Where did Jesus come up with imagery such as the Good Shepherd and the bread and water of life? These concepts do not appear to reflect widespread metaphors of his contemporary culture or that of surrounding nations. Although Israelites are sometimes referred to as a flock, the phrase is "good shepherd" is nowhere found in the Old Testament. Nor do we find specific references to the bread and water of life, but only indirect symbolism such as the heavenly manna pointed out by Christ himself. The imagery Christ used was not primarily situational or contemporary, as was the case with Mohammed, who composed chapters of the Quran with titles such as "The Bee," "The Cow," and "The Camel" from his Arabian surroundings.
Christ's imagery and metaphors reach back to the first written language at the dawn of time, demonstrating the universality of the gospel message and supporting His claim that "before Abraham was, I AM:" that He was the self-existent Jehovah, Lord and Creator, whose knowledge and participation in the world of men stretched back to a time before Abraham that had long since faded to the knowledge of the world. Discoveries of ancient parallels to Christ's imagery and motifs in Sumerian and Egyptian literature could not reasonably have been known even to the most educated Jews living during the first century A.D.
Bread of Life and Water of Life
Jesus speaks frequently of the bread and water of life, and that the partakers thereof shall never hunger or thirst. The bread of life and living water do not appear to have been common Jewish motifs, but were prominent in ancient Sumeria.
The prosperity of early humans in the cradle of civilization depended upon the life-giving waters of the great rivers. Sometimes the rivers would flood and lead to famine; an insufficiency of water causing drought was equally disastrous. The Sumerian word a-zu, which literally means "knower of the waters," is used for physicians, wise men, and oracles of the future. Enki, the Sumerian god of fresh water, was also the god of wisdom, knowledge, and healing. Likewise Jesus, the giver of the water of life, is the great healer of the New Testament.
Prayers for eternal sustenance through bread and pure water in this world and in the next were widely invoked by the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, leading to the practice of funerary offerings in which the deceased's family would bring food and water to the tomb so that he would not be hungry in the next world. Only those with eternal sustenance would be happy in the netherworld. One Sumerian scholar observes:
"The request for clean water [in The dedication of an axe to Nergal] reflects the fear of the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia that the Underworld was a place where the spirits of the dead lived on dust and foul water. The miserable existence of the dead is portrayed in the compositions Gilgames^, Enkidu, and the Underworld and The death of Ur-Namma."
Similarly, the Egyptologist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge noted many prayers for the three necessities: breath, food, and water. Of the righteous who passed the bar of judgment, Budge translates the decree of the Egyptian narrative as follows:
"Let there be given to him cakes and ale [or, bread and wine] and a coming forth in the presence of Osiris."
The request of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians for the eternal sustenance of bread and fresh water echoes in the request of Jesus' disciples: "Lord, evermore give us this bread." Jesus replied: "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."
In Revelation, Saint John saw "a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb." The savior-god is the giver of pure water and eternal sustenance, as we see in the depiction of the Egyptian hall of judgment showing Osiris sitting on his throne with the four corners of the earth at his footstool (the "four sons of Horus," standing on the lotus flower) and the hieroglyph for water proceeding from underneath the throne.
The healing and restorative properties of the bread and water of life are seen in the Sumerian tale of Inanna's descent to the underworld. Inanna, the "queen of heaven," descends to the underworld and dies, but is restored to life when the "food of life" and "water of life" are sprinkled upon her body, which had been hung from a nail. Servants of the god Enki, the healer and giver of fresh water, request the corpse of Inanna in the nether world:
"give us the corpse hung from the nail,' they said to her (Ereshkigal). The pure Ereshkigal answers the kalaturru and kurgarru: 'the corpse, it is your queen's.' 'The corpse, though it is our queen's, give to us,' they said to her. They give them the corpse hung from the nail, One sprinkled upon her the 'food of life,' the other, the 'water of life.' Inanna arose.
Inanna is about to ascend from the nether world, the Anunnaki (a group of Mesopotamian deities) seized her and said: 'Who of those who have descended to the nether world ever ascends unharmed from the nether world! If Inanna would ascend from the nether world, let her give someone as her substitute.' Inanna ascends from the nether world." The god Dumuzi, the "good shepherd," is chosen as Inanna's substitute to take Inanna's place in the nether world.
The Good Shepherd
In ancient Sumeria, gods and kings were referred to as shepherds and their people as flocks, as seen in the following passages:
"He [Gilgamesh] is the shepherd of Uruk the Sheepfold, He is their shepherd."
The shepherd-god Dummuzi/Tammuz was the "chief shepherd."
"My father An the king, shepherd of the gods..."
"I, S^ulgi, am the herdsman and shepherd of the black-headed people.".
"I am the good shepherd of the black-headed...I am a human god, the lord of the numerous people. I am the strong heir of kingship."
The great king Ur-Namma is referred to repeatedly as the "trustworthy Shepherd.".
"[The god] Utu, shepherd of the land, father of the black-headed."
"Lipit-Es^tar, son of Enlil, may you shine as brilliantly as the sunlight!...May the black-headed people, numerous as flocks, follow the right path under you! "
The following praise poem describes attributes of the Sumerian diety Enlil which in many ways parallel the Old Testament Jehovah:
"You, Enlil, are lord, god, king. You are a judge who makes decisions about heaven and earth. Your lofty word is as heavy as heaven, and there is no one who can lift it...Your word is weighty in heaven, a foundation on the earth. In the heavens, it is a great..., reaching up to the sky. On earth it is a foundation which cannot be destroyed. When it relates to the heavens, it brings forth abundance: abundance will pour from the heavens. When it relates to the earth, it brings prosperity: the earth will produce prosperity. Your word means flax, your word means grain. Your word means the early flooding, the life of the lands. It makes the living creatures, the animals (?) which...breath joyfully in the greenery. You, Enlil, the good shepherd, know their ways (?)...the sparkling stars."
Black discusses the symbolism of the sheepfold:
"The composition exploits the powerful image of the sheepfold as a centre of warmth, well-being, prosperity, and stability: contented sheep and cattle in their byres are a common motif on cylinder seals and monumental art, especially of the Uruk and Early Dynastic periods. In the city laments too, the cities are often characterized as deserted sheepfolds or cattle-pens which have been abandoned by the gods. When the comfortable, ordered world of the sheepfold is attacked and disordered, as first in Dumuzid's dream and second when the demons enter, nothing but misery and death can come of it."
I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.