One of the earliest routes to be scaled on the snowy and icy flanks of Denali, the highest peak in North America, is called the West Rib route. The first ascent was covered in The American Alpine Journal 1960 and the Sports section of the July 13, 1959, issue of Time magazine. The route is relatively safe except for the approach, which passes through a narrow and deep glacial valley between Denali on the left and the Kahiltna peaks on the right. These slopes constantly avalanche snow and ice into the valley, so it has earned the title “the valley of death.” Climbers usually ascend this section during the night since the colder temperatures make it safer to do so.
Although the ancient Israelite didn’t face these cold dangers, they (like all of us) faced many trials, temptations, sorrows, and afflictions during this life, and, ultimately, that last enemy to be conquered: death itself. The journey toward the heavenly Promised Land is fraught with dangers and perils, and we need a shepherd to help us arrive there safely.
Pastoralism refers to the activities of people who derive their primary subsistence from flocks or herds of sheep, goats, cattle, camels, pigs, or donkeys. When Israel conquered and settled the land of Canaan, they became farmers but they did not leave shepherding behind. They developed an economy that was both agricultural and pastoral. Especially in the semi-arid hillsides to the east and south of the mountains of Judah, the Israelites were devoted to pastoralism.
The journey toward the heavenly Promised Land is fraught with dangers and perils, and we need a shepherd to help us arrive there safely.
What were the shepherd’s duties to protect his flock in this important role in ancient Israel? Most immediately, he had to provide food and water, making sure that the flock didn’t overgraze an area. He had to provide rest. He had to protect his flock from predators, both wild animals (wolves, bears, leopards, and lions) and even humans (see Job 1:14–15). He had to protect his flock against other dangers as well, including the very destructive and strong hot east winds, as well as diseases and even the harsh nature of the desert itself.
This concept of shepherding was extended metaphorically and applied to kings in the ancient Near East. The tradition of a shepherd-ruler goes as far back as written history. Consider, for example, Hammurabi, the famous king of the Amorites whose law code is found in the Louvre museum in Paris. His code is a good example of shepherding language applied to rulers. In the prologue, it declares:
Anum [the supreme god in their pantheon] and Enlil, to make good the flesh of the people, they named me. I am Hammurabi, the shepherd, called by Enlil who heaps up together abundance and plenty, provider of everything, bond of heaven and earth.
The law communicates a tremendous concern for justice. It is obvious that Hammurabi considered himself the ideal king who shepherds the people and executes justice on their behalf.
Shepherding imagery was also extended to Israel’s kings and rulers. Israel’s leaders were continually called shepherds as well. However, Israel’s rulers fell far short of their duties time and time again (e.g., Jer. 23). Even so, the imagery of a shepherd was also applied to God Himself (e.g., Hos. 4:16). Throughout redemptive history, it became increasingly evident that God would raise up a shepherd who would faithfully mete out justice, protect His sheep, guard and care for them, bind up their wounds, and lead them into peaceful places.
That is the great comfort that Psalm 23 brings. Although the psalmist did not face a potential deadly blow from snow and ice avalanches above from his right side and his left as he went through the valley of the shadow of death, he faced plenty of dangers just as we do: chronic physical and mental anguish and disease, economic hardship, worry and anxiety about loved ones, enemies without and within, betrayal and loss in numerous ways. Yet, the psalmist affirmed and knew that the Lord, his divine Shepherd, was with him through it all. He was trusting in a kingly Shepherd who was with him and a greater One to come, who would act as our Shepherd “in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” (WSC 26). Therefore, he could be brave and have courage for life’s difficulties and afflictions, because the Lord was with him.
Dr. Bryan D. Estelle is professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California. He is author of several books, including Echoes of Exodus.