introduction Stephen A. Haboush
Part 1 - Over the Hills of Galilee
Part 2 - The Twenty Third Psalm
by Stephen A. Haboush
abridged/edited by Roger S Nelson
The hundreds of references made to sheep and shepherd life that we find in the Bible are to me a precious treasure. The Twenty-Third Psalm unlocks this treasure.
the Twenty-Third Psalm, it is the sheep whose voice we hear in every verse.
It is the sheep’s message, his story, and his song. It is the sheep’s
declaration of freedom, love, and faith. It is abounding in wholehearted
trust - a trust that can not be broken or overcome by anything in the world.
It is the story, the song, of life, of the highest life, - of God’s life,
entwined with our own.
Psalm 23: a Psalm of David
1. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
The Lord Is my Shepherd, I shall not want
In the very beginning he establishes his relationship, not to a dozen lords, but just
to One, hence he does not want. The One is all-sufficient to his needs. And what a Positive declaration! The fact announced is so indisputable, and the conclusion drawn so self-evident as to compel conviction.
He leadeth me beside the still waters
The River Jordan
As a shepherd, I was afraid to take the sheep to rapid streams, especially the
river Jordan. For the sheep are afraid and they tremble at the sight of
rushing waters. That is their nature, and the shepherd hardly ever tries
to change it. And in the long run it is a good thing that he does not, for
it means death to some of the sheep, in which the shepherd can surely have no
pleasure. Since the wool on the body of the sheep would soon be saturated
with water and the sheep is unable to swim, he would be carried down to
destruction should he fall into the swift current. The river Jordan has
the greatest fall of any river that I know of. In a distance of about one
hundred and forty miles, the river has a descent of nearly thirteen hundred
feet. We are surprised when we come upon this fact of topography recorded
of our western world, that the deepest hole is Death Valley in California, which
is two hundred and eighty-six feet below sea level; but the deepest spot in all
the earth is the Dead Sea, which is nearly thirteen hundred feet below the level
of the sea; and it is that into which flows the river Jordan. Some of you
may think you can cross that river without wetting your ankles or knees, and
that you can get out of it easily when you fall into it. If so, you are
badly mistaken. If you saw the river Jordan in motion pictures I believe
you would change your ideas concerning this historic stream. I understand
that the river is to be dammed up in three places. Upon the consummation
of that enterprise it is expected that two hundred thousand horsepower of
electricity will be available for the country. That will be a new day for
Palestine. Though a small river, yet the descent and the great volume of
water rushing southward, will, when harnessed, cause the valleys to bloom as
never before and prosperity to be the crown of that land.
Shepherds used to come together, whereupon one of them would be told to stand guard with the flocks on the hillside while the rest of them would go down to the river. Here, with picks, shovels, and spades, we would dig, from the river into the pasture, a ditch several rods long and several feet deep and wide. When that was completed we would let the water from the river back up into the ditch, and as it backed up, it would become ‘still’. Then the shepherds would call their sheep to the still waters there amidst green pastures. However, the word, ‘still’ does not mean stagnant. Though the waters are still, they are continually fresh because of the hurrying stream.
You may ask, "How about these wells that I have read and heard about?"
It is true that Palestine contains innumerable wells; the landscapes are fairly dotted with them. But when you think of wells in that country, please also remember another important factor, namely, the climate of Palestine. For nine months of the year it does not rain hardly at all. During those long dry months many of the wells become dry. An American scientist, after living in Palestine for some time, informed us that the average rainfall in Palestine for the whole year is only twelve inches. I’m told that the average rainfall for the state of Ohio and Indiana is about thirty six inches. So you see the reason why the shepherds have to lead their sheep to the still water. We do make use of the wells; but when they become dry, we must dig the ditch there by the river. And it is the better place for the shepherds and their sheep. The waters are clean; and the shade of the trees, the song of birds, and beauty of the oleanders along with the verdure of the pastures afford the sheep refreshment, strength, and security from the heat of the sun. It restores their soul and gives them peace.
For His name’s sake
The shepherd life is not altogether a life of ease and pleasure. I still bear the marks upon my feet and ankles where the serpent bit me, and the mark upon my brow where a wolf’s fangs struck me one stormy night while seeking a stray sheep. The shepherd life in Palestine is a life of struggle, sacrifice, and adventure. But why all the bother, worry, and trouble? Trouble aside, it was my duty, regardless of what might happen.
When my uncle called me to feed the sheep, he told me something I shall never forget. He drew his arm round me and asked, "My boy, do you know Iben Haddad over there?"
"Well, that man has clean sheep, don’t you think so, my boy?"
"Yes, Uncle, he has."
Then he drew me closer to his side and asked again, "Do you know Iben Kourie across the way, my boy?"
"Yes, Uncle, I do."
"Don’t you think that man has fat sheep?"
"Certainly, everybody admires and speaks well of his sheep, Uncle."
When he heard that, Uncle turned me squarely toward his face, looked deep into my eyes, and said, "My boy, I want you to have the cleanest and fattest sheep in the land, for your name’s sake."
When he told me it was for my name’s sake, strength and courage thrilled every fiber of my being, and I would have been willing to give all, so that the sheep might be the fattest and cleanest in the land. Poor as we are over there, if our name is honored in the seat of the elders; if our name is respected in the community, we feel ourselves to be the richest people in all the world. A good name is more precious than gold and silver.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Whatever may come, though it be storms of the heavens or the wild fury of the beasts of the earth, nothing need be feared; for the shepherd is there to protect at guard his sheep. What a marvelous consciousness has the sheep of the constant nearness of his shepherd. Palestine has more mountains and hills for its size than any country known to me. The correlate of these multitudinous mountain heights is the presence of valleys equally numerous and as deep as the heights are towering. I used to dread taking the sheep through one particular valley in Galilee. This is called in the Arabic language ‘Wadie el-naar’, which means ‘the valley of fire’. Next to the Dead Sea it is the hottest place in the Holy Land, being over five hundred feet below sea level. It is found at the lower end of the Sea of Galilee. An ancient road runs through this valley. In fact, it was the most popular road in the days of the Master. Situated on the eastern side of the River Jordan, it was a link of the Damascus - Jericho - Jerusalem highway. Though this was the longest way to Jerusalem, the Jews in the times of Jesus preferred it to the Samaria route nevertheless. The reason was obvious. The short route led through the heart of Samaria, and the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. You recall the statement of the Gospel story that Christ took this road by way of Samaria even against the wishes of His disciples. And when, eventually, the agreed to go with him, some of the prayed Him to call fire from heaven and burn up the Samaritans. The ‘Wadie el-naar’ was the rendezvous of thieves and robbers, also of wild beasts that harassed the shepherd and his flock. I would dread leading the sheep through this valley, but it was necessary whenever new pasture ground must be sought on the other side. My sheep would sense the danger and gather closer to my side. My continual calling and the sense of my presence gave them confidence and allayed their fear.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
As a shepherd boy I used to carry the rod and staff on my person. The staff was about five fee long, and there was no crook on the end of it. In all my five years of shepherd life in Palestine, I never saw a crook on the staff of any shepherd.
The staff was about five feet in length while the rod was not over twenty inches. When I took care of the sheep, I carried the staff in my hand and the rod in my belt. Always, when tending the sheep, we would walk ahead of them. We would always lead them and rarely drove them. To drive the sheep from behind would have been next to a crime. Why? Because here and there serpents would be found; and when the shepherd drives his sheep the serpents will rise and strike the venomous fangs into them. Accordingly the shepherd must go ahead of his sheep. When a snake is seen he will strike it with the staff and render it impotent. Thereupon he will take the rod, (called a daboos in Palestine and made of hickory with the end covered with nails and pieces of steel) and with one stroke on the head of the snake, will kill it. Then the sheep may come and eat the luscious grass at their ease.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
What kind of ‘table’ has the sheep in mind? It is the pasture ground that the shepherd prepares for his sheep in advance of their coming.
When I took the sheep to new pasture, some of the sheep would rush ahead of me without giving me opportunity to prepare the way for them. They did not wait for me to pluck the poisonous weeds from their path, and eating them caused sores and weakness.
And what are the ‘enemies’? The foxes, wolves, bears, and serpents. Palestine being a mountainous country, the wild beasts have not been entirely destroyed to the present day. David slew the lion and the bear, and Samson caught the foxes. That took place about three thousand years ago, it is true. I was back in Palestine only recently, with me an American professor from an Eastern University. Walking one day together upon one of those ancient hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee, where as a boy I used to herd the sheep, suddenly a baby hyena, about four weeks old, sprang up before us, seemingly coming from nowhere.
Shepherds must contend with the wild beast in protecting their sheep. Sometimes an actual combat with a snake or wolf is forced upon them by the exigencies of the occasion, as I myself can testify. What did I do when I saw a wolf coming to attack the sheep that belonged to me? I felt the queerest sensations running up and down my spine. I think the hair on my head would stand up. But though fright froze me, and the tremors shook me, I never yielded to the wolf a single inch of the ground that I stood on. I would call my two dogs together, pat them on the back, and tell them to go to it. They usually sensed the wolf before I did, and would give me timely warning with fierce baying and fierce swishing of tails. These dogs were father and son. The younger dog would rush ahead and entice the wolf away from the rocks and boulders to an open space. Thereupon the older dog would rung around them in corkscrew fashion with the speed of a race horse, all the time coming closer and closer to the wolf in the center. The wolf could not keep his eyes on the gyrating dog that encircled him and at the same time upon the one attacking him. The older dog continued his circular run until he reached the point of vantage he sought. He stopped, quite suddenly. It was a thrilling sight as he stood there, ready for the decisive leap! Every muscle of the body was strained to a superlative effort, the muscles bulged on neck, shoulders, and legs. His eyes gleamed like twin torches, signaling defiance to the marauding denizen of the wild, his jaws open, disclosing teeth as sharp as needles.
With a last bark, short, shrill, sharp, he leaps sure and he lands on the body of his foe. With unerring instinct he finds the artery that harbors the life blood of the beast, and the next moment it lies on its flanks, forever deprived of power to prowl and to prey.
It was great joy for me to watch the struggle and witness the victory. Yet it would not have been gained without the Master. They fought and jeopardized limb and life because they loved me, who tended to them, fed them, and sheltered them beforehand, and was thus worthy of their protection.
Thou anointest my head with oil
As a shepherd lad, I used to carry in my pouch a bottle of olive oil, which I used rather frequently. No shepherd’s equipment was complete without the olive oil. It was most essential. It was put on sores and wounds to hasten healing.
Leading the sheep up and down the hills and through the valleys, I would at
times overlook a serpent in the way. That serpent may have been sleeping
in its nest underneath the surface of the ground. The sheep coming to eat
the tender grasses wakens the serpent from its slumber. It will rise and
strike the sheep. When the sheep was bitten by a serpent, it would give
forth a cry, so pitiful as to pierce my heart like a sharp knife. I then
would hurry and seek the bruised sheep, place my lips upon the bruised spot,
suck out the venom, and spit it out on the earth. Then I would take the
olive oil and anoint the wound inflicted by the serpent fang, and son the sheep
would be healed.
Again, sores come from poisonous herbs. The sores will spread all over the body of the sheep and if those sores are not quickly healed, the sheep will eventually die in excruciating pain.
The shepherd’s ears are attuned to the least cry of his sheep. No cry ever escaped me and I knew what the feeblest cry stood for. The shepherd knows his sheep, and because he knows and loves them, there wants are satisfied.
My cup runneth over
The above is next to the last verse in the Psalm. The sheep has told his story, sung his song, and now he reaches the highest, most jubilant note before he ends his story. In Palestine we say ‘mumnoonek cateerang’ to express our thanks and appreciation. This is what the sheep means, the friend has been thoughtful and considerate of our needs, he’s gone out of the way, sacrificed pleasure, and neglected his own wants to satisfy ours. He did all that, not because he was paid for it in silver and gold, but because of the pleasure of doing. My cup runneth over. ‘Mumnoonek Cateerang’.
Let me give the quintessence of the story in the form of an experience around which cluster my fondest memories. It was the noon hour of the day. Shepherds from all over the surrounding hills would gather together with their flocks besides the still waters. My sheep would quench their thirst therefrom and lie down with the sheep of other shepherds there amidst the green pastures and commune with one another in their way. Meanwhile shepherds sit together and eat their meal. When that is over the older shepherds stand near us. Those old shepherds who struggled fiercely in their youth and bore the marks of strife with the wild beasts in the protection of their sheep, with the patriarchal beards and the kindly light in their eyes would tell us stories of love, stories of adventure, stories of mystery and romance, thereby inspiring us to lead our sheep to higher heights and to greener pastures. The stories over, the young shepherds would rise, take their flutes and play to the still waters, to the sheep, and to the world round about us. The piper’s tune over, every shepherd would rise and call to his sheep. When my sheep heard those sharp twin calls of mine, they would raise their heads and look up to me. When, then, I issued my last, long call they would rise, come and follow me, and I would lead them on to greener pastures and waters more tranquil, and when the week was ended I would take them back to fold and city. The journey was over.