Psalm 23

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Psalms


Years ago I heard that in the 23rd Psalm, the shadow of death originally was worded "dark shadows." Actually, the Interpreter's Bible also says this. Recently, I was told that there is a physical place called the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is a valley where the sheep have to pass through and it is very treacherous.

Do you have any enlightenment on this? On p. 127 of the Interpreter's Bible, it says the original Hebrew was calmuth with an accent over the letter u, which meant "valley of dark shadows." They say that later scribal copyists made the phrase read "the shadow of death" (cal maweth with a line over the letter a).

Any light you have on this would be deeply appreciated. I have always loved the idea that one is just passing through a dark mist and not a deathlike experience.
Joanne Bennett


The "valley of the shadow of death" is found in Psalm 23:4, which reads, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." (NIV) The psalm, purportedly written by David, intimates that we can be sure of God even when things do not go well, even when we find ourselves in darkness.

The Hebrew word salmawet is a bit unusual. It appears to be a compounding of two words: shadow (sel) plus death (mawet). In Job 10:22, it describes the realm of the dead. More recently, scholars have argued that this word could be pointed differently (as mentioned by the questioner above). It would then be salmut and could be derived from a root meaning, "grow black." Hence, more modern translations often read "deep darkness" or "gloom." If it is a compound noun, the word mawet (death) could be a way of expressing a superlative, as in "great darkness" or "total darkness" or even the "shadowiest shadow." After checking various commentaries, it appears that scholars are evenly divided over the traditional reading versus the newer one. Generally, however, they offer both options as a valid reading. The KJV is the one that immortalized "valley of the shadow of death" and many translations simply defer to that reading because it is the one most familiar and dearest to Biblical readers.

Regarding the question as to whether it refers to an actual place, it isn't so much a geographical location as it is a concept familiar to many in antiquity. The Psalm is generally referred to as "The Shepherd's Psalm." Deep, dark, shadowy valleys are all too familiar to shepherds. The best shepherds do not fatigue their flocks by taking them on circuitous routes. The plan is always to go on the straightest, easiest route. That would include deep, dark ravines and wadis where the sheer and narrow slopes keep the sunlight out. Several scholars also associate this metaphor with the exile or the time in the wilderness. In this place, the threat of death is ever-present. Yet, despite all this, the shepherd will have no fear because he knows God is also present, guarding, guiding, as illustrated in the metaphor of His being the shepherd's rod and staff.

There is also a similarity between the word for shepherd (roi) and evil (ra). This, in essence, places the shepherd against the evil. In this case, the shepherd will prevail. The idea is that whatever fearful circumstances in which we might find ourselves, whatever "dark valley" we are in, we can trust in God's care and comfort. For all the metaphors associating God with light, this one says clearly that when we are in the darkest darkness, God is right there with us. With Him right next to us, we have nothing to fear.

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