Shepherding agreements such as those between Laban and Jacob would have been very familiar to the ancient writers and readers of the Biblical text. Such arrangements were part of a larger system of legal codes that regulated labor agreements. In the case of shepherds, the owner of a flock would contract a shepherd to care for the animals. Sometimes the owner would be an individual, but ownership could also be held by a temple or palace.1

At Tell Ali, a Middle Assyrian site (16th–10th centuries B.C.) located along a tributary of the Tigris River in Iraq, examples of these ancient contracts were discovered. On one of the cuneiform tablets from Tell Ali, a portion of the text reads “162 ewes, 35 female lambs, 63 wethers, 26 male lambs, 15 male goats belonging to the palace have been given to Takbaru for pasturing …”2

Another contract, which dates from the reign of Samsuiluna (1749–1712 B.C.), reads “92 ewes, 20 rams, 22 breeding lambs, 24 [spring(?)] lambs, 33 she-goats, 4 male goats, 27 kids—total: 64 goats, which Sinamuh has entrusted to Dada the shepherd. He [i.e., Dada] assumes liability (therefore) and will replace any lost animals. Should Nidnatum, his [i.e., Dada’s] shepherd boy absent himself, he [i.e., Nidnatum] will bear responsibility for any (consequent) loss, (and) Dada will measure out 5 kor of barley.”3 This particular contract exemplifies an arrangement that seems to have been common at the time: a sort of shepherd contractor negotiates with the owner of the flocks and then subcontracts the actual herding out to kaparrum, or “shepherd boys.”

There is an ancient precedent to such labor arrangements that provided a template for these types of shepherding contracts. The Code of Hammurabi is a system of laws enacted by King Hammurabi in the 18th century B.C. in ancient Babylon (pictured on a Babylonian stela from Susa, Iran). It is one of the earliest known examples of a set of publicly proclaimed laws set forth by a ruler to his people. Several hundred edicts are arranged in orderly groups according to topic and address issues such as crime and punishment, property rights, marriage and slaves. Detailed in this extraordinary set of laws is the legal basis for the contracts that existed between shepherds and the owners of the flocks. Regarding this arrangement, the Code of Hammurabi declares that:


If any one hire a herdsman for cattle or sheep, he shall pay him eight gur of corn per annum.4


If any one, a cow or a sheep . . .


If he kill the cattle or sheep that were given to him, he shall compensate the owner with cattle for cattle and sheep for sheep.


If a herdsman, to whom cattle or sheep have been entrusted for watching over, and who has received his wages as agreed upon, and is satisfied, diminish the number of the cattle or sheep, or make the increase by birth less, he shall make good the increase or profit which was lost in the terms of settlement.


If a herdsman, to whose care cattle or sheep have been entrusted, be guilty of fraud and make false returns of the natural increase, or sell them for money, then shall he be convicted and pay the owner ten times the loss.


If the animal be killed in the stable by God (an accident), or if a lion kill it, the herdsman shall declare his innocence before God, and the owner bears the accident in the stable.


If the herdsman overlook something, and an accident happen in the stable, then the herdsman is at fault for the accident which he has caused in the stable, and he must compensate the owner for the cattle or sheep.5

Shepherds’ contracts were usually made on a yearly basis, coinciding with the annual shearing, at which point the flocks would be turned over to the owners, sheared, counted, evaluated and redistributed back into a shepherd’s care. The tablet on which the contract was written was often—or always—sealed with the shepherd’s seal, and was therefore known as a kanīkum, or “sealed tablet.” Such legal contracts outlined types of remuneration for the shepherd: He was allowed a percentage of milk products, and probably also a share of the wool, as exemplified in contracts discovered in Larsa.6

Since one of the primary aims of the contract was to provide incentive for the shepherd to provide excellent care for the animals, his interests were often further secured by allowing him to take ownership of any animals that were beyond the stipulated percentage of growth of the flock. In this way, he would be careful to optimize the flock’s growth and guard against any losses. This is precisely the arrangement that Jacob agreed to when he took the shepherding responsibilities for Laban’s flock for the third time—an agreement that he managed to turn to his distinct advantage.—S.K.Y.