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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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.

Digital Septuagint, One Last Time

Better success lately finding help for reading the Septuagint (as per usual, for free) online. Let me put it in terms of good, better and best. And this is still in terms of how it works when logged on with my Android tablet. The first two work on the basis of double-tapping the mystery Greek term in the Septuagint and doing the suggested Google web search on it.

  1. Good is a new one, a book that comes up reasonably often in the search results provided by Google Books: an Analytical Lexicon of the Septuagint by one Bernard Adwin Taylor. I hadn’t heard of it before, I don’t know why, but it’s handy that a Google search can find your desired form in it pretty regularly.
  2. Better is the solution I mentioned last post: most such searches bring a result on the front page from the Perseus Greek study tool at www.perseus.tufts.edu.  (Tufts offers a lot of good digital tools, like the versatile VUE – Visual Understanding Environment.) This sort of result comes fully parsed and, when you click ‘word frequency statistics’, will tell you where it turns up in classical Greek writings and how often. You could do worse.
  3. Best is a website that I just hadn’t found before: www.greekdoc.com/lxx, seemingly created by one John Barach. There is it, the whole thing, every word linked to its corresponding entry in an analytical dictionary. Tap the form you don’t recognise, see its analysis, and you’re back to reading the text in about two seconds. Which to my mind is the critical thing when we’re going for fluency in reading the Bible in the original languages. That, finally, is the morning reading solution for me. When I’m doing serious study, BibleWorks it is.

Okay, I think I have Septuagint posts out of my system. (Could be wrong…) Back to digital repositories for primary document study really soon.

Digital Document Detective, Interlude: Online Bibles and Their Limits

My new task for this and subsequent years is to read the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament that forms the basis of so much New Testament teaching and gospel proclamation. But I have wanted to get my technology right first. My question has been:

Can I find an online bible, or better, a downloadable app, that would provide parsing of difficult Greek terms in the Septuagint, with root definitions?

Out of the ‘big three’ Bible software universes, Logos, Accordance and BibleWorks, I made my choice a long time ago, more or less in ignorance, of going with BibleWorks. I don’t regret it, either, primarily in value-for-money terms, where I think BibleWorks really excels. Logos does many, many things well, but is chiefly for the building of a large, digital library of secondary sources. I feel a little intimidated by how much it seems to cost, and continues to cost, and feel as if it’s the Hotel California of Bible software. You can check out any time you like, but you’ll receive promotional emails practically forever. Accordance would tempt me more now, but I have always been a Windoze user and it was once a Mac thing, so the die was cast. Oh, and my devices now are Android, and I move in Google and Microsoft online spaces.

So what is out there that might let me, rather than booting up my PC proper to read the Septuagint of a morning, just boot up my tablet and browse the Septuagint, but get help with those rarer or forgotten Greek words I need definitions for, and occasionally, parsing?

Continue reading

A Great Post on the Nature of Prophecy

George Athas at his blog ‘With Meagre Powers’ has drawn my attention to an apt post by theologian Tim Bulkeley on the nature of prophecy. I agree with his point there, though it might challenge your ideas about what prophecy is!

http://bigbible.org/sansblogue/ot/prophets/amos/prophets-and-prediction/

I’m not emphasizing the point about conservatives. I am one to some extent, and know that we can all bring our preconceptions to our interpretation of the Bible. But Jeremiah certainly challenges us, especially in 18:7-10 and the lesson about the clay pot, to remember that God announced the future through his OT prophets in order to change that future, with the result, hopefully, that the dark future originally ‘predicted’ does not need to happen!

A Recent Commentary on Job Reviewed

This is my review of the recent Job commentary by Melbourne local Lindsay Wilson (Ridley College) in the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series. It is ready for an upcoming issue of Australian Biblical Review. In enjoyed reading (most of) Lindsay’s commentary (we are acquainted through Bible college circles here in Melbourne) on what is one of the great and profound books on the Old Testament, and felt that he had a skillful and theologically robust grasp of the book. Very common-sense as well! I encourage you to pick it up. By the way, it’s great value for money.

https://www.academia.edu/15593591/Book_Review_LINDSAY_WILSON._Job._The_Two_Horizons_Old_Testament_Commentary_Grand_Rapids_Eerdmans_2015_

Wilson - Job - Two Horizons

By the way, I have almost finished reading Job in Hebrew after months of nearly daily efforts, and I’m happy to say it’s some of the most difficult biblical Hebrew I have ever dealt with. It does share a lot of vocabulary with Psalms, though, if you want to read two books that will reinforce each other well.

An Attempt at a Master Diagram of Interesting Features of the Psalms

I’m not entirely happy with this yet, and in fact it isn’t complete, but it’s at a stage of “proof of concept”. It’s a master diagram of Psalms in Prezi arranged like one of those broken-up-world globe map projections:

https://prezi.com/gr8muwf70jel/psalms-master-diagram/
Psalms Master Prezi Screenshot

For those interested in technical production details, I produced the world template in one Inkscape document and the coloured content in another. Inkscape is a free, open-source vector graphics program. But Prezi doesn’t recognise the normal vector graphics (SVG) format, so I had to open the finished product in Adobe Illustrator (very new for me, and maybe not permanent, though a better-known vector graphics program, probably the best-known of all). Then I exported it in Adobe Flash format (SWF), which Prezi recognizes, and opened the file from within a new prezi, adding nothing else bar the title. The convoluted process is thanks to Inkscape’s usefulness as a graphics editor, whereas Prezi is very limited that way, and the fact that vector graphics do not lose resolution no matter how far you zoom into them, and are ideally suited to a zooming interface like Prezi.

But, if the result doesn’t help anyone comprehend (in this case) Psalms, all the playing around is in vain. So critical feedback is welcome!