The Lord Is My Shepherd or Predator?
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Image: Jill de Haan

Psalm 23 offers hope and encouragement like no other poem. Countless Jews and Christians have found in this short psalm solace in the face of life’s greatest challenges, including death. Two verses in particular (4 and 6) have given the psalm such power:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil ... and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (KJV, used throughout)

But some modern readers find its language foreign and patronizing.

Most readers today tend to think of sheep as dumb farm animals that are easily manipulated. Suggesting that we are like docile creatures that follow a leader en masse touts mindless religiosity. Our culture teaches us to be independent and self-sufficient. To compare humans to sheep is offensive.

Consider Pink Floyd’s sarcastic rendition of Psalm 23—“Sheep,” from the 1976 album Animals, which drew from George Orwell’s novella, AnimalFarm. The opening lines evoke the pastoral scene from Psalm 23, but with sinister overtones (“Only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air,” “Things are not what they seem”) and faint religious allusions (“I’ve looked over Jordan”).

The next section highlights the pliability of humans who behave like sheep (“pretending the danger’s not real, meek and obedient you follow the leader”). The third stanza opens with the words of Psalm 23, but they are sung in a threatening, menacing tone to contrast the soothing message of the psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me down to lie
Through pastures green he leadeth me the silent waters by.
With bright knives he releaseth my soul.
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places.
He converteth me to lamb cutlets ...

The “psalm” goes on to unmask the shepherd as a self-serving capitalist whose apparent care for the sheep is nothing but exploitative: the sheep are destined for slaughter.

Even some Bible scholars balk at the poem’s language. David Clines, professor of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, said,

We all know that in reality shepherds do not keep sheep for the sake of the sheep, as acts of altruism; they keep sheep for wool and for milk, indeed, but ultimately and usually for slaughter. ... At the end of the poem, the sheep arrives at the “house of the Lord,” the temple. Here the aspect of death lies just beneath the surface; for everyone knows that there is only one reason why sheep go to the temple.

Clines believes the psalm propagates passive acceptance of injustice, oppression, and exploitation. People with such suspicions see organized religion either as the oppressor or as complicit with the oppressors.

In light of such contemporary objections, we need to look at the psalm once again to grasp why it’s not about compliance to brutal injustice but about trust in a good God.

The Problem of Ruminating Sheep

First, we must remember that it is a poem written in a context and time very different from ours. Readers, therefore, need not just a good understanding of poetic imagery and imagination, but also of sheep and the ancient Near East. It is also important to try to understand, as best as possible, the original wording of the poem.

Many modern translations, such as the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version, replace the King James Version’s “valley of the shadow of death” with “darkest valley.” The reason is technical and complex, says Bible scholar Adrian Curtis. He believes “the element ‘death’ may not refer to human mortality, but [to] a superlative idea, such as ‘deathly shadow,’ i.e., extreme or even total darkness.” Thus, the reference is not to death but to danger, he says. Further,

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The Lord Is My Shepherd or Predator?