Psalm 23

Plain English Version

One of David’s psalms

God looks after me properly, so that I never go short of anything that I need. You know about people that properly look after sheep all the time, called shepherds. Well, God looks after me like that. He is a good shepherd for me.

God gives me a good place to rest, just like a shepherd finds a good place for his sheep to rest, a place where there is green grass for them to eat and clean water for them to drink. 

When I get tired, God makes me feel good and strong again. He leads me on the right track, so that people will know that he is good.

You know, God is with me when I have trouble too. Sometimes I have a lot of trouble and I feel like I am walking in a really dark valley, and something might kill me, but even then, God is with me. I will not be frightened at that time. I know that God is stopping my enemies from hurting me, just like a shepherd uses his stick and stops wild dogs from hurting his sheep. When I remember that he does that, I feel safe.



Psalm 23 is well-loved in Australia, as it is in most of the world. As Westerners, we connect well with the image of God as our shepherd. When we see images of Jesus carrying a sheep on his shoulders it comforts us. It’s an image that we easily relate to, which gives it meaning for us. This is because we are the descendants of farmers. Even as city people now we still remember the metaphors of agricultural and pastoral life that our culture is based on. Not unlike the Bible’s original audience our folk tales are grounded in stories of caring for animals and the annual calendar of planting and harvesting. This is of course, common on a world scale, but there are exceptions. 

Australia is one of those exceptions. Before the arrival of European settlers who brought sheep, goats, cattle and chickens (as well as foxes and rabbits) there were no domestic animals on this land. Australian Aboriginal people have a deep connection to the nature around them, they know intimately the plants and animals that surround them, but this is not by means of domestication of animals or the planting of food crops. They are hunters, not herdsmen. Gatherers, not agriculturalists. Nomads, not settlers. This is by no means an inferior land management system, in fact in many ways it is much more suited to the land of Australia, which is, as we know, a very different landscape to Europe or the middle east. 

What does this mean for Bible translation? On the most basic level it means that there are not words in Aboriginal languages for sheep, or shepherd. Often sheep appear in Australian language translations as “jip” or similar, which is a borrowing from English, adapted to the phonetics of the language and the developed spelling system. This is not a big deal, it’s very common for the arrival of a new object or concept to carry with it the word from the language that delivered it. For example, in English the word “zero” comes from Arabic, “court” comes from French, and even more interestingly, “angel” from Greek.

But, going deeper than the words, the truth is that the concepts that surround these words are foreign too. We culturally know what a shepherd’s role is and exactly what makes a shepherd “good”. The reason that Psalm 23 resonates with us is because we understand that a shepherd provides constant care to the sheep, in terms of food, water, shelter and protection. A hunter, on the other hand, does none of these things. The concepts need to be explained and the connotations made clear. This is why the PEV version of Psalm 23 (above), translated for an Aboriginal audience, is much more detailed than other English versions. It recognises that words like “shepherd” carry a lot of meaning, and presents this meaning within the translation for those to whom it is not obvious. 

This works both ways. There are passages in the Bible that don’t hold for us the deeper meaning that they did for the original audience and can for others, because we lack the cultural knowledge. Hebrews chapter 4 comes to mind. It is a description of salvation in terms of “entering rest”. This is a nomadic concept that mostly flies over our heads as the descendants of farmers and settlers. We probably won’t connect to it as easily, but with a better understanding of the nomadic worldview we can try. (We would probably benefit from some expanded translation here.) The images of comfort, care, shelter and provision that we see in “shepherd” are present here in “rest”. Where we share pastoralism in common with Ancient Israel, allowing us to relate to the imagery of Psalm 23, it is likely that Australian cultures relate to the imagery of “journey” and “rest” found here and throughout the Old Testament, because that is what they share in common with Ancient Israel. 

One of the difficulties of translation is there is so much background attached to the words and images that we all use to communicate. What is surprising is that our “favourite bits” might not be the bits that will be the most meaningful to others. In the end, the Bible is a big book, and we all benefit from all of it, and need access to all of it. We might never know what stories are going to be the most impacting for the audiences of new translations.  And it’s ok if it’s not the same ones as for our own people. 


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