Sheep and the Bible: the rest of the story

Sheep have got to be the most frequently mentioned animal in the Bible.  They are spoken of literally and figuratively, along with lambs, wool and shepherds.  I thought it would be fun, since I like both sheep and the Bible, to explore some of the different sheep themes that are used.

A ewe and lamb, Cotswolds in England, spring 2008

One of the most popular chapters in the whole Bible, familiar to both believers and unbelievers, is the Twenty-third Psalm. Many people have memorized this chapter. It obviously has struck a chord with the human race.

Though this psalm is about the Lord and one of his people, the imagery used in part of it is that of a shepherd and his sheep.  The first four verses quoted here from the King James clearly have the sheep imagery:

Psalm 23

1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4Yea, 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.

Unfortunately, since we are reading this in English we are missing part of the story. It is just the nature of translation that the meaning will be imperfectly conveyed.  The problem is compounded by the fact that Hebrew (the psalm’s original language) and English have completely different ways of thinking.  Hebrew speakers think more in pictures.  For them, one word will bring to mind a whole scenario. English speakers are somehow more 2-D in their thinking– we need a group of words to describe a complete thought. This is just a reflection of completely dissimilar world views.

As rich in imagery as the 23rd Psalm is in English, it is much more so in Hebrew.  One example involves the single Hebrew word yarbitzeni.  That single word was taken by the translators and expanded to six English words in verse 2:

yarbitzeni=   “He makes me to lie down”

Wow, six words to explain one! But wait, it’s worse than that. The Hebrew word means more than that even. The complete translation into English is:

“He makes me to lie down like a lamb with all four legs tucked under me and he makes flow to me water.”

How is that for a very specific word-picture!

A young lamb with legs tucked under.

The information in this post was taught to me by my friend Risa Wolf who has a PhD in Medieval English Literature with an interest in ancient languages and scripts.
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One Response to Sheep and the Bible: the rest of the story

  1. Glory Lennon says:

    What a interesting bit of “trivia” for a very familiar verse, but I must say less is not more in this instance. Poetry is like that, I think. The English version just sounds soothing and much more comforting than one un-melodic sounding word. My opinion of course. 🙂

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