Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Why Can’t Goats Get No Respect?

Posted by BrianJ on August 18, 2009

In one of Jesus’ parables, he compares sheep to the righteous and goats to those who will cursed with everlasting fire. I understand the moral lesson he teaches, but I don’t understand why he picks on the goats. What’s so bad about goats?

Here’s the relevant text (for those who don’t want to click above):

…and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto [the sheep], “Come, ye blessed of my Father….”

Then shall he say also unto [the goats], “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels….”

Just to be clear: I’m not asking about the meaning of the parable—that much is explicitly stated by the Lord and, frankly, doesn’t even need the analogy. My question is about literal sheep and goats. What’s so bad about goats that Jesus’ listeners would hear this parable and nod in agreement, “Yeah, those $@#$% goats…”

One thing is certain: both animals are clean and are used interchangeably in temple sacrifice (Cf. Exodus 12:5).

18 Responses to “Why Can’t Goats Get No Respect?”

  1. BCBill said

    As a long time keeper of goats (though I don’t have any right now) I have never understood this parable either. Now I must admit that goats will eat any ornamental plant or tree that you are trying to grow so they are a bit pesky. However when you take goats out into the fields you don’t need dogs and herders, and you don’t need to shout and push them about you just start walking and they come right along with you. Goats love their people and will follow them anywhere. When you stop they look around, see that you are going to be there for awhile and settle in to grazing, that is the ones that want to eat, many of the rest of them will come up for their required scratching before they settle in to eating.

  2. J. Madson said

    could be the practice of the scapegoat

  3. I’m not sure either, but I did a little bit of a search and I turned up a few things that might be helpful.

    Differences between sheep and goats


    The distinguishing characteristic in the parable seems to be social awareness and care for the “least of these”. Perhaps goats do not have a care for each other that sheep seem to? Goats butt heads?

    “There are distinct differences in behavior between sheep and goats. Goats are curious and independent, while sheep tend to be more distant and aloof. Sheep have a stronger flocking instinct and become very agitated if they are separated from the rest of the flock.” (http://www.sheep101.info/sheepandgoats.html)

  4. BrianJ said

    Sorry, but I’ve been traveling and could not respond.

    BCBill: it’s always nice to hear from the expert. Thanks! (Check out my question to Michaela Stephens below.)

    J Madson: I suppose it could, but it’s hard to make the connection.

    Michaela Stephens: Interesting link. As for goats butting heads, remember that it is Desert Bighorn Sheep that are most famous for that behavior. You may be on to something by focusing in on the “care for others” aspect of the parable. BCBill: are goats selfish jerks?

  5. BCBill said

    No, goats are not selfish jerks and though it is true that they do not have as strong a flocking habit as sheep that has some benefits. There are many stories of sheep killing themselves piling up against a barrier of some kind when pushed by bad weather, goats don’t have to squeeze that much.

    I would point out that it isn’t the sheep that go out looking for the lost one it is the shepherd.

    I think the idea about the scapegoat is likely the most useful research direction. Also goat meat, though quite tasty and one of the main meats worldwide is not as tender and juicy as lamb so there be a differentiation there.

  6. BrianJ said

    “I would point out that it isn’t the sheep that go out looking for the lost one it is the shepherd.”

    Excellent point.

    “…goat meat…is not as tender and juicy as lamb so there be a differentiation there.”

    That was one of the things I wondered about: the economic value of sheep vs. goats. Sheep are good for wool and meat, goats for milk and meat. Which flock is more profitable? Even then, the parable is pretty harsh toward the goats.

    Also, why separate the sheep and goats at all? I assume from the structure of the parable that the two are tended together and only separated on certain occasions—shearing season, for example. I mean, this isn’t like the “wheat and tares” where there’s a real problem with not separating the two, right?

  7. RobF said

    Some interesting thoughts on this here:

  8. BrianJ said

    RobF: thanks for the link. What did you find interesting? I ask because I found it troubling for several reasons, including:

    1) “God uses the goat to symbolize evil in numerous instances in the Bible. In Zechariah 10:3 (KJV) He says He will punish the goats.” This isn’t quite the case. The word in this verse translated “goats” in the KJV is used metonymously to indicate “the male leaders of the people who lead in place of the (absent) shepherd.”

    2) “The first lesson is that neither the sheep nor the goats are surprised at the place Christ assigns them. A careful reading of the parable shows that clearly.” Sort of, I guess…. But this “careful reading” really amounts to an argument from silence, and I question whether the parable is silent on that issue because it wasn’t the point of the parable: the parable is about charity, not about how we will regard the justice of our judgment. An additional purpose of the parable—the “surprise!” portion—seems to be to illustrate just how vital charity (as opposed to piety, perhaps) is in God’s eyes. Charity, and nothing more, is the rule by which we are measured. (In fariness, I may have just misread the article, because its author highlights this point later: “…but they express surprise at the reasons He gives for His judgment.”)

    3) “Of course, their treatment of Christ manifests itself in how they treated those in whom Christ lived, those who had His Spirit.” Again, I may be missing the point, but does “those who had His Spirit” mean just fellow-Christians? i.e., we don’t have to worry about how we treat non-Christians? I recognize that the parable uses the phrase “…least of these, my brethren,” which could indeed indicate that Christ cares only about how his followers are treated, but that is a problematic doctrine in my opinion.

    4) The article compares the “bad” characteristics of goats to the “good” characteristics of sheep. Not fair. Not to mention that it seems to overplay the “bad” characteristics of goats, at least according to what BCBill wrote above. Moreover, some of the supposedly nasty, awful, evil traits in goats could be seen as virtues: for example, “They will work tirelessly to spring themselves from any situation they deem inhibiting” = be wise as serpents but harmless as doves.

    5) It implicitly raises but doesn’t address the underlying question: if goats are so awful, why keep them in the first place?

    Those are just my quick thoughts. Sorry if this comes across as piling on you for posting the link!

  9. BCBill said

    Rob. F’s link to the goats and sheep explanation had this quote:

    Goats are capricious. They are impulsive and unpredictable, devious and contrary. If they are not poking their heads through fences, they may be standing on their hind legs, stretching for those tender leaves just out of reach. Goats are never content with what they have.

    This is all mostly “sheep propaganda”!!!!! Yes they do consider fences and gates to be an intellectual challenge so you have to build some pretty good fences but this “impulsive…devious and contrary” stuff is in my experience simply not fair.

    So let me give you the best example I can think of. I milked my herd of goats twice a day. When it was milking time the goats lined up outside of the milking shed waiting to go in. Inside I had a raised platform that they needed to hop onto so that I could sit at a standard comfortable height and milk them. I opened up the door, in comes the first goat, she hops up on the shelf without any prompting and happily starts eating her feed. No complaints, no kicking, basically content to have the food and the pressure on her bag relieved. Once done she hops down, walks out quietly and the next one comes in. Now they didn’t follow exactly the same order every day, there was the occaisional jostling around but by and large they did the milking in the same order every day. Now is that capricious or impulsive?

    The business about not be followers as I noted earlier is in my experience simply not true. You have to push sheep around from place to place, goats you simply walk and they follow.

    So I am back to the same spot, it is just a parable however and I am not going to get all twisted out of shape.

  10. BrianJ said

    BCBill: “sheep propaganda.” LOL! I’m going to quote you on that in church, you know.

  11. RobF said

    BrianJ, I thought the article was interesting, but maybe not completely illuminating? :-)

    Something that crossed my mind was maybe goats are too smart for their own good and it gets them into trouble (I’m still pondering the ways that our thinking contrast with revealed Wisdom–see my recent post)? Maybe that’s just more sheep propaganda :-)

  12. BCBill said

    Rob F

    No I think you may have your finger right on it!!!! Wow ;)

    It could be that goats “are too smart for their own good” just like a lot of us are, snooping around on the internet, joining chats, researching into topics that don’t get discussed in Sunday School (that’s kind of like jumping over the fence and eating on Mom’s favorite rose bushes). Goats will follow a leader they love very very well but they always keep questing. Hmmm, looks like I might be headed for the left hand no matter what I think is sheep propaganda.

  13. BrianJ said

    After all of this I wonder if some are just looking for too much from this analogy—it’s not really even a parable, is it? Maybe Jesus didn’t really mean to focus on the sheep vs. goats at all, instead just using them as an example of two similar things that are quickly sorted. In fact, that may be just his point: there’s not a whole lot of difference between sheep and goats, but given a certain criterion (presence of beard/kindness to others) it’s really quite easy to sort them into two groups.

    He might just as well have referred to dividing the “apples from the oranges” or the “blankets from the pillows” and we’d be left extolling the virtues of apples and blankets compared to the citrusy lasciviousness and downy-soft idleness of oranges and pillows!

  14. Jennifer O. said

    From my research, the biggest most likely reason why he separated the sheep from the goats is how they respond to the shepherd. The shepherd of sheep stands in front of them and they follow Him and come willingly when they are called. Goats on the other hand must be herded from behind, being “pushed” to do things. I think there are obvious parallels here to members of the church…are we self-motivated and always following Him without having to be pushed and prodded, always having to be reminded and told what to do?

  15. BrianJ said

    Jennifer O: thanks for your comment. I’m curious how you would respond to what BCBill wrote in the comments about herding goats.

    • Jennifer O. said

      Well, I can certainly vouch that the grass not presented in Sunday School can taste better and be more filling.

      However, I am not sure I would use the word “smarter” to refer to goats who follow their own desires instead of the shepherd. I agree that they are more curious by nature, but they are also known to “eat anything, including garbage” which can easily happen to us when our sources of information are questionable. Sheep are more selective in ruminating the green grass. It’s nothing new to realize that ruminating has parallels to pondering (and I believe linguistically they are related as well). This doesn’t mean outside study from non-LDS or non-mainstream reference material is in any way wrong, because I’ve gained some incredible insights from noncanonized and other sources that have strengthened my testimony in ways it couldn’t have been without it. Sheep are also known for being sensitive to quiet noises. Similarly, by recognizing the voice (word) of the shepherd (God), and listening to the still small voice (Spirit), we will be able to follow Him to safety and “lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23). This phrase has reference to being content and full, as a sheep only lies down to ruminate under those conditions.

      Another parallel along these lines is that goats nibble on grasses, but never make it to the roots whereas the sheep take in the fulness of the meal. This correlates well with the product – goats milk is more “watered down” and the sheep’s milk is more “fat”.

      The key is to not label these animals (or people for that matter) according to the greater “intelligence” but instead recognize their differences in “humility” – following instead of leading, staying within the bounds that have been set, tail down (sheep) instead of up (pride of goat), recognizing the voice of the shepherd and coming TO him, etc.

  16. NathanG said

    I read Mosiah 14 the other day and thought of this. We’ve focused a lot on the goats part of this, but Isaiahs treatment of sheep is interesting in this chapter. Verse 6 compares us to sheep and verse 7 seems to be about Christ. I’d be curious how many times the sheep in the scriptures are in need of rescuing or wandering away, but how willing the sheep seem to respond to the shepherd.

  17. CEF said

    Could it be something as simple as; when placed on a narrow path, sheep will never backup, while I suppose goats and the rest of us will?

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: