Book Notice: Ken Bailey on Psalm 23

Kenneth E. Bailey
The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament 
Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2014.
Available from Amazon.com.

By Jill Firth

The late Kenneth Bailey needs no introduction to most readers because of his expertise in Middle Eastern culture after spending 40 years in Egypt and the Middle East. Bailey draws on his own experiences of shepherding, and on Arabic translations of the Bible, mediaeval and modern Arabic and Armenian commentaries, and the experiences of shepherding from Middle Easterners from the twentieth century to illuminate the Biblical tradition of the good shepherd who rescues the lost sheep. Bailey traces this tradition from Psalm 23 through Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34 and Zechariah 10 in the Old Testament to Jesus’ stories about good shepherds in Luke 15, Mark 6, Matthew 18 and John 10, and finishes up in 1 Peter 5.

Bailey argues that in the Old Testament, the ‘dominant metaphors’ for God include rock, shield, high tower, fortress, stronghold and so on (he refers to Psalm 18.1-3 as a sample). In the Old Testament, ‘three countercultural examples’ are also offered, where God is a Shepherd (Psalm 23), like a mother (Isaiah 42.14; 66.12-13) and like a father (Psalm 103.13). Bailey notices the grouping in Luke 15 of the stories of the good shepherd, good woman and good father. In the New Testament, he says, God is never described as ‘a fortress, a rock, or a high place’ using homeland security imagery (page 37). This is an interesting claim, though readers may wish to nuance it slightly, as Jesus and others do refer to Jesus as the stone that the builders rejected, and the rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness. However, I have enjoyed considering how Jesus used predominantly human imagery to teach about God in the New Testament.

The chapter on the Twenty Third Psalm alone makes the book worth reading. Sheep will apparently not drink from fast flowing water, so still waters are essential for quenching thirst. A sheep who is afraid becomes incapacitated by fear and tries to hide under a rock or bush, ‘quivering and bleating.’ The shepherd must find it quickly before it is killed by a wild animal, and carry it home. The ‘valley of the shadow of death’ probably evokes a path through a narrow rocky cleft which might harbour wild animals or brigands but may also be subject to the flash flooding which is so hazardous in those regions, but the ‘I’ fears no evil because God is with him. In Middle Eastern culture, a man may order a banquet to be prepared (see Genesis 18; Luke 15), but it is prepared by slaves and women. In Psalm 23, God himself ‘prepares the table,’ to honour the ‘I’, just as God is portrayed as a woman who seeks the lost coin in Luke 15. The imagery also shifts from a sheep to a person in Luke 15.

There are many moments in the book to pause and reflect on our understanding of God and of our relationship with him. Bailey also invites us to reflect on Christian leadership (page 273). The Good Shepherd makes a refreshing devotional or an excellent gift.

Jill Firth lectures in Hebrew and Old Testament at Ridley College. She holds a PhD in Psalms.

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