Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80 (Part 2)

Psalm 80, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

Each of the stanzas of Psalm 80 begin with a similar refrain; here in verse 8 we have a slight expansion of the refrain in verse 4 (cf. the previous study). Some commentators would emend v. 4 to read “Mighty [One] of the armies”, as here in v. 8. For the expression “YHWH of the armies”(toab*x= hwhy), see the note on v. 5 in the previous study. As Creator, YHWH has command of the armies of heaven—the divine beings and the heavenly/celestial phenomena they inhabit/control; these armies fight on behalf of His people Israel, when God so wills it.

Verse 9 [8]

“A vine you did pull out from Egypt;
you drove out (the) nations and planted her.”

This second stanza summarizes the chief event(s) of the formative Israelite history—the Exodus and the conquest/settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan. This is done via the illustration of a vine to represent the nation of Israela proverbial motif that came to be well-established in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:22; Judg 9:12-13; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Hos 10:1; Joel 1:7; Jer 2:21; 12:10; Ezek 15:1ff; 17; 19:10-14). The Exodus is clearly referenced here within the illustration: YHWH pulls the vine out (vb us^n`) of the ground in Egypt, uprooting it, and planting it in a new land. In order to plant the vine in this land (of Canaan), the peoples (nations) living there were driven out (vb uf^n`). There is both conceptual and alliterative (assonance) wordplay between the verbs us^n` (n¹sa±, “pull out”) and uf^n` (n¹‰a±, “plant [in]”). The idiom of YHWH planting Israel in the land of Promise can be found already in the Song of Sea (Exod 15:17).

I translate literally the feminine morphology and suffixes connected with the vine (/p#G#), treated in the Psalm as a grammatically feminine noun.

Verse 10 [9]

“You (work)ed (its) face before her face,
and made her roots take (deep) root,
and she filled (the entire) land.”

This verse breaks from the general 3+3 metrical pattern, reading as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The settlement of Israel in the Promised Land is described here in terms of the vine-motif. The ground is turned (vb hn`P*), i.e., tilled, prepared for the planting. I have translated this as working the “face” of the land (i.e. the ground, soil), so as to preserve the etymological wordplay between the verb hn`P* (“turn, face”) and the prepositional expression h*yn#p*l= (“before her face”). There is comparable wordplay in the second line, between the verb vr^v* (“[take] root”) and the suffixed noun h*yv#r*v* (“her roots”). Once the vine took root, it began to grow abundantly (as grape-vines tend to do), spreading out and filling the land. This refers to the continual conquest and settlement of the land by the Israelite people, and to their flourishing there. Eventually, of course the confederate nation would grow into a great kingdom (and regional empire), reaching its peak during the reign of Solomon.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The) hills were covered by her shade,
and (by) her branches (the) mighty cedars.”

This verse (returning to a 3+3 meter), expounds the final line of v. 10, and the idea that the vine spread out to fill the land. The vine grew so tall and great that its “branches” (tendrils) covered and cast shade over even the cedar trees on the hills. The construct expression “cedars of might” (la@ yz@r=a^) simply means “mighty cedars”. Conceivably, the reference to the “hills” here may allude to Israelite settlement of the hill-country.

Verse 12 [11]

“She sent forth her tendrils unto (the) Sea,
and to (the) River her (many) young shoots.”

The extent of the vine is here described a different way, clearly alluding to the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom at its greatest extent (under Solomon), reaching from the (Mediterranean) Sea in the west to the (Euphrates) River in the east. Like [n`u* in verse 11, the noun ryx!q* means “branch”; however, the extent of the vine’s spread should probably be understood in terms of the fresh grape-bearing tendrils at the end of the branches, parallel with tq#n#oy (“suckling”, i.e., [young] shoot) in the second line. The vine’s growth is so prodigious that there is an abundance of fresh tendrils spreading out in every direction.

Verse 13 [12]

“For what (reason then) did you burst her hedges,
(so) that all (those) passing by (the) way may pluck her?”

The motif of the vine’s great size and growth has here shifted to the idea of it being protected behind “hedges” (<yr!d@G+). It is not clear whether this refers to the Divine protection provided by YHWH, or to the nation’s own kingdom structures and defenses. In either case, YHWH has allowed the hedges to be “burst/broken through” (vb Jr^P*); the specific action-reference may be to YHWH breaking down the protective hedges. The destruction of the hedges allows anyone passing by to “pluck” the fruit from the vine. This use of the verb hr*a*, along with the feminine aspect of the vine-language (i.e., “pluck her [fruit]”), is suggestive of aggressive/violent sexual activity. Indeed, the implication is that the passers-by are acting with hostility and violence toward the vine (Israel). The conquests (by the Assyrians, etc) are being foreshadowed through this language.

Verse 14 [13]

“(The) boar from (the) forest cuts her to pieces,
and (the) moving (things) of (the) field feed on her!”

The idea of military conquest is more clearly alluded to in this climactic couplet. The “wild boar” from the “forest” could refer to any foreign invader; but probably the Assyrian conquests (of the northern territories) in the second half of the 8th century are specifically in view (cf. the discussion on the historical setting of the Psalm, in the previous study). The odd verb form hN`m*s=r=k^y+ probably should be related to the root <sk (“cut/tear off, shear”, cp. Akkadian kas¹mu, “cut to pieces”), as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 259). Once the vine has been torn down and cut apart, everything that moves (zyz]), i.e., every living creature, in the field can come and feed on it.

The Masoretes drew special attention to the word ru^Y`m! (“from [the] forest”) by writing the letters ru above the line (the so-called littera suspensa). The precise significance of this is not certain; several possibilities are mentioned in the note by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 309.

Stanza 3: Verses 15-19 [14-18]

Verse 15a [14a]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, please return!”

A shortened version of the refrain begins the third stanza (cf. the note on v. 8 above). Instead of the request “return to us”, the terser “please return”, with the particle of entreaty (an`), is used.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“Look down from (the) heavens and see—
and may you attend to this (your) vine,
and (so) secure what your right hand planted,
and (watch) over (the) son you yourself made strong.”

The call is for YHWH to pay attention to the condition of His ravaged vine—the nation/kingdom of Israel (esp. the northern territories, v. 2)—and so to respond with help and protection in its time of need. The wide-ranging verb dq^P* probably should be understood here in the basic sense of “attending to” something, exercising oversight, etc.

The couplet in verse 16 expounds what YHWH’s care for His vine entails. The initial word should be understood as a form of the verb /n~K* I, related to /WK, meaning “be firm”, parsed as an imperative with a paragogic (energic) h– suffix. The wish is that YHWH would keep His vine secure, preserving it, in the midst of further (and continuing) threats. The reference to a “son” in the second line seems a bit odd, the Psalmist appearing to mix his metaphors. The reference could be to the people of Israel (collectively) as YHWH’s “son”, or to the king as their representative; cf. on verse 18 below.

Verse 17 [16]

“They (who) have burnt her with such a scouring fire,
from (the) rebuke of your face may they perish!”

The Psalmist’s prayer in this verse takes the form of an imprecation against the hostile enemies of Israel, those who threaten to continue ravaging her. As noted above, it is presumably the Assyrian threat against the northern kingdom that is in view. The first stanza made clear that Israel had experienced great suffering and hardship, with military conquest being alluded to here in vv. 13-14 (cf. above). Such action is now made explicit, with mention of the enemy having burnt the vine (i.e. Israel) with fire.

The first word in the MT needs to be repointed as a plural form with an accusative h– feminine suffix (h*p%r*c=, “they have burnt her”, cf. Hossfeld Zenger, p. 310); Dahood (II, p. 260) suggests a plural participle, h*p#r=s). The final word of the first line, in the MT, hj*WsK= is also problematic. It is perhaps best explained as an emphatic –k preformative (= yK!) attached to a verbal noun from the root hj*s* (cp. jWs), meaning “scouring”; here it would refer to a fiery blaze that sweeps things away.

This fire of judgment is expressed in the second line in terms of the burning anger that comes from YHWH’s face. It is a “rebuke” that will destroy the enemies of Israel.

Verse 18 [17]

“May your hand be over (the) man of your right (hand),
over (the) son of (the) man you yourself made strong.”

This verse expounds upon the statement in the second line of verse 16 (cf. above). The Israelite king may well be in view, as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 260). YHWH’s “hand” refers to the protection He provides, as part of His covenant obligation.

Verse 19 [18]

“For (see,) we shall not (ever) turn back from you:
(so) restore us to life, that we may call on your name!”

Here the Psalmist identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of Israel—and identification which, in large part, serves as the basis of his prayer to God for help. Based on the covenant bond, YHWH is obligated to give help and protection to those who remain loyal to Him. The protagonist in the Psalms frequently makes his petition with this idea of covenant loyalty in mind. The imperfect verb form in the first line can be translated a number of ways: (1) as a past tense (“we have not turned away”), (2) as a future tense (“we will not turn away”), or (3) as an emphatic jussive (“we shall not [ever] turn away”). I have opted for the latter, with the initial –w conjunction also as an emphatic, heightening the emphasis.

The verb form of hy`j* (“live,” Piel stem) in the second line also can be understood different ways—i.e., “keep us alive”, “preserve our life”, “restore us to life”. I have chosen the last of these (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 261).

Conclusion: VERSE 20 [19]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

The introductory refrain found in each stanza (vv. 4, 8, 15) is repeated here, in its fullest form, at the conclusion of the Psalm. It serves as a final call, and prayer to God, for salvation.

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 “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

August 22: Psalm 78:65-72

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 56-64; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:65-72

Verse 65

“Then (the) Lord awoke like (one who was) asleep,
like a mighty (warrior) shouting from (the) wine.”

This section is parallel with vv. 52-55, in the way that it describes YHWH acting on behalf of His people, utilizing the motif of a shepherd who guides/leads his flock. The initial w-conjunction here indicates a new development (i.e., “and then…”). While vv. 56-64 (like the earlier vv. 40-51) emphasized the people’s disobedience, which led to God’s judgment against them, here the focus shifts to His action on their behalf. The apparent “sleeping” of YHWH reflects His lack of support, over a period of time, as part of the judgment. Now, in his return to action for His people, He ‘awakes’ with a great shout.

Verse 66

“And He struck His adversaries (on the) behind—
disgrace into (the) distant (future) He gave to them!”

YHWH’s action on behalf of His people is described in military terms, and His role in an actual Israelite military victory may be in view. He strikes the enemies of His people, who are also His enemies, in such a way as to give them lasting disgrace (hP*r=j#). The humiliating nature of the enemies’ defeat is indicated by the use of the noun roja* (“rear, [area] behind”); probably a blow on their behind(s) is intended (cf. Dahood, II, p. 247), which certainly would entail a sense of disgrace. It may also refer more generally to a military defeat that sent the enemies going back in a rout. In any case, their defeat, thanks to YHWH’s power fighting on Israel’s behalf, is to be understood as devastating.

Verse 67

“But He (also) rejected (the) tent of Yôsep,
and (the) staff of Eprayim He did not choose.”

As in the opening couplet of v. 9, this verse refers to YHWH’s rejection of the northern tribes (and the northern Kingdom), in favor of the south (i.e., Judah). This implies that the rejection preceded the revolt of the northern tribes; however, more likely, the revolt is being anticipated here, as a literary device in the Psalm. With foreknowledge, YHWH chooses the tribe of Judah (and the city of Jerusalem) to have the leading and favored position. As mentioned in the earlier note (on v. 9), Ephraim often represents the northern tribes as a whole (being the most prominent of them); here “Joseph” is included as a parallel reference.

The rejection of the northern tribes/kingdom is connected with the defeat of the enemies of YHWH; the implication is that the northern tribes, in their faithlessness and rebellion, acted in manner similar to the surrounding nations.

Verse 68

“And (instead) He chose (the) staff of Yehûdah,
(and the) mount of ‚iyyôn which He loves.”

The implication here is that Judah was chosen primarily because of the location of the fortified hilltop site of ancient Jerusalem (i.e., ‘mount’ Zion), where the Temple would be built. At the same time, apparently, the southern tribes remained faithful in a way that the norther tribes did not, at least so as not to be disqualified as YHWH’s favored choice.

Verse 69

“And He built like (the) heights (of heaven) His holy place,
and like (the) earth which He founded for (the) distant (future).”

Like the cosmos itself, YHWH established His holy dwelling place (lit. “holy place”, vD*q=m!) to last for the ages. The upper half of the cosmos contains the heavenly “heights”, while the “earth” surface (and all that is below it) makes up the lower half. This description alludes to the cosmic dwelling of the Creator El-YHWH; in ancient Semitic tradition, this dwelling was viewed as a great mountain, reflecting the cosmological-mythic idea of the primeval universe itself as a mountain (“heaven-earth,” Sumerian an-ki). Any local geographic mountain could serve, ritually and symbolically, for the cosmic mountain of the Creator. This is certainly true of mount Sinai/Horeb for YHWH, and the same symbolic association applied to the much more modest mount of Zion. The Temple, of course, built on this ‘mountain’, is patterned conceptually after the heavenly dwelling-place of YHWH.

The second line literally reads: “and like the earth, He founded her…” (using a femine suffix); however, this makes for very awkward English, and it is customary to replace this syntax with the use of a relative pronoun (i.e., “…which He founded”).

Verse 70

“And He (also) made choice of Dawid, His servant,
and took him from (the) holding pens of (the) flock.”

The building of the Temple (v. 69) is mentioned prior to the choice of David as king, even though historically the two events occurred in reverse order. The priority of the Temple, as YHWH’s holy dwelling place, takes priority over the human kingship of Israel/Judah. The choice of David, and his origins as a sheep-herding youth, are narrated in 1 Samuel 16.

Verse 71

“From following (the) suckling (ewe)s, He brought him
to feed (as sheep) Ya’aqob, His people,
and Yisrael, His inheritance.”

David’s origins as a shepherd are played on here, drawing upon the tradition motif of the king as a shepherd over the people. This symbolism was widespread throughout the ancient Near East; on references in the Old Testament, cf. Num 27:17; 2 Sam 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; Isa 44:28; Jer 3:15; 23:1ff; Ezek 34:2ff, etc. The specific application of this motif to David is first referenced in 2 Samuel 5:2, and, through this association, the Shepherd-motif came to take on Messianic significance (cf. Mic 5:4-5; Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Elsewhere in the Scriptures, God Himself is referred to as the Shepherd of His people (e.g., Gen 49:24; Psalm 23:1ff; 80:1; Isa 40:11). In Psalm 77:20, God’s shepherding of Israel is done through the intermediary of Moses and Aaron (as leaders); here, similarly, it is through David as Israel’s king.

The verb hu*r*, here and in v. 72, denotes the feeding of animals, often specifically in the context of herding—i.e., leading animals to pasture where they can graze.

Verse 72

“And (so) he fed them, according to (the) completeness of his heart,
and with (the) skillfulness of his hands he guided them.”

The idea of David’s heart being “complete” (<t) may contain an allusion to the original tradition in 1 Samuel (cf. 13:14; 16:7). The faithfulness and integrity of David’s heart toward YHWH (and the covenant) was traditional, being referenced repeatedly in the book of Kings (1 Ki 9:4, etc) as an example for the other rulers of Israel and Judah.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

August 21: Psalm 78:56-64

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 52-55; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:56-64

Verse 56

“Yet (again) they tested and defied (the) Mightiest,
(the) Highest, and His witnesses they did not guard;”

As with vv. 17, 32, 40, this next section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience. Again the verbs hs*n` (“test, try”) and hr*m* (“be disobedient, defy, rebel [against]”) are used, as in vv. 17-18, 40-41. The basis of this disobedience, as recorded in Israel’s history (esp. with the generation of the Exodus), is stated in v. 7: it involves (a) forgetting about the wondrous things YHWH did on their behalf, and (b) failing to keep/guard the regulations and precepts of the Torah. The Torah represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel; failing to obey the Torah regulations means violating the covenant-bond.

The term hd*u@, denoting something which is (to be) repeated, encompasses both aspects (a-b) noted above. It refers to the witnessing record of all the wonders, etc, that YHWH has done, and it also includes the regulations and precepts of the Torah. The people of Israel are obligated to “guard” (vb rm^v*) both of these. The encompassing term (plur. todu@) is typically translated “testimonies” in English; the idea of guarding the “testimonies” of YHWH is fundamental to Israelite religious teaching and tradition—cf. Deut 6:17; Psalm 25:10; 99:7; 132:12, and the repeated references in Psalm 119 (vv. 2, 22, 24, et al).

Verse 57

“but they turned back and broke faith, like their fathers,
they turned themselves about like a bow of treachery!”

The context vv. 52-55 (cf. the previous note) indicates that the narration here refers to the period when Israel was settled in the Promised Land. They “turned back” (vb gWs) from obedience to YHWH and were unfaithful/disloyal to the covenant-bond. The verb dg~B* is a bit difficult to translate, but it basically to refers to someone who breaks or betrays an agreement (i.e., breaking faith with someone). The expression “like their fathers” means that the people behaved like the earlier generation of the Exodus.

The second line reflects the earlier phrase in v. 9 (cf. the prior discussion on that verse). The idea of a “treacherous bow” (lit. “bow of treachery”) is that it is turned against the cause, with archers/soldiers betraying the cause of their sovereign (and the people). The Niphal stem of the verb Ep^h* should probably be understood in a reflexive sense—i.e., “they turned themselves about”.

Verse 58

“Indeed, they provoked Him with their high (place)s,
and with their carved images made Him jealous!”

The people violated the covenant with YHWH, by deviating from proper religious worship in two ways: (1) they continued to use different local shrines and altars (on various “high [place]s”, tomB*), and (2) they utilized and venerated “carved images” (<yl!ys!P=). With regard to the latter, the images could be Yawhistic, meant to depict El-YHWH, but more commonly the term lys!P= refers to images (i.e., ‘idols’) of other deities (Deut 7:5, 25; 12:3, etc). Of the many references to the people’s persistent worship of false/lesser deities (spec. through their images), see the summary statement in 2 Kings 17:41.

The injunction against worshiping at “high (place)s” is more problematic, since it can apply even to faithful worship of YHWH (as the true God). It involves the centralization of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and there is very little direct reference to the issue of aberrant “high places” in the Torah regulations. The implication in Lev 26:30 and Num 33:52 is that such “high places” represented earlier Canaanite sites (where polytheistic/idolatrous worship occurred) which the people of Israel continued to use. Almost certainly it is this association with idolatry that informs the injunction against “high places”. The continued use of the local shrines and altars is repeatedly mentioned as a persistent problem (and sin) throughout the book of Kings. There are similar, but relatively infrequent, condemnatory references in the Prophets (e.g., Hos 10:8; Amos 7:9), but here in v. 58 is the only such reference in the Psalms.

Verse 59

“(The) Mightiest heard and (boil)ed over (with rage),
and He came to despise Yisrael greatly.”

The verb um^v* (“hear”), in this instance, probably should be understood in the looser sense of “being aware” of something. The reflexive (Hitpa’el) stem of the verb rb^u* (“pass/cross over”) is relatively rare, but tends to be used in the specific context of a person becoming angry or enraged. I have adopted the English idiom of “boiling/bubbling over” (i.e., with rage). YHWH’s anger at Israel’s flagrant violation of the covenant through false/idolatrous worship (violating the fundamental prohibition of the Decalogue, Exod 20:3-4), caused Him to despise/reject (vb sa^m*) His people.

Verses 60-61

“And He left behind His dwelling-place (at) Šilow,
(the) Tent (in which) He (had) dwelt among men,
and He gave (over) His strength to captivity,
and His beauty in(to the) hand of (the) foe.”

The historical reference in these verses is the loss of the Golden Chest (Ark), the symbolic throne and seat of YHWH’s presence, after Israel’s defeat by the Philistines in the battle of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4). This episode represents the climax of the narrative in chaps. 1-4 detailing the corruption of the priesthood at the Shiloh Tent-shrine. The strength (zu)) and beauty/splendor (hr*a*p=T!) of YHWH’s presence among the people was manifested in the sacred locus of the Ark; this helps to explain the seemingly harsh and impious-sounding expressions in v. 61, which generally reflect the statement in 1 Sam 4:21f. It also indicates how closely the manifest presence of YHWH was connected with the Ark in early Israelite religious tradition. The loss of the Ark was catastrophic in its religious significance, and represented a severe judgment. However, the Samuel narrative does not tie this loss to polytheistic idolatry among the people, in the way that this is implied here in the Psalm.

Verse 62

“He also closed up His people to (the) sword—
indeed He (boil)ed over against His inheritance!”

Beyond the departure of YHWH’s manifest presence, He went further, shutting up (vb rg~s*) His people to the judgment of the sword—i.e., death in battle and destruction through military conquest. This may continue with the immediate context of the battle of Ebenezer (1 Sam 4:2, 10; cf. on vv. 60-61 above), but likely it is also meant to encompass a range of Israelite military defeats and disasters, stretching into the Kingdom period. The defeat at Ebenezer serves as a type pattern for all such future disasters. In this way, YHWH truly “(boil)ed over” with anger against His people, as the couplet repeats the idiom (using the verb rb^u*, Hitpa’el stem) from v. 59 (cf. above).

Verse 63

“Fire devoured their choice (young men),
and their young maidens were not praised.”

This couplet, though a bit difficult to translate, quite clearly (and cleverly) expresses the devastating impact of military defeat (and conquest) on the population. The fire (from war/conquest) kills off (lit. eats/devours) the choice young men, which means that the young girls (of marriageable age) have no one to wed; as a result, the maidens are never to be praised (as brides) at their wedding.

Verse 64

“Their sacred officials fell by the sword,
and their widows could not (fully) weep.”

This couplet follows the formal thematic pattern of v. 63. Just as the chosen ones in the secular sphere (i.e., strong young men of military age) were killed off, so also those in the sacred sphere (the men officiating as priests, <yn]h&K)) were slain. Both groups met with death as the result of military defeat and conquest (by fire and sword, respectively). In each instance, the man’s wife (or perspective bride) has her expected life upended and shattered. Here, the slain priest’s widow has no opportunity to weep (i.e., mourn and lament) in a proper and fitting way; possibly a planned ceremony (comparable to the wedding ceremony implied in v. 63) with formal dirges and the like is in mind.

August 17: Psalm 78:32-39

Because of the length of Psalm 78, the exegesis of its couplets and verses will be presented over a series of daily notes. The previous note examined vv. 23-31; for the discussion of the opening section (vv. 1-8), see the introductory study.

Psalm 78:32-39

Verse 32

“(But even) with all this, they sinned yet (more),
and did not set (their hearts) firm by His wonders.”

As in verse 17, the section opens with a reference to the people’s continued disobedience and sinning (vb af*j*) against YHWH. The thematic refrain allows the Psalmist to progress through different stages of his survey of the history of Israel (in the Exodus period). The “wonders” performed by YHWH include the miraculous ‘raining down’ of bread and meat from heaven (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31). Yet, even upon witnessing these further miracles, the people did not set their hearts firm (vb /m^a*, Hiphil stem) to trust in YHWH and to follow His Instruction.

Verse 33

“And (so) He made their days end in emptiness,
and their years in (ghostly) fright.”

This couplet summarizes the fate of the generation of the Exodus, nearly all of whom perished in the wilderness without ever entering the Promised Land (Num 14:29, 35; 26:64-65, etc). The parallelism is of their “days” ending in “emptiness” (lb#h#) and their “years” ending in “fright/terror” (hl*h*B#); there is a bit of alliterative wordplay between the nouns lb#h# (he»el) and hl*h*B# (beh¹lâ) that cannot be conveyed in translation. Both terms refer to the prospect of death (and the realm of the dead), as being both frightening and empty (especially for the wicked).

Verse 34

“When He slew them, then they searched (for) Him;
then they returned and sought early (the) Mighty (One).”

Only after enduring fierce judgment from YHWH, did the people repent and return to follow the way of God, at least for a time. This is expressed by the idiom of “searching” (vb vr^D*) after God, being especially common (also with the similar vb rq^B*) in the Psalms, Wisdom literature, and the Prophets. The idea of repentance, indicated here by the used of the verb bWv (“return”), is especially prominent in the Prophetic oracles, calling on the people to “return” to YHWH their God. The diligence of their “searching” is conveyed by the denominative verb rj^v*, which refers to rising early (in the morning) to do something.

Verse 35

“And they remembered that (the) Mightiest (was) their Rock,
and (the) Mighty (One), (the) Highest, their Redeemer.”

The term rWx (“rock”), as a Divine title, refers to El-YHWH as a source of protection for His people. It often alludes to the idea of a place of refuge, located at a secure position high upon a rock. The verbal noun la@G) (“redeeming”) refers to YHWH acting as one who sets His people free from servitude or bondage, like a family member who “redeems” (vb la^G`) his relative by paying the price necessary to secure freedom. In the historical context of the narration here, this salvation-motif certainly refers to the Exodus from Egypt—and the “wonders” performed by YHWH to bring it about.

Verses 36-37

“But (while) they opened to Him their mouth,
they also lied to Him with their tongue;
for their heart was not standing firm with Him,
nor were they fixed on His binding (agreement).”

By these lines it is clear that the people’s return to faithfulness (vv. 34-35, cf. above) was not entirely genuine; they may have been faithful outwardly, saying the right things with their mouth, etc, but inwardly their heart was not right with God. Again the verbs /WK and /m^a* are used to express this idea of faithfulness through the idiom of having one’s heart set firm (cf. vv. 8, 20, 22, 32), i.e., fixed in faith/trust and obedience to God. As in the opening section of the Psalm (cf. the introductory study), and in verse 10, faithfulness to YHWH is defined primarily in terms of fulfilling the binding agreement (tyr!B=, i.e., covenant) established between God and His people Israel.

Verse 38

“But he, (the) Compassionate (One),
wiped away (their) crookedness
and did not destroy (them);
indeed, many (times) He acted to turn away His anger,
and did not rouse all of His burning (rage).”

This is a summary of YHWH’s dealings with His people throughout their history, but particularly during the years of wandering in the Exodus period. He would punish them when they sinned, but ultimately forgave (vb rp^K*, wipe over/away) their perverse heart (lit. “crookedness,” /ou*), so as not to unleash upon them His full anger (and thus destroy them completely).

Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet.

Verse 39

“For He remembered that they (are) flesh—
a wind going (away)
that does not return.”

This section closes, poignantly, with a Wisdom-statement, in the form of a 3+2+2 tricolon. The sentiment expressed here is found frequently in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, emphasizing the fleeting nature of human life and existence, in its mortality. The Wisdom texts often include a call for people to remember this point—e.g., Job 7:6-7; 10:9; Ps 39:4-5f; 89:47; 103:15f; Eccl 11:8; 12:1. For the comparison of human life with the wind, in its ephemeral nature, as it passes quickly and is then gone, cf. Ps 103:16, and the repeated refrain in Ecclesiastes (1:14, 17, et al); the comparison is particularly appropriate as applied to the life and aspirations of the wicked (Job 21:18; 27:21; Ps 1:4; 35:5; 83:3; Prov 11:29; 21:6).

The use of the term rc*B* (“flesh”) echoes the previous section (cf. the previous note on vv. 23-31), with the motif of the “flesh” (i.e., meat) sent down from heaven for the people to eat. Their request was made out of real human need (for food), and thus was based upon the limitations of their mortal human nature (as “flesh”); but it also reflected a faithlessness and lack of trust in God. As pointed out above, for the wicked, in particular, their brief life, after it has passed (like the wind), ends in emptiness (cf. above on v. 33).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 78

Psalm 78

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsb (v. 1); 11QPsd (vv. 5-12); 4QPse (vv. 6-7, 31-33); pap6QPs (vv. 36-37)

This lengthy Psalm (the second longest of the Psalter) is a didactic poem based on Israel’s history—focusing primarily on the Exodus and the wilderness journey. In this regard, it is similar to Pss 105106 and 136, which also present an extensive historical summary in poetic form. However, the stated purpose of Ps 78, with its call to obedience, and for the use of the poem in teaching the generations to come, this Psalm resembles the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy (chap. 32)—though that poem is, by all accounts, a much older composition. The narrative description in Deut 31:19-22, regarding the purpose of the “Song Moses”, corresponds broadly to vv. 1-8 of the Psalm (discussed below).

The contrast between Ephraim (i.e., the Northern Kingdom) and Judah that frames the poem (vv. 9ff, 68ff) suggests a dating for the Psalm (at least in its original form) in the period between 922-721 B.C. The lack of any obvious reference to the Exile, even for the Northern Kingdom, would seem to indicate a time of composition prior to 721 B.C.; however, many commentators would assign a much later date to the Psalm (cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 290-3). The importance of this Psalm (cf. below), as well as its length, increases the likelihood that it was subjected to a substantial process of edition/redaction, perhaps over a number of centuries. Some possible points of editing will be discussed in the notes.

The relative importance of Psalm 78 is indicated by its central position among the Asaph-Psalms (7383), as well as in the Psalter as a whole. A Masoretic marginal note at v. 36 marks that verse as the midpoint of the entire Psalter (its 2,524 verses); a variant tradition in the Talmud (b. Qid. 30a) makes the same claim for v. 38 (counting 2,527 verses); cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 285. There are numerous points of similarity in theme and vocabulary among the Asaph-Psalms, which are particularly notable in relation to Ps 78 (because of its length). For a fine survey of these points, including the similarities between Pss 78 and 77 (cf. the prior studies), see Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 293-4. On the figure of Asaph, see the earlier studies on Pss 50 and 73.

Psalm 78, in spite of its extreme length, is one of the simplest in its poetry, relatively easy to read, and generally lacking in textual or poetic difficulties. It is one of the most prosodic of all the Psalms, due primarily, it would seem, to the historical content—rooted so firmly to the narrative traditions of Israel—and its didactic purpose. Its simple poetic language and style makes it well-suited for teaching to children and the general population. The Psalm follows a standard three-beat (3+3) couplet format throughout, with but few exceptions.

There is no clear defining structure for Ps 78—either thematic or poetic—apart from the opening section (vv. 1-8) that declares the poem’s purpose. One way of dividing the Psalm uses the repeated references to the people’s disobedience—in vv. 17, 32, 40, 56—as structural markers. This yields five strophes, the last two of which conclude with short sections referring specifically to YHWH’s guiding/leading His people like a shepherd (vv. 52-55, 70-72). For a slightly different division, building upon the work of earlier scholars, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 282-5, 290-2.

The heading refers to this Psalm as a lyK!c=m^; on the possible meaning and significance of this term (used also in the Asaph Psalm 74), cf. the earlier study on Ps 32.

Verses 1-8

Verse 1

“Give ear, O my people, to my instruction;
extend your ear to (the) sayings of my mouth.”

The opening lines are reminiscent of the opening of the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1)—an ancient poem with a similar expressed purpose (in its Deuteronomic context, 31:19-22) to that of Ps 78. The Psalmist functions here as a prophet, speaking as YHWH’s representative in addressing the people. On the tradition of Asaph and his descendants as prophets, and on the prophetic character and features of certain of the Asaph-Psalms, cf. the earlier studies on Ps 50 and 7377.

Verse 2

“I will open up my mouth with a parable,
(and) will pour out riddles from (times) before.”

The Psalmist states that he will begin his discourse (“open my mouth”) with a lv*m*. The term refers to a saying or story, etc, that describes one thing as being like (lvm) another—i.e., a similitude or parable. Beginning with this parable, his mouth will “pour out” todyj!. The noun hd*yj!, in its basic meaning, covers a wide range of enigmatic sayings or questions; often the term seems to denote a “riddle” or a “puzzle”. In what sense does the Psalm proper (beginning with verse 9) constitute a parable or set of riddles? Presumably, the main idea is that the people should learn from the example of an earlier generation, understanding their own situation as being in the likeness of that which took place in times before (cf. on verse 8, below). The enigmatic sayings (todyj!) then refer to the individual couplets of the Psalm, which spin out, in poetic form, the parabolic narrative from times past.

Verses 3-4a

“(That) which we have heard and known,
and (which) our fathers recounted to us,
we will not hide (it) from their sons,
recounting (it) to the circle following:”

It is possible to read verse 3 syntactically as part of v. 2—i.e., “…riddles from (times) before, which we have heard and known…”. However, it is just as likely that the relative pronoun at the beginning of v. 3 looks ahead, referring to the traditional content, described in vv. 3-4, specifically, that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Verses 2 and 3 are related conceptually, if not syntactically; the Psalmist is giving creative poetic expression (parable/riddles) to the traditional accounts of the Exodus (and other events in Israel’s history). The noun “sons” (<yn]B*) in v. 4 (line 1) means children—or, properly, descendants—in a more general sense; the second line makes clear that this refers to the circle/cycle (roD) of people that comes after (i.e. the next generation[s]). Verse 4 expresses the people’s intention (collectively) to be faithful in teaching their children the lessons of the past.

Verse 4b

“(the) praise(worthy deed)s of YHWH and His strength;
and (the) wonderful (thing)s that He has done.”

Verse 4b makes clear what it is that the faithful ones (represented collectively by the Psalmist) will recount (rps) to their children. The narrative is not simply the mundane history of Israel, but an account of the wondrous deeds performed by YHWH. The noun hL*h!T= in line 1 properly refers to a shout (of praise, etc); the things YHWH has done for His people in the past are, quite literally, “something to shout about,” being praise-worthy deeds. These deeds, mighty and miraculous, demonstrate His power and strength (zWzu$). The miracles surrounding the Exodus are particularly in mind.

Verse 5

“For He made stand a witness in Ya’aqob,
and instruction He set (with it) in Yisrael,
which He commanded our fathers
to make them known to their sons.”

The “witness” (tWdu@) is a traditional record and recounting of what YHWH has done—an account which can be repeated for each generation. Along with this witness, God provided “instruction” (hr*oT, torah) for His people. Both of these He commanded to the people (“our fathers”) that they should make them (both) known to their children.

Verse 6

“For (this) reason:
(that) the circle (coming) after would know,
(that) sons (who) are born would stand up
and recount (it) to their (own) sons.”

The purpose of the witness and the accompanying Instruction (Torah) is so that each generation would be taught, and the people thus would remain faithful to YHWH from one generation to the next. The meter and structure of this verse is irregular, and does not fit the pattern of the Psalm particularly well. The secondary and redactional character of v. 6 has been suggested (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 287). Again, I translate roD literally as “circle” (or “cycle”), though the word typically refers to the people alive during a particular cycle (of time)—i.e., a “generation”, in our common parlance; that is certainly the meaning here.

Verse 7

“And (so) they might set their hope on (the) Mightiest,
and not forget (the) deeds of (the) Mighty (One),
and (also) keep watch (over) His commands.”

The meter of this verse is also irregular—a 3+3+2 tricolon. Lines 2 and 3 refer again to the witness (of YHWH’s deeds) and the accompanying Instruction (“His commands”), respectively. The noun ls#K# in line 1 has a peculiar range of meaning; based on the cognate root in Arabic, the fundamental denotation seems to involve being “thick”, from which are derived both the negative meaning of “dullness” (i.e., stupid, foolish) and positive meaning of having “firmness” of trust or hope. Here the positive meaning of ls#K# is in view (i.e., trust in God), though it is also possible that the negative sense of the word is being anticipated as well—viz., the repeated theme of the people’s foolish disobedience, which begins in v. 9.

Verse 8

“And (then) they would not be like their fathers,
a circle being obstinate and rebellious,
a circle (that) has not set firm its heart,
(for) its spirit was not firm with (the) Mighty (One).

The theme of the people’s disobedience, developed throughout the poetic narrative of the Psalm, is introduced here, at the conclusion of the opening section. The idea of the Psalm as a lv*m* (“likeness”, v. 1, cf. above) is somewhat explained here: the example-narrative from Israel’s past is provided so that the current generation (roD) might not end up being like (K=) those who rebelled against YHWH in times before (the generation of the Exodus, etc). The concept of faithfulness toward God is expressed, in the second couplet, through the motif of “firmness”, utilizing two roots:

    • /WK (line 1)—verb in the Hiphil stem, meaning “set firm, fix (firmly) in place”; here it refers to the heart (bl@) of the people, i.e., they did not set their heart firmly in place, so as to remain faithful to YHWH.
    • /m^a* (line 2)—verb in the passive Niphal stem, referring to the nature/character of the people in their spirit (j^Wr); they did not set their heart firmly toward obeying God, because they were not firmly devoted to Him in their underlying spirit; i.e., their faithlessness was intrinsic to their character and identity (as a wicked and faithless generation).

*    *    *    *    *    *

Due to the length of Psalm 78, the remainder of its verses (vv. 9-72) will be discussed over a series of daily notes.

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Saturday Series: Acts 6:1-8:4 (continued)

Acts 6:1-8:4, continued

At the heart of the Stephen episode in Acts 6:1-8:4 is the great sermon-speech in chapter 7. Last week, we looked at this speech from the critical standpoint of the literary and thematic structure of the narrative. This establishes the overall setting and background of the speech, as well as the Narrative (Introduction) which precedes it in 6:8-15, according to the outline:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

Our study this week will focus upon the speech proper.

Introductory Address (7:2-42a)

Stephen begins with a vocative address, similar to that of Peter in his great Pentecost speech (e.g., in Acts 2:14, 22, 29; see also the beginning of Paul’s address in Acts 22:1):

Ándres adelphoí kai patéres, akoúsate
“Men, Brothers and Fathers—hear!”

Instead of the kerygmatic (i.e., Gospel proclamation) phrases and statements found in the prior sermon-speeches of Acts, Stephen here delivers a lengthy summary of Israelite history in “deuteronomic style”, extending from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf; for Old Testament parallels to such an historical summary, see Joshua 24; Psalm 78, 105; Ezekiel 20:5-44; Nehemiah 9:7-27, and also note the historical treatment given in the Damascus Document [CD] 2:14-6:1 (Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 364).

Nearly all commentators have noted that this is a curious way to address the question posed by the High Priest in v. 1; it also hardly seems an appropriate way for an accused man to offer defense (apologia) in a ‘trial’ setting. This has served as an argument in favor of the view that the Sanhedrin setting and framework to the speech is a secondary (and artificial) construction by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)—for more on this, see further below.

There is perhaps a tendency to gloss over this lengthy recital of Old Testament history; it can seem rather tedious, even irrelevant, in context. It may be tempting, indeed, to skip on ahead to verse 43ff, or even verse 54ff; however there are several reasons why it is important to include this section (and to read it carefully):

First, there is a rhetorical and narrative structure to the speech (see above) which is disrupted if one omits (or ignores) the historical summary; it is vital to a proper understanding of the speech as a whole.
Second, it is important to recognize the place that the Old Testament narrative had for early Christians and in their Gospel preaching; the way Paul references the Scriptures in his letters makes it clear that even Gentile converts must have been made familiar with the Old Testament and Israelite history as part of their basic instruction. Early Christians also saw themselves as fulfilling the history of Israel along with the promises God made to her, and so the Old Testament narrative was, in many ways, fundamental to Christian identity.
Third, the cumulative effect of the speech is lost if one ‘skips ahead’; in particular, the Scripture citation and exposition in vv. 43ff are climactic to the historical summary and really cannot be understood correctly outside of that context.

There are a number of ways one may outline this section; for a useful five-part outline, see Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 365. I have opted for a tripartite structure, as follows:

    • Abraham—the promise made by God to his people (vv. 2-8)
    • Joseph—the sojourn/exile of God’s people in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16)
    • Moses—the exodus out of Egypt toward the land of promise (vv. 17-42a); this portion can be broken down further:
      (a) {the first forty years}—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22)
      (b) forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29)
      (c) forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34)
      —”This Moses”… who led Israel out of Egypt (vv. 35-37)
      —”This (Moses)” is the one who was with the congregation (of Israel) in the wilderness (vv. 38-39a)
      ** The Israelites refused to hear/obey (Moses) in the wilderness—turned to idolatry (the Golden Calf, vv. 39b-42a)
Abraham (vv. 2-8)

The first two sections (on Abraham and Joseph) are relatively straightforward summaries of passages from Genesis, with simplification and compression of detail. The summary of Abraham is taken from Genesis 11-12, with quotations or allusions from Psalm 29:3 and Deut 2:5, followed by references to Gen 17:8; 15:13-14 (LXX); Exod 3:12; Gen 17:10; 21:4. The key verse is v. 5, emphasizing God’s promise to Abraham’s descendents—Gen 17:8 (and 48:4); also Gen 12:7; 13:5; 15:18-20; 24:7. This theme of promise already appeared in Peter’s earlier speech (Acts 3:25), and will also be mentioned in Acts 7:17; 13:32; 26:6; the covenant promise to Abraham would play a key role in Paul’s writings (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4; 9:1-9ff). Verse 7 cites Exodus 3:12 (LXX), with one small difference: instead of “in/on this mountain” (en tœ¡ órei toútœ) we find “in this place” (en tœ¡ tópœ toútœ), which better fits the Temple context underlying the speech.

Joseph (vv. 9-16)

The section on Joseph draws on portions of Genesis 37-46, along with allusions to Psalm 105:21; 37:19; there are also references to Deut 10:22 and Exod 1:6 in verse 15, along with a conflation of Gen 23:16-20 and 33:19 in verse 16. The overall setting of Israel in Egypt naturally fits the theme of exile and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Israelite/Jewish people—a motif which could already be seen with Abraham leaving his homeland, and sojourning to the land of promise.

Moses (vv. 17-42a)

This section (on Moses) is by far the most developed, demonstrating a clear rhetorical (and didactic) structure. Verses 17-34 adopt the (traditional) scheme of dividing Moses’ life (of 120 years) into three equal periods of 40:

    • forty years—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22) [drawn from Exodus 1-2]
    • forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29) [from Exodus 2]
    • forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34) [Exodus 3:1-10, direct quotations and paraphrase]

Vv. 23 and 30 begin with similar Greek expressions:

“and when/as forty years’ time was filled (up) [epl¢roúto] for him…” (v. 23)
“and forty years having been filled (up) [pl¢rœthéntœn]…” (v. 30)

It is also worth noting some key extra-biblical and/or traditional details mentioned in this section:

    • Moses’ beauty—Exod 2:2 [LXX]; Philo, Life of Moses I.9, 18; Josephus, Antiquities II.224
    • Moses’ learning—Philo, Life of Moses I.20-24; II. 1; Jos. Antiquities II.236 and eloquence—Philo, Life of Moses I.80; Jos. Antiquities II.271 (cf. also Sirach 45:3)
    • The Angel (of the Lord) in the burning bush—Exod 3:2 [LXX] (MSS D H P S 614 of Acts 7:30 read “of the Lord”)

The revelation by theophany (manifestation of God), i.e. His Presence—even if understood in Exod 3:1-10 as occurring through ‘Angelic’ mediation—is an important theme, as it closes this section on Moses’ life and leads into the forceful section in vv. 35-38ff with its emphasis on false worship and idolatry. Even so, it must be admitted (along with many commentators) that the precise point of the speech (taken through verse 34) is hard to see; it certainly does not answer the charges against Stephen, and appears on the surface to be a long (even irrelevant) digression. The tone of the speech, however, changes suddenly and dramatically with verse 35, with the repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun (hoútos, accusative toúton, “this [one]”).

“This (Moses)…” (vv. 35-38)—the speech moves from historical summary (in vv. 17-34, similar to the sections on Abraham/Joseph), to a series of statements extolling Moses’ role in the Exodus and wilderness period, drawing attention especially to the person of Moses by the repeated, staccato-like use of the the demonstrative pronoun (“this”). This not only represents forceful rhetoric, but also serves to draw a clear and unmistakable parallel between Moses and Jesus, as we shall see. Keep in mind a similar use of the demonstrative pronoun in referring to Jesus already in Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:10-11; 5:31 (“this [one], this Jesus”; also “this name”, Acts 3:16; 4:17; 5:28); the Temple also has been referred to as “this place” (see Acts 6:13-14; 7:7).

    • V. 35—”this [toúton] Moses, whom they denied/refused… this (one) [toúton] God set forth (as) a leader and redeemer…”
    • V. 36—”this (one) [hoútos] led them out, doing marvels and signs…”
    • V. 37—”this [hoútos] is Moses, the (one) saying to the sons of Israel…”
    • V. 38—”this [hoútos] is the (one) coming to be in/among the called-out (people) in the desolate (land)…”

Verses 36-37 specifically emphasize Moses’ role in the Exodus—the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt; in verses 38-39, the emphasis is on Moses’ role with the congregation (ekkl¢sía) of Israel in the wilderness. Verse 39 (beginning with the relative pronoun hós [dative hœ¡]) is transitional, stressing the disobedience of the people and leading into the section on the Golden Calf (vv. 40ff). The following details clarify the parallel drawn between Moses and Jesus:

    • the people denied/refused [¢rn¢¡sato] Moses (v. 35, see also 39ff) just as they denied Jesus (Acts 3:13, same verb)
    • “leader [árchœn] and redeemer [lytrœt¢¡s]” (v. 35) are titles similar to those applied to Jesus in Acts 3:15; 5:31 (cf. also 2:36)
    • Moses and Jesus are both “sent” by God (vb. apostéllœ) in v. 35; 3:20, 26
    • “wonders and signs” (v. 36) are parallel to the miracles of Jesus (2:22, cf. also 4:30)
    • Jesus as fulfillment of the “Prophet (to come) like Moses” from Deut 18:15 (cited v. 37, and in 3:22-23)
    • Moses was with the “called-out” people (ekkl¢sía) of Israel in the wilderness (v. 38), just as Jesus is with the “called-out” people (ekkl¢sía), i.e. the believers in Christ, the “church” —the word is first used in this latter sense in Acts 5:11, and occurs frequently from 8:1 on; it was used in the LXX in reference to the people gathering/assembling (to receive the Law, etc), especially in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16.

The central theme of the theophanous revelation of God at Sinai (already emphasized in vv. 30-34) is brought out again here in verse 38—the closing phrase is especially significant, as it relates to one of the main charges against Stephen; it is useful, I think, to look at it in context with verse 39a:

“(this [Moses])… who [hós] received living lógia to give to us, to whom [hœ¡] our Fathers did not wish to become as (ones) who listen under [i.e. {are} obedient]…”

The neuter noun lógion, related to the more common lógos, (“account, word”), more properly refers to something uttered, i.e., “saying, announcement, declaration”; in a religious context especially it is often translated as “oracle”. For the idea of “living words/oracles” see Lev 18:5; Deut 32:46-47; note also a similar expression “the words/utterances of this life” in Acts 5:20.

The Golden Calf (vv. 39-42a)—the second half of verse 39 leads into the episode of the Golden Calf:

“…but they thrust (him [i.e. Moses]) away from (them) and turned in their hearts (back) to Egypt”

Verses 40-41 are taken from the account of the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:1-6), emphasizing unlawful/inappropriate sacrifice (thysía, [ritual] slaughtering) and idolatry (worship of an image, eídœlon). Most important are the closing words of verse 41:

“…and they were happy [lit. of a good mind] in the works of their hands [en toís érgois tœ¡n cheirœ¡n autœ¡n]”

This last phrase introduces the idea of things “made with hands” (tied specifically to idolatry), which will play a vital role in the remainder of the speech.

In verse 39, it is stated that the people turned [estráph¢san] in their hearts (back to Egypt, and idolatry); now, in verse 42a, God turns [éstrepsen, same verb] and gives the people over [parédœken] for them to do (hired) service [latreúein, in a religious sense] to the “armies of heaven” (i.e. sun, moon, stars and planets). Of the many references warning against the consequences of image-worship, see for example, Hos 13:2-4; for a fundamental passage warning against worship of the celestial bodies, see Deut 4:16ff. On this idea of God giving/handing transgressors over to an even more serious form of idolatry, see Wisdom 11:15-16 and the famous passage in Romans 1:24-28; often there is the sense that the result (and punishment) of idolatry will resemble the very thing that was being worshipped (see Jer 19:10-13, etc).

The main Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27), along with the remainder of the speech, will be examined in next week’s study. I hope you will join me.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 31 (Doubleday / Yale: 1998).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 44 (Part 1)

Psalm 44

Dead Sea MSS: 1QPsc (vv. 3-9, 23-25 [2-8, 22-24]); 4QPsc (vv. 8-9 [7-8]?)

This Psalm is a lament, written from the standpoint of the people, or nation as a whole. It appears to have an Exilic setting, to judge from the statement in verse 12 [11]; at any rate, the kingdom has met with crushing defeat, and it has led to exile of the population. Possibly the Assyrian conquests are in view, which would indicate a late 8th or 7th century date, but some commentators would place it in a later period; the lack of clear historical references do not allow for a precise dating.

The superscription is essentially the same as that of Psalm 42-43. On the term lyK!c=m^, and the identification of the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the study on that Psalm. This is an ‘Elohist Psalm’, using the general plural term/title <yh!l)a$ (°§lœhîm, understood as an intensive plural, “Mightiest [One]”, i.e. “God”) in place of the Divine name hwhy.

I divide this Psalm into three parts, the first of which (vv. 2-9 [1-8]) ends with a Selah pause. It emphasizes the mighty deeds performed by YHWH for His people (Israel) in the past, from the Exodus to the military victories of the Conquest of Canaan, along with those in the time of the Judges and the early Kingdom period. The second part (vv. 10-17 [9-16]) focuses on Israel’s subsequent defeats, leading to their conquest and exile. In the final part (vv. 18-27 [17-26]), the people collectively affirm their loyalty to the covenant with YHWH and call on Him to deliver them from their current suffering and disgrace.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Mightiest (One), with our ears we have heard,
our fathers have recounted (it) for us:
the deed(s which) you did in their days,
in (the) days (now gone) before”

The meter of this initial couplet is 3+2, typical of the so-called qina meter often used in poems of lament. The first section opens with a traditional reference to the history of Israel, marked by the great and wondrous deeds done (luP, both noun and verb) by YHWH on the people’s behalf. These deeds are presented as something told in narrative form, as a traditional tale (or tales) passed down from earlier generations (“our fathers…”, “…in days before”). Certainly this would have included the story of the Exodus from Egypt, with the miraculous deliverance at the Reed Sea, as well as accounts of the Conquest of Canaan (under Joshua), and the victories under the Judges and the first kings of Israel (Saul, David). Some of these existed in a poetic form that could be taught and committed to memory (cf. Exod 15:1-21; Judges 5); the great poems also formed the core of the larger historical narratives (in the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings) that developed by the time of the Exile.

The opening word, <yh!l)a$ (“Mightiest [One],” Elohim), used in place of the Divine name YHWH, marks the ‘Elohist’ character of this Psalm.

Verse 3 [2]

“You, (with) your hand,
dispossessed (the) nations and planted them,
broke apart (the) peoples and sent them (up).”

This verse is to be parsed rhythmically as a 3-beat (3+3) couplet preceded by a 2-beat line. The short initial line serves to build dramatic suspense, emphasizing that it is God (YHWH) who achieved the victories and successes for Israel; He did this with His own Divine power (His “hand”). The nations / peoples are contrasted with “them” —that is, with the people of Israel. This refers primarily to the nations of Canaan who were “dispossessed” (vb vr^y` in the Hiphil stem) of their land and “broken apart” (vb uu^r*) as national and territorial entities. In their place, Israel was “planted” in the land, where God’s people would “send (up)” (jl^v*) their shoots and branches—that is, grow and prosper. This imagery is ancient, and can be seen as early as the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:13-17).

Verse 4 [3]

“For it was not with their sword (that) they possessed the land,
and their arm did not work salvation for them;
(but it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them.”

The meter of this verse is quite irregular: an extended 4+3 couplet, followed by a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The initial couplet plays on the emphatic contrast in v. 3 [2] using the suffix < *– (“them, their”), referring to the people of Israel. In v. 3, the contrast was with the nations, while here it is with YHWH. The contrast emphasizes the point made in the initial line of v. 3—that is was God’s own hand that achieved these successes for Israel. Ultimately, victory and deliverance from enemy forces was not won by Israelite strength and military power (“their sword”), but by the power of God. This is expressed beautifully by the terse tricolon and closes the verse here:

“(it was with) your hand and your arm,
and (the) light of your face,
that you showed favor to them”

On the shining “face” (lit. “turning[s]”, <yn]P*) of YHWH as a manifestation of His fiery anger and judgment (against the wicked), cf. 34:16; 80:16, etc. The reverse of this is the motif of God’s face “shining” on the righteous in love and benevolence (4:6; 11:7; 17:15; 31:16; 67:1, etc). When the righteous experience suffering and misfortune, it seems that YHWH has turned away His face or has “hidden” it (10:11; 13:1; 27:9; 30:7, etc).

Verse 5 [4]

“You (are) He, my King (and) my Mighty (One),
commanding (act)s of salvation (for) Ya’aqob.”

The Psalmist, in addressing YHWH, identifies Him as the same one who did these things for Israel (Jacob) in the past: “You (are) He” (aWh-aT*a^). This expression also serves to establish, most emphatically, the declaration “you (are) my King and my God”. Here “Mighty (One)” = “Mightiest (One)” (<hy!l)a$). With Dahood (p. 265) and other commentators, I divide MT hwx <yhla as hwxm yhla (hW#x^m= yh*l)a$, “my Mighty [One], commanding…”).

Verse 6 [5]

“In you we butted (horns against) our adversaries,
in your name we trampled (the one)s standing (against) us.”

With God’s own strength on their side, the Israelite people are able to defeat their enemies. The imagery is that of a powerful animal, like a ram, butting (vb jg~n`) its opponent and trampling (vb sWB) him. The parallel of “in your name” with “in you” illustrates again how, in the ancient Near Eastern mind, the name of a person is a manifestation and embodiment of the person himself. To be protected and strengthened by God’s name means being protecting/strengthened by His very presence and power.

An important grammatical shift takes place in this verse, as the Psalmist now speaks in the first person plural (“we…”), rather than the third person (“they/them/their”). He, and the righteous ones of his generation, identify themselves with the Israel of the past.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“For not with my bow did I seek protection,
and my sword did not bring me salvation,
(but) you have saved us from our adversaries,
and (the one)s hating us you have put to shame.”

These two couplets essentially restate v. 4 [3] (cf. above), but with the Psalmist (and other righteous ones) taking the place of the Israelites of old, and thus speaking in the first person, as in v. 6 [5] (i.e., “our sword” instead of “their sword”). However, the point is the same: it was not our strength and military skill that won the victory, but the power of YHWH working on our behalf.

Verse 9 [8]

“In (the) Mightiest (One) we shout all the day (long),
and (to) your name we throw (praise) into (the) distant (future).” Selah

The first section closes with this declaration of praise and worship for YHWH (the “Mightiest [One]”, Elohim). The righteous ones shout (vb ll^h*) praise “in” YHWH—that is, in His power and presence (cf. above). But they also throw (vb hd*y`) praise to Him—specifically, to His name, which, as noted above, means the same as giving praise to Him.

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

Saturday Series: Deuteronomy 32:7-9ff

In this Saturday Series study, we continue through the great poem “the Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy 32, as a way of demonstrating how the different areas of Biblical Criticism (discussed in previous studies) relate to an analysis and understanding of the the text as a whole. In the previous Saturday study, we looked at verses 4-6; 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 (see further below).

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.

In an earlier study, I examined the text-critical question in verse 8, arguing that the reading in the Qumran manuscript 4QDeutj, and reflected in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek, is more likely to be original. The idea that the number of the nations (trad. 70) was made according to the number of Israelites (“sons of Israel“, b®nê yi´r¹°¢l), has always seemed a bit odd. Even prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea manuscripts, some commentators felt that the Hebrew underlying the LXX (“sons of God”, Grk. “Messengers [i.e. Angels] of God”) would be the better reading. The MS 4QDeutj gives support to this (b®nê °§lœhîm, “sons of the Mightiest [i.e. God]”). However, it is the context of both the poem and the book of Deuteronomy which seems to provide 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 [µ¢leq]
      • Israel (“His people”) / Jacob
    • His (own) property measured out [µe»el naµ­¦lâ]

And it is this relationship that is expounded in verses 10ff.

Verses 10-14

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

    • 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 open land,
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, 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 tœhû (WhT)) 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 open land,
      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 mi¼b¹r (rB*d=m!) 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) tœhû (“formless, cf. above), (b) y®l¢l (“howling”), and (c) y®šîmœn (“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 [°îšôn] of his eye“.

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 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 (´¹d¹y) 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): “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, 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 [b¹¼¹¼]
        • He led/guided (Israel)
      • there was no (other) [°ên] with Him [±immô]
    • a foreign ‘Mighty One’ [°E~l]

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 study, but it is worth considering verses 15-18, at least briefly, in this light.

Verses 15-18

If verses 10-11 essentially describe the Exodus, and verses 13-14 Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land, then, it would seem, that what follows in vv. 15ff would refer to Israel’s conduct after the people had settled in the land. However, in terms of the setting within the book of Deuteronomy, which is presented as representing Moses’ words prior to the settlement, these lines would have to be taken as prophetic—foretelling the people’s future violation of the covenant, a violation already prefigured in the Golden Calf episode and other failures during the wilderness period. This raises again the historical-critical question regarding the date of composition, both of the poem and the book of Deuteronomy as a whole. I will touch upon the question further in the next study. Here, for the moment, it is sufficient to consider the poetic and thematic structure of these lines, which I view as another sequence of 4 bicola (vv. 15-17a), with a concluding bicolon pair (vv. 17b-18) that echoes the opening lines of this section (vv. 4-6, 7-9).

    • Statement of Israel’s rebellion, forsaking YHWH, their God and Rock (v. 15)
    • Description of the rebellion—worshiping other ‘deities’ (vv. 16-17a)
    • Concluding trope on their abandoning YHWH (vv. 17b-18)

It is possible to view this as a chiasm:

    • Israel forsakes their Mighty One (God) and Rock (v. 15)
      • Turning to worship false/foreign deities (vv. 16-17a)
    • You have forgotten your Mighty One (God) and Rock (vv. 17b-18)

As in verse 14e (also 15b), the sudden shift from third person (“he/they”) to second person address (“you”) is striking, and serves as a reminder of the poem’s stated purpose (within Deuteronomy) as an instruction (and warning) to future generations of Israelites. The poetic language in vv. 16-17a is especially difficult, and appropriately so given the subject matter; however, the form of the lines is actually quite clear, with a fine symmetry:

    • “They stirred Him (to anger) with strange (thing)s,
      • (indeed) with disgusting things they provoked Him;
    • They slaughtered to ‘powers’ (that are) not Mighty,
      • (but are) ‘Mighty Ones’ not known to them”

The first bicolon has a precise synonymous parallelism, with two ways of saying that the people provoked YHWH with foreign/pagan religious behavior, described by the euphemisms “strange (thing)s” (z¹rîm) and “disgusting things” (tô±¢»œ¾). The second bicolon builds on the first, explaining the behavior more directly. It is stated that “they slaughtered (sacrificial offerings) to š¢¼îm“, the word š¢¼ (dv@) being rather difficult to translate in English. It is a basic Semitic term referring to deities or divine powers generally, corresponding more or less with the Greek daimœn (dai/mwn). From the standpoint of Israelite covenantal theology, and especially the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy, worship (in any manner) of any deity besides YHWH represents a flagrant violation of the covenant. Given the common syncretic (and syncretistic) tendencies in ancient Near Eastern (polytheistic) religion, a blending of Canaanite religious elements with the worship of YHWH would have been quite natural, and difficult for the people of Israel to resist. This is why the point is hammered home so often in the book of Deuteronomy, as also in the “Deuteronomic History” and the messages of the Prophets. The repeated warning was necessary because of the dangers of cultural accomodation, and the tendencies in Canaanite society which could not but exert influence on the people of Israel.

With these thoughts in mind, I would ask that you read through the remainder of the poem, examining the language and imagery, the progression of thought and expression, most carefully. In the next study, I hope to provide a survey of verses 19-42 in light of the section we have studied here (especially verses 15-18). We will focus on several verses and lines in more detail, again illustrating how a sound critical approach to Scripture helps give us a much more thorough understanding of the text as it has come down to us.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 10: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

In Part 9 of this series, I examined the overall setting and background of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), as well as the Narrative (Introduction) which precedes it in 6:8-15, according to the outline:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

In this part I will continue with the speech proper.

Introductory Address (7:2-42a)

Stephen begins with a vocative address, similar to that of Peter (e.g., in Acts 2:14, 22, 29; cf. also the beginning of Paul’s address in Acts 22:1):

 &Andre$ a)delfoi\ kai\ pate/re$, a)kou/sate
“Men, Brothers and Fathers—hear!”

Instead of the kerygmatic phrases and statements found in the prior sermon-speeches, Stephen here delivers a lengthy summary of Israelite history in “deuteronomic style”, extending from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf; for Old Testament parallels to such an historical summary, cf. Joshua 24; Psalm 78, 105; Ezekiel 20:5-44; Nehemiah 9:7-27, and also note the historical treatment given in the Damascus Document [CD] 2:14-6:1 (Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 364).

Nearly all commentators have noted that this is a curious way to address the question posed by the High Priest in v. 1; it also hardly seems an appropriate way for an accused man to offer defense (apologia) in a ‘trial’ setting. This has served as an argument in favor of the view that the Sanhedrin setting and framework to the speech is a secondary (and artificial) construction by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)—for more on this, see further below.

There is perhaps a tendency to gloss over this lengthy recital of Old Testament history; it can seem rather tedious, even irrelevant, in context. It may be tempting, indeed, to skip on ahead to verse 43ff, or even verse 54ff; however there are several reasons why it is important to include this section (and to read it carefully):

First, there is a rhetorical and narrative structure to the speech (see above) which is disrupted if one omits (or ignores) the historical summary; it is vital to a proper understanding of the speech as a whole.
Second, it is important to recognize the place that the Old Testament narrative had for early Christians and in their Gospel preaching; the way Paul references the Scriptures in his letters makes it clear that even Gentile converts must have been made familiar with the Old Testament and Israelite history as part of their basic instruction. Early Christians also saw themselves as fulfilling the history of Israel along with the promises God made to her, and so the Old Testament narrative was, in many ways, fundamental to Christian identity.
Third, the cumulative effect of the speech is lost if one ‘skips ahead’; in particular, the Scripture citation and exposition in vv. 43ff are climactic to the historical summary and really cannot be understood correctly outside of that context.

There are a number of ways one may outline this section; for a useful five-part outline, see Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 365. I have opted for a tripartite structure, as follows:

    • Abraham—the promise made by God to his people (vv. 2-8)
    • Joseph—the sojourn/exile of God’s people in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16)
    • Moses—the exodus out of Egypt toward the land of promise (vv. 17-42a); this portion can be broken down further:
      (a) {the first forty years}—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22)
      (b) forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29)
      (c) forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34)
      —”This Moses”… who led Israel out of Egypt (vv. 35-37)
      —”This (Moses)” is the one who was with the congregation (of Israel) in the wilderness (vv. 38-39a)
      ** The Israelites refused to hear/obey (Moses) in the wilderness—turned to idolatry (the Golden Calf, vv. 39b-42a)

Abraham (vv. 2-8)

The first two sections (on Abraham and Joseph) are relatively straightforward summaries of passages from Genesis, with simplification and compression of detail. The summary of Abraham is taken from Genesis 11-12, with quotations or allusions from Psalm 29:3 and Deut 2:5, followed by references to Gen 17:8; 15:13-14 (LXX); Exod 3:12; Gen 17:10; 21:4. The key verse is v. 5, emphasizing God’s promise to Abraham’s descendents—Gen 17:8 (and 48:4); also Gen 12:7; 13:5; 15:18-20; 24:7. This theme of promise already appeared in Peter’s earlier speech (Acts 3:25), and will also be mentioned in Acts 7:17; 13:32; 26:6; the covenant promise to Abraham would play a key role in Paul’s writings (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4; 9:1-9ff). Verse 7 cites Exodus 3:12 (LXX), with one small difference: instead of “in/on this mountain” (e)n tw=| o&rei tou/tw|) we find “in this place” (e)n tw=| to/pw| tou/tw|), which better fits the Temple context underlying the speech.

Joseph (vv. 9-16)

The section on Joseph draws on portions of Genesis 37-46, along with allusions to Psalm 105:21; 37:19; there are also references to Deut 10:22 and Exod 1:6 in verse 15, along with a conflation of Gen 23:16-20 and 33:19 in verse 16. The overall setting of Israel in Egypt naturally fits the theme of exile and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Israelite/Jewish people—a motif which could already be seen with Abraham leaving his homeland, and sojourning to the land of promise.

Moses (vv. 17-42a)

This section (on Moses) is by far the most developed, demonstrating a clear rhetorical (and didactic) structure. Verses 17-34 adopt the (traditional) scheme of dividing Moses’ life (of 120 years) into three equal periods of 40:

    • forty years—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22) [drawn from Exodus 1-2]
    • forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29) [from Exodus 2]
    • forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34) [Exodus 3:1-10, direct quotations and paraphrase]

Vv. 23 and 30 begin with similar Greek expressions:

“and when/as forty years’ time was filled (up) [e)plhrou=to] for him…” (v. 23)
“and forty years having been filled (up) [plhrwqe/ntwn]…” (v. 30)

It is also worth noting some key extra-biblical and/or traditional details mentioned in this section:

    • Moses’ beauty—Exod 2:2 [LXX]; Philo, Life of Moses I.9, 18; Josephus, Antiquities II.224
    • Moses’ learning—Philo, Life of Moses I.20-24; II. 1; Jos. Antiquities II.236
      and eloquence—Philo, Life of Moses I.80; Jos. Antiquities II.271 (cf. also Sirach 45:3)
    • The Angel (of the Lord) in the burning bush—Exod 3:2 [LXX] (MSS D H P S 614 of Acts 7:30 read “of the Lord”)

The revelation by theophany (manifestation of God), i.e. His Presence—even if understood in Exod 3:1-10 as occurring through ‘Angelic’ mediation—is an important theme, as it closes this section on Moses’ life and leads into the forceful section in vv. 35-38ff with its emphasis on false worship and idolatry. Even so, it must be admitted (along with many commentators) that the precise point of the speech (taken through verse 34) is hard to see; it certainly does not answer the charges against Stephen, and appears on the surface to be a long (even irrelevant) digression. The tone of the speech, however, changes suddenly and dramatically with verse 35, with the repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun (ou!to$, acc. tou=ton, “this [one]”).

“This (Moses)…” (vv. 35-38)—the speech moves from historical summary (in vv. 17-34, similar to the sections on Abraham/Joseph), to a series of statements extolling Moses’ role in the Exodus and wilderness period, drawing attention especially to the person of Moses by the repeated, staccato-like use of the the demonstrative pronoun (“this”). This not only represents forceful rhetoric, but also serves to draw a clear and unmistakable parallel between Moses and Jesus, as we shall see. Keep in mind a similar use of the demonstrative pronoun in referring to Jesus already in Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:10-11; 5:31 (“this [one], this Jesus”; also “this name”, Acts 3:16; 4:17; 5:28); the Temple also has been referred to as “this place” (cf. Acts 6:13-14; 7:7).

    • V. 35—”this [tou=ton] Moses, whom they denied/refused… this (one) [tou=ton] God set forth (as) a leader and redeemer…”
    • V. 36—”this (one) [ou!to$] led them out, doing marvels and signs…”
    • V. 37—”this [ou!to$] is Moses, the (one) saying to the sons of Israel…”
    • V. 38—”this [ou!to$] is the (one) coming to be in/among the called-out (people) in the desolate (land)…”

Verses 36-37 specifically emphasize Moses’ role in the Exodus—the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt; in verses 38-39, the emphasis is on Moses’ role with the congregation (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness. Verse 39 (beginning with the relative pronoun o%$ [dat. w!|]) is transitional, stressing the disobedience of the people and leading into the section on the Golden Calf (vv. 40ff). The following details clarify the parallel drawn between Moses and Jesus:

    • the people denied/refused [h)rnh/sato] Moses (v. 35, cf. also 39ff) just as they denied Jesus (Acts 3:13, same verb)
    • “leader [a&rxwn] and redeemer [lutrwth/$]” (v. 35) are titles similar to those applied to Jesus in Acts 3:15; 5:31 (cf. also 2:36)
    • Moses and Jesus are both “sent” by God (vb. a)poste/llw) in v. 35; 3:20, 26
    • “wonders and signs” (v. 36) are parallel to the miracles of Jesus (2:22, cf. also 4:30)
    • Jesus as fulfillment of the “Prophet (to come) like Moses” from Deut 18:15 (cited v. 37, and in 3:22-23)
    • Moses was with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a) of Israel in the wilderness (v. 38), just as Jesus is with the “called-out” people (e)kklhsi/a), i.e. the believers in Christ, the “church”—the word is first used in this latter sense in Acts 5:11, and occurs frequently from 8:1 on; it was used in the LXX in reference to the people gathering/assembling (to receive the Law, etc), esp. in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16.

The central theme of the theophanous revelation of God at Sinai (already emphasized in vv. 30-34) is brought out again here in verse 38—the closing phrase is especially significant, as it relates to one of the main charges against Stephen; it is useful, I think, to look at it in context with verse 39a:

“(this [Moses])…
who [o^$] received living lo/gia to give to us,
to whom [w!|] our Fathers did not wish to become as (ones) who listen under [i.e. {are} obedient]…

The neuter noun lo/gion (lógion), related to the more common lo/go$ (lógos, “account, word”), more properly refers to something uttered, i.e., “saying, announcement, declaration”; in a religious context especially it is often translated as “oracle”. For the idea of “living words/oracles” see Lev 18:5; Deut 32:46-47; note also a similar expression “the words/utterances of this life” in Acts 5:20.

The Golden Calf (vv. 39-42a)—the second half of verse 39 leads into the episode of the Golden Calf:

“…but they thrust (him [i.e. Moses]) away from (them) and turned in their hearts unto Egypt”

Verses 40-41 are taken from the account of the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:1-6), emphasizing unlawful/inappropriate sacrifice (qusi/a, [ritual] slaughtering) and idolatry (worship of an image, ei&dwlon). Most important are the closing words of verse 41:

“…and they were happy [lit. of a good mind] in the works of their hands [e)n toi=$ e&rgoi$ tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n]”

This last phrase introduces the idea of things “made with hands” (tied specifically to idolatry), which will play a vital role in the remainder of the speech.

In verse 39, it is stated that the people turned [e)stra/fhsan] in their hearts (back to Egypt, and idolatry); now, in verse 42a, God turns [e&streyen, same verb] and gives the people over [pare/dwken] for them to do (hired) service [latreu/ein, in a religious sense] to the “armies of heaven” (i.e. sun, moon, stars and planets). Of the many references warning against the consequences of image-worship, see, e.g. Hos 13:2-4; for a fundamental passage warning against worship of the celestial bodies, see Deut 4:16ff. On this idea of God giving/handing transgressors over to an even more serious form of idolatry, see Wisdom 11:15-16 and the famous passage in Romans 1:24-28; often there is the sense that the result (and punishment) of idolatry will resemble the very thing that was being worshipped (cf. Jer 19:10-13, etc).

The main Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27), along with the remainder of the speech, will be discussed in the next part of this series.