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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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?

A Tasty Snippet from Jeremiah 10

Well, just wrote a whole post on this and lost the lot just before saving. Hmph.

To be brief, then, there’s a ripper little near-palindrome and the only piece of Aramaic in the Old Testament outside of Ezra and Daniel except for two words used as a name for a pile of rocks by Laban in Genesis.

It’s seemingly given to Jewish exiles in Babylon as a comeback line for locals who want to mock them for worshipping the invisible (and lone) god of an insignificant and now conquered people.

Here’s a line they can use:

“Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.'” (Jer 10:11 NIV)

Like any good comeback line, it has the virtues of carrying a truth, and also of sounding cool. This diagram shows that it is almost a palindrome, one of those lines like ‘racecar’ or ‘a man, a plan, a canal, panama’, that works the same way forwards and backwards. This one mainly works aurally rather than visually, but here it is with the transliterated Aramaic to give you the idea. (Created using Prezi.)

Jeremiah 10.11

There’s the Maker God, and there are the made gods. Big difference. Another gem from a fascinating book!

A Stable and a Shaken World: A Sermon Outline and Study of the Hebrew Word ‘mwt’

I spoke on this ‘shaking’ idea in the Psalms recently, focusing on occurrences of the Hebrew verb ‘מוט (e.g. Psa 46:3)’.  Some of the folk present have asked for access to the PowerPoint resource, so here ’tis.

Notes:

  1. The second slide acts as a master, with each of the nine boxes linked to more specific content centred around a relevant passage from the Psalms or Isaiah.  Every slide has a small icon to permit navigation back to this master slide.
  2. The screen concerning Psalm 104 and comparing it to verse 1 contains a link to a Word document which outlines the full text of Psalm 104.  I will include this separately, below.

Here is the Word file of Psalm 104:

Mini-Book Review: F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic

Okay, so it’s really old, published in 1973. This is one of those scholarly books that sits on the shelf of nearly every theological institution on the planet, but that is beginning to get a little dusty from disuse. It’s one of those books that any budding biblical scholar ought to have read, but some of us were like Linus in 1973, with our shorts nearly reaching the ground, and weren’t quite ready to read the works of scholars like Frank Moore Cross. So it has taken me a while to get to this.

But you ought to know that this is one of those books you ought to read if you want to understand the course of Old Testament scholarship in the last fifty years – one of Cross’s defining works, and thus a milestone for one of the leading scholars of the twentieth-century Albright school. It is a classic, a period piece, an effective marker of the state of anglophone thought on numerous Old Testament topics from Pentateuchal criticism and the Deuteronomistic History to the speciality of the Albright school, antique Hebrew poetry.

But remember…it is from 1973! It shouldn’t be read as contemporary research. But for the serious OT student with some introduction to critical issues, it should be read.

Distribution Chart for an Unusual Hebrew Pronominal Suffix (Technical)

“Hey Mo, don’t you worry ’bout goin’ down south,

I’ll be sayin’ every word that comes outta your mouth,

Just be doin’ your best, and pray that it’s blessed,

I’ll take care o’ the rest.”

– Keith Green, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest”

Noticing that Psalm 2 had in common with Exodus 15 (the Song of Moses) and a range of other texts an unusual form of the 3rd masc. plural (usually) pronominal suffix, ‘מוֹ’ (-mo), I became interested in just where those endings turned up, why they might exist, and whether any significant implications stem from these features.

So let me offer an Excel chart that shows their distribution and specific references:

Distribution Chart for -mo 3mp pronominal suffixes

 

-mo suffix chart image

The distribution of these endings is interesting.  It shows clusters of its use on verbs (esp. Exod 15), nouns (e.g. Ps 2:3) and prepositions (normally ‘עַל’ or ‘לְ’, once ‘אֶל’, Ps 2:5).  For instance, Exodus 15 features seven such suffixes, exclusively on verbs, whereas all the prophetic uses are on prepositions, and then only in Isaiah and once in Habakkuk.  A few more observations:

  • The suffix is normally plural but occasionally singular, as in the Genesis references.
  • The suffix can occur in parallel construction with the regular 3mp ending, as in Ps 49:11.
  • The form is almost always found in poetry, though the poetry/prose boundary is difficult to identify in prophetic discourse (affecting the Isaiah references).  Exod 23:31, however, is a prose use.

A point of interest for me is whether this is an archaic form or instead an ‘archaizing’ form, a stylistic touch implying traditional authority or fidelity, e.g. continued use of archaic English forms by churchgoers reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Psalm 49 instance might suggest a stylistic use.  I suspect that some clusters are genuinely archaic, including Exodus 15.  Isaianic  usage probably reflects use of this suffix largely restricted to prepositions in the middle of the Old Testament period.  Some of the Psalms uses, especially later ones, occur in proximity to references to Israel’s distant past, e.g. 78:24, 66; 83:11; 99:7.

It is challenging to find where secondary sources discuss this phenomenon, but see Gesenius/Kautsch/Cowley #32m (pp. 107-8 in my edition), #58g (156-7) re verb suffixes, #91b, h, l (255-258) re noun suffixes, and #103f, o (301-2, 305) re suffixes on prepositions.  #91l debates the implications of such forms for dating, in the authors’ case, denying that they can be relied upon to be genuine signs of archaism, while those of the Albright school (e.g. Cross, Freedman) might take them as betraying the archaic nature of a poem like Exodus 15.  (See Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 86, for a sample reference to Exodus 15 and the beginning and ending of Deuteronomy 33 in these terms.  You’ll notice that all feature this suffix abundantly.)

I would assume that ancient Hebrew language like any other has a history and a course of development, and that it must be possible to arrive at some conclusions on the basis of phenomena such as the one mentioned here.  I believe that the authors behind Miller-Naudé, Cynthia L., and Ziony Zevit (eds.). Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012) would advocate this position, though I haven’t yet read the volume.  With the same proviso, I understand that the opposing position is put in Young, I., R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008).  Let’s all check them out!