Uncovering ancient imagery in 21st century English

The Lord is my shepherd

Psalm 23:1

“The Lord is my shepherd.” This line from Psalm 23 is among the most famous images from the Bible. But as I describe in And God Said, for most people the English words hide the ancient imagery.

So begins Joel M. Hoffman in his post, The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think (or: Don’t Mess with the Shepherds) on his blog God Didn’t Say That.

Hoffman, in imagining a 21st century “shepherd,” tells us he would cast Woody Allen to play the role in his imaginary movie. But he doesn’t let us stop there.

So even though the Hebrew in Psalm 23 is ro’eh, and even though ro’eh literally means “shepherd,” I don’t think “The Lord is my shepherd” is a very good translation.

He points us to the qualities of “shepherd” in the Hebrew Bible. Shepherds…

… have a surprising and surpassing ferocity about them

We see … in Jeremiah 49:19, where God is “like a lion” that can’t be stopped. Using increasingly powerful imagery, the text has God ask, “Who is like me? Who can summon me? Who is the shepherd who can stand before me?” (NRSV). In other words, God is so powerful that even a shepherd will be beaten back. In modern terms, again, the imagery is nonsensical. But in the Bible, shepherds were symbols of strength.

… are similar to royalty and nobility

King David was a shepherd. … in Micah 5:5, … shepherds are in parallel with rulers, a literary device that, in the Bible, suggests that they were similar. And in Nahum 3:18 we find shepherds in parallel with nobles.

… have “sex-appeal”

Finally, shepherds were symbols of romance. Song of Solomon, the most overtly sexual book of the Bible, is filled with images of shepherds. … The famous imagery in verse 2:16, “my lover is mine and I am his,” ends with two Hebrew words to describe the heroine’s lover. They translate as, “[the one] who is a shepherd among flowers.”

After this expansion of our wimpy 21st century understanding of “shepherd” Hoffman summarizes: “In short, for the ancient image of a shepherd, think John Wayne, not Woody Allen.”

I encourage you to read The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think. You may hear Psalm 23 with new ears, new hope, and new delight.

If you’re in the desert on 4/21/13 come join us in the Sunday Morning Forum at St. Margaret’s at 9:00 am. If not, let me/us know what you think about Joel’s post and linguistic analysis; leave a comment.

Author: Daniel Rondeau

I am a husband and father and an Episcopal Priest (now retired) in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.

One thought on “Uncovering ancient imagery in 21st century English”

  1. I won’t be at your class tomorrow. I do not have a wimpy idea of a shepherd. I raised sheep. I was their shepherd. I loved my sheep. A shepherd is someone who really cares about you. I love the image of my Lord being a shepherd. Jbhc

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