God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Lord isn’t the Shepherd You Think (or: Don’t Mess with the Shepherds)

“The Lord is my shepherd.” This line from Psalm 23 is among the most famous images from the Bible. But as I describe in And God Said, for most people the English words hide the ancient imagery.

Shepherds

To get started, here’s a question: which actor would you cast as a typical shepherd?

When I think of a shepherd, I think of a scrawny man dressed in rags who spends more time with sheep than with people. In term of imagery, I might say, “as lonely as a shepherd,” or “as meager as a shepherd,” or “as ill-dressed as a shepherd.” (If you’re reading this and you are a shepherd, please forgive me!) So in terms of an actor, I think I’d pick Woody Allen. (And Mr. Allen, if you’re reading this, please forgive me; I still love your movies.)

But we see a completely different set of images in the Bible. Shepherds were fierce, regal, and romantic. Back then, one might have said, “as brave as a shepherd,” “as strong as a shepherd,” or “or sexy as a shepherd.”

So even though the Hebrew in Psalm 23 is ro’eh, and even though ro’eh literally means “shepherd,” I don’t think “The Lord is my shepherd” is a very good translation.

Ferocity

For example, Exodus 2:16-20 describes the Midian priest’s seven daughters who are drawing water for their father’s flock when a group of shepherds comes to menace them. Moses proves his amazing capabilities by defending the women against the shepherds. The daughters even say, “[Moses] saved us from the shepherds.” Nowadays, that’s a laughable image. But in the Bible, shepherds were fierce, and Moses demonstrated great worthiness by standing up to them. (In another clash with modern sensibilities, the high priest thanks Moses by giving him a daughter to marry.)

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October 21, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 31 Comments