We lose a lot in translation. I am not complaining about having English (or other language) translations of the bible. They make God accessible to all of us. But sometimes there are some things that don’t translate very well and we have to make do with an approximation.
For example, there are a lot of shepherding references in the bible. That is to be expected since the audience was much closer to the land than most of us are. We have famous passages like Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd….” and john 10:11 where Jesus says “I am the good shepherd…”. But there is (at least one) reference to shepherds that is not talked about much.
The book of Judges covers an unsettled time in history. The stories of the judges that God raised up are as varied as humans can be. The only things they had in common were that they were called by God and they were people. Since they were people they had their share of faults. The bible doesn’t sugar coat any of the background or failings of the judges. They are written about in such detail that sometime we wonder “why is that even written down?”.
In Judges 11 there is a man named Jephthah who had a troubled childhood. What family he had rejected him and kicked him off their land but when they were attacked they went to find Jephthah and make him their commander and eventually leader. Understandably, Jephthah is skeptical but finally takes their offer after they persist. When it is time for the Israelites to fight Jephthah makes a vow that some of you may remember. He vows to sacrifice, as a burnt offering, the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him when he comes back victorious.
Well, to make a long story short, he defeats the enemy and when he returns home his daughter Mizpah, comes out of the house to meet him. Jephthah decides that he must keep his vow, but first he allows Mizpah to go into the hills for two months with her friends to weep.
Talk about a confusing story for us. We are left with a very unsatisfying ending. This sounds more like a Greek tragedy than anything else. Was it stubbornness that made him keep his vow? Was it pride? Couldn’t he have found a loophole? We don’t know. But back to my original point, can you spot the “shepherd” in the text? I didn’t leave it out in my very short version of the story.
Can’t find it? That’s because one word is not translated as “shepherd” here even though it is translated that way practically everywhere else in the bible. Here’s a clue, it could be translated “shepherdesses”. Mizpah went into the hills for two months with her “shepherdesses”.
Why should this matter? What do we lose by this translation? I think quite a bit. When we talk about God and Jesus being our shepherds we typically go to the protection view of a shepherd. The shepherd guides his sheep to green pastures, finds them water, protects them from enemies. But here is a shepherd view that is different but still so valuable.
The shepherd is a companion and friend when the world is ending for us. When life is so unfair that we can’t even breathe. When everything that you have known and cared for has turned out to be worth nothing or worse than nothing, the very instrument of your end. When you have done nothing to deserve what is happening to you. When you have no control over the outcome. When you could easily hate what is happening. During those times we have shepherds that cry with us. Just cry. No miraculous intervention, no changing of hearts, no sudden insights to change minds. Just cry. With us.
See, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Mizpah came back and Jephthah kept his vow and we are left wondering “why?”. Just like today, many lives don’t have happy endings. Life is unfair, what we care about can be what kills us, we have no control, we could easily hate life and everything and everyone around us. But we can choose to be with our shepherds.
And they will cry with us.
God, Jesus, I am crying for the unfairness in the world, for hate, for racism, for murder, for injustice, for inequality. Please be with me as my shepherds.