The sheep

Ok, that is a picture of a lamb in New Zealand. But the sheep was similarly important in the agrarian economy of Ancient Israel. In archaeological excavations, most of the bones recovered are those of sheep or goats. Often, it is not possible to distinguish between sheep and goats—many bones look exactly the same. Not only were sheep and goat regularly butchered and eaten, but their bones would have later also been used as tools or toys. They weren’t just all thrown away. In particular, we find astragali, bones that form part of the joint, in houses.

According to Gustaf Dalman there were 252,773 sheep in Palestine in 1930, of which 149,254 were butchered. Clearly, sheep were kept largely to supply meat. Still, other uses are important, too. An adult sheep supplies about 2kg of wool annually, and a ewe gives approximately 40kg of milk per year. In Palestine, the fat-tail sheep (Ovis laticaudata) is the preferred breed. Apparently, the tail itself can weigh up to 10kg in rams.

Rams have thick horns; ewes do not grow any horns. Most of the sheep are white, but some have a brown or black head, others darker spots on the wool. The shepherds have a broad terminology for distinguishing the different colours of sheep.
If the rams are put out to the ewes early, in June, lambs are born in November. Usually, shepherds prefer only a few early lambs. Often the rams are put to the ewes in August, so that the lambs are born in February or March. That allows the ewes to eat fresh, green grass when suckling the lambs. Usually a farmer in early 20th century Palestine would own 15 to 20 ewes.
Even in Palestine, a lamb was chosen as a sacrifice to guarantee the welfare of the flock. Usually, the lamb was chosen in February, its ear marked and then slaughtered in April. Many Arab Christians would choose the lamb at the beginning of Lent.
Wool was one of the main fabrics for textile production in Palestine, just as it would have been in Ancient Israel. The hides of a sheep were often used for hose manufacture, or as leather for shoes.
Dalman observed that people preferred lamb over any other meat. He quotes a proverb: “Be not enticed by the cattle and the amount of its fat, but take a piece of lamb and taste its meat!”

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