it be that the “breaking” is an act of mercy? What are your thoughts on this?

    • Claire says:

      I’m not sure if I understand you correctly. Are you saying that, David having been a shepherd, this psalm is him remembering that and making an allegory with his adult experience of the consequences of his sin with Bathsheba? (And so this psalm is in itself evidence of shepherds breaking their lambs’ legs)?

      • Claire says:

        Ok, re-reading your comment, I think my answer is the same as to Steven above :” There is also a world of difference between A) experiencing the natural consequences of our actions (like breaking a leg because we are out of the Shepherd’s care); B) choosing to die to self (following the Shepherd where He leads, entrusting ourselves to Him when men ‘break our legs’ – revile us, persecute us and even kill us for his name’s sake); and C) having the Shepherd Himself break our legs deliberately. A and B are Truth; C is not.”
        Certainly in case A, God can use those situations as lessons to grow us into his likeness. And the NT regularly encourages us that God will use case B to grow character in us. God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. So yes, in his great wisdom, these things are examples of his mercy and disicpline. That is different from *causing* it to make us hurt because we deserve it or to “teach us a lesson”. As a parent, I may well stand back at times and allow my child to experience the natural consequences of their actions, knowing they will be hurt and hoping they will learn from it. That is very different from adding punishment, especially unrelated punishment. Does that answer your question?

  13. Cindy K says:

    Claire,

    In this life, I think of it as a tapestry of complexity that only lets us see the back side of it which is generally a mess. We trust in this life that when we enter the next that the good side of the picture created by all of the individual threads of the things that happen to us.

    Does suffering help us mature us, like a blacksmith tempers and strengthens metal to make a sword that is both strong and flexible? Absolutely. In our lives however, I don’t think that the connection between the suffering and the outcome are quite as direct as we’d like to make it. Evil often exploits our trust and our virtue. Healing and finding meaning in suffering exploits something bad to transform it into something good. God helps us to transcend it. But this is a world away from the idea of God as a jerk with a hammer and every Christian as a nail that needs a pounding.

    We’re only looking at the back half of the tapestry. I don’t think that it’s that great of a use of our time now to worry about the why, save to remind ourselves that God is God and that He loves us. We make mistakes, and He abounds with grace to meet us when we repent. We are given more imagery of the good shepherd who defends his sheep from predators and rejoices over finding the lost ones who go astray in Scripture. Where does the Bible tell us about the duty of the shepherd to break legs? It’s not there. The rod and staff are not there for punishment but for gentle guidance and protection from predators.

    When we all get the chance in heaven to look at the front part of the tapestry, maybe there’s some value in the idea of seeing the suffering as a blessing in hindsight and what some might cal a “necessary evil.” But God is not the author of evil, nor does He tempt us with it, even though He helps us to mature, as Claire pointed out, like a parent who lets us struggle as we learn what is needful. But even from that perspective, what parent breaks their child’s bones to teach them anything? I don’t think that’s who God is. He doesn’t give us a stone for bread or a scorpion for an egg when we need nurturing. He desires to give us great blessing, joy and abundant life.

  14. Cindy K says:

    Wait — He abounds with grace to meet us BEFORE we repent. Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound — not the bone breaking brigade.

  15. daraco20 says:

    Okay looking at A. Can you define for me what you believe being “out of the shepherds care” is? The reason I ask this is how can we be out of the shepherds care?In the context of parenting ( I have 3 myself, 16, 13, & 10) when we step back and allow some suffering in to learn a lesson we are still sovereign in our approach yet we are still caring for them, even more so. If we are “allowing” it to happen for a greater purpose we are still the reason for it happening. Yes the child brings on the consequence of their actions but we can either buffer them or let them happen. So my feeling is just as David recognized that it was only against God that he had sinned, here he sees how the breaking was to his benefit, thus he recognizes God as the one who broke him “let the bones YOU have broken rejoice”.

    • Claire says:

      I think Cindy’s comment about the back of the tapestry and not trying to figure out whys sums it up pretty well.

  16. jana says:

    I believe that this practice did in fact occur and found examples of it done in 15th century sikh cultures. Google the 15 rules of sheep herding/sikh archive. Sheep are sweet cuddly DUMB creatures. God uses the phrase “let the bones YOU have broken rejoice” as an analogy of the trials and testings of this life that He uses to cause us to follow Him, our Sheperd. It’s a beautiful concept. Of course He doesn’t snap our bones, but He may cause events in our lives that feel like our bones are snapping. And how glorious when we are tested and find Him at the end of our rope.

    • Claire says:

      Hi,jana, thanks for yiur comments. You’ve obviously spent some time thinking about this, and I was interested to look up the article you mentioned. Unfortunately, you seem to have missed the fact that it was a parody. The article isn’t about sheep, it’s about bad government. Yet another example of what God’s rule isn’t like.
      Also, how many sheep have you meet in real life? I haven’t gotten to know any myself, but the impressioni have is that they are not sweet or cuddly, as a group, and many breeds are very intelligent. Although I’m not really sure what the relevance is of sheep being sweet, cuddly or dumb… Since nine of those attributes are mentioned wrt God’s sheep in the Bible, I can’t assume they have any relevance. I mean, all animals are less intelligent than humans, but you wouldn’t assume that Jesus had the intelligence of a lion just because God calls him the lion of Judah, would you?

  17. jana says:

    And, I wanted to add, in Hermeneutics, we studied the imperative of comprehending the cultural period surrounding the scripture. This is not a present day practice, just as we don’t stone or whip people, sacrifice animals, rend our sack clothes anymore. Haven’t even worn my sack cloth like -forever!

    • Claire says:

      Responding to both your comments. Thanks for your thoughts. I was interested to read the article you referenced, to see if there was any evidence of such practices (although it wouldn’t have changed my mind, as per the last couple of paragraphs in my blog post). Unfortunately, you seem to have missed the fact that the article is parody. It’s not really about sheep at all, but about (poor) government. Yet another example of what God’s rule is not like.
      Being aware of the cultural context of what we read is indeed very important, but only when it is accurate and relevant. The story about breaking a lamb’s leg is neither. Nor, from my understanding, are your comments about the nature of sheep.
      It is true that David described his own guilt as crushed bones. The beauty in that passage is the healing and forgiveness he sought in God. It took crushed bones to bring him to repentance, yes, but those crushed bones didn’t consist of punishment brought on David for his sin, but of conviction of the sin itself. In the context of this blog, I don’t need to hit my child to teach them, simply telling them what they did was wrong, and why, is enough.

  18. Pingback: A person’s a person no matter how small. | Why Not Train A Child?

  19. Chango says:

    David rejoiced over his crushed bones in Ps 51, this is the point of the story.
    Perhaps no one here has ever been so far on the edge of destroying themselves or harming others that they could relate to the Lords Discipline in such a way.

    • Claire says:

      Chango, thank you for your comment. You have brought up a good point, that none of us are better than David, an adulterer and murderer. So I took a look at how good dealt with this extremely wayward sheep. Firstly, his bones weren’t actually physically crushed, it was a metaphor. And not a metaphor for anything God had actually done to him – that is, God didn’t do anything to punish David before he wrote the psalm. The only thing in this story that could be called a punishment (and this is debatable) is the death of his son, and I’m almost certain that happened after the psalm was written. It says the psalm was written “when the prophet Nathan came to him after his adultery with Bathsheba”, i.e. before the son was born. And we know David stopped mourning after his son’s death, but we’re not told he *rejoiced*, so even if the psalm was written later, I don’t think we can see the crushed bones as a metaphor for the boy’s death.
      So… God didn’t place any additional punishment on David that could be seen as these crushed bones. All he did was point out David’s sin, through the prophet. The “crushed bones” are a metaphor for David’s feelings of guilt over his terrible sin.
      And… he didn’t rejoice over them. He said, “Have mercy on me… Wash away my iniquity… Cleanse me with hyssop… Wash me… Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice”. That is, he is asking to rejoice in God’s forgiveness, not rejoicing in his punishment.
      Actually, as it happens, I have been very close to destroying someone in my sinful anger. And there were no crushed or broken bones, or any other added punishment needed for me to cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” This is true of David, and it’s true for our children.

      Also, please take a look at Greenegem’s comment policy before posting again. Sarcasm is not allowed. I have edited your post.

  20. bradcorban says:

    Thank you for this post and the reference to the Branham sermon. The legend does not have the ring of truth (and doesn’t coincide with the lengthy Ezekiel image of the good shepherd). Obviously, there are biblical references to God chastising us, but this story borders on ridiculous.

  21. Elizabeth Oliver says:

    what about “to spare the rod is to spoil the child”? Proverbs 13:24

    • Claire says:

      Hi Elizabeth, Betsy has written some great posts about the rod verses elsewhere on this blog. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. You might also have a read of my post Guiding with a Rod or Spare the Rod by Greenegem.
      In relation to this particular post, I would simply say that no shepherd ever used a rod to break a sheep’s leg. I hope that gives you an idea of how we see those Proverbs.
      If you’re feeling adventurous, I dare you to google “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and find out where those words really come from, because they’re not in the Bible 😉

  22. Toni Eddings says:

    Thank you so much for sharing the truth of a loving, caring and protecting Father who teaches us through his guidance rather than punishes us for our failings. I believe that the faults we have were allowed to grow in us so that we would see our need for God. “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” Eph 4:32

  23. Bessy says:

    This comment comes some years after you published this post!
    I believed the myth about the shepherd breaking the lamb’s leg for years, and heard it preached so confidently from the pulpit. It’s only years on that I’ve started to feel uncomfortable about the idea of the shepherd doing this, and agree that it implies an incorrect picture of what God is like. I think in love He disciplines us, but in my experience, he uses the self inflicted things and consequences of my unwise decisions to teach and discipline me. But he always buffers the blow, we never get what we really deserve and God really is so full of grace and mercy and I believe he never delights in our pain.

    • I think you are SPOT-ON! I not only believed the myth, but believed God was always watching with a stick. Such damage and havoc was wreaked on my faith by believing THAT to be the nature of God 😦 “Take heed how ye hear. . .”

  24. Are you an experienced Sheep Herder and how many sheep do you have?

    • Claire says:

      I have no more experience in sheep herding than the hundreds of preachers who have used this false illustration in their sermons. Unlike them, however, I have made the effort to research the information provided by real shepherds as quoted in my article. Do you have contrary evidence or experience to offer? I would love to dialogue if you do :).

    • Jennifer says:

      Claire might not be a herder or have numerous sheep, but I do and I find this to be a fascinating topic. I am the owner of over 10,000 head of sheep. We run these sheep on open range which would be very, very similar to the way they were herded in the biblical days. Open range means that 90% of the time our sheep and lambs are on huge tracts of land without any fences. For each band which is approximately 1000 head of ewes(mother sheep) there is one herder. I have heard the story of the breaking of the lambs leg numerous times and it is definitely laughable to anyone who actually herds sheep. Lambs legs do get broken and it is always a huge issue and inconvenience. Herders are dismayed to have a lamb with a leg to be healed. The herd travels slower and the lamb is more susceptible to prey and death. The story was obviously concocted by someone very ignorant of sheep who needed a good tale.

      • Claire says:

        Thanks for your helpful comment, Jennifer. It’s good to hear from a real shepherd on this topic 🙂

      • bradcorban says:

        I love getting periodic updates when people comment on this blog (which, even apart from this post, is very cool). Yes, thanks, Jennifer, for your insight!

  25. Steve Thompson says:

    Why in psalms 23 David writes He MAKES me lie down in geen pastures

  26. I came from a heavy-handed Pentecostal church that used this story and “obey them that have rule over you,” Heb 13:7,17, etc. They preached against “popery,” yet they themselves practiced such. I am still damaged from hearing and believing this stuff that is against the very nature of God. (Even God “allows” you to sin and or make poor choices.) Their Bible should read, “The head of the woman is the man, the head of the man is the pastor, and the head of the pastor is God.” Every day I have to remind myself of the scriptures of the goodness of God, and make declarations to myself such as, “He has translated me from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his dear son. . .” etc. I do very well encouraging people in this area–I’m surprised how many there are–yet in secret I fight my own inner demons from this horrendous type teaching. This morning I began to think about this story and wondered if it could be true. Look at the amazing amount of comments it has drawn.

  27. Paula Perrrine says:

    Shepherd s do brake lambs legs. Notice the correct word Brake. They place a weight on the leg of a lamb that is prone to wander until the lamb learns to recognize the voice of the Shepherd. Ever been stuck? Spinning you wheels? Feel like all you plans are going nowhere? Could been our emergency break is on! Listen!

  28. Brian says:

    Not wanting to wade into the obvious wrong of child abuse, nor the validity of the sheep leg breaking, as that’s not found in the bible, but as to the question of whether God would break a leg of one of his followers, I do think there is biblical evidence. Jacob wrestled with the Lord and would not let go until he blessed him, his hip socket was either broken or somehow his thigh bone dislocated at about 40 years of age, and for the remainder of his life he leaned upon the top of his staff. This was mentioned in the annals of those of faith (Heb 11), that Jacob worshipped leaning on the top of his staff. Instead of leaning or trusting in the arm of flesh, he now had an ever present reminder to lean on God through this God given infirmity. Brother Zac Poonen had a good mini-article from 2014 http://www.cfcindia.com/wtfw/jacob-worshipped-leaning-upon-the-top-of-his-staff

  29. Maritza says:

    Thank you for such an amazing article. I’m Christian and had been feeling guilty about hitting as a form of discipline. When I decided not to hit my son anymore so many Christian people criticized and continue to always try to make me feel guilty about not following God’s way of discipline but your article has given me clarity and peace that I am doing right by my son in raising him with love, kindness and respect. Thank you

    • Claire says:

      I’m so glad our blog has helped you, Maritza. Keep seeking support and resources to encourage you in disciplining your son as God gently disciplines us. They are out there!

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