Sure, the psalm’s plain meaning is that God will take care of us.
But what is “plain meaning” in Biblical Hebrew? The language has only 6,000 root words. That’s not enough to say everything people need to say. So, many Hebrew words have more than one meaning. And thus, most words are metaphors. Sometimes, too, a single word evokes a whole story.
When I look at the metaphors and the stories, I see a call to mutual care.
If you look with me at the 23rd Psalm, then you may see it, too.
“The Lord is My Shepherd; I shall not want”
In Hebrew: Adonai ro’ee lo echsar.
Adonai, LORD, is the polite stand-in for God’s unpronounceable name, YHWH. It means infinite being, infinite possibility. If you try to pronounce it, it sounds like a breath.
Ro’ee, my shepherd. Our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah were shepherds. They took care of sheep. Moses was the good shepherd of the Israelites. He took care of people. God was the master-shepherd who supervised Moses. In the Biblical universe, everyone is part of a great network of shepherds.
Lo echsar. Literally: I shall not lack. Nothing will be missing from my life.
In other words, I take my place in the great network of shepherds, caring and being cared-for. When we do this work, so much is possible. Even a world where everyone has what they need.
“God makes me lie down in green pastures”
B’n’ot desheh yarbitzeini.
Ne’ot means beauty.
Desheh are new shoots of grass, the kind that pop out of the ground on the third day of creation.
Yarbitzeini. Makes me lie down and graze, even as I carry a heavy burden.
“God leads me beside the still waters”
Al mei menuchot yenahaleinu.
Nobody knows what mei menuchot actually means; there are no other still waters in the Bible. But mincha is a gift or an offering.
Yenahaleini means: leads me to a watering place.
God has made clean water and fresh food available, a free offering to us. We need to find it, even amid the heavy burdens and obstacles. When we do this work together, it’s as if we re-create the world.
“God restores my soul”
This actually means: my living body splinters. It breaks apart.
“God leads me in the paths of righteousness for the sake of God’s name”
Yancheini b’ma’aglei tzedeck l’ma’an shemo.
Yancheini, God graces me.
B’ma’aglei tzedeck, with circles of justice.
L’ma’an shemo, for the sake of God’s reputation.
“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me”
Ach tov va’chesed yirdefuni.
Literally: Beauty and love will chase after me.
When my body splinters, fellow shepherds concerned with social justice run to encircle me. They do it because they love God, the lead shepherd. And they want others to feel that love, too.
A New Reading of the 23rd Psalm
Of course, our favourite English translations of the 23rd Psalm are still accurate. The psalm is still an affirmation of God’s spiritual presence. And of the lush inner rewards of opening our own spirits to greater feeling, awareness, and possibilities.
But it’s also a manifesto for how we will live into those possibilities. If we are alive, it is by the grace of our fellow shepherds. Thus, the 23rd psalm calls us to give back.
So the Psalmist says:
I take my place in the great network of shepherds, caring and being cared-for. I dream of what is possible: a world where everyone has what they need. Clean water and fresh food. When injustice blocks them, when their safety is threatened, I will run to encircle them with love.
If you truly believe that God is your shepherd, says the 23rd Psalm, then you will become a shepherd too.
So, please, keep an eye on your local sheep. Because that’s an important part of tending the world.
Originally part of a sermon at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, Canada.