The Bad Shepherd

Gather ‘round children, because today we are going to talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd. Even though he is good and kind and loving, it is important for you to understand that because of his great love for you, sometimes Jesus must do Very Bad Things to ensure that you stay close to him, and love him more.
Once upon a time, a tourist was visiting the Holy Land. One day along the side of the road, he saw a flock of sheep frolicking happily while their shepherd walked alongside them. He noticed however, that the shepherd was carrying one young sheep over his shoulders.

“What is wrong with that sheep, is it sick?” he asked his tour guide.

“Oh no, not sick,” said the wise guide. “Its leg is broken.”

“Oh my,” said the inquisitive tourist. “Was it attacked by a fierce lion or raging bear, or did it perhaps fall down a rocky crag?”

“Goodness no,” chuckled the guide. “The shepherd used his rod to break the lamb’s leg.”

The tourist gasped in horror. “What an evil man! Why would he do such a thing?”

“Sir,” said the guide, shaking a finger in the traveler’s face. “I’ll have you to know he is the kindest, most loving shepherd in all of Israel. He loves that little lamb!”

“Then why, oh why would he do such a dreadful thing?”

“It was because his great love compelled him to. For you see, that little lamb was prone to wander. Not only did it regularly stray from the herd, but it began to draw others after it, ensnaring them in its pernicious ways. The shepherd knew that this lamb needed to have its rebellious spirit broken. It needed to be taught to stay lovingly close to its shepherd. And so one day, he took his rod and brought it down sharply on a foreleg of the lamb, snapping the bones. Oh, the pain was awful! The lamb looked up at him with tears and confusion. “There, there,” said the shepherd soothingly, and taking some sticks and cord, he bound up the leg he had broken and hoisted the lamb upon his shoulders. For weeks, the lamb was forced to rely on him. The shepherd tirelessly fed and carried him. Soon, the little lamb learned to trust his shepherd. His little heart swelled with a deeper love for his master than ever before. Eventually, his leg healed and he was able to walk on his own. But, he had learned his lesson and always stayed by his Master’s side. The bones in his leg had healed somewhat crookedly, and so he hobbled when he walked, bearing with him always, the reminder of his shepherd’s sweet love for him.”

This is my retelling of a story which has circulated in fundamentalist Christian sermons and Sunday School lessons for decades. Mutated versions of this little ‘gem’ of an illustration pop up on various Christian blogs like noxious spiritual mushrooms.

A non-believer who encountered this parable would most likely have the reaction of “That is so effing messed up!” But for many Christians grown in the hothouse of fundamentalism, it rings of spiritual truth. They nod their heads and sense a profound insight into the nature of God, and his mysterious ways.

Why the enduring popularity of this tale of brutal and twisted ‘love’?

I believe it is because this picture of a God who is willing to do horrible things to those he loves, in order to ensure they stay loyal to him, is a thread woven throughout the Bible. This is Yahweh’s modus operandi.

For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.
Job 5:18 (NIV)

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
Psalm 119:67 (NIV)

… let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Psalm 51:8 (NIV)

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:47-48 (NIV)

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.
Hebrews 12:6 (NIV)

In fact the ‘history’ of Israel presented in the Bible is one long rollercoaster ride of (to put it bluntly), God’s chosen people straying, and God beating the crap out of them, so they will return to loving him. To be fair, Yahweh didn’t administer all the beatings himself, but, according to the Good Book, he often enlisted the help of various nations surrounding Israel to inflict the pain on his beloved people. Poor Israel. With lovers like God, who needs enemies?

Deuteronomy 28 gives a sort of prenuptial agreement between God and Israel, detailing what will happen if the nation-bride does, and does not please the Lord God. The blessings are listed in verses 1 through 11. The curses are listed in extremely detailed fashion in verses 12 through 68. If you have the time, and want to end up nauseated and depressed, have a read through them. I will present just a few ‘highlights’ of God’s leg-breaking love:

20 “The LORD himself will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in everything you do, until at last you are completely destroyed for doing evil and abandoning me. 21 The LORD will afflict you with diseases until none of you are left in the land you are about to enter and occupy. 22 The LORD will strike you with wasting diseases, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, and with blight and mildew. These disasters will pursue you until you die.

27 “The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, scurvy, and the itch, from which you cannot be cured. 28 The LORD will strike you with madness, blindness, and panic.

47 If you do not serve the LORD your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, 48 you will serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything. The LORD will put an iron yoke on your neck, oppressing you harshly until he has destroyed you.

53 “The siege and terrible distress of the enemy’s attack will be so severe that you will eat the flesh of your own sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you.

63 “Just as the LORD has found great pleasure in causing you to prosper and multiply, the LORD will find pleasure in destroying you. You will be torn from the land you are about to enter and occupy.

Deuteronomy 28 (NIV)

Whew! If I was presented with that contract, I would want to know if it was dreamed up by the Marquis de Sade, when he was having a very bad day.

The portrait of God which emerges from this chapter in Deuteronomy is in turns, frightening, horrifying, and revolting. This is no dispassionate “You chose to disobey, and now there are natural consequences that follow that decision.” No, this is an angry, controlling, testosterone-fueled rage. A “You’ve really pissed me off and now you’re gonna pay” brand of knock-you-down-and-stomp-your-face-into-a-bloody-pulp wife-beating.

Perhaps you think I exaggerate, or go too far? My description is mild, compared to the words attributed to the ‘loving’ God of the Bible. Go back and read Deuteronomy 28 again.

Christians, this is your god unmasked, in all his sadistic glory. The Divine Torturer who would rather see you dead than lose your affection.

“But,” I hear the believer say, “Jesus… love… grace… New Covenant.” Make no mistake, the New Testament gospel is built firmly on the foundation of an angry God who must have bloody appeasement. It is constructed on a threat much greater than the ones uttered to Israel; the promise of terrible torture for all eternity, for those who displease God. The book of Revelation previews these horrors to come; an orgiastic Technicolor nightmare of blood and fire, shrouded in the smoke of the burning damned.


Another invention of good old Heavenly Dad. This loving god has some very odd and unsavory proclivities

Although there is a growing discomfort with the idea of Hell in Christendom, fundamentalists must fight tooth and nail to defend it. Why? Salvation is much harder to sell when there is no threat of Hell.

Returning to the opening story of the leg-breaking shepherd, perhaps the sickest thing about the welcome acceptance of this story amongst many Christians is that it envisions the relationship between God and the believer as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome affair. A battered wife mentality: “It was my fault. I pushed him too far. He loves me. He really does. He has to punish me when I’m bad. I’m nothing without him.” It is a topsy-turvy world where the abused defends the reputation of the abuser. Fundamentalists have marinated so long in the toxic juices of the Bible, that they cannot see how truly horrifying their God’s behavior is. Their mind so completely enthralled with the delusion, they are blind to what an outsider to their faith would easily recognize: they are following a Bad Shepherd.

It’s a strange sort of love, when violence is to be expected as part of the deal, but what’s a sheep to do? Don’t you dare criticize the Good Shepherd, or He just might have to teach you a lesson you won’t forget. If a passing doubt or two about God’s character should flit across your mind, those thoughts must quickly be suppressed, lest you attract the ire of your Dear Leader. Better to keep one’s head down and simply be one of the flock. Safer that way.

How awful is Thy chastening rod!
May Thy own children say:
The great, the wise, the dreadful God!
How holy is His way!

(Hymn by Isaac Watts )

Written by J. M. Green