Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The sheep hear his voice

10 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (Jn 10:1-5).
i) This is a much-loved passage of Scripture. Recently I saw a poster for a lost dog that made me aware of a distinction which commentators usually overlook. The distinction between hearing and naming. 
The poster had a picture of their dog. It said their dog "responds to the name…," then gave three variations on the same name or nickname. I assume the theory behind this is that if a stranger sees their dog roaming around, and he calls to it by name, it will come to him because it recognizes its name. 
That's an example of humans projecting human aptitudes on animals. It may flatter them to think their dog knows its own name. After all, they named it! 
But I think that overestimates canine intelligence. For that matter, we don't even know if dogs distinguish consonants and vowels the way we do. 
When people walk their dogs I sometimes notice then talking to their dogs, as if their dogs understand English. As if a dog is a child. 
Now, admittedly, I can't get inside the mind of a dog, and even if I could, I couldn't report back to you what a dog thinks like, since if I was thinking like a dog, I'd lack the cognitive ability to articulate my thoughts.
However, I'm guessing that when a dog responds to someone calling to it, what the dog recognizes is not the sound of a name, but the sound of a voice. It recognizes a familiar voice. The voice of its master or a family member. A unique timbre. A stranger can call a dog by name, but I doubt the dog will come to him for that reason. 
By the same token, dogs are very sensitive to the owner's tone of voice. A friendly tone. An angry tone. That's what they respond to. Not words, but tone and timbre. 
Of course, there are gregarious dogs who rush over to anyone they see. But that's a different principle.
ii) Naming is significant to the person who designates the dog. Hearing is significant to the dog. Naming has significance to the dog owner. It's a way the owner relates to his pet. He attaches personal significance to his dog by naming it. It's his dog, which is why he has the right to name it. It belongs to him. The name means nothing to the dog. 
However, the dog is familiar with his master's voice. He associates that voice with his master. That voice is significant to the dog. 
iii) I don't think sheep are terribly bright animals. And they're generally dumber than dogs. They are certainly dumber than sheep dogs (e.g. a collie or shetland shepherd). A sheep dog has to be smarter than the sheep to herd a flock of sheep. 
So the naming/hearing dichotomy applies to sheep as well as dogs.
Sometimes two or more flocks of sheep intermingle. Shepherds can separate them because his sheep know his voice. 
iv) I doubt shepherds name every sheep in their flock. It's been estimated that on average, a Palestinian shepherd had a flock of about 100 sheep. That would be a lot of names to keep track of. Fathers of large families sometimes find it hard to remember the names of all their kids! And they don't have a 100 kids. 
So this is probably a contrast between the average shepherd, who may name a few standouts, and the Good Shepherd, who really does know each sheep by name.
v) It's not just that Christ knows his sheep by name: he names them. Christian sheep have different first names, but the same last name (Rev 2:17; 3:12). Our surname is God's name. We are his adopted sons. 
In Scripture, naming is significant. When God names someone, that's an indication of possession, character, and/or future destiny. 
The elect are significant to God ever before God is significant to the elect. He loved us before we loved him. 
vi) Parents name their children. They often give a lot of thought to the name. Before the child is born, they may choose a boy's name and a girl's name, they wait to see which applies.
Babies aren't responsive to names, but they're responsive to their mother's voice. 
Unlike sheep, a child's name becomes significant to the child. He resents it if people forget his name, mispronounce his name, or make fun of his name.
vii) Sometimes this comes full circle. If the parent becomes senile, the parent will forget his (or her) child's name. The parent will forget his own name.
However, I suspect a parent who's becoming senile forgets a child's name before he forgets a child's voice. Until he becomes completely senile, he will continue to recognize the sound of his child's voice even after he's forgotten his child's name. 
Hearing his child's voice will comfort him. He won't feel so alone.
viii) Even though he's forgotten his own name, his child remembers. If a senile parent is hospitalized, he's surrounded by strangers. He could easily be lost.
His only real protection is having someone with the same last name who visits him regularly. If a grown child visits the parent every day, or camps out in the hospital room until he's discharged, the staff have to be more attentive. Whether or not they care about the patient, their actions are being monitored by someone who does. Someone who shares the same surname. 
That's a name they need to respect. There are legal liabilities if they don't. 
The Good Shepherd protects his sheep even when, or especially when, his sheep may be oblivious to danger, or defenseless in the face of danger. 


  1. Actually, for good or ill, dogs do recognize their names. They probably don't know that it's their name, per se, but they do know that "this is the word that signals me that something for me is coming." Dogs recognize their names from a stranger, especially if it is associated with good circumstances ("A treat might be coming!") or bad circumstances ("I have done something against the human rules, and a human has noticed!")

    Of course, the heartbreaking thing is when a rescue dog recognizes his or her old name. We had a rescue dog who at first basically cowered whenever he heard his old name, and later just disliked it.

    It's also a commonplace among trainers to formally give dogs a name to recognize as a formal signal that a command is coming, and then a nickname for non-command interactions. Most dog owners do something like this informally, of course, and without thinking about it, much as human parents in our culture often use a child's full name as a signal that they are serious and displeased about having to call the child.

    1. Some dogs come to strangers who beckon them if the stranger seems friendly. Makes friendly gestures. Has a friendly tone of voice. That isn't evidence that they are responding to a name. Rather, they are responding to body language. Often a conditioned response, like patting your upper thigh to encourage a dog to come to you.

      That's quite different than supposing a dog thinks to itself: "That man is talking to me! He's calling my name!"