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).

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).

 

The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, we explored how the central theme of Israel as the “people of God” was established in the early chapters of the book of Exodus—especially in the scene of the theophany (manifestation of God) to Moses in chapter 3. There, the Creator (°E~l) revealed and declared His name as Yahweh (YHWH/hwhy, the tetragrammaton name), and affirmed His ancient binding agreement (covenant) with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel. This effectively defines the special place of Israel a people belonging to YHWH, His own chosen people (cf. verses 7-15).

The importance of the theme of the Israelites as God’s people continues throughout the book of Exodus—indeed, it is an idea that binds the narrative, and the message of the book, together. It will be helpful to explore this literary dynamic by looking at how the theme is presented and developed at several key points of the narrative.

The Plagues and Israel’s Freedom (Exodus 4:19-13:16)

A major section of the book of Exodus narrates the great drama of the plagues on Egypt, and how this divine judgment worked to secure Israel’s freedom and release from bondage. In directing Moses on his return to Egypt, YHWH orders him to go before the Pharaoh demanding the release of the people (4:21-23). The wording of the command Moses is to give to Pharaoh builds upon the central theme of Israel as God’s people (cf. above), but with the added motif of a filial relation—that of a father to his son:

“And you shall say (this) to Pharaoh: ‘So says YHWH: Yisrael (is) my first(born) son. And I say to you, you must send out my son and he will serve me; and (if) you refuse to send him out, (then) see! I (will be) slaying your first(born) son.'” (vv. 22-23)

Israel is not only God’s people, but also, figuratively and collectively, His firstborn (rokB=) son. The idea of Israel as God’s son, or child, is found at a number of points in Old Testament tradition (e.g., Deut 32:5-6, 18-20; Hos 1:10; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 45:11; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:8 [9]). The specific designation of Israel as God’s firstborn is less common, though it is implied in certain passages—cf. Jer 2:3; 3:19; 31:8 [9], 19 [20]. It is also implicit in the religious concept of the sacredness of the firstborn—as belonging specially to God—and of the principle that Israel is the first, the chosen one, among all the nations (who also could be thought of as His “sons”, but not the “firstborn”). On the consecration of the firstborn (like the firstfruits of the harvest), cf. Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:40-46ff; 8:16-18; 18:15-17; Deut 12:6, 17; 14:23; 15:19; 21:15-17. On the choosing of Israel among all the other nations, see Deut 14:1-2 (among numerous other passages).

Israel as the firstborn son is particularly important in terms of the Exodus narrative. The entire Plague-narrative cycle is rooted in the climactic moment of the death of the firstborn in Egypt, and this is established already here at the beginning of the narrative in 4:22-23. We can see how carefully the narrative has been constructed, around this key theme, by considering the place of the peculiar episode that follows in 4:24-26. Whatever we make of it in terms of historical tradition (cf. my discussion in the upcoming daily note), its thematic importance is clear enough; note the following points:

    • The episode involves Moses’ firstborn son
    • YHWH is about to kill the firstborn son
    • The blood (from circumcision) protects the child from death
    • The importance of the circumcision ritual

All of these motifs prefigure, and are symbolic of, the events surrounding the Passover and the death of the firstborn of Egypt. It may even be said that this thematic juxtaposition of firstborn-circumcision frames the entire narrative (cf. Sarna, p. 24-5):

    • Israel as God’s firstborn son (4:22-23)
      • Circumcision of Moses’ firstborn, which protects him from death (4:24-26)
        • The Plague-narrative—death of the Egyptian firstborn, and freedom for Israel
      • Circumcision as the mark of belonging to Israel, God’s firstborn (12:43-49)
    • Consecration of the firstborn as belonging to God (13:1, 11-15)

When Moses delivers the message to Pharaoh, given to him by YHWH (in 4:21-23, cf. above), it is stated specifically in terms of Israel as God’s people:

“So says YHWH, (the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael: Send out my people [i.e. let them go]…!” (5:1)

This same directive runs like a refrain through the Plague-cycle (7:16; 8:1, 20f; 9:1, 13; 10:3f, etc), accompanied by the conditional statement to the effect that, if Pharaoh does not send away the Israelites, the people of Egypt will be struck by this terrible plague. The formula in 5:1 repeats the key theme from the chapter 3 theophany—that YHWH, the Creator and true God, is the God of Israel, which means that they are his special people and under his protection (according to the covenant-bond). This is explained more clearly in the word of YHWH that comes to Moses in 6:2-9ff. All of the key points from chapter 3 are stated more succinctly here:

    • YHWH is to be identified with the Creator °E~l (the “Mighty [One]”), by which name the ancestors of Israel worshiped Him
    • He is the same “Mighty One” (God) who established the covenant-bond with Abraham and his descendants
    • The covenant bond included the promise that Abraham’s descendants would come to possess the land of Canaan
    • This promise, along with the divine protection (for Israel) that is part of the covenant bond, means that YHWH must, and will, deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt

All of this is further summarized forcefully in the declaration by YHWH in verse 6:

“I (am) YHWH, and I will bring you out from under (the heavy load)s (you) bear (from the) Egyptians, and I will snatch you away from (your) service (to) them, and I will redeem you with an arm stretched out and with great (act)s of judgment.”

The affirmation of the covenant follows in vv. 7-8:

“And I will take you to (be the) people for me, and I will be t(he) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God] for you…
And I will bring you (in)to the land, of which I lifted my hand [i.e. in an oath] to give it to Abraham, to Yiƒµaq, and to Ya’aqob, and I will give it to you (as a territorial) possession. (For) I (am) YHWH.”

The Passover (chapter 12)

The release of the Israelites is effectively achieved on the night of the “Passover” celebration, according to the tradition recorded in chapter 12. On that very night, the firstborn of Egypt were slain (by God), while the people of Israel, the firstborn of YHWH, were protected and saved from death. This salvation-aspect is summarized in verses 11-13, which appears to function as an exposition of the meaning of the term js^P# (pesaµ): “it (is) a pesaµ to YHWH” (v. 11). From an objective linguistic and etymological standpoint, the precise meaning of jsp remains uncertain and much debated; however, the narrative would seem to adopt the meaning “pass over”, as a reference to the Messenger of Death “passing over” the homes of the Israelites to strike only the Egyptians. Some commentators would define the fundamental meaning as “protect”, according to the usage, for example, in Isaiah 31:5, as well as other factors; this meaning would also suit the context of the narrative. At the earliest level of the tradition, based on the wording in verse 11, it would seem that js^P# was a technical religious term—that is, a specific kind of offering (perhaps made in gratitude of God for his protection)—the exact meaning of which was lost for later generations, replaced almost completely by its association with the Exodus tradition.

Indeed, the importance of the Passover celebration is indicated by its central place in the religious identity of Israel as God’s people. This is abundantly clear from the detail of the instructions given, regarding the celebration of the ritual, in verses 14-20, 24-27, 43ff (cf. also 13:4ff), and it remains a fundamental component of the religious and cultural identity for Israelites and Jews even today. Perhaps no ritual or religious practice emphasizes the communal aspect—the common bond of a people—the way that the Passover celebration does. From the standpoint of the narrative, the night of the Passover marks the very moment when Israel was freed from bondage in Egypt (vv. 41, 51), emerging as people with a new religious identity and consciousness.

The Event at the Sea (chapters 14-15)

The freedom of the people was not complete until their escape from the Egyptian forces, made possible by the ‘event at the Sea’. According to the accounts—both prose and poetic—in chapters 14-15, along with other notices recorded in Old Testament tradition, this involved a nature-miracle performed by YHWH, by which a great wind blew back the waters of the “Reed Sea”, allowing (or making it easier) for the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians followed in pursuit, the wind blew the waters back to their original position, thus drowning the Egyptian soldiers and chariotry.

Though it is not so stated in the narrative, this event must be understood in terms of the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel, which involves protection for the people (from their enemies, etc) to be provided by God. It is in the poetic account of 15:1-18, the so-called “Song of the Sea” (sometimes referred to also as the “Song of Moses”), that this covenant-aspect comes more clearly into view, along with the idea of Israel as God’s people. I have discussed the Song in considerable detail in a recent set of daily notes, and will not repeat that here. The first half of the Song (vv. 1-11) deals with the event at the Sea, while the second half (vv. 12-18) describes the effect, or result, of the event—on both the people of Israel and the nations of Canaan. Clearly, the settlement of Israel in the land of Canaan is in view, according to the covenant promise regarding the land (cf. above, on 6:6-8). Just as Israel “crossed over” (vb rb^u*) the Sea to freedom, so, in a similar (symbolic) fashion, will the people “cross over” the Jordan river into the promised land (note the obvious parallel in Joshua 3, along with the apparent allusions to the second half of the Song in Josh 2:9-11).

Here is how this is presented in the refrain of vv. 15-16 of the Song:

“Until your people passed over, YHWH,
until your people whom you created passed over.” (v. 16b)

The temporal preposition (du^, “until”) has a dual meaning: (1) in the context of the miraculous event at the Sea, it refers to the time during which the people crossed, when the power of God kept the Egyptians from being able to act; (2) in the immediate context of the second half of the Song, it refers to the fear and terror that similarly stymies the rulers of Canaan (vv. 15-16a), allowing for the Israelites to enter and settle/conquer the land. On the meaning of the verb hn`q* in the second line, cf. my recent note on vv. 15-16.

The concluding lines of the Song (vv. 17-18, also discussed in a recent note) emphasize even further the special place Israel holds as God’s people. They are to take root in a sacred place where God Himself will dwell—a reference, it would seem, to the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem, but more fundamentally to the core idea of God dwelling among His people. This theme is developed extensively in the second half of the book of Exodus, focusing particularly on the design and construction of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle). The book closes with the marvelous and beautiful image of the presence of YHWH, in the form of a great theophanous cloud, residing at the Tent-shrine, and in the midst of the Israelite encampment, all throughout their journeys to the promised land (40:34-38).

References above marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).

November 9: Revelation 16:1-11

Revelation 16:1-11

The actual cycle of seven bowl-visions occurs in chapter 16, the drama of the scene having been built up in the prior two chapters, especially the vision in chap. 15. The seven Messengers (Angels) hold seven “plagues” (plhgai/)—disasters sent by God which are to “strike” the earth. The motif of the bowls (“offering-dishes”, fia/lai) is related to the image of wine poured out on the earth as a symbol of Judgment (cf. the previous note). The two sets of images are combined, so that the “plagues” are poured out of the dishes; the historical tradition of the Egyptian Plagues (Exodus 7-12) very much influences the imagery of these visions.

The earlier trumpet-cycle of visions also depicted the great Judgment upon the earth; however, in that cycle, the focus was on the wickedness of humankind generally, while here the bowl-visions more properly emphasize the judgment of the nations. In particular, the first five visions are centered on the domain and influence of the Sea-creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) from chapter 13, as was the vision in 14:9-11. Note the thematic structure of the first four visions:

    • Vision 1: A painful mark upon all human beings who received the “mark” of the Sea-creature
      • Vision 2: Judgment upon the Sea—turned to blood
      • Vision 3: Judgment upon the Sea (its waters) as they exist on/in the earth—also turned to blood
    • Vision 4: A burning of all human beings (i.e. those who ‘belong’ to the Sea-creature)

The outer visions 1 and 4 target humankind as those belonging to the Sea-creature, while the inner visions 2 and 3 directly target the Sea itself.

Verse 1

“And I heard a great voice out of the shrine saying to the seven Messengers: ‘Lead (yourselves) under [i.e. go away] and pour out onto the earth the seven (thing)s of the impulse of God (that are) to strike!'” (v. 1)

As the Messengers, in these visions of chaps. 15-16, repeatedly come out of the heavenly sanctuary (nao/$), now a “great voice” is heard (also in verse 17). Since no other Messenger is mentioned, presumably it is God Himself now who speaks, giving the command for the Judgment to begin. In terms of the action that is involved, “pouring out”, this continues the wine motif, confirmed by the use again of the noun qumo/$ (“impulse”) associating the wine-cup/bowl with the anger of God and His desire to punish wickedness. It is this divine anger that is “poured out” upon humankind in the Judgment; for more on the traditional nature of this idiom, cf. its use in the Prophets (Psalm 69:24; Jer 7:20; 10:25; Ezek 7:8; Zeph 3:8; Koester, p. 646), in addition to Joel 3:13ff and the previously cited wine references (note on 14:9-13).

Verse 2: First Vision

“And the first (Messenger) went from (there) and poured out his offering-dish onto the earth—and there came to be a bad and evil wound (left) upon (all) the men holding the engraved (mark) of the wild animal and kissing toward [i.e. worshiping] its image.” (v. 2)

As in the vision of 14:9ff, the first bowl-vision (and first “plague”) is directed at all people who worship the Sea-creature (chap. 13) and who receive its engraved ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) indicating that they belong to it. The punishment matches the sin—they receive a painful ‘mark’ (e%lko$) on their body. The noun e%lko$ indicates a wound or cut, possibly related to the verb e%lkw, signifying a pulling or tearing of the skin, etc. It can refer specifically to a ‘wound’ that is the result of disease or illness—a festering sore, ulcer, abcess, etc. While this alludes to the plague in Exodus 9:8-12 (e%lko$ being used in the LXX, v. 9), it is the parallel with the “mark” of the Sea-creature that is especially being emphasized.

Verses 3-7: Second and Third Visions

“And the second (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the sea—and it came to be blood, (as of) a dead (person), and every soul of life [i.e. living soul] died off, (all) the (thing)s in the sea. And the third (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish onto the rivers and the fountains of waters—and it (also) came to be blood (there). And I heard the Messenger of the waters saying: ‘Just are you, the (One) being and the (One who) was, the right/pure (One), that you judged these (thing)s, (in) that [i.e. because] they poured out the blood of holy (one)s and foretellers [i.e. prophets]—and (now) you have given them blood to drink, (for) they are brought (into the balance)!’ And I heard the place of slaughter [i.e. altar] saying (in return): ‘Yes, Lord God the All-mighty, true and just are your judgments!'” (vv. 3-7)

Even as human beings were given a painful wound for their worship of the Sea-creature, so the very Sea itself is given a similar ‘wound’ and turned into blood—the thick, congealed blood of a “dead person”. As a result, all living beings in the sea die off. While this vision refers to a plague upon the natural world (echoing the plague on the Nile, etc, in Exodus 7:14-21), it is clear that the symbolism properly applies to the wickedness of the human government of the world—in other words, the earth as the domain of the Sea-creature. I would interpret the two visions here as follows:

    • Vision 2: The Sea—the dark, chaotic realm of evil, out of which the Sea-creature rises
    • Vision 3: The rivers and fountains = the presence of the Sea (waters) on/in the Earth, i.e. the domain of the Earth-creature, who acts on behalf of the Sea-creature

The reference to the “Messenger of the waters” is parallel to the Messenger controlling the fire in 14:18—both reflect the ancient cosmological idea that the natural features and phenomena of the world are controlled by divine/heavenly beings, and, indeed, the visions of Revelation make considerable use of this idea within the drama of the narrative. However, the message of this Angel refers not to the “waters” as a natural feature, but as a symbolic manifestation of the evil power of the “Sea” in its functioning power on earth. According to the visionary logic of the scenes in chapter 13, this refers to the domain of the Earth-creature who works on behalf of the Sea-creature. It is said that “they” poured out the blood of holy ones and prophets, meaning that they persecuted and killed the people of God—both the earlier ones of Israel, and, subsequently, believers in Christ (cf. Matt 23:31, 37 par). The end-time persecution in the period of distress is primarily in view (7:14; chaps. 12-13). Who are “they”? The worldly rulers and powers—specifically the Roman imperial government and its local/regional vassals, though it could just as well apply to any wicked earthly government throughout history. As in the first vision, the punishment here fits the sin: they poured out blood, and now blood has been poured out for them to drink. This is also expressed by the adjective a&cio$, rather difficult to render in English; I have tried to preserve the fundamental meaning of the idiom, that of something brought into balance, i.e. weighed out so that its value and worth is determined. Here it is the scales of justice that are in view, the wickedness of human beings weighed out, balanced by a proper and proportionate punishment.

In response to the Angel’s message, the altar in heaven speaks. Again I translate the word qusiasth/rion literally as “place of (ritual) slaughter”, even though the altar in the book of Revelation is generally understood to be the altar of incense (not animal sacrifice) that resides in the Temple sanctuary. However, in the fifth seal-vision (6:9ff), the idea of sacrifice is implied by the presence underneath the altar of the souls (of believers) who have been slain, and the emphasis here is also on believers being put to death by the wicked. Those souls in the seal-vision speak out in a loud voice, and the response from the altar here likely is meant to echo the earlier scene.

Verses 8-9: Fourth Vision

“And the fourth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the sun—and it was given to it to burn the men (on earth) in fire. And the men were burned (with) a great burning, and (yet) they insulted the name of God, the (One) holding e)cousi/a [i.e. power/authority] over these (thing)s that strike (them), and they did not change (their) mind to give Him honor.” (vv. 8-9)

To the realms of Earth (i.e. the inhabited world of humankind) and Sea (the dark, turbulent world of evil) is now added that of the Sun. Again, on the surface this refers to a feature of the natural world; however, in the visionary logic of the narrative, here it more properly signifies the heavenly realm of light, righteousness, etc. In particular, it is a powerful image for the fire of God’s holy Judgment—i.e., the traditional motif of fire from heaven. This aspect of the Judgment has been expressed a number of ways (fire from the altar of incense, etc); now it relates to the natural heat human beings feel on earth from the sun—the sun itself serves as a vehicle for God’s fiery Judgment. The response of the afflicted population, as described here, could be taken to imply that humankind still had the opportunity to repent and turn to God, even after the Judgment had begun. In this respect the vision resembles the fifth and sixth of the earlier trumpet-cycle (chap. 9, note esp. verses 20-21).

Verses 10-11: Fifth Vision

“And the fifth (Messenger) poured out his offering-dish upon the ruling-seat of the wild animal—and its kingdom came to be darkened, and they squeezed their tongues out of the labor (they felt), and (still) they insulted the God of heaven (from) out of their labors and out of their wounds, (but) they did not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] out of their works!” (vv. 10-11)

As noted above, these visions specifically target the domain of the Sea-creature, but here the point is made explicit, the plague being poured out directly on the ruling-seat (qro/no$, throne) of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on). Back in 2:13, the city of Pergamum was said to be the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan is”, due to its importance as a provincial center, the prominence of the imperial cult in the city, and, most importantly, because the believer Antipas was put to death there. All of these factors also serve to inform the symbolic domain of the Sea-creature (chap. 13), even though that domain cannot be limited to any specific geographical location. The Roman Empire and the Imperial cult is the most immediate point of reference for the symbolism, but, as we will see in the sixth and seventh visions, the imagery is considerably broader than the historic Roman rule of the first centuries.

The darkening that comes upon the creature’s kingdom is another direct allusion to the Exodus traditions and the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:21-29). Darkness was also a traditional image associated with the judgment to come upon nations and people on the “Day of YHWH” (Joel 2:10; Amos 5:18; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7-9) and was a common motif signifying (end-time) judgment (Mark 13:34 par; 15:33 par; Rev 6:12); moreover, any unusual darkness could be seen as an omen portending a coming disaster (cf. Koester, pp. 450, 649). Verse 10b-11 refers to the people in the Sea-creature’s kingdom, i.e. the human beings under its control, who belong to it and venerate the image, etc. It is not immediately clear what about the darkness causes the reaction of “squeezing” (or “chewing”) the tongue; most likely, it marks the cumulation of the experience of hardship and suffering in the midst of the Judgment. The noun po/no$ is used, which fundamentally means “labor, work, toil”, here more properly the suffering and pain that comes from hard labor. This hardship, along with the painful “mark” (e%lko$) on their bodies (cf. above), prompts humankind again to insult God (vb blasfhme/w). It would seem that people still have the opportunity to repent, but apparently none do. There is a bit of wordplay here involving the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) and the plural nouns po/noi (“labors”) and e&rga (“works”):

    • People insult God “out of” their labors (po/noi), i.e. their hardship and suffering
    • They do not repent “out of” their works (e&rga), i.e. their wicked behavior

The final two visions in the cycle (6 and 7) bring the scene of the great Judgment to a close, depicting the same judgment of the nations with a different set of symbols. We will explore these in the next daily note.

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October 2: Revelation 8:6-13

Revelation 8:6-13

For an introduction to the Trumpet-visions and their relation to the earlier Seal-visions, etc, see the previous daily note (on 8:1-5). Verses 6-13 cover the first four Trumpet-visions, all of which involve natural disasters as the result of celestial phenomena. The language and imagery used to describe these is drawn primarily from Old Testament tradition, but also would have been recognizable to people in the Greco-Roman world at large, since these sorts of celestial phenomena were widely seen as portents of disaster and divine anger/judgment which were to come upon humankind. For the background of the trumpet-motif as a herald of end-time Judgment, cf. the previous note.

Suspense is created in verse 6, adding to the sense of anticipation and foreboding: “And the seven Messengers, the (one)s holding the seven trumpets, made themselves ready (so) that they should sound the trumpet”. The idea of trumpets sounding (in the sky) announcing or forewarning of disaster to come is widespread, and not only in Old Testament tradition (cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.784ff; Lucan Pharsalia 1.578). The first three trumpets (vv. 7-11) each announce judgment in the form of fire from heaven, which echoes both the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 9:23-24) and the Sodom & Gomorrah narrative (Gen 19:24ff) in Old Testament tradition. Both were natural figure-types for the end-time Judgment; on the use of Sodom/Gomorrah in this regard, cf. Luke 17:29; also Matt 10:15; 11:23-24; 2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7.

The first two trumpet-visions follow a common pattern, describing fire which was “thrown [e)blh/qh] (down) into [ei)$]” the earth/sea. This reflects the Messenger holding the golden bowl at the altar of incense, who throws fire down to the earth (vv. 4-5); however, ultimately the passive should be understood here as the divine passive, i.e. God as the implied actor. The third trumpet-vision differs slightly, in that the fire (a burning star) falls (e&pesen) out of heaven to land upon the earth. Here is a comparison of the details in the three visions:

  • First Trumpet (v. 7):
    • “hail and fire having been mixed in blood”—an obvious echo of the plague in Exod 9:13-26 (also Ps 78:48ff; 105:32), repeated as judgment imagery in Isa 30:30; Ezek 38:22; Wis 16:22-23. The added element of blood may be intended to continue the theme of warfare and violence (and its effects) from the earlier seal-visions. Blood raining from heaven is known as a visionary portent of war (cf. Lucan, Pharsalia 1.578; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.5.14; Sibylline Oracles 5:377-9, etc). A more immediate Old Testament allusion may be found in Joel 2:30.
    • thrown down into/onto the earth
    • a third of the earth’s surface (i.e. the dry land)—trees and green grass—is burnt down
  • Second Trumpet (vv. 8-9):
    • “(something) as/like a great mountain burning with fire”—i.e. a great fiery mass; there are similar eschatological/apocalyptic references in 1 Enoch 18:13; 21:3; and Sibylline Oracles 5:158-9.
    • thrown down into/onto the sea
    • a third of the sea becomes blood—a clear echo of Exod 7:16-23 and the plagues on Egypt; whether this means that the water came to be the color of blood, etc, or was miraculously transformed into actual blood, hardly matters (probably the latter was meant). As with the fire which struck the land (burning trees and grass), there are similarly two effects from the fire which strikes the sea:
      —a third of the creatures in the sea die, and
      —a third of the boats come to ruin, perhaps literally rotting or decaying
  • Third Trumpet (vv. 10-11):
    • “a great star burning as a brilliant (light) [i.e. lamp/torch]”—falling stars (i.e. comets, meteors) naturally served as omens and portents of death and disaster in the ancient world (cf. Manilius Astronomica 1.874-6, etc). If taken literally, here it is the image of a great (fiery) meteor landing on the earth.
    • falls out of heaven—it is conceivable that this shift in wording foreshadows the fifth and sixth trumpet-visions; or, perhaps, it is intended to convey a natural phenomenon, as opposed to the supernatural fire of the 1st/2nd trumpet-vision.
      It falls out of heaven and land upon the rivers and springs of earth; exactly how this comes about from a single star/meteor is unclear, nor is the scientific detail important.
    • a third of the waters are turned into a&yinqo$, a Greek word of uncertain derivation, which refers to a small plant (‘wormwood’) which yielded a bitter taste (cf. Prov 5:4; Jer 9:15; 23:5)—i.e. a third of all rivers and springs, with their water used for washing, drinking and cooking, etc, became poisoned and made bitter, resulting in the death of “many” people. Here there may be likely an allusion to the judgment upon the people following the Golden Calf incident, where they were forced to drink the contaminated water (Exod 32:20; cf. 15:23).

As in the third trumpet-vision, the fourth (v. 12) also involves natural celestial phenomena—namely the sun, moon, and stars together:

“…and a third of the sun and a third of the moon and a third of the stars were (each) struck, (so) that a third of them (each) would be darkened, and the day would not shine a third of its (light), and the night likewise.”

This, too, reflects the Plagues of Egypt—the plague of darkness on the land (Exod 10:21-23)—but the idea of the darkening of sun and moon came to be a common Judgment motif in the Old Testament (Isa 13:10; 24:23; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Zeph 1:15; Ezek 32:7), one which Jesus would make use of in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:24-25 par). Unusual darkness, as during an eclipse, etc, was naturally seen as a dangerous omen or portent in the ancient world (Ovid Metamorphoses 15.785; Lucan Pharsalia 1.538-43, etc).

Verse 13 marks a division between the first four visions and the next two; from a literary standpoint, it also serves to heighten the dramatic suspense, pointing toward what is about to come. It is treated as a distinct vision:

“And I saw and heard one air-borne (being) winging [i.e. flying] in the middle of the heaven, saying with a great voice: ‘Woe, woe, (and) woe (again which is to come) to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, out of the remaining voices of the trumpets of the three Messengers the (one)s about to sound the trumpet!”

I have translated a)eto/$ literally as a creature/being in the air, which usually refers to a bird (spec. an eagle); some manuscripts instead read a&ggelo$ (“Messenger”, i.e. Angel), which seems more likely to be a ‘correction’ of a)eto/$ than the other way around. Birds served as omens or portents of disaster, etc, in the ancient world, and the eagle would have represented the nobility (and reliability) of a divine messenger (cf. Homer Iliad 8.242, Odyssey 2.146, etc). The messenger, whether an eagle or heavenly being, here is announcing the judgment still to come in the remaining trumpet-visions.

A common detail through the first four visions is the motif of a third—the celestial phenomena, and the related disasters, are repeatedly (and consistently) said to affect a third of the world. The precise significance of this remains uncertain. Possibly it is meant to indicate one stage or portion of the final Judgment, which will be completed in the seven Bowl-visions of chapter 16, etc. It also may reflect traditional imagery, or a literary/prophetic device, such as we see in Ezek 5:2ff; Zech 13:8-9. More likely is the idea that the limited application of the Judgment (to a third of the earth and humankind, cf. also 9:15ff) is intended as an expression of God’s mercy, to give the survivors the opportunity to repent before the Judgment is completed; this is certainly implied in 9:20-21, as a concluding notice to the first six trumpet-visions, and should be taken seriously.