A friend of mine shared with me a story about the Twenty Third Psalm. Having been raised in a traditional church, she was accustomed to hear the psalm read at funerals, a time when "the valley of the shadow of death” is literally present. Then a Jewish friend said that the King James Bible got it all wrong, I mean, WAY all wrong. This was not a poem about death, it was a poem about fun! The shepherd used his rod to play with the sheep. He loved all his little guys to distraction. Inspired, the friend tried to render some of the sheer joy of the original Hebrew, but words failed her as they often do when we talk about God. Usually, when something gets that lost in translation, it’s because a mystical experience is being had somewhere. And Jewish mysticism, at least as I have experienced it, is very earthy.
The shepherd is an earthy fellow, too. He lives under sky and stars. He abides in the fields and feels the dew of heaven like an animal, yet he himself must be watchful and aware. Like a ruler, who must represent both the one and the many, the shepherd is a threshold dweller with one foot in the human world and the other in the animal world. The Israelites were herders and their relationship to their flocks offered them a rich metaphor for God’s relationship to them. The shepherd also became symbolic of the ruler, at once powerful and humble. As the shepherd is wiser than the sheep, watching over them and seeing to their welfare, so should the ruler be far-seeing, because God, who is ruler of all, sees everything. The shepherd preserves the flock. The ruler preserves the nation. God preserves God’s creation. So far so good.
But now the analogy turns difficult. The shepherd is also a predator, as David said so well before his fight with Goliath, naming the bears and the wolves he had killed in defense of his flock. The shepherd who cares for the sheep also kills them: for food, for hospitality, for the life of the tribe. In similar fashion, when the nation is threatened, the ruler asks his subjects to give their lives for its preservation and care. God asks for our lives, too. “You fool!” says Jesus in the parable of the barns. “Do you not know that your life will be asked of you this very night?” And yet, like the bleating lamb, the frightened child, the adolescent snipped in the first flower of her love, “The spirit is willing,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “but the flesh is weak.”
Both sides of the story exist in the twenty-third psalm, no matter in which language you read it. There is both delight and the shadow of death. The feast is held in the presence of enemies. The question then becomes, as it does in all the best mystical texts, an invitation to experience the seamless whole that is life and death, body and soul and to ask: do I live in its now, its care, its delight of God, or am I so bothered by the shadow of death and the potential for enemies that I forget to live?
Choose life, says Moses, who understood God’s saving ways so well. Choose life. Pay no attention to that old death over there manipulating the controls behind the curtain. Choose Life.