Sheep have played an important role in Israel’s economy and religious life for centuries. However, the sheep that cover Israel’s fields today are not the same sheep that existed in Old Testament times.
Today’s white and brown-faced sheep are part of a breed known as Awassi that originated in Syria.
However, the ancient breed of sheep that the Patriarch Jacob developed and cared for still exist today and a family from British Columbia, Canada has one of the world’s few remaining flocks of this rare breed. And over the past few years, they along with a non-profit society have been working to send this flock to Israel.
Going by their name Jacob’s Sheep, they are on the endangered list and are considered one of the oldest sheep breeds in the world. They are officially listed as an ‘heirloom” breed meaning there is stock alive today that is basically unaltered from the time it first existed in the Middle East.
They still have the same characteristics mentioned in the Bible:
- Speckles and spots (Genesis 30:32);
- Horns — in fact ewes and rams have four horns. The Jews used the ram’s horns to make their shofars (Ezekiel 34:21); and
- Bands and stripes (Genesis 30:39)
They were the breed that Jacob selectively developed when he worked for Laban as part of the package to gain his daughters, Leah and Rachel, for wives. Jacob agreed to care for Laban’s flock for 14 years, but during this time, Jacob haggled a deal where he could keep the speckled, striped and dark sheep for himself and Laban kept the white colored ones.
32 let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted sheep and every black one among the lambs and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and such shall be my wages. (Genesis 30:32 NASV)
Though predominantly white, Laban’s sheep continued birthing speckled and striped sheep which resulted in Jacob’s flock growing faster than Laban’s.
Testing has shown that Jacob’s Sheep is one of the oldest breeds in the world and many suggest its existence validates the Jacob and Laban account.
When Jacob and his wives finally returned to Canaan (Israel), he brought with him a unique species of speckled sheep. This was the stock that Jacob’s sons and Joseph cared for while in Canaan and the sheep Jacob’s family took to Egypt after God raised up Joseph to second in command in that country (Genesis 46:6).
During Israel’s great exodus from Egypt under Moses, the sheep became a bone of contention between the Pharaoh and Moses. At one point the Egyptian Pharaoh agreed to let Israel go if Israel left their flocks behind. Moses refused saying the animals were needed for sacrifices (Exodus 10:24-25).
It was from this stock that each Israeli families chose the first Passover lamb. They spread its blood on the lintels of their homes so the avenging Angel would pass over their family as he struck down the first-born in Egypt because of Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel go (Exodus 12:5-14).
After the slaying of the first-born, the the Pharaoh allowed Israel to leave with their flocks (Exodus 12:32).
For centuries, many experts believe this was the stock the shepherds of Israel primarily raised, though undoubtedly they used other breeds as well.
But it seems during the Babylonian captivity, this unique breed was taken away by their captors, disappearing completely from Israel. Speaking of their captivity, the Prophet Jeremiah said:
“Lift up your eyes and see
Those coming from the north.
Where is the flock that was given you,
Your beautiful sheep? (Jeremiah 13:20 NASV)
But though the breed had disappeared from Israel, they remained popular among their captors and other cultures. Centuries later when the Muslims invaded Europe they took the breed with them and after Spain finally drove the Moors out in the late 1400s, their sheep remained behind.
Because of its unique appearance, Jacob’s Sheep became a popular ornamental breed in England which initially maintained its purity. However, when England began to selectively breed the sheep, they began to lose their historic heritage.
But fortunately, before this happened several Jacob’s Sheep were shipped to Canada where many ended up in zoos. With the help of Rare Breed Canada, the zoos preserved their purity.
This included stock at the Winnipeg Zoo that a Jewish couple, Gil and Jenna Lewinsky of Abbotsford, BC, used to develop their flock of 130 Jacob’s Sheep.
For years, the couple have worked with Israeli authorities to have this flock returned to Israel.
Fearing disease transmission, this has turned into a complicated process involving authorities from Canada and Israel and oddly, even the UN’s World Health Organization managed to stick its nose in the proceedings.
But it seems that Glil and Jenna have crossed all the “T”s and the flock is ready to return to Israel. For the first time in centuries, Jacob’s Sheep will be skipping through the hills of Israel.
Today many Orthodox Jews in Israel are looking to the day when a third Jewish temple will be rebuilt and believe the return of Jacob’s Sheep is another piece to this puzzle.