An Intimidating Psalm

Psalm 119 is kind of infamous, isn’t it? It’s by far and away the longest of them all, yet by reusing its Law/Torah vocabulary systematically in each new stanza, it gives us that feeling we get where a public speaker turns a five-minute point into a thirty-minute talk. (Those of you who were at the some public function as me last night, any resemblances to the speaker there are purely coincidental.)

In my latest biblical quest, that of reading our canonical books in the Greek Old Testament (OT) or Septuagint (LXX), I have been making heavy weather of reading the Psalms, proving unable to keep up with the teaching schedule in my Psalms subject just completed at Melbourne School of Theology. I’ve been lodged just in Psalm 119 for two weeks, just finishing this morning.

It still is not an easy psalm. Just how deliriously joyful can the study of the Law be? For one thing, we probably need to broaden our understanding of ‘law’ and the similar terms used so often in the psalm. Another of this often reused set of words is, well, ‘word’, and perhaps that isn’t a bad one to focus on. The thing prized here is not just the set of prescriptions contained in our Pentateuch between Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is really “every word that comes from the mouth of God,” that is, every indication of his nature, his will, and his attitude toward us. It assumes that God has taken the trouble to let us know what he thinks of us and what he wants from us. And that’s inherently precious, and naturally to be celebrated. It’s a claim that God reaches out to us across the vast ontological gulf that naturally separates us. That’s a source of hope.

Beyond that important principle, which can help us understand a potentially inscrutable psalm, I have found a few things that help me appreciate it more:

  1. This I knew already, but half the fun of this psalm on a literary level is its acrostic acrobatics. Each stanza has eight lines, and in Hebrew, each of those eight lines begins with the Hebrew letter designated in the heading. This involves some linguistic tricks that, I’m sorry to say, only Hebrew readers really get to enjoy.
  2. Along with the parallelism that is so obvious within each verse, I notice that pairs of neighbouring verses often closely parallel one another, needless to say with plenty of Hebrew word fun along the way. Here are verses 169 & 170:
    • Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
    • Give me understanding according to you word!
    • Let my plea come before you;
    • Deliver me according to your word.
  3. The psalm is a microcosm of every other psalm genre. There is praise, of course, but there is lament over suffering, pleading for intervention, expressions of confidence, ‘imprecations’ or cursing of evil people, thanksgiving for God’s intervention and help, in a word all the different kinds of discourse we find elsewhere in the psalms. I won’t list examples, being under time pressure (as always), but read a few lines and you’ll see what I mean.
  4. On a similar note, the psalm is very personal. V. 149 pleads, “Hear my voice, Lord, according to your mercy, and in keeping with your judgment, let me live” (from the Greek). It’s all like that: intimate, raw and real, notwithstanding the device of mentioning God’s ‘law’ by some synonym in every verse.
  5. As a curiosity, I don’t actually know how we got our English numbering system; I have a vague sense that the number shapes are thanks to Arabic somehow. But I noticed that the LXX used what looks like a final-form sigma for six, then a zeta for seven, then an eta for eight. That can’t be coincidental, can it? But I’m revealing a gap in my education there. Someone better informed can add a comment telling us all where our numbers come from.
  6. Finally, the Greek of the psalm keeps using the term ‘melete‘ (with a long last ‘e’), which means something like study or close scrutiny. “Your commandments are my melete,” says v. 143. For me, one of the best ways to relate to God is through Bible study and reading, but I worry that that might be some poor egghead substitute for real, spiritual interaction with God, which leads me to a final comment.

I think that one reason that we struggle to appreciate this psalm might be, aside from a much lower tolerance of repetition than an ancient Jew, that we read the ‘law’ references in Pharisaic terms. “The letter kills,” we feel, “but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). This expresses a tension inherent to the spiritual life of the Christian, and the pendulum of church practice has swung between these two extremes. But Psalm 119 reassures us that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The letter is capable of serving the spirit as well as resisting the spirit.

Studying your Bible can be a spiritual act, a devotional thing to do, a window on the will of God. It need not be a dead letter.

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Lift Us Up Where We Belong

An Appeal to Worship Leaders and Writers of Worship Songs

I’m a little envious, I have to admit, of the kind of ecstasy I see people experiencing around me in the worship time at church. It looks amazing. If it’s legal, I don’t mind getting some myself. But no, I would gladly concede, ecstasy is one emotion that’s appropriate for people drawing near to God, though arguably there might be times when abject penitence or a sort of shock might be equally apt.

But whatever the strong emotion, it isn’t how I arrive at church. Like many others, I have to rouse three or four bodies as sleepy as mine out of bed on a Sunday morning and make sure they get in the car at home and back out at church before the sermon’s over. It doesn’t induce a state of meditation, let alone ecstasy. And if my eyes are shutting, that might not be ecstasy either, though I don’t mind if people think so. Sometimes I just can’t keep them open.

We want to worship. Please remind us why it’s so right. What was it again, that God has done? Continue reading

Creation and Time in Basil’s Hexaemeron

The wise old monkey in The Lion King told the young lion character, whatever his name was, that the whack on the head he had just applied with his stick was “in de past,” so it didn’t matter. I’m like someone who has had a good whack on the head when it comes to things further into the past than about 10 minutes, so forgive me if I’ve already posted this, but in May I had a post about Basil (‘the Great’), the Cappadocian church father who lived c. 330-379 AD/CE, published online by the Creation Project, operating out of the Henry Center, an arm of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, USA. It went by the above title, and its concern was to explain how Basil viewed creation in his famous nine-part Lenten sermon series on the subject, dating from about 376. It’s the first stand-alone piece of speaking/writing on the creation week or ‘hexaemeron’ in Genesis 1:1-2:3 to have appeared in the church, and gave birth to an entire genre of similar writings, as well as embedded treatments within Genesis commentaries and other types of writing, that lasted for more than 1,000 years. Basil was no dummy, and though he regularly disparages secular philosophy in this sermon series, he utilizes quite a bit of it as well.

Here’s the mug shot of Basil from the Henry Center page, with Basil looking suitably transcendental, if not somewhat spaced out. Hey, he did have his mystical side…

Basil Mug Shot from Henry Center Basil Post

So you might find this an interesting read, if you’re following discussions about historical Christian thinking about creation and/or Genesis:

Creation and Time in Basil’s Hexaemeron

Law, Grace, and Sabbath for the Christian: An Open (Anonymous) Letter

Dusting off the old blog once again! In my teaching role, I have just been asked by a student for my Christian position on Sabbath observance for today. Since I’ve taken the trouble to state my position succinctly for her, perhaps it might start a conversation or stimulate your thinking on the topic if I record my reply here. Keep in mind that I’m from a rather free-church, not-very-hierarchical and not-very-liturgical Protestant tradition as an Australian Baptist.

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A Sample of Australian Psalms Scholarship

The college for which I teach, Melbourne School of Theology (MST), publishes a rather new journal called Paradosis, devoted to biblical and theological topics. Its second volume, published in 2015, was dedicated to the Psalms, and is now available on our college website.

Paradosis 2 Psalms Thumbnail

The best-known authors featured from a scholarly point of view are probably John Olley (Vose Seminary, Western Australia) and Michael Theophilus (Australian Catholic University, Melbourne). Also featured are articles by Edward Woods, author of the Deuteronomy volume in the Tyndale OT commentary series and editor of the volume, Katy Smith (Bible College of South Australia), John de Hoog (Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Victoria), Gillian Asquith (also MST), David Cohen (Vose Seminary) and myself.

So there’s no Susan Gillingham or J. Clinton McCann, but you might find it a worthwhile read, particularly if you’re looking for insights on a particular psalm. Specially featured psalms include 89, 119, 137 & 148. Why not have a browse?

The Internet of Ancient Texts

We live in a happy age when Bible-related text resources that I as an Aussie would once have had to cross the seas to see are available in my web browser any time. Here are a few of my recent favourites, with a focus on resources for textual criticism:

Origen’s Hexapla

This great six-column comparative text-critical resource from the smartest, if not the most orthodox, thinker in the ancient church, Origen, was largely lost in subsequent centuries (many of his works were deliberately purged), but there is a portal that talks about a new forthcoming edition of the surviving fragments and offers links to previous editions of the great work: http://www.hexapla.org/

The Aleppo Codex

This manuscript’s bigger and younger brother, the Leningrad Codex, can be accessed in many Bible software packages and websites, and forms the basis of the diplomatic Hebrew text of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (in the process of being updated as Biblia Hebraica Quinta). But it isn’t so easy to get to the Aleppo Codex, also more than 1,000 years old and covering the majority of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Univerity Bible offers an Aleppo Codex-based text, but only the Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel volumes were ever published to my knowledge. But now you can see it all visually at http://www.aleppocodex.org/, including those occasional places where your BHS apparatus identifies divergences between the major Masoretic manuscripts.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

I still love and regularly use the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, where you can go and look directly at the Qumran textual evidence for a particular Old Testament textual question. Sometimes it all hangs on a letter, or even reconstructed line spacing without any extant letters! But so real, so…textual! E.g. Isaiah 1:15 from the Great Isaiah Scroll below:Snapshot of Isa 1.15 from Gt Isaiah Scroll.png

You can personally check the evidence with your own eyes, if you know Hebrew in the Aramaic square script and once you get used to the particular style of the scribe.

The Old Testament in the Syriac Peshitta

This is not as easy to find on its website, being a bit buried in the site structure, but you can look at the Peshitta for any OT book and click on any word to get its analysis. I recommend you print off a chart of the Syriac alphabet in order to decipher the letters. The language actually works rather like biblical Hebrew, and if you’ve boned up on biblical Aramaic at all, you’re better prepared again, though you’ll need to come to terms with an unfamiliar script. A ready reference chart on your office wall helps.

Snapshot of Peshitta Isa 1.1-8 RHS from CAL D'base.png

This is part of the opening chapter of Isaiah, in a snapshot I saved for a class, though what my particular point was, I can’t remember now. Don’t be put off by how it looks. With a knowledge of Hebrew, a reference chart and the clickable analysis function, you can navigate your way to the particular word that relates to the textual issue you’re studying.

Science and the Bible Video Series

I recently completed a four-part series on Science and the Bible for a suburban Melbourne church, Eltham Baptist. Here are the links to the four entries in the videos taken of the series:

The Philosophy and Theology of Creation

Science & The Bible (Part 1) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

The History of Interaction of the Bible and Science

Science & The Bible (Part 2) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

The Cosmos

Science & The Bible (Part 3) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

The Earth Sciences
Science & The Bible (Part 4) – Andrew Brown from Eltham Baptist Church on Vimeo.

I didn’t hold strictly to my titles at all points, but you may find something interesting there.