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.)

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October 21, 2011 Posted by | translation challenge, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

When the Liturgy and the Bible No Longer Match

I got a great question during a lecture I gave last week in Washington, DC: Quotations from the Bible frequently appear in prayers. What should we do when a better understanding of the Bible’s text forces a new translation that no longer matches the prayers?

For example, in And God Said I argue against the translation “The Lord is my shepherd” for Psalm 23. (The reasons why are involved and not really relevant here.) The questioner in Washington agreed that “shepherd” is the wrong word. But he was troubled, because my lecture followed a worship service, and Psalm 23 had been part of the service. “Do we have to change our prayers, now, too?”

The problem stems from potentially conflicting goals. I think a translation of the Bible should be accurate. But for liturgy, I think accuracy should be subservient to prayerfulness. What good is an accurate translation at a prayer service if it doesn’t make for good prayer?

This is a particularly vexing problem in strong liturgical traditions — the Catholic Church and most Jewish traditions, for example — but I think it applies to anyone who wants some degree of correspondence between prayer and Scripture.

So what do you think: When a better understanding of the Bible creates a non-prayerful translation, what should we do?

May 28, 2010 Posted by | translation applications, translation theory | , , , , | 8 Comments

How Can I Quote the Bible if They Keep Changing the Translation?

Buses in Israel have the following written over the priority seating reserved for the elderly: mipnei seivah takum. Though the first two words sound esoteric to adult Israeli speakers and are often incomprehensible to children, the line is, in my opinion, a beautiful nod to the holiness code of Leviticus: “Stand before the elderly.”

Unfortunately, even if we wanted to (and even if it were legal), we couldn’t do the same thing in the U.S., because everyone has a different (often bad) translation. The KJV “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head,” would prompt more than a few laughs but it wouldn’t do the job. The ESV, “you shall stand up before the gray head” is only a little better. (Why aren’t these heads attached to bodies?) The NAB “stand up in the presence of the aged” is much better, but those who grew up with the KJV might not even recognize it as Leviticus.

Relatedly, I was recently at a Jewish funeral. Some 1,000 people came to mourn, and there were no prayer books, bibles, or printed guides of any sort available. “Please join me in reciting Psalm 23,” the rabbi nonetheless instructed. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…” the whole group responded, basically quoting the NKJV. This even though most people in the room had been studying from a different translation (the 1984 NJPS) for over 20 years. That translation renders the Psalm “…I lack nothing.”

I understand that proponents of the ESV try to keep “the Bible” from changing precisely because of issues like these, but it’s worth keeping in mind that neither the (N)KJV nor the ESV would help with the buses.

It seems as though, in many cases, we have to choose accuracy or standardization; we can’t have both, even though they both have merit.

And unfortunately, beyond lamenting the situation (or foolishly suggesting that everyone should learn Hebrew and Greek), I can’t think of a solution.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments