The animal apocalypse is important for the general eschatological outline it provides. The people of Israel will be oppressed and a deliverer will come (although this deliverer is not as detailed as in the Similitudes.) There will be a judgment (90:20) and the enemies of the sheep will be cast into the abyss (90:22, 24). A new feature in this apocalypse is that those who are cast into the abyss will be converted (90:30-31, 37-39). This conversion will include the sheep (Israel) as well as the other animals (gentiles). This restoration will include a New Jerusalem and a renovation of the Temple as well as a period of peace and safety for the sheep as they are ruled by the true Lord of the Sheep.
Does the Animal Apocalypse anticipate the conversion of the Gentiles? Some scholars find this unusual coming from a Jewish writer in the midst of the Maccabean revolt. But the prophets of the Hebrew Bible often described the nations as coming to Zion to hear the word of the Lord (Isa 2; 25:6-8; Zech 14:16-19). Like the Animal Apocalypse, the surviving nations will acknowledge the God of Israel, although it appears many will be slaughtered or judged prior to the establishment of a New Jerusalem.
If the idea of Israel as the Lord’s sheep was common enough in first century Palestine, then these statements by Jesus may have been understood more eschatologically than we might have ordinarily thought. Certainly contemporary preaching makes these sheep / shepherd analogies into images of love, care, and protection. In the Animal Apocalypse, there is something of this present, but the focus is on the shepherd’s ownership of the sheep and the potential slaughter of the sheep by their enemies.
While it is true there is a theme of loving care and tender affection in the “good shepherd” sayings, Jesus may be playing on the idea that the people of Israel are poorly lead by their current shepherds (the elders of Israel) and that a change is in order. Jesus is therefore claiming that he is the true shepherd of Ezekiel 34. Israel’s leaders have failed as shepherds, therefore Jesus will feed the people and care for them. Eschatologically speaking, then, Jesus tapped into a rich tradition shared by the Animal Apocalypse.
One final question. Does this allegorical history result from a loss of faith in God’s plan to restore the Kingdom to Israel? A writer living at the beginning of the Hasmonean period may have thought that Judas Maccabees was a new David or new Joshua, but despite the remarkable progress of the Hasmoneans, they failed to establish anything like a new Davidic kingdom and Judah never rose to the hyperbole of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
I do not think that this Apocalypse expresses a loss of faith in God’s plan as much as a re-evaluation of that plan in the light of the present. Judas was not a new David, but someday a new David will appear to render justice and convert the nations. This shift to a future hope for God’s intervention is how apocalypses work. History is working toward God’s goal of restoring the kingdom to Israel and the writer is living in the shadow of that restoration.
Are there other elements of the Animal Apocalypse that shed light on biblical apocalyptic? Daniel and Revelation are obvious, but there are apocalyptic threads in Jesus and Paul as well.