Alice C. Linsley

Stone sheep cote in Zanuta, West Bank
Photo: Emil Salman

In the ancient world, dry stack sheep cotes served as housing for the shepherd. This is reflected in the King James version of Judges 5:16: "Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." 2 Samuel 7:8 also describes the sheep cote as a dwelling place (naveh).

Naveh also refers to a temple or a local shrine. Kar-nak and Kar-nevo refer to a place of sacred rituals. Terah's wife was the daughter of a shrine priest designated "Karnevo" in Jasher 7:50: "Terah took a wife and her name was Amsalai, the daughter of Karnevo..."

Sheep cotes similar to the one shown above are found in many parts of Europe and are called by different names: tholosgirnacaciara, and keyl. The last word, found in Wales, is provocatively similar to the Altaic kyr ayil, meaning a "sheep village,"or "the get-away to which the ram (krios) leads the sheep."

The dry stack sheep cotes pictured below are common in Ireland, Wales, Serbia and Croatia, all lands inhabited by haplogroup R1b populations.

This dry stack tholos in Abruzzo, Italy serves as a home and a sheep cote.

Shepherds used sheep cotes as shelters for many centuries. In archaic times, these structures served as seasonal housing for the shepherd and his family as they moved their livestock between higher summer elevations and lower winter pastures. More recently, sheep herders maintain permanent homes in valleys and only a few men move with their flocks to the seasonal sheep cotes.

A girna in Mellieha, Malta

The Horite ruler-priests maintained sheep in Judah and Edom. They lived in the "hill country" and their flocks grazed in the valleys. David would have been familiar with this way of life. In 2 Samuel 7:8, we read about David's divine appointment: "This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel." David's life was one of contrasts. He knew the physical hardships of the shepherd and the luxurious life of the high king. However, the Bible does not present this contrast.  Instead, we are told that David was taken from the sheep cote to the temple, and this is very instructive.  Sheep cotes, like threshing floors, served as sacred places in the ancient world. 
This sheep cote in Anatolia served as a place of worship.

The traditional sheep cote had a ziggurat shape (Mesopotamia) or the shape of a bnbn (the Nile Valley). The term "benben" is derived from the root bn, meaning to "swell forth" because the sacred pillar was regarded as a symbol of the Creator's power to give life. Benben have been found from Nigeria to India. Below is a photo of a benben in Lejja, Nigeria. It has the characteristic narrow opening of sheep cotes.

Sheep shearing was surrounded by religious ceremony. Shearing and shrines are associated in Genesis 38.

After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him. It was told to Tamar, "Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep."
Sheep shearing sometimes involved animal sacrifice and feasting on a large scale, as is evident in 2 Samuel 13:23-25.
Now it came about after two full years that Absalom had shearers in Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king's sons. Absalom came to the king and said, "Behold now, your servant has shearers; please let the king and his servants go with your servant." But the king said to Absalom, "No, my son, we should not all go, for we will be burdensome to you." Although he urged him, he would not go, but blessed him.

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