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A Sheep of a Different Color
In Defense of the Faith
Monday, December 10, 2012
Wendy Wippel

No Sheep Shows after the Thanksgiving Day parade, so you’ve probably never seen a Piebald Sheep, an unusual animal considered an 'heirloom' breed in the US because commercial breeding has overlooked them.  Meaning they are still pretty much the same sheep, physically and genetically, that they were thousands of years ago.

I’ve never really understood why the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show follows the Thanksgiving Day parade. It’s like Thanksgiving for people who don’t know who to thank.

Which reminds me of my favorite joke: "What’s on the atheist’s tombstone?"

"All dressed up and no place to go."

But I digress....

Piebald sheep are, (who guessed it?) piebald, which means multicolored. But that doesn't really paint the picture. Piebald sheep are spotted, speckled and streaked in numerous colors, commonly black and white spots but also grays and variations of beige tan and brown.

They are also polycerate, meaning multi-horned (they can have as many as six horns) and have long, thick tails, called “fat tails”.

Why do we care? Genesis 31.

So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field, to his flock, and said to them, “I see your father’s countenance, that it is not favorable toward me as before; but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that with all my might I have served your father. Yet your father has deceived me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not allow him to hurt me. If he said thus: ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore speckled. And if he said thus: ‘The streaked shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked. So God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me.“And it happened, at the time when the flocks conceived, that I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the rams which leaped upon the flocks were streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted. Then the Angel of God spoke to me in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob.’ And I said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Lift your eyes now and see, all the rams which leap on the flocks are streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now arise, get out of this land, and return to the land of your family.’ (Genesis 3:4-13 NKJV)

Some trace the origin of the Piebald Sheep back several thousand years to the middle east. The story goes that the sheep traveled with their owners as they migrated through Northern Africa, then into Spain, and then finally into England, where eventually English breeders, familiar with the biblical accounts, named them “Jacob sheep”.

But that would give credence to the biblical account. So, of course, other theories were proposed.

They had nothing to do with Jacob; they descended from Viking sheep.

They had nothing to do with Jacob; they washed ashore in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Nevertheless, the Bible does associate Jacob with the development of a streaked, speckled and grey spotted breed of sheep in the area of Canaan about 4000 years ago. And, interestingly enough, artistic renderings of spotted and streaked, multi-horn sheep first appear in Egypt about 1850 BC, right about the time Jacob and his sheep would have arrived there after son Joseph became ruler of Egypt and brought his family to Egypt. Cuneiform records of spotted, speckled, multihorn fat-tailed sheep that also appeared about the same time in Ur, Uruk, Sumeria, and Mesopotamia.

And now we have DNA. Recent genetic analysis using endogenous retroviruses (RNA-based viruses embedded in sheep DNA) actually proved that the Jacob sheep have no genetic resemblance to Viking sheep, and no resemblance to sheep now grazing on the plains in Spain.

The Jacob sheep do, however (no surprise) show strong resemblance to sheep now grazing in the same areas where those ostensibly first speckled sheep grazed, as recorded in Genesis 31. Sheep now common in the areas close to where the original Jacob lived.

Which puts a little different spin on another story in Genesis:

"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. Also he made him a tunic of many colors." (Genesis 37:3)

Jacob was a shepherd, whose wealth, from the beginning, consisted of his flocks.

And he made his son a coat of many colors. A coat--almost certainly--made from the spotted, speckled, many-colored wool of his sheep. Jacob's sheep. The Jacob sheep.

And now we know the rest of the story!

About Wendy Wippel

Last week: A Time to Weep

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