Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 86 (Part 2)

Psalm 86, continued

Part 2: Verses 8-13

(For Part 1, see the previous study.)

Verse 8

“There is none like you among the Mighty (one)s,
my Lord, and there is no(thing) like your works!”

This second section of the Psalm shifts from a prayer to a hymn in praise of YHWH. The focus in the initial verse is the familiar theme of the incomparability of YHWH—His uniqueness and superiority over every other god or divine being. This reflects the qualified monotheism of Israelite religion in the period of the Judges and the (early) Kingdom period. YHWH’s incomparability is expressed, in each line, by the use of the negative particle /y]a^, which typically has a privative force, indicating absence or lack. This particle tends to function as a substantive verbal element (or as an adverb), with the meaning “there is no…”.

I have presented the verse as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, but it might be more accurate to treat it as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which better brings out the chiastic parallelism:

    • “There is no one like you
      • among the Mighty (one)s, my Lord,
    • and there is no(thing) like your works”
Verse 9

“All (the) nations that you have made
shall come and shall bow down
before your face, O my Lord,
and shall give weight to your name.”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a slightly irregular (3+2+2+2) quatrain; dividing it into a quatrain with primarily 2-beat lines fits the rhythm/meter of the Psalm as a whole.

The nations are here regarded as among the great “works” of YHWH (“that you have made”). His supremacy lies principally in the fact that He is the supreme Creator—who created all of humankind, the nations and their people. For this reason, all the nations should recognize and acknowledge Him as the Mightiest and Greatest One; worship of YHWH should not be limited to the Israelite people alone. The verse speaks of a future time with the nations will come and bow down before YHWH. This is an important theme in the Prophetic writings of the exilic and post-exilic periods. In these prophetic poems and oracles, it is envisioned that representatives of the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the (restored) Israelite/Judean kingdom; in the process, they will acknowledge and worship Israel’s God, YHWH. See, for example, Isaian passages such as 2:1-4 (par Mic 4:1-5); 42:1-6ff; 49:6-7, 22-23; 56:6-8; 60:3-16; 66:12ff, 18-21; the close of the book of Zechariah (14:16-21) contains an especially notable prophecy on this theme.

In the final line, the verb db^K* (Piel, “give weight, make heavy”) is used in its typical figurative sense of “give honor”, i.e., considering (someone) worthy or of value. The nations will give honor to YHWH’s name, which implies a ritual or symbolic honoring of YHWH Himself. On the relation of a person’s name to the person, in ancient Near Eastern thought, cf. the introduction to my earlier series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Dahood (II, p. 294) gives an interesting alternative reading of this verse, treating the relative particle rv#a& as conditional, and thus rendering the first line as a conditional clause: “When you act, the nations will come…”.

Verse 10

“For great you (are indeed),
and a worker of wonders—
you, O Mightiest—you alone!”

The Psalmist takes over the worship of YHWH now, in the present, acknowledging His greatness (adj. lodG`). There is emphatic force to the initial particle yK!, and it would be possible (but not necessary) to translate the line as “how great you (are)”. YHWH’s works (v. 8) include creation (i.e., of humankind and the nations, v. 9), but also the wonders (toal*p=n]) He has performed—specifically, on behalf of His people during their history. Through these supernatural and miraculous deeds, YHWH also shows Himself to be incomparable, and far superior to all other deities (“you alone”, ;D#b^l=).

Metrically, I take this verse to be an irregular 2+2+3 tricolon. If one were to combine verses 9 and 10 together, there would be a sequence of five 2-beat lines bracketed by a pair of 3-beat lines. Thematically and poetically, it would be possible to combine the verses in this way.

Verse 11

“Direct me, O YHWH, in your way,
(that) I may walk in firmness for you only,
(with) my heart fearing your name.”

Embedded in this hymnic section, is a separate prayer-request by the Psalmist to YHWH. He asks God to “direct” him on the path. The verb hr*y` denotes throwing or shooting (an arrow, etc), often in the symbolic or figurative sense of showing a direction; in association with the ethical-religious motif of a path (in which one must ‘walk’), this idea of pointing a direction essentially means “instruct, teach”. Such a meaning of the verb is embedded in the derived noun hr*oT (i.e., “instruction”).

The Psalmist wishes to walk in “firmness” (tm#a#) on the path—that is, firmly, with a sure step, showing himself faithful and trustworthy as a follower of YHWH. The noun tm#a# can also connote truthfulness. I have chosen to vocalize djy in line 2 as the adverb dj^y~, rather than the MT dj@y~ (imperative of the verb dj^y`). I translate it as “alone, only”, parallel with dbl in v. 10—that is, the Psalmist wishes to be faithful to YHWH alone, even as he acknowledges that YHWH alone is the Mightiest One. However, it would also be possible to translate the adverb here as “altogether” (i.e., completely).

As I interpret the verse, metrically it is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

Verse 12

“I will throw you, my Lord (and) Mightiest,
(praise) with all of my heart,
and will give your name weight for ever!”

I view verse 12 as being dependent upon the Psalmist’s request in v. 11—i.e., “Instruct me…(and then) I will throw you praise…”; however, for poetic concision I have omitted a glossed “then” from the beginning of the first line. There is a parallelism between the opening verbs of vv. 11 and 12: both (hr*y`, hd*y`) essentially mean “throw” —as YHWH “throws” direction to the Psalmist (i.e., instructs him), then he, in turn, will “throw” praise to YHWH. For a musician-composer, praise in song is an especially appropriate means by which to show one’s gratitude. On the idiom of “giving weight” (vb db^K*) to God’s name, cf. above on verse 9; as the nations will all come to worship and honor YHWH’s name in the future, so the Psalmist, being among the righteous/faithful ones of Israel, does so now in the present.

The final word <l*oul= is a prepositional expression that literally means “into/unto (the) distant (future)”; for poetic concision, I have translated it here more conventionally, as “forever”. Metrically, this verse, again, is irregular, being a 3+2+3 tricolon; it is also possible to read it as an extended 4+3 bicolon, which would represent more precisely the poetic parallelism in the verse. Eliminating either yn]d)a& (“my Lord”) or yh^l)a$ (“my Mighty [One]”, i.e., my God) from the first line would tighten the rhythm, and would make a couplet format more tenable.

Verse 13

“For (indeed) your goodness is great over me,
and you shall snatch me from Še’ôl below!”

The first line of verse 13 echoes that of v. 10 (cf. above), as the Psalmist declares that YHWH’s goodness (ds#j#) is great (lodG`), even as earlier he declared that YHWH Himself was great. The noun ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have discussed repeatedly, in the context of a covenant-bond, it frequently connotes “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”, and so it does regularly throughout the Psalms. YHWH is loyal to the binding agreement (covenant) with His people, and, when they are faithful and loyal as well, He is obligated (as the Sovereign) to provide blessings and protection.

This protection includes deliverance from danger and threat of death, whether by human adversary or illness/disease, etc. The danger to the Psalmist here is described in terms of being pulled down into Še’ôl (loav=), a term used frequently in the Psalms (and on which cf. my earlier note). The verb lx^n` (“snatch away,” i.e., out of danger) also occurs often in the Psalms.

This allusion to danger provides a transition to the final section of the Psalm, which returns to the prayer-petition emphasis of section 1, but with a stronger tone of lament.

Metrically, this verse is a 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Part 3: Verses 14-17

Verse 14

“O Mightiest, boiling (one)s stand against me,
and a meeting of terrible (one)s seeks my Soul—
indeed, they do not set you in front of them!”

Typical of the lament-sections of the Psalms is this opening reference to a group of nameless adversaries who threaten the Psalmist. While the specific motif may be widespread, the adjectives used to describe the adversaries here are less common. The first, dz@, literally means “boiling (over),” in a negative sense—whether boiling over with rage, or with pride, etc; it occurs 8 times in the Psalms (out of 13 in the OT), but 6 of these are in Ps 119; the only other occurrence is in 19:14 [13]. The second adjective, Jyr!u*, means “terrible, terrifying”, often implying the threat or possibility of violence. Elsewhere in the Psalms, this adjective occurs only in 37:35 and 54:5 [4].

The final line identifies these opponents as unquestionably wicked—they do not set YHWH “in front of them”, as their God and Sovereign. This distinguishes the wicked from the righteous, and is main the reason why the wicked desire to attack and harm the righteous.

Verse 15

“But you, my Lord, (are)
Mighty of love and favor,
long in (your) nostrils,
and Great of goodness and trust.”

This verse is a tight 2-beat quatrain—or, we might say, a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, with an introductory line. The introductory line addresses YHWH: “But you, my Lord…”. The remaining three lines describe the attributes and characteristics of YHWH. Lines two and four are parallel, framing the description:

    • “Mighty of | love | and favor”
    • “Great of | goodness | and trust”

The parallel terms la@ and br^ can either be viewed as construct adjectives (“mighty of…”, “great of…”), or as comparable substantives functioning as Divine titles (“Mighty [One] of…”, “Great [One] of…”). Both approaches are entirely valid. The term <Wjr* denotes the possession and/or exhibiting of a deep love; it is comparable to the parallel noun ds#j# (“goodness, kindness, devotion”). There is a similar parallel between /WNj^ (“[showing] favor”) and tm#a# (“firmness,” spec. the sense of faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness). All of these terms essentially allude to YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant-bond with His people, and to the blessings which He provides. For poetic concision (required by the short 2-beat lines), I have simplified and shortened these terms in the translation above.

The third line (and the central line of the tricolon) contains a distinctive Hebrew idiom. The expression is “long of nostrils” (<y]P^a^ Er#a#), referring to the nostrils (their burning, flaring) as a symbolic expression of anger. Thus to be long in one’s nostrils is the opposite of being “short” in them—that is, one is not quick to anger. The expression connotes the idea of patience, and is often translated (not inappropriately) as “longsuffering”; many translations render the expression as “slow to anger”.

The sequence of phrases and attributes here in v. 15 echoes the famous proclamation in Exodus 34:6 (cf. also Num 14:18; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:3; Jonah 4:2; Nehemiah 9:17).

Verse 16

“(So) turn to me and show me favor!
Give (now) strength to your servant,
and give safety to (the) son of your trust!”

Since YHWH is Mighty in showing favor (/WNj^, v. 15), the Psalmist, in his time of need, calls on YHWH now to show him favor (vb /n~j*). The related call for God to “turn” (vb hn`P*) to the Psalmist is another way of asking Him to hear and answer his prayer (cf. on vv. 1, 6 in the previous study). The prayer would be answered if/when YHWH protects and rescues the Psalmist from his enemies, and from the danger that threatens him (v. 13, cf. above). Here, this protection is described by the parallel actions of “give strength” (vb /t^n` + zu)) and “give safety/salvation” (vb uv^y` Hiphil). In protecting/rescuing the Psalmist, the “strength” that YHWH gives is His own (“your strength”).

Again, it is important to remember of the covenantal context of the language in this petition. The Psalmist can request (and expect) Divine protection, because he has been faithful to the covenant-bond, and so YHWH (as Sovereign) is obligated to provide protection. The Psalmist’s loyalty is here indicated by the parallel expressions “your servant” and “son of your firmness” (i.e., your faithful son). Almost certainly, the MT is incorrect in the vocalization of the final word ;t#m*a& (“your maidservant [?]”); it should be vocalized ;T#m!a& (“your firmness”, cf. Dahood, II, p. 296), echoing the use of tm#a# in verse 11 (cf. above) and the final line of v. 15. As previous noted, tm#a# connotes faithfulness, trustworthiness, truthfulness; for poetic concision, I have translated it above in the line as “trust” (“son of your trust,” i.e., your trustworthy son).

Verse 17

“Make with me a sign of (your) good (favor),
and let (those) hating me see (it) and be shamed!
(Oh,) that you, YHWH,
would help me and comfort me!”

The Psalmist here further asks that there be some “sign” (toa) that accompanies the act of rescue by YHWH—a clear indication that it was YHWH who did this good thing (hb*of), and that the reason why the Psalmist was delivered was that he was shown favor by God. Upon seeing this sign, the Psalmist’s enemies will come to shame (vb vWB).

The Psalm concludes with a terse renewed plea by the Psalmist, calling on YHWH to give him help (vb rz~u*) and comfort (vb <j^n`). It is best to treat these perfect verb forms as precative perfects, expressing the Psalmist wish (and expectation) for what will happen. In this regard, the yK! particle should be read as emphatic and exclamatory—i.e., “Oh, that…!”.

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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 82

Psalm 82

Dead Sea MSS: MasPsa (vv. 1-8)

This relatively short Psalm is among the most intriguing and provocative in the entire collection. The main source of intrigue is the setting established in verse 1, where YHWH is standing as Ruler (and Judge) “in the midst of” the gathering of the gods. This juxtaposition between YHWH and the gods (of the nations) is striking, particularly with the double-use of the plural <yh!l)a$, but it can be problematic for Jews and Christians who are accustomed to reading the Old Testament Scriptures from the standpoint of an absolute monotheism. But such a monotheism is the end-product of a long process of religious and theological development—a process of which this Psalm is very much a part. In actuality, the relationship between the YHWH and the deities worshiped by the other nations, as expressed in ancient Israelite thought and writing, was quite complex.

Opinions of commentators regarding the date of this Psalm vary widely. It may be necessary to distinguish between the poem in its original form and its inclusion (with redaction) as part of the Elohistic Psalter (and Asaph-collection, Pss 73-83). As far as the content and thought-world of the original composition, there are certain similarities with the Song of Moses (Deut 32), which might suggest a very old (and perhaps even pre-monarchic) date (cf. Dahood, II, p. 269).

The brevity of this Psalm allows us to treat it essentially as a singular unit. However, it can also be rather neatly divided into two parts, vv. 1-4 and 5-8, which I would outline in a loose chiastic form, framed by the opening and closing verses:

    • YHWH’s position as Ruler and Judge in the heavenly council (v. 1)
      • YHWH’s pronouncement of Judgment (vv. 2-4)
      • A prophetic announcement of Judgment (vv. 5-7)
    • Call for YHWH to act as Ruler and Judge over the nations on earth (v. 8)

There is a certain prophetic quality to this Psalm, which it has in common with others in the Asaph-collection; on the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50. The Psalmist functions as a prophet, effectively seeing a vision of YHWH in the heavenly council, rather like the vision by Micaiah in 1 Kings 22 (cf. vv. 19ff). The vision is narrated in the first part (vv. 1-4); then, in the second part (vv. 5-8), the Psalmist responds to the vision, essentially delivering a short prophetic message based upon it.

The occurrence of a Selah (hl*s#) pause marker following verse 2 is curious. In this case, it does not seem to be any kind of structural indicator; a pause may simply be intended to make a clear distinction between the rhetorical question in verse 2 and the declaration that follows.

Metrically, the Psalm generally follows a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format—strictly so in the first part, and more loosely in the second.

Psalm 82 is not preserved among the Qumran Psalm manuscripts; however, it does survive, virtually complete in a Dead Sea manuscript from Masada. The text of this MS is more or less identical with the Masoretic Text.

Verse 1

“(The) Mightiest is standing in the appointed (place) for (the) Mighty,
in (the) midst of (the) Mighty (one)s he holds judgment.”

On the one hand, this opening couplet is quite straightforward; but, on the other hand, it is rather tricky to translate. This is, in part, because of the repeated use of the terms la@ / <yh!l)a$, with different nuances of meaning. The noun la@ (°¢l) represents the common (and ancient) Semitic term for deity. I take its fundamental meaning to be something like “mighty (one)”. The plural of la@ is <yl!a@ (°¢lîm, “mighty [one]s”), but this form is quite rare in the Old Testament; far more common is the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm), which, in a monotheistic Israelite context, typically refers to the one deity, the Creator El-YHWH. I understand the plural form, in this context, to represent an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “(the) Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier articles on the titles El and Elohim.

The interplay in verse 1, utilizing these terms, is striking. The first plural <yh!l)a$ (in line 1) clearly refers to YHWH (“Mightiest [One]”), while the second (in line 2) just as clearly refers to other divine beings, and thus is a regular (numeric) plural, i.e., “Mighty (one)s”. Meanwhile, the singular la@, in between, appears to refer to (all) the gods, in a collective (or general) sense “(the) Mighty (ones)”.

The noun hd*u@ denotes an appointed time/place; here it indicates the appointed place where the deities gather, and where YHWH serves as Ruler/Judge, holding judgment. The noun br#q# suggests spatially that YHWH is standing in the midst/middle of the gathering of gods.

The implication is that these “mighty (one)s” (gods) are the deities recognized and worshiped by the other nations. One could describe them more loosely as divine/heavenly beings, without considering them to be “gods” per se; this would certainly be more in keeping with the absolute monotheism of later Israelites, Jews and Christians, but it would also gravely distort the theological and polemic message of the Psalm. All throughout the ancient Near East, there are variations of the heavenly/Divine council motif, where the supreme Creator/Ruler presides over the assembly of the gods; for the application of this motif in ancient Israel, and various ancient/poetic allusions to it, see, e.g., Psalm 29:1-2, 9-10; 89:6-7; Job 1-2; 1 Kings 22:19.

Verse 2

“Until when will you judge with corruption,
and (the) faces of (the) wicked lift up?”

In vv. 2-4, YHWH pronounces the judgment (in His role as Judge). He is, it would seem, addressing the other gods (“mighty [one]s”) in the assembly. The judgment begins with an accusing question, in the prophetic style. YHWH asks the gods how long (“until when…?”) they will continue to judge with “corruption”. The basic meaning of the noun lw#u* in context is perversion (of justice), i.e., injustice. The perversion of justice is glossed with the specific idiom of “lifting the face” of a person, which, in a judicial setting, refers to inappropriately showing partiality to someone, rather than based on the application of equitable and fair justice.

The underlying theological worldview here is probably reflected in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (on which, cf. my earlier study). The other deities were assigned (by El-YHWH) to have rule and authority over the various nations. According to the poetic narrative of the Psalms, the gods have abused this authority, by ruling/judging in a corrupt and unjust manner. The same essential charge can be leveled against the human rulers/leaders of the nations; for more on this, cf. below.

Verse 3

“Judge (rightly) for (the) weak and (the) orphan,
make (things) right for (the) afflicted and destitute!”

The imperatives in this next couplet reflect how the “mighty (one)s” (gods) of the nations should have ruled, with justice and right judgment. In particular, the rule of the nations should have protected those in society who are most vulnerable and in need. The pairing of the “afflicted” (yn]u*) and “needy” (/oyb=a#) is frequent in the Psalms; here the verbal noun vWr, denoting the condition of “being poor/destitute” is used in place of the latter (cf. v. 4 below). The vulnerability of orphaned children, and the like, is expressed by the adjective lD^ (“weak”). A failure to treat justly/rightly the poor and needy, and to protect them, is particularly emphasized in Prophetic judgments against the nations (and their leaders). As noted above, this Psalm (like many of the Asaph-Psalms) has definite prophetic characteristics.

Verse 4

“Give escape for (the) weak and needy,
snatch (them) from (the) hand of (the) wicked!”

Here the theme of protecting the weak and needy is given more forceful emphasis, extending the concept to include the idea of rescuing them from the oppressive power of wicked persons. The rule of law and justice in a nation should oppose wickedness, protecting people from those who are wicked; instead, as indicated in verse 2 (cf. above), the “mighty (one)s” have shown favor and partiality to the wicked. The implication is that this favor has helped the wicked to achieve the kind of power in society that enables them to oppress the poor.

This couplet concludes the heavenly judgment scene of the first part, and, in particular, the pronouncement of judgment by YHWH in vv. 2-4. It must be pointed out again that, within this scenario, YHWH is addressing the other gods (“mighty [one]s”) in the assembly—that is, we may assume, the deities who (according to earlier lines of tradition) were given authority over the nations (cf. on Deut 32:8-9, above).

Verse 5

“They do not know and do not understand;
in the darkness they walk about,
and (the) foundations of (the) earth are shaken.”

Following the prophetic vision of the first part, with YHWH as the speaker (vv. 2-4), here the Psalmist speaks in the second part, delivering a prophetic message that builds upon the earlier vision. The subject “they” must still refer to the gods (of the nations) from the first part (cf. above); however, as becomes increasingly clear, these “mighty (one)s” also, in their own way, stand for the human rulers and leaders of the nations. Thus, while on the literary/poetic level, the Psalmist is addressing the nations’ gods, he is also effectively addressing the nations themselves.

The meter of this verse differs markedly from the regular 3-beat (3+3) couplets of the first part; it is an irregular 3+2+3 tricolon, the unevenness of which may be meant as a rhythmic-poetic expression of the content—especially the idea in the central line, viz., of the “mighty (one)s” wandering about in the darkness. The ignorance/blindness of the gods brings chaos and disorder to the nations, causing the “foundations of the earth” to be shaken (vb fom). This may also allude to the judgment that has come (or is coming) upon them. In Psalm 75:3-4 [2-3], there is a comparable reference to the earth’s foundations (pillars) shaking (note the similar judgment context); it is only through the right and equitable rule of YHWH that things are kept firm and steady.

Verses 6-7

“And I say: ‘Mighty (one)s you (are),
and sons of (the) Highest, all of you,
but (yet just) like men you shall die,
and like one of the(ir) rulers shall fall!'”

The precise thrust of these two couplets is not entirely clear. As I interpret it, the Psalmist is delivering a prophetic oracle that corresponds to the earlier pronouncement of judgment by YHWH (in vv. 2-4). The actual sentence of judgment is delivered here: which is, that the “mighty (one)s” (i.e., the gods of the nations) shall fall and die like any ordinary human ruler (rc*).

In the mythic-poetic context of the Psalm, this is a sentence of the death for the gods. From a rhetorical-polemical standpoint, it functions in several different ways. First, it can be interpreted as a dramatic description of the gods’ fall from power, so that they no longer hold the position (of rule over the nations) indicated in the older lines of tradition (as in Deut 32:8-9, cf. above). Their corrupt rule has led to their being removed from divine status, thus paving the way (conceptually) for the absolute monotheism of later times—where YHWH is the only existing Deity, with direct control over all the nations (cf. on verse 8 below).

Secondly, the judgment of the nations’ gods parallels (and foreshadows) their own judgment. This is all the more pertinent since the same charges of injustice and corrupt rule could just as well be leveled by YHWH against the human rulers of the nations. And, if a sentence of death could be delivered against their gods, how much more could such a punishment come to them!

Finally, along the same lines, this dramatic presentation of Divine judgment against the nations (and their gods) has an exhortational purpose, just as with many of the nation-oracles in the Prophetic writings. The people (of Israel) must learn from this example. Instead of being like the nations, who, following the pattern of their corrupt deities, rule in an wicked and unjust manner, the Israelites (and their leaders) need to follow in the way of YHWH. His manner of judgment is totally unlike that of the nations’ gods; He rules and judges with righteousness and equity, protecting the poor and needy, and opposing the wicked. Israelite society should be conformed to this Divine pattern—according to the rule of YHWH, the one true and holy God.

There is no verb in the declaration of the first line, and would have to be supplied in translation. It could be rendered in the present tense (“You are Mighty [one]s”) or the past tense (“You were Mighty [one]s”); the latter would convey more clearly the idea of a loss of divine status—i.e., that they are no longer gods, but will die like ordinary men. In either case, there is a strong contrast intended by the adversative particle (/k@a*) at the beginning of verse 7.

Verse 8

“Stand (up), Mightiest, (and) judge the earth;
take possession (yourself) over all the nations!”

This closing couplet, in a longer (4+4) meter, functions on two different levels. First, the call (by the Psalmist) is for YHWH to take over from the deposed gods all of the authority that had been given to them. No longer will they exercise rule over the nations that had been allotted to them (cf. again on Deut 32:8-9 above); instead, YHWH (as the one true God) will act as the sole Ruler over all the nations. Previously, it is was only Israel that YHWH held as His possession, having chosen them (for His own) from all the other nations; now the call is for YHWH to take possession (vb lj^n`) over all the nations of the earth. As noted above, this represents a strong step, theologically, in the direction of an absolute monotheism, depicted in dramatic-mythic terms as a fall (and deposition) of the (other) gods from power.

On a second level, this closing couplet clearly parallels the opening couplet of verse 1 (cf. above). There YHWH was standing (lit. taking [His] stand, vb bx~n`) in heaven, as Ruler and Judge over the gods of the nations; now He is called on to stand up (vb <Wq) and assume the same position of rule on earth over the nations themselves. I indicated this parallelism in the outline of Psalm above, where the two prophetic pronouncements of judgment (vv. 2-4, 5-7) are framed by these references to YHWH’s position as Ruler and Judge over the universe.

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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 81 (Part 2)

Psalm 81, continued

PART 2: Verses 9-17 [8-16]

Verse 9 [8]

“Listen, my people, and I will testify against you.
O Yisrael, if (only) you would listen to me!”

As in vv. 6c-8 (cf. the previous study), YHWH is the speaker throughout the second half of the Psalm, making these verses function as a prophetic oracle. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50; the prophetic character of a number of the Asaph-Psalms has been noted in prior studies.

Both thematically and poetically, vv. 6c-8 differs significantly from this second oracle. Metrically, the earlier passage consisted of a pair of 3-beat (3+3+3) tricola, while the oracle here follows  the regular 3+3 bicolon format. Beyond this, vv. 6c-8 functioned as summary of the Exodus, in which YHWH gives a brief but dramatic account of His role in the events. It concludes (v. 8b) with a reference to the episode at the “waters of strife/Meribah” (Exod 17:1-7), introducing the theme of the people’s lack of trust and disloyalty/rebellion against YHWH. This same theme continues in the second half oracle.

Indeed, the oracle seems to be indebted to the ‘covenant lawsuit’ format, in which YHWH raises the complaint that His people have violated the binding agreement (covenant). In this line of ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural tradition, the wronged party bringing such a complaint calls on the witnessing deities; however, in the context of Israelite monotheism, where God Himself is a party to the covenant, He instead calls on the forces of nature (“heaven and earth”) as witnesses. The most famous such ‘covenant lawsuit’ passages are the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) and the first chapter of Isaiah.

Here, however, YHWH calls on His people (Israel) to hear His complaint. This emphasizes the instructional (didactic) purpose of a poem such as the Song of Moses—that is, the purpose of the complaint is to exhort God’s people to remain faithful and loyal to the covenant, reforming their ways as needed. Past disobedience is noted (along with the punishment that resulted from it), as well as a warning that much the same could happen to the people and nation again if they do not repent; the promise of blessing and protection that stems from loyalty to the covenant is also emphasized, in the lines that close the Psalm (vv. 15-17).

The opening couplet contains a dual call, twice using the verb um^v* (“hear, listen”); in the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and Isaiah 1, the verb um^v* is paired with /z~a* in the Hiphil (“give [your] ear”). The emphatic nature of the complaint is indicated by the use of the verb dWu. This verb is often translated “(give) witness, testify”, but it properly denotes the act of repeating something, of causing (in the Hiphil stem) an action or words of speech to be repeated. I have rendered it above as “testify” for poetic concision.

Verse 10 [9]

“There shall not be a strange mighty (one) with you,
nor shall you bow down to a mighty (one) foreign (to you).”

In this couplet, YHWH gives the basis for His complaint: His people have violated the covenant by recognizing and worshiping deities other than He. This is the central and foremost prohibition in the Torah (the terms of the covenant), as indicated by its position as first of the “Ten Words” (Exodus 20:3ff par). When judgment comes upon the people during their history, as narrated and referenced in the Old Testament Scriptures, it is usually because of this central violation of the covenant.

The basic Semitic term la@ (°¢l) is used here for deity; I take its fundamental meaning to be “mighty (one)”, and consistently translate it so, though most English versions render it more conventionally as “god”. The regular term for deity in the Hebrew Scriptures is the expanded plural <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, = <yl!a@), which I typically translate as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, i.e., “Mightiest (One)”. The noun la@ is the more primitive term, and can be applied to YHWH, though usually only in poetry that preserves the older/archaic usage; here la@ is used for a deity other than YHWH. Cf. my earlier articles on the titles °E~l and °E_lœhîm.

The parallel adjectives rz` and rk*n@ are used, being largely synonymous in meaning. The first term is a verbal adjective (participle) of the root rWz (I), similar in meaning (and perhaps related) to rWs, “turn aside”; rWz denotes being a stranger, and rz` as an adjective thus means “(something) strange”. There would seem to be two rkn roots, which may (or may not) be related; rkn I means “know, recognize”, while rkn II seems to denote being hostile or an enemy. If rk*n@ is derived from rkn I, then it perhaps should be understood in a privative sense (i.e., something unknown or unrecognized, and thus foreign), though the sense could also be of something specifically recognized (and designated) as foreign. Clearly, any deity other than YHWH is (and should be) foreign/strange to His people; they should neither acknowledge such a deity, nor give worship (lit. “bow down”) to it.

Verse 11 [10]

“I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One),
the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt;
(when) you open wide your mouth, even I do fill it.”

This verse is a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, though the consistency of the meter over the three lines cannot be reproduced in English (where the first line must appear shorter). YHWH is the God (“Mighty [One]”) for Israel—their only God, in contrast to the foreign deities (v. 10) of the surrounding nations. Here the plural <yh!l)a$ is used, in contrast with la@ (cf. above). The Exodus was the theme of the short oracle in vv. 6b-8 (cf. the previous study), and is mentioned here again. It was YHWH who brought about Israel’s departure from Egypt, through His power and strength; the phrase “bringing up from the land of Egypt” also entails the protective guidance by God that supervised their journeys through the Sinai.

The MT points the initial word of the third line as an imperative (bj#r=h^, “open wide…!”); however, the context (YHWH presenting the evidence for His complaint) suggests a description, rather than exhortation, at this point. I tentatively follow Dahood (II, p. 266) in reading bjrh as an infinitive (byj!r=h^). The reference is thus to YHWH’s regular providential care of His people (esp. during their wilderness journeys): “(in) your opening wide your mouth, I do fill it” —i.e., when you have need, and call out to me, I satisfy it. However, in this image of filling of an appetite, there is also an implicit allusion to the people’s lack of trust and unfaithfulness during their time in the wilderness (as indicated earlier in verse 17).

Verse 12 [11]

“But my people would not listen to my voice;
indeed, Yisrael was not willing to (hear) me!”

The people’s past disloyalty and lack of faith is stated more explicitly here. The use again of the verb um^v*, following the exhortative (dual) use in verse 9 (cf. above), carries the implication that God’s people today should not follow the example of the wilderness generation in their faithlessness and rebellion. The verb hb*a* (I) means “be willing (to do something)”; in English this has to be translated in a modal sense, auxiliary to a primary verb that has to be filled in: i.e., “they were not willing to (hear/obey) me”.

Verse 13 [12]

“So I sent him away in the stubbornness of (his) heart,
(and) they walked (on) by their (own) plans.”

In the MT, there is a shift in person here, from first person singular to third person plural. This is not all that unusual, when the reference is to the people of God (Israel), since a people or nation can be referred to both ways—singular and plural. It is probably the specific mention of Israel in the preceding line (of v. 12) that led to the initial use of the singular here in v. 13a. Most translations will normalize the number (to the plural) throughout the verse, though this is not necessary. On the reading of the <– suffix (at the close of the first line) as a <– enclitic, cf. Dahood, II, p. 266.

Again, the principal point of reference is the generation of the wilderness journeys (following the Exodus). Through their stubborn unwillingness to trust in YHWH, God “sent” them off to travel according to their own purpose and plan. This rejection of His people sets a pattern for times of punishment that would occur throughout the history of Israel/Judah.

Verse 14 [13]

“If only my people would be listening to me,
(that) Yisrael would walk in my ways!”

The focus in vv. 14-17 shifts from the past to the present. Having presented His complaint, describing (in summary fashion) His people’s past disloyalty to the covenant, YHWH now calls on them to learn from this example. The initial particle Wl reflects YHWH’s fervent wish; it can also be used as particle of entreaty, which is appropriate to the exhortational character of the oracle. For poetic concision, I have translated the particle tersely as “if only…!”.

Again the verb um^v* occurs, as in vv. 9 and 12. In verse 9a, the call was for Israel to listen to YHWH’s complaint; here, however, the meaning follows vv. 9b, 12—i.e., of listening in terms of obedience to the covenant (and the Torah). The use of a participle (“hearing, listening”) indicates a regular, characteristic behavior, i.e., a pattern of faithful/loyal obedience. This same emphasis is expressed by the idiom of “walking” in the ways/paths of God; this is traditional religious-ethical language that occurs throughout the Scriptures (and frequently in the Psalms, cf. most recently in Ps 78:10). This faithful walking in obedience to the covenant is in marked contrast to the rebellious past generation that walked according to the purposes of their own stubborn hearts (v. 13).

Verse 15 [14]

“(Then) in (but) a little (while) I would bend down their enemies,
and upon their adversaries I would turn my hand.”

Faithfulness to the covenant means that YHWH will fulfill His covenantal obligation to provide protection and security for His people. Accordingly, when they are in danger from enemies (lit. “[those] being hostile”) and adversaries, then YHWH will fight on His people’s behalf, giving them victory over all their foes.

The initial prepositional expression, fu^m=K!, is difficult to translate in English; it essentially means something like “in a little bit, in short (order)”, indicating that YHWH’s response to any threat against His people would be very quick. The protection provided by YHWH is here expressed by the anthropomorphic image of His hand—as a symbol of power and strength; cf. recently, in Psalm 80:18[17]. The incomparable power of God, fighting on His people’s behalf, will ensure that every enemy will be defeated. By contrast, when Israel is unfaithful, violating the covenant bond, then this protection is removed, and the people will be faced with defeat and destruction.

Verse 16 [15]

“(The one)s hating YHWH shall cringe before Him,
and their time shall (last) into (the) distant (future).”

The enemies of YHWH’s people are also His enemies; when they show hatred (vb. an~c*) to Israel, they are actually hating God Himself. As a result, they will end up cringing in fear and submission before Him. The verb vj^K* is tricky to translate, as it carries a wide range of meaning. The basic meaning seems to be something like “to fail, fall short”, sometimes in the specific negative (and active) sense of “deceive”. It is occasionally used in the distinctive context of subordinates who are compelled to recognize the superiority of another. In several rare instances in the Psalms (18:45[44]; 66:3, and here), the context further suggests an act of fearful/cringing submission.

The second line is a bit ambiguous, simply stating that “their time” will last long into the distant future (<l*oul=). Presumably the reference is to the judgment/punishment of the hostile nations; it may also allude to the idea of a state of perpetual submission and servitude—both to YHWH and to His people.

Verse 17 [16]

“But He will let him eat from (the) fat of (the) wheat,
and I will make you full (of) honey from (the) rock.”

Again, we have here, in this closing couplet, a jarring shift in person, both subject and object, more severe than the one noticed in v. 13 (cf. above). Yet, it seems clear that in both lines YHWH is the subject (He/I) and the people Israel is the object (he/you). Translators will doubtless wish to smooth this over, normalizing the person/number; however, such shifts are not all that uncommon in ancient Near Eastern (and Hebrew) poetry, and the MT can be retained. However strange or foreign the person/number shifts may seem, it is part of the richness and diversity of the poetic idiom.

Faithfulness to the covenant not only results in YHWH’s protection (from enemies, etc), it leads to His blessing as well. The land will be blessed, yielding a richness (lit. “fat”, bl#j#) of grain (and all crops). Almost certainly, this is an allusion to the Song of Moses (Deut 32:14), though the language is traditional and doubtless could be found in a wide range of poems. The motif of “honey from the rock” also comes from the Song of Moses (32:13b); it should not be taken it a concrete/literal sense, but simply serves as another colorful figure to express the idea of the richness and fertility of the land, as with the traditional expression of the Promised land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8, et al; cf. Deut 31:20 for a reference in the context of the Song of Moses).

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).

Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:22-26

The Monday Notes on Prayer feature for the remainder of Summer (in August & September) is focusing on the Prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings 8. The narrative introduction (vv. 1-11) and opening of the address (vv. 12-21) were discussed in the previous study.

1 Kings 8:22-26

The Prayer itself begins in verse 22, with a brief description of the ceremonial setting; the Temple as a focal point for prayer will be developed in the remainder of the chapter. It is mentioned that Solomon “stood before (the) altar” facing (lit. “in front of,” dg#n#) the assembled people (lh*q*)—a large gathering (vv. 1-3) representing the people of Israel as a whole. It is further stated that Solomon “spread out” (vb vr^P*) his palms toward the heavens (i.e. toward YHWH) in a gesture of worship and supplication (cf. Exod 9:29, 33; Ezra 9:5; Psalm 44:20; 88:9; Isa 1:15). A corresponding idiom in Akkadian is to stand with “open hands” (id£ petû); cf. Cogan, p. 283. The idea of the heavens as the true dwelling place of YHWH is an important theme in the Prayer, and is alluded to here.

The Prayer begins with an invocation that gives honor and praise to YHWH:

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of Yisrael—there is not like you (any) Mighty (One) in the heavens up above or upon the earth below, guarding the binding agreement and the goodness for your servants, the (one)s walking before your face with all their heart” (v. 23)

This expression of the incomparable nature and character of YHWH is a reflection of ancient Israelite monotheism, though not necessarily the absolute monotheism of later times. The idea that there is no deity “like” (omK=) YHWH would seem to allow for the possibility that other divine beings exist, but that these are inferior to YHWH and subordinate to His rule (cf. Exod 15:11; Psalm 86:8; 1 Sam 2:2). However, the Deuteronomic theology does seem to go somewhat further than this, in the direction of a stronger monotheistic confession (e.g., Deut 4:39; 32:39; cf. 2 Sam 22:32); this attitude was sharped by the Prophets, through a harsh anti-polytheistic polemic that informs the later statements, for example, in Isa 45:5, 18, 22; 46:9.

The focus here in the Prayer is on the incomparableness of YHWH, particularly in regard to the binding agreement He established with His people. The word tyr!B= is typically translated “covenant”, but properly refers to a binding agreement, in a manner fully in keeping with ancient Near Eastern tradition and culture. The idea of such an agreement being cut directly between the Deity and a people is unique to Israelite tradition—particularly with regard to the religious application of this covenant-concept in its comprehensive theological, ethical, and social aspects.

Here tyr!B= is coupled with the noun ds#j#, a term which fundamentally means “goodness” or “kindness”, but which often is used specifically in the context of the covenant, where it connotes faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., to the covenant bond). In particular, YHWH demonstrates His loyalty to the agreement by fulfilling His obligation of bestowing “goodness” (benefits and protection, etc) to the other party. The agreement between YHWH and Israel has much the character of a suzerain-vassal treaty; God, as the sovereign, is obligated to provide protection, reward, and blessing to His faithful/loyal vassals (here “servants,” using the noun db#u#). The loyalty of His servants is shown by the way that they “walk before” Him with all their heart. This alludes to the distinctive religious-ethical idiom of “walking” (vb El^h*) in the ways of God’s Instruction—that is, according to the regulations and precepts of the Torah, which represents the terms of the covenant; cf. the important use of this idiom earlier in 2:4; 3:6. The central Deuteronomic statement of this covenant-principle is found in Deut 7:9ff.

The opening invocation continues in verse 24:

“…(you) who guarded for your servant Dawid my father what you spoke to him; and (as) you spoke with your mouth, (so) also you have fulfilled with your hand, as (it is so) this day.”

Just as in vv. 14-21 (cf. the previous study), the Judean royal theology—including the building of the Temple and the centralization of worship in Jerusalem—is aligned with the earlier binding agreement (established at Sinai) between YHWH and Israel. That is to say, the Judean monarchy (centered at Jerusalem) represents the natural and legitimate extension of the covenant-bond. This is especially clear by the repeated language from v. 23 here in v. 24:

    • As YHWH has guarded (vb rm^v*) the covenant, so also He guards (same verb) His promises to David.
    • David, like the faithful/loyal Israelites, is referred to as YHWH’s servant (db#u#, “your servant”)

The promise that YHWH “spoke” to David refers, principally, to the oracle delivered by Nathan in 2 Samuel 7. The bulk of the oracle (vv. 2-13) deals primarily with the “house” that will be built for YHWH by David’s son; as Solomon declares, this has now been fulfilled. The language used further legitimizes the entire enterprise of building the Temple (as opposed to continuing with a portable Tent-shrine), by affirming that it was both done according to God’s own word (i.e., what He spoke with His mouth) and through His own power (i.e., with His hand). Solomon may have organized the building project, but, in so doing, he was essentially acting out and fulfilling God’s own work.

“And now, YHWH, Mighty (One) of Yisrael, may you guard for your servant Dawid, my father, that which you spoke to him, saying: ‘There shall not be cut off for you from before my face a man sitting upon (the) throne of Yisrael—(but) only if [i.e. as long as] your children guard their paths, to walk before my face according to (the way) that you have walked before my face.'” (v. 25)

Here in verse 25, Solomon calls on YHWH to complete the remainder of the promise given to David in 2 Samuel 7. In verses 12-16, God promises David that his “kingdom” (i.e., his royal line) will be established in his son Solomon, and then continue unbroken with his descendants. In the Nathan-oracle, this promise appears to be more or less unconditional—i.e., if David’s descendants sin, they will be disciplined (v. 14), but the kingdom will not be taken from them (vv. 15-16). Here in 1 Kings, by contrast, the conditionality of the promise is rather clearly stated—it depends on David’s descendants continuing to walk in faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH (that is, to the covenant and the Torah). This explanation simply repeats what was stated earlier in 2:4.

For emphasis, in verse 26, Solomon repeats his request to YHWH:

“Indeed, now, Mighty (One) of Yisrael, let be made firm, I ask, your word that you spoke to Dawid my father!”

The verb /m^a* essentially refers to something that is fixed or set firmly in place. Solomon asks that YHWH, who is faithful to the covenant with Israel, will also be faithful to the promise made to David (cf. above). For the author(s) of the Books of Kings, in retrospect, it would have been clear how tenuous the survival of the Davidic line would be. Indeed, the condition for its survival, linked as it is to the more general idea of faithfulness to the covenant, is central to the entire Deuteronomic history, reaching its tragic climax in the Books of Kings. The chief lesson for future generations is that the Kingdom was lost because the people (and its rulers) did not remain loyal to the binding agreement with YHWH. Indeed, God remained firm in His devotion the covenant; the people, on the other hand, did not.

References marked “Cogan” above (and throughout these notes) are to Mordechai Cogan, I Kings, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 10 (Yale: 2001).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 47

Psalm 47

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsa (v. 2 [1])

This Psalm is similar to the previous Ps 46 in its theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations). However, it is much simpler, both in its message and its presentation. It has a simple hymn-format that would make it quite suitable for public worship. The Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator often serves as a marker for the structure of the poem, and that would seem to be the case here. The Psalm can be rather neatly divided into two short strophes (vv. 2-5 [1-4] and 7-10 [6-9]), with a central (transitional) couplet at v. 6 [5].

The central position of the v. 6 couplet strongly suggests the possibility of a ritual setting, involving a procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple, whereby the ceremonial enthronement of YHWH is celebrated.

The meter of the Psalm is irregular, but appears to be based upon a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. In contrast to the previous Psalms (45 and 46), which were called songs (ryv!), here the typical term romz+m! is used, indicating that the Psalm is a musical composition (i.e., both words and music). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout to (the) Mightiest with a ringing voice.”

A proper interpretation of the Psalm depends on how one reads <yhlal here in v. 2 [1], along with the parallel use of <yhla in vv. 7-8 [6-7]. It is important to remember that <yh!l)a$ is plural noun, which literally means “mighty (one)s”; when used a common divine title (and word for deity), in the monotheistic context of Israelite religion, it is best understood as an intensive (or comprehensive) plural—i.e., “Mightiest (One)” (= YHWH, i.e. ‘God’). In the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (of which this Psalm may be counted), the title <yh!l)a$ is typically substituted in place of the Divine name hwhy (YHWH).

If the prefixed l= here is read in its customary sense (as a preposition of direction or purpose), then <yh!l)a$l@ would have to mean “to (the) Mightiest”, since all worship and praise must be directed to God (YHWH). However, Dahood (p. 284) would read the preposition in this instance as a vocative-l, in which case, we are dealing with a true plural, and the couplet would be translated:

“All peoples, you must clap (your) palm(s together),
(and) give shout, (you) mighty (one)s, with a ringing voice.”

This yields a synonymous parallelism (“peoples” | “mighty ones”), where the “mighty ones” could refer either to the chieftains and nobles, etc, among the peoples, or to their gods. However, based on the formal parallel with the first couplet of the second strophe (v. 7 [6], cf. below), the customary reading of <yhlal here is to be preferred.

Verse 3 [2]

“For YHWH (the) Highest (is to) be feared,
(the) great King over all the earth!”

This couplet gives the reason why the peoples of earth must worship YHWH: He is the King, the Sovereign, of the entire universe. The substantive passive participle ar*on is a bit difficult to translate here; literally it means “(one) being feared”, but in this context, the proper meaning is something like “(one) worthy of being feared”, i.e., “(one who is) to be feared”. The praise and worship given to YHWH is a sign of this proper ‘fear’ that is shown to Him. He is both the “Mightiest” and the “Highest” (/oyl=u#), i.e., most Exalted; cf. my earlier article on the title /oyl=u#.

Verse 4 [3]

“He pushed back (the) peoples under us,
and (the) gatherings (of people) under our feet.”

Here the contrast between Israel (the people of God) and the nations (the [other] peoples) is established. Since YHWH is the Creator (and King) of the universe, He is to be worshiped by all people everywhere. Yet Israel maintains its special position as the chosen people of YHWH. The subduing of the nations mentioned here presumably reflects the historical memory of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, but may also refer to the victories of the early kings (Saul, David, Solomon), through which the power of Israel reached its greatest extent, with surrounding nations either absorbed into the Israelite kingdom or made into vassal states.

The verb rbd here is best understood as a separate root (I) from the more common root (II) that denotes “speech/speaking”; the fundamental meaning of rbd (I) is “go back/behind”, which in the Hiphil stem would be something like “push/force back”. Cf. Ps 18:48 for another such instance.

Verse 5 [4]

“He chose our inheritance for Himself,
(the) rising of Ya’aqob, whom He loves.”

The parallelism required of this couplet (“for Himself” | “whom He loves”) prompts me to adopt the suggestion by Dahood (p. 285), that wnl here be understood as an archaic form (WNl^ = Canannite lanh¥) that preserves the longer form of the preposition l (ln). As he notes, when the verb rj^B* (“choose”) is used with YHWH as the subject, it virtually always is in the context of choosing something (or someone) for Himself (e.g., Psalm 135:4, etc); thus WNl^ here = ol.

I have translated /oaG+ quite literally as “rising”, but it here has the honorific connotation of “exaltation” —i.e., YHWH honors (exalts) Jacob (= Israel) by giving him the land of Canaan as his inheritance. This would also tend to confirm that the subduing the nations (under Israel’s feet) in the previous verse refers primarily to the initial Israelite conquest of Canaan. A secondary reference would be to the military victories under Saul, David, and Solomon, which completed the conquest, giving to the Israelite kingdom something close to the traditional borders of the Promised Land.

Central Couplet (v. 6 [5])

“(The) Mightiest has gone up with a ringing cry,
YHWH with (the) voice of (the sounding) horn!”

As noted above, this couplet is transitional between the two strophes of the Psalm, and almost certainly reflects the original ritual/ceremonial setting of the composition. The “going up” (vb hl*u*) of YHWH refers to the modest ascent to the site of the Temple sanctuary (i.e., Mt. Zion). It is quite likely that a ritual procession of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to the Temple was involved, the procession being accompanied by priests and musicians, etc, giving shouts of praise and blowing the ceremonial horn (rp*ov). Once the Ark (symbolically carrying YHWH) arrived in the Temple sanctuary, YHWH would be ceremonially enthroned and worshiped as King. This was a local/ritual realization of the universal Kingship of YHWH.

Verses 7-10 [6-9]

Verse 7 [6]

“Make music, (you) mighty (one)s, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

The parallelism with the first couplet of the first strophe (v. 2 [1], cf. above) would seem to require that <yh!l)a$ here be translated as a true plural, “mighty ones”, parallel with “[the] peoples” in v. 2 [1]. Possibly, the reference could be specifically to the gods of the nations (their “mighty ones”), who give worship to YHWH as King over all. This is a roundabout way of demonstrating that the nations recognize the absolute superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) and worship Him.

The customary rendering of this verse treats <yh!l)a$ here as = <yh!l)a$l@ in v. 2 [1]:

“Make music (to the) Mightiest, make music!
Make music to our King, make music!”

Some commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 466) would emend the text to this effect.

Verse 8 [7]

“For (He is) King over all the earth—
mighty (one)s, make skillful music (to Him)!”

We have here the same ambiguity involving the use of <yh!l)a$; I read it again as a true plural (“mighty ones”), referring either to the chieftains and nobles of the nations, or to their gods. Again, the customary translation treats <yh!l)a$ as the Divine title (“Mightiest” = ‘God’)—

“For (the) Mightiest (One is) King over all the earth—
make skillful music (to Him)!”

but this yields an unsatisfactory 4+2 meter, and does not seem to be correct; nor have I seen any emendation that is worthy of adopting.

Verse 9 [8]

“(The) Mightiest (One) is King over [lu^] (the) nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on [lu^] (the) throne of His holiness.”

In this verse, unlike in the two prior couplets, <yh!l)a$ is the Divine title (“Mightiest [One]” = ‘God’); this may seem inconsistent, but it simply reflects the dual meaning of the plural term <yh!l)a$. Probably the use of <yh!l)a$ in the first line is an ‘Elohist’ substitution for the Divine name YHWH; in which case, the original form of the couplet would have been:

“YHWH is King over the nations,
(the) Mightiest sits on the throne of His holiness.”

The wordplay and the intentional contrast between YHWH (the Mightiest) and the “mighty ones” in vv. 7-8 strongly suggests that these “mighty ones” refer specifically to the gods of the nations, who are called on to admit the superiority of Israel’s God (YHWH) as King.

Verse 10 [9]

“(You) willing (one)s of (the) peoples, gather (round)
(the) people of (the) Mighty (One) of Abraham;
for to (the) Mightiest belong the protectors of (the) earth,
(and so He is) very much to be lifted up!”

Earlier in the strophe, the “mighty ones” of the nations were addressed, which, I believe, refers to the gods of the nations. The figurative turning of these ‘gods’ to acknowledge the Kingship of YHWH represents how the nations themselves will recognize the absolute superiority of YHWH. Here, however, a different plural term is used—<yb!yd!n+, which literally means “willing (one)s”, but sometimes connotes the nobility of the willing act (or of the person who so acts). It is possible, then, that the term here refers to the leaders (i.e., nobles) of the nations; if they willingly choose to gather around Israel, worshiping YHWH, the people of the nations (as a whole) will follow. There is a clear contrast between Israel (the people [<u^] of God) and the nations (the other peoples [<yMu^]).

The wording of the second couplet is awkward, and, as noted above, it is possible that the text is corrupt. The implication of the first line is that YHWH is King over all the other ‘gods’ of the nations, repeating the key theme of the second strophe. The noun /g@m* is often translated “shield”, but literally means “place of protection” or “place of cover”. It can be used as an honorific term for kings and rulers. Here the meaning is probably two-fold: (a) the royal power/authority of the nations belongs to YHWH (as King of the universe), and (b) YHWH is King over the ‘gods’ of the nations (i.e., the gods as their would-be “protectors”).

Whether the final line is correct as it stands, or has been truncated, the basic message is clear enough. Because YHWH is King over the universe, holding authority over all the nations (and their gods), he should be worshiped—i.e., exalted, “lifted up” (vb hl*u*).

In some ways, this final couplet is parallel to the central couplet of v. 6 [5] (cf. above). The worshipers “lift up” YHWH, presumably through the ritual act of carrying the Ark to the Temple sanctuary, the procession being accompanied by shouts of praise and ceremonial blowing of the horn. Now, at the close of the Psalm, all people everywhere, led by the willing/noble ones of the nations, are called upon to “lift up” YHWH in a similar manner. By “gathering (round)” Israel, the nations may follow the example of God’s chosen people, recognizing the Kingship of YHWH and giving to Him the worship that is His due.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

September 24: Deuteronomy 32:43

Deuteronomy 32:43

The final lines in verse 42 bring the great “Song of Moses” to a close. The stanza functions as a refrain, serving as the climax to the entire poem; in particular, it builds upon the preceding couplets in verses 36-42 (discussed in the previous note) with their theme of YHWH’s judgment on humankind for its wickedness and idolatry (that is, worship of deities other than YHWH). The judgment is universal and applies to all people—the surrounding nations as well as His own people Israel. In verse 41 YHWH (figuratively) swears an oath that he will bring judgment against all those who are hostile to Him; and this promise of fulfillment, with the sword He has pointed (and holds firmly), is expressed graphically in verse 42:

“I will make my arrows drunk from blood,
and my sword, it will eat up (the) flesh—
from (the) blood of (those) pierced and taken captive,
and from (the) hairy head(s) of (the) hostile (one)s!”

The precise meaning of the last line is uncertain, but, in parallel with the prior line, it would seem to refer to the decapitation of enemy warriors (and/or their chieftains). In any case, it is a rather gory scene, doubtless a bit disturbing to our modern Christian sensibilities. However, what is important to remember is that the judgment described throughout the poem refers primarily to military attack—that is, God makes use of human armies to bring judgment on other peoples. Thus, as part of the realization of such judgment, it would not be at all uncommon to find evidence of bloody bodies pierced with the sword, along with actual heads cut off; such would have been typical of warfare in the ancient world.

When we turn to verse 43, we suddenly encounter a major textual difficulty. This is another example where the Masoretic text appears to be corrupt, in this instance due, it would seem, to a portion of the verse having dropped out. Here is the MT as it has come down to us (in translation):

“Cry out, O nations, (to) His people!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land.”

Commentators have noticed the lack of poetic parallelism in the first lines, quite in contrast to the style and technique used consistently throughout the poem, and raising the possibility that the MT is incomplete. The bicolon parallelism is largely missing from v. 43, which, in the Masoretic Text, consists of 2 bicola (4 lines). Yet there is parallelism overlapping in the second and third cola, suggesting that there are perhaps two lines missing (just prior and after):

Make a shout (then), (you) nations, (for) His people,
{missing line?}
For He will take vengeance (for) the blood of His servants,
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him.
{missing line?}
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land!”

Indeed, the Greek version is more complete, and, in part, this has been confirmed by the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutq, where v. 43 reads as follows (note the differences in italics):

“O heavens, cry out [i.e. rejoice] with Him!
Bow (down) to Him, all Mighty Ones [i.e. gods]!
For he will take vengeance (for) the blood of His sons,
and return vengeance to (the one)s hostile to Him,
He will treat those who reject Him (as they deserve),
and will wipe away [i.e. cleanse] His people’s land.”

The text of verse 43 in this Qumran MS has three bicola (6 lines), which much more accurately preserve the three-beat bicolon (3:3) strophic structure and parallelism characteristic of the rest of the poem. The Septuagint Greek is more expansive, which could indicate its secondary character. The first lines, in particular, appear to conflate (combine) the text from 4QDeutq and MT:

“Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O heavens, with Him,
and kiss toward [i.e. worship] Him, all (you) sons of God!
Be of good mind [i.e. rejoice], O nations, with His people,
and let all the Messengers of God strengthen themselves in Him!

Based on the evidence from the Septuagint, it is possible that the original text read “sons of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ yn@B=, b®nê °E_lœhîm) rather than “Mighty Ones” (<yh!ýa$, °§lœhîm). The reading of the Septuagint for the first bicolon actually appears to be a conflation of two variant Hebrew versions, one corresponding to a text like 4QDeutq, and the other a precursor of the MT—resulting in four lines.

It is easy to see how the word <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm “gods”, LXX “sons of God”), along with the line containing it, might have dropped out or been omitted during the process of transmission. It could have been misunderstood as supporting polytheism in some way (i.e. the existence of other deities), even if here the plural <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm lit. “mighty ones”, in the sense of “divine beings”) is referring to heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels of YHWH) and not pagan deities as such. The LXX wording (“sons of God”) more accurately reflects the typical Hebrew usage in the Old Testament (see Psalm 29:1, etc; but note Psalm 97:7). In favor of the Septuagint reading is the close association of the nations and the deities (or Angels), such as we saw in what is likely the original reading of verse 8 (cf. the earlier note on this verse). Yet the Qumran text strikes me as being more precise and favorable to the ancient poetic (and religious) outlook. The call to the heavens also serves as a fitting conclusion, functioning as a parallel to the opening words of the poem (v. 1, “Give ear, O heavens…”).

Clearly, in the Qumran MS, divine/heavenly beings are being addressed. In the MT, and the second part of the conflate Septuagint text, it is the nations, who ‘belong’ to those divine beings, who are being addressed. In terms of the overall message of the poem, both aspects go hand in hand. However, if we adopt the text of 4QDeutq, with its emphasis on the relationship of YHWH to the other ‘deities’ (an aspect that is mitigated in the MT), then the coda of verse 43 actually functions effectively as a kind of summary of the entire poem:

    • Bicolon 1: Address to the heavens and divine/heavenly beings
      • Parallel to the opening address (vv. 1-3) and first section(s) of the poem, which establish the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the other nations (vv. 4-9ff)
    • Bicolon 2: Promise to pay back the suffering inflicted upon Israel (by other peoples) during the time of judgment
      • Parallel to the central sections focusing on Israel’s violation of the covenant, judgment upon them, and subsequent restoration (vv. 15-25ff)
    • Bicolon 3: The declaration of universal judgment on those who reject YHWH, with a promise of restoration/vindication for Israel
      • Parallel to the closing sections of the poem (vv. 26-42, esp. verses 36-42)


Finally, it is worth noting the relationship of the poem to the narration that follows in verses 44-47ff. It picks up the Deuteronomic narrative from where it left off (at the end of chapter 31), continuing with the same line of thought. The purpose (and importance) of the poem is re-stated, setting it in context with the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. The “all these words” and “this Instruction” refer to everything recorded in the book of Deuteronomy—all of Moses’ discourses to the people, together with the poem of chapter 32—all of which is aimed at exhorting the people to be loyal to the covenant with YHWH, adhering to the terms of the covenant, outlined in the Instruction (tôrâ, Torah):

“…You should charge your sons [i.e. children] to watch [i.e. take care] to do all the words [i.e. everything as it is stated] in this Instruction.”

According to the ancient Near Eastern religious-cultural mindset, abiding by the terms of the covenant was of the utmost importance (for more on this, cf. the current articles on the Covenant in the series “The People of God”). Violation of them was thought to result (potentially) in terrible consequences, including death and destruction, suffering and disease, etc—the judgment of God (or the divine powers) released upon those who break the agreement. This is expressed most clearly in the vivid and graphic language of the poem (see above), but also in the closing words of the narrative here:

“For (indeed) it is not an empty word for you—it (is) your (very) life! and by this word you will lengthen (your) days upon the land which you are crossing over the Yarden {Jordan} there to possess.”

That is to say, if the people of Israel (and their descendants) will adhere faithfully to the Instruction, the terms of the covenant, then they will live long and secure in their Promised Land.

September 23: Deuteronomy 32:36-42

Deuteronomy 32:36-42

These verses continue the themes from the previous sections, blending together two aspects of YHWH’s judgment against the wickedness and idolatry of humankind: (1) His judgment against His people Israel (vv. 19-25, discussed in a prior note), and (2) the judgment against the other Nations (vv. 32-35, cf. the previous note). Both sides of the judgment are combined here. The basis, or reason for the judgment, in each instance, is given in vv. 15-18 and 26-31, respectively.

Wickedness is defined primarily in terms of idolatry—which, according the religious/theological standpoint of Deuteronomy, simply means acknowledgement and worship of any deity other than YHWH. While not stated expressly, the basic premise is that these other deities (<yh!ýa$, “mighty [one]s”) have no real existence; certainly, they do not have the power which the true Creator God (El-Yahweh) possesses. A mocking polemic against polytheism is very much present throughout the Song, though it has not yet reached the sharp level it would in the subsequent Prophetic tradition.

Verse 36

Indeed, YHWH will make judgment (for) His people,
and obtain relief Himself over His servants.

This initial couplet provides the joining point for the two aspects of the judgment noted above. It plays on a dual-sense for both verbs /yD! (“judge, make/bring judgment”) and <j^n`. The latter verb has a semantic range that is difficult to capture in English; the basic meaning is something like “find relief”, in a more literal sense being roughly comparable to the English idiom “take a deep breath”. It is often used in a transferred, figurative sense, for the resolution of a point of conflict or tension; here the judicial aspect is prominent—e.g., of a plaintiff receiving relief or satisfaction for a wrong or crime committed against him. Both verbs can be understood here in terms of YHWH’s judgment against Israel, for their blatant violations of the covenant (vv. 15-25), but also of judgment on behalf of Israel—i.e., against the other nations. Both aspects are woven through the following lines.

Verses 37-38

For He shall see, when (their) hand goes away,
and (they are at) an end, closed up and abandoned;
and He shall say, “Where (are) their ‘Mighty (One)s’,
(the) ‘Rock’ in (who)m they sought protection,
(the ones) who ‘ate’ (the) fat of their slaughterings,
(who) ‘drank’ (the) wine of their (offering)s poured out?
May they stand up and help you (now)!
Let (them) be a covering [i.e. protection] over you!”

God does bring judgment against His people; but then, when they have been defeated and are helpless, having endured the proper punishment, He finally moves to act again on their behalf. The way this judgment is framed here implies that Israel has effectively become just like the other nations, trusting in other deities rather than YHWH. They meet with a comparable fate for such ‘idolatry’; only at the brink of destruction will they come to realize their folly. This is expressed in terms of a taunt by YHWH, condemning (and mocking) His people for trusting in other deities. This taunt in verse 37ff is part of the announcement of judgment on the nations that shapes the remaining lines:

He [i.e. YHWH] will say, “Where are their ‘Mighty Ones’,
the ‘Rock’ in whom they sought protection …?”

This expresses again the principle that the deities worshiped by the nations are not “Mighty” (la@ °E~l, i.e. God) in the same sense that YHWH is. The distinction between them and YHWH is made all the more clear by use of the divine title rWx (“Rock”), which was used specifically to identify YHWH as Israel’s God (emphasizing the special covenant-bond between them) in vv. 4, 15, 18.

Verse 39

Even more pointed is the declaration in verse 39:

“See then that I—I am He
and there are no ‘Mighty Ones’ with me!
I cause death, and I give life,
I smashed, and I will heal—
and there is no one snatching from my hand!”

While it would be a mistake to read this as a statement of absolute monotheism, it does point in that direction. Certainly it reflects the principle expressed in the first command of the Decalogue, which is central to Israelite monotheism (Exod 20:2-3; Deut 5:6-7). It is never quite stated in Deuteronomy that the deities of the surrounding nations do not exist, only that they are not comparable to YHWH and do not have anything like the same power or nature (Deut 3:24, etc). God’s ultimate judgment on the surrounding nations is essentially a condemnation of their deities, and a demonstration of their weakness compared to YHWH. Indeed, it is clear from the second bicolon (and concluding colon) in verse 39 that only YHWH truly has the power to give life and take it away (i.e. through the disasters to come in time of Judgment):

(For) I bring death and give life,
I smashed (them) and I will heal

Verses 40-41

“For I lift my hand to (the) heavens,
and I say: ‘(As) I live, (in)to (the) distant (future),
if I should point my flashing sword,
and my hand take firm hold in judgment,
I will return vengeance for the (one)s hostile (to) me,
and for the (one)s hating me I will complete (it in turn)!'”

A final thought in the poem—a warning to all people—is that YHWH’s judgment is universal, it applies both to the nations and also to His own people Israel when they violate the covenant (v. 41b, see also v. 43 below). This announcement is framed as a formal/solemn vow or oath, using the traditional convention of raising one’s hand and uttering a binding oath formula (“As I live…”, “By my life…”). It emphasizes that YHWH will bring judgment against those who are hostile (rx^) to Him and who “hate” Him (vb an~v*). The idea of hostility/hatred toward God is simply another way of referring to the acknowledgement/worship of deities other than YHWH; but it also implies a connection between ‘idolatry’ and other sorts of wickedness and violence (cp. Paul’s discussion in Romans 1:18-32).

The vengeance-language in verse 41a echoes that used earlier in v. 35a (cf. the previous note). I discussed the use of the verb <l^v* there, translating it in the fundamental sense of “make whole”; here I have shifted the translation slightly, to capture the sense of reciprocal punishment, with the idea that the hostility directed toward YHWH will be turned back upon the wicked. I render the verb above as “(make) complete”, that is, to complete the hostility of the wicked by bringing upon them the proper punishment that is due.

This idea of reciprocity is important, and is central, indeed, to the ancient covenant idea—punishment is made according to the nature and mode of the crime, the violation being “paid back” in kind. The closing bicola of verse 42 offer a final, graphic expression of the divine Judgment. I will discuss v. 42, along with the concluding lines of the Song (verse 43), in the next daily note.

September 21: Deuteronomy 32:26-31

Deuteronomy 32:26-31

Before proceeding, here is a reminder of the structure of the bulk of the poem:

    • 4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
      —The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
      —His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
      —His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
      —His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)

      —Concern for how this will be perceived by Israel’s enemies (vv. 26-31)
      —Plans to bring punishment on Israel’s enemies in turn (vv. 32-35)
      —Ultimate justice/deliverance for His people, and judgment on His enemies (vv. 36-41)

Verses 26-31 belong to this second division; vv. 19-25 (discussed in the previous note) narrate the punishment to be brought on the people as a result of their violation of the covenant. That this punishment would be both severe and deadly is clear enough from the dramatic language and imagery used. However, it would not result in the complete destruction of the people, nor is their any hint of a future Exile. Instead, we see in verses 26ff a theme of deliverance emerge. It follows the same line of thought as in the Golden Calf narrative in Exodus 32ff—Israel will suffer a devastating punishment, ceasing to be God’s people in the way that they were under the covenant bond; at the same time, because of YHWH’s own goodness and mercy, and through the intercession of Moses, the people will not be cut off completely, but will be restored to YHWH as His people under the covenant. Just as Moses appealed to YHWH’s honor, referring to how this punishment on Israel would be perceived by the surrounding nations (Exod 33:13-16), so we find the same thought expressed emphatically in the Song; indeed, it is a theme that dominates vv. 26-42.

Central to the entire poem is the contrast between YHWH and the deities recognized by other nations; it is the same contrast that effectively separates Israel (as YHWH’s own people) from the other peoples (who ‘belong’ to other deities, see the earlier note on verse 8). Because of this, YHWH (and His own honor) cannot allow the nations to triumph over Israel completely, though they may attack and inflict immense suffering and destruction on the people and land (vv. 23-25). This is expressed in the opening lines of this portion of the poem (vv. 26-27), and could (almost) be understood as reflecting a kind of personal insecurity on the part of YHWH:

I said “I shall split them to pieces,
stop (all) memory of them for man(kind)!”
were it not [i.e. except] that I feared provoking the enemy,
lest (those) oppressing them look at (this),
lest they say “Our hand is lifted high—
and YHWH did not make all this (happen)!”

The focus is on curbing the wicked/fleshly ambitions and aspirations of the surrounding nations. However, to understand the lines correctly in context, we must realize the true significance of this aspect. The success of the other nations (over Israel) might lead people everywhere to think that their deities were equal (or superior) to YHWH. Thus the rhetoric and mode of expression here is fundamentally theological.

In terms of the religious and historical tradition, the emphasis is the same as we saw expressed in the Golden Calf episode, in which Moses appeals to YHWH’s reputation (i.e., the honor of His “name”), which would be tarnished if He allowed His people to perish (Exod 32:11ff; 33:13-16). The principle is well-expressed in 1 Samuel 12:22, and in a number of other traditional passages. The implication is that the nations who might dishonor YHWH, in their reaction to Israel’s fate, are especially unworthy, for the simple reason that, contrary to Israel, they acknowledge and worship lesser/false deities rather than the true God. This is the point of emphasis in verses 28-30:

“For they (are) a nation perishing (in their) purpose,
and there is no discernment in them;
would that they were wise! they would consider this,
(and) would discern what follows (for) them!”

Even so, some of these foolish nations will actually be used by YHWH to bring judgment on His people. This is one of the ironies of the Prophetic history, beginning here in the book of Deuteronomy, where the devastating military invasions which Israel will endure—and vividly documented in the ‘Deuteronomic History’ in the books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings—are clearly presented as prophecies of future events. Yet, here in the poem, they are treated as something which has already occurred, suggesting that the poem itself was composed sometime after Israel had settled in the land. This is certainly the general critical view of the matter, which would be completely tenable even if the poem is to be dated in the 11th century, for example (cf. the narratives of conquest in the book of Judges). The more traditional-conservative view preserves the true predictive nature of the poem as stemming ostensibly from the time of Moses, as the setting of the book indicates. Grammatically, the perfect (i.e. past tense) can sometimes be used in reference to future events—the so-called prophetic perfect.

In any case, the context of military defeat and conquest for Israel is clearly in view here in verse 30:

“How could one give pursuit (to) a thousand,
or a pair put a multitude to flight
if (it were) not that their Rock sold them (off),
and YHWH caused them to be shut (in bondage)?”

The traditional motif of a few routing a multitude in battle is an exaggeration meant to express the idea of an unexpected (and humiliating) defeat. It does not necessarily mean that Israel would be conquered by a numerically smaller force. Such defeat would be unexpected since, as the people of YHWH, Israel should have been under God’s protection and power; however, by violating the covenant, Israel lost that protection, and could be conquered by another nation. Moreover, such conquest itself was part of the punishment for violating the covenant, as the curse-section in Deut 28:25ff clearly shows. The surrounding nations could only conquer Israel if YHWH first “sold” them off (vb rk^m*), giving them over into the nations’ power, allowing (or causing) them to be “closed up” (vb rg~s*) in bondage.

The severity of this punishment goes beyond the actual suffering and destruction experienced by the people, for it strikes at the very heart of the idea that Israel is the chosen people of YHWH. In being conquered by ‘foolish’ nations who worship other (false) deities, there is effectively a repudiation of that identity as God’s people. Yet the repudiation is not absolute or complete—such is the prevailing message of vv. 26ff. YHWH will retain the distinction between Israel and the surrounding nations, if only for the faithful remnant who will come through the terrible punishment.

Ultimately, this distinction rests on the contrast between YHWH, the true “Mighty One” and Creator, and all the other deities worshiped by the nations. The declaration in verse 31, expressing the thought of the poet/people rather than YHWH’s own pronouncement in the prior lines, is a good example of the principle:

“For not like our Rock is their ‘Rock’
nor (the one)s our enemies (trust as) guardians.”

The precise meaning and syntax of the second line is uncertain, but poetic parallelism suggests that the plural noun (or participle) <yl!yl!P= (p®lîlîm) should be related to Akkadian palilu used as an epithet of deities (JPS:Tigay, pp. 310, 404). “Rock” (rWx, ‚ûr) of course is used as a divine name throughout the poem (cf. on verse 4), parallel with °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God).

September 15: Deuteronomy 32:10-14


A brief history of Israel is narrated in vv. 10-18, which may be divided into two sections (see the outline in the previous note):

    • His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
    • His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)

Verses 10-14 is itself divided into two portions, 4 bicola each, with a YHWH-theological bicolon (v. 12, compare v. 9) in between. Here is my translation of vv. 10-12:

10He found him in (the) land out back,
and in an empty howling waste(land);
He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
watched over him like the center of His eye.
11Like an eagle stirred (to guard) his nest,
(who) hovers over the young of his (nest),
He spread out his wings and took him (in),
carried him upon the strength of his (wing)s.
12By Himself did YHWH lead him,
and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!

Thematically we may divide the two portions as follows:

    • Vv. 10-11—The finding/choosing and rescue of Israel [Exodus]
      • Image of eagle swooping down to pick up its young (v. 11)
      • The eagle flying back up to place its young in a high/safe location (v. 13)
    • VV. 13-14—The settlement of Israel in a good/fertile land

This narrative poetry works on a number of levels, as we can see by the inset imagery of the eagle’s protection of its young, with a descent/ascent motif. In addition, there are all sorts of colorful details in vv. 10-18 which could be subject to a rich historical-critical analysis. While this is beyond the scope of this study, it would be worth comparing these lines to the narrative of the Exodus and Settlement in the Pentateuch, as well as other poetic treatments of the same (or similar) historical traditions. Let us briefly examine the language used in verse 10.

In these four lines (a pair of 3+3 bicola), there is expressed the theme of YHWH finding/choosing Israel as his people. It is a poetic description, and not tied to any one historical tradition. The main motif is the desert setting (rB*d=m!, a place “out back” or hinterland, cf. below), an image which would appear repeatedly in Israelite/Jewish thought over the centuries. It is a multi-faceted (and multivalent) image; here I would highlight the following aspects and associations:

    • The idea of a formless wasteland echoes the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology and, specifically, the Creation account preserved in Genesis 1. The same word WhT) (tœhû) occurs in Gen 1:2, describing the condition of the universe (“heaven and earth”) prior to the beginning of Creation proper (i.e. the ordering of the universe, in the context of Genesis 1). In the Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, this primeval condition is typically understood as a dark watery mass (and so also in Gen 1:2); here, however, this tœhû (emphasizing formlessness and chaos/confusion) is applied to the desolation of the desert (as a “wasteland”).
    • The allusion to creation means that, in a real sense, the people of Israel comes into existence (or is ‘born’) in the desert. This can be understood from several perspectives:
      (a) The ‘desert’ setting of Egypt and the Exodus, out of which the people truly came (as in a birth)
      (b) The religious ‘birth’ of Israel in connection with Sinai—introduction of YHWH, the meaning/significance of His name, place of His manifestation, etc (Exod 3; 19ff)
      (c) The period of labor in the wanderings throughout the Sinai desert, during which the people of Israel came to be ‘born’

Each bicolon of verse 10 illustrates a different side of this setting, from the standpoint of Israel’s relationship to YHWH:

    • Bicolon 1 (10a)—the emptiness, danger, etc. of the desert/wasteland
    • Bicolon 2 (10b)—the complete care and protection given by YHWH

It is a stark contrast—i.e. the world with and without God’s presence—and one that is enhanced by the parallelism that is characteristic of ancient Hebrew poetry. This parallelism is built into the 3-beat bicolon meter and structure of the poem, and which is typical of much ancient Semitic/Canaanite poetry. In an earlier study, I demonstrated this meter/structure visually; however, let us consider verse 10 in particular. As indicated above, the verse is made up of a pair of bicola (i.e. four lines), each with three stressed syllables, or beats. There is a definite parallelism in each bicolon, with the second line (colon) parallel to the first. Here is a breakdown of the lines, with the parallelism indicated by indenting the second colon (as is commonly done in translations of poetry); the specific points of parallelism are marked by italics:

    • “He found him in (the) land out back,
      Yimƒ¹°¢¡nû b®°éreƒ mi¼b¹¡r
      • and in an empty howling waste(land);
        û»¾œ¡hû y®l¢¡l y®šimœ¡n
    • He encircled him, watched him (carefully),
      y®sœ»»énhû¡ y®bônn¢¡hû
      • watched over him like the center of His eye.
        yiƒrénhû k®°îšôn ±ênô

The parallelism in vv. 10-12 would be called synonymous—the second line essentially restating the first, but with a greater intensity or pointedness. For example, in the first line of 10a, the common word rB*d=m! (mi¼b¹r) is used; originally indicating something like “remote, far back/away (place)”, it typically refers to the open space of the desert or wilderness. However, in the second line (10b), a more graphic description of this desert region follows, utilizing all three words of the line: (a) WhT) (“formless, cf. above), (b) ll@y+ (“howling”), and (c) /m)yv!y+ (“desolate/waste [land]”). The sequence of words together gives a vivid sense of chaos and danger. Similarly, in 10c, YHWH’s action is straightforward: “He encircled him, he watched him (carefully)”, with two suffixed verb forms, creating a calm, stable rhythm, as though resolving the harshness of 10b. This is followed (in 10d) by a more intimate and personalized description: “he watched over him like the center [/ovya!] of his eye“. In English idiom we might say “like the apple of his eye”; literally it refers to the center, or “pupil” of the eye, as a way of describing the focus of one’s attention and care.

In vv. 13-14, the parallelism shifts to what is commonly referred to as synthetic parallelism—whereby the second line builds on the first, developing the thought in a more complex way. Consider, for example, the first bicolon (two lines) in verse 13:

    • “He made him sit upon the heights of the earth,
      • and he would eat (the) produce of the (fertile) land.”

The waw-conjunction is epexegetical, indicating the purpose or result of YHWH’s action in the first line—i.e. “and then [i.e. so that] he [i.e. Israel] would eat…”. Moreover, Israel’s position in the heights (like an eagle) makes it possible for him to feast on the fruit produced in the fertile open land (yd*v*) down below. This imagery of the richness of the land continues on through the remainder of vv. 13-14, each bicolon developing in a similar fashion, concluding with a single extra line, for effect (v. 14e). The vocabulary of verse 14 is a bit difficult at a couple of points, in what is otherwise a fine, vivid poetic description of the produce (hb*WnT=) of the land (v. 13) which the people are able to enjoy—from both flock and field:

“Curdled (milk) of cattle and (milk)fat of sheep,
(along) with (the) fatted (parts) of lambs,
and strong (ram)s, (the) sons of Bashan,
(along) with (the) fat (kernel)s inside (the) grain
and (the) blood of grape(s) you drink bubbling (red)!”

The shift from “he” to “you” makes this final line more dramatic and jarring, as also the slightly ominous allusion (“blood…red”) to the judgment theme that follows in vv. 15ff.

In the middle of the four tropes of vv. 10-14, dividing the two sections precisely, is a middle trope (v. 12), a single bicolon, that is decidedly theological, and perfectly placed at the center of the poetic narrative. It is especially important, in that it looks back upon the opening portions of the poem, and ahead to the key (dualistic) themes that dominate the remainder. It is worth examining v. 12 briefly:

    • By Himself did YHWH lead him,
      YHWH b¹¼¹¼ yanµenû
      • and no foreign ‘Mighty One’ was with him!
        w®°ên ±immô °¢l n¢k¹r

This parallelism could be called both synonymous and antithetic—the second line essentially restates the first, but also makes the opposite point, i.e. it was YHWH and not any other foreign ‘God’. Conceptually, this can be illustrated by way of chiasm:

    • YHWH (the true Mighty One)
      • by Himself, separate [dd*B*]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [/ya@] with Him [oMu!]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [la@]

This contrast between YHWH and the other ‘deities’ of the surrounding nations, already emphasized in vv. 8-9 (see above), will take on even greater prominence in the remainder of the poem. This will be discussed in more detail in the next daily note (on vv. 15-18).

September 14: Deuteronomy 32:7-9

In the previous note, we looked at verses 4-6 of the “Song of Moses”; now we proceed to verses 7-9 and lines following (down through verse 18). Verses 4-18 actually form a major section of the poem, as indicated from the earlier outline I presented:

1-3: Opening (exordium)—Call to Creation (heaven and earth)

4-18: God’s covenant with His people Israel, and their violation of the covenant
—The Creator God (YHWH) as their Father (vv. 4-6)
—His choice of Israel as His people, becoming their God (vv. 7-9)
—His protection and guidance during the Exodus and wilderness travels (vv. 10-14)
—His people turned away from Him, worshiping foreign gods (vv. 15-18)

The lines of vv. 4-18 comprise a summary of Israelite history, the parameters of which raise interesting (and important) historical-critical and literary-critical questions, which shall be discussed.

Verses 7-9

From the opening theme of YHWH as the Creator and Father of Israel (and all humankind), the poem progresses to the choice of Israel as the unique people of YHWH. Here are the lines in translation:

7Remember the days of (the) distant (past),
consider the years age(s) and age(s past);
ask your father and he will put (it) before you,
your old men and they will show (it) to you.
8In the Highest’s giving property (to the) nations,
in his separating (out) the sons of man,
he set up (the) boundaries of the peoples,
according to the count of the sons of the Mightiest.
9Yet YHWH’s (own) portion is His people,
Ya’aqob His own property measured (out).

The verse numbering accurately reflects the division of this section:

    • A call to remember and repeat (through oral tradition) the account of Israel’s history (v. 7)
    • The dividing of humankind into the nations/peoples (v. 8)
    • Israel as YHWH’s own nation/people (v. 9)

Verse 7 functions as the trope that sets the poetic/rhythmic pattern (a pair of 3-beat [3+3] bicola) for the section, followed by the (narrative) trope in verse 8, and a single bicolon theological trope emphasizing the covenant with YHWH (v. 9). The exhortation in v. 7 is entirely in keeping with the traditional narrative setting in chapter 31 (discussed previously), with an emphasis on the need to transmit the (Mosaic) instruction, contained in the book of Deuteronomy, to the generations that follow. In particular, Israel is to preserve and transmit the poem of chap. 32.

There is a major text-critical issue in verse 8; the Masoretic Text (MT) of the lines reads:

<y]oG /oyl=u# lh@n+h^B=
<d*a* yn@B= odyr!p=h^B=
<yM!u^ týb%G+ bX@y~
la@r*c=y] yn@B= rP^s=m!l=
B®hanµ¢l ±Elyôn gôyim
b®ha¸rî¼ô b®nê °¹¼¹m
yaƒƒ¢» g®»¥lœ¾ ±ammîm
l®mispar b®nê Yi´r¹°¢l

“In the Most High’s giving posessions (to) the nations,
in His breaking apart [i.e. separating] the sons of man,
He set the boundaries of the peoples,
to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of Israel.”

The last line has always struck commentators as a bit peculiar. Since the context overall suggests the dispersal of the nations (following the traditions in Genesis 10-11), occurring long before Israel was a people, establishment of the traditional number of nations (seventy, according to Gen 10) in terms of the number of Israel’s descendants (Exod 1:1-5; Deut 10:22, etc) seems somewhat out of place. Many commentators were drawn to the alternate reading in the Greek version (Septuagint, LXX), which, instead of “according to the sons of Israel”, reads “according to the Messengers of God” (kata/ a)riqmo/n a)gge/lwn qeou=, katá arithmón angélœn Theoú). This version of the text finds confirmation in one of the Deuteronomy manuscripts from Qumran (4QDeutj):

<yh!ýa$ yn@B= rP^s=m!l=
l®mispar b®nê °E_lœhîm

“…(according) to the count [i.e. number] of the sons of God”

The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic term for divine beings—”gods” generally, in Canaanite religion. Within the context of Israelite monotheism, this idea was modified so as to refer to heavenly beings, i.e. Angels (“Messengers”), who are not to be worshiped as gods. A traditional number of seventy such beings goes all the way back to ancient Canaanite religious lore, and was preserved in Israelite and Jewish writings. This variant reading would seem to be confirmed again by the context of verse 8 within the Song. An important theme throughout, as we shall see, is the need for Israel to serve and worship only Yahweh, and not to follow after the other nations, who worship other ‘deities’ (such as represented by the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies). While the other nations may have been allotted to various heavenly beings, Israel is God’s own portion (v. 9).

Elsewhere in Deuteronomy (4:19-20) we find similar language to 32:8-9, which suggests again that the reading of 4QDeutj may be original. Indeed, a tradition reflecting this reading is preserved in Jewish writings, such as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and the “Sayings of Rabbi Eliezer” (chap. 24). The Targum makes reference to “the seventy angels, princes of the nations”, in the context of the the Tower of Babel episode and the dispersal of the nations. For a good discussion, see J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary (1996), pp. 514-5 (Excursus 31).

Based on this evidence, then, it would seem that the reading in the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutj, and reflected in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, is more likely to be original. Along with many modern commentators, I would thus (with considerable confidence) emend the text from “sons of Israel” (la@r*c=y] yn@B=) to “sons of the Mightiest [i.e. God]” (<yh!ýa$ yn@B=). Even beyond the relative strength of this textual variant, there are internal factors—the context of both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy, as noted above—which provides decisive evidence in favor of this reading:

    1. A careful study of the poem reveals a contrast between YHWH (Israel’s God) and the foreign deities of the surrounding nations. This is a central theme that runs through the poem, especially in vv. 15ff. It is also a primary aspect of the Deuteronomic teaching and theology, both in the book itself, and as played out in the “Deuteronomistic History” of Samuel–Kings. Turning away from proper worship of YHWH, to the deities of the surrounding peoples, is the fundamental violation of the covenant which brings judgment to Israel.
    2. The closest parallel, in 4:19-20, indicates that the nations belong to other ‘deities’ (such as those powers seen as connected with the heavenly bodies), while Israel alone belongs to YHWH. The wording in the poem, assuming the LXX/Qumran reading to be correct, likely expresses this in a more general way. The expression “sons of God” is an ancient Semitic/Canaanite idiom, referring to gods/deity generally, but also specifically in relation to the Creator °El (the “Mighty One”). In the subsequent development of Israelite monotheism, there was no place for any other deities, and the concept shifted to heavenly beings simply as servants or “Messengers” (i.e. angels) of YHWH (the Creator, identified with °El).

Indeed, what we see in vv. 8-9 is this contrast played out as a key theological principle: (a) the nations and their ‘deities’ (distinct from the Creator YHWH), and (b) Israel who belongs to YHWH. Note the chiasm in verse 8 when the LXX/Qumran reading is adopted:

    • The Highest (±Elyôn)
      • the nations [70]
        • separating the sons of man (ethnicity)
        • setting boundaries for the people (territory)
      • the sons (of God) [trad. 70]
    • The Mightiest (°Elœhîm)

While this is the situation for the other peoples, for Israel it is different (v. 9)—they have a direct relationship with the Creator YHWH:

    • YHWH’s (own) portion [ql#j@]
      • Israel (“His people”) / Jacob
    • His (own) property measured out [hl*j&n~ lebej]

And it is this relationship that is expounded in verses 10ff, which we will examine in the next daily note.