Why was being a shepherd so prestigious in the ancient Near East?

Inanna chooses Dumuzi, the shepherd, over Enkimdu, the farmer; YHWH chooses Abel over Cain, it’s used by different peoples as a metaphor for kingship…

Clearly sheep-herding was respected in the ancient Near East in a way being a farmer was not. My question is why? Is it an inherently wealthier profession? Some feature of civilisation in its infancy? Just a quirk of the times (and if so, why)?

Do we know?

My WAG is that meat was a luxury item, while grain was the day-to-day food that kept you alive.

It’s also a perhaps a better metaphor taking care of the vulnerable, as shepherding would seem to require more active monitoring than farming. The grain isn’t going to walk away.

It wasn’t. The stories that you mentioned are from Sumerian myths (or at least the Sumerian myths are related in some way, perhaps both spring from an even older story.) Cain and Abel were oral traditions compiled long after their original creation and likely based on a Jewish re-imagining of the Emesh and Enten myth cycle. In the Emesh and Enten myth, they are two brothers, the one representing plant agriculture and the other animal. They dispute as brothers are wont to do and bring their complaint to Enlil-the supreme god. Enlil rules in favor of Enten. The reason why though is not because shepherding is awesome, but rather that Enten is associated with the winter - the season in which animals are pregnant and Emesh is associated with the Summer, the growing season. Winter and shepherding win because in the arid Middle East, it is the winter that provides enough rain and water to survive the year, so it’s really a tale about the water cycle in an arid environment.

The Jewish story adds fratricide and a number of other elements in its description of God, but the base Cain v. Abel myth seems closely enough related to Emesh v. Enten that we can guess they share a similar root.

The Hebrews were wandering herders, not sedentary farmers, so they identified with the herders.

Herders wrote the myths.

Yeah, this ^. By the time of the New Testament, long after the Hebrews settled down, shepherding was a very low class profession. Sort of like cowboys of the American West. That the angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of the messiah was one of the “upendings” in the Gospel narratives, a foreshadowing of Jesus eating with tax collectors and forgiving adulteresses.

Issac Asimov made a biblical critique, in it, he posits that the herder grew out of the hunter, which was humanities first state – a blissful one, the “original” one. Or at least, remembered fondly by people who don’t do it anymore. The farmer came after, and as modern Paleo diet supporters have glomped onto, is the cause of all modern ills, specifically land ownership, and being stuck in repetitive tasks. So according to Asimov, that’s why herder=good and farmer=bad.

Its not always like that. Jacob who became Israel was a farmer, Easu was a hunter. Jacob wins that round. Eventually.

Maybe the best takeaway from these inconsistencies is that the job doesn’t matter, its the way the person does their job. My kids cartoon bible had Abel sacrificing the very best widdle lamb to God. Cain sacrificed the not prime fruits. Critics just like saying that God demands meat, I truly never noticed that Abel’s sacrifice involved killing something cute.

I was reading recently about the trick Prometheus played on Zeus, conning him out of the best part of the sacrifices. Some ancient writers have Zeus being fooled, and angry, and punishing Prometheus and man. Others say Zeus saw right through it, but so loved humanity that he let himself appear to be tricked, and then, of course, punished Prometheus and humanity.

Deities are sometimes kinda dicks for no reason. If you start with that premise, theism just runs smoother.

The herders wrote it hypothesis is probably incorrect. Ancient Israelites had settled long before the writing of Genesis and were primarily grain farmers. The Gezer agricultural calendar from the 10th century only records plant agriculture. We know that by the 9th century they had large grain storehouses. We can tell both from written records and archaeological evidence that their primary subsistence was bread, wine and oil. The Bible itself confirms this importance with the so-called ‘Seven Species’ which are the seven agricultural species that the Bible gives special importance to-wheat, barley, grapes, olives, pomegranates, dates and figs. They certainly did have herds, but animal bones appear sparingly in trash heaps and did not make up the majority of the diet.

Not so much low-class as low skill: it was a job given to children. I suppose that if you were to read between the lines you could make a case that this represents the advances in breeding for domestication over the thousands of years since the initial domestication.

Note that when we first meet David, he’s the youngest child tending to his family’s flocks while his older brothers are away fighting.

Definitely incorrect, since the stories were written down centuries after they were told, when the Hebrew people were definitely settled. A better question is “were the Hebrews who first told the story of Cain and Abel herders?”. I don’t know the answer to that.

That’s why I said probably. I was using ‘wrote’ to mean created. We know that by the time of the Babylonian exile, they were certainly very, very settled and that is the most likely dating of when Genesis was written down. The probably is that we don’t really know when the oral tradition started or how accurately it was carried down to the eventual writers.

Yeah, I wasn’t sure if you meant “written” literally or figuratively, and since it makes a difference in this situation, I wanted to elucidate.

It seems plausible to me that Hebrew people were mostly herders in some distant past and kept oral traditions of that past long after they were settled. So the stories favor the herders because they’re the herders’ stories, passed on orally and then eventually fixed in writing much later. But I’m not familiar enough with actual scholarship to know if this correct or still unknown or whatever.

I think it might also be that shepherds were the go-to “men of action” in biblical times. Farmers may have been the majority, but they weren’t really skilled at anything except farming. Same thing with craftsmen. Soldiers? They never really had that much in the way of a warrior class or standing armies. Hunters? For whatever reason, Jews were never big on hunting (after all, most game isn’t kosher). Shepherds, though - shepherds were independent, they knew fieldcraft, and they at some training with weapons. If you needed a hero, you went to a shepherd.

Maybe it is more that the nomadic shepherd life was part of the romanticized heroic past narrative of the now sedentary Hebrews? That part of their oral history was a story about the success of their nomadic ancestors? Hence the heroism (and clever trickery, in some cases) of the shepherds is exalted over that of the farmers.

In parallel example, at least some of the iconic battles to win the Promised Land fro the Canaanites such as the battle of Jericho, apparently never even happened, according to the archeological record. Instead, the two peoples gradually merged.

I wonder …
The lack of animal bones implies that meat was expensive. So perhaps shepherds were rich, and therefor respected as the elite, upper class?
They owned a herd of expensive property, and could presumable eat more meat than the average citizen.
Access to food was the main way to measure wealth for most of human history, when poverty often meant starvation.
A Shepherd would have had plenty of food available, every day, every season, all year long. A status symbol, a sign of success, power, and a thing to envy.

(This is just pure speculation on my part.Anybody know if it’s accurate?)

I figured that it was a way to extol the virtue of humility. “He may be a redneck, but he’s a virtuous redneck, and that’s better than a corrupt One Of Us.”

The victors write history.

I think it’s not that the game isn’t kosher, it’s that the slaughtering method wouldn’t be kosher. Why Judaism (and Islam) place so much importance on the slaughtering method as opposed to all the other religions, I am not sure.

I guess this doesn’t apply to fish though. Jewish food has always had lots of fish and there is no way in hell that those fishermen were slaughtering every individual fish with the kosher method, so I guess the fact that they were fish exempted them from this requirement.

According to the Bible, shepherding wasn’t universally considered prestigious - the Egyptians supposedly reviled shepherds.

As to why it was considered prestigious in those cultures where it was - shepherds kept their flocks fed and kept them safe from wolves and the like. Someone who could care for a herd of sheep would be the template for a caring yet strong individual, the type who’d be ideal leader material for a nation.