Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 105 (Part 3)

Psalm 105, continued

For discussion of the first five strophes, see Parts 1 and 2.

Strophe 6: Verses 29-36

The relation of verse 28 to the account of the Plagues in vv. 29-36

The reference to the plague of darkness, which is the penultimate (9th) plague in the Exodus account (10:21-29), here at the beginning of the account in Psalm 105, has proven difficult for commentators to explain. One possibility is that Psalm 105 preserves a different tradition regarding the ordering of the Plagues, in which the plague of darkness comes first, perhaps as an ominous portent of the disasters to come. In the Exodus ordering, it portends the great disaster of the final plague—the death of the Egyptian firstborn. Even if the Exodus-order has been altered by the Psalmist, the darkness may have served the same literary purpose noted above—viz., to anticipate the disastrous evils that will come upon Egypt, symbolized by YHWH sending forth darkness.

Also problematic is the wording of the second line of v. 28. The MT reads, “and they did not rebel against His word”. The LXX and Peshitta (Syriac) omit the particle of negation (al)), presumably in an attempt to explain an otherwise difficult line; the omission makes the line refer to the hardness of the Egyptians (Pharaoh’s heart, etc) in refusing to obey YHWH’s word (delivered through Moses). However, this reading is most unlikely in the context of v. 28 in the Psalm. I find the explanation by Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 63), relating the line to Exod 10:24, to be unconvincing.

My handling of the Psalm has mitigated these difficulties somewhat, by treating verse 28 as the closing couplet of a strophe, one dealing primarily with Moses and Aaron as servants (and prophets/spokesmen) of God. I thus understand Moses and Aaron as the plural subject of the verb in line 2. In contrast to the Israelite people during the Wilderness/Wandering period, Moses and Aaron did not rebel against YHWH’s word (Kethib, “words”, plur.), but were faithful servants in carrying out the things YHWH commanded them. They would announce the plague, and YHWH would bring it about. Several other commentators (Delitzsch, Hupfeld & Nowack, E. Haglund) have offered a similar explanation regarding the second line.

The climactic position of the darkness plague (in the Exodus account) makes it suitable as a reference for the climax of the strophe. Moreover, as I noted, the darkness-motif may indicate a subtle allusion to the Creation account (Gen 1:3); as with the light, YHWH commands the darkness to come, and it is so.

Th. Booij, in his article “The Role of Darkness in Psalm cv 28” (Vetus Testamentum 39 [1989], pp. 209-14), offers the intriguing suggestion that the verb in the second line should be singular (hr*m*, “he/it did [not] rebel”), instead of the plural (Wrm*, “they did [not] rebel”). He notes the Codex Sinaiticus of the Greek, which has the verb in the third person singular (ou) parepi/kranen), being followed by the Latin Vulgate (iuxta LXX). A singular verb would allow for “darkness” (Ev#j)) to be the subject: viz., “it [i.e., the darkness] did not rebel against His word”, but obediently came forth upon Egypt. Booij also understands darkness as the subject of the second verb of the first line “he/it caused darkness”; that is, the darkness sent by YHWH made the land of Egypt dark.

Verse 29

“He turned their waters into blood,
and (so) brought death to their fish. “

In my division of the Psalm, this couplet begins a new strophe, and so marks the beginning of the account of the Plagues (Exod 7:14-25). See above on the reference to the plague of darkness in v. 28. The wording of line 1 generally follows Exod 7:20 (also v. 17); the death of the fish is mentioned in v. 21 (and 18).

Verse 30

“He made their land teem (with) frogs,
(even) in (the) chambers of their kings.”

This second couplet summarizes the second plague (Exod 8:1-15). It is best to read the verb (Jr^v*) in the first line in a causative sense, even though the MT has a Qal-stem form rather than a Hiphil (causative) form; this would make YHWH the subject. Dahood (III, p. 60f) notes that verbs in the Qal stem can sometimes carry a causative meaning, even though he would vocalize the verb here as a Piel form (Jr#v#, instead of Jr^v*). This interpretation avoids the gender disagreement that would otherwise be present if “their land” were the subject, since Jr#a# (“land”) is feminine, and the verb form is masculine; the Qumran manuscript 11QPsa apparently has a feminine form of the verb, to agree with Jr#a#. If “their land” is, in fact, the subject, then the implication is that the presence of the frogs was caused by the first plague—viz., the waters turning to blood led to the frogs coming out onto the land, so that “their land swarmed (with) frogs”.

The expression “in the chambers of their kings” should be understood as “in the royal chambers”, the noun rd#j# referring to an inner room (chamber). On the specific syntactical form of this phrase, utilizing a double plural in a genitival phrase, see GKC §124q (also Joüon’s Grammar §136 o; cf. Allen, p. 53). The line makes more explicit (dramatically so) the reference in Exod 8:3 (see also vv. 9, 11).

Verse 31

“He said (the word), and there came a swarm,
gnats in all (the) cord of their (territory).”

The gnats (<yN]K!) and the swarm (br)u*) of flies, are usually treated as separate plagues—the third (Exod 8:16-19) and fourth (8:20-24ff), respectively. The precise insects referred to and intended by these terms are not entirely certain.

The same phrasing (“He said [the word], and there came…”) also occurs in verse 34. It emphasizes the sureness of YHWH’s word, and its creative power (echoing the Creation account); what YHWH says (vb rm^a*) comes to be. As noted above, this theology informs the phrasing of v. 28a.

On the noun lWbG= (“cord, rope”) as a designation for a piece/porition of land (i.e., territory), see below on verse 33.

Verse 32

“He gave (for) their rain-showers hail-stone(s),
(and) a fire of flame (falling) in their land.”

This couplet summarizes the seventh plague (Exod 9:13-26ff). The fire (here “fire of flame”, i.e. flaming fire) that accompanied the hail-stones (vv. 23-24) probably refers to lightning (note the references to thunder, vv. 23, 29, 33).

Verse 33

“And (so) He struck their vines and their fig trees,
and broke (down every) tree which (is in) their cord.”

The initial w-conjunction indicates here that this couplet relates to that of v. 32; indeed, in the Exodus account, the hail-stones have a destructive effect on the plants and trees (9:25, 31-32). The noun lWbG+ (“rope, cord”), as in verse 31, refers to the Egyptian territory—since a parcel of land is typically measured and/or marked off by a rope.

Verses 34-35

“He said (the word), and there came a locust-swarm,
and (the) locust—there is indeed no counting (it)!—
and it ate (up) every plant in their land,
and it ate (up all the) fruit of their soil.”

These two couplets, which syntactically form a single sentence, summarize the eighth plague (Exod 10:1-20). The terms hB#r=a^ and ql#u# probably represent two different ways of referring to the locust, rather than two different kinds of insect. The noun hB#r=a^, presumably denotes a swarm of many locust, while ql#y# refers to the locust (perhaps specifically the young [larval] form) in its destructive and devouring capacity (the root qql, from which it may be derived, means “lick up”).

Verse 36

“Then He struck all (the) firstborn in their land,
(the) top (portion) of all their (wealth and) power.”

The death of the firstborn is the last of the Plagues (Exod 11:1-12:29), and functions as the climax to the narrative, after which the Israelites are finally released and allowed to leave Egypt. The noun /oa essentially means “power”, often in the sense of creative or generative (i.e. reproductive) power; it also can connote the idea of “wealth”. Both aspects of meaning are appropriate to one’s firstborn sons. These sons are the “top” (or “first, best”) of Egypt’s wealth and power.

Strophe 7: Verses 37-45

Verse 37

“So He brought them out with silver and gold,
and there was no one staggering among his staffs.”

The plural suffix “them” no longer refers to the Egyptians, but back again to the Israelites (cf. Strophe 5), while the singular (“his staffs”) in the second line refers to Israel (Jacob) collectively, by way of his sons (i.e., the tribes). The noun fb#v@ (“staff, rod”) came to be used to designate the tribes of the Israelite confederacy, probably in reference to the leadership and ruling authority of the tribe. Following the account of the Plagues (strophe 6), this strophe introduces the theme of the Exodus from Egypt. The basic reference is to Exod 12:35-36. The idea expressed in the second line, which is not found in the brief Exodus narrative, probably relates to amounts of silver and gold the people were carrying (in addition to all their other baggage); even under this load, not a single person staggered or stumbled, due to YHWH’s protective and providential care over them.

Instead of the suffix “them” in the first line, the Qumran manuscript 11QPsa (also 4QPse) has the specific object “His people” (wmu), probably as an improvement (for the sake of clarity) of the MT.

Verse 38

“Egypt was glad at their going out—
for there fell (the) dread of them upon them.”

The Egyptians’ fear/dread (dj^P^) of the Israelites was brought about by the terrible plagues (Strophe 6). That they were glad (vb jm^c*) to see Israel leave is suggested by Exod 12:33-36.

Verse 39

“He spread out a cloud for (their) covering,
and a fire to give light (to them) at night.”

The “pillar of cloud and fire”, a theophanous demonstration of YHWH’s guiding and protective presence with His people, on their journey from Egypt, is a key element of the Exodus and Wilderness traditions. It is introduced in the narrative at Exod 13:21-22.

Verse 40

“He summoned and brought (forth) quail,
and with bread of heaven He satisfied them.”

The initial verb form “he requested”, which is singular in the MT, is plural in the ancient Versions, and so most commentators would render it. Dahood (III, p. 62) would accomplish this, without emendation, by parsing the consonantal text abywlav as ab@Y`w~ Wla&v* (“they asked and He brought”), with a single w letter where morphology would require two. This makes good sense, since it was the people who requested food (in a roundabout way), according to Exod 16:2-3. However, I am inclined to follow Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 64) in retaining the singular form of the initial verb, with YHWH as the subject. This is consistent with all of the prior couplets, and those which follow in the strophe. Such an interpretation requires that the verb la^v* here means something like “summon”. The phrase “He summoned and brought…” echoes the earlier “He said (the) word, and there came…” in vv. 31, 34.

The joint manna/quail tradition is found in Exodus 16 and also Numbers 11. The specific designation of the manna as “bread of heaven” comes from Exod 16:4 (cf. also Neh 9:15), and was used famously by Jesus in the Johannine Bread of Life Discourse (John 6, vv. 31-33, 41, 50-51, 58); cf. my recent study on John 6:27ff.

Verse 41

“He opened (the) rock and waters flowed (out);
they went into the dry places (like) a torrent.”

The motif of a river-stream (rh^n~) flowing into “dry places” suggests the natural phenomenon of a seasonal torrent rushing through a dry/desert wadi (lj^n~). The tradition of the water from the rock is narrated in Exodus 17:1-7 (cf. also Num 20:2-13); cp. Psalm 78:20. The supernatural provision of water, like the manna and quail from heaven, signifies (once again) YHWH’s covenantal protection of His people.

Verse 42

“For He had in mind (the) word of His holy (bond),
(made) with Abraham His servant.”

The protection and blessing YHWH provides for His people, is, indeed, reflective of the binding agreement (covenant) He made with Abraham (and his descendants). This was the theme of vv. 6-11 (see the discussion in Part 1), and it has continued to run through the remainder of the Psalm, interwoven throughout the historical summary. The use of the noun rb*D* (“spoken word”) to designate this agreement repeats that of verse 8. Interestingly, there is no mention of the Sinai covenant episode (Exod 19-24) in the historical summary; yet here, at the place where one might expect it, there is an allusion to the covenant. Indeed, the covenant at Sinai represents, in many ways, an extension and continuation of the earlier covenant with Abraham.

Verse 43

“So He brought forth His people with rejoicing,
with (songs) ringing out among His chosen (one)s.”

The reference here to rejoicing and songs “ringing out” is general, but it could allude specifically to the Song of Moses (Song of the Sea) and the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15.

Verse 44

“And He gave to them (the) lands of (the) nations,
and they possessed (the fruit of the) peoples’ toil—”

This is a summary reference to the conquest and possession of the land of Canaan by the Israelite people, according to the covenant promise made generations earlier by YHWH to Abraham (see above).

Verse 45

“(that,) in passing over, they would guard His decrees,
and keep watch (over) His instructions.
Praise YH(WH)!”

Contrary to many translators, I render rWbu& with its verbal force (“pass/cross over”), as referring to Israel crossing over into the Promised Land, rather than with the abstract meaning “on account, in order that”, etc. The noun qj) denotes something engraved, often in reference to the inscribed decree of a sovereign. It was used earlier in verse 10, with regard to the binding agreement (covenant) made by YHWH with Abraham (and his descendants). Often, however, it refers specifically to the statues and rules, etc, of the Torah—viz., as written or inscribed (“engraved”) decrees—the Torah regulations representing the terms of the covenant for Israel; the people are faithful to the covenant, fulfilling its obligations, when they observe and perform the Torah regulations. For poetic concision, I translate the plural of qj) above as “decrees”.

Like Psalm 104, this Psalm ends will the traditional acclamation Hy`-Wll=h^ (Hal®lû-Y¹h), calling on people to give praise to YHWH.

References marked “Dahood, I”, “Dahood, II” and “Dahood, III” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968), and Psalms III: 101-150, vol. 17A (1970).
References marked “Allen” are to Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150 (Revised edition), Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 21 (Zondervan: 2002/2014).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101-150, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2011).

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