Since the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, many nuances and subtleties of the text’s meaning are lost in translation when we study it in English. One example of this can be found in Psalm 23.
The standard translation of Psalm 23 verse 5 is:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
A glance at one of the numerous Bible translation websites that provide lists of all the many translations shows very few differences from this exact version. However, a close and careful reading of the Hebrew original of this verse reveals that not only is this standard translation imprecise but the deeper meaning of the verse is lost in these translations.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
The Hebrew word neged used in this verse does, in fact, usually mean “in the presence of,” but it also means “opposite” or “against.” In other words, neged often implies a confrontational stance. The fact that this nuance is what is intended in our verse is clear from the phrase before it:
You prepare a table before me
The Hebrew word for “before me,” lefanai, also means “in front of” – but not ever in a confrontational way. If our verse meant that the Lord provides a table before me, which is also in front of my enemies, the same word should have been used for both. The choice to change from one word to another tells us that the implication and connotation of the two words are different.
Complicated? Let me sum this up and make things simple.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” can easily be understood as a kind of peace offering. A table is set before me and my enemies for us to sit together and peacefully resolve our differences. But the change in the Hebrew from lefanai – before me – to neged – opposite / in front of – tells us what is really going on. To understand further, we must explain what preparing a table means in Scripture.
Here are a few other examples of table-setting in the Bible:
“But you who forsake the Lord, who forget My holy mountain, who prepares a table for Gad, and who furnish a drink offering for Meni.” (Isaiah 65:11)
“Yes, they spoke against God: They said, Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” (Psalms 78:19)
Setting a table means showing respect and providing what is needed. In the verse from Isaiah, the setting of a table is a way of paying respect to Pagan gods. In Psalm 78, it refers to the Lord providing the needs of Israel in the desert.
Putting this together, when our verse states that You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, what it is saying is, “Lord, you give me all I need to be respected and victorious in the face of my enemies.”
This understanding of the verse is even more evident from the second translation issue. And this time, the translators just got it wrong.
You anoint my head with oil
The problem with this translation is that the Hebrew word for anoint, mashach, from the Hebrew root M,SH,CH, does not appear in this verse. That is the word used everywhere in the Bible where someone is anointed. And our verse just does not say that. The word in our verse is dishanta, from the three-letter root D-SH-N. And guess what? D-SH-N does not mean anoint. Ever.
The root D-SH-N actually means “to fatten”, “make healthy” or “make fresh.” The translators all chose to translate this word as anointed in our verse because, well, what else do you do to someone’s head with oil? But if King David wanted to write anointed in this verse he would have done exactly that! Instead, he chose to use the word D-SH-N.
So what does the verse mean when it writes “You have freshened/fattened my head with oil?”
I’d like to suggest that in our verse the psalmist is praising the Lord for giving him everything he needs to defeat his enemies, including the confidence to be victorious.
In effect, he is saying to the Lord, “You have anointed me with oil. And through this anointing, You have given me the strength, vibrancy, and confidence that I need to defeat my enemies.”
At this point, I’d like to draw our attention to a remarkable transition that took place in our Psalm which we may not have noticed.
Remember the beginning of the psalm when the Lord was described as a shepherd? Well, if the Lord is a shepherd, then we are sheep. In fact, in verse 2 the psalmist refers to himself grazing in green pastures. This is not exactly something most humans would find too appetizing. The Hebrew word in verse 2 for “He lays me down in green pastures,” yarbitzeini, is actually a word that refers throughout Scripture only to animals laying down. (e.g. Genesis 49:9,14; Exodus 23:5)
In other words, in the opening verses of Psalm 23 we are sheep and the Lord is a shepherd.
And then here in verse 5 we are sitting at a table. We are drinking from a cup. What happened to the animal imagery? Since when do sheep sit at tables and drink from cups?
But it is this transition that teaches us the deeper lesson of Psalm 23.
At times, we are as fully dependent and as clueless as sheep. This is not a very mature relationship with the Lord. We are sheep. We wander. We seek comfort. Our goals are not much beyond food and a comfortable place to lay down or drink. Sheep are not beasts of burden. They do not serve the shepherd or bear any of the burdens of his work. They are selfish beings who are cared for by the shepherd. The Lord’s relationship with us is focused on keeping us safe and well-fed.
But this is not the ideal relationship to God. There is a higher, more meaningful relationship with Him. We are no longer sheep. We are human beings created in His image. We are aware. We battle our enemies. We defeat them with the help of the strength and confidence that God provides for us. He does not do all the work. We are his anointed agents to defeat evil.
Sometimes we are sheep. We stray mindlessly and God needs to shepherd us back to where we are supposed to be. But as we mature in our relationship with Him, He empowers us and gives us responsibility. He sets the table. He fills the cup. He gives us strength and confidence. But It is our job to defeat our enemies and His.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.