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.


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.


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.)

We see the same thing in Jeremiah 49:19, where God is “like a lion” that can’t be stopped. Using increasingly powerful imagery, the text has God ask, “Who is like me? Who can summon me? Who is the shepherd who can stand before me?” (NRSV). In other words, God is so powerful that even a shepherd will be beaten back. In modern terms, again, the imagery is nonsensical. But in the Bible, shepherds were symbols of strength.

And the famous imagery in Amos 3:12 supports this notion. There the shepherd is the one who wrestles lions.

So shepherds in the Bible are symbols of might.


Secondly, King David was a shepherd. To an extent, this is like the middle of last century in the U.S., when generals commonly became presidents. In antiquity, a king had to be in charge of defense. But it also reflects the then-common image of a shepherd as regal.

We see this imagery reflected in Micah 5:5, where shepherds are in parallel with rulers, a literary device that, in the Bible, suggests that they were similar. And in Nahum 3:18 we find shepherds in parallel with nobles.

So shepherds were regal.


Finally, shepherds were symbols of romance. Song of Solomon, the most overtly sexual book of the Bible, is filled with images of shepherds. For example, in verse 1:7, the heroine asks her lover, “where do you shepherd [your flock]?” The famous imagery in verse 2:16, “my lover is mine and I am his,” ends with two Hebrew words to describe the heroine’s lover. They translate as, “[the one] who is a shepherd among flowers.”

So in addition to being fierce and regal, shepherds were sexy.

Shepherds, Again

In short, for the ancient image of a shepherd, think John Wayne, not Woody Allen.

And the point of the opening line of Psalm 23 is that God is fierce, mighty, brave, regal, and perhaps dashing. In other words, “The Lord is my Shepherd” in Psalm 23 is remarkably like “The Lord is a man of war” in Exodus 15:3. The point of Psalm 23 is that “I have a mighty warrior fighting for me” and that’s why I have nothing to worry about.

It seems to me that the modern English word “shepherd” completely fails to convey this original message.

What we do about that, though, is a harder question. As I explore here (“What to do with significant Bible mistranslations?“), sometimes our familiar translations are so very familiar that even when they’re wrong, it’s hard to change them. I think this is such a case.

(When I was presenting this material to an audience in New Jersey, someone suggested, “The Lord is my Rambo” as a better translation. It certainly lacks the poetry of the original, but the imagery is pretty close.)

So what do you think? How would you translation ro’eh in the opening line of Psalm 23 to convey the crucial qualities of might?


October 21, 2011 - Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , , ,


  1. Good points you are making here. I remember the translation of Psalm 23 which started out meaning something like “The LORD is the slave who looks after my sheep, but I am a rich man”.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | October 21, 2011

  2. Cowboy!
    I’ve thought about this discussion since you spoke in New Orleans. Except for one area, I think cowboy fits. The American cowboy is always represented as fierce, romantic, and if not regal, certainly presidential. (Think Reagon, Bush, L Johnson)
    The one problem is that cowboys are usually presented as loners in our society. (Thinking of Clint Eastwood). They are not REALLY loners; I have ranchers in my family. But society presents them as loners. So we wouldn’t have the gang of cowboys. We might have a posse of cowboys, I guess. But the posses in American movies are usually the villains against the cowboy loner.
    Better yet, the cowboy is a type of shepherd also.

    Comment by marian42 | October 21, 2011

  3. This author makes an excellent case for “owboy” as the proper USA translation:

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | October 21, 2011

  4. יְהוָה is my shepherd is just fine. If it takes someone 60 years of meditating on Torah to correct the false impression of his piety, it is time well spent.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | October 21, 2011

  5. I think that ro-eh should only be transliterated not translated. The meaning of the word would then be studied in Bible study sessions. Trying to juvenilize translation leads to mistranslation as cited above by Joel H.

    Comment by Yitz Zlotnik | October 21, 2011

  6. What do we do with the ancient rabbinical literature that claims shepherds were despicable, of the lower class, unreliable in court, and did inappropriate things with their sheep? Did the view of shepherds change in the eyes of the Israelite over a few hundred years?

    Comment by Jonathan Houting | October 21, 2011

  7. The word is difficult to translate because the etymology of “shepherd” suggests tending of sheep, but in Hebrew and Greek, a “shepherd” was a herder of any kind of flock animal, and was normally referring to a goatherder.

    Also, “my” borders on possession; better “to me”, no?

    Also, “The Lord” is problematic, as in the Hebrew, it translates the proper name Ye-HoVa, while in the Greek, it translates the generic term, “the lord” (though it was the title ascribed to the deity).

    In the NT, the deity retires from herding and commits his flock to another herdsman, the promised “good herder”, (though the promised herdsman is neither the promised David, nor his descendent!)

    Lots o’ fun!

    Comment by bibleshockers | October 21, 2011

    • I forgot to click Notify Me…

      Comment by bibleshockers | October 21, 2011

  8. A question and a comment:
    When I took Hebrew at LSU, the teacher noted the fact that the metaphor changes at the end of the poem. We change from shepherds to setting a table. He thought there was a translation problem with the poem. What’s the current thought?

    I second Mr. Houting’s comment. The downgrading of shepherds starts early on. When Samuel is seeking a man to replace Saul, he originally did not consider David who was not as kingly-looking. (Granted–his brothers must have also been shepherds and Samuel did consider them.)

    Comment by marian42 | October 21, 2011

  9. In NT parlance, leaders are “pastors” (which SHOULD be a small “p”, indicating “feeder” and “protector”, not “Fierce Royalty”. Even from Ezekiel’s perspective, the many “herders” of Israel abused their position to become “flock beaters” and “flock exploiters.” Hence, the lord promised that there would be a *single* good herdsman, David, who would replace all underlings.

    So, in the NT, Jesus claims, not only that he is the *best* pastor, but rather the *ONLY* legitimate pastor. All others who call themselves “Pastor” Jones, or “Pastor” Smith are, scripturally speaking, impostors.

    The exception, of course, that proves the rule, is Peter, the temporary under-pastor:

    1Pe 2:25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the [singular] Shepherd and [singular] Bishop of your souls. (KJV)

    Comment by bibleshockers | October 21, 2011

    • If intertexuality is important, then ‘pastors’ should be rendered ‘shepherds’.

      >>>All others who call themselves “Pastor” Jones, or “Pastor” Smith are, scripturally speaking, impostors.

      Yes, Protestants make the same mistake as Catholics, even though they acknowledge that “father” as a form of address is unbiblical.
      The biblical principle remains: there is only one Father, one Leader, and one Teacher.
      The functions (or offices or giftings) of shepherd, teacher, prophet etc are biblical, but the use of religious titles is against the teaching of Jesus.

      Comment by Robert Kan | October 23, 2011

  10. The Lord is my fierce protector, my noble ruler and lover of my soul…..but this is too wordy.

    There’s always issues when we have preconceived ideas that could lead to us forming wrong images. Searching for other terms will also potentially introduce other preconceived ideas and subsequent problems to follow.

    I would much prefer to have teachers like yourself to bring out the correct imagery of those more colorful terms, than changing the terms.

    Comment by Robert Kan | October 22, 2011

  11. Strictly speaking the problem here arises more from the feminization of religion than because we don’t understand what shepherds do. Just google “Jesus the good shephard” and check out the images. It’s very disheartening.

    I do like BibleShockers suggestion of using “The LORD is to me…”. As I read the Hebrew, its literal translation is “the LORD is pasturing me…” or perhaps, “The LORD is my pasturing”. In either case, it’s not the LORD that is in view, but the value the author attaches to the LORD. Thus, I should think that the translation “The LORD is to me a shepherd” more in line with the Hebrew. As an aside, the Greek of the Septuagint has “The LORD shepherds me” which is also consistent with BibleShocker’s suggestion.

    Anyway, here’s my $0.02 worth:

    “The LORD protects me. Not shall I want…”



    Comment by Michael | October 23, 2011

    • “protects me” is the essence, [exactly the point]. albeit not rendered in metaphor, so personally, I prefer a more concrete metaphor rendering of “herdsman”…

      Comment by bibleshockers | November 13, 2011

  12. “The LORD protects me” is good.
    “Not shall I want” not English is.

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | October 23, 2011

  13. Not shall I want is perfectly good English – this is poetry and you can as you please with the words do.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | October 24, 2011

    • If Yoda you are–otherwise awkward sound it will.

      Comment by Jonathan | October 31, 2011

      • “Aaah! Strong in the Force is this one!”

        Or as Chewy says, “AAaaaaahhhhoooowwww!”

        Comment by bibleshockers | October 31, 2011

  14. ‘Herdsman’ is a better and more accurate translation than ‘shepherd’. Roi is refers to tzon – could be goats, sheep, any unspecified herd animal. Also cuts out the later and anachronistic christian concept of the ‘Good Shepherd’ with his meek sheep. All wrong for what is in many ways a harsh poem.

    Comment by Jenny | November 13, 2011

    • I find it humorous, despite zealous religious efforts to preserve stuff, how garbled everything becomes! For example, Passover is commemorated (but not observed) with the leg of a lamb and Motza crackers, but the original feast was with an *adult* flock animal, probaly a goat, and the unleavened bread was Pita bread, not crackers! And these are just the tip of the iceberg. It is also instructive to see how much stuff has been garbled in the last centuries, even, such as traditions related to Thanksgiving and Christmas!

      I’m not sure about the “harshness” of the poem, though.

      Brenton (LXX):
      Psa 23:1 A Psalm of David. The Lord tends me as a shepherd, and I shall want nothing.
      Psa 23:2 In a place of green grass, there he has made me dwell: he has nourished me by the water of rest.
      Psa 23:3 He has restored my soul: he has guided me into the paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.
      Psa 23:4 Yea, even if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid of evils: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, these have comforted me.
      Psa 23:5 Thou has prepared a table before me in presence of them that afflict me: thou hast thoroughly anointed my head with oil; and thy cup cheers me like the best wine.
      Psa 23:6 Thy mercy also shall follow me all the days of my life: and my dwelling shall be in the house of the Lord for a very long time.

      Comment by bibleshockers | November 13, 2011

      • Firstly, ‘green’ isn’t in the hebrew. Nor is ‘pasture’. (such an english image) The Hebrew is more like – fields of grass.

        Neither is ‘shadow of death’ – the Hebrew is actually dark (maybe darkets?) ravine.

        The ‘paths of righteousness’ could equally well (and a bit more accurately) be translated as ‘straight tracks’

        Ah, the ‘rod’ and ‘staff’. Firstly the ‘rod’ – ‘shevet’, a very interesting words. It comes to Hebrew from both assyrian and egyptian; in both cases it is a war club. In the egyptian case it is also part of pharoah’s insignia in his aspect as the savage avenger of his people. It’s the association with shepherds comes, I think, from this powm – it is the ‘crook’ in Egyptian icogography. Not the other way around. It keeps it’s warlike associations in hebrew, and through this aspect of power becomes one of the words for ‘tribe’ cf Jacob’s blessing for Yehuda, where it means that he will keep the power. see also as a weapon the proverb about sparing the ‘rod’). It is deliberatly set up as contrast here to ‘staff’ which IS explicitly an instrument of support. So basically God is ready to smash the skull of your enemies (this is not an unusual image, cf ps 110) and also to prop you up if you hurt yourself.

        The image of preparing a table – ‘shluchan’ isn’t a table, biblically, it’s a roll of leather or a carpet; think Bedouins. The meal in front of one’s enemies refers to the practice of a ‘treaty’ meal with those you are about to enter into negotiations with. Basically God, as exemplary semitic patron and host has provided you with all the accoutrements of luxury to face off with – the perfumed head, and the full cup – it is a statement of martial defiance, as much as anything else.

        Also, ‘afflicts’ is a very poor translation of that word, if only because it implies a certain passivity or victimhood. The word means more like ‘ones who are beseiging me’ (a poncy word, though), or ‘harrassing’ in the martial sense of circling and attacking then pulling back. There is no ‘cheers me’ at all in the tet, it is the translator’s addition and interpretation.

        There is no ‘mercy’ in the text – the hebrew says ‘good’ and ‘chesed’ which is difficult to translate – it isn’t mercy, though, that would be something based on רחמ, instead – instead something closer to ‘faithfulness’.

        The ‘dwell’ is taken from the reading of the septuagint; the Masoretic text actually likely reads ‘returns to’.

        Comment by Jenny | November 13, 2011

      • So how would you render the passage?

        Comment by bibleshockers | November 13, 2011

    • I just came across this while reviewing logical fallacies. I thought it might interest this crowd…


      Comment by bibleshockers | November 13, 2011

  15. I think the best thing to do is to leave the translation of “shepherd” as is and rely on a commentary to fill readers in on the meaning that the writer may have originally been trying to communicate. This is what usually happens in situations where different cultures intersect – the words that are used may not adequately convey the meaning from speaker to hearer. The only hope of clear communication is for an explanation to be provided which helps the hearer to understand the speakers message.

    My family background is European, and I was born and raised in Canada. My wife’s background is Asian, and she spent the first 20 years of her life growing up in Asia before immigrating here. When we first got together, we would occasionally visit some Asian homes. One of the first things that my Asian hosts would do would be to offer a drink. Because I am an easygoing guy and do not want to make things difficult for the host, when I was offered a drink, I usually declined. Why would I make the host busy if I wasn’t thirsty?

    After this happened a few times, my wife explained to me how rude I was being to the host. She told me that by offering a drink, the host was really asking me if I would accept his/her hospitality. By refusing the drink, the host was actually hearing that I didn’t want to accept the hospitality which had been offered. I learned that I didn’t have to drink the drink if I wasn’t thirsty. I only had to accept it. The drink could sit untouched in front of me for the entire visit, and that would be fine.

    I don’t think that I would have been smart enough to figure this out on my own. Left to my own devices I would have continued in my attempts to make life easy for my hosts because I did not understand the hosts’ meaning of the phrase “Would you like a drink?” This is not a problem of my host doing a poor job of translating the question into English. The issue is simply that the cultural meaning behind the phrase cannot be translated as simply as the vocabulary.

    Had my host simply asked, “Would you accept my hospitality?” I would have happily obliged, but in that situation the culturally appropriate question to ask is “Would you like a drink?” not “Would you accept my hospitality?” The problem arose when I listened with my “white” ears and failed to consider the possibility that I might not know as much about being offered drinks as I thought. The only ways to become aware of another possible understanding of the question would be either by careful observation or by being told.

    It seems as though this is the same situation as described in the blog post. The “shepherd” is the appropriate word for the situation. Perhaps the problem is not with the vocabulary choice as much as it is with the reader thinking s/he already knows everything about shepherds. By careful observation (as Joel has done before composing this post) we might become aware of what the writer was likely intending to communicate. Alternatively, someone who knows can just tell us what the writer was likely intending to communicate (as Joel has done for us).

    Perhaps the implication is that as readers (or listeners) we have to stop assuming that the writers (or speakers) always think exactly the same way that we do. Perhaps the onus is on us to recognize where our cultural assumptions are preventing us from receiving the message correctly. This may even result in getting invited a second time!

    Comment by Richard | November 24, 2011

    • Richard, I would agree with the gist of your last two paragraphs. Because Jesus is not literally a shepherd, one needs to understand the imagery from the author’s viewpoint.

      Your “hospitality” example is a bit inaccurate for a few reasons.

      Firstly, it is reasonable to assume that there must be some cases where the “drink” question would be posed only because of a sincere concern for one’s thirst, and should therefore not be taken in any other kind of way.

      Secondly, you became aware (through a third party) of a hidden agenda behind the question, however, please don’t assume that all Asians from the same cultural background have the same agenda.

      Thirdly, the situation you describe has more to do with customary practices (when people are unfamiliar with each other) than with language. When two people know each other well and are comfortable in each other’s presence, they don’t normally seek to be accepted or approved by the other. Any misunderstandings can normally be sorted out anyway through clear, open and honest communication.

      So the problem really wasn’t with you, whichever way you look at it. Their inability to communicate effectively was the real issue. They shouldn’t have made any inappropriate assumptions about you, in the same way that you didn’t make any inappropriate assumptions about them when they offered you a drink.

      Comment by Robert Kan | November 25, 2011

  16. […] shepherds, and, in particular Psalm 23, because in Hebrew shepherds were fierce, regal, and romantic, while […]

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  17. “The Lord is my knight…”

    Comment by Nigel Collins | June 25, 2012

  18. –Considering only the literal level of meaning I’m not sure how I would argue against the image of shepherds that you are proposing. But I think I would be reluctant to accept it. I suppose I could argue that the story of David and Goliath is such a memorable story because David is a mere shepherd and a quite young one at that. Isn’t the story something quite different if David was a fearsome warrior going out to meet a terrible enemy. Our current (movie/comic book) culture is full of incredible superheros battling equally incredible threats to our society. Is David and Goliath really a story in that genre? I don’t see it that way.

    –I see the story as being about a threat or problem that appears so huge that no one seems to think that it can be dealt with. Then when the solution appears, it is of quite an unexpected nature. The solution does not come from among the mightiest of warriors, or some fiendishly clever battle tactic, it comes from a mere shepherd. The resolution of the problem comes from an unexpected (or previously unknown(?)) source.

    –Spiritual wisdom is difficult to acquire. Perhaps that is why the Bible repeats many important truths, a number of times, in different ways. Too many repetitions of a metaphor where a mere shepherd is the source of victory, might make it seem that we need to redefine our image of shepherds, but doing that would damage the spiritual meaning of the metaphor.

    –Against “real world” threats, violence, economic troubles, crime, ecological disasters, etc, what percent of our society, as a first reaction, redoubles their efforts at spiritual development? Few if any, is my guess. Those that do turn to the spiritual with all their heart, mind and soul, usually have to reach a point where all the other attempts to solve their problems have failed. When they finally turn to (or discover) the seemingly unlikely solution to a “giant” problem, the victory can seem very unexpected.

    –I see sheep representing spiritual thoughts or ideas, or maybe just taking the spiritual perspective on things. A shepherd then is one that cares for that type of thinking, or for a flock of spiritual ideas, no doubt always seeking to enlarge his flock. The image of God as the shepherd and individuals as the sheep under his care, is likely a lower level meaning for those not yet ready for a deeper spiritual meaning. It is hard to see how the deeper meaning would apply in Psalms 23, but perhaps it does. Maybe having the sense of, “my shepherding is spiritual in nature.”

    Comment by Caleb J. | July 18, 2012

  19. I am coming into this discussion late, I just came across it today. I agree with the concept of ro-eh being “pasturing”, it has many connotations about eating. It comes from the verb “to pasture” or “to graze”. Abel in Genesis 4 was ro-eh, the one who took his animals out to graze. This concept of God as the provider of food is one elementary thread of meaning in God being ro-eh. Seeing the poem as a whole, God is the one who takes me out to graze in verse 1, and God is the one who provides a banquet for me in verse 5. This chiasum starts and ends the poem on the idea of eating.

    But God is also one who guards and protects, as seen in the imagery of the rod, perhaps more accurately, the war club. The shepherd, as Dr. Hoffman suggest, fights against fierce animals like lions and other predators, to protect his animals. So in that regard, God as Rambo is correct, taking the “fighting on my behalf” part of the Rambo picture (and leaving out other Rambo characteristics).

    The problem comes when we try to weave all those components of meaning into one word in English, because each word we try leaves out components of meaning in the original Hebrew. Perhaps the LXX comes closest in saying God shepherds me. Making it a verb rather than a noun may avoid many connotations that we may not like.

    In many nomadic tribes in Africa, “shepherd” means “a non-family member hired to care for your animals.” God certainly is not a servant-boy. When the translators of the Bible in one African language tried to rely too closely on the English, they arrived at that erroneous term, “shepherd boy.” The shepherd in the Bible is not a hired hand, he is the owner of the animals. He risks his life for them. They are everything to him. Fortunately, in that African language they had a term that almost exactly fit ra-ah, the verb form of ro-eh, the word “tissa”. Their solution was to use that verb, as in God “tissa”-es me. No explanations or footnotes were needed. They got the right picture. Hope this helps.

    Comment by George Payton | July 23, 2012

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  21. My Q is about v. 4. Is ‘death’ in the original? I have been instructed that ‘darkest valley’ would be a better translation.

    Comment by Kert Lauterbach | February 14, 2015

  22. I would agree with most of what’s stated except for changing the word shepherd. Shepherd, I think, conveys so much more than just might, courage, valor, or sexiness. Although all of those can be a part of being a shepherd I would strongly convey the coupling of those qualities with the others of a shepherd to lead, tend to, protect, and be compassionate towards his/her sheep . I think a redefining of the “shepherd” to include all of those qualities would be great. I know I’m pretty much saying the same thing.

    Comment by GA | May 18, 2019

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