Psalm 23: Some Insights into Reading the 23rd Psalm
Dedicated to the memory of Prof. Gene M. Schramm, of blessed memory
Many years ago, a Catholic colleague asked me to give a talk to a lay Catholic group about how reading the Bible could be enhanced by knowing the Hebrew language. I thought that the 23 rd Psalm would serve well as a text for this talk, since almost everyone knows more or less the same English version, and I had heard insights into the Hebrew from the gentleman who sat next to me in synagogue, Gene Schramm (Professor of Semitics and Linguistics at the University of Michigan).
“A Psalm of David” could mean that King David wrote this Psalm, or that the Psalm relates to the life of David, or even that it has the form of the Psalms of David (like Shakespearean sonnets, not necessarily written by Shakespeare).
“The Lord is my Shepherd,” and, consequently, the psalmist envisions himself as a sheep.
“I shall not want,” an expression in somewhat archaic terms of the idea that I shall not lack something I want. When I consider what I have, I will realize that I lack nothing. Prof. Schramm deemed this a plausible reading, using the Hebrew root חסר exactly as it appears twice in the requirement that a donor give the needy recipient “as much of his lacks as he does lack” (Deut. 15:8). The word, though, could also mean, “I shall not go missing.” When the Shepherd accounts for all his sheep, I shall not appear among the missing. This usage would appear in a popular slogan after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, “Friend, you are missed.”
“He causes me to lie down in fields of grass,” as a good Shepherd does for his sheep.
“He leads me to still waters,” such as sheep like to drink.
“He restores my soul.” The root of the verb, שבב, could indeed mean to restore or refresh; more often, however, it means to go astray, as in “Return, wayward children” (Jeremiah 3:14). Instead of “He restores my soul,” Schramm prefers “I go astray.”
“You lead me in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake.” When the sheep goes astray, the Shepherd brings him to the straight path; but the word for path, from the root עגל meaning circular,, elsewhere in the Bible always refers to a misleading path, that leads nowhere good. The only good circuitous path appears here, for the sheep has abandoned the straight path, and the Shepherd has to bring the sheep around about to the correct way.
“For your name’s sake.” The sheep does not claim to deserve rescue. The Shepherd has his own reasons for rescuing the wayward sheep.
Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death.” Some readers have objected to the poetic reading ‘the valley of the shadow of death,” reading one word as two; read it as one word with the root צלם, that word would have no obvious meaning. Splitting the word into two does not seem impossible. Hebrew does have other examples of this phenomenon: Many Hebrew names, for example, consist of two different roots combined in one portmanteau word. My name, Eliezer, combines “El” meaning God,
and “Ezer,” meaning “help.” When Leah names her son Gad (Gen. 30:10-11), the text presents an explanation for the name in one word, which traditionally gets read as a portmanteau word.
“I will fear no evil, for you are with me: Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Schramm asks, “How does a shepherd use the staff?” To protect the sheep from predators, certainly, but also to hit the sheep to get it to keep the path. The sheep expresses thanks to the Shepherd for chastising him, and bringing him back when he tries to stray.
“They comfort me.” The root, נחם, could mean “comfort.” It could also mean, “to cause me to change my mind.” Again, the sheep thanks the Shepherd for getting the sheep to reconsider and decide to keep to the right path. Generally, people believe that that root has two meanings, to console and to cause a change of mind. Schramm argued that the verb really has only one meaning, “to undergo and experience and emerge transformed.” So God says, in bringing a flood to destroy humanity, “I regret that I made them” (Gen. 6:6). Having experienced the behavior of his creatures, God now understands that they deserve destruction. The same root appears in the common expression, “consoling the
mourner,” but, Schramm argues, it does not mean saying something comforting to them, or cheering them up, or distracting them from mourning; it rather means accompanying them as they fully experience their loss, as they allow themselves to feel changed by that loss. Much of Halakhah about dealing with mourners accords with Schramm’s analysis. We come to the house of mourning without a script; we sit silently with the mourner, and, when the mourner speaks, respond to the mourner’s concerns.
‘You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” The wayward sheep now appears as a human being, since sheep do not eat at tables; perhaps the predatory enemies also get revealed as human. But the metaphor seems mixed: sheep do not eat at tables, but sheep do get eaten at tables. So, not as the surface meaning, according to Schramm, but as an embedded meaning a few levels down, the Psalmist presents himself (or King David), as anticipating his own death in the service of God.
“You have anointed my head with oil.” The prophet Samuel has anointed David in coronation ceremony (I Sam. 16:13).
“My cup overflows.” Well, at least, the cup gets filled, if not necessarily overflowing.
“And I will dwell in the house of God for everlasting.” That translation works for the root ישב , which means “to sit,” or “to dwell.” But Schramm suggested an alternative root, שוב “to go back, to return, to repent.” In keeping with the theme of the wayward hero of the Psalm.
As my grandson, Yeda’ya Finkelman, notes, the root for “wayward” or “to be restored” in verse three, שבב may belong to the family of ישב and שוב respectively, “to dwell” and “to return.” Yeda’ya’s suggestion follows the opinion of those grammarians who defend the observation that three letter roots with one weak letter often have related meanings, and also relate those roots to geminate roots, the same two letters concluding with a doubling the second letter. “Getting restored” seems related to “returning,” and “straying” seems opposite to “returning” or “settling.”
The well-known English translation of this Psalm presents a kind of confidence in God’s protection against the enemies of the Psalmist. Schramm’s alternatives, taken together, present the Psalmist as a flawed man, who feels gratitude that God has protected him beyond his deserts, and not allowed him to fail.
One more observation: During World War I, armies conquered territories in Eastern Europe, and then retreated, leaving the civilian populations without protection. Invasions and threats of invasion forced whole Jewish communities to escape from their homes. The Hasidic community of Modzitz, uprooted from its home and moved to the relative security of an unfamiliar urban area. The Modzitzer Rebbe composed a “song of the uprooted,” a musical presentation of the 23 rd Psalm expressing his pain, and the pain felt by his followers, as they became refugees. The song, a melancholy march, serves as musical commentary on the Psalm: Before I heard the music, I totally missed that each verb in the Psalm has the
sheep compelled to move, until the final verb expresses the psalmist’s yearning to “dwell in the house of the Lord.”