Why Psalm 23 Gives Me the Creeps

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

You probably know Psalm 23. It goes like this:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

(I have used the King James version, because English prose and poetic stylists were in top form in the early 1600s, as gloriously shown here. I’m guessing the King James is the version most familiar to readers, from being read at funerals). I will not do a close reading of the text; rather, my focus is on the material aspects of the relation between shepherd (God) and sheep (you or me), and not on the social aspects; my cursory research couldn’t determine the social status of shepherds when Psalm 23 was written, or in the psalm itself, whether the youngest boy in the family, a priest, or both. As soon as you look closely at those material aspects, the Psalm becomes either, well, delusional, or else savagely ironic.

Let’s get the pleasant, pastoral aspects out of the way first:

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

This is, indeed, the shepherd’s duty. From the Ancient Hebrew Research Center, quoting Fred H. Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (reviews), on “green pastures”:

One of the principal duties at all seasons of the year is for the shepherd to plan food for his flock. In the springtime there is an abundance of green pasture, and usually the sheep are allowed to graze near to the village where the shepherd’s home is located. After the grain is reaped, and the poor have had an opportunity to glean what is left for them, then the shepherd brings in his flock, and the sheep feed on certain fresh growths, or dried blades, or an occasional ear of grain that the reapers may have left, or was overlooked by the gleaners. When this source of food is exhausted then the pasture is sought in other places. The wilderness of Judea which is located along the western side of the Jordan Valley is carpeted in the spring with a certain amount of grass and this turns into standing hay as the hot weather comes, and this becomes food for the sheep during part of the summer.

And on “still waters”:

In selecting pasturage for the flock, it is an absolute necessity that water be provided, and that it be easy of access. Often flocks are stationed near to a stream of running water. But the sheep are apt to be afraid of drinking water that moves quickly, or that is agitated. Therefore the shepherd looks for pools of water, or provides some quiet place where they may quench their thirst. … But when all such watering places are dried up in the heat of summer, as is often the case in Palestine, then wells are used…. The matter of water supply plays an important part in locating the flock for pasturage.

So far so good. Setting aside the “soul” and “righteousness” in Line 3 — after all, shepherding, as a pastoral occupation, is done for milk, meat, and above all, wool, not for less substantial reasons — we come to line 4:

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

What, exactly, are the staff and the rod. The staff is unproblematic. Wight once more:

It is a stick five or six feet long and sometimes but not always has a crook at the end of it. It is used like Western men would use a cane or walking stick. It is useful in handling the sheep, and also for protection.

The rod, for me, is problematic. Wight:

It is like a policeman’s club. It is often made of oak wood and has a knob on the end of it. Into this knob nails are sometimes driven so as to make a better weapon. It is very useful for protection, and no shepherd would be without it.

The prophet Ezekiel refers to the custom of the sheep passing under the shepherd’s rod for the purpose of counting or inspecting them….The law of Moses speaks of tithing the flock for a specific purpose at such a time. “And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord” (Lev. 27:32). To do this Jewish writers tell us that the shepherd allowed the animals to come by him as they would under the rod at a narrow entrance. The head of the rod was dipped into some coloring fluid and was allowed to come down upon every tenth one that passed by, thus marking him as the one to be given to the Lord for sacrificial purposes

The shepherd in Psalm 23 is, then, what Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow, calls a “pointsman”:

Come back, here, to the points. Here is where the paths divided. See the man back there… He is the pointsman. He is called that because he throws the lever that changes the points. And we go to Happyville, instead of to Pain City… The pointsman has made sure we’ll go there. He hardly has any work at all. The lever is very smooth, and easy to push…. But look what a lot of work he has done, with just one little push…. That is because he knows just where the points and the lever are. He is the only kind of man who puts in very little work and makes big things happen, all over the world.

That is, the sheep marked in color from the shepherd’s staff is heading — unbeknownst to itself, it’s a surprise — to Pain City, and the unmarked sheep to Happyville (or, I suppose, depending on your eschatology, the other way round). Pynchon gives another example (sadly, I can’t recover the passage) of a pointman is the SS officer at the end of the line in Auschwitz, pointing the debarking passengers left (to the ovens, Pain City) or right (to the camp, Happyville).

So either the person for whom the sheep is a metaphor knows that the Shepherd God is a pointsman (savage irony) or not (delusion). In either case, where’s the “goodness and mercy”?

The what-I-suppose-I-must-label as psychology of Psalm 23 — the sheep’s happiness, the confidence in the shepherd’s care, the calm lack of fear — reminds me forcefully of Temple Grandin’s work on humane animal slaughter. See, e.g., “Voluntary Acceptance of Restraint by Sheep:”

Sheep can definitely be trained to voluntarily accept repeated restraint in a relatively comfortable restraint device…. Labor requirements would be reduced because one person can easily restrain the animals. Stress on animals may be reduced because sheep which voluntarily accept restraint seldom struggle.

Because who wants struggle? And “Lowering Stress to Improve Meat Quality and Animal Welfare“:

Gentle handling in well-designed facilities will minimize stress levels, improve efficiency and maintain good meat quality. Rough handling or poorly designed equipment is detrimental to both animal welfare and meat quality. Progressive slaughter plant managers recognize the importance of good handling practices.

Good eatin’.[1]


[1] “It’s a cookbook.”


Nothing on “sheepdogging,” please. And since this will come up: If you must compare citizens to sheep — “sheeple” — please reflect on the level of effort required to make that metaphor fit them, instead of blaming the individual. Also, don’t exempt yourself.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Clint Olsen Wright

    “Fleecing” is the activity that best fits if there is a sheep/human analogy in the above. Our shepherds are adept with modern, legal and regulatory rods and staffs–and sheepdogs, if and when necessary. Sheep accept restraint? Certainly those in the Anglosphere compared to those in France. Or did I completely miss the point of this essay?

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Nothing new under the sun. The prophet Ezekiel, having been whisked into exile by the Neo-Bablyonians after they conquered Jerusalem. He is a member of a fallen nation, and in the view of the henotheistic Ancient Near East, a defeated god.

      So who’s to blame? Judah’s “shepherds,” their kings and perhaps their priests. Ezekiel lets them have it in chapter 34. An example:

      So, you shepherds, hear the Word of the Lord. 8 “As I live,” says the Lord God, “My flock has been killed and become food for wild animals because they had no shepherd. My shepherds did not look for My flock. They fed themselves, but have not fed My flock.” 9 So, you shepherds, hear the Word of the Lord. 10 The Lord God says, “I am against the shepherds, and I will ask them for My sheep. I will stop them from feeding the sheep, so they will no longer be able to feed themselves. I will save my sheep from their mouths, so that they will no longer be food for them.”

      Ezekiel still has faith in YHWH to come and rid Judah of its unfaithful shepherds. It’s a little like some of us might hope that Putin and Xi are able to rid us of our rotten shepherds since we seem unable to do it for ourselves.

    2. Maricata

      Take a look at Sun Yung Moon’s son. This is his mantra for his machine gun carrying flock.

      The ‘rod’ is the gun.

      And he has tremendous power in the US.

      All of this is part of clero fascism which is raking the US’s embers as the fire goes out.

    3. Edwin P Holmesh

      Folks, Lambert, u miss the whole damn point and I feel sorry for ur lack of understanding. U accept Jesus taught in parables. The deeper and true meanings of this are not so different. Per Jesus great commandments Love is The Lord. So everywhere the word Lord is used substitute the word LOVE.
      Or u using free Will to balance Spirit and Will or feelings in ur Heart as ur guide. Still Water refers to peaceful emotions u can reason in. Green pasture are abundance. The rod and staff were Also measuring devices back when. U measure love s path And that of hell and wayward unloving ways. (KARMA) as u sow so shall u reap.
      Each line has at least two more meanings. A complex parable. Give me the space and I will gladly give u the true meanings. EPH

      1. Yves Smith

        You seem to have missed that the Psalms are old Testament and its God is a jealous, punitive God, not the loving God of the New Testament.

        1. RabidGandhi

          >the Psalms are old Testament and its God is a jealous, punitive God, not the loving God of the New Testament

          This dualism is, in a nutshell, the heresy of Marcionism (>Manichaeism), roundly condemned by various Church Fathers (Polycarp, Irenaeus, Chrysostom… and even Tertullian+Origen), and denounced at the First Ecumenical Council. Per Schaff:

          Marcion supposed two or three primal forces (ἀρχαί): the good or gracious God (θεὸς ἀγαθός), whom Christ first made known; the evil matter (ὕλη) ruled by the devil, to which heathenism belongs; and the righteous world-maker (δημιουργὸς δίκαιος), who is the finite, imperfect, angry Jehovah of the Jews…

          Irenaeus dedicates several chapters of Against Heresies (eg, IV, 34) to refuting this dualism, basically showing that the Old Testament God, the Creator, is actually one and the same as Christ the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53), who himself becomes the sacrificial lamb (‘under the rod’) to which the Psalm refers. Just one example of many:

          Now I shall simply say, in opposition to all the heretics, and principally against the followers of Marcion, and against those who are like to these, in maintaining that the prophets were from another God [than He who is announced in the Gospel], read with earnest care that Gospel which has been conveyed to us by the apostles, and read with earnest care the prophets, and you will find that the whole conduct, and all the doctrine, and all the sufferings of our Lord, were predicted through them.

          1. Yves Smith

            Ahem, that Old Testament, somewhat reordered, is the Tanakh, aka the Hebrew Bible. So since a major religion uses it in isolation, it seems that the claims of heresy are arguably merely a conceit to try to reconcile the very marked differences between the Old Testament and New, as opposed to taking the position that Jesus incarnated to effectively reform what had come before.

            1. RabidGandhi

              Tanakh= the ‘law, the psalms and the prophets’ that Irenaeus (and Christ himself) refer to.

              This is why Christ says ‘You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me’ (John 5). When he says ‘scriptures’, he means the Tanakh. Irenaeus, cited above, lays this out in greater detail, showing how the scriptures Marcion claimed to reveal a different angry OT god, were not that at all, but rather revelations of the same single God, the Christ to whom Psalm 23 refers. There are no marked differences: it’s all referring to the same God.

              Thus if you are going to claim ‘conceit to reconcile the very marked differences’ (quod non), that conceit would have to be laid at the very origin with Christ himself. In other words that argument is, with all the greatest respect, a tautology.

              1. Yves Smith

                The fact that the Old Testament contemplates EVENTUAL relief from the cruelty and capriciousness of the God of the Old Testament does not serve to obviate his many shows of jealously and choler and their harsh impact on His followers. Moreover, given the erratic and moody behavior of the Old Testament God, there was no assurance that a Savior would appear, or in any reasonable time frame for most subjects. Moreover, there is a LONG history of discussion of inconsistencies in the Bible, so why should any set of statements in isolation be see as dispositive?

                Some of many discussions (Wikipedia starts by listing some important historical ones_:





      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > So everywhere the word Lord is used substitute the word LOVE.

        Loving one’s sheep, operationallly, apparently means sending every tenth one to death under the knife as part — if one is the Lord — of a self-aggrandizing religious ritual.

        I’m not sure that’s how a loving Lord would set things up for the sheep*. Priests, now, extracting rent… That’s another matter entirely.

        NOTE * Or the people, either, if it comes to that. What kind of Lord is that constantly demands proofs of devotion? Like a thirteen-year-old. “Do you really love me?”

  2. NoFreeWill

    well since god is everywhere and omnipotent, we don’t have free will, so he is just deciding to throw people into the infnite suffering of hell at a whim. which is also rather silly given you can supposedly beg for mercy and get out of it, so realistically noone would be in hell at the end of the day.

    1. Cresty

      That’s not how uppercase God works in Christianity. In Christianity there’s a choice. We become adults and choose for ourselves, covering up with various leaves.

      Some people think there’s no free will in Islam. But there is, it just works differently, life being a test, like I’m going to give you free will but you better not fuck it up! Hard teacher type of test

      1. SG

        And it’s not how the “uppercase God” works in Judaism, either, because in Judaism there is no hell and no infinite suffering. The God of my desert-dwelling ancestors might be short-tempered, but He’s not a sadist. Gehenna is a place of purification, not of torment for torment’s sake.

        1. SG

          And, while it’s bad form to reply to oneself, Jewish law also forbids cruelty to animals, so theoretically animals are never sent to “Pain City”, either.

            1. SG

              I believe the deliberate infliction of pain is a type of cruelty, although certainly not the only one.

              The whole point of the laws surrounding kosher slaughter and the prohibitions against eating the flesh of still living animals is to not cause them physical pain. The prohibition against eating “a kid stewed in its mother’s milk” (from whence the kosher prohibition against mixing meat and dairy derives), apparently a very popular dish in the Bronze Age world, is (if the Talmud is to be believed) a general prohibition against inflicting emotional suffering and grief on animals. Again, these two prohibitions along with the requirement that even draft animals are to get a day of rest on shabbat are interpreted in the Talmud as being a general ban on animal cruelty and mistreatment in all its forms. So, not identical but definitely (as the mathematicians would say) a “proper subset”.

              1. flora

                And indeed, my understanding is the Islamic halal animal slaughtering practices are designed for the same reason.

                1. Gayle

                  There is great suffering in halal. The animal is still conscious and struggling while the blood drains out.

              2. Lambert Strether Post author

                > a general prohibition against inflicting emotional suffering and grief on animals

                I would say (though “God” and Temple Grandin might disagree) that the slaughter itself is suffering enough. Especially since the tenth sheep, marked by the shepherd’s rod, is ignorant of what “comfort” means until the very last moments (what a way to go. Reminds me of Taleb on turkeys).

      2. Give Them Housing

        I’d argue it fundamentally doesn’t work differently between Christianity and Islam. It’s a ‘choice’ in a mafia ‘be an awful shame if something was to happen to that beautiful soul of yours’ type of way. The whole freewill argument has always been a joke in the context of an omnipotent and omniscient, and also simultaneously all loving but also petty, jealous, and cruel, god (also the verdict is very much out on the science end as to whether freewill actually exists, though the evidence currently seems to be weighted towards the answer being that it doesn’t)

        1. SG

          simultaneously all loving but also petty, jealous, and cruel, god

          Or, as the great sage St. John Mellencamp says:

          Hurt so good
          Come on, baby, make it hurt so good
          Sometimes love don’t feel like it should
          You make it hurt so good

        2. Jams O'Donnell

          ” . . . the evidence currently seems to be weighted towards the answer being that it doesn’t”.

          I would argue that it is pretty obvious to any normal person that free will does in fact exist, and that the above quoted attitude is part and parcel of a general bias in scientific circles towards a hard materialism, which in turn is prompted by a reaction to the ‘threat’ of US fundamentalist Christianity. And, to descend into actual science, ‘Chaos’ Theory alone should be enough to show that free will is inevitable.

          1. Give Them Housing

            What is ‘obvious’ to normal people often isn’t actually supported by the evidence once you start drilling into things. Freewill is one of those things.

    2. redleg

      Unless being preordained is part of your dogma, in which case the touch of the rod selects happyville and everyone else goes to hell.

    3. Anon

      Being omnipotent, He also has the power to do nothing. Sometimes, I imagine He’s not so much dead, as asleep, and that quells the riot within me that he just might not care. Leaves for the possibility He might love me. Hoping He chuckles at that; if I know anything, He has a sense of humor.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        “He also has the power to do nothing.”

        Maybe YHWH is really a Taoist:

        When you do not-doing,
        Nothing is out of order.

        Tao te Ching #3 (Le Guin rendition)

  3. Will Shetterly

    The staff is not used to beat sheep. It’s used to beat wolves.

    Mind you, I agree this is a metaphor that flatters the people who fleece us.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      I’m not a fan of “Jehovah.” SG can provide a more complete explanation than I, but there is no such name in the Hebrew bible. Every time the Jehovah’s Witnesses come by, I tell them about the divine name, the prohibition against taking it in vain and Massoretic pointing.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        No, it betrays a lack of knowledge of Hebrew and the history of the Masoretic pointing system. That’s a negative for a translation.

    2. podcastkid

      When they were on the other side they didn’t have to worry any more about being the tenth. But on past Ezekiel that far they might not even have kept the custom? I’ve grown skeptical re the Big Shepherdess [or Big Sheperd if you prefer] having given that famous message to Abraham. Possibly at the last minute it was she that got through to him.

      1. podcastkid

        Whoops, I put Ezekiel on the wrong side of Psalms.

        At any rate, if a thing removes danger, it provides comfort.

    3. SG

      And, in Ancient Judah and Israel, more than wolves. Bears, leopards, cheetahs, and lions lived in the area up until late Ottoman times. Sheep herding was a dangerous business back then – staff or no staff.

  4. Susan the other

    Does the biblical-scholar world consider that passages like Psalm 23 were written by self aware sheeple? That is, aware in an open sliding consciousness that put people and sheep in the same existential crisis? Were they poets or butchers? Did they accept the terrible reality that they were both by invoking a higher dimension, “Hey, that ain’t mine! I just live here” ?

      1. Give Them Housing

        I can understand recoiling from the phrase and the framing, but as time goes by I find it harder and harder not to think in terms of large swathes of the population being political imbeciles who allow themselves to be blatantly manipulated. Sheeple might be archaic at this point, maybe a more modern term like NPC is more accurate or useful. Or maybe not.

        Regardless, I find a Marxist framing of economic classes always attempting to maximize their class interests to often be inadequate, quaint even. Large numbers of people really are consistently, objectively, voting against their own best interests.

        Large numbers have also simply given up and checked out of politics entirely (taking the grillpill), which frankly makes them come out looking better than the beaten housewife NPCs.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > I find a Marxist framing of economic classes always attempting to maximize their class interests to often be inadequate, quaint even. Large numbers of people really are consistently, objectively, voting against their own best interests.

          I don’t think there’s a mechanistic relation between economic class — which is surely real — and people’s perceptions of their own interest. One thing capital is very, very good at — perhaps, in fact, the only thing — is maintaining their class power. Back in the 19th Century, the first sociologists were a little too optimistic on that point.

        2. Henry Moon Pie

          It would be so much easier to blame us if we had an option on the ballot that looked out for our interest. I used to think Bernie fit that bill, and the today he goes and votes against Rand Paul’s amendment that would require a Congressional vote on a declaration of war in addition to some determination that precious Article 5 was activated.

          Please tell us how we can vote for our interest in this Uniparty sham.

          That said, I’m pretty fed up with stupid Covid and Overshoot denial.

          1. Give Them Housing

            I have plenty of criticisms of Sanders, but the US public had a chance, twice, with him to effect meaningful change, first and foremost Medicare for All. Enough of us said no, and here we are.

        3. Maricata

          “Sheeple might be archaic at this point, maybe a more modern term like NPC is more accurate or useful.”

          I have no idea what NPC is.

          But sheeple is the word.

          And instead of shepherds they should have used ‘schleppers’

  5. Lexx

    Stories from shepherdesses I have known… the greatest threat to them physically was not external but unruly rams and the occasional big ewe with a nasty attitude (‘but she’s a great breeder, that’s why I keep her around!’). More than one owner told of being knocked down and knocked out… likewise goat herders.

    They look docile, don’t they? They’re not. None of those sheep breeders had a staff or rod but they did have dogs and powerful right hooks, if they could get their mitts up fast enough. They tried to maintain enough control and choreography to never turn their backs on the animals during breeding season or feeding.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      i can attest to this!
      for such relatively small animals, they can do damage to a human.
      i walk with a stick…and my favorite such stick is a pushbroom handle, cut at 4 feet, with one of those rubber things glued to the bottim.
      it is an essential tool for dealing with sheep and goats.
      i am not above bonking a goat on the head with it(goats can be greedy lil shites at feeding time)
      its also a 4 foot extension of my arm…useful for herding(for herding birds, too).
      when we’re separating for market, somebody always gets the job of being a fence…standing there where we dont want them to go, with arms outstretched…having something as simple as a white towel in each hand make the fence person look bigger, and thus more effective(sheep dont see well)
      20+ years ago, mom and i had several barbado rams…young ones) in the chute to load on a trailer…and one of the rams, with little horns, leapt up and butted her in the head…knocked her out cold.I quickly let them run out, so they wouldnt trample her in their frenzy.
      as far as Temple Grandin…we do our best when slaughtering…22 pistol out of the blue…after weeks of being penned up and hanging out with them to acclimate them to the shooters presence(me or my eldest, these days)do 2 at a time, and only after separating the doomed ones from the rest, and doing the deed out of sight of the rest of the herd.
      the survivors dont seem to care about butchering afterwards…walk right up like they want some grain.
      so i dont think they’re aware enough to know that “hey, thats bob theyre cutting up there…”

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        Up in the Sangre de Cristos, we would go in with a neighbor on half a beef when he slaughtered. He insisted on killing on the spot because the fear engendered by the ride down to Trambley’s to be slaughtered would taint the meat.

        And we had another neighbor who had goats and sheep. An adult divorced daughter lived with her elderly parents, and she would go outside to smoke out of consideration for them. She shared her cigarette with a billy she called “Larry.” Sure enough, she brought us some meat wrapped in butcher paper marked “Larry.”

  6. ambrit

    “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” This line nicely obscures the possibility as outlined by M. Strether that the shepherd is the evil to be feared. It nicely fits with the Commandment that; “Thou shall have no other gods before Me.” It constitutes a gradual limiting of available alternatives. The process produces the epitome of the “True Believer.”

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      One possible explanation is that, instead of YHWH making humans in YHWH’s image, humans have made YHWH in humans’ image with most of the human shortcoming intact.

      1. Earl Erland

        Well, Lambert is a careful as a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I’ve not been opening his KJV links, which I believe he started inserting about two years or so after I started reading this blog: those links appearing sporadically since? I won’t wager as I have no way of knowing.

        Creepy is generally used as an adjective. Creepy, as used by Lambert, seems an adjectival noun.

        It would be helpful to know when Psalms was “written”, that is, as an ancient extant text confirming some of the Psalms in the KJV. James I, editor upon pain of death to apostates, actual or political being a competent linguist.

        Luther published his own Bible, the “September Bible”. Curiously, it was never used in the still German Lutheran Missouri Synod Church of my youth; it was never used in the Pastor Krueger’s English language service at 9:00 and 10:30. Don’t know about the 8:00 A.M German Service, but in Grade School in 1967 he was teaching German language class to kids who had been introduced to TeeVee, Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges. What’s German for Hope in the face of impossibility.

        I spent 2 1/2 years in Gabon, in Bakouka, in the early ’80s. Hunting with dogs and nets with those who allowed me to live with them. I appreciated the prayer given by the 30 hunting, and the dogs barking and baying, waiting for the 20 to split, one North and one South, us left us to string the kilometer net in a half circle, , and wait for the dinner that the dogs would chase into the net. For us to club.

        There was no King James to scare us or stop us. And, we worked together.

        1. Henry Moon Pie

          “It would be helpful to know when Psalms was “written”, that is, as an ancient extant text confirming some of the Psalms in the KJV. James I, editor upon pain of death to apostates, actual or political being a competent linguist.”

          I don’t know what Hebrew manuscript(s) were used, but it was translated from Hebrew as was Luther’s bible. OT professor was his job. The Greek bible, off the top of my head, was translated from Erasmus’s edition.

          There are some very old parts of the Hebrew bible dating before the time of Jesus. Qumran was quite a discovery. It included a full Isaiah scroll. I no longer have my Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia, but it’s based on the Leningrad manuscript that dates from around 1,000 CE.

          The Greek bible is a lot trickier. There’s a complicated textual history with three main lines of text traditions. The difference are not insignificant. In some manuscripts, Mark does not include the last 11 verses which are accounts of Jesus’s post resurrection appearances. Kinda important considering Mark is generally regarded as the earliest of the Synoptics. The well-known story in John 8 about the woman that Jesus saves by commanding, “You who are without sin, cast the first stone,” is not found in some manuscripts.

          The way all this textual complexity is handled is by editors making choices of which textual tradition to follow in the printed text. A text note is then included showing the other options.

          Other than scraps of papyrus, the oldest more-or-less complete Greek bible manuscripts are on vellum and date from a couple of centuries after Jesus and Paul.

          Now I’ll bet that’s way more than you wanted to know, but that’s what they taught me at an LCMS seminary. The LCMS, despite confessing biblical inerrancy, taught text criticism.

          1. juliania

            Actually, Henry Moon, there is a Greek version of the Old Testament or Jewish Bible called ‘The Septaguint’ (because the story is it was 70 Hebrew scholars in Alexandria that compiled it into Greek, second century before Christ. The Eastern Church uses the Septaguint.

            Interestingly, in the New Testament, written in Greek originally because Greek was the common language of its writers and readers back then, sometimes Christ’s use of Old Testament verses is from the Septaguint, sometimes not. So there’s a lot of variance particularly since it all had to be hand copied, and manuscripts easily decay,(even though Bulgakov says ‘manuscripts don’t burn’.) Many fragments of the New Testament have come from archeological sites in Egypt – I have a volume dealing with those from early in the second century, fragments from St. John’s Gospel being the earliest.

            1. Henry Moon Pie

              I love the old legend about the translation into the LXX. The seventy scholars went into seventy rooms and produced seventy translations of the Hebrew into the Greek. And when they came out and compared the translations, they were identical, letter for letter.

        2. Lambert Strether Post author

          > I’ve not been opening his KJV links, which I believe he started inserting about two years or so after I started reading this blog: those links appearing sporadically since? I won’t wager as I have no way of knowing.

          I’ve been citing to the BIble for many, many years.

      2. SG

        The word that is used for “in our image” in Breishit (Genesis), בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ has the same root as the word צַלְמָ֡וֶת “shadow of death” in this Psalm. Since vowels typically aren’t written in Hebrew (the vowel points are a late invention), the Jungian in me often wonders if the text should read “in our Shadow” instead. What does it mean to be created in the Shadow of the divine? It would explain a lot.

        1. Henry Moon Pie

          That’s a very interesting idea. Any thoughts about that 1st person plural possessive?

          I learned Hebrew in a Gentile seminary, so we learned the pointing system up and down, parsing verbs day and night. Got to grad school where most of my classmates had lived or at least spent summers in Israel. They had no use for the pointing, never concerned themselves with parsing verbs. Living immersed in modern Hebrew, they were at home.

          And then we got to Rashi…

          1. Kouros

            In his “Joseph and his Brothers”, Thomas Mann delves deep into the religious ideas of those times and places which he studied for years in preparation of this magnificent novel.

            Long story short, the God(s) was a masculine and feminine entity so “our shadow” might refer to this aspect…

          2. Samuel Conner

            > Any thoughts about that 1st person plural possessive?

            I’ve seen suggestions that the original design work was done by a committee of spirit beings, the elohim, perhaps the members of the “Divine Council”. Perhaps later, their chief, YHWH, the highest of the elohim, intervened.

            The late Michael Heiser wrote and podcasted a great deal about the “spirit cosmology” of the ancient Hebrews; I have no competence to evaluate the arguments and evidence, but if accurate, it’s a radical departure from the simplistic “absolute monotheism” of the ancient Hebrews that was mainstream thinking when I was young. IIRC, he never went so far as to concede a role in the Genesis 1 narratives for the “Divine Council”, but it seems highly consistent.

  7. ChrisRUEcon

    To me, it’s largely about the acceptance of “divine will”. And if the old covenant of Moses/David finds its evolution in the new covenant established by Christ, then Psalm23 is bookended by “The Lord’s Prayer” a.k.a “The Our Father” (via bible.com). There is a shift from blind (sheep-like) obedience to a more conscious awareness of life as trial and forgiveness.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > There is a shift from blind (sheep-like) obedience to a more conscious awareness of life as trial and forgiveness.

      I think, however, if you questioned the necessity of a trial (or the Judge), matters would be right back to blind obedience.

  8. Jeff W

    “…either case, where’s the ‘goodness and mercy’?”

    If you buy the frame of the Abrahamic religions—that God is the pointsman—then you might as well be calm, happy, lacking in fear—after all, there are all those green pastures and still waters to enjoy—until you’re marked for whatever destination has been designated for you and probably after too. (It’s not like you have any say in the matter one way or the other, anyway. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” and all that.)

    As an atheist, I find just about everything regarding the supernatural being in the Abrahamic religions and its relationship with people, with all its egomaniacal, infantilizing implications, pretty horrific, so it’s hardly surprising (to me) that Psalm 23 follows suit, albeit in a somewhat veiled way.

    1. Darthbobber

      What gives the KJV it’s uniqueness is that a number of the scholars convened to work on it were specialists in the liturgical use of scripture, and were very focused on what passages would sound like when read out loud.

  9. KD

    I was advised long ago that the 23rd Psalm was used as a prayer of Thanksgiving for lamb feasts, if that helps. But really, who could object to being slaughtered and eaten, so long as it was for a god’s sake?

  10. Henry Moon Pie

    That was a fun exercise. I hope you’ll do it again with another interesting passage.

    One thing that people interpreting these texts usually do when particular emphasis is being put on a single word is to track that word through the Hebrew bible. Here’s a link you might find fun to the good old Strong’s Concordance that tracks this Hebrew root שֶׁבֶט through the Hebrew bible–every instance–and it’s a frequently used word. If you check out the link, you’ll see that it also has a number of meanings according to the Brown-Driver-Biggs (the standard) lexicon:

    rod, staff, branch, offshoot, club, sceptre, tribe

    A shepherd’s tool, among a nation of sheepherders, becomes a symbol of authority among humans and finally a word signifying human groups under the authority of a leader. You can see that the “tribe” usage is very common.

    The passage referred to by Mr. Wight in Ezekiel is indeed an example of sorting, but in a judgment, not sacrificial context:

    Like as I pleaded with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I plead with you, saith the Lord God.

    37 And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant:

    38 And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel: and ye shall know that I am the Lord.

    The separation of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 seems to strongly echo Ezekiel, but all the sheep get to go to Happytown. All those stinky goats are headed to Pain City.

    I think the passage most helpful in understanding Psalm 23 is found in Micah 7:

    14 Feed thy people with thy rod, the flock of thine heritage, which dwell solitarily in the wood, in the midst of Carmel: let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old.

    Micah isn’t using שֶׁבֶט as a symbol of punishment or judgment here, but in its sense as a symbol of authority. A paraphrase might be, “Use your authority to take care of your people.”

    Now I don’t know what the author of Psalm 23 had in mind when he used שֶׁבֶט, but if I had to choose–and interpretation usually involves choosing–I’d say it was a lot closer to Micah’s passage than Ezekiel’s judgment passage or the sorting of the tithe to be set aside for YHWH. The last possibility seems completely contrary to the rest of the Psalm, and while irony and cynicism are found in the Hebrew bible, Psalms is not the most likely place.

    1. JBird4049

      Wouldn’t an interpretation using Micah’s passage be a strike against the Christian determinists like the Calvins who seemed to use the concept to justify the wealth of the few and the poverty of the many? It seems to me as well that too many people who are not Christian, use something like determinism in the forms of racism, culture, and using circular reasoning, poverty itself to ignore the actual and/or original causes of something like poverty.

      Pre-determinism can be very attractive, but like the concept of fate, can be use to justify foolish, illogical, nonsensical, even evil actions in what I would would call a variety of reductio ad absurdum.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        If we’re doing this right, we’re keeping much later Christian writings out of it. And Calvin is another 1,500 years later. Don’t think they had much to do with what the writer of this Psalm was thinking when he used “rod.” It’s true that there are plenty of Christian preachers who will impose Christian ideas on documents written five, or in the case of Micah, seven centuries before the time of Jesus, but that’s lousy exegesis, i.e. interpretation.

        I think Micah offers us some help in understanding what Lambert has almost intuitively spotted as an odd, almost dissonant note in this otherwise pretty tranquil psalm. I’m not claiming that Micah or the psalmist was directly influenced by one another. Instead, Micah is one of the earliest prophets, from a time that could be around the time the psalm was written. The meaning of “rod” in each instance may reflect one of the usages of the time (note how many meanings this word has).

        You see how, in Micah, that “rod” cannot be considered in the context of either Levitical sacrifice or judgment? The shepherd is to feed his people with the rod, clearly a positive thing. As I said above, I think a reasonable paraphrase of “Feed thy people with thy rod” is “Use your authority to take care of your people.” If I were still a Christian and still preaching the gospel, that’s the way I’d interpret it.

        I’m not exactly sure what this Wight book is that Lambert is using, but it appears from the excerpts that the author is collecting examples of the word’s use and providing additional historical and cultural context, all of which seems solid. But Wight is not attempting an interpretation of Psalm 23. That’s when a concordance can be helpful And ff you’re going to try a quite novel interpretation, then it might be a good idea to check some commentaries by scholars who use the critical method to make sure you haven’t climbed way out on a limb. The authors in the Hermeneia series are experts in the languages, the social and political histories, and the overall biblical context. There are other good commentaries. They can keep you from interpretations that people familiar with the discipline might not find persuasive.

      2. Henry Moon Pie

        I’m sorry, JBird. I did a lousy job of interpreting your comment. I’d want to be a little cautious about making the connection between Calvin’s double predestination and the Micah passage, but Micah is, along with Amos, the most anti-elite of the Hebrew prophets. So, in a way, I guess, it does push back against the widespread notion that the Christian god loves the rich and powerful despite what other writers like Luke have to say.

    2. Brunches with Cats

      So many good comments on a thought-provoking post. As usual, I’m coming in way late (taxes on time outweighing “income” by orders of magnitude) but hope my contribution will be meaningful is some small way. I’m commenting as a reply to you, Henry Moon Pie, because your observation about the multiple words for staff and rod — rod, staff, branch, offshoot, club, sceptre, tribe — and variations in symbolism provides a plate for my $0.02 tithe.

      When I finally had time in the wee hours Friday morning to read Lambert’s post, my first thought was of wands in the Tarot. Depending on the deck, they’re sometimes called staves or, less frequently, rods, and still I reckon that a majority of readers immediately would think of “magic wand” — nothing like a walking stick, shepherd’s crook, etc. Well, silly as it might sound, “magic wand” is IMO the strongest candidate for both the staff and the rod in Psalm 23. That, in turn, would radically change the original intent of the psalm, however warped it eventually became as a metaphor for leaders “chosen by god” to determine the fate of the herd.

      According to the esoteric take, the staff (rod in KJV) was given by God to Adam and eventually found its way to Moses, of the tribe of Levi. The rod belonged to his brother, Aaron, a high priest. Some biblical scholars argue that the staff and rod are one and the same; this is supported in Exodus, in which Mose and Aaron double-team Pharaoh’s magicians. In Exodus 9, Moses uses his staff/rod to direct a series of plagues on Egypt to convince Pharaoh to “let my people go.” (Continued below)

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      All other things being equal, I would put the material reality of how rod and staff were actually used* before any exegesis, however fascinating they may be. After all, the practice gave rise to the text, and not vice versa.

      NOTE * I should also note that my source, Fred H. Wight, is very much in the “Bible study” context; he’s not some sort of wild-eyed atheist, let alone a sociologist.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        But Lambert, you’ve ignored how shebet is actually used beyond the confines of one single source, Wight. His book is not a lexicon, normally the first place you’d look if you were trying to find the meaning of a word. In the link I provided you from the online Strong’s Concordance, the Brown, Driver, Biggs Hebrew lexicon lists a number of meanings for shebet. They’re related by the concept of the authority represented by shebet as rod.

        And when you have multiple meanings, one tool you can use to see which ones might be relevant to your text is a concordance. Did you see the use of shebet in Micah? Do you think my paraphrase “Use your authority to take care of your people” is a poor one? If the Psalmist is thinking along the same lines as Micah–and the two writings are not far apart in time or place–then the meaning of rod is completely consonant with the rest of the psalm. In general, that’s a more plausible result when doing exegesis.

        There’s nothing wrong with Wight. It’s just that you’ve neglected the basic tools of exegesis: lexicon; concordance; other commentaries. Wight is none of those.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          If you believe that the starting point of biblical interpretation is erasing all the material realities that, at several removes, gave rise the exegetical apparatus, there’s not a lot I can do to help you. It’s like — to strike a blow at random — arguing about the vocabulary for “nail” while ignoring actual nails. I’m all sophisticated close reading, as readers now, but I’m for an entirely closed and self-referential system, which is exemplified several places on this thread (“it’s just a metaphor!”).

  11. Carla

    As a dues-paying member of both the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State — I thank you, Lambert, for this post.

  12. Sue inSoCal

    Many, many thanks, KLG. It will take me some time to read this again in detail. The Califano debacle was something I’d completely forgotten. As a retired lawyer, I can recall some of the legal decisions, but the nefarious political machinations in scientific research, not so much. Now retired with a degenerative neurological disease, however, I am eminently aware of the mighty gifts to Pharma and Pharma does not benefit the hoi polloi. Medicare D is an enormous gift to Pharma, plain and simple, and one must be prepared to fight. (Even then, good luck.) Those DNA based miracle drugs that are touted are not for the older cohort of the population. I find no trials for drugs for my condition conducted for those over the age of 50. I really thank you for this. I’ve greatly appreciated your former commentary and enlightenment.

  13. Watt4Bob

    I’m not 100% convinced of the equivalence with Pynchon’s Pointsman.

    I’ll have to think a bit more to decide whether that’s important.

    I just happen to be re-reading GR right now, and just passed the discussion regarding the pointsman.

    The pointsman in Gravity’s Rainbow decides the point in the parabolic arc of the V2’s trajectory at which the fuel is cut off, the engine stops, and from that point on, the rocket is gliding.

    So, the exact place where it will land is only vaguely determined, but the places it will not land absolutely determined by the pointsman’s choice.

    The shepherd however determines exactly which sheep is destined for pain city.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > I just happen to be re-reading GR right now

      If you can find that reference to the pointsman where the tracks ended in Auschwitz (?) that would be great. Or if I misremembered it.

      I’m rereading P.G. Wodehouse now. I don’t want to be rereading Pynchon….

  14. JEHR

    When using metaphor to make a point, it is not always wise to try to make every parallel comparison possible but just to use those that fit the idea being elaborated upon.

    1. lentil

      Best comment in this interesting discussion. I think Lambert is creeped out by the psalm because he is taking the metaphor too far, asking “What’s in it for the shepherd?”

      The psalm is merely saying: the soul can be free of fear and anxiety because it is under the protection and guidance of a God who cares for it.
      “But what’s God’s agenda? He’s just fattening us up for the slaughter, right?”
      But that’s kind of like saying —
      “What if God is really just a demon?”
      “Shouldn’t God offer me guidance and protection for free? God has no right to ask anything from me in return, that would be evil and wrong!”
      Some type of sacrifice may be implied in the psalm — and sacrifice is an idea that many modern people are uncomfortable with or do not understand, but it is central to religions (until modern times, at least).

      But Lambert’s suspicions of the shepherd are reasonable, in a way, because — in this world right now, we cannot trust in the good intentions of our all-to-human political and corporate “shepherds” because they prove themselves to be greedy and corrupt, as we see again and again, every day. This is what it means to live in the “valley of the shadow of death,” where everyone is out to get you. But maybe King David is trying to point to a way through this dark situation, by establishing a relationship with a higher power who will guide and protect us. But sometimes it gets so dark, that it’s difficult to imagine that such a higher power even exists.

      But it does.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > When using metaphor to make a point, it is not always wise to try to make every parallel comparison possible but just to use those that fit the idea being elaborated upon.

      Such has been my practice in this post. Here is the definition of metaphor from the OED:

      A metaphor is like a map: “different from but analogous to” something more literal. Now, one can press one’s requirements for an isomorphism between (analogous) map and (literal) territory too far; but when an extremely salient feature of the territory is missing from the map, I think the critical thinker is entitled to — indeed, should — ask why. For example, a work that insists that love is like a rose because of beauty, blushing color, scent, and so forth, while omitting the highly salient thorns* should be, at the least, subject to scrutiny.

      Similarly, a work that insists that the rod of the shepherd (God) “comforts” the sheep (His people), while carefully erasing the fact that the same rod also can be used to mark every tenth sheep for slaughter should also be scrutinized — scrutiny that this post attempts to provide.

      NOTE * And don’t @ me on Robert Burns.

  15. Irreverance to the max

    Some here may not be aware of a re-phrasing of point #4

    > 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
    > for thou art … etc.

    that was popular amongst the grunts in Vietnam. Went like this:

    > 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
    > for I am the baddest motherfamilyblogger in the valley.

  16. Socal Rhino

    Perhaps this will come as a surprise but sacred texts have been analyzed, scrutinized, debated and argued about by many, many people over many, many years. I’d wager that if you chatted with a rabbi (for example) they could lay out multiple ways that this or any text has been found problematic.

    On twitter, one interesting follow is Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi, author, and defender of abortion rights as an issue of religious freedom for people of the Jewish faith.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Christianity, absolutely, But Psalm 23, from the Hebrew bible, predates Stoicism by several centuries. One book, Daniel, that at least has some passages written in the Maccabean period, could be dated after Stoicism arose, but the rest would be dated earlier.

      1. SG

        On the other hand, I think a lot of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is pretty obviously late text highly influenced by Greek rhetoric and Stoicism. If you read it in Hebrew and have any familiarity with Greek rhetorical technique it’s *very* hard to miss, the traditional attribution of the book to Solomon notwithstanding.

        1. Henry Moon Pie

          Fair enough. And I also didn’t mention anything the Protestants call the Apocrypha.

        2. Henry Moon Pie

          I’d like to ask you about something I’ve wondered about for a long time. Kohelet is a feminine form, right? Any significance?

  17. Frank Shannon

    I’ve thought about this one for years. I used to be a Christian, and I am now a Muslim, Alhamdulilah.

    As part of Islam we are supposed to sacrifice an animal once a year. Usually a sheep is used. I have been struck by how important it is to my brothers that the sheep is killed in a merciful manner.

    Allah, God promises us all that we will die. That’s a hard truth to confront, but there’s no arguing with it. People can doubt Allah will bring them back, i.e. raise them from the dead, but not that they will die.

    All of the Prophets, peace be upon them, were shepherds. I feel like it is impossible for people today to appreciate how hard life was for most of human history including any time more than a thousand years ago. People had a different appreciation of necessity then.

    No one would keep sheep if they didn’t have a use. Their lives are pretty good. You might feel the ending of them was bad, but they wouldn’t have a life if it wasn’t for the ending.

    If have said anything good it was due to Allah. If I said anything bad it was from me. I ask Allah’s forgiveness and yours for any thing wrong.

    1. flora

      Thank you. I very much appreciate your comment because I think it resonates a link, a tie-in with the early Stoic philosophy of bearing hardship with equanimity.

    2. Ellery O'Farrell

      Yes, we kill the sheep. Anyone not a vegetarian has to accept that reality. It is our obligation to kill them with as much mercy as possible: quickly, without causing them fear, with minimal pain (so a ritual slaughterer–a Jewish shochet–is respected in the community; he’s not a butcher).

      In the meantime, the shepherd protected the sheep, sometimes at the risk of his own life (hence the club-like rod: it’s a defensive weapon). Here’s David the shepherd boy explaining to King Saul why he has a good chance of defeating Goliath:
      David said to Sha’ul:
      Your servant was a shepherd of the flock for his father,
      and whenever a lion or a bear came and carried off a lamb from the flock,
      I would go out after it and strike it down, and rescue it from its mouth;
      if it rose against me, I would take hold of it by its beard, strike it down, and put it to death.
      Even the lion, even the bear did your servant strike down
      (1 Samuel 17:34-36; Everett Fox, The Early Prophets)
      So Saul let him fight the giant.
      As others have said, it was a different world. Death was a living presence, so to speak.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Death was a living presence, so to speak.

        Dealt out by God, the pointsman, to every tenth, unknowing sheep. Seems a bit too algorithmic to be characterized as “living,” no?

    3. SG

      And, of course, David himself was a shepherd before he became the son-in-law of a king and then a king himself. It is only natural that he would look back to his former occupation for a literary metaphor.

  18. Give Them Housing

    The Christian focus on the sheep and the shepard has always been disgusting. The authoritarian and condescending master-subservient aspect of it was always not just implicitly understood, but frequently explicit (we are lost idiot sheep, fallen and damned, and we need Jesus the shepard to guide and save his worthless flock) when I went to church. And no, I didn’t go to some crazy fringe church. That understanding is at least bogstandard American protestant, and from what I can tell is very common in Catholic and Orthodox communities as well. Humans are collectively damned and only Jesus can save us. That’s the heart of Christianity.

    1. flora

      “The Christian focus on the sheep and the shepard has always been disgusting. The authoritarian and condescending master-subservient ….”


    2. flora

      Or maaybe, 2000 years ago it was a widely understood life and work reference. They say the past is a foreign country. / ;)

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        Exactly. When I was experiencing some trepidation about learning a language with such a strange script that read right to left, an old pastor told me not to worry. It’s just the language of shepherds and farmers.

      2. Give Them Housing

        Regardless of its original intent, how it is used today is frequently how I described it. The congregation is ever wayward and Jesus, or his (self-)appointed representatives has to keep us in line.

    3. Bugs

      If the texts had been written in a part of the world at a time where the dominant culture was one that relied on say, pigs, for sustenance and clothing, and made a useful metaphor, you might find it even more disgusting.

  19. SG

    What I find odd is that the Latin Vulgate does not translate the first line of the Psalm literally from Hebrew or from the Greek Septuagint (both of which use the “shepherd” metaphor). Instead, it begins:

    Dominus reget me
    The Lord rules me

    Since Jerome based his translations of the Hebrew texts on the Septuagint, this seems very strange to me.

    ‘Tis a mystery, indeed,

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Did Jerome take a pretty liberal approach to editing?

      Off topic, but my guess is you can relate to this story. Lambert has tried his novel interpretation here and generated an interesting discussion. I’ve had some experience with trying some novel exegesis on occasion. I took a course on Daniel from John Collins back when he was editor of JBL. We presented papers in class, and the core thesis of mine was that Collins had gotten it wrong about the writer being influenced by descriptions of Yam from the Ba’al cycle with respect to the fourth beast. I argued that the focus on teeth indicated that it was Mot that was the model. Collins laughed and took it well as I knew he would, But I really tried to have my shit together before I presented. Eventually, he added a footnote to the next edition of Daniel with the Mot possibility.

      So I then presented that paper to the broader faculty. Just a few months before, I’d been drafted to pick up a prof who’d flown in from Germany (can’t recall his name) and deliver him to his presentation. Michael Fishbane was there, and didn’t take too kindly to the idea that the Middle Assyrian laws influenced certain passages in Leviticus. He and Tikva Frymer-Kensky ripped that poor fellow to pieces.

      Idiot me, I presented the same paper to Fishbane and Frymer-Kensky with no updated or revisions. Proving Ugaritic influence on Daniel hadn’t been an issue since Collins came up with the idea. It was assumed. Fishbane said prove it. Collins sat there and smiled. I should have had my shit together.

      Just to be clear, I love John and Adela Collins. They’re great people. I got what I deserved.

    2. juliania

      Actually, SG, I was looking at the Septuagint , and the greek text is: ‘Kurios poima?nei mei’. The letter I’ve rendered as a questionmark doesn’t resemble any greek letter in my large Greek dictionary, so I cannot find an exact likeness, although the supplement has a close cousin to the verb with ‘sheep’ part of the meaning. Maybe St. Jerome had a similar problem. His choice is interesting.

  20. Alex Cox

    The Oregon Desert, a book by two ranchers, E.R. Jackman and R.A. Long, contains an essay about a Basque sheep herder, Fernando D’Alfonso.

    “David and his ancestors,” D’Alfonso said, “knew sheep and their ways, and he has translated a sheep’s musing into simple words. The daily repetition of the Psalm fills the sheep herder with reverence for his calling. Our guild takes as the lodestone of its calling this poem. It is ours. It is our inspiration. It is our bulwark when the days are hot or stormy; when the nights are dark; when wild animals surround our bands. Many of its lines are the statement of the simple requirements and actual duties of a Holy Land shepherd in the care of his flocks, whether he lives at the present day or followed the same calling six thousand years ago. Phrase by phrase it has a well-understood meaning for us.”

    Regarding the verse you don’t like, D’Amato said, “Many wild dogs lurk in the shadows of the valley, looking for prey, and when they are encountered the shepherd’s staff comes into active use. After a band has entered the defile, the lead sheep may come upon a dog. Unable to retreat, the leaders baa a warning, and the shepherd, skilled in throwing the staff, hurls it at the dog, often 150 feet away. In all but rare instances, he succeeds in knocking the dog down… Climactic and grazing conditions make it necessary for the sheep to be moved through the Valley of the Shadow of Death for seasonal feeding each year, so they have learned to fear no evil, for their master is there to aid and protect them.”

    D’Amato’s analysis of the poem – written, he says, from the sheep’s viewpoint – is long and very interesting. Used copies of the book are not hard to find.

    1. juliania

      Thank you, Alex. One of my uncles in New Zealand raised sheep on 500 acres. We kids took our holidays on that farm. Even in such safe surroundings, sheep do require looking after – his were kept mainly for their wool, but certainly other farms would raise them for food as well. I’ve just tried to post that this poem is entirely about protection, which is the theme being expressed by the lines that lead to “they comfort me”. My uncle had a wonderful sheepdog named Scott, and as his sheep were always fenced in, there was not the element of danger expressed by D’Amato. Nevertheless, that dog knew when a sheep was caught in brambles or in the creek – he would crouch and not move until my uncle came, ignoring his whistles and calls, as I myself saw many times. So I don’t find the poem creepy at all.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Regarding the verse you don’t like, D’Amato said, “Many wild dogs lurk in the shadows of the valley, looking for prey, and when they are encountered the shepherd’s staff comes into active use.

      I’m surprised that such a careful reader didn’t read the post. My concern is not with the staff, but the rod.

  21. Synoia


    An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance.A fearful or abject state of mind resulting from such ignorance or irrationality.

    The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition

    Religions require some level of irrationality superstition

    Religions are thus Irrational and Superstitious.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      True enough. But when it comes down to it, if we are interested in what our ancestors were thinking and feeling 2,500 years ago or so, there aren’t a lot of writings to choose from. Dr. Hudson is an expert in Sumerian and Akkadian, and he can tell you that’s there’s literally tons of clay tablets. But the great bulk of it are ledgers, contracts, notes. Dr. Hudson has waded through all that and taught all who would read him, including David Graeber, how debt worked in those days. They were surprisingly sophisticated. Then there are also king’s annals, laws like Hammurabi and some stories like Gilgamesh. But there’s not a lot of narrative material.

      The collection that Ezra put together has a lot of stories. If you take the Sky-God stuff out of it if that bothers you, then you’ll find all kinds of stories, some that are horrifyingly Iron Age and some that seem to anticipate more modern sentiments. It’s all just people trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in the universe. In retrospect, I don’t think the move to a transcendent, anthropomorphic, very patriarchal god was such a good choice. I think a lot of the alienation between humans and Nature can be attributed to that, especially as it influenced the Enlightenment. But the stories are worth it even if the theology, which did serve Ezra’s purposes well, has led us astray in the West.

      But it needs to be read in historical context, and if interpreted, done in a way that tries had to avoid eisegesis. (If you ever get it, try ivermectin.)

      1. flora

        Irrational: per Blaise Pascal,

        “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”
        ― Blaise Pascal, Pensées

        Just saying, and no AI will ever be able to code this human understanding as a binary either/or. Never. But you, NC readers understand it instantly.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        > The collection that Ezra put together has a lot of stories. If you take the Sky-God stuff out of it if that bothers you

        Julia Child has a lot of recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If you take out the ones that use butter….

        To be fair, I agree that the Sky God was a wrong turning. Along, perhaps, with agriculture…

  22. iread

    Mmm. Hmm.
    Spooky 2. Thanx Strether, no more hiding in the trees. They’re not that many left.
    Have to start walking upright. I too have a broomstick, 3 actually.
    Can’t remember how but yesterday I ran across and read in English finally
    there used to be only subtitles from the Italian
    Mauro Biglone’s The Naked Bible. He translated from the Hebrew for the Vatican
    having taught himself Hebrew, Greek and Latin. For every word he earmarked as having no translation
    they agreed, confirmed him word for word, then let him go. The rabbis are his good friends.
    Now back to my animal rescue and cat videos.

  23. NL

    This is all interesting, but has long lost its overwhelming relevance. The authority went from the religious to the kings to the oligarchy. Monotheism is good for the Pope and the King, but not so much for the oligarchy. The oligarchy is decentralized, polytheistic and cryptic. The new religions are the citizenship, the nation and capitalism. The most celebrated religious ritual in the US is the elections. The Ancient Greeks had the belief in citizenship, and they also had many gods. Nationalism is a kind of ancestor worship. Usury was still considered evil as late as the 1800s, now 24% interest rates on your revolving debt is nothing out of ordinary. The Judeo Christian gods are still around, but they are just some minor gods among many new gods. They no longer get all the burned offerings.

    The thing about shepherds is that they do not slaughter all the sheep at once. May be the old gods made a mistake when they agreed to take animal sacrifice in lieu of human. As the two WWs, the follow up conflicts and the current slowly creeping onset of the one final nuclear war indicate, the new gods will not make this mistake but take it all…

  24. juliania

    Something there was that didn’t like my prior post. I will try to do better. The explanation for ‘Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me’ goes to the fact that shepherds had to protect their flock (rod) from wolves or stray dogs or such – so they carried a short but effective ‘rod’ – and the staff was curved at the top in order to turn an animal away from the dangers of creeks or rivers – the psalm is all about protection, as indicated by ‘they comfort me.’ I don’t see any mention of slaughter, so please don’t make that inference; it’s not there.

    Certainly in other contexts that is an important element for raising sheep – they are slaughtered, of course they are, for food, and a sacrifice made of the first born even, but to introduce that into this poem – you would only do it if you were making mockery of the faiths that see such imagery as helpful to their understanding of a mysterious God who loves his creation. I say again, that isn’t in any way inferred by this psalm.

    I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Lambert. That you have done so is indeed — not creepy, but sad.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The explanation for ‘Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me’ goes to the fact that shepherds had to protect their flock (rod) from wolves or stray dogs or such – so they carried a short but effective ‘rod’ – and the staff was curved at the top in order to turn an animal away from the dangers of creeks or rivers – the psalm is all about protection, as indicated by ‘they comfort me.’ I don’t see any mention of slaughter, so please don’t make that inference; it’s not there.

      Do consider reading the post.

  25. juliania

    Well, I have tried three times to comment., because the psalm has meaning for me.

    And I am being blocked.

    This site had meaning for me, but perhaps no longer.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      I think comments were put on hold overnight. It’s nothing personal, I’m sure.

      I hope you will come back. This thread reveals a lot of people who feel an accusatory finger pointing at them when religion is discussed. They become angry because of that and lash out at religion in general, religious texts, etc. It seems to me that organized religion bears most of the blame for that. If all the emphasis is put on calling out sin, whatever that might be, it makes people feel under attack. This is probably especially true for LGBTQ+ folks.

      James Fowler wrote a series of books on what he called stages of faith, really worldview. His thesis was that worldviews can mature from the time we’re children viewing the world in mythic/literal terms up through a conjunctive worldview that embraces paradox, mystery and the way the the teachings of various religions touch on one another and reveal common themes. Part of the problem we now have in the U. S. is that our society has been doing a poor job of helping people achieve that maturation. We have a whole bunch of people stuck in mythic/literal who believe in a quid pro quo god who will love them if they keep to the straight and narrow. We also have a lot of people who are stage 4 skeptics who now discount any talk of the spiritual or religious as primitive woo-woo. This bifurcation of worldviews is a big contributor to our culture wars and inability to converse across cultural/religious lines.

      1. juliania

        Thanks, Henry Moon — I should have remembered how short staffed every enterprise is these days, not just nc which always does its best. The heat got to me I guess, and I am grateful a couple of my posts have surfaced. The one I was sorry to lose was to a Christian minister – I don’t know what his denomination, but such a simple explanation of the Psalm it warmed my heart. I had been going through online videos and felt his was the shortest and best.

        I would say that if one wants to enjoy Biblical texts and stories, the best way is to approach them as you would Greek epics – you don’t have to believe in the Gods to really appreciate all the nuances and human interactions there, and a lot of Biblical stories are very similar. Even without exploring actual history, it is meaningful for me that David wrote many of the psalms, he beiing the youngest in his family who also looked after the flocks. His story is full of complexity; he wasn’t perfect.

        If you can’t take the religion, just read the Bible as literature. It’s how I became familiar with many of the stories, and I still think Genesis is amazingly good that way. Think of it like the Iliad, or even Star Wars if you like. It deserves to be read.

  26. Henry Moon Pie

    This turned out to be quite an interesting discussion. I especially appreciated the knowledge and perspective that SG brought to the thread.

    Early on, the thread was reminding me of DK or Eschaton 20 years ago. There was a guy in the Eschaton commentariat who would come in with THERE IS NO GOD! THERE IS NO GOD!. THERE IS NO GOD!. Lambert probably remembers who that was. I don’t know if he ever managed to convince himself.

  27. ddt

    Surprised Pink Floyd’s “Sheep” wasn’t mentioned. They recite a version of the psalm in that song (from their Animals album)

  28. NotThePilot

    I’m not really creeped out by the verse, but I’ve never particularly liked the sheep / flock imagery in Western religions in general. Just always had a visceral dislike for being compared to a herd animal. I’m not sure if Islam officially uses it much, but I remember a Rumi verse to the effect of: stop being a weird Steppenwolf and enjoy the happiness of the flock under a good shepherd.

    What I find interesting is if this is possibly a deep-seated cultural thing. I’ve met Muslims from the Old World that had an almost Zoroastrian distaste for wolves, which are after all very clever predators that can kill a good part of your herd if they feel driven to. But lots of Americans seem to love wolves, even if they don’t otherwise have strong environmentalist leanings or know what a keystone species is.

    What I really wonder though is why, like Henry Moon Pie brought mentioned, does the Bible give goats such a bad rap? Just a simple metaphor of unruly = bad?

    1. Brunches with Cats

      > Just a simple metaphor of unruly = bad?

      Yes, from what I’ve read. Goats are curious, go off exploring on their own, “stray from the herd,” interrupt the order. But I do consider the possibility (emphasis) that the pressure to conform in that time and place was less about enforcing religious beliefs and more about getting all hands on deck, something like the comment attributed to Ben Franklin after the signing of the Declaration of Independence: that “we must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

  29. CoastalG

    Wow. I can’t believe I need to say this, especially on NC. But to my mind, you’ve made the same mistake that the evangelicals do, trying to interpret the Bible literally. It’s about symbolism and metaphors for spiritual concepts. Not sheep.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I can’t believe I needed to do this, but I had to explain to not one but two commenters how metaphors work; see above. That it’s a metaphor — and the sort of metaphor it is — is exactly the point.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      I don’t know, Lambert. Adair is a poet, and the poem only references the general biblical use of the shepherd metaphor, not Psalm 23. She’s not claiming to attempt an interpretation of any specific text.

      If your point had been that a shepherd is a problematic metaphor in general, then Adair backs you up, but you were trying to use Wight’s information and your inclinations to make a shocking interpretation of a specific Hebrew word.

      The problem I have with what you’ve attempted is that you relied entirely on one source. No consulting a lexicon which would have alerted you to the other meanings of shebet. No checking a concordance to see how the word is used elsewhere. No considering commentaries and how people with considerable backgrounds in the biblical languages, ANE history, etc. had interpreted the verse. These are things that any serious exegete would never fail to do, especially if they’re walking out on a limb. If you’re going to try an interpretation so novel and so inflammatory, you really do need to dig a little deeper. You know the extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You’ve made an extraordinary claim about one of the most famous texts in the Hebrew bible, but your evidence doesn’t meet a basic standard, much less extraordinary.

      And the click-baity headline didn’t help.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > She’s not claiming to attempt an interpretation of any specific text.

        This from the house expert on exegesis? I’m not even going to dignify that comment with a response.

      2. Brunches with Cats

        Henry MP, I agree with most of what you’ve written, and yet also accept the point of Lambert’s original post. Two key issues IMO complicate this discussion, one of which is an observation you made earlier about when the passage was edited and by whom. More about that in a bit …

        Meanwhile, please note that I attempted to reply to you in a two-part comment early yesterday, but an essential citation in the second half tripped the Pain City algo, and successive attempts to repost without the link failed. I gave up and didn’t bother trying again, as the discussion appeared to have been exhausted. I will do so now. To avoid SNAFUs, I will forego links but provide info to find them. Briefly, for context, from the half that went through (7/22, 6:31 am):

        From an esoteric POV (emphatically not saying this is the right or only one), my choices for “staff” and “rod” are the staff of Moses and the rod of Aaron, described in several books of the Old Testament as having magical powers — “magic wands,” if you will, or “wand,” singular, since there’s debate among biblical scholars about whether they were one and the same. The staff (KJV “rod”), is said to have been given by God to Adam and to have eventually found its way to Moses. He and Aaron, brothers in the tribe of Levi, used these magical instruments to lead their people out of Egypt. The link the system didn’t like goes to a full discussion of Aaron’s Rod at the Jewish Encyclopedia.

      3. Brunches with Cats

        Here’s a lightly edited repeat of the vaporized second half of reply to HMP (7/22@ 6:31 a.m.):

        Post-exodus, the “magic” of Aaron’s rod results in his descendants’ being granted “God-given” exclusivity to the priesthood. The Aaronites, as they were called, eventually began straying — in other words, they started behaving like “stinky goats.” They got to keep Aaron’s rod, but God had to have a word with their leader to get them back on the straight and narrow — what strikes me as the basic plot/purpose of the Book of Micah. BTW, I’m pretty sure it’s Micah asking God to use his rod to feed his people, not the other way around, which makes sense only if it was God’s in the first place.

        Clarifications and additions on this and previous comment:
        Variations in biblical translation (is it a rod, a staff, something else?) and a variety of descriptions of the functions performed with these instruments, by whom, provides a vast array of choices for analysis, whether one’s approach to P23 is esoteric, “realist,” or “other.” I chose a specific staff/rod(s), as used by specific characters, for reasons that would take my own essay to explain. Lambert chose staves and rods in general to gain insight into how P23 reflects current socio-political circumstances. I don’t have a problem with that. Just because I’m looking at P23differently, doesn’t mean I don’t see the duplicitous ways in which the paternal hierarchy superimposed its agenda on sacred texts, reinforced by later editing, to establish its rights as “shepherds” to determine the fate of the “sheep.”

        P.S. Not sure when I’ll have time to post additional observations, but as it is, 4 p.m. reply to you went to mod, as this one likely will, too. Just as well, as I’m falling further behind on necessary work.

        1. Henry Moon Pie

          Thanks, BwC, That’s some good sleuthing. Aaron’s rod in Hebrew is מַטֶּה , a different Hebrew root from the shebet, but מַטֶּה has basically same range of meanings (rod, symbol of authority, tribe) as shebet, adding another layer of complexity to all this.

          But your post brings to mind another verse, this time from Matthew in the Greek bible:

          Blessed are the peacemakers
          for they will be called children of God.


    2. Retired Carpenter

      Khayyam’s perspective:

      “As under cover of departing Day
      Slunk hunger-stricken Ramazán away
      Once more within the Potter’s house alone
      I stood, surrounded by the Shapes of Clay.

      Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small,
      That stood along the floor and by the wall;
      And some loquacious Vessels were; and some
      Listen’d perhaps, but never talk’d at all.

      Said one among them – “Surely not in vain
      My substance of the common Earth was ta’en
      And to this Figure molded, to be broke,
      Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again.”

      Then said a Second –”Ne’er a peevish Boy
      Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy;
      And He that with his hand the Vessel made
      Will surely not in after Wrath destroy.”

      After a momentary silence spake
      Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;
      “They sneer at me for leaning all awry:
      What! did the hand then of the Potter shake?”

      Whereat some one of the loquacious Lot –
      I think a Súfi pipkin – waxing hot –
      “All this of Pot and Potter – Tell me then,
      Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

      “Why,” said another, “Some there are who tell
      Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
      The luckless Pots he marr’d in making – Pish!
      He’s a Good Fellow, and ’twill all be well.”

      “Well,” murmured one, “Let whoso make or buy,
      My Clay with long Oblivion is gone dry:
      But fill me with the old familiar Juice,
      Methinks I might recover by and by.

      Rubáiyát 83-89

  30. Lambert Strether Post author

    >I would say it gives it a whole Nother feeling, wouldn’t you?

    Nonsense. The material reality of the rod is the same in either case. It’s not as matter for stylistics or rhetoric. Had it been, I would have written that post.

  31. Schopsi

    It’s the shepard that put the wolves and the lions there, both the real and the metaphorical ones, and the shepard that bred the sheep to be incapable of defending themselves and finding their own way without staff or rod.

    Eventually all the sheep are slaughtered, without exceptions.

    Even though the shepard doesn’t need any meat (though perhaps Likes the smell of burning, which might be related to the fact that at least according to traditional Christianity the vast, overwhelming majority of all sheep who ever lived and will ever live end up in eternal fire).

  32. podcastkid

    Humans learn slowly. The mistakes of millennia go down, and then are followed by tales of figures who wrestled with the Great Shepherdess [and/or Shepherd] about the choices they were presented with at the time. Arjuna eg. Re my 4th grade Virginia History textbook, are there not already a score of books attempting to depict how Jefferson tried to follow Jesus in his own way in spite of his decisions made as an adult (just guessing)? To me it doesn’t mean the tales have always totally failed at describing sort of the struggles the figures may have inwardly had with the Great Shepherdess [and/or Spirit].

    If you finish this whole thing, you’ll be ahead of me.


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