The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul:, he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Ps. 23:1-3.
The Eastern Aramaic Peshitta text reads: “The Lord shepherds me and I lack nothing at all! And upon pastures of strength he makes me dwell. He guides me by restful waters and has restored my life; And upon paths of justice he leads me because of his reputation.”
The Hebrew text does read: “the Lord is my shepherd.” But in the Aramaic text the noun “shepherd” becomes an action verb, “shepherds.” The Aramaic text puts God in the act of shepherding. Raa is the Aramaic verbal root, and it not only means “to shepherd” but also “to feed, tend, herd, keep, pastor, nourish.” Metaphorically it signifies “to rule, lead, guide, and govern.”
Near Easterners believed that God sees after them exactly as a skilled chief shepherd cares for his sheep. In the Near East the greatest was the chief shepherd. All other shepherds answered to him. He was the overseer for all the flocks under his care and occupied a very important position in the community. For endless generations, sheep raising had been the highest occupation in the holy land,
Arabia, and Mesopotamia until the arrival of Western technology in these countries. A skilled shepherd is vital because without an adept shepherd, the sheep will scatter and become the prey of thieves and every kind of vicious beast. He treats all the flocks with equal care and concern and makes sure that they lack nothing at all. He heals and dresses the sick and wounded animals and is
willing to give his life for the sheep. Shepherds continually search for rich, fertile grazing areas where water is ample and grass is plentiful. They especially look for such places near mountains because it is usually cool and shaded. It is also a place where the entire camp may enjoy the richness of the land.
“Green pastures”symbolize harmony, security, strength, peace, and abundance.
Sheep enjoy pastures that are fertile where they do not have to go far and can lie down and eat. This almost effortless form of grazing makes them fatter and more content. When they are well cared for and satisfied, they produce better wool and by-products. “Restful waters” refers to sweet, clear, and slow running water. When water moves too swiftly, the sheep cannot drink. At times, a shepherd will build small nooks near the edges of a fast moving stream to make it easier for his flocks to drink. Also, sheep will not drink still, stagnant water. Their shepherd always tests the water before they drink.
In ancient Near Eastern lands, water was scarce and very precious. Biblical writers
symbolized truth by referring to it as living water. For them, truth was as precious as water. The chief shepherd knows all the safe pathways upon which to guide his flocks. He must be careful not to take shortcuts through rocky and treacherous paths, so his sheep don’t fall and break their legs. He also will not lead them through vineyards or wheatfields because landowners might seize and kill them. After all, the chief shepherd must maintain his name sake—that is, his reputation
as a skilled and careful shepherd. If he leads the sheep to bad places and his flocks suffer loss, his reputation is ruined.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Ps. 23:4.
“The valleys of the shadows of death” are winding paths between mountains where dark shadows may obscure many perils for the travelers. Bandits and thieves usually hide in dens and caves. Leading sheep through these valleys is an extremely tense and dangerous experience.
It is often said in the Near East that a person may be “under the shadow of death.” This signifies that the individual’s life is in danger. He could be killed at any moment. Only God’s presence, which biblical authors have symbolized as light, can brighten one’s path, dispelling fears and shadows. Those who are under the guidance of God fear no evildoer or calamity.
“Your rod and your staff have comforted me” refers to discipline and protection.
Near Eastern shepherds carry rods and staffs. They use their rods to direct the sheep, and the staffs become weapons to protect them from wild animals, snakes, and thieves. Generally, a shepherd who has been appointed to care for the lambs of the various flocks carries a tender rod (branch of a tree or from a bush) and gently taps the lambs on their backs while guiding them. Sheep feel comforted by the guiding rods and protecting staffs of their shepherds. Figuratively, the rod and the staff represent spiritual discipline and true teaching that protect from
anything that may be false or harmful.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Ps. 23:5.
Near Easterners are more generous in entertaining their enemies than their friends. They believe friends are always friends, but enemies must be won by means of hospitality, gifts, and favors. “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again.”
Tales of hospitality and lavish entertainments are handed down from one generation to another. When an enemy is entertained, the host will make sure to place piles of bread and dishes of diverse foods before him to convince him that the host loves and honors him. But if the bread and other foods are not abundant, the guest will rejoice to see that his host is too poor to entertain him
lavishly. The guest also believes that his host is an enemy. Some men, when entertaining their enemies, borrow dishes, bread, and other food just to
embarrass them and heap coals of fire upon their heads.
“If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink; for when you shall do these things for him, you will heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord will reward you.”
Good deeds and kindness destroy enmity and bring enduring reconciliation. Acts speak louder and are more powerful than words. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
“Thou anointest my head with oil” and “my cup runneth over” refer to prosperity.
Near Easterners often use butter, olive oil, and wine for medicine as well as for food. They anoint their heads with olive oil and also use it on chapped hands and feet. These items are very expensive; therefore, the people consider themselves living a life of luxury when they have them. When butter and olive oil are scarce, they are used sparingly, mostly for food and emergency medicine only. The Hebrew text reads” “My cup runneth over.” My translation of this verse from the Aramaic text is somewhat different: “My cup gives joy like pure wine.”4 The cup that gives great joy represents more than ample supply of food and drink. The bounteous table, the anointing oil, and the cup that enlivens one represent great happiness, wealth, and health.”