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    In the Valley of Shadow

    A Reflection on Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”

    By Atar Hadari

    July 1, 2021
    • Janice

      I have looked at Psalm 23 with different eyes since reading the book "The Song of Our Syrian Guest", written by clergyman William Allen Knight in 1904. The author describes how a Syrian visitor explains the symbolism of Psalm 23 to himself and his family at the dinner table. The guest describes the flat level pasture as the "table" of the psalm -a dining place for sheep out in the open, with a clear view of predators that might threaten - and the anointing with oil as the standard practice of shepherds for sheep that are injured, old or tired. The metaphor of the shepherd, said the Syrian guest, is continued unbroken through the entire psalm, a fact that has been largely lost as we move away from an agrarian life and its activities.

    • Elizabeth Mittler

      What a comforting commentary! As my father was dying he asked me to sing to him and this is what I sang. He gave a sigh and died as I sang. It has been more than twenty years and this psalm , which had been a favourite both as I sang it or read it , became attached to that incident and gave me pain. After a number of years, I was able to sing it with different tune, but it is only now, in my eighty-ninth year, that I can go back to the one which sang my father through the darkness. This commentary helped. Thank you. I will keep learning and singing.

    • KEVIN

      Again more translation errors. It is some times very depressing to find my sacred cows being roasted one by one. It seems as though I have nothing left to hang onto. Other than Jesus the Christ. Am guessing that this is good as He may be making me ready to fit through the eye of a needle.

    • Marcia Bascom

      Can you share the Hebrew song you sing?

    • Terry Jo Harford

      I would’ve liked to have heard the haunting Hebrew version he spoke of. 🕊

    • Connie Henry

      Love this article! I taught Latin at the high school and college level for decades, and the Latin for verse 1 doesn't mention shepherds. It says "The Lord rules/guides me; nothing will be lacking to me." I wonder what the Hebrew says. It's vitally important to know what the original languages say--and do not say.

    • Rowland Stenrud

      I am somewhat surprised that the Jewish-Christian corruption of Psalm 23 was not brought to the readers' attention. God's name, Yahweh, appears almost 7,000 times in the original manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures, but has been removed in most Bibles. The correct reading of Psalm 23 is: "Yahweh is my shepherd..." The translators of our English Bibles note their substitution of "LORD" for "Yahweh" by putting the word "LORD" in uppercase letters: LORD instead of Lord. Yahweh, not Yeshua, is the subject of Psalm 23. The uppercase letters are usually a bit smaller than what I have typed.

    • Merv Lebor

      Excellent interpretation, many thanks Dr Hadari

    Psalm 23 is perhaps the single most famous psalm in the 150, and it’s certainly the single most famous in English. There’s a musical setting of it in Hebrew that I have always found haunting and affecting to sing as Sabbath comes in and as it goes out. My wife finds the tune so melancholy that she objects to my singing it as Sabbath goes out, finding that twilight moment sufficiently mournful without my musical accompaniment. But the other week, as Sabbath faded, I was putting my small son to bed and had occasion to sing it to him. He said it sounded good, but asked what it meant. That made me try to remember my own translation and talk him through it on the hoof, or on the sofa, to be more precise.

    Some translations, of course, are so well measured that they enter the language and the consciousness of the common reader even without being set to music. Bible commentator Sue Gillingham charts the endless uses of Psalm 23 in church settings, musicals, oratorios, Clint Eastwood movies, and so on. The version most English speakers know was based on Myles Coverdale’s Bible translation and finalized a century later by Francis Rous, whose work on the Scottish Psalter of 1650 was vetted by a committee for a full six years before being approved. That vetting has withstood time – as Gillingham notes, aside from some modernization of spelling, it’s the version still sung by Christians today anywhere in the world. Retranslating it would be like trying to sell a different text of “My Way” – there’d be no point in recording it because, whatever its merits, everyone has Frank Sinatra already in his ear. Ol’ Blue Eyes has that market; Rous rules with the twenty-third.

    impressionistic painting of the Israelites on the way to Sinai

    Yoram Raanan, On the Way to Sinai © Yoram Raanan, used by permission from the artist

    But there are differences between the Hebrew and the English, and you can explain them, even to a ten-year-old. The Jewish prayer book makes use of this psalm as a transition point, first from the fearsome world in the Friday afternoon service before Sabbath, until the light gives way to darkness and security, then again when the holy day gives way to the daunting world of the week that ensues. There’s a trace of that fearful world in the Hebrew of the original which is not quite there in the English.

    No one really knows what the Hebrew word mizmor means, but it is frequently translated as “song,” and this one’s attribution to David suggests interpreting this psalm as relating to David’s own biography, unlike other psalms that are more open-ended in their metaphysical aspirations. So this may be a song about a shepherd by a shepherd, and when he talks about being pursued, and about enemies, you know they are powerful ones. This is not, therefore, a metaphorical poem about enemies inside one’s mind.

    The Lord is my shepherd – I want for nothing.
    He lets me graze on tenderest grasses – he leads me to the still water
    He saves my life, he leads me on the right ways
    For his own name’s sake.

    What you can explain to a child is that this is a sheep’s portrait of a shepherd. The sheep may stray, but it knows that the shepherd will pull it back from the cliff. The shepherd will find the sheep the tender grass, not the dry stalks; a quiet bit of the river, not a raging part where the current could sweep an animal away. Most of all, the shepherd is always watchful because his own reputation is at stake. This is a professional relationship. Now we shift to something more personal.

    Even if I walk in the valley of absolute darkness
    I will fear no evil because you are there with me.
    Your crooked stick and cane – they reassure me.

    The valley of the shadow of death, memorably alluded to in Christian literature from Bunyan to Tennyson and beyond, is not to be found in the Hebrew. Amos Chacham, in his commentary on Psalms, notes that the word tzalmavet, which translates as “shadow of death,” could originally have been read as tzalmut, which accords with the parallel verb in Arabic and means only “deepest dark.” The shift in reading was a later amendment in the punctuation of the Hebrew which added the connotation of death. But in the original Hebrew the sheep is just in a valley that gets darker and darker as the sun sets, as we are when Sabbath goes. Yet it fears no evil because of the comforting physical presence of the shepherd. Like sheep, we are comforted by the presence of the Lord. And the tools of his trade – the cane to walk with and the crooked stick to pull a sheep back from danger – are a confidence-building manifestation of the extent to which he knows his business.

    Now we shift from the animal kingdom to the political one, where animals are, if you will, political.

    You’ve set before me a table – in plain sight of my enemies,
    Lathered my head with oil, my cup is quenched.

    We see David at Saul’s table again and again in Samuel I, often when Saul means him no good at all. The language of anointing here is not dainty and delicate – the Hebrew verb means to fatten, make slick with grease. The English cup runneth over, but the Hebrew cup is no longer thirsty – its thirst is satisfied.

    Only good and kindness will come after me all the days of my life
    And I’ll sit in the Lord’s house the length of my days.

    As the sheep is beset on all sides by natural enemies, the political animal sits surrounded by its enemies but immune to them, swathed in the Lord’s protection. The verses go on to describe the feeling that divine oversight will go on, that only friendly deeds will chase after the weary warrior and he will sit still in the Lord’s house, perpetually under his care.

    As you leave the week behind you on Friday evening you acknowledge the Lord’s protection and what threats you left behind; as you begin a new week the next evening you call on the Lord’s protection again, re-entering the valley, not of death, but sometimes of very deepest darkness.

    As the sun set that Sabbath my son questioned me about the grass and water at the beginning. “He leads you to the tender grass, not the dry chaff,” I said, “and to the still water, not where the current can come and drag you away but where you can drink and not be worried.”

    “Oh yeah,” he said. “That makes sense.” And then he went to sleep.

    Contributed By AtarHadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

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