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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 105 (Part 2)

Psalm 105, continued

For the Introduction to this Psalm, and its first two strophes (vv. 1-6, 7-11), see Part 1.

Strophe 3: Verses 12-15

Verse 12

“In their being men of (small) number,
just a few, and residing as aliens in her,”

The opening couplet picks up from the final couplet of the second strophe (v. 11), and is grammatically dependent on it. The feminine suffix H-* (“in her”) refers back to the land of Canaan (the noun Jr#a# being feminine). The Israelites—the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—were, at the time of their dwelling in the land of Canaan, few in number. Moreover, they had a semi-nomadic lifestyle, dwelling in the land as ‘resident aliens’, never taking up permanent residence, but moving regularly from region to region (Gen 12:10; 20:1, etc), and being economically dependent, to some degree, upon the established Canaanite city-states. The root rWG (I) is used to express this distinctive socio-cultural situation; both the verb and noun (rG@) are used regularly in the Patrarchic narratives (e.g., Gen 17:8; 23:4; Exod 6:4), and the terminology became part of the Israelite self-identity (Exod 22:20; Deut 10:19, etc).

Verse 13

“in their going about from nation to nation,
from (one) kingdom to (the) people following,”

This couplet continues the thought from verse 12 (cf. Gen 20:1). Referring to these Canaanite territories as “nations” and “kingdoms” reflects the socio-political dynamic of the small territorial kingdoms (city-states) that populated the region. Each city-state, despite their relatively small size, was technically ruled by a “king” (El#m#). The Amarna letters provide written evidence for the many small kingdoms in Canaan during the late bronze age (14th-13th century B.C.). Other surrounding territories were ruled by tribal confederacies and the like, and could be referred to as “peoples”, rather than “kingdoms”.

Verse 14

“He did not allow (any) human to oppress them,
and (even) gave rebuke (to) kings over them:”

Syntactically, this couplet continues the thought of vv. 12-13, and represents the main clause of the sentence. During all the migrations of the ancestral Israelites, YHWH protected the people—such protection being part of His covenant-bond with them, as a demonstration of his loyalty to the binding agreement; cf. the discussion on the second strophe (vv. 7-11) in Part 1.

The verb j^Wn, in the causative Hiphil stem, in this context, is almost impossible to translate. The verb fundamentally means “set down”, often with the connotation of resting (in one place). In the Hiphil stem, it means “make set(tle) down”, or “give rest/repose”, and thus could easily apply to the migrations of the Israelites (as ‘resident aliens’). However, here it applies to YHWH’s action toward the Canaanite, etc,  people (and their kings); the sense is not “make settle down”, but rather, something like “give leave, allow”. It is best understood in the context of YHWH “letting down” His protection over His people; this He did not do—He did not let it down so as to allow the settled peoples in the region to harass or oppress (vb qv^u*) the Israelites.

He even gave rebukes to the leaders (“kings”) when they might have done harm to Israel; the episodes involving the two king Abimelechs (Gen 20:3; 26:11) are foremost in mind; cf. also Gen 12:17.

There is a certain loose parallel between the pairings of kingdom/people (hk*l=m=m^/<u^) in v. 13 and human[s]/kings (<d*a*/<yk!l*m=) here.

Verse 15

“‘You must not touch my anointed (one)s,
and to my spokesmen you must do no evil!'”

This concluding couplet summarizes both the rebuke YHWH gives to the kings of Canaan, etc, and also the protection that He provides to the patriarchs and the ancestors of Israel. He refers to them as His “anointed ones”. This may allude to the tradition of the Israelite people as a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6), combining both offices (viz., king and priest) where a ceremonial anointing (with ritual or religious significance) typically applied.

In the second line, they are called by the noun ayb!n`. Though often rendered flatly as “prophet”, this noun is actually quite difficult to translate, so as to capture its true meaning. There are two possibilities as to the fundamental meaning (and derivation) of aybn: (1) one who speaks, that is, as a “spokesperson” for God; or (2) one who is called, viz., by God. The latter meaning would actually be more fitting to the context of the Patriarchs (Abraham, etc), as people called by God. Principally, however, the reference here is to Gen 20:6-7; in verse 7, Abraham is referred to as a ayb!n`, with the authority to communicate (i.e. speak) with YHWH, to offer prayer on behalf of Abimelech. I have translated <ya!yb!n+ above as “spokespersons”; this ‘prophetic’ role comes more clearly into view in the following strophes, dealing with Joseph and Moses/Aaron.

The verb uu^r*, in the Hiphil (causative) stem, means “cause evil” or “do (something) bad”; however, sometimes the connotation is more concrete, referring to causing (physical) harm or damage.

Strophe 4: Verses 16-22

Verse 16

“But (then) He called a hunger upon the land,
(and) every staff of bread He did break.”

The initial –w conjunction of this couplet begins a new unit, but also provides a contrast to the emphasis on YHWH’s protective care. At first, the hunger (i.e., famine) He calls upon the land would seem to contradict His covenant protection of the Israelite ancestors; however, this danger only establishes an opportunity for God to further work on His people’s behalf.

The expression “staff of bread” is a bit unusual. Dahood (III, p. 56) suggests that the proper meaning here is “stalk of grain”; this is certainly possible. More likely, however, is that the emphasis is on the lack of any available bread that can be eaten—even a thin stick of bread could not be found. The noun hF#m^ (“staff”) can also refer, figuratively, to a means of support. The supply of bread/food, necessary to support the life and health of the people, was “broken” (vb rb*v*). The reference, of course, is to the famine of the Joseph narratives (chaps. 41-42ff). This famine serves to bring the Israelites down into Egypt.

Verse 17

“He (had) sent (ahead) before them a man,
(for) as a slave he had been sold—Yôsep.”

The selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen 37:28, 36; cf. chaps. 39-40) was providential; YHWH used the event to help His people through the famine, and to draw them down into Egypt.

The subject of the couplet is not specified until the final word; it is important that this poetic device (which Dahood, III, pp. 51, 56, called “explicitation”) be preserved in translation.

Verse 18

“They pressed his feet into the fetters,
(and) into (the) iron his neck came,”

Both concretely, and figuratively, this couplet describes Joseph’s enslavement. His feet were “pressed” (or “forced”, vb hn`u*) into fetters (lb#K#, a noun that occurs only here and in Ps 149:8), while his neck similarly went into an iron ring (or shackle, etc). The noun vp#n# is typically translated “soul”, but not infrequently it carries the more concrete meaning “throat”, i.e., “neck”.

Verse 19

“until (the) time of (the) coming of His word,
(when the) showing by YHWH refined him.”

This couplet, continuing the thought from v. 18, describes (somewhat awkwardly) the time/duration of Joseph’s slavery. It lasted until the “coming” (note the wordplay involving the same verb, aoB in v. 18b) of YHWH’s word. This “word” comes by way of dreams/visions (and their interpretation), and thus it is fair to understand here a bit of conceptual play between the roots rbd and rma. Both roots can denote “speak/say”, but rma can also mean “see” or “show” (cf. Gen 41:39). Here the noun rb*D* (line 1) is parallel with hr*m=a! (line 2). Through this process, Joseph was “refined” (vb [r^x*), metallurgical terminology that can carry the more figurative connotation of being tested (viz., by God) and proven worthy, pure, etc. The general reference is to the events of Gen 39-41.

Verse 20

“He sent a king, who then set him loose,
a ruler of peoples, who opened for him.”

As Dahood and Allen (and other commentators) note, YHWH is best understood as the subject of this couplet, with the king (i.e., Pharaoh) as the object. The prefixed w-conjunctions on the verbs can be rendered as a continuing result— “and then (he)…”; for poetic concision, I have translated this as “who (then)…”. This is a summary reference to the events of Gen 41.

Verse 21

“He set him as lord over his house,
and ruler among all his acquisition(s),”

The king (Pharaoh) is presumably the subject of this couplet, though it is possible to read it with YHWH as the implied (continuing) subject. The elevation of Joseph to the status of ruler (lit. one ruling) is narrated in Gen 41:39-45; the same participle (lv@m)) is used of Pharaoh in v. 20. Joseph is made a second ruler in Egypt, just below Pharaoh himself.

Verse 22

“to bind (together) his princes by his soul,
(that) he might make his elders wise.”

The ruling power/authority of Joseph also has a positive moral impact. His wisdom will have a unifying effect, “binding” together (vb rs^a*) the princes of Egypt “by/in his soul” —that is, in Joseph’s own person, according to his (righteous) inclinations. On the possibility of reading the verb rs^a* here as a form (or by-form) of rs^y` I (“instruct”), see Dahood, III, p. 58, and Allen, p. 52f. The couplet loosely reflects the ruling position and organizing activity of Joseph, fostered by his inspired wisdom and prudence, in Gen 41:37-49.

Strophe 5: Verses 23-28

Verse 23

“And (so) Yisrael came (down to) Egypt,
and Ya‘aqob resided in (the) land of Ham.”

The events surrounding Joseph served the larger purpose of bringing the descendants of Jacob (Israel) down into Egypt (Genesis 42ff). According to the genealogical tradition in Genesis 10 (v. 6), the Egyptians (“Egypt”) were descended from (or otherwise related to) Noah’s son Ham.

On the significance of the verb rWG, see the note on verse 12 above.

Verse 24

“And He made his people fruitful, exceedingly so,
and (so) made them strong(er) than their foes.”

This couplet effectively introduces the Exodus portion of the historical summary; the specific reference is to Exod 1:7ff. YHWH again is the implied subject; through His blessing and covenant protection, the Israelite people became numerous and strong, enough so that Pharaoh and the Egyptian government saw them as a threat (Exod 1:9).

I take “his people” as a reference to the people of Israel; however, it could, of course, also refer to Israel as the people of YHWH (“His people”), cf. verse 25 below.

Verse 25

“He turned over their heart to hate His people,
(and) to deal craftily with His servants.”

In this verse, “his people” certainly refers to Israel as the people of God (“His people”), as the parallel with “His servants” makes clear. The fear of the Egyptians toward the Israelites turns to “hate” and hostility, leading Pharaoh and his advisors to develop crafty plans for dealing with them (Exod 1:10ff).

Verse 26

“He sent (forth) Moshe His servant,
and Aharôn, on whom He had chosen.”

This couplet summarizes, in a general way, Exodus 2-4. The choice of Moses and Aaron, as chosen representatives (or <ya!yb!n+, ‘spokesmen’, cf. on v. 15 above) of God, again reflects YHWH’s care for His people, and His loyalty to the covenant made with their ancestors.

Verse 27

“They set (forth) among them words of His signs,
and (wondrous) portents in (the) land of Ham.”

Moses and Aaron announced to the people what YHWH had previously spoken (and demonstrated) to them; then they proceeded to display the supernatural portents to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The pairing of the plural nouns totoa (“signs”) and <yt!p=m (“portents”, of a wondrous or miraculous kind) is traditional. The couplet summarizes Exodus 4:29-31 (cf. vv. 1-17), 6:1, and chap. 7ff.

Verse 28

“He sent darkness, and (so) made it dark;
and they did not rebel (against) His word.”

Verse 28, when read in connection with vv. 29-36, is problematic, since it seems to set the plague of darkness (the ninth plague, Exod 10:21-29) ahead of all the others. Unless this is evidence of textual corruption—and the plague strophe (vv. 29-36) will be discussed in Part 3—the reference here needs to be explained in another way. A possible solution lies in reading this couplet as the conclusion of a strophe, which focuses primarily on the role of Moses and Aaron as faithful servants (and spokesmen/prophets) of YHWH. It is Moses and Aaron who, as in v. 27, are the plural subject in the second line (“they did not rebel…”). Their faithfulness is intentionally being contrasted with the rebelliousness of the people during the wilderness period. Moses and Aaron faithfully carried out their mission, presenting the words (and signs) given to them by YHWH.

(For a very different parsing and explanation of the Hebrew of the second line, see Dahood, III, p. 60.)

There could be two possible reasons for the allusion here to the plague of darkness. For one thing, its climactic position (as the penultimate plague) makes the mention of it here fitting for the climax of the strophe, anticipating the full scope of the plague-narration that follows. Secondly, there may be an allusion to the Creation account: as with the light (1:3), so with the darkness—YHWH speaks, and it is so. He “sends” the darkness by way of His word/command. Line 1 thus affirms the sureness and faithfulness of YHWH’s word—indicating and implying, once again, His loyalty to the covenant bond with His people (vv. 8-11). Moses and Aaron, as His servants, have similarly been faithful/loyal in carrying out His word.

The remainder of the Psalm will be analyzed in Part 3 of this study.

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).

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 3:13-14, cont.)

John 3:13-14, continued

John 3:14

“And, even as Moshe lifted high [u&ywsen] the snake in the desolate (land), so it is necessary (for) the son of man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”

This “son of man” saying follows upon the one in verse 13 (discussed in the previous study). While it is possible that these sayings once circulated separately, they are clearly connected here, being integral—indeed, central—to the Johannine Discourse of Jesus in chap. 3 (3:1-21). In this case, the initial conjunction (kai/), connecting verse 14 with v. 13, would seem to have a coordinating (and explicative) force (i.e., “and so…”).

The bonding motif, uniting the two sayings, is the idea of ascent. In verse 13 (as in 1:51, cf. the earlier study) the verb used is a)nabai/nw (“step up”), while here in v. 14 it is u(yo/w (“lift/raise high”). Both verbs are important Johannine keywords, used throughout the Gospel, with special theological (and Christological) meaning. In verse 13, the “stepping up” of the son of man (Jesus) is anticipated, and this is expressed with greater clarity in v. 14.

We may isolate two component clauses to the saying, reflecting two distinct lines of tradition:

    • Phrase 1: An illustrative comparison from Scripture, viz., a particular Moses tradition (Numbers 21:4-9, vv. 8-9)
    • Phrase 2: A “son of man” saying rooted in the Gospel Tradition, comparable to the three Passion-prediction sayings by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 pars)

Before turning to the Moses-tradition, let us consider the resemblance of v. 14b to the Synoptic Passion-predictions—all of which utilize the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) as a self-reference by Jesus. The first prediction, in particular, bears a close formal resemblance:

    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to suffer many (thing)s…” (Mk 8:31)
    • “it is necessary [dei=] (for) the son of man to be lifted up high” (v. 14b)

In the Synoptic saying, the chain of infinitives covers the full range of Jesus’ Passion—suffering, death, and resurrection. By contrast, here in John, a single infinitive (of the verb u(yo/w) suffices. The parallel suggests that the verb corresponds similarly to the range of Jesus’ Passion (entailing both his death and resurrection), though it is his impending death that would seem to be primarily in view (cf. below).

The illustration of the bronze snake, set up by Moses on a ‘pole’ (Num 21:8f), certainly is suggestive (visually) of Jesus being placed upon a stake. Thus, it would seem that the primary reference is to Jesus’ crucifixion; the other occurrences of the verb u(yo/w (8:28; 12:32, 34) would tend to confirm this (see esp. the comment in 12:33).

However, the Hebrew word for the pole or staff, upon which the snake was set, is sn@, which specifically refers to a signal-flag or banner—viz., something placed up high (and waved) so that everyone can see it (and rally to it). This brings out additional associations for the symbolism. In the original Moses tradition, the snake served as signal-flag, so that, whenever a person was bitten by a snake, he/she could look to the elevated bronze snake, and thus be healed (lit. “live”). In verse 8, the verb ha*r* (“see”) is used, but in v. 9 it is the verb fb^n`, which can imply a more intense or careful looking (i.e., gazing at, contemplating).

Given the theological importance of the sight/seeing motif in the Gospel of John, it is no surprise that this aspect of the tradition is particularly brought out by the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker). This becomes clear from the expository application that follows in verse 15:

“…(so) that every(one) trusting in him should hold (the) life of the Ages [i.e. eternal life].”

In the Johannine theological idiom, seeing means trusting in Jesus (as the Son of God)—see, in particular, this correlation in the chapter 9 narrative (esp. vv. 35-41). Thus, everyone “seeing” the raised snake corresponds to everyone “trusting in” Jesus.

What significance, if any, is there to the use of the expression “the son of man” here in v. 14, beyond its use as a self-reference by Jesus? If we limit our analysis to the parallel with the Synoptic Passion-prediction (Mk 8:31 par, see above), then there would seem to be a specific association between the expression and the suffering (and death) of Jesus. This, in turn, represents a natural extension of the poetic use of the expression in the Old Testament Scriptures, in which the limitation and weakness of the human condition—including its mortality—tends to be emphasized. Jesus identifies himself with these aspects of the human condition.

However, if we turn to the prior occurrences of the expression in the Gospel of John (1:51; 3:13) there would seem to be a rather different orientation and point of emphasis. As we saw in our studies on each of these references [1:51 and 3:13], there are two key thematic motifs associated with the expression “the son of man”: (1) the heavenly origin of Jesus, and (2) the descent/ascent motif. The principal point in verse 13 is Jesus’ descent to earth from heaven; implicit in the saying is the expectation that, after his descent (stepping down) to earth, he will then ascend (stepping back up) to heaven.

It is in this regard that the verb u(yo/w (“lift up high”) can be understood as signifying something more than Jesus’ death on the cross. Indeed, while the Johannine understanding of Son’s exaltation may begin with his being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, it also includes his resurrection and ultimate return to the Father (in heaven). Jesus’ suffering and death begins a process of exaltation that reaches its climax with his return to heaven. We shall find this same Christological dynamic at work in the remaining “son of man” sayings as well.

Given the parallel between verse 14b and Mark 8:31 par (see above), it would be enough to explain Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man” here on that basis. However, in light of the proximity to the saying in v. 13, we may fairly assume that the expression in verse 14 carries the same theological import as it does in v. 13 (and 1:51). In other words, Jesus’ identity as the “son of man” must be understood in terms of the distinctive Johannine theology. As we begin to expound this in the context of the descent/ascent motif, we can isolate two principal theological strands:

    • Descent: Jesus’ heavenly origin, and his incarnation on earth as a human being (“son of man”)
    • Ascent: A process of exaltation that begins with his death (i.e., suffering of the “son of man”), and culminates with his return to heaven.

*     *     *     *     *     *

The association with Moses in verse 14 raises an interesting (possible) point of interpretation for verse 13. Indeed, it is possible that the Gospel writer (and Jesus as the speaker) intends a specific comparison, between Jesus and Moses, in v. 13. Central to this theory is the idea of Moses’ ascension, as it is found in Jewish tradition. When Jesus declares that “no one has stepped up into heaven”, he may have the ascension of Moses specifically in mind. For traditions regarding an ascent by Moses, see Meeks, pp. 104ff, 110-111, 192-5, 235-6 (cf. Moloney, p. 56f).

Such a comparison is made more plausible by the thematic relationship, between Jesus and Moses, that runs through much of the Gospel. This begins in the Prologue (1:14-18, esp. vv. 17-18), where the comparative superiority of Jesus is established. These verses draw upon various Moses/Exodus traditions, particularly the theophany (YHWH’s revelation to Moses) in chapters 33-34—and especially the notice in 33:23 (cf. Deut 4:12ff). The wording in v. 18 of the Prologue resembles that of 3:13:

    • “no one has seen God at any time”
    • “no one has stepped up into heaven”

If the phrase in 1:18 alludes to Moses (Exod 33:23), then it is plausible that the similar phrase in 3:13 does so as well (particularly given the reference to Moses in v. 14).

References above marked “Meeks” are to Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet-King: Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology (Brill: 1967).
Those marked “Moloney” are to Francis J. Moloney SDB, The Johannine Son of Man, Second Edition (Wipf and Stock: 1978/2007).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 103 (Part 1)

Psalm 103

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsa (v. 1); 4QPsb (vv. 1-6, 9-14, 20-21); 2QPs (vv. 2, 4-6, 8-11)

This Psalm is a carefully structured hymn to YHWH, calling on people to praise and give thanks to God for all that he has done. The focus is both individual and corporate. This is indicated by the parallel call to bless YHWH (using the verb Er^B*) that brackets the Psalm (vv. 1-5, 20-22). The opening blessing comes from the standpoint of the ‘inward parts’ of the individual worshiper (represented by the Psalmist/protagonist). This inward focus is balanced by the cosmic orientation of the concluding blessing—as the Psalmist calls on all created beings everywhere (human and angelic) to praise YHWH.

The main hymn (vv. 6-18) emphasizes the love, compassion and forgiveness of YHWH, and is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 33-34. The division of the hymn into four stanzas (cf. Allen, p. 29f) seems to be most reasonable. The stanzas are each composed of three couplets (vv. 6-8, 9-11, 12-14), with the fourth (concluding) stanza having an expanded form (vv. 15-18). There is a didactic aspect to the hymn, designed to instruct the Community, and to exhort them to remain faithful to the covenant. The Wisdom-elements in the final stanza are part of this emphasis.

The date of the Psalm is difficult to determine. The use of the second person feminine (yk!-) suffix has been thought to indicate Aramaic influence (cf. GKC §91e), and thus to reflect an Exilic (or post-Exilic) date. Similarly, vv. 15-16 have been considered to be dependent upon Isa 40:6-8. Such a time-frame for the Psalm is certainly possible; however, it may be that use of the yk!– suffix is primarily stylistic and poetic, intended for assonance with the imperative yk!r&B* (cf. Allen, p. 26).

Metrically, Psalm 103 consistently follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, with only a few exceptions. The superscription simply attributes the Psalm to David (dw]d*l=, “[belonging] to David”).

The Psalm is relatively well-preserved in two Qumran manuscripts—4QPsb and 2QPs—with only a handful of minor variant readings.

Introduction: Vv. 1-5

Verse 1

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and all my inner parts, His holy name!”

In this opening couplet, the Psalmist calls on everything within him to bless YHWH. The verb Er^B* essentially means “greet with praise/blessing”, usually in a religious (ritual) context, implying a consecrated setting. The precise relationship between this verb and the noun Er#B# (“knee”) is still debated, as kneeling certainly would serve as a gesture (and position) for blessing and worship.

The “middle parts” (i.e., inner parts), <yb!r*q=, are parallel with vp#n#, a noun usually rendered as “soul”, but which specifically denotes the mouth/throat and what passes through it (esp. the breath). This is particularly significant for the Psalmist as a singer; it is naturally that he would begin with the mouth/throat, and his breath, the sound and vibrations which pass through to form music of praise to God. Yet, it is the inward aspect of his life-breath (“soul”) that is being emphasized. His ‘inner parts’ (“all my inner parts”) function as microcosm which will be matched by the macrocosm of all things (outwardly) in creation (vv. 20-22).

The plural form of the noun br#q# occurs only here in the Scriptures; in this context (of a person’s insides or inner-organs), the dual (<y]b^r*q=) is regularly used.

In the second line, the literal expression is “(the) name of His holiness”; for poetic concision, I have translated this conventionally as “His holy name”.

Verse 2

“May you bless, O my soul, YHWH,
and do not forget all His dealings—”

The first line of v. 1 is repeated here, and again serves to conclude the Psalm (v. 22c). By the repetition, emphasis is put on the Psalmist speaking to his soul (and inner parts), exhorting and urging himself—and, by extension, all worshipers—to honor YHWH by remembering the things He has done. The act of remembering here is framed in negative terms (viz., as not forgetting, vb jk^v*). As for what God has done, this is expressed by the noun lWmG+, from a root (lmg) with a relatively wide range of meaning. The basic verbal sense is of something being completed, often in the context of an interaction between people, and frequently emphasizing how one treats or deals with another, either in a positive (beneficial) or negative (harmful, punitive) way. Here the sense of the plural noun is “all the ways YHWH has dealt with His people”.

Verse 3

“the (One) forgiving all your deviations,
the (One) healing all your sicknesses,”

A sequence of participial phrases follows in vv. 3-5, the articular verbal noun (participle) in each instance capturing a definitive attribute of YHWH, a regular action that he performs on behalf of His people, reflecting His nature and character as God, and demonstrating His devotion to the covenant-bond. The formulation is unquestionably influenced by Exodus 34:6-7ff, and expresses here much the same thought as in that famous passage. The idea of YHWH forgiving the “crookedness” (/ou*) of the people is similarly found in Exod 34:7, but using the verb ac*n` (“lift/take [away]”), rather than jl^s* (which does occur in v. 9). The noun /ou* implies a bending away from what is right, but also could be understood in terms of a crooked and twisted (i.e., perverse) character.

The healing of sickness/disease is naturally paired  with the forgiving of sin; in the ancient world, particularly, sickness and ailments of various kinds tended to be viewed as the result of sin (and Divine punishment of sin). When YHWH forgives the people’s sins, the healing of illness and disease follows.

The second person feminine suffix (yk!-, “your”) refers back to the feminine noun vp#n# (“soul”).

Verse 4

“the (One) redeeming your life from (the) Pit,
the (One) encircling you (with) devotion and love,”

The verb la^G` (“redeem”) is generally parallel with jl^s* (“pardon, forgive”) in v. 3. Human crookedness and sickness, if not forgiven and healed, naturally leads to death and destruction, which here is represented by the noun tj^v^. This noun properly refers to a hole (or pit) dug for a grave, and thus also connotes the death and decay which belongs to the grave. Like the verb tj^v*, the noun can be understood in this associated or abstract sense of “destruction, ruin”. The root lag refers to the ancient Near Eastern social context of a relative who (through payment) ‘redeems’ his kin (and/or their property) from servitude, etc; it can also encompass the idea of protecting (or rescuing) someone from danger, etc.

Redemption from the Pit (i.e., death/grave) can be understood in two different ways: (i) rescuing a person when the danger of death (and the grave) threatens, or (ii) actually bringing a dead person out of the grave. The latter instance would imply an afterlife setting (cf. Dahood, III, p. 26).

The verb rf^u* properly means “encircle, surround”, though in the Piel (and Hiphil) it tends to have the more specific (denominative) meaning “crown” (from the noun hr*f*u&). Either translation (“encircling” or “crowning”) would be valid, though I prefer the meaning “encircle” here, as it captures the important aspect of being “surrounded” by YHWH’s love and protection.

The noun ds#j#, which occurs frequently in the Psalms, has been much discussed in these studies. It has the basic meaning “goodness, kindness”, but in the context of the covenant-bond between YHWH and His people, it carries the connotation of “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. The noun <j^r^ denotes a deep love; the plural here could indicate the many acts (and/or feelings) of love/compassion by YHWH, but it could also be understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e. great love/compassion.

Verse 5

“the (One) filling your long (life) with good,
(so that) your youth is renewed like the eagle!”

Having brought the righteous/devoted one’s soul out of the Pit, and then surrounding (or crowning) it with love, YHWH proceeds to give to it long life—but a life that is also perpetually new and youthful, even as it lasts long into the future. This idiomatic language is best understood in an afterlife context, i.e., with God in heaven (see above), though it could conceivably apply to a blessed life on earth as well.

With other commentators (Dahood, III, p. 26; Allen, p. 26), I revocalize (and emend slightly) the MT Ey@d=u# (“your ornament[?]”) to yk!d@u), as suffixed form of the noun dou (du)), meaning “duration”, in the sense of “long life” or “(ever)lasting life”. On the eagle soaring as a motif of the renewal of life and strength (i.e., youthfulness), cf. Isa 40:31.

The Hymn: Verses 6-18

First Stanza: Vv. 6-8
Verse 6

“The (One) making right—(it is) YHWH—
and (true) judgment for (the) oppressed.”

The pattern of substantive participial phrases (vv. 3-5) continues into the hymn, where the Psalmist makes clear again that YHWH is the One doing all these things. The focus in the hymn shifts from the individual soul of the devout/righteous worshiper to the people as a whole. Indeed, the theme of individual salvation (from sin and death) gives way here to a social (corporate) sense of righteousness and justice.

YHWH makes things right, i.e., does what is right (hq*d*x=), for His people—and especially for those who are oppressed. Acting as Judge, he renders right (and beneficial) judgments on their behalf.

Verse 7

“He made known His ways to Moshe,
and to (the) sons of Yisrael His deeds.”

This couplet summarizes what YHWH has done for His people (Israel) during their history, and especially during the formative (Mosaic) period of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai. The making known of His ways to Moses refers primarily to the revelation (of the Torah) at Sinai, but it also alludes to the subsequent revelation to Moses (associated with the restoration/renewal of the covenant) in Exod 33-34 (see below).

Verse 8

“Loving and showing favor (is) YHWH,
long of nose and abundant in devotion.”

This verse is essentially a quotation of the Divine declaration to Moses in Exod 34:6 (see above). While it declares YHWH’s essential character, it also epitomizes His covenant relationship with His people. Four different (but related) attributes are presented here, two in each line. In the first line we have the adjectives <Wjr^ (“loving, compassionate”) and /WNj^, the latter defining YHWH as one who “grants/bestows favors”.

In the second line, the expression “long of nostrils” (or “long of nose”) is an idiom for being slow to anger, i.e., the opposite of being ‘short-tempered’ (“short of nose”); in certain respects the expression is parallel to the adjective <Wjr^ in line 1. The second expression “abundant of devotion” utilizes the familiar noun ds#j# (on which, see verse 4 above). This also is parallel with the second adjective of line 1—both terms referring principally to YHWH’s loyalty and devotion to the covenant-bond.

There is a subtle bit of alliterative wordplay, between the adjective br^ here in v. 8 and the verb byr! in v. 9.

Second Stanza: Vv. 9-11
Verse 9

“Not to the end shall He contend (with us),
and not for ever shall He keep (angry).”

This second stanza of the hymn illustrates and expounds the principle laid out in verse 8, regarding the devotion and loyalty YHWH shows to His people. When He is angry (because of the people’s lack of faithfulness) and “contends” (vb byr!) with them (i.e., punishes them), His anger does not last forever. Once discipline and punishment has been meted out, anger is replaced by mercy and compassion.

Two common temporal expressions are used, each of which conveys the sense of a duration of time lasting far into the future (i.e., everlasting). The first, jx^n#l*, means something like “to (the) utmost”, properly in the sense of “continuing in force” (or “…with [full] strength”); the simple rendering “to (the) end” is used above. The second expression, <l*oul*, occurring many times in the Psalms, means “(in)to (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here as “for ever”.

Verse 10

“Not according to our sins does he act to(ward) us,
and not according to our deviations does he deal with us.”

Though YHWH may punish sin, He does not deal with His people as their sins deserve. Even in His severe judgment against His people, His actions are tempered by mercy.

Verse 10 represents the first divergence from the regular 3-beat (3+3) meter of the Psalm; the longer lines read 4+4.

Verse 11

“But like (the) height of (the) heavens over the earth,
(so) His devotion is strong over (those) fearing Him.”

Through it all, YHWH’s loyalty and devotion (ds#j#) remains firm, strong and mighty, towering over the faithful ones (“[those] fearing Him”). There is a bit of wordplay here, between the verbal noun H^b)G+ (vb hb^G`, “be high”) and the verb rb^G` (“be strong/mighty”). An allusion to a strong tower is likely (cf. Allen, p. 26). The all-encompassing strength and height/breadth of YHWH’s devotion is like the great arching dome of the heavens over the earth. It is spread out over His people, just as the dome of the heavens spreads over the earth.

The remainder of the Psalm will be discussed next week, in Part 2.

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).

August 20: Psalm 78:52-55

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 49-51; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:52-55

Verse 52

“And (thus) He made His people set out like the flock,
and He guided them like the herd in the outback.”

The Judgment-plagues on Egypt (cf. the previous notes on vv. 43-48 and vv. 49-51) led to the exodus of God’s people from Egypt. The verb us^n` (I) in line 1 denotes pulling up the pegs of a tent in order to take down the tent-structure, which is necessary to do before traveling; the verb is often used in the more general sense of setting out (on a journey, etc). The Hiphil stem indicates that YHWH caused this to happen.

The second line alludes, in a summary fashion, to YHWH’s guidance of His people, all throughout the years of journeying that followed the Exodus. The verb gh^n` (I, “lead, guide”) is typically used in the context of herding animals, sometimes in the sense of forcibly driving them on. The image of YHWH as a herder of His people occurs frequently in the Scriptures, most notably in the famous Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). The motif was used in the prior Psalm 77 (v. 20), where Moses and Aaron are specifically mentioned as the intermediaries by which God led/guided the people (like a flock).

This motif in the ancient Exodus tradition is expressed primarily by the first line of the famous couplet in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13), where the verb hj*n` is used (see below).

Verse 53

“And He led them (on) to safety, and they did not fear;
indeed, (those) hostile to them the Sea covered over!”

The verb hj*n` in line 1 is more or less synonymous with gh^n` in v. 52b, having the comparably meaning “lead”; it is the verb used in Exod 15:13a, which has certainly influenced the wording here. The prepositional expression jf^b#l* indicates the goal and purpose (and result) of YHWH’s leading—it is to (l=) a place of safety (jf^B#). The root jfb, with the basic meaning of seeking/finding protection, occurs frequently in the Psalms, and often in the specific context of YHWH’s covenant-obligation to provide protection to those faithful/loyal to Him.

As the second line makes clear, the principal reference is to the event at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), particularly the dramatic moment (in the tradition) when the waters fell back down and covered the Egyptian soldiers, drowning them (14:28; 15:5ff). The statement that the Israelites “did not fear” does not quite square with the historical narrative (14:10ff); it is surely to be understood in the sense that they had no reason or cause to be afraid, since God Himself was protecting them (cf. Moses’ declaration in v. 13).

Verse 54

“And He brought them to (the) boundary of His holiness,
(the) mountain which His right hand acquired.”

The initial journey brought the people to mount Sinai (Exodus 19), understood (according to the Moses traditions, see esp. Exod 3) as the holy dwelling-place of YHWH. In ancient Semitic (Canaanite) religious tradition, any local mountain could serve as the ritual/symbolic manifestation of the Creator El’s cosmic mountain dwelling.

Of course, later Israelite/Judean tradition identified this location principally with the fortified hilltop site of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e., Zion). The reference to YHWH’s vd#q) alludes to this. The noun vd#q) can denote the abstract quality of “holiness”, but also the more concrete idea of something that is holy (spec. a holy place). The Song of the Sea (Exod 15) has the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan principally in view (vv. 13-17). There the Promised Land is referred to as the abode (hw#n`) of YHWH’s holiness (v. 13b), and, already in the ancient Song, the settlement of the Promised Land is closely tied to the symbolic mountain dwelling of YHWH (v. 17). The establishment of a Temple-shrine on Zion is seen as the culmination (and final goal) of the Exodus and settlement of the land. For this same idea in the Deuteronomic tradition, cf. Deut 12:9-11, and also the climactic statement in 1 Kings 8:53 (in the context of the consecration of the Temple).

Again, the wording in this couplet was almost certainly influenced by the Song of the Sea (esp. vv. 13, 17). Interestingly, however, in the Song, it was the people whom YHWH acquired (vb hn`q*) for His own (v. 16), not the mountain; the people were planted on the mountain. The reference to YHWH’s “right hand” alludes to the exercise of His power in enabling the Israelites to defeat their enemies and conquer/settle the land; cf. the context of Exod 15:16-17, and below on v. 55 of the Psalm.

As a side note, the noun lWbG+ (in the first line) means “border, boundary”, and so I have translated it above; however, doubtless the primary reference is to the idea of a mountain as a boundary-marker (cp. the cognate jabal/jebel in Arabic).

Verse 55

“And He drove out nations from (before) their face;
indeed, He made them fall in (the) line(s) of inheritance,
and caused to dwell in their tents
(the) staffs of Yisrael.”

The idea of “driving out” (vb vr^G`) the nations of Canaan from before the “face” of Israel is basic to the ancient tradition (cf. Exod 23:28-31; 33:2; 34:11; Josh 24:12; Judg 2:3; 6:9, etc). It is a general reference to the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan. As indicated in v. 54b (cf. above), it was YHWH’s power that caused the nations to “fall”, allowing Israel to defeat them. The expression hl*j&n~ lb#j# literally means “cord/rope of inheritance”, signifying the boundary (measured/marked out with a rope) of an inherited piece of land. The idea is that the nations were defeated within the boundaries of the land that Israel would inherit; there may also be an allusion to the idea that the measuring out of the territory necessarily involved the defeat of the nations who were being dispossessed.

Once the Canaanite peoples were “driven out”, the tribes of Israel would dwell in their abandoned tents. Here “tents” is a euphemism for the inhabited territory as a whole, referring to the land of Canaan as the territory of the twelve tribes (lit. “staffs,” i.e., staffs of tribal/confederate rule)—that is, the traditional territorial allotments, by which the land would be divided.

August 19: Psalm 78:49-51

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 40-48; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:40-51 (cont.)

Verse 49-50a

“He sent (out) on them (the) burning of His anger—
an outburst even (of) indignation and distress,
a sending (out) of messengers of evil (thing)s—
(so) He leveled out a pathway for His anger!”

The Judgment-plagues on Egypt (cf. on vv. 43-48 in the previous note) are explained here as an expression of YHWH’s anger. This abstract meaning of [a^, reflecting the emotion of anger, was discussed in the earlier note on v. 21 (cf. also vv. 31, 38). The noun [a^, and the idea of YHWH sending out His anger, serves to frame these two couplets, and indicates that the customary verse-division here is incorrect; the first line of v. 50 belongs with v. 49, resulting in a fine symmetric pair of couplets. The “sending” (vb jl^v*) of YHWH’s anger, in a general sense, in the first line, is matched by the specific image of laying out a smooth/level pathway (i.e., for the anger to travel to Egypt).

The inner lines (2-3) follow this same contrast, between a more generic sense of YHWH’s expressions of anger (line 2), and the specific imagery of messengers being sent out on a mission (line 3)—the messengers understood as embodying the angry outbursts (and their effect), or as the means by which the anger is manifest (and the judgment carried out) among human beings. The underlying religious concept is the idea that evils experienced by humans are the result of actions taken by deities (in their anger). However, it is worth noting that in the narrative of the plagues on Egypt (Exod 7-12), there is no mention of a “messenger” (‘angel’) taking part, though an allusion to this is generally assumed in 12:23 with the expression “the (one) destroying”.

There is a sense of progression in the second line, which can be seen as parallel to the traveling of the messengers (in line 3). As YHWH’s anger begins to ‘burn’ (root hrj), the following results:

    • there is an outburst or boiling over (hr*b=u#) of the anger =>
      • an indignant rage (<u^z~) directed against the people =>
        • a time of intense distress (hr*x*) and suffering experienced by the people
Verse 50bc

“He did not hold back their soul from death,
but their life to the pestilence He closed up.”

This couplet alludes rather more clearly to the final plague on Egypt, involving the death of all the firstborn males (Exod 11 & 12). YHWH “closed up” (vb rg~s*) the people to death, implying the giving over of someone into prison, etc. Here, death is explained is being the result of “pestilence” (rb#D#, i.e., disease), though this is not clearly indicated in the Exodus narrative; indeed, the term rb#D# is only used (twice) in reference to the fifth and seventh plagues (9:3, 15). However, throughout the Old Testament, when God’s judgment on humankind leads to death, the spread of disease is often indicated (or implied). In the ancient world, disease was typically understood as the result of an angry deity’s act (of judgment).

Verse 51

“And (so) He struck all (the) firstborn in Egypt,
(the) foremost of their strength in (the) tents of Ham!”

In this concluding couplet, which brings the summary of the Egyptian plagues to a climax (cf. the previous note), a reference to the final plague (death of the firstborn) is at last made explicit. There is a slight difficulty in the second line, as to whether the correct reading is <n`oa (“their vigor”) or the plural form (<yn]oa) of the MT. The LXX (and other ancient versions) translate according to the former, which also tends to be confirmed by the parallel expression in Genesis 49:3, where “my vigor” (yn]oa) occurs. The noun /oa denotes physical strength, but often in the specific sense of vital creative (i.e., sexual) power; thus the translation “vigor” is a decent fit in English. The noun tyv!ar@ literally means “first”; it can indicate the first/foremost place or position, as well as to being first in time, and also can be understood qualitatively as the “best, finest,” etc. All of these aspects of meaning apply to the parallel with rokB= (“firstborn,” in a collective sense)

According to the ancient Israelite genealogies (and ethno-geographic tradition), Egypt (eponymous for the Egyptian people) was a descendant of Ham (Gen 10:6ff). Outside of the genealogies related to the Noachic tradition (including 1 Chron 1:4ff, also 4:40), Ham is mentioned in only three other passages; in all three instances (here and in Ps 105:23, 27; 106:22), the specific association is with the land of Egypt.

August 18: Psalm 78:40-48

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 32-39; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:40-51

Verse 40

“(See) in what (manner) they defied Him in the outback,
(and) caused Him pain in (the) desolate land!”

As in verse 17 and 32, this next section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience against YHWH, using the same verb (hr*m*) as in vv. 8 and 17. The verb denotes an act of disobedience or defiance; it can even carry the more forceful meaning of rebelling against a superior. The verb in the second line is bx^u* I, which in the causative stem means “cause pain” to someone; the pain can either be physical or emotional, in which case the specific connotation may be that of bringing sorrow or grief to another.

In vv. 15/17, the parallel was between the rB*d=m! (“place out back, outback”) and hY`x! (“dry/parched [land]”); here, it is between rB*d=m! and /omyv!y+ (“desolate [land]”). In each case the parallel terms describe the same geographic conditions, i.e., of a harsh desert wilderness. It is a summary reference, of course, to the years of Israel’s journeying (‘wandering’) through the Sinai peninsula, following the Exodus.

Verse 41

“Indeed, they turned back and tested (the) Mighty (One),
and (to the) Holy (One) of Yisrael they gave pain.”

In verse 34, the verb bWv (“turn back, return”) indicated a return to faithfulness by the people; however, this proved to be only temporary, and the people once again returned to faithlessness. This lack of faith/trust in YHWH is expressed by the idea of testing God; the verb hs*n` is used frequently in this context in the Old Testament historical narrative, but occurs only rarely in poetry (it is used elsewhere in the this Psalm, vv. 18, 56; cf. also 95:9; 106:14). For the key references in the historical tradition, cf. Exod 17:2, 7; Num 14:22; Deut 6:16; 33:8. The same verb can be used, in the more positive (and reverse) sense of God testing His people (Exod 16:4; 20:20; Deut 8:2, 16; cp. Psalm 26:2). The rare verb hw`T* (II), occurring only here in the Old Testament, seems to have a meaning comparable to bx^u* in v. 40 (i.e., “give/cause pain”).

On the title “Holy One of Israel” (2 Kings 9:22), which occurs frequently in the book of Isaiah, it also is used in Psalm 71:22; 89:18. For more on the substantive adjective “holy (one)” (vodq*) as Divine title, cf. the recent note on John 6:69.

Verses 42-43

“They did not remember (the power of) His hand,
(the) day when He ransomed them from (the) adversary,
when He set (forth) His signs in Egypt,
and His marvels in (the) plain(s) of ‚o’an.”

Trust in YHWH is secured by remembering (vb rk^z`) the things He has done for His people (vv. 35, 39), particularly with regard to the wonders He performed in freeing them from their servitude in Egypt (vb hd*P*, “ransom”, cp. the use of laG` in v. 35). Those Exodus traditions (narrated in chaps. 7-12) will themselves be ‘remembered’ in the verses that follow. A lack of faith/trust is only possible when the people forget (v. 11)—that is, fail to remember or keep in mind—the wondrous things (“signs” and “marvels”) done by YHWH (i.e., by the power of “His hand”).

On the parallelism of Egypt/Zoan, and the latter as a designation for the Nile Delta, cf. the prior note (on v. 12).

Verse 44

“(For) indeed, He turned their channels to blood,
so (that) their flowing (streams) none could drink.”

The couplet refers to the first ‘plague’ in Egypt (Exod 7:14-25); it emphasizes specifically that even the water of the canals (“channels, shafts”, <yr!a)y+) dug out from the Nile was turned to blood (v. 19).

Verse 45

“He sent (forth) among them a swarm (of flies),
and it ate them, and (also) frogs which ruined them.”

The syntax here fits awkwardly into the meter of the 3-beat (3+3) couplet; grammatically, a 4+2 couplet would be more appropriate. In any case, the verse is a summary reference to the third-fourth and second ‘plagues’ (Exod 8).

Verse 46

“And He gave (over) their produce to the consuming (hopper),
and their labor to the multiplying (locust).”

The terms lys!j* and hB#r=a^ presumably both refer to the locust, perhaps at different stages of its development (cf. 1 Kings 18:37; Joel 1:4; 2:25). However, in Ugaritic the distinction is between the grasshopper and the locust (cf. Dahood, II, p. 244). In any case, the reference here is to the eighth ‘plague’ (Exod 10:1-20).

Verse 47

“He killed (off) their vine(s) with the hail,
and their sycamores with the sleet.”

The first line refers to the seventh ‘plague’ (Exod 9:13-35); however, the second line is rather obscure in this context, particularly since the precise meaning of the noun lm^n`j& (occurring only here) is quite uncertain, though most commentators follow the ancient versions in translating it as “frost” or “sleet”.

Verse 48

“He also shut up their beast(s) to the hail,
and their possessions to the bolts.”

This couplet is parallel to that of v. 47 in referring to the plague of hail. The reference to “(fiery) bolts” (i.e., lightning bolts in the second line here suggests, based on the parallelism, that meaning of the obscure lm^n`j& in v. 47 should be comparable (“[fiery] sleet”?). The translation “possessions” is a literal rendering of hn#q=m! (plur.), referring to the people’s herds of livestock; it is parallel to “beasts” (collective) in the first line, a more general designation for herd animals.

The meter for each of vv. 46-48 is shortened (3+2 couplets).

The remainder of this section will be discussed in the next note.

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).

 

August 16: Psalm 78:23-31

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 17-22; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:17-31 (cont.)

Verse 23

“And (yet) He commanded (the) clouds from above,
and (the) doors of (the) heavens opened (up).”

This couplet follows the angry reaction by YHWH (v. 21) to the people’s faithless response regarding their predicament (i.e., lack of food to eat in the desert), vv. 19-20, 22. The initial w-conjunction could indicate that God’s opening of the heavens is an expression of His anger (“and so…”), or that He fulfilled the people’s request in spite of it (“and yet…”); the latter would seem to be a better fit.

The noun qj^v^, which almost always occurs in the plural, refers to clouds of dust or other fine particles; it could be rendered “vapors” here. The idiom “doors/gates [yt@l=D^] of the heavens” is a bit unusual; somewhat more common is the idea of windows in the heavens (cf. Gen 7:11), through which the rain comes down. Again, YHWH’s control over the waters is alluded to here, even though the motif of rain is figurative in this instance—as God ‘rains down’ bread and meat, instead of water, from heaven (v. 24; Exod 16:4).

Verse 24

“And He rained down upon them man(na) to eat,
even grain of (the) heavens He gave to them.”

This couplet essentially paraphrases Exod 16:4, and the following description in vv. 13ff. In Exodus, the expression is “bread [<j#l#] from the heavens”, while here it is “grain [/g`D*] of (the) heavens” (however <j#l# [‘bread”] is used in v. 25). The use of <j#l# is more in keeping with the tradition (Ps 105:40; Neh 9:15), followed in the Johannine Bread of Life Discourse by Jesus (Jn 6:31ff).

Verse 25

“Bread of (the) mighty (one)s did man eat—
He sent to them provision to (the) full!”

Since this bread came down from heaven, it has a heavenly nature and origin; the implication here is that it is food that the heavenly beings would eat. The plural substantive adjective <yr!yB!a^ is more or less synonymous with <yh!ýa$—both have the basic meaning “mighty ones”, and refer to Divine/heavenly beings. The singular ryb!a* is used as a Divine title for El-YHWH in Gen 49:24; Psalm 132:2, 5; Isa 1:24; 49:26; 60:16. In other passages, the plural adjective refers to powerful animals (bulls, oxen), or to human leaders/warriors by way of an animal-epithet. The idea that this heavenly food conveys life to Divine beings is certainly of significance for the use of the tradition in the Bread of Life Discourse (cf. above). This surely was a special privilege—for human beings to eat the food of the gods (or angels)!

Not surprisingly, the heavenly source of this food meant that it gave nourishment and provision (hd*yx@) in a way that was completely and fully satisfying (cf. below on v. 29).

Verse 26

“He made the front-wind set out in the heavens,
and drove forth (the) right-hand wind by His power.”

YHWH’s activity in causing the bread and meat to ‘rain down’ emphasizes still further His control over the skies and all related atmospheric phenomena (wind, etc). On the role of the wind in bringing forth the meat from heaven—i.e., driving the quail down to earth—see Num 11:31. The term <yd!q*, denoting a front or forward position, directionally refers to the east; thus the “front wind” is the east-wind. Similarly, the “right-hand” (/m*yT@) wind is the south-wind.

Dahood (II, p. 242, and elsewhere) notes that the wide semantic-range of the preposition B= includes “from”, especially in poetry where the archaic usage tends to follow that of the Canaanite (Ugaritic) poetic style. Thus <y]m*V*B^ could be translated “from the heavens”, as befits the context.

Verse 27

“And He rained down upon them meat like dust,
and feathered wing(s) like (the) seas’ whirling (sand)!”

The meat (“flesh,” ra@v=) that God “rained down” on the people was in the form of birds—spec. quail (according to Exod16:13ff; Num 11:31ff); here the visual image is of the flurry of feathers ([ou) and wings ([n`K*). A mass of birds comes down like a great dust-cloud, or like the swirling sands of the seashore; the motif of sand, in particular, is used to indicate a vast number (Gen 22:17, etc).

Metrically, this is a longer (4-beat, 4+4) couplet, prompted some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 122) to emend the text for rhythmic consistency.

Verse 28

“And He made (it) fall in the midst of (the) camp-circle,
(and) surrounding (all) their dwellings.”

The visual image here is two-fold: (a) the birds fall within the bounds of the Israelite encampment (hn#j&m^), traditionally assumed to be in an arc or circle (derivation from the root hn`j*); and (b) within the camp they fall all around the individual tents. Thus the ground of the entire camp is practically covered with birds.

The meter of this couplet, too, is slightly irregular (3+2).

Verse 29

“And (so) they ate, and were filled up (full)y;
even their (very) desire He made come to them!”

On the satisfying abundance of the bread and meat that came down, cf. Exod 16:13ff; Num 11:32ff. The very abundance ultimately served as a kind of punishment for the faithlessness of the people, cf. Num 11:4, 19-20, 34.

Verse 30

“(Yet) they were not estranged from their desire,
(even while) their food (was) still in their mouths.”

From these lines, it is clear that the noun hw`a&T^ (“longing, desire”) has a negative connotation that goes beyond the natural longing for food; it alludes also to the pervasive faithlessness of the people. Moreover, the sense is of fleshly orientation that values satisfying one’s appetite, through greedy consumption, rather than obedience to God. On the basis for this idea in the tradition, cf. Num 11:33, where it is indicated that Divine judgment (in the form of disease/plague) struck the people while the meat was still in their mouth.

Verse 31

“And the anger of (the) Mightiest came up against them,
and He slew (many) of (their) fattest—
indeed, (the) choice (one)s of Yisrael He cut down!”

The motif of YHWH’s rising anger ([a^), introduced in v. 21 (cf. the previous note), is completed here; on the judgment that kills off (with disease) many of the people, cf. Num 11:33ff. Here, the emphasis on the people’s sinful craving continues, by identifying the slain as among the “fattest” ones—i.e., sturdiest and most vigorous. The implication is that chief among the slain are those most well-fed and with the largest appetite. Clearly, the tradition is being interpreted here from a moralistic standpoint, which is in keeping with the didactic purpose and wisdom-orientation of the Psalm.

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

 

August 15: Psalm 78:17-22

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 9-16; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:17-31

Verse 17

“And (yet) they continued still to sin against Him,
to defy (the) Most High (there) in the dry land.”

The theme of the people’s faithless disobedience, betraying the covenant with YHWH, was introduced in verse 8, and then becomes a key refrain in each of the main sections of the Psalm, emphasizing a repeated and continual pattern of disobedience. This is particularly indicated by the combination of the verb [s^y` (“add [to something]”, often in the sense of “repeat, do again”) with the adverb dou (indicating a repetition or return to something).

The people’s lack of trust, and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH, is expressed here through two different idioms: (1) sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH, and (2) stubbornly defying (vb hr*m*) Him. The verb hr*m* can carry the more forceful (and dramatic) connotation of rebelling against someone, provoking an intense anger.

In verse 15, the locative noun rB*d=m! was used; it is typically translated “wilderness” or “desert”, but properly means something like “place out back” (i.e., “outback”). Here, the specific idea of a desert region is intended, through the use of hY`x! (“dry/parched [land]”).

Verse 18

“And they tested (the) Mighty (One) in their heart,
(so as) to request something to eat for their throat.”

This couplet, which expounds the statement in v. 17, refers in a comprehensive way to the various traditions regarding the people’s grumbling over the lack of food and water in the desert (e.g., Exod 16:3; Num 11:4; 20:3; 21:5). On the motif of the people “testing” (vb hs*n`) God in their heart, cf. Psalm 106:14; also 95:9; Deut 6:16; and the reference by Paul in 1 Cor 10:9. This “testing” reflects a lack of faith and trust in YHWH.

The noun vp#n# is difficult to translate in the second line. Usually rendered “soul”, which makes a fine parallel here with “heart”, it can sometimes refer to a person’s desire or appetite (i.e., longing of the soul). On other rare occasions (and always in poetry), vp#n# has the more concrete (and physiological) meaning of “throat”. Here the specific juxtaposition of “heart” (one’s inward intent and desire) and “throat” (i.e., the physical longing of the body for something to eat) seems most appropriate.

Verse 19

“And they spoke out
against (the) Mightiest and said:
‘Is the Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread
(here) in the outback?'”

The meter and structure of this verse is irregular and uneven, prompting Kraus (p. 121) to recommend eliminating the initial two words; admittedly, this would instantly produce a proper 3-beat (3+3) couplet, consistent with the metrical pattern of the Psalm:

“And they said: ‘Is (the) Mighty (One) able
to arrange a table-spread in the outback?'”

However, this also eliminates the clever bit of wordplay that frames the verse, by which the Psalmist may be playing on the different meanings of the two rbd roots—one meaning “speak”, and the other denoting “be in back”. As noted above, the locative noun rB*d=m!, though typically translated “wilderness” (or “desert”), properly means something like “place out back”. I have tried to capture this wordplay in English: i.e., the people “spoke out” (against God) regarding their being “in the outback”.

Verse 20

“‘See, He did strike (the) rock,
and (the) waters flowed,
and torrents poured down;
but is He also able to give bread,
or provide meat for His people?'”

The people’s expression of faithless questioning continues here from v. 19. It indicates that they saw the dramatic scene of copious water-streams pouring out of the rock, and understood its significance (as a miraculous act by YHWH); yet they could still doubt whether God was also (<g~) able to provide bread and meat for them to eat.

Verse 21

“So then—
(when) YHWH heard this, He boiled over,
and fire blazed (up) against Ya’aqob,
yes, even His anger came up against Yisrael;”

Structurally, this verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, to which is added an initial beat for dramatic effect. YHWH’s initial reaction to hearing the people’s skeptical questioning was to “boil over” (or cross over, be overcome, vb rb^u*) with anger. This causes a “fire” to ignite and ‘blaze’ (vb qc^n`) within Him; the fire (va@) is specifically identified emotionally with His anger, rising up (vb hl*u*) against His people. The noun [a^ typically heightens this sort of anthropomorphic imagery, by including the concrete (and vivid) motif of a person’s nostrils burning or flaring (i.e., like the snorting of an angry bull). More abstractly, the sense can be of the burning of a person’s face (as a sign of his anger). Here, however, it is the specific emotion of anger, expressed by YHWH, that best reflects the meaning of [a^.

For the corresponding reference in the tradition to this reaction by YHWH, cf. Numbers 11:1ff, where it seems that a real (physical) fire breaks out in the camp—i.e., the internal fire (of YHWH’s anger) is expressed naturalistically through an actual, destructive fire.

Verse 22

“because they did not set (their heart) firmly on (the) Mightiest,
and did not put (their) trust in His saving (power)!”

The parallel verbs /m^a* (Hiphil stem) and jf^b* both express the idea of having faith/trust in someone. The latter specifically refers to seeking refuge or protection, and is used frequently in the Psalms (46 out of 120 OT occurrences). The former verb (/m^a*) in the Hiphil (causative) stem denotes making something firm, or causing it to stand firm, etc; it is often used in the more abstract religious-ethical sense of having faith or trust—indicating that one’s heart is firm.

The remainder of this section (vv. 23-31) will be discussed in the next note.

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

August 14: Psalm 78:9-16

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. For the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:9-16

Verse 9

“(The) sons of Eprayim, armed (and) shooting (the) bow,
turned about on (the) day of coming near (for battle).”

In the Prophetic oracles and writings, “Ephraim” serves as a designation for the Northern tribes (and the Northern kingdom) as a whole, Ephraim being the most prominent of the northern tribes; cf. especially the usage in Hosea and Isaiah (Hos 4:17; 5:3ff; 6:4; 7:1; Isa 7:2ff, 17; 9:9; 11:13; 17:3, etc). The focus in the Psalm thus is on the faithlessness of the Northern tribes; cf. the discussion in the introduction. This faithlessness is depicted here in military terms—of the turning about (vb Ep^h*, i.e. turning back) by soldiers in the time of battle. When they should have “come near” (root brq I) to fight, they ‘turned tail’ and ran away.

Dahood (II, p. 239), along with other commentators, is doubtless correct in discerning a bit of wordplay between the roots hmr I, i.e., “casting/shooting (with the bow)”, and hmr II (“deceive, act treacherously”). The Israelite soldiers who were supposed to shoot with the bow (in battle), instead were faithless and betrayed the cause. It is not at all clear that a particular historical incident is intended; the couplet may simply refer, in a roundabout way, to the treachery of the Northern tribes, and allude to their defeat/conquest.

Many commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 121) would view verse 9 as a secondary addition to the Psalm, in light of the way that it seems to disrupt the flow between vv. 8 and 10. On the other hand, it is possible that this opening reference to the Northern kingdom (Ephraim) is meant to balance the later reference in vv. 67ff, thus framing thematically the body of the Psalm.

Verse 10

“They did not guard the bond of (the) Mightiest,
and in His Instruction they refused to walk.”

On the theory that originally v. 10 followed v. 8 (cf. above), the couplet here refers to the faithless generation of the Exodus, which died out in the desert because of their rebelliousness and unwillingness to keep faith with YHWH. However, in the immediate context of v. 9, the primary focus is on the ‘treachery’ of the Northern kingdom by which they broke faith with God.

The noun tyr!B= denotes a binding agreement; it is typically translated “covenant”, and this is fine, but I think it preferable to preserve the fundamental meaning of the word in translation—here “bond” is a poetic shorthand for “binding agreement”. The “Instruction” (hr*oT) refers, as is typical, to the regulations and commands of the Torah (esp. the “Ten Words”), which represent the terms of the binding agreement between YHWH and His people. The people of Israel are obligated to fulfill these terms, otherwise they are in violation of the agreement. By not “walking” in the Instruction, they do not guard (vb rm^v*, i.e., keep) the covenant. This is traditional religious-ethical language, used throughout the Old Testament, and is found regularly in the Psalms; it also reflects the strong Wisdom-component that is present in many Psalms.

Verse 11

“And they forgot His dealings (with them),
and His wonders that He caused them to see.”

The root llu (I) generally denotes the way that one person deals with another; here the plural noun refers to YHWH’s dealings with His people (and on their behalf). In particular, the reference is to the “wonderful (thing)s” (verbal noun, from al^P*), i.e., “wonders”, that He did for them; the principal point of reference, as the following verses make clear, is to the miracle-traditions surrounding the Exodus. The only way that the people could abandon the covenant with YHWH is if they completely “forgot about” the miraculous things He had done for them in the past.

Verse 12

“In front of their fathers He did wonder(s),
in (the) land of Egypt, (the) plain(s) of ‚o’an.”

The people of Israel saw these wonders, performed by YHWH right “in front of” (dg#n#) of them. The miracles of the Exodus period are meant, as the geographic reference in the second line makes clear. The Hebrew /u^x) (‚œ±an) is a transliteration of the Egyptian place-name Dja±net, referring to the district of Tanis (in the Nile Delta), capital of 21st-22nd Dynasties. In the Israelite Kingdom period (11th-8th centuries), the Nile Delta region would have been referred to, generally, this way. In earlier times (of the Exodus and prior centuries), the capital city in the region would have been Avaris (Tell ed-Dab±a) or Pi-Rameses (Qantir, probably). The Israelite ancestors who migrated to Egypt (along with many other Semitic migrants) dwelt and worked in the Delta, being heavily concentrated there; Old Testament tradition identifies the original settlement region as the “land of Goshen” (Gen 45:18, etc), i.e., the fertile area around the Wadi ˆumilât.

Verse 13

“He split the Sea and made them cross over,
and He made stand (the) waters as a pile.”

While YHWH performed many wonders in Egypt, in connection with the Exodus (as narrated in Exod 7-12), the foremost of these was the event at the Sea of Reeds (chaps. 14-15), when YHWH “split apart” (vb uq^B) the waters (14:16, 21), causing them to pile up on either side (as if behind a dam). The rare noun dn@ is almost always used in this context—i.e., for the piling up of dammed waters (Exod 15:8; Josh 3:13, 16; Psalm 33:7).

Verse 14

“And He (also) led them by the cloud (in the) daytime,
and all (through) the night by (the) light of fire.”

This is an obvious reference to the tradition in Exod 13:21f; 14:19, 24; 33:9-10; Num 14:14; Neh 9:12, 19, etc. The “wonders” performed by YHWH at the time of the Exodus include the guidance and protection given to the people during their journeys.

Verse 15

“He split apart (the) rock in the outback,
and let (them) drink abundantly (from the) depths.”

This is a reference to the famous episode narrated in Numbers 20:1-13. The fact that a singular rock (or rocky crag, ul^s#) is always mentioned, would tend to support the observation by Dahood (II, p. 240) that MT <yr!x% here represents another example of the familiar scribal confusion between a singular noun + enclitic <– suffix and a plural form. I also follow Dahood, generally, in treating the preformative –K (of MT tomh)t=K!) as having emphatic force. In agreement with other commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 119; Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 285), it seems best to understand the adjective hB*r^ (“many, much, abundant”) in an adverbial sense (i.e., “abundantly).

Verse 16

“Indeed, He brought out flowing (water)s from (the) cleft,
and made waters come down like the river-streams.”

This verse, the closing couplet of the section, builds upon the previous description in v. 15, further emphasizing (and dramatizing) the abundant water that YHWH wondrously brought forth out of the rock. This poetic emphasis probably alludes to the idea of YHWH’s control over the waters, a cosmological theme brought out in a number of Psalms; see, for example, in the prior Psalm 77 (vv. 16-20), discussed in a recent study. Cf. also my earlier article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

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 “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
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).