“The Lord is my Shepherd”: Interpreting Psalm 23

14 07 2008

One of papers that I attended at the SBL International Conference in Auckland last week, was David Clines’ analysis of Psalm 23. Entitled, “Psalm 23 and Method”, his analysis aimed to “approach the interpretation of the psalm using the resources of seven different literary hermeneutical methodologies available today”. Those methodologies were rhetorical criticism, deconstruction, gender criticism, materialist criticism, postcolonial criticism, pyschoanalytic criticism and intertextual criticism. Each methodology brought to bear on the psalm produced interesting results; while the overall combination produced a slightly comical effect, a number of valid points were raised.

Below, I include the Hebrew text of Psalm 23, along with the translation of the NRSV. Clines made a few points regarding translation and I have appended some of those, as well as a review of his approach(es).

Psalm 23

A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff –
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

A few points on translation: David Clines stresses that it is only a sadistic shepherd who leads his flock beside still waters, and argues that the preposition denotes “down to”; he also indicates that למען שמו (in NRSV, “for his name’s sake”) would best be “for the sake of his reputation”, as this fits with both God’s concerns throughout the Hebrew Bible, as well as with the material concerns of pragmatic shepherds. More importantly, the final verb appears to be a widely circulated mistranslation. ושבתי, vocalised as it is here, is from the root √שוב and not the root √ישב. In other words, the psalmist is not saying that “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord” but that “I shall return to the house of the Lord”. We shall see shortly the importance of translating this verse correctly.

Clines began his presentation with rhetorical criticism: a method of analysis that treats the language as a vehicle for literary communication. Concerned with poetic structure and literary devices, this form of criticism is intensely interested in the final form of the text, as it is presented before us here. And yet, if we are to read the NRSV on this psalm (as, indeed, many standard translations) then we do it a particular injustice.

The perspective in the first half of the poem is undeniably that of a sheep. We are told that Yahweh is “my” shepherd and we are given a number of ovine allusions. The author is concerned with grass, water, and with lying down, and sees comfort in a crook and a staff. Nonetheless, a reading of the NRSV would lead us to believe that this perspective then changes to that of a person. We are told of a table being laid, “my” head being anointed with oil, “my” cup running over, and dwelling in (or returning to) the house of the Lord. Has the perspective shifted?

According to Clines, no. If we were to argue for a shift in perspective then we would need that to happen between verses 4 and 5: verse 4 concludes with a reference to a crook and a staff, and verse 5 begins with a reference to a laid table. Furthermore, it would also be occurring in the middle of the only second-person section of the psalm (“… you are with me, your crook and your staff comfort me; you spread a table before me …”), which makes for a rather odd transition. Again, not only must the perspective of the poem change (the narrator, if we like) but so must God. We are told in the first verse that God is “my shepherd”: are we to presume that his identity has suddenly changed, without warning, to that of a host? Would a host serve his guests when they are surrounded by their enemies? Would he serve them while they are still, if we translate the last verse correctly, en route to his house?

All of these issues would seem to indicate that the perspective has not changed and that, just as the narrator is writing from the perspective of a sheep in the first four verses, so too is he writing from the perspective of a sheep in the latter two. Our new problem becomes one of comprehension. Can we speak of a sheep eating from a table? Having his head anointed with oil, or with his cup running over? And do sheep journey on pilgrimage? The following is how Clines translates verses 5 and 6:

5 You spread a banquet before me even if enemies surround me;
you make my head slick with oil;
abundance is my lot.
6 Such goodness and constancy shall surely be my companions as long as I live,
and I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come.

The word שלחן (“table”) is defined by BDB as a “skin or leather mat spread on [the] ground”. According to some anthropologists, “table” is an anachronism. Furthermore, as Clines suggests, the verb √ערכ (“roll, set out”) is better suited to a banquet than it is in the preparation of a table (that is, that one sets out the food, not the table itself). From that perspective, a sheep may refer to its fare as a שלחן (a metaphorical banquet), without running the risk of overt personification.

Clines continues with “even if my enemies surround me” and suggests that this is preferable to the NRSV reading, which seems to imply that it is only in the presence of my enemies that I am allowed to eat. A sheep, by contrast, is often surrounded by enemies and it is only with the presence of the shepherd that the sheep may ever comfortably eat at all.

Continuing with the verse, Clines notes that the root √דשנ (NRSV, “anoint”) is related to the noun “fat” and literally means “make slick”. Does one make the wool of a sheep thick with oil? According to Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura 96 (c. 234-149 BCE), this is precisely what shepherds do:

Oues ne scabrae fiant. Amurcam condito, puram bene facito, aquam in qua lupinus deferuerit et faecem de uino bono, inter se omnia conmisceto pariter. Postea cum detonderis, unguito totas, sinito biduum aut triduum consudent. Deinde lauito in mari; si aquam marinam non habebis, facito aquam salsam, ea lauito. Si haec sic feceris, neque scabrae fient et lanae plus et meliorem habebunt, et ricini non erunt molesti. Eodem in omnes quadripedes utito, si scabrae erunt.

To keep scab from sheep; Take equal parts of old strained amurca, water in which lupines have been boiled, and dregs of good wine, and mix all together. After shearing, smear the whole body with this, and let them sweat two or three days. Then wash them in the sea, or, if you have no sea-water, make a brine and wash them in it. If you do this as directed, they will not have the scab, will bear more wool and of better quality, and ticks will not bother them. Use the same remedy for all quadrupeds if they have the scab.

De Agricultura, 96.

This, then, only leaves us with the problem of an overflowing cup. According to Clines, this is no problem at all: cup is a metaphor. A quick search on Accordance yields a number of instances in the Hebrew Bible where “cup” is a metaphor for “fate” or “situation”. Isaiah 51:17 speaks of drinking from the cup of God’s anger and Ezekiel 23:33 speaks of filling the cup of desolation. There are New Testament parallels as well (cf: Matt 26:39, “let this cup pass from me”) and so the figurative use of the term can be assumed to have been widely in use. Furthermore, the word that is appended to this noun is רויה: another noun (“saturation”, acc. to BDB, or “satiety”) and not a verb (NRSV, “overflows”). Clines’ translation, “abundance is my lot”, seems more faithful to the Hebrew.

After having used rhetorical criticism to indicate that the perspective in the latter two verses is still that of the sheep, Clines then turned to deconstruction. Jonathan Culler stated that “to deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophies it asserts, or the hierarchical positions on which it relies” (On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, Yale, 1982). There are key oppositional points within this psalm, relating chiefly to life vs death and satiety vs starvation, and a deconstructive approach would look at the extent to which the psalm undermines its own focus on the positives.

The most obvious means by which this is done is through the equivocal role of the shepherd. We are told explicitly within the poem that the shepherd behaves “for the sake of his reputation” (למען שמו) and not for the welfare of the sheep. Indeed, no shepherd behaves truly for the welfare of the sheep, although that might be of little consideration to the sheep who is nonetheless granted a pleasant existence. Why, then, does the shepherd do what he does? The answer is quite simple: sheep provide wool, milk and, ultimately, meat. The sheep might praise his shepherd for the latter’s kindness, but that kindness is not altruistic, and the sheep will ultimately be slaughtered when all is said and done.

Taken from that perspective, the reference to journeying to the Temple in the final verse, which enables us to recontextualise the entire psalm in light of the fact that this is where the shepherd is going, casts a pall over the shepherd’s kindness. After all, what is the Temple of God to a sheep, but a great slaughterhouse? The assertion that “surely” such goodness and kindness must be my lot “for many days to come” (or, as the NRSV, “my whole life long”) rings hollow in the light of the sheep’s impending doom.

Clines only touched upon the other forms of criticism briefly, and we may treat them all together as one. A gender critical analysis, being an approach that looks at stereotypical gender roles, leads us to the conclusion that the sheep is feminine. Aside from the usage of masculine verbs in relation to the shepherd, we know that the shepherd is a male because he is strong (the reference to ‘weaponry’ in verse 4b), brave (in laying a banquet before enemies, v5) and motivated by a concern for his honour (or reputation, v3). Furthermore, we are told explicitly that the shepherd is God, a masculine entity (exegesis on certain obscure passages notwithstanding).

The narrator of the psalm, despite the fact that we are led to believe that it is David by the psalm’s superscription, is “othering” themselves and, hence, taking the role of female. The sheep needs the shepherd, as a woman “needs” a man. The sheep, as a woman, is utterly helpless without her guide, and lacks any degree of autonomy. It is interesting that the sheep speaks in the first person, given that a lack of autonomy generally also implies a lack of subjectivity, which may indicate that the feminisation is deliberate.

Why would such subservience be advocated? A materialist critical view, being a form of ideological criticism, would seek out the reality in which the text was composed in questioning the motivations of the text’s author. Every text, according to materialist criticism, is a political product designed to serve a social purpose. Despite sounding cynical, this form of criticism is merely interested in the motivation behind the composition, and the expectations that authors have of their readers.

Read literally, the psalm appears to be advocating a certain sheeplike subservience to God and to the Temple. In recommending a passive acceptance of divine dictatorship, and a pilgrimage to the Temple despite imminent dangers, one might posit authorship by a Jerusalemite priesthood. Not himself a traveller, the priest has a strong personal motivation for recommending the journeying of others to the Temple. As Clines quipped, “there, if not exactly slaughtered, they will most certainly get fleeced”.

Can such a motivation be read into the text itself? A postcolonial criticism, nourished on the experiences of people at the fringes of our own society, may enable us to notice things that a priveleged reader would miss. We might notice, for example, that shepherds never actually own their sheep and that the sheep is merely a product to be looked after for another. From a theological perspective, this might not suit our representation of the divine, but it does cast an interesting light over our understanding of the dark valley – with no pun intended.

According to Australian Wool Innovation: Sheep Behaviour and Shed Design, shearers and drovers should paint the inside of the raceway black and leave a light at the end of it. The reason behind this is that it encourages the sheep to feel safe when in the presence of their shepherd, given the imminent danger that they feel otherwise. A shepherd, watching over his sheep for another, and concerned for his own reputation, would have a good reason for deliberately leading his sheep through dark valleys; the reference to such in verse 4 might might be a reference to this phenomenon in practise.

Moving on to psychoanalytic criticism, Clines noted the self-infantilisation (contrasted with the self-feminisation) of the sheep, its overriding deathwish (as exemplified in its morbid fascination with the Temple) and its extreme solipsism (as is evinced by the absence of any other sheep in its relationship with the shepherd, despite our awareness of sheep as herd animals). Such a method relies on an overly literal reading, but is born of the belief that texts represent the neuroses of their authors. A less literal approach is found in intertextual criticism, which seems to suggest (à la Saussure) that texts can and must be understood in the context of those other texts around them. An intertextual approach might compare other references to shepherds in the Bible, as well as other references to sheep, in order to derive information regarding this text. References to the sheep’s fascination with death – its desire to ascend to the Temple despite the consequences – can also be likened to the Passion narrative in the gospels.

As suggested, the combination of all of these approaches borders on the comic. We have a self-feminised, self-infantilised, solipsistic sheep with a death wish, looked after by a self-serving shepherd in a text composed by the Jerusalem elite for the purposes of the cult. Were it not that Clines was quite serious in his presentation, one might have suspected that he was delivering a parody. On the contrary, it is worth noting that critical methods of analysis do not constitute a smorgasbord, from which one may pick and choose. As Clines said, in relation to the application of a critical method, “if at first you don’t succeed: give up”. They do not all simply fit.

Whether or not every individual analysis within his presentation fits, I leave to you. The respondent, David Gunn, expressed incredulity with some, and was impressed with others. In wondering whether, on his death bed, he will view this psalm as a hymn of comfort or a critical reflection of the pious life, he hoped to have the courage to see both.




18 responses

14 07 2008

Thank you, and Clines. You may have intended 4 and 5 when writing verses 5 and 6 above regarding a shift in perspective.

14 07 2008
Simon Holloway

Thankyou! Corrected.

15 07 2008

A thought on the translation of the last words “le-orech yamim”. It would perhaps be better translated “for many a day” than “my whole life long”. First, I think it’s just a better translation. Second, it fits the impending sheep death metaphor better – although I recognise that God will end my life at some point, I want to be allowed to live for as long as possible until that happens; not, I want to be allowed to live for all of my life (which is a bit circular, don’t you think?).

15 07 2008
Simon Holloway

Well, in some ways, I suppose that is what Clines did with his “for many days to come”. For my part, I prefer the NRSV’s “my whole life long”, but only because it actually translates the word לארך. JPS has “for many long years”, which is also not bad, and the KJV has “forever”, which is just odd. Were I translating it, I would say, “for a length of days”, but only because I am a boring and literal person.

20 07 2008

I have a favor to ask. Can anyone send me the Hebrew words “The Lord is my Shepherd”

20 07 2008
Simon Holloway

They are the third and the fourth words of the Hebrew text: יהוה רעי. Pronounced “Adonai Ro’i”, with “adonai” being the traditional way of reading the tetragrammaton.

9 08 2008
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27 09 2008

Question regarding the action of that “goodness” and “mercy”: Why should such things “follow” the sheep? I believe “radaf” may better be understood as a kind of “pursuing” or “hunting down”. Isn’t that final moment, both in accordance with BDB and with the sheep/shepherd relationship, more wholly captured in a chase of sorts? to “Follow” doesn’t do a whole lot for me; it seems more passive and less active. I prefer, “surely such goodness and constancy will hunt me down as long as I live.”

27 09 2008
Simon Holloway

I agree, df. In fact, I also think that the verb ירדפוני is specifically being used in a contrastive manner with the earlier noun צררי. The shepherd protects me in the presence of my enemies, but the only things to pursue me are goodness and mercy.

5 03 2009

Something about the name “Davar Akher”. When you say these words in religious circles – it may mean pork or G-d forbid phornography. people try to speak as cleanly as possible , so they use this term for something that is against the Jewish law.

14 04 2009


You seem to be interested in the bible as literature. So am I, the songs/poems in particular. To quote myself, ” Psalms are among the densest poems/songs ever written; much of the meaning rests in the connotations. All too frequently, metaphors depend upon this multivocality.”

I have done an in-depth analysis of the 23rd. It’s in Chapter 10, “To Sing a New Song,” of my book, Absent Voices. The psalm itself is on pp. 167-176. Pages 172-173 give a detailed table of the connotative and denotative meanings. It also lists whether a meaning is intrinsic or selective according to domain. The 23rd needs a detailed table.

Not only is this psalm written in a double envelope pattern, but has one sustained metaphor (God/Lord the shepherd) and two conceptual domains (lamb and little boy). It is written on two levels, throughout. Further, every line in that psalm refers back and forth to other lines. This is not just the “sunny little psalm. It is a poetic tour de force.

Yes, indeed, the contrast is between ills and goods (internal reverse order envelope). You are right about pursue… but you do not take it far enough. The double domain means that yirdefuni should be understood on both levels. So, follow me/pursue me/chase after me (to yank me back on the right path with his shepherd’s crook — which refers back to umishantekha, which refers forward to yirdefuni). Yep, only two of the 30 metaphoric triggers in that little Psalm!

If you wish, I can scan the tables for you.

12 06 2009

God is real…not a joke

29 12 2009

I find it interesting that the entirety of this critical analysis fails to address the one Verse that is so conveniently left out, which, (again, conveniently), leads one to believe that the points being made by said analyst are actually rational, reasonable, and logical… that one really can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. God save us from litealists, *lol*! That Verse is: ‘He restoreth my Soul’. Which, after all, is the whole point of the Psalm.

1 04 2011

Thank you so much.Shalom

13 11 2011

Roi – ‘herdsman’ rather than ‘shepherd’ – it refers to tzon, either goats, sheep, any herd animal, unspecified, really. The image of the ‘good shepherd’ and little ‘sheep’ is a later interpretation and (I think) at odds with what is, in many ways, quite a savage poem, or at least a harsh one. Carpets with ceremonial meals were ‘rolled out’ to treat with one’s enemies before battle.

14 02 2012

wow…. and I wanted to just be a sheep in God’s Fold.

3 03 2012
13 05 2014

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