March 9: Psalm 68:12-15

Strophe 4: Psalm 68:12-15 [11-14]

This strophe marks the beginning of the second part of the Psalm; on the overall structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 12 [11]

“My Lord gave (forth)
a word bringing news
(to) an army (of) many.”

I divide this opening verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, following Dahood (II, p. 141) in parsing the text as torC=b^m= hr*m=a!. The feminine noun hr*m=a! better agrees with the participle that follows. Dahood would read the to– ending as preserving an old feminine singular ending—a northern reading reflecting Phoenician influence. However, the plural form could be retained, perhaps understood in a collective or intensive sense.

If the MT is to be followed, then the verse would have to be treated as a 3-beat couplet, something like:

“My Lord gave (forth the) word,
th(ose) bringing the news (are) a vast army.”

To whom does the “army (of) many” (br* ab*x*) refer? By the ancient traditional use of the term ab*x* (“army”), associated with El-YHWH, the reference is to the heavenly host (of the stars, etc). This would fit the cosmological context of the first part of the Psalm, where YHWH is called the “Rider on the Clouds,” controller of the celestial waters, who brings down rain from the heavens (cf. on v. 15 below).

Verse 13 [12]

“(The) kings of (the) armies
flutter—they flee—
and (the) beauty of (the) house
she divides (the) spoil(s).”

This verse (metrically a pair of 2-beat couplets) is somewhat difficult to interpret. First we have the relationship of the “armies” (toab*x=) here to the “army” in v. 12. In my view, the word ab*x* is used in a dual sense. In verse 12, it refers to the heavenly army that is under YHWH’s command. To that army, God gives the word, which means good news (rcb) for His people. Then, in v. 13, the focus shifts to human armies (and their kings). The heavenly army fights on YHWH’s behalf, resulting in the defeat of the human forces. This could refer to Exodus and the Conquest, or to other traditional episodes from Israel’s history. Probably the best parallel is in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5, cp. chap. 4), where it is said that the stars fought from heaven against the forces of Jabin and Sisera (v. 20). The waters also played a role in routing the army (v. 21); and note the similarities of imagery between vv. 4-5 of the Song and strophe 3 of our Psalm (cf. the previous note).

I have translated the repeated verb dd^n` (in line 2) two ways, as “flutter” and “flee” (i.e., fly away, take flight), so as to capture two distinct nuances of meaning: (1) the kings flutter (in fear), and then (2) they fly away, fleeing the scene.

The second couplet is difficult, mainly due to the noun hw#n` and its lack of agreement with the verb that follows in the next line. The word hw#n` typically refers to a field or enclosure (sheepfold, etc) where herd animals dwell. The meaning could thus be that it is in the field/enclosure of the house where the victorious Israelites divide/distribute (vb ql^j*) the spoils. However, following the parallels with the Song of Deborah (cf. above), it may be that the Psalmist is specifically emphasizing the humiliation of the kings’ defeat by stating that women are dividing the spoils (Judg 5:29-30). In this case, MT hw#n` should instead be read as the feminine substantive adjective hw#an` (“beautiful [one], beauty”); this would fit the parallel with the Song of Deborah, and would agree with the feminine verb form qL@j^T=. Cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 160.

Verse 14 [13]

“O, that you would lay down between (the) <campfires>
(the) wings of a dove
covered in silver,
and her yellow (plumage)
with feathers of gold.”

This is a difficult and enigmatic verse. First, one notes the close similarity between the first line and Judg 5:16a (on other parallels between this strophe and the Song of Deborah, cf. above). In the Song, it is posed as a question:

“For what (reason) [i.e. why] do you sit [vb bv^y`] between the campfires?”

The meaning of the final word (tP*v=m!) is not entirely certain, but something like “campfires” seems close to the mark. The MT here in v. 14 of the Psalm is almost certainly a variant (or corrupted) form of the same word. The verb used is bk^v* (“lay down”), which is close conceptually to bv^y` (“sit [down],” sometimes in the sense of “remain, dwell”). The opening particle <a! can sometimes reflect a wish (“Oh, that…”), and that is probably the best way to understand the meaning here.

If the line is not a corruption (e.g., a gloss from Judg 5:16), how does it relate to the context of vv. 13-14? Based on the evidence from Job 38:37 (cf. Dahood, II, p. 141), it is possible to use the verb bk^v* in the sense of laying out the contents of a vessel, etc, upon the ground. Is this line meant to depict a scene of people laying out the spoils (from the defeated army) for distribution, with the wish (“Oh, that…”) representing the eagerness of people to receive their portion? If so, then perhaps the noun hw#n` (“field, enclosure”) in v. 13 is correct (cf. above), followed by this portrait of dividing the spoils out in the fields (“between the campfires”).

The remaining lines most likely refer to objects taken as spoils from the defeated army. The silver and gold bird may represent a symbolic standard or insignia used by the army, like the golden eagle of the Roman imperial army.

Verse 15 [14]

“At (the) scattering by Šadday
(of the) kings on it,
white fell on (the) dark mountain.”

This verse (a 2-beat tricolon) effectively blends together the idea of the defeat of human armies with the YHWH’s command over the celestial/heavenly army. The strophe began with the heavenly focus, then shifted to the human sphere, and now returns to the celestial motif of rainfall from heaven. Here the rainfall takes the form of white snow falling upon the mountain-tops. The verb gl^v* literally means “be(come) white”; the final line could be translated “it [lit. she] came to be white on the dark-mountain”.

The name “dark mountain” is something of a literal rendering of the Hebrew name /oml=x^. Most commentators would identify it with mount Hauran, Djebel Druz (³ebel ed-druz). Its designation as ‘dark’ is due to the characteristic black volcanic rock (basalt), and provides a contrast with the “white” (Lebanon) mountains. The designation of the Lebanon as ‘white’ stems from its majestic snowy peaks, as well as from its white-colored limestone rock. Here the snowfall on the ‘dark’ rock of the /oml=x^ makes for a dramatic contrast. This mountain-imagery continues in the next strophe (5), which will be discussed in the next daily note.

I left the name yD~v^ (Šadday) untranslated above; however, as a Divine title, it most likely means something like “He of the Mountain” (cf. the discussion in Cross, pp. 52-6), referring to the traditional association of the Creator God with a great (cosmic) mountain, and of El-YHWH’s dwelling upon a mountain (manifest locally on Mt. Sinai, etc). This well fits the mountain-motif introduced here, and which continues in the next strophe; it was thus appropriate for the Psalmist to refer to YHWH by this title.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, (Harvard University Press: 1973).