"THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD" (PSALM 23) *

Davina Casperina Lopez

Text

Introduction

Two-Voiced Commentary

TEXT 

 1The Lord is my shepherd;

I lack nothing.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3He renews my life
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
 
4Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff -- they comfort me.
5You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
 
6Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.
 
INTRODUCTION

This psalm is divided into three parts; the first is an exaltation of a personal relationship that one has with G-d. The second speaks directly to the Lord, and the person is remembering aloud the benefits of her/his relationship with G-d. The final portion of this psalm is a reinforcement of the powerful relationship that this person has with G-d, and the speaker revels in her/his security.

The image of G-d as "shepherd" is a powerful one. The depiction of the Lord as a "shepherd" persuades us that He is a true leader, that He does on some level guide us in everything that we do. It also evokes a sense of our normality, mortality and imperfection as human beings. We are different than our leader/shepherd because we need guidance. He is different than us because He knows to guide us "in right paths," and He knows that those paths are "right"; He possesses more and different knowledge than we. He "guides" us as our "shepherd" -- we, in return, are loyal and follow.

Two voices speak in response to this psalm. The "first" voice is a person who truly believes in what this psalm says; her/his name is "Affirmation." The words of the verses may as well be the words of Affirmation, as far as s/he is concerned. The first voice is a person who has faith in G-d: s/he looks at the Lord as a shepherd for guidance and this really works for her/him. The "second" voice exemplifies a young woman who cannot reconcile a "true" faith in the Lord as a guardian with her own cultural, secular "female" experience. Her name is "Skepticism," and to exemplify her difference she "speaks" in italics.

TWO-VOICED COMMENTARY

1The Lord is my shepherd

Affirmation

A shepherd is someone who guides a group of people to safety/comfort/security out of genuine concern and care. The Lord guides me in all of my endeavors. I am successful because I allow myself to have a personal relationship with the Lord. He is the ultimate leader of our people, the shepherd of His children. He is MY shepherd as well. I am one of His children. The Lord is a source of support and encouragement for me.

Skepticism

Sure HE is. The Lord is a man who herds, tends and guards sheep; the Lord is a man who cares for a group of people. Am I that insignificant that I am comparable to a sheep, and are all sheep equal in your eyes? Who am I that I am led blindly by you, Lord? Are you really my shepherd? I have been led to believe that I am nothing but powerless in the face of a white, male, heterosexual culture that seeks to define me in relation to itself. I have been grazing in a pasture that does not allow me to eat the patch of grass that I really want to, Lord. I have been herded into what has been defined as "best" for me. I need to find a venue through which I can define for myself what is best. I want to eat my own grass, Lord, will you be my shepherd then?

I lack nothing

Affirmation

I am full of the Lord's presence. When I feel badly, I can look to G-d for what I am missing. I have everything that I feel I need on this earth, and G-d provides for me what my earthly life does not. Therefore, what else could I possibly need? I have guidance, I have protection. I have the Lord, which encompasses everything.

Skepticism

Is to "lack nothing" to truly have all that one wants -- spiritually, mentally, physically -- or is to "lack nothing" the same as "to be content"? I have been told that I lack nothing, and I have been told that I believe that. Once I have what is considered a "good" body, a "great" haircut, and "decent" clothes, then I can find a "good man" and I shall lack nothing. I lack nothing by someone else's definition; I lack nothing because I look around, and everything I see expresses to me that I lack nothing. I watch the people around me in their contentedness with what the hierarchy has provided for them. THEY lack nothing, so I lack nothing because I am, essentially, just like them. There is not a conversation here, Lord -- there is a spokesperson. I lack nothing but the voice in which to state for myself whether I lack nothing or not.

2He makes me lie down in green pastures

Skepticism

By virtue of who I am, I am supposed to lie down in green pastures and submit. I am supposed to go along with all of these rules that have been made up for me, eons before I was even thought of or physically conceived. I am a pawn, I am lying down. I am expected to lie down -- after all, is that not what a woman does? I am a whore, just like all other women before me and around me now. I lie down (in green pastures, in a bed, on the floor...) and wait for whatever everyone wants to shove inside me -- and I am supposed to LIKE IT. Do I like lying here? Does it really matter? I am supposed to ignore the inherent resistance that I have to this -- whether I want to or not is irrelevant. I just must perform -- I just must do.

He leads me to water in places of repose

Affirmation

The Lord allows me to forget about what bothers me sometimes. He leads me to water; when I am thirsty, when I need something -- whether it be comfort, peace, inner strength, whatever -- the Lord is the Great Provider. "Water" is comforting, nurturing, nourishing, primal. When I am parched, I need water. When I want to feel a sense of comfort, I need water. I was born of water. The Lord can bring me to that comfort by being in alliance with me.

Trust in G-d is sturdy, constant, and beautiful. I can count on You, Lord, to lead me to somewhere comfortable, somewhere that is a "place of repose." The Lord leads me to "water," a source of nourishment for the body and soul, in "places of repose," where I can be most comfortable. I trust in G-d to do this, and He always does. In return, I have unwavering trust in Him and His abilities.

Skepticism

Do I find myself comforted by the supposed tranquility that surrounds me? The Lord expects me to be complacent, dependent, content with my position of "lesser importance" as a young woman? How can He? I thought that college would be an angry place, a place where issues are raised and social change is initiated. All I hear is how much I complain and "how whiny of a woman" I am. My place is to blow dry my hair, stay silent in class and memorize facts for tests. I am supposed to talk "girl talk." I should constrain my body in the tightest clothes available, paint my face and walk to Fraternity Row every Friday night. I am not supposed to say anything when I see the degrading manner in which these theoretically "intelligent, mature" men treat the women whose self-esteem depends upon their acceptance. I am vocal concerning my opposition to such immature oppression, yet I am only listened to when I am silent. The Lord does not understand -- why must He, as my shepherd, lead me to nourishment ("water") in a tranquil environment that endorses the degradation ("in places of repose") of my peers -- and me? I do not wish to be content any longer. Contentedness and silence equal complicity.

He guides me in right paths, as befits His name

Affirmation

Life can be a little bit confusing. G-d, you lead me to do what is best for me, and if I do not do what is best, I can still turn to you. I have a mutual relationship with G-d. I look to G-d for support, and in return I honor His name. The Lord is my shepherd -- I remember that every day. Although I do not pray daily or participate in ritual as much as I "should," I know and acknowledge that G-d is a powerful aspect of my life. Mine is a personal worship.

Skepticism

The Lord, as my shepherd, guides me. I am blind. I let myself believe that the paths that have been carved out for me are "right." I should follow everyone else, because that is what is defined as "right" for me/us. Because there is a "right path," there is also a "wrong" path. There are no "different" paths -- the only difference is "right" and "wrong"; even if the "right" path is not right for me.

I am looked at funny because I ask other women my age how they can allow themselves to be treated in such a derogatory manner. They think that they are powerful because so many of them are doing the same thing -- they are following the "right path" that has been cleared for them and, ironically enough, beaten to a stereotypical dust trail.

I believe in difference and choice. Lots of paths. A veritable maze. I believe in the reconciliation of gender inequality and heterosexism. The proverbial crossing of two paths?

I encounter women, my peers, my generation, ideally my "sisters" who follow the "right path" that leads them to believe that we are NOT the same as men. We cannot possibly do the things that men do. We can never be as strong. We are different not only in an anatomical sense, but in every sense.

We must be quiet.

We must submit.

The "right path" conveys this to us.

We as heterosexual women are defined in terms of our relationships with men, how attractive we are to men, what we can do to serve men. Even my generation, the "liberal"/"slacker"/"socially aware" generation, believes that we are all born to fill the gelatin molds of "man" (powerful, objective) and "woman" (powerless, subjective).

Hey there, Lord, is this the "right path" that you intended?

How can I follow this path and be spiritually content when I know that in some places, I am not considered a valid human being unless a man is around? I know that I am not welcome to worship in the same space as a man in some spiritual establishments. I know that if I do not follow the "right path," however, I am ostracized and cast out of the very space that was created BY SOMEONE ELSE for me to occupy.

"as befits His name" -- of course. I would be silly and naive to think that I could follow a path in my own name. Look at who we are -- look at our names. Not only am I not important enough not to keep my mother's name, but I am also named every day by other people who want to describe me in order to suit their purposes. I am a "bitch" because I seek to express myself in an aggressive manner. I am "straight" because I enjoy sexual relations with a man. I am a "woman" because I have the right parts. I am "upper-middle class" because of the financial bracket my family falls into. I am "inadequate" because my parents were divorced when I was young. I am "liberal" because I happen to identify with certain causes. I have not chosen these names for myself. I have not chosen the assigned categories that accompany them. I am defined in the eyes of everyone around me.

4Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me

Affirmation

Lord, you are my guiding force. I cannot be spiritually budged, for You are with me. This is my mother's favorite psalm to read, and I think I know why; I believe it is mine, too. Life can be hard -- life can be a never-ending valley of deepest darkness. When people do not help me, I can "lean" on Your proverbial "shoulder," Lord. You are my escort, and you accompany me through the most difficult periods of my lifetime.

Skepticism

Are you, G-d? When I walk home at night, mace poised and wide-eyed, are you there? Are you going to be there when a man decides to violate me in the darkness? Are you there when thousands of (vulnerable) women are forced to succomb to their attackers in the darkness? I DO fear harm, G-d. I fear harm whether you are here or not. I fear for the harm of women everywhere -- by their husbands, their lovers, strangers, their co-workers. I fear that my voice cannot be heard. I fear that I am nobody, G-d. I fear that I cannot be who I really want -- I fear that I am an object. I walk through a period of my life that is dark -- and I am dismissed because of what I am. I am supposed to be emotional and I am supposed to fear for my safety. Why do I have to do that, G-d? Why do I have to rely upon someone else to protect me? How come I cannot protect myself?

Your rod and Your staff -- they comfort me

Affirmation

Your rod and Your staff are the concrete, final objects that identify You for what You are -- a leader, a guardian, a shepherd. I am reassured by Your authority. Your leadership and omnipotence is the one thing that I am certain of in this life. You are always home when I want to talk. You are a support system for me when no one else will listen.

Skepticism

I am comfortable with my position in this heterosexual, mysogynistic hierarchy we call "culture" and "faith." Comfort is dangerous because it suggests a false empowerment -- a false sense of security.

"Your rod and Your staff -- they comfort me." I cannot be comforted unless someone else comforts me. Let that someone else be a man. Whatever.

I am not truly comforted by your (rod) position of power or your (staff) assertion of it. I am told that this is comforting, and that scares me because I am NOT comfortable -- I am tired. I am tired of having a "leader" with whom I do not feel I am able to identify

5You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies

Affirmation

Even when I am faced with such adversities as discrimination, violence, and depression, You are there. You allow me to express myself to You without inhibition. I can still indulge myself and have faith in you when people are not faithful. When people are really rotten, You are there.

Skepticism

You allow people to twist your words to exclude me. You lay me out for my oppressors to see. You "spread a table for me" -- you allow me to indulge, but YOU decide what is on the table. In "full view of my enemies" -- they are my enemies because they have been pinpointed as such. Who are "my enemies," anyway? The people who tell me that my place is in the home, pregnant, stupid. Those who continue to assume that I am not strong by virtue of the fact that I am a "woman." Those who condemn me for learning more about the world, and those who chastise me for identifying flaws in it. Those who cite Bible passages they have not read -- passages concerning the "place" of women, of lesbian/gay people, of "sodomites." Those who use you as a weapon, G-d. Those who use your name as an excuse for their narrowmindedness. I am in their view, and I am vulnerable in their eyes.

You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant.

Affirmation

You view me as special, G-d. I have a personal covenant with you. My retribution for my loyalty is an anointment, a special ceremony in my honor. Your (drink) love is (abundant) sufficient for me. I drink in honor of You. I have nourishment in great quantity because of You. You are my shepherd, and you fulfill my life.

Skepticism

You spread oil upon my head. You consecrate me by putting oil on my head. What does it mean to "consecrate"? It means to set apart, to devote to a specific purpose. To set apart. I am set apart. I am identified as "different."...

DIFFERENT equals BAD

DIFFERENT equals INFERIOR

I am placed here for a specific purpose. I "know" what that purpose is, as it has been hammered into my skull from the moment I was coherent enough to perceive that things were happening independent of me. I "know" that people use you as the reason for why I am "inferior" as a "woman" -- and I'll tell you what, G-d. I looked it up. Does "different" really mean "inferior"? I have been led to believe that it does.

It does NOT. How can You allow this? I thought we were all Your children! I thought we were all the same! We are NOT, Lord......are You not watching?

6Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me,
all the days of my life

Affirmation

G-d's directed love shall follow me wherever I may go. This I am sure of. Steadfast love is love that I can depend upon under any circumstances. G-d's unconditional love is the love that I need, the love that I need to fill the void that lost love creates. I am not perfect, and the Lord recognizes that. For the rest of my life, I can rely upon steadfast love and acceptance, because I have a valid covenant with G-d.

Skepticism

I do not feel loved. I feel used. All the days of MY life will be a struggle to express myself as powerful and independent, and to have others accept that.

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.

Affirmation

I shall continue to honor, respect and love G-d. In return, G-d leads me in the correct path. While walking upon this path, I may encounter ugly things. Things that do hurt me. As long as I have an alliance with Gd, however, I am strong and need nothing. I am not willing to give this up.

Skepticism

I shall dwell in the house of the LORD, but in separate quarters. I shall dwell in some house, I know, because I should. I take that back -- I shall NOT dwell in any house but my own. I would love to dwell in the house of the LORD -- but many of the LORD's "children" would like to tell me that I have restrictions because I am a woman. More than that, I am an arrogant young woman who complains about the inadequacy of her world quite frequently. I KNOW that G-d would not mind if I tore down the main aisle of one of His churches and screamed at the top of my lungs.

YOU are MY shepherd....speak with ME, G-D! Why let this man who went to "school" to "learn Your ways" speak for You?

....But I cannot do that without oppressive repercussions. I shall not be silent, and I shall pursue my own brand of goodness -- not any that is prescribed for me.

 

[*] This was written in response to a class in interpreting Psalms.

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