Shepherd's arm holding a staff.

A contradiction found in the most famous of all Psalms should lead us to reassess not only God’s nature but also our own human purpose.

Stephen Bertman
Dr. Stephen Bertman

I seldom go to temple. But when I do, I always remain silent as the congregation reads, for words recited in unison can be all too easily uttered by the tongue alone and not by the mindful heart. On those occasions, I instead stare at the printed page, hoping that the meaning of words long-shackled by habit will rise up to meet me as though for the first time, their significance fresh and new. And each year, at least one passage I have seen many times before inevitably surprises me with its hidden message.

This past Yom Kippur, it was the verses of Psalm 23 that took me by surprise. What part of the Bible could be more familiar than the 23rd Psalm – but, perhaps because of that very fact, less truly understood?

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 guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake. (Jewish Publication Society translation.)

Like a caring shepherd attentive to his flock, we are told, God nurtures us even as He guides us in paths of righteousness. But the literary mood of the psalm then darkens, becoming at once more personal.

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.

Here the Lord is no longer referred to in the more remote third person, for the ‘He’ has now become a more intimate “Thou,” one who, we see, protects us against harm and bestows blessings upon us.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Such divine protection and blessings, the psalm goes on to say, are guaranteed for life. Indeed, they may extend into the world to come, as the next verse implies.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Such words of comfort together with their seeming promise of eternal life explain why Psalm 23 is recited whenever we mourn or memorialize a loved one we have lost. They also explain why the image of God as “the good shepherd” went on to become one of the most popular symbols of early Christian art. Indeed, the psalm itself continues to occupy a prominent place in Christian liturgy to this very day.

However, as I sat there in temple and reflected on what I had just read, I recognized that the psalm presented me with a moral contradiction. While its poetry conveys a message of comfort, all the more reassuring because we have heard its soothing verses intoned time and time again, the compliant sheep of the psalm would eventually be butchered.

That nurturing shepherd, that “good” shepherd, who leads his naïve and trusting flock to pasture, would in the end deliberately convey some or all of them to their deaths.

Thus, if we are to take the words of the Bible literally, we are forced to acknowledge that the benevolence of an all-powerful God is not merely temporary; it is ultimately a sham.

Literary critics, no doubt, would be quick to point out that no metaphor, including this one, is perfect. Calling God a shepherd who cares for his flock does not mean that God must be the type of shepherd who also personally leads them to slaughter.

Our ancestors, however, did not let God off the hook so easily. Instead, they clearly confronted this contradiction in God’s nature: that He can inflict suffering on the very flock He purports to protect. The telling proof lies in the Book of Psalms itself where, in Psalm 44:12, God is pointedly accused of having abandoned his people to the savagery of their enemies.

Thou hast given us like sheep to be eaten;
And have scattered us among the nations.

Throughout history the faithful would continue to be baffled by the realization that an all-powerful God could ever let such a thing happen. Never doubting God’s intrinsic mercy, in their frustration and confusion they could only appeal to Him to remember who He was and, in effect, come to His senses, thereby defending both Himself and His people.

Hebrew prophets like Isaiah (1:12-17 and 10:1-3), Jeremiah (6:16-22) and Amos (2:4-8) for their part would deal with the contradiction not by reminding God of His inherent nature but instead by attributing human suffering to people’s neglect or perversion of His commandments.

Another Interpretation

As a modern Jew, rather than accept the traditional notion of God as all-powerful and all-knowing, I would argue for the concept of a limited God. An omnipotent and omniscient God, after all, would deserve to be blamed for all the natural and manmade evils that have ever befallen His creatures, including the Holocaust. The simple reason is that, having foreseen such evils, He could have easily prevented or at least mitigated them. By history’s reckoning, then, a God whose powers are limitless would be a deity who not only can lead us beside the still waters but also knowingly steers us into the valley of death’s shadow where our enemies wait.

A God who is limited in his powers, on the other hand, can be exonerated from such complicity. He is a God who kneels in anguish at Auschwitz, clothed in striped gray, a mute and helpless witness both to his creatures’ immense crimes and their victims’ boundless suffering. Our anguish is His anguish, too.

To my mind, then, it is far easier to believe in such an imperfect God rather than argue obscenely, as some theologians have, that the infinite pain of countless victims is somehow excused by a capricious experiment in free will, or condoned by the insensate calculus of a higher good known only to Him. In the face of evil, a limited God, you see, can still stand for justice and mercy and demand those same virtues from us, all the more so because He desperately needs our help in righting the world’s wrongs.

Thus I would propose to radically revise Psalm 23 rather than retain the text ascribed to King David and long revered by tradition, for as a realist I find it difficult to naively exhibit a boundless faith in God’s “goodness and mercy … all the days of my life” or maintain the certain hope that I shall one day and forevermore “dwell in the house of the Lord.”

Instead, I would commend to modern readers a version of scripture addressed not to unthinking sheep but to thoughtful and courageous women and men willing to help their limited God by sharing, with their own limited powers, the burden of redeeming the world.

Dr. Stephen Bertman is Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies at the University of Windsor. He is a resident of West Bloomfield and a member of Temple Israel.