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.

What’s in a name?

Though we use names and titles differently in 2011 CE than in 111 CE they affect us: our emotional state, our responsiveness to the person being introduced or spoken to, and our general “feeling” about the person being addressed, spoken about, or spoken to. This was the thinking behind the Sunday Forum on 15 May 2011.

For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.  1 Peter 2:25

Taking that single verse at the end of the Lesson from 1 Peter we spoke out our “names and titles” of Jesus to one another. It was a lively discussion. Please leave a comment here to any or all of the questions we considered on Sunday. At minimum, answer the questions for yourself.

Sunday’s Questions

  • How many names/titles do you use when speaking of Jesus?
  • How many names/titles do you use for addressing Jesus in prayer?
  • Which name do you use most frequently?
  • Have you ever thought about this?
  • Does it make any difference?

These are just a few of the questions that can be asked based upon a single line, verse 25, in today’s lesson from the First Letter of Peter. To highlight once again the dilemma faced by contemporary translators I offer several translations of  the Greek word episkopos used long ago. Try out each translation as a prayer word; each word evokes a different emotion for me. How about you?

King James Version KJV
For ye were as sheep going astray ; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

New Revised Standard Version NRSV
For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

New International Version NIV
For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

New American Bible Revised Edition NABRE
For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Contemporary English Version CEV
You had wandered away like sheep. Now you have returned to the one who is your shepherd and protector.