by Louise Westfall
We begin with a Bible quiz. I’ll start a verse of Scripture and you complete it. Ready? In the beginning… God created the heavens and the earth. For God so loved the world… that he gave his only Son. The Lord is my shepherd… I shall not want. Impressive! If you have only these three verses memorized, you’re well on your way to essential Bible knowledge. God’s creative powers that brought worlds into being; God’s universal love for humanity embodied in Jesus; God’s providential care throughout our lives: if you know all that by heart, you know enough.
But there’s knowing, and there’s knowing, and I wonder if our knowledge of the 23rd Psalm is limited by the association we make between it and the afterlife. There is no text more often chosen for a funeral or memorial service than this one, with its poetic description of God’s presence “through the valley of the shadow of death,” and dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. It’s a Psalm I recite bedside in hospitals and nursing homes, when death is imminent. I have never once read it at a wedding or baptism or other joyous occasion.
Yet the majority of Psalm 23 revels in the goodness of God in ordinary time. There’s the Good Shepherd, providing abundant nourishment, guidance, and security on a daily basis. Good news not only for eternity, but for right here, right now. We’ll begin by reading it responsively and I’m grateful to Katie Aron for her worship leadership. Listen with fresh ears to God’s Word. [KATIE LEADS RESPONSIVE READING of PSALM 23, New Revised Standard Version]
Most of the changes in the New Revised Standard Version (our pew Bibles’ translation) consist of moving away from “the king’s English” with its “thees” and “thys” and “preparest” and “restoreth” – to more contemporary usage like “you” and “your,” prepares and restores. Easier to understand for sure. But for some, it seems a diminishment of the classic poetry and gravitas worthy of the Divine Shepherd. Just in case you’re among them, here’s Sherry Kenny to read it in the King James Version. [SHERRY]
What did you notice about the differences? They’re mostly stylistic, except for the last line. From the King James we read… I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The New Revised shortens the time frame considerably: I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. Hmmmm. A translation note in my study Bible says the Hebrew phrase is “length of days,” and referred to an indeterminate amount of time. Both translations are “correct” and both are important. The emphasis in one is God’s eternal care; in life and in death we belong to God. The other focuses on our earthly life and God’s unfailing presence in it, wherever our ways take us.
Several of you shared an article about the so-called “millennial Bible”– the Word of God for this unique (and much-maligned) cohort. Upon closer examination, I realized it wasn’t some new hipster translation, but instead used a contemporary version developed by the American Bible Society. I guess what made it millennial were the cool font-types, sleek design, and much more white space. Here’s Sara Hanlon reading this translation. [SARA]
Human life is full of valleys (and peaks!) before we hit that final one. And God is there with us.
…I may walk through valleys as dark as death… yep. That sounds about right. Human life is full of valleys (and peaks!) before we hit that final one. And God is there with us. In fact, the plain syntax of this version helped me hear the preposition “through” in a different way; not just walking deeper into the abyss, but actually passing through to the other side. Coming through a hard place; climbing out of the valley into a new place of welcome and nourishment. Hope is kindled not as a far-off dream of heaven, but as a tangible spiritual reality that transforms our perspective and actions today. This is the hope that galvanizes us in a time when fear is rampant, and seems to paralyze the better angels of our nature.
Many are familiar with Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, still a powerful response to one of the most difficult questions of faith: If God is good and all-powerful, why do people suffer so terribly? A more recent one is called The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm. It explores the mystery of God’s goodness and the problem of evil through the metaphor of shepherding. Here is the faithful shepherd who can’t eliminate evil (that is, there will always be wolves lurking, and droughts burning up the watering holes and delicious grass), but strives to protect and defend the flock against anything that threatens harm. Life is hard, but the knowledge that we are not alone imbues courage and strength to carry on. But it’s more than merely “coping” with life. A group of Jewish women drew from Kushner’s book in a scripture study class and re-visioned it as an affirmation of the Divine feminine whose powers are known in Her nurturing, compassionate actions. Instead of “shepherd,” these women used a Hebrew word for God—Shekinah—another word for “presence,” demonstrated in One who makes you feel completely at home. Sarah Dixon will read this version. [SARAH]
So now it’s your turn for some conversation. With the neighbors sitting around you, please discuss two questions: The first is: How does reading Scripture in different translations and voices deepen your understanding of a text? And the second is Which of the four versions of the 23rd Psalm meant the most to you today?
When I mentioned to one of you that the sermon today was on the 23rd Psalm, he smiled broadly and you could hear the relief in his response: Finally, a comforting sermon that isn’t going to tell me to DO something! Oh dear. I hope it is comforting, because I think that sense of well-being will lead us naturally towards the Shepherd who shows us the best ways to shepherd one another. We have some words for it: mothering, caring, providing, protecting, loving and loving and loving and… Amen.
Versions of the 23rd Psalm in today’s message:
- New Revised Standard Version
- King James’ Version
- Contemporary American Version (American Bible Society)
- A Feminist Version, from ritualwell, a site sponsored by Reconstructing Judaism. The version grew out of a women’s Scripture study at Temple Ahavat Shalom.