From the Psalms:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary [Evening Psalm] – Psalm 23:4 (BCP Version) – August 2, 2014)

Dark ValleyThe 23rd Psalm is so popular, such a familiar and well-loved devotion for so many people, that one is loath to say anything about it. It was something my grandfather (staunch Methodist Sunday School teacher) insisted his grandchildren memorize and recite every night before bed, so I even have personal trepidation about messing with it. But mess with it I will.

I’m critical of the language used by the King James edition interpreters: “the valley of the shadow of death.” It’s not that it’s a bad translation. In fact, it’s almost a verbatim rendering of the Hebrew . . . and that’s the problem! A verbatim rendering misses the point (I think).

My entire life I have personalize “the shadow of death.” I suspect I’m not alone. I’ve always thought of this as a metaphor for the Evil One and, thus, have spiritualized this psalm. I’ve thought it had to do with passing through the some realm in the afterlife like Orpheus seeking Eurydice. But that’s wrong!

The Hebrew is tsalmaveth, a compound word made from tsel meaning “shadow” and maveth meaning “death.” It would best be rendered as “death-shadow,” meaning the deepest, thickest, blackest, gloomiest darkness one can imagine and, figuratively, a place of extreme danger.

The Complete Jewish Bible renders this verse, “Even if I pass through death-dark ravines, I will fear no disaster; for you are with me; your rod and staff reassure me.” Understanding tsalmaveth in this way (as deep darkness and potential extreme danger) makes so much more sense of the “comforted (or reassured) by rod and staff” part!

This isn’t about not going to or through or beyond Hell. It’s about getting through life, through real-life situations of danger, with God’s help.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.