February 24, 2020
The Meaning Of “God Is My Shepherd”
When the Bible refers to God as “a shepherd” (see Psalm 23:1, for example), what does that mean? What is that metaphor supposed to bring to mind? What does it suggest about the relationship between me and God?
God as Our Shepherd
To call God your shepherd is certainly very evocative. It brings to mind imagery of misty green valleys, a staff, and a solitary figure, probably cloaked, bracing himself against the wind. It all sounds very romantic, vaguely positive, and certainly religious. But what, exactly, are we trying to say about God?
Is the implication that God protects us? That He keeps us safe from harmful influences — just as a shepherd keeps a lookout for predators?
Does it mean that God nourishes us? That He provides us with our physical needs — just as a shepherd makes sure that his flock has good land for grazing?
Does it mean that God heals us? That He wills our bodies, when sick, to repair themselves — just as a shepherd looks after the health of his flock?
Look, God may well do all of those things — protect us, nourish us, heal us — but what is the essence of the metaphor?
God Is Our Shepherd... and We Are His Lambs?
I really wanted to pin down the nuance a little more sharply, if possible. And I knew just who to ask. I turned to the very first person who is on record, in the Bible, as having classified God as his “shepherd.” Do you want to guess who it is?
It’s Jacob. And when he is blessing his son, Joseph, and grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Menashe), at the end of his life, he says:
הָאֱלֹקים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו, אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק--הָאֱלֹקים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי, מֵעוֹדִי עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long unto this day. (Genesis 48:15)
I was psyched when I found this verse… because this verse is a bona fide clue. It’s not merely that Jacob refers to God as his shepherd. He gives us, I believe, a piece of context that is meant to help us understand what it means that God is his shepherd. That context is the first half of the verse. It’s as if Jacob is saying to us:
The God before whom my forefathers walked = The God who has been my shepherd
What does it mean for God to be your shepherd? It means… to walk before God. The same way that Abraham and Isaac walked before God.
I felt like I was getting closer. The fact that the shepherd lets the sheep walk in front of him is the key to unlocking the metaphor… but so what? What does it mean? I was still stuck.
So… I turned to Facebook.
My thoughtful friends heard my call and chimed in with their guesses.
- One person suggested: “It could be they are like dogs – they walk ahead but look back to see if their master is there?”
- Another: “So he can better keep an eye on them all?”
- And another: “Maybe the shepherd understands that his flock will know where to graze and he needs to follow the instincts of the sheep.”
- One jokestar crudely submitted: “So that the sheep will step up on a landmine first.”
- Another friend gibed: “Didn’t we learn this in grad school?”
Their answers (landmines aside) proffered good food for thought, but I felt like they were all over the map. I also worried that while they were solid armchair musings, they lacked a certain… first-hand experience. So I tried again:
That one hit the money. Within a few hours, I found myself on the phone with a friend, an animal scientist. She has a PhD in ruminant nutrition (i.e., how to feed cows, sheep, goats) and has some firsthand experience to boast. And she was a good sport, generously letting me pick her brain as we talked about animal behavior, the Bible, and everything in between.
What It Means That God Is Our Shepherd
It turns out that I had some real misconceptions about shepherding. And I walked away with some really cool answers: answers that changed the way that I understood the role of a shepherd, yes... but our conversation was much bigger than just that. It changed the way that I read that verse back in Genesis 48. It gave me a new insight into the relationship that God had with our forefathers — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — in particular. And it even sparked an insight — well, let’s call it a hunch — as to the meaning of one of God’s most mysterious names: Kel Shakkai.
I took those answers and I made a video to explain them. Nothing against blogs, but I work for Aleph Beta, and videos are kind of our thing. Videos that bring the Bible to life. Videos that raise questions that you never thought to ask, and offer answers that (hopefully, humbly) activate your brain, touch your heart, and actually impact the way that you live your life.
So check out my video! If all you want is to hear what I learned from my friend, the animal scientist, then you really just want to watch 5:40 to 7:45. But if you’ve got an extra few minutes, I highly recommend that you watch the whole thing. In it, I tell the story of how I got interested in this question in the first place.
You see, it all started with this verse in the Book of Exodus, a verse that mentions God’s mysterious name: Kel Shakkai. It’s something that God says to Moses just before He frees the Israelites from slavery. What does that have to do with shepherding, you ask? Only everything :)
I hope you’ll find it intriguing. Please, leave a comment for me at the bottom of the video letting me know what you think!