THE BASQUE SHEEPHERDER AND THE SHEPHERD PSALM
J. K. Wallace
Old Ferando D’Alfonso was a Basque herder employed by one of the big Nevada sheep outfits. I sat with him one night under the clear, starry skies, his sheep bedded down beside a pool of sparkling water. As we were preparing to curl up in our blankets, he suddenly began a dissertation in a jargon of Greek and Basque. When he had finished, I asked him what he had said. In reply he began to quote in English the Twenty-third Psalm.
I learned the shepherd’s literal interpretation of this beautiful Psalm.
“David and his ancestors,” said D’Alfonso, “knew sheep and their ways, and David has translated a sheep’s musing into simple words. The daily repetition of this Psalm fills the sheepherder with respect for his calling. Our guide takes this poem as a lodestone to guide us. It is our bulwark when the days are hot and stormy; when the nights are dark; when wild animals surround our bands. Many of its lines are the statements of the simple requirements and actual duties of a Holy Land shepherd, whether he lives today or followed the same calling 5,000 years ago. Phrase by phrase, it has a well understood meaning for us.”
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
“Sheep instinctively know,” said D’Alfonso, “that ere they have been folded for the night the shepherd has planned out their grazing for the morrow. It may be that he will take them back over the same range; it may be that he will go to a new grazing ground. They do not worry. His guidance has been good in the
past and they have faith in the future because they know he has their well-being at heart.”
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
“Sheep graze from around 3.30 in the morning until about ten. They then lie down for three to four hours to rest,” said D’Alfonso. “When they are contentedly chewing their cuds, the shepherd knows they are putting on fat. Consequently the good shepherd starts his flock out in the early hours on the rougher herbage, moving on through the morning to the richer, sweeter grasses, and finally coming with the band to a shady place for its forenoon rest in fine green pastures, the best grazing of the day. Sheep, while resting in such happy surroundings, feel contentment.”
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
“Every shepherd knows”, said the Basque, “that sheep will not drink gurgling water. There are many small springs high in the hills of the Holy Land, whose waters run down the valleys only to evaporate in the desert sun. Although the sheep need the water, they will not drink from these fast-flowing streams. The shepherd must find a place where rocks or erosion have made
a little pool, or else he fashions with his hands a pocket sufficient to hold at least a bucketful.”
He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
“Holy Land sheep exceed the Spanish Merino or the French Ramboullet,” went on D’Alfonso. “Each takes his place in the grazing line in the morning and keeps the same position throughout the day. Once, however, during the day each sheep leaves its place and goes to the shepherd. Whereupon the shepherd stretches out his hand as the sheep approaches with expectant eyes and mild little baas. The shepherd rubs his nose and ears, scratches its chin, whispers affectionately into its ears. The sheep, meanwhile, rubs against his leg or, if the shepherd is sitting down, nibbles at his ears, and rubs his cheek against his face. After a few minutes of this communion with the master, the sheep returns to its place in the feeding line.”
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.
“There is an actual Valley of the Shadow of Death in Palestine, and every sheepherder from Spain to Dalmatia knows of it. It is south of the Jericho road leading from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and is a narrow defile through a mountain range. Climatic and grazing conditions make it necessary for the sheep to be moved through this valley for seasonal feeding each year.
The valley is four and a half miles long. Its side walls are over 1.500 feet high in places and it is only ten or twelve feet wide at the bottom. Travel through the valley is dangerous, because its floor, badly eroded by cloud-bursts, has gullies seven or eight feet deep. Actual footing on solid rock is so narrow in many places that sheep cannot turn round, and it is an unwritten law of shepherds that flocks must go up the valley in the morning hours and down toward the eventide, lest flocks meet in the defile. Mules have not been able to make the trip for centuries, but sheep and goat herders from earliest Old Testament days have maintained a passage for their stock.
About halfway through the valley the walk crosses from one side to the other at a place where the path is cut in two by an eight-foot gully. One section of the path is about eighteen inches higher than the other; the sheep must jump across it. The shepherd stands at this break and coaxes or forces the sheep to make the leap. If a sheep slips and lands in the gully, the shepherd’s rod is brought into play. The old-style crook is encircled around a large sheep’s neck or a small sheep’s chest, and it is lifted to safety. If a more modern narrow crook is used, the sheep is caught about the hoofs and lifted up to walk.
Many wild dogs lurk in the shadows of the valley looking for prey. After a band of sheep has entered the defile, the leader may count upon such a dog. Unable to retreat, the leader baas a warning. The shepherd, skilled in throwing his staff, hurls it at the dog and knocks the animal into the washed-out gully where it is easily killed. Thus the sheep have learned to fear no evil
even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for their master is there to save them from harm.”
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
“David’s meaning is a simple one,” said D’Alfonso, “when conditions on the Holy Land sheep ranges are known. Poisonous plants abound which are fatal to grazing animals. Each spring the shepherd must be constantly alert. When he finds the plants he takes his mattock and goes on ahead of the flock, grubbing out every stock and root he can see. As he digs out the stocks, he lays them upon little stone pyres, some of which were built by shepherds in Old Testament days, and by the morrow they are dry enough to burn. In the meantime, the sheep are led into the newly prepared pasture, which is now free from poisonous
plants, and, in the presence of their deadly plant enemies, they eat in peace.”
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
“At every sheepfold there is a big earthen bowl of olive oil and a large stone jar of water. As the sheep come in for the night they are led to the gate. The shepherd lays his rod across the top of the gateway just higher than the backs of the sheep. As each sheep passes in single file, he quickly examines it for briers in the ears, snags in the cheek, or weeping of the eyes, from dust or scratches. When such conditions are found, he drops the rod across the sheep’s back and it steps out of line.
Each sheep’s wounds are carefully cleaned. Then the shepherd dips his hand into the olive oil and anoints the injury. A large cup is dipped into the jar of water, kept cool by evaporation in the unglazed pottery, and is brought outÂ—never half full but always overflowing. The sheep will sink its nose into the water clear to the eyes, if fevered, and drink until fully refreshed.
When the sheep are at rest, the shepherd lays his staff on the ground within reach in case it is needed for protection of the flock during the night, wraps himself in his heavy blanket, and lies down facing the sheep.”
“So,” continued D’Alfonso, “after all the care and protection the shepherd has given it, the sheep may well soliloquize in the twilight, as translated by David: ‘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’.”
Condensed from the National Wool Grower.