March 8: Psalm 68:8-11

Strophe 3: Psalm 68:8-11 [7-10]

The second strophe was examined in the previous note; on the structure of Psalm 68, see the introductory study.

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mightiest, in your going forth
before (the) face of your people,
in your stepping in (the) desolate (land),”

Syntactically, this verse (a 2-beat tricolon) is only the first part of a statement that extends into the next verse. It is interrupted by a Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker. As I mentioned in the introductory study, a pause-marker occurs following the initial couplet of the third strophe in all three parts of the Psalm. This may indicate that the first couplet establishes a musical pattern for the strophe, like the hirmos in a Greek liturgical ode. Even so, its occurrence at the midway point of a grammatical sentence is most unusual.

In the previous note, I mentioned that the final couplet of verse 7 likely contained an allusion to the Exodus tradition (spec. the years of wandering in the desert). This would seem to be confirmed by the rather clear reference to the Exodus here in v. 8. There is also a bit of wordplay, picked up from v. 7, in the use of the verb ax*y` (“go/come out”). In the middle line of verse 7, the Psalmist refers to God bringing bound prisoners out of their confinement. This was a part of a general reference to YHWH acting on behalf of the poor and oppressed (the righteous). Here, the reference is to the specific historical tradition of God bringing His people out of their bondage in Egypt. In doing so, YHWH Himself goes out in front of them (“before the face of your people”), leading the way. The image in the third line is of God marching right there with his people, stepping (vb du^x*) along in the “desolate land” (/omyv!y+).

Verse 9 [8]

“(the) earth shook,
(the) heavens dropped (rain),
from (the) face of (the) Mightiest
—the (One) of Sinai,
from (the) face of (the) Mightiest
—(the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael!”

As noted above, this verse continues the statement begun in v. 8; grammatically, vv. 8-9 form a single sentence-unit. The verse contains six 2-beat lines, and is best parsed as a couplet, followed by a hymnic quatrain, with the kind of repetition that is typical of the earliest Hebrew psalm-poetry.

The response of earth and heaven to the approach of YHWH should be understood on two levels. First, it reflects the authority and control that God has over the cosmos. This was discussed in the previous note (on v. 5). Certainly the mention of the heavens dropping (vb [f^n`) rain follows the imagery in v. 5 of YHWH as “Rider on the Clouds” (cf. also Deut 33:26), with His control over the heavens and their rain-water. The shaking (vb vu^r*) of the earth is also a response to YHWH’s authoritative command.

At the same time, these disturbances in nature are a sign of fear. Indeed, the “dripping” of moisture (rain) could be understood in terms of a person sweating, out of fear. Poetically, the forces of nature are personified as beings who react (with the emotion of fear and awe) to the presence and power of YHWH. In the context of ancient Near Eastern polytheism, the forces of nature were either thought of as being themselves deities, or as under the manifest control of personal deities.

The association of YHWH with Sinai is an indication that this poetry is part of the same ancient line of tradition, dealing with the Exodus and Conquest, that we see, for example, in Judges 5:4-5 and Deut 33:2-3 (cf. also Hab 3:3-6). The expression yn~ys! hz# (“the [one] of Sinai”) also occurs in Judg 5:5. The demonstrative-relative particle z/d reflects ancient Semitic usage, which was preserved in old/archaic Hebrew poetry, after its use had largely disappeared during the classical/kingdom period. It is represented as early as the 15th century proto-Canaanite (Sinaitic) inscriptions: i.e., °l ¼ ±lm (°il ¼¥ ±ôlami), meaning something like “(the) Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of eternity”; cf, Cross, pp. 18-20; Dahood, II, p. 139.

Verse 10 [9]

“Rainfall of willingness
you made drop, O Mightiest;
your inheritance and <dominion>,
you (yourself) established it.”

Again, the principal motif is on rainfall (here, <v#G#), emphasizing YHWH’s role as controller of the heavens, utilizing the ancient religious idiom of the storm-theophany. If the specific emphasis in v. 9 was on the Exodus, here it is on the establishment of God’s people (Israel) in the Promised Land. This, of course, implied the historical tradition of the Conquest, but here the primary idea is on YHWH providing for His people—principally by the bringing of rain to make the land fruitful.

The unusual expression “rain of willingness [tobd*n+]” connotes something which God gives willingly and in abundance—i.e., generously; the plural form tobd*n+ could indicate multiple/repeated gifts of rain, or it could be understood in a collective (or intensive) sense.

The noun hl*j&n~ (“inheritance, hereditary possession”) refers to both the people and the land, as belonging to YHWH; it also alludes to the covenantal idea of the land (of Canaan) as the territory which Israel would inherit. This is an important component of the ancient Exodus tradition, as expressed notably, for example, in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:17 [discussed in an earlier note]).

The pairing of hlj&n~ and ha*l=n] almost certainly needs to be understood in light of the similar pairing of nhlty (“my inheritance”) and tliyt (“my dominion”) in Canaanite poetry (cf. the closing lines of the repeated refrain in the Baal Epic, III, col. 3, 30-31, etc). This suggests that the MT ha*l=n] (whether or not textually corrupt) is related to the Ugaritic root l°y, denoting the use of strength/might, i.e., “prevail, overcome”; cf. Dahood, II, pp. 139f. Thus, the land of Canaan, in which God’s people would be settled, is His dominion, to be established through the exercise of His might. This, again is an integral part of the Exodus/Conquest tradition in ancient Hebrew poetry—cf. Exod 15:17, where the same verb /WK (in the Polel) is used.

Verse 11 [10]

“Your family (that) dwells in it,
you established in your good(ness),
(even) for (the) afflicted, O Mightiest!”

I follow Dahood (II, p. 140) in relating tyj to Ugaritic µwt, referring to a family-line or ‘house’; cf. also 2 Sam 23:13. The Israelite people are thus understood, according to tradition, as a royal household belonging to YHWH, similar to the idea of Israel as God’s hereditary possession. He established them in the Promised Land; again the verb /WK is used, however this verb can also connote the idea of making something ready or prepared, making provision, etc. This would well fit the motif of YHWH bringing the blessing of abundant rainfall, making the land fruitful for His people.

The last line revisits the theme from vv. 6-7, emphasizing the concern and care God has for the poor and afflicted. Throughout the Psalms, the adjective yn]u* (“pressed [down], oppressed, afflicted”) occurs frequently (29 times out of 73 OT occurrences), usually as a general designation for the righteous (and often emphasizing their mistreatment by the wicked). It is part of a wider Wisdom-emphasis, on the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, that is quite prevalent in the Psalms.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, (Harvard University Press: 1973).

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