The warm welcoming words, gentle pastoral setting, simple lyricism, strong sense of devotion and profound truth of divine love and care have made Psalm 23 one of the best-known and best-loved poems in the world. It is so famous that it has influenced the development of the English language. Transcending time, phrases from the King James Version of the Bible-like “the valley of the shadow of death,” “still waters” and “green pastures”—are so familiar that modern translations are loath to change them.
As an archaeologist working in Jordan, I found that many of my “off-duty” observations and experiences reflected the words of this famous psalm and gave me a new understanding of its message. Looking at it in the original language, Hebrew, added even more insights.
The Arab world and certain parts of Israel still have the strong presence of two groups of people practicing traditional desert culture: Arab villagers and the Bedouin. Some of their values and customs retain practices handed down from generation to generation for hundreds and hundreds of years. Working near these traditional societies has allowed me to observe how these people today use and are influenced by the land—and thereby better understand the psalm.