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In interlinear translations, it seems that the most direct translation of the phrase "green pastures" (seen in common translations such as ESV, NIV, KJV, etc.) is "pastures of grass".

Other commonly seen translations of this phrase include "lush pastures" (NET) or "green grass" (ISV, GNT, CEV).

Even the NASB, which is supposed to be one of the most literal translations, translates it as "green pastures".

According to Barnes' Notes (emphasis added):

The word rendered in the margin "tender grass" - דשׁא deshe' - refers to the first shoots of vegetation from the earth - young herbage - tender grass - as clothing the meadows, and as delicate food for cattle, Job 6:5. It differs from ripe grass ready for mowing, which is expressed by a different word - חציר châtsı̂yr. The idea is that of calmness and repose, as suggested by the image of flocks "lying down on the grass."

The most accurate translation seems to be Young's Literal Translation, which translates it as "pastures of tender grass".

In the KJV translation (I don't have a concordance with NASB), all the other occurences of the Hebrew word is translated as "grass", "tender grass", "herb" or "tender herb".

Why has the decision been made among literal translations to translate "pastures of (tender) grass / young herbage" to "green pastures" instead?

The reason I ask is because the choice of words are especially important in poetry, and I thought that the most modern word-for-word translations (NASB, AMP, ESV, NKJV) would be the best to preserve the original words.

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    Great question. I surveyed several pre-KJV English translations and found that the 1382 Wycliffe Bible and the 1582 Douay-Rheims Bible didn't have the word "green" but the 1535 Miles Coverdale Bible has it. Dec 11 '19 at 23:25
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    Also, the majority of non-English translations (I checked with Google Translate) have "green" (Korean, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian), but some do not (like Latin, Japanese). Dec 11 '19 at 23:36
  • Another definition of the word 'דשא' (as appears the first time in the Bible (Genesis 1;11)) Rashi (Rabi Shlomo Yitzhaki) explains the word there: 'דשא'- The cover of the ground with some kind of grass. If so, it makes sense to translate it as "green pastures"
    – Efra
    Dec 18 '19 at 14:32
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+50

I think the answer may have more to do with the meaning of the English word "green" than with the Hebrew.


Meaning of the word "green" in English and Hebrew

One of the two dozen or so definitions of the adjective "green" given by the Complete Oxford English Dictionary (A.I.2) is "covered with a growth of herbage or foliage" - a mode of the word that, according to the OED, dates back to the time of the Saxons. Another definition of the word (A.I.5) is:

(a) Unripe, immature; (b) young and tender; (c) full of vigourous life, flourishing; (d) retaining the natural moisture, not dried.

This meaning also dates back to Saxon times.

Apparently the same sense of the word was present in medieval Hebrew. The Talmudic scholar Rashi (1040-1105) comments on the verse (in English translation):

In grassy pastures. Since he commences to compare his sustenance to the pasture of an animal by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd”, “green pastures” is appropriate for the expression.


Early English translations of Psalm 23:2

The earliest English translation of the Psalm from Hebrew using the word "green" I could find was Tyndale's translation of the Psalm, dating to around 1526:

The Lord is my shepherde, I can wante nothinge. He fedeth me in a grene pasture ...

Coverdale's translation was completed around 1535 and reads:

The Lorde is my shepherde, I can wante nothinge. He fedeth me in a grene pasture ...

The Geneva Bible (c. 1560) follows the same convention, as does the 1537 "Matthew's Bible" and the Whitchurch "Great Bible" of 1539, though these latter two were not strictly a translation of the Hebrew.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shal not want. He maketh me to rest in grene pasture ...

Curiously though, the Bishop's Bible, dating back to 1568 and then the official Bible of the Church of England, uses a phrase that is closer to the literal Hebrew:

God is my sheephearde, therfore I can lacke nothyng he wyll cause me to repose my selfe in pasture full of grasse ...


King James Version

Instruction #14 to the translators of the King James Bible commanded:

These translations to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible: Tyndale’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.1

Instruction #1 is even starker:

The ordinary Bible read in the church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.2

In the case of Psalm 23, though, they decided to use what Tyndale and others had indicated, rather than the Bishop's Bible, even though the Bishop's Bible "agreed better with the text":

The Lord is my shepheard, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie downe in greene pastures ...

This may be in part due to the desire of the translators to provide somewhat of a balance between style and literacy where possible. In his book Bible: The Story of the King James Version, Gordon Campbell, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, writes:

The balance between the public reading and private study of the Bible has shifted over the centuries with the rise in literacy. In the seventeenth century the Bible was more often heard than read, and it is clear that the translators had the practice of reading aloud (in homes as well as churches) in mind. Part of the evidence for this is punctuation, which tends to be rhetorical rather than grammatical, but the clearest manifestation of the emphasis on the need to provide a text that can be read aloud is the rhythms of the KJV. The text is prose, but it often has the pulse of poetry. Adam, blaming Eve for the fall, says ‘she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’ (Genesis 3:12), a perfect iambic pentameter line (and one that Milton incorporated intact into Paradise Lost); in the next verse, God says to Eve ‘what is this that thou hast done?’ (Genesis 3:13), a perfect iambic tetrameter line. The seventeen words that I have quoted are all monosyllables cast in prose, but their regular rhythm makes them easy to read aloud.3


A possible answer to the question given the above

So to summarize a possible answer to your question, "Why is 'pastures of grass' translated to 'green pastures' (or similar)," I think one could say (a) because that is how it has been translated from Hebrew since at least 1526 in other respected English translations (including the King James), and (b) because the full meaning of the English word "green" seems to support the translation,3 as warranted by the Oxford English Dictionary and at least one Talmudic commentator.



Excursus: Some still earlier English translations

The next earliest translation to Tyndale's - I believe Wycliffe's Bible (c. 1390) - uses a different phrase:

The Lord gouerneth me, and no thing to me shal lacke; in the place of leswe ...

where leswe is a Saxon word meaning "pasture". The ancient Vespasian Psalter, dating to the 8th century, uses the phrase stowe leswe, where stowe is another archaic word meaning place (a discussion of the phrase can be found here). Both Wycliffe and the Vespasian Psalter, however, are translations of the Latin Vulgate and not out of Hebrew. The Vulgate reads:

Dominus regit me, et nihil mihi deerit: in loco pascuæ, ibi me collocavit.

In the case of the Psalms, the Vulgate translates the Septuagint, which contains the phrase τόπος χλόης (topos chloēs), meaning "place of the first shoots (of plants)" or "tender grass". Brenton's translation of the Septuagint (1844) chose to use the phrase "place of green grass", departing also from the strictly literal Greek.


1. Bible: The Story of the King James Version (Oxford University Press, 2010), p.39
2. Ibid., p.35
3. Ibid., p.80
4. It seems to me that in considering translation alternatives, the scope of the word to be translated is considered fairly fully, but the scope of potential target words in English is not. An example of this would be the use of the word "atonement". Up until after the King James Version was published, the English word "atonement" meant reconciliation and had no connection with recompense or punishment. Modern translators have retained the use of the word "atonement" in the negative sense, not realizing perhaps that when the word was originally chosen it didn't have the same meaning they now impute to it.

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  • Thank you for the bounty! Much appreciated
    – user33515
    Dec 24 '19 at 0:46
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From its first (verbal) use in the Bible we can discern its meaning alone:

Genesis 1:11 And God said: Let the earth be lush [תדשא] with vegetation [דשא]: green plants yeilding seeds on the earth; trees yielding fruit with the seed of their respective kinds within them. And so it came to be.

The verb תדשא can therefore be read as meaning "to become vegetatively fruitful and lush, green, thriving with plant life"—an a word, "verdant; replete with plant life." Thus David means, "plentiful fields of fresh grass" by the words "in comfortable places of vegetation" (benot d'sha) —inasmuch as he makes himself the grazing sheep among a flock of sheep in this Psalm.

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