Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

Deuteronomy 32:15-18ff

As we proceed through the Song of Moses (Deut 32), it is worth keeping in mind the structure of this great poem, as I have outlined it previously:

    • 1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)
    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)
      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)
    • 43: Conclusion—Call to the Nations

The bulk of the poem is made up of two sections,  each focusing on one side of the (religious) history of Israel and its covenant with YHWH. The first section (vv. 4-18, discussed in the recent studies) summarizes Israelite history through the people’s settlement in the Promised Land, together with their subsequent violation of the covenant (vv. 15-18). The second section (vv. 19-42) similarly summarizes the judgment that will come upon Israel for violating the covenant, along with its aftermath. The core of this narrative of covenant violation/punishment lies at the very center of the poem (vv. 15-25), and is likewise central, in terms of theme and theology, to the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. It also happens to be one of the most vivid and colorful portions of the text, full of many striking poetic details and devices, some of which we will be discussing below. However, when considering the post-settlement context of verses 15-18ff, we are immediately confronted by an important historical-critical issue with regard to both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy itself; even though this was touched upon in an earlier study, it is worth discussing it again briefly here.

From an historical-critical standpoint, there are three primary historical layers (or levels) that must be considered:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book, as presented in 1:1-5 and throughout, placed just before Moses’ own death and prior to the people crossing the Jordan into the Land of Promise proper. The Song of Moses is clearly set within this historical-narrative framework (see chap. 31).
    • The date of the poem, as established (as far as possible) by objective criteria and critical method, independent of the narrative framework and related traditions
    • The date of the book of Deuteronomy, i.e. its composition, which may cover multiple versions or editions of the book

For traditional-conservative commentators who accept the entire book, with little or no qualification, as representing the authentic words of Moses (and other genuine Mosaic traditions), these three layers essentially collapse into one—all of Deuteronomy, including the poem, more or less dates from the time of Moses. Critical commentators, however, tend to look at each layer on its own terms, which means considering the date and composition of the poem quite apart from its place within the Mosaic setting of the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy.

The results of such critical analysis—examination of vocabulary, poetic style and form, the imagery and religious-theological concepts used, etc—have generally pointed to a relatively early date for the poem, in the mind of most scholars. A number of features would, indeed, seem to be characteristic of the earliest poetry preserved in the Old Testament; certain parallels with the language and thought found in the narratives in the book of Judges (e.g., Judges 5:8; 10:14 etc), suggest a comparable time-frame for the poem, i.e. in the period of the Judges (11th century B.C.?). This would likely represent the latest date-range for the poem in its original form, and its old/archaic features could conceivably go back earlier, to the 12th or even 13th century.

By contrast, most critical scholars date the book of Deuteronomy as a whole to the Kingdom period. The soundest such critical theory would, I think, posit an earlier/original form of the book (10th/9th century?) which was subsequently modified under the influence of Josiah’s reforms (late 7th century), along with possible later additions as well. Thus, if we consider the three layers above, from a modern critical standpoint, a fairly reasonable dating would be:

    • The Mosaic setting of the book—presumably mid-late 13th century
    • The date of the poem—12th-11th century
    • The composition of Deuteronomy—10th-9th century, with subsequent revisions and additions (7th century and following)

Now, let us apply this critical analysis to the poem—in particular, to the post-settlement context of vv. 15-18ff. If we take the historical-narrative framework of Deuteronomy at face value (i.e., the time of Moses, generally prior to settlement), then these verses, along with similar portions elsewhere in the book (such as in chapter 31), reflect divine prophecy, God’s revelation (through Moses) of what will take place in the future. If, on the other hand, we were to adopt some form of the critical theory outlined above, then such passages would have to be read as representing an historical situation which had already occurred, and which has been projected back into the Mosaic setting of the book (i.e. as an ex eventu prophecy, after the fact). Interestingly, if we accept the relatively early date of the poem itself (for which there is strong evidence on objective grounds), then we find ourselves somewhere between these two approaches—i.e. the prophecy of Israel’s violation of the covenant would have to refer to events which would, apparently, have occurred during the period of the early Israelite confederacy documented in the book of Judges. Certainly, the book of Judges records the influence of Canaanite religious-cultural influence on Israel at a number of points, and is part of the narrative structure of the book (see 2:1-5, 11ff). Many of the details in the book of Judges appear to be quite authentic to the period, reflecting a time when Israelite monotheism (featuring exclusive worship of YHWH) was still trying to gain a strong foothold within the larger Canaanite (polytheistic) religious environment.

This, indeed, seems to be what the Song of Moses is describing—an initial turning away, under Canaanite (and other non-Israelite) religious influence, but not yet a development of the full-fledged syncretism we find during the Kingdom period. And, while this turning away was already prefigured in several traditional episodes from the Mosaic period (e.g., the Golden Calf and Baal-peor episodes, Exod 32; Num 25), it would not be fully realized until a somewhat later time. The history of Israel in Samuel-Kings, influenced by the book of Deuteronomy in this regard, adopts a similar framework, recording history from the standpoint of whether, or to what extent, Israel and its rulers were faithful to the covenant with YHWH or violated it by worshiping deities other than YHWH.

Verses 15-18

Let us now turn to consider verses 15-18 and 19-25 of the poem. It may help to see these together in translation; here I offer a rather literal (but reasonably poetic) rendering:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)—
and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—
and He said:
“I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!
They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!
For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!
I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them—
hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.
(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

The language is rough and vivid throughout, something which is often lost in most English translations; I have tried to retain and capture this roughness (even harshness) of expression from the Hebrew. Such a mode of expression is altogether appropriate, from the standpoint of the subject matter—a description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, and the resulting judgment which YHWH will bring upon them. It is here that we turn again to form criticism and literary criticism, to see how the distinctive form and style of this poetry relates to the meaning and purpose of the text. Let us first examine verses 15-18, a sequence of 6 bicola (= 12 lines) which more or less follow the 3-beat (3+3) meter of the poem consistently, with clear use of parallelism (both synonymous and synthetic) throughout. The first bicolon is striking in the way that the address shifts suddenly from third person to second person:

And (then) the straight (one) grew fat and kicked—
you became fat, swollen, filled (with food)

This would be an example of a kind of synthetic parallelism, in which the second line builds dramatically on the first. The people are referenced by the descriptive title y®š¥rûn, presumably meaning something like “the straight (one)” or “the (up)right (one)”; y¹š¹r (“straight, right”) was used as a characteristic of YHWH in verse 4. In context, the title is used ironically, referring to what the people of Israel should have been—straight and loyal followers of the binding agreement (covenant) with God. Instead, they “grew fat” and “kicked” (like an unruly animal); this behavior is clearly related to the people’s feeding on the richness of the land (vv. 13-14), whether understood in a literal or symbolic sense. It is this aspect upon which the second line builds, with a repetitive staccato-like sequence of three verbs, which are almost impossible to translate accurately into English—

š¹mant¹ ±¹»ît¹ k¹´ît¹

literally, it would be something like: “you grew fat, you became swollen, you became full”. The precise meaning of the last verb (k¹´â) is uncertain, but most likely the three verbs are more or less synonymous, referring to the idea of Israel “becoming fat“. The shift to second person (“you”), something which occurs at several points in the poem, serves as an important reminder of the purpose of the poem, within the setting of Deuteronomy (chap. 31)—as a means of instructing all Israelites in future generations (“you”). The remaining 5 bicola (10 lines) essentially expound the first; the second and sixth (vv. 15b, 18) are similar and form an inclusio, framing the lines:

and he left the Mighty (One who) made him,
and treated the Rock of his salvation like a fool!
…..
You forgot the Rock (who) gave birth to you,
and neglected the Mighty One writhing (in birth of) you!

This repeats the central theme in the opening lines (vv. 4-6) of the section, that of YHWH as Creator and Father of humankind (and esp. of Israel). The title “Rock” (‚ûr) alternates with the Divine name/title “Mighty One” (°E~l / °E_lôah). The latter bicolon (v. 18) introduces the striking motif of YHWH as mother giving birth, i.e. writhing (vb. µyl) in labor pains. This makes all the more cruel the people’s abandonment of YHWH, who endured such pains in giving birth to them. In between, these six lines (3 bicola, vv. 16-17) give a summary description of Israel’s violation of the covenant, defined unmistakably in terms of worship of deities other than YHWH:

They made him red(-faced) with strange (thing)s,
with disgusting things they provoked him;
they slaughtered to šedim (who are) not Mighty,
(but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them—
new (one)s (who) came from near(by),
(whom) your fathers did not recognize.

The first bicolon is a clear example of synonymous parallelism, with the second line essentially re-stating the first, intensifying the image. The last two bicola are more complex, emphasizing two interrelated points: (1) these other deities are lesser than YHWH and not “God” (lit. Mighty One) in the same way, and (2) they are “new” and previously unknown to Israel, presumably meaning that they reflect the local religious environment in Canaan (i.e. “from near[by]”). I have left the noun š¢d (plural š¢dîm) untranslated above; it seems to refer to deities in a general sense, akin to the word daimœn in Greek. The derivation and meaning of the last verb (´¹±ar) is also uncertain; I have tentatively followed the Septuagint translation, relating it to the Semitic root š±r (“know, perceive”), which provides a parallel to the idea of the deities as “not known” among Israelites prior to their entry into Canaan.

Verses 19-25

As in the preceding section, the first bicolon (v. 19) sets the theme, and the remaining lines provide the exposition. Here this format is used for a dramatic narrative purpose: the expository lines represent the direct words of YHWH, introduced (in the poem as we have it) by an additional word (“and he said”) which disrupts the meter. The tension in these lines is reflected in the opening bicolon in which the matter of YHWH’s judgment on Israel is stated:

And (so) YHWH saw (it) and spurned,
from (such) provocation, his sons and daughters—

I have retained the structure of the bicolon—note the apparent awkwardness in the line division, something which is glossed over (and lost) in most translations in the attempt to provide more readable English. In the Hebrew as we have it, there is an emphasis on the word mika±as (“from [the] provocation”) which disrupts the poetic flow and injects a discordant tone into this section of the poem, entirely keeping with the ominous subject. In the first two bicola of YHWH’s declaration (v. 20) we have his own announcement of the judgment that is described in v. 19:

I will hide my face from them,
let me see what follows (for) them!
For they (are) a circle (of) overturning—
sons (with) no firmness in them!

The first couplet (bicolon) provides an extreme example of synthetic parallelism—the second line literally refers to the consequence and result of the first (God hiding his face), and almost reads like a taunt. The noun °aµ®rî¾ with suffix could also be translated “their end” (i.e., “let me see what their end [is]”); this would fit the actual syntax better, but risks losing the important idea that the terrible fate for the people follows (root °µr) as a direct result of the action of YHWH hiding his face from them. In the ancient religious mindset, this image of God “hiding his face” essentially means a removal of the divine power that protects and preserves the life of humankind on earth.

The second bicolon is a standard example of synonymous parallelism, with the noun dôr set parallel to b¹nîm (“sons”, i.e. the people as a whole). I have translated dôr according to its fundamental meaning (“circle”, i.e. circle of life), though it is usually rendered “generation” (“they are a generation of…”), but the phrase could also be translated (“thei[rs] is an Age of…”. The basic reference is to the people alive during a particular period of time, but also to their connectedness as a common people. The root h¹¸ak (“turn [over], overturn”), here as the substantive noun tahp¥kâ, connotes both the idea of perversion and destruction—i.e., the people both turned away from the truth and broke the covenant bond. This was an indication of their lack of true loyalty (lit. “firmness”, °¢mûn) to God and to the covenant.

The next two couplets (bicola) show a more complex parallelism, making use of wordplay that is difficult to capture in English:

They made me red(-faced) with the non-Mighty,
provoked me with their puffs of breath;
and (now) I will turn them red with a non-People,
(and) provoke them with a nation of fool(s)!

Here, again, the parallelism (of form and style) is used to convey a very specific message: the punishment for Israel matches their crime (an extension of the ancient lex talionis principle). The parallelism in this regard is exact, something which may easily be lost in English translation:

    • Verb 1 (q¹na°):
      they made me red [i.e. with jealousy]…” (and so)
      “…I will make them red [with jealousy]”
      • Modifier 1 (b®lœ°, “with no”):
        “with (the) non-Mighty [°¢l]”, i.e. what is not God (not YHWH)
        “with (a) non-People [±¹m]”, i.e. not the people of YHWH
    • Verb 2 (k¹±as):
      “they provoked me…” (and so)
      “…I will provoke them”
      • Modifier 2 (“with [] [things that are ’empty’]”):
        “with their puffs of breath [ha»lîm]”, a derisive term for the worship of other deities and associated ‘idolatry’
        “with a nation of fool[s]”, i.e. a foolish nation (that worships other deities)

What follows in the remaining lines (vv. 22-25) is a graphic description of the coming judgment. It begins with a powerful image of a wildfire, in a pair of bicola (4 lines) where each line builds—an example of how poetic form (here the synthetic parallelism of the bicolon format) serves to paint a visual picture (of a growing/spreading fire):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

The first couplet actually could be viewed as a kind of antithetic paralellism—i.e. from one extreme to its opposite. The first begins in the nostrils of YHWH, and reaches all the way to the deepest place under the earth (in š§°ôl, the realm of death and the dead). If this shows the fire’s spread vertically, from highest above to deepest below, the second couplet shows its horizontal spread—over the entire face of the land, covering it up to the base of the mountains. In verse 23, the imagery shifts from a natural disaster (wildfire) to that of a military attack—YHWH will shoot evils (i.e. misfortune, suffering, death, etc) upon the people like arrows, and so extensive will be the judgment that God will exhaust the entire complement of arrows:

I will gather (up) evils upon them,
I will finish (all) my arrows on them

These evils/arrows are presented in verses 24-25, with a descriptive sequence that strains and twists the poetic meter and rhythm; this is again an example of how a disruption of a common poetic format can be used to make a dramatic point. First in verse 24 there is a dual image of plague/disease and attack from deadly/poisonous animals:

hunger (that) sucks out,
and a burning (that) devours,
and a bitter dead(ly poi)son,
and (the) tooth of wild (beast)s will I send on them
with the heat of crawlers in the dust.

The removal of YHWH’s protection (“I will hide my face”, v. 20) means that the people are vulnerable to the dangerous elements of the natural world. Moreover, in the ancient religious mindset, disease and famine, etc, were often seen as the result of divine anger and punishment on humankind, and so we find the same expressed repeatedly in the Old Testament. Even when subsidiary divine (or semi-divine) beings were involved (pestilence personified, Reše¸), according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism, it was YHWH (in his anger) who is responsible for sending these evils (“I will send on them”). Along with this, Israel also can no longer rely on YHWH’s protection from human enemies, and verse 25 gives a capsule portrait of the people hiding in fear as enemy forces attack:

(In the street) outside the sword brings loss,
and terror (inside the) enclosed (room),
even (to) chosen (son) and virgin (daughter),
the suckling (child) with grey-haired man (together).

The historical narratives in both the book of Judges and the “Deuteronomic History” of Samuel–Kings are replete with numerous examples which illustrate this idea. Indeed, the primary vehicle for God’s judgment upon Israel were the various peoples around them, each of which could fit the description of a “non-People” or “nation of fools” in the sense that they operated from a polytheistic religious point of view, worshiping deities other than YHWH. This is fundamental to the message of the poem, and much of the book of Deuteronomy as well, as we have seen. Central to the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel is the idea that they will remain loyal to Him, and will not violate the bond by turning aside to embrace the religious beliefs and practices of the surrounding nations.

I hope that the analysis above demonstrates the importance that different aspects of Biblical criticism an elucidate important details of the text, especially in the distinctive (and often difficult) area of Old Testament poetry. Next week, we will conclude this study on the Song of Moses, by looking briefly at the following lines of verses 26-42, before delving more deeply into the closing lines in verse 43.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 5

Psalm 5

The superscription to this Psalm follows the same pattern as that of Psalm 4, suggesting that the word hl*yj!n+ refers to a musical instrument, possibly a pipe (flute) or reed instrument, based on the root llj (cf. 1 Kings 1:40; 1 Sam 10:5, etc); unfortunately, as the word occurs only here in the Old Testament, there is no way to be certain. The Psalm tends to follow a 3+2 bicolon format; however, this is not consistent throughout (at least in the text as it has come down to us), and there are metrical questions in vv. 3b-4 and 5, in particular. Scholars have different opinions as to the legitimacy of textual emendation aimed at achieving/restoring a consistent meter.

Verses 2-4 [1-3]

The first two bicola (vv. 2-3a) are straightforward, and establish a prayer-setting for the Psalm, similar in many ways to that of Psalm 4 (see the previous study):

“Give ear to my words, YHWH,
l(isten) close to my utterance;
attend to my cry (for help),
my King and Mighty One!

By any account, the lines in vv. 3b-4 seem to use a different meter, and commentators divide them in different ways; perhaps the most consistent result is that suggested by Dahood (pp. 28-29), requiring no real emendation, but only the slight modification of reading YHWH at the end of v. 3 rather than the beginning of v. 4. This yields two 3 beat (3+3) lines followed by two 2 beat (2+2) lines:

“For to you I make (my) petition, YHWH,
(that by) daybreak you would hear my voice–
(by) daybreak I will arrange (it),
to you I look for (an answer)!”

Conceptually and formally, these represent parallel sections (or strophes), in spite of the metrical differences. The idea seems to be of a nighttime vigil or session of prayer, with the protagonist speaking (and crying) out to God. In the morning, literally at the ‘crack’ of dawn, the Psalmist anticipates a response from YHWH. It is likely that the terse statements in v. 4b make use of the verbs Er^u* and hp*x* in something of a technical sense. The first verb (Er^u*) carries the basic idea of putting things in order, arranging them; Dahood suggests a legal/judicial context of setting forth one’s case (or defense), i.e. before God as Judge (cf. Psalm 50:21; Job 33:5; 37:19). The second verb (hp*x*, root hpx I) has the basic meaning of looking for something, keeping watch, etc; the context here very much indicates the idea of looking/waiting for a response from YHWH, even though there are few such examples of the verb being used this way.

Verses 5-7 [4-6]

The thematic focus in these lines shifts to a contrast between righteous and wicked, pure and impure, such as we have already seen in the previous Psalms (3 and 4). There is perhaps less of an emphasis here on the idea of covenant loyalty to YHWH, but wickedness defined by worship of false/pagan deities (other than YHWH) remains clearly in view. The text as we have it would seem to be comprised of two 3+3 bicola alternating with 3+2 bicola, though some commentators have suggested emendation (e.g., omitting the word la@ from verse 5) to make the meter consistent. There are various sorts of parallelism in these lines, as one can see in the translation:

“For no Mighty One delights (in) wickedness,
(and) alongside you evil does not stay.
(Those) shouting cannot stand up
in front of your eyes.
You hate all (the one)s making trouble,
(and) you shall destroy (the one)s speaking a lie!
A man of blood(y deed)s and corruption
YHWH treats with disgust!”

The holiness of God (la@, Mighty [One]) is set against the wickedness (uv^r#) and evil (ur^) of much of humankind. In Psalm 4, the wickedness of certain segments of the society—prominent men—was in view; here the scope seems to have widened and become more general. Nor is the worship of false deities the primary target, though it would still seem to be a strong point of emphasis. The very expression la@ aý (“no Mighty [One]”, i.e. “no God”) is an allusion to false religion and idolatry, which, according to the covenantal theology and standards of Israelite monotheism, leads to greater wickedness. For this negating expression, describing other ‘deities’ as “no God”, cf. the key references in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:17, 21; also Jer 5:7); similarly, evil can be referred to as “no good” (bof aý, Ps 36:5; cp. Isa 16:6; Prov 15:7, Dahood, p. 30). Moreover, words such as “lie” (bz*K*) and “corruption” (hm*r=m!) can serve as euphemisms for false religion and idolatry. Dahood goes so far to suggest that here <ym!D* is not the common plural of <D* (“blood”), but a plural noun derived from hm*D* (“be like, resemble”), meaning “images, likenesses” (cp. the noun /y)m=D! in Psalm 17:12). I do not find this especially convincing, though a certain wordplay between <D* and hm*D* is certainly possible, perhaps even likely. Idolatry and acts of violence were seen as marks of extreme wickedness, and would often be mentioned together; a particularly relevant example is Psalm 26:9-10. The expression “man/men of blood” is also found in Psalm 139:19-20. The plural <ym!D* (lit. “bloods”) in such instances presumably means “(act)s of blood(shed)”, i.e. acts of violence, which would not necessarily involve the actual shedding of blood.

The point of all this in the Psalm is that YHWH, the true Mighty One, is holy and detests such wickedness. By calling on YHWH to act in His holiness to destroy those who act wickedly, the Psalmist demonstrates his loyalty and aligns himself on the side of the true God. Most likely, this is to be understood as part of what the Psalmist is setting before YHWH (v. 4), as evidence of his loyalty; as such, it is part of the prayer offered in vv. 2-4, with the expectation that YHWH will answer it.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

Based on the Psalmist’s demonstration of loyalty, aligning himself with the holiness of YHWH, he now proclaims that he is deserving of entering into God’s holy place—i.e. the place of His Presence, described two ways: (1) from the ritual standpoint of the Temple precincts and sanctuary, and (2) figuratively as a land/place embodying Divine justice and righteousness (hq*d*x=). Apparent metrical inconsistency has led some commentators to suggest that something is missing at the end of verse 9; this may be resolved, in part, if hwhy (YHWH) is read at the end of v. 8 rather than the beginning of v. 9 (Dahood, p. 33, and see on v. 3-4 above). For the sake of my translation, I have tentatively adopted this division:

“And I, in the vast(ness) of your kindness,
I (will) come into your House—
I will bow down to(ward) your holy Palace,
in (the) fear of you, YHWH.
Lead me in(to) your righteous (land),
in answer to (those) watching me,
(and) make straight your paths before me.”

A pair of terms characterizes the two aspects of the place of YHWH’s Presence mentioned above:

    • The Ritual aspect:
      (1) tyB@, “house” (“your House”), i.e. the Temple as the “house of God”; here, probably, the Temple precincts are meant
      (2) lk^yh@, “palace”, in the expression “palace of your holiness”, i.e. “your holy Palace”; most likely this refers to the actual Sanctuary (Holy Place)
    • The Figurative (religious/ethical) aspect:
      (1) ds#j#, “goodness, kindness”, which can also connote “loyalty”, etc.; in connection, the noun br) (“many, multitude”) should be understood in the sense of “vastness”, i.e. a vast domain.
      (2) hq*d*x=, “justice, righteousness”, also with connotations of faithfulness, loyalty; as indicated above, this should be read in the figurative sense of “righteous land”, a straight and level place, i.e. vast and open.

Most commentators assume that the participle rr@ov, “watching” should be taken in a hostile sense, as of enemies or adversaries. Given the general context of these Davidic Psalms, with their frequent references to surrounding adversaries, this seems likely; what follows in vv. 10ff gives added support to the idea.

Verses 10-13 [9-12]

The Psalm concludes with two strophes contrasting the fate of the wicked and righteous. As noted previously, many Psalms, in the form they have come down to us, were influenced by Wisdom language and traditions, such as are embodied in the introductory Psalm 1. We have already seen how several of these royal/Davidic Psalms (cf. the studies on Pss 2 and 3) close on a Wisdom-themed note. Here, in Psalm 5, we have a strong echo of Psalm 1 with its juxtaposition of the fate of the righteous and the wicked. The wicked are described in vv. 10-11, the righteous in vv. 12-13; in both instances, the prayer context is retained, so that the descriptions are precatory, reflecting the wishes of the Psalmist. The contrasting imagery here is striking: the fate of the wicked is the devouring open mouth of death and the grave, while for the righteous it is a place of safety and refuge surrounded by YHWH Himself. Let us consider first the wicked in vv. 10-11 (four 3+2 bicola):

“For there is no firmness in his mouth,
his insides (are) a yawning (ruin);
a grave (wide) open (is) their throat,
their tongue makes (everything) slippery.
Make them perish, Mightiest, may they fall
from their (own wicked) plans;
in their many terrible (deed)s drive them away,
for they rebelled a(gainst) you!”

The shift from third person singular (“his”) to plural (“their”) may seem odd, but it can be found relatively frequently in the Old Testament, as well as other Near Eastern (Semitic) literature, especially in poetry. Adding to the possible confusion is the preservation in poetry of a final mem (<) as an enclitic particle, which, at times, can be mistaken for a 3rd person plural suffix (“their, them”). Such mem-enclitics, insofar as they exist in Old Testament poetry, probably were preserved purely as a way to extend words and fill out the meter. Here I tentatively follow Dahood in reading the < in the word <B*r=q! as a possible enclitic, which would allow a reading of “his insides” rather than “their insides” and keep the pronoun shift consistent in v. 10a and 10b.

The lines of verse 10 draw upon ancient Canaanite imagery regarding death (twm, personified as a powerful being, Môt); the image of death (and the grave) as possessing an enormous devouring mouth (and a ravenous appetite) is well attested in Ugaritic texts, and is also preserved, to some extent, in the Old Testament (Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5; Prov 30:15f). Consider the pair of specific images the Psalmist uses:

    • Mouth—no firmness
      • Insides [i.e. inside the mouth]—a yawning, gaping ruin
      • Throat—a wide open grave [i.e. place of death]
    • Tongue—slippery

In addition, there seems to be a rich wordplay at work here, which is virtually impossible to capture in translation:

    • br#q# (qereb, “inner, inside[s]”)—rb#q# (qeber, “burial, grave”)
    • br#q#—there is a separate root brq with the basic meaning “be/come near, approach”, and this could allude to the idea that the destruction for the wicked is “coming near”
    • ql^j* (µ¹laq)—this verb means “be/make smooth, slippery”, appropriate in connection with the tongue to indicate deceit, etc; however, there is a separate root (Ugar. —lq) denoting “die, perish”, a meaning which may be attested in Hebrew as well (cf. Ps 36:3; 73:18; Job 31:17; Hos 10:2; Dahood, p. 35). The ability of the tongue to bring destruction is stated famously in James 3:5ff.

An interesting aspect of the fate of the wicked is that, just as they resemble the grave, so they themselves will wind up in the pit of death. For a similar example of such grim irony, cf. Psalm 7:16-17 [15-16].

By contrast, the righteous—i.e. those loyal to YHWH, including the Psalmist—will experience an entirely different fate: instead of being engulfed by death, they will be surrounded by the protecting (life-giving and preserving) Presence of YHWH:

“But they will find joy, all (the one)s trusting in you,
(in)to (the) distant (future) they ring (out);
and you give cover over them,
and they rejoice in you, (the one)s loving your Name.
For you will bless the (one who is) just, YHWH,
like a protective (cove)r you surround him (with) favor.”

Several interlocking strands of motifs are present here, each expressed with multiple terms:

    • rejoicing—verbs jm^x* (have joy, pleasure), /n~r* (cry out [for joy], ring out), and Jl^u* (rejoice, exult)
    • cover/protection—verbs Ek^s* (cover over, overshadow), rf^u* (surround); noun hN`x! (protective [cover])
    • characteristic of the righteous—as the ones “trusting” (vb hs*j*, “seek shelter, refuge”) in YHWH, and “loving” (vb bh@a*) His Name

These function in a positive way, similar to the negative motifs relating to the fate of the wicked in vv. 10-11.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 4

Psalm 4

This is the second Psalm of the collection designated as a musical composition (romz+m!), and one “belonging to David” (dw]d*l=); cf. the previous study on Psalm 3. The precise meaning of the opening word of the superscription remains uncertain—j^X@n~m=l^, found in the superscriptions of 55 Psalms (also Hab 3:19). The root jxn probably originally had the sense of “shine, [be] bright”, but the verb is rather rare in the Old Testament, occurring (outside of the Psalter) primarily in post-exilic writings (Chronicles, Ezra) in the technical sense of one who serves in a position of prominence or leadership, in a supervisory or overseeing role. This has led most commentators over the years to assume that in the Psalms the participle jxnm refers to the person directing/conducting the performance of the composition—a translation like “(the one) directing” is probably as good as any. Its place in the superscription relates to the musical direction which follows, i.e. how the composition is to be performed; in other words, it would seem to reflect a rudimentary performing tradition. Here the instruction simply indicates “on/with string (instrument)s” [tonyg]n+B!].

Verse 2 [1]

The opening lines mark the Psalm as a prayer, or petition, to God; at least, that is the framing structure (vv. 2, 8-9 [1, 7-8]) of the song. The central section (vv. 3-6 [2-5]) provides the religious (and theological) context for the Psalmist’s petition, the first line of which is:

“In my calling (to you), answer me, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of my justice”

As always, in my translation, “Mighty (One)”/”Mightiest (One)” renders the Hebrew plural <yh!l)a$ used as a Divine title (i.e. Elohim), and typically translated “God”. The construct phrase “Mighty (One) of my justice” is a literal rendering of yq!d=x! yh@l)a$, though the expression “my justice” (yq!d=x!) is a bit ambiguous. In the construct syntax it could mean “my just/righteous God”, where the suffix serves as a possessive for the entire expression. However, much more likely is that it is essentially an object suffix, with the noun qd#x# here having a kind of verbal force—i.e., God as the One “working (out) justice for me”; the English “vindication” has been suggested as an appropriate rendering of qd#x# here (Dahood, p. 23). For a similar occurrence in the opening of a Psalm, see 17:1.

The initial phrase reads “In my calling, answer me”; this is often understood in a temporal sense and translated in English as “When I call…”, but this obscures the parallel with the second line, each line beginning with the preposition B= (“in…”). Let us see the two lines together:

“In my calling (to) you), answer me, Mighty (One) of my justice!
In (my) distress, you (shall) have made room for me:
Show favor (to) me and hear my petition!”

There is a chiastic structure at work here in these lines as well:

    • My calling
      • Answer me
        • (Precatory request): In my distress…
      • Show favor / hear me
    • My petition

In between the two imperatives (“answer…”, “hear…”) the core of the request is expressed by way of a precative perfect—i.e., a wish or request phrased in terms of something which has (already) been done. The verb is T*b=j^r=h!, a hiphil perfect form of bj^r*, “be open, large, wide”, the hiphil being a causative stem, “make large, make wide,” etc. It relates here conceptually to the noun rx^, which has the fundamental meaning of something narrow, tight, etc, which presses in on a person (i.e. “distress”). The expectation is that God will literally “make room” for the Psalmist, relieving and protecting him from the forces and difficulties which press on him. The royal setting suggested by the superscription (associating the Psalm with David) may well provide the (artistic, narrative) context for the conflict faced by the Psalmist, a possibility to be considered further below.

Verses 3-6 [2-5]

As noted above, these lines, which form the central core of the Psalm, provide the religious and theological thrust of the work. It functions on two levels:

    1. A contrast between the true God and the (false) idols of pagan (Canaanite) religion
    2. A contrast between the Psalmist who remains loyal to the true God and those who have gone after “idols”, i.e. who do not worship YHWH in the proper manner

Within the structure of the Psalm itself, there are two Selah pauses in this section, creating an interesting division:

    • Challenge (in the form of a question) to those prominent men who do not remain loyal to YHWH (v. 3)
      Selah Pause
    • Exhortation to the people, in two parts:
      (i) Promise that YHWH will honor those who are faithful to him (v. 4)
      (ii) Exhortation to purity and repentance (v. 5)
      Selah Pause
    • Challenge (in terms of religious ritual) for people to remain loyal to YHWH (v. 6)

Let us consider the lines together:

“Sons of man—until what [i.e. how long] is my Honor (to be given) to insult?
(How long) will you love an empty (thing) and seek after a lie? Selah
You should know that YHWH does wonders (for the one) loyal to him—
(indeed) YHWH will hear (me) in my calling to him.
You should be disturbed and not (continue to) err—
Show (this) in your heart upon your lying down, and groan. Selah
Slaughter (sacrifice)s of justice and show trust unto YHWH!”

There are several points in these lines where the Hebrew makes translation difficult; it is almost as though the sense of conflict and challenge comes to be expressed through the wording and poetic syntax itself. Some commentators have suggested emending the Masoretic text in various ways, but, for the most part, that would not seem to be necessary. Let us consider each portion of this section briefly.

Verse 3 [2]. The expression “sons of man” (vya! yn@B=) probably has a dual meaning here: (1) as an echo of the common “son of man” (<d*a* /B#), i.e. mortal human being, in contrast to YHWH; (2) the vya! with the specific sense of a certain (prominent man), i.e. “sons of a (prominent) man”, distinguished or notable persons. Also potentially misleading is the expression yd!obK=, “my honor”. We saw in Psalm 3 how dobK* can be understood as a Divine title, i.e. “Honorable One”; here, however, the parallel is with the expression “my justice” in verse 2 [1] (cf. above). In that earlier expression, the significance was a reference to God as the One who works/establishes justice for the person loyal to Him; the sense is similar here—YHWH as the One bestowing honor/worth to those faithful to Him. In any event, the expression is to be read as a Divine title.

The situation, however, is that certain prominent people in Israel have treated YHWH in a shameful way, with insult (hM*l!K=) rather than honor. And what is the nature of this shameful insult? The words “empty (thing)” (qyr!) and “lie” (bz`K*) are almost certainly intended here as euphemisms for idolatry (non-Israelite ‘pagan’ religion), which, according to the tenets of Israelite monotheism (and Yahwism) can itself serve as a pejorative description of any improper religious practice or behavior. It need not always denote worship of other deities; however, if the background of the Psalm genuinely derives from the kingdom period (or even the time of David), then specific Canaanite beliefs and practices, widespread in the surrounding population, may well be meant.

Verse 4 [3]. The Psalmist sets himself in contrast to these ‘prominent men’, as one who is “good” (dys!j*) to YHWH, the adjective having the sense of being loyal (i.e. the king as a loyal vassal) to God. As a result of this loyalty, YHWH hears and responds to the Psalmist’s prayer. The verb alp (al*p=h!), found in some manuscripts, should be read instead of hlp (hl*p=h!); the reference to God doing wonders (i.e. answering prayer, in a powerful/miraculous fashion) better fits the context, and removes the need for any further emendation in the verse.

Verse 5 [4]. The syntax of these two lines is most difficult, and nearly impossible to render accurately into English. Some commentators advocate emending or re-ordering portions of the verse (e.g. Kraus, p. 144-5), however, I do not know that such a step is at all necessary. Consider, for example, the beautiful symmetry of the (Masoretic) Hebrew as we have it, especially in the second line (v. 5b):

WMd)w+ <k#b=K^v=m! lu <k#b=b^l=b! Wrm=a!

The symmetry is both rhythmic/alliterative and conceptual, as can be seen from the following chiastic outline:

    • Wrm=a! “show/speak” (imperative)
      • <k#b=b^l=b! “in your heart” (location)
        • lu^ “upon” (locative preposition)
      • <k#b=K^v=m! “your (place of) lying down” (location)
    • WMd) “groan/wail/weep” (imperative)

I find the first line (v. 5a) actually to be more difficult. What is the sense of the two verbs in sequence? Actually, there is a similar, though different, sort of symmetry involved in this line:

    • Wzg+r! “be disturbed” (imperative)
      • la^w+ “and (do) not”
    • Waf*j$T# “you will err/sin”

The conjunction and particle of negation connect the two verbs, establishing the relation between them:

    • “You must be disturbed”—that is, troubled in soul/spirit because of their “idolatry”; and, if this mindset is in place, leading to repentance, then:
    • “You will not [will no longer] err”—i.e. will not sin (lit. miss the mark)

The sense of repentance is vividly expressed by the image of weeping/wailing/groaning on one’s bed, an idiom found in both Canaanite (Ugaritic) literature and the Old Testament (Psalm 6:7 [6]; Gen 48:30).

Verse 6 [5]. This short line stands on its own—a 4-beat single colon, instead of the 4+4 bicolon format that characterizes the Psalm. It serves, I think, to summarize the section as a whole, making clear the precise nature of the religious failure of the ‘prominent men’. Their failure is characterized by the two elements in this line: (1) sacrificial offerings that are not right, and (2) failing to trust in YHWH. It is hard to say whether by this is meant sacrifices made to deities other than YHWH; much depends on whether the Psalm (and/or its background) is to be dated to the time of David (or otherwise the early kingdom period). In light of the later messages by the Prophets, the expression “slaughterings [i.e. sacrifices] of justice” could be understood in terms of the prescribed sacrificial offerings in combination with the correct religious attitude and moral conduct (or lack thereof). In either case, there is definitely a ritual dimension at work—i.e. loyalty to YHWH expressed, in large measure, through sacrificial offerings. This loyalty here is defined in terms of “trust” (vb. jf^B*), probably with the sense of relying upon God as a trustworthy Sovereign, expressing confidence in Him. The language and idiom of vassalage is part of the royal ideological (and cultural) background in many of the Psalms, especially those associated with David; for more examples of this, cf. the previous studies on Psalm 2 and Psalm 3.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

These lines return to the petition framework of the Psalm (v. 2 [1]), and may elucidate the context of the Psalmist’s prayer (or, perhaps, to the historical/ritual background of it). A precise interpretation depends on how one understands the noun bof (“good”) in verse 7. Dahood, in his commentary (pp. 23, 25-26), argues that here the “good” from God refers specifically to the rains, and that the setting of the Psalm is a prayer for rain (possibly in time of drought). For an ancient agricultural (and pastoral) society, one need hardly point out the importance of rain—both the proper amount, and in its proper season. Nearly all of the material “good” in society depended upon the rain. The emphasis on the “increase” in grain and wine in verse 8 would seem to confirm this interpretation, especially in connection with other Scriptural parallels (e.g., Deut 28:12; Jer 7:25 [cp. 3:3; Amos 4:7]; Psalm 85:13). However, I would not simply translate bof as “rain” (as Dahood does), but allow the Psalm to explain itself:

“Many are saying ‘Who will make us see the good?
The light of your face has fled (from) upon us!’ YHWH
You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart
from the time (when) their grain and their wine multiplies.

There are couple of points of difficulty that should be mentioned. The first is the position of hwhy (YHWH)—does it belong to the end of verse 7 or the beginning of v. 8? This is especially important, if, as a number of commentators would argue, the MT hsn in v. 7b should be read as (and/or emended to) a form of either the verb sWn (“flee [from]”) or us^n` (“pull away [from]”); something of the sort would seem to fit the context, whereby the entirety of v. 7 represents the faithless words of the “many”. The mention of YHWH could be part of this (“the light of your face has fled from us, YHWH”); but just as easily it could be part of what follows: “YHWH, you shall give joy (to me) in my heart”. Even more difficult, it seems, is the syntax of verse 8. There are two components to this line, each of which makes fine sense in its own right:

    • “You (shall) give joy/happiness (to me) in my heart”
    • “Their grain and their wine multiplies/multiplied”

But how are these two statements related? The problem lies in the connecting word tu@m@, which, as parsed in the traditional MT, is apparently the noun tu@ (“time”) with the prefixed preposition /m! (“from”). Some would read this as a comparative, continuing the contrast from earlier in the Psalm:

“You give joy (to me) in my heart, more than (in the) time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

At best this seems most awkward. Dahood proposes that the mem (m) prefix actually is an enclitic particle that belongs to the previous word (“my heart”), and that tu represents the related time-adverb hT*u^ written defectively (cf. Psalm 74:6; Ezek 27:24). By parsing the initial verb in verse 8 as a (precative) perfect form, it casts the line in a petitionary form much in keeping with the earlier part of the prayer:

“You (shall) have given joy (to me) in my heart; and now, (let) their grain and wine multiply”

In my translation above, I have attempted to capture something of this same sense, while respecting the traditional form of the Masoretic text:

“You (shall) give joy (to me) in my heart from the time (when) their grain and wine multiplies”

Verse 9 [8] and Summary

If we take seriously two key elements of the Psalm—(1) the issue of idolatry and (2) the idea of rain as the “good” from God—it may be possible to surmise an underlying historical setting. Through much of Israel’s history, from its settlement in Palestine down through the kingdom period, the influence of Canaanite religious beliefs and practices was prevalent in the culture. Most notable were those related to the god Haddu (better known by his popular epithet “Master”, Ba’al [cf. my earlier article]), representing the power of the storm/rain and dispenser of the life-giving waters from the heavens. It is altogether conceivable, even probable, that worship of Baal-Haddu underlies the references to ‘idolatry’ in the Psalm. For many Israelites, especially in the early kingdom period (i.e. the time of David and Solomon), it would have been most tempting and natural to blend together Baal- and Yahweh-worship in different ways. This would have been entirely in keeping with syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in the Ancient Near East, and, indeed, we see evidence for it at numerous points in the Scriptural record of Israelite history. It is hard to explain the prevalence of Baal-worship elements in Israelite society, over such a long period of time—from at least the time of the Judges until the reforms of Josiah—without the power and appeal of such syncretism. And if, indeed, the background of Psalm 4 involves a prayer for rain (cf. above), in the face of the threat of drought, etc, it is easy enough to image many ‘prominent men’ in Israel turning to the Canaanite god with power over the rains, perhaps including him (along with YHWH?) in the sacrificial offerings.

Whether or not such a reconstruction is accurate, there can be no doubt that the Psalmist feels himself at odds with important segments of society, their ‘idolatry’ (in whatever form it took) being central to the “distress” he experiences. In contrast to their lack of faith/trust in YHWH, the Psalms sees himself as remaining loyal to the true God, and this loyalty is proven by the fact that YHWH answers his prayer. It is possible that we have here a kind of parallel to the famous contest between Elijah and the Israelite ‘priests’ of Baal-Haddu (1 Kings 18): those offering sacrifices to other deities (Baal?) will not receive any answer, but YHWH answers (bringing rain) to the one who remains loyal to Him. If the Psalmist is meant to reflect a royal figure (such as David), then it is likely that his prayer is on behalf of the people as a whole; embedded in the Psalm is the message—the hope and expectation—that they, too, will remain faithful to YHWH.

The promise of God’s blessing and protection extends into the final lines (v. 9), and is similar to the statement of trust expressed in Ps 3:6 [5]. We may translate this bicolon as follows:

“In peace I lie down all (alone) and I sleep,
for you alone [YHWH] make me sit secure.”

The basic idea is clear enough, though the specific wording creates some difficulty. The adverbial particle wD*j=y~ can be tricky to render into English. Essentially it means “as one” or “at one”, sometimes in a comprehensive sense (“all together”) or in a temporal sense indicating suddenness (“at once”, etc). Here it is probably meant as a parallel to dd*B* (as an adverb) in the second line:

    • wD*j=y~ “all (alone)”, referring to the Psalmist
    • dd*b*l= “separately, alone”, i.e. by himself, referring to YHWH

Dahood (p. 27) suggests the possibility that wdjy here derives from the relatively rare Semitic (Canaanite) root µdw/µdy, “see, (be) visible”, and that it is functioning as a substantive for the appearance/manifestation of YHWH, parallel to “light of (his) face” in v. 7. It is an intriguing suggestion, but seemingly hard to square with the text as we have it, unless corruption occurred as the original word (and its meaning) was lost in the process of transmission.

The parallelism in the verse continues:

    • hb*K=v=a# “I (will) lie down”, i.e. to sleep
    • yn]b@yv!oT “you make me sit”, i.e. rest, dwell
      and, further
    • <olv*B= “in peace”
    • jf^b#l* “with trust/security”, i.e. safe, secure

Though hard to preserve in translation, the noun jf^b# is related to the verb jf^b* in v. 6; the root fundamentally means “trust (in), rely (on)”, but its range of meaning includes the idea of safety and security—i.e. the security which God provides is the basis for our trust in Him. We have here a beautiful image of complete trust and reliance on YHWH, a model of covenant loyalty, exemplified by the ruler (and/or the Psalmist) and intended as an exhortation for all the people.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1 Teilband (Psalmen 1-59), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).