September 10: Deuteronomy 32:4-6

In the previous note, we looked at the opening verses (vv. 1-3) of Deuteronomy 32 (the “Song of Moses”). Today we will proceed to the next section of the poem (vv. 4-18), based on the following outline which I am using in this study:

    • 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)
    • 19-42: God’s punishment of His people, and their subsequent deliverance
      —Punishment for violation of the covenant (vv. 19-25)

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

The first portion (vv. 4-6) establishes the principal theme of the Creator God (YHWH) as the Father of the people Israel.

Deuteronomy 32:4-6

4The Rock—His work(s are) complete,
indeed, all His ways (are with) justice,
a Mighty (One) firm with no deviation—
He (is the One ever) true and straight!
5(Yet) His sons <ruined their loyalty to Him>,
a circle (now) crooked and (all) twisted!
6Would you deal this (way) with YHWH,
(as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?
Is He not your Father who created you?
(Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?

After the exordium (vv. 1-3), these lines establish the fundamental theme of the poem. However one views the origin and composition of the Song itself, it must be read in the context of its position in the book of Deuteronomy. The entire thrust of the historical narration, presented as a speech (or speeches) by Moses, is as an exhortation (and warning) to the people to follow the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) established by YHWH. In the initial sections of the Epilogue (chapter 31), it is foretold that Israel would, in large measure, violate the covenant (vv. 16-18, 20-22) in the years to come. For critical scholars, who view the book of Deuteronomy as a product of the kingdom period (e.g. the reign of Josiah, and thereafter), the actual historical situation has been retrojected and presented as ex eventu prophecy (i.e. prophecy written after the fact). Many traditional-conservative commentators, of course, accept the book as recording Moses’ actual words, at least in substance, in which case it represents authentic prophecy announced by God. Either way, its purpose (and power) as a warning to Israel, to remain faithful to the covenant and its Torah, comes through loud and clear. We see this especially in verses 26-29:

26Take this account of the Instruction {Torah}, and you shall set it alongside the box of [i.e. containing] the binding (agreement) of YHWH your Mighty (One) {Elohim}, and it shall be there among you for a witness (always). 27For (indeed) I know your defiance and the hard (back of) your neck! see—in my (be)ing yet alive with you th(is) day, you have been (act)ing defiant with YHWH, and so (then) how (much more will you) following my death! 28Gather to me all the elders of your staffs [i.e. tribes] and (the one)s administering (for you), and I will speak these words in their ears, and I will make [i.e. call on] heaven and earth (to) give witness a(gainst) them. 29For I know that, following my death, you will go (completely) to ruin, and you will turn (aside) from the path which I have charged you (to walk), and the evil shall meet you in the days following, (in) that [i.e. because] you did the (thing that is) evil in the eyes of YHWH, and provoked Him with the (thing)s your hands (have) done.”

There is a strong parallelism at work in these verses:

    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—written, i.e. the book of Deuteronomy itself as a record of Moses’ words (v. 26)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 27)
    • Instruction/exhortation as a witness (of the covenant)—oral, Moses’ words given directly to the leaders of Israel (v. 28)
      • Prophecy of future disobedience: “For I know (that)…” (v. 29)

All of this sets the stage for Moses’ reciting the poem of chap. 32 (the Song) to the entire assembly of the Israelite people (v. 30). Thus, central to the poem is the idea of the binding agreement (tyr!B=, ‘covenant’) God made with Israel, and their need to remain faithful to it. There is a strong echo of the covenant-treaty formula in the opening words of the Song, as discussed in the prior note. Now, in the first main section (vv. 4-18) the basis of the covenant is established and confirmed, through poetic narrative. The relationship between the two parties—YHWH and Israel—begins with YHWH’s position as Creator (of all humankind), and special role as Father of Israel. As such, verses 4-6 are fundamentally theological—presenting and describing the character and attributes of YHWH; and the primary characteristic is the faithfulness and loyalty He possesses, which informs His side of the binding agreement. This is expressed several ways in the first lines (2 bicola) of verse 4 (a-d):

    • V. 4a (1): The word rWx (ƒûr, “rock”) as a title (Haƒƒûr, “The Rock”), used repeatedly in the Song (vv. 15, 18, 30-31, 37); a rock by nature is strong and sure, while a hill or cliff is a natural position of refuge and protection; thus, the title indicates the reliability, security, and protection which God provides.
    • V. 4a (2-3): It is further said that His actions (lu^P) pl., root lu^P*) are complete (<ym!T*)—that is, there is nothing lacking or amiss in anything He does; for His part, He is utterly faithful and reliable. The call for the people of Israel, likewise, to be complete (<ym!T*) in 18:13 is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in Matt 5:48: “Then [i.e. if you follow my teachings] you will be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”.
    • V. 4b: Similarly, it is declared that “all His ways/paths” (wyk*r*D=-l*K) are “justice”. Here, the noun fP*v=m! may be used in an adjectival sense (“just, right”); however, one can also understand it in a predicate sense—i.e., “all His paths (are in/with) justice”. Everywhere that YHWH walks and acts, there is justice, and nothing that is not just or right; clearly the thought in this half line (colon) is parallel to the one previous.
    • V. 4c: Here His faithfulness and loyalty is stated more directly, with two declarations:
      (i) He is a firm Mighty One (“God”)—that is, He is firm and true in everything He does, using the noun hn*Wma$ (°§mûnâ), parallel to the noun fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰, “justice”) in the previous line. He is also the only true Mighty One (°E~l, “God”); all other supposed “Mighty Ones” (whether “gods” or Rulers) are false and unreliable. This lays the groundwork for the contrast between YHWH and the deities of the surrounding nations later in the poem.
      (ii) There is no deviation (or corruption) in what He does; it is specifically stated that “there is no (/ya@) deviation (lw#u*)”; moreover, such “deviation” is characteristic of idolatry, and likewise introduces the dualistic theme than runs through the remainder of the poem.
    • V. 4d: YHWH (“He”, aWh) is characterized by two fundamental attributes:
      (i) qyd!x^ (ƒadîq), often translated “faithful”, but, in the context of the covenant-setting, perhaps better understood as “true”, “loyal”; it is parallel with the noun hn`Wma$ in the prior half-line.
      (ii) rv*y` (y¹š¹r), “straight”, clearly parallel with “there is no deviation”.

If YHWH is a completely faithful and reliable partner in the covenant, the same can not be said of the people (Israel). Their lack of faithfulness (to the covenant) is described in vivid, even difficult, terms, reflecting both past (i.e. the Golden Calf incident) and future violations. Despite the harsh language used, it does not necessarily mean that Israel was responsible for flagrant immorality, and the like; any violation of the covenant, however slight, could be described in this manner. It is just here, in the bicolon of verse 5, that the force of the language used gives way to a significant textual difficulty (see below). Many commentators suggest that the text in the first half line, as it has come down to us in the Masoretic text, requires emendation. For the purposes of this study, I have tentatively adopted a reading along the lines of “His sons ruined their loyalty to Him” (see the translation above). The verb tj^v* (“[go to] ruin, destroy, corrupt”) was used earlier in the section preceding the poem (31:29, see above), in Moses’ foretelling the people’s violation of the covenant. This lack of loyalty—to be understood primarily in terms of “idolatry”, as in the Golden Calf episode—characterizes an entire Age or generation of the people. The Hebrew term (Heb. roD) fundamentally means “circle, cycle”, but is frequently used in the sense of a “life-cycle” (i.e. life-span), or period of time in which a particular generation of people lives. In the second half-line of verse 5, this generation is characterized as: “crooked and (all) twisted (up)”. This crooked/twisted character of the people is in marked contrast with the “straightness” of YHWH.

In the two lines of verse 6, the contrast—between YHWH and Israel—is developed further, with a pair of questions (each beginning with the interrogative particle –h&); the question in the first line is:

“Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”

In Torah scrolls, the initial h& particle is especially large, perhaps to emphasize the enormity of the question, i.e. “Would you really treat YHWH this way?”. The contrast between one who is foolish (lb*n`) and wise (<k*j*) is an essential element of Hebrew Wisdom literature, with ancient roots. The second question builds upon the first, and continues the contrast between YHWH and the people:

    • Character of the People:
      “Would you deal this (way) with YHWH, (as) a foolish people (with) no wisdom?”
    • Character of YHWH:
      “Is He not your Father who created you? (Didn’t) He make you and cause you to be?”

If the people acts as faithless, defiant sons (v. 4), YHWH, by contrast remains a faithful/loyal Father to them. His role as Father begins with his more primary function as Creator of all things (and of humankind). Three verbs are used which mark YHWH-El as Creator God:

    • hn`q*—a primitive root with the basic meaning “create”, sometimes confused/conflated with a similar root with the meaning “buy, purchase, acquire”. Its ancient Semitic religious use is attested in the famous formula of Gen 14:19, 22.
    • hc*u*—a common verb indicating basic action or work, “make, do”.
    • A causative form of a primitive /k (kn) root (kûn, k¹nâ, k¹nan), with the basic meaning here of “cause to be” (see the parallel in Psalm 119:73)

This vital contrast in vv. 4-6 prepares the way for the narration in vv. 7-18, in which the contrast in played out through a colorful description of Israel’s early history.

Textual Note on Deut 32:5

The first line (colon) in verse 5 appears to make very little sense as it has come down to us:

<m*Wm wn`B* aý ol tj@v!
Šiµ¢¾ lô lœ° b¹n¹w mûm¹m
literally: “he made ruin to/for him his sons their blemish”

If you go to this verse in your English Bible, you will likely see a footnote indicating that the Hebrew is obscure or uncertain. Unfortunately, this is frequently the case in Old Testament poetry. There are hundreds of verses or lines where we simply do not know for certain what the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text (MT) means, or how to translate and interpret it, or whether the apparent confusion is the result of textual corruption. The Rabbis noted the difficult syntax of this verse and sought variously to explain the MT, without any emendation. For example, Nahmanides explains it along the lines of: “their blemish caused them [i.e. the Israelites] to act corruptly toward Him” so that, as a result, “they are not His sons”.

Many critical commentators believe that the verse, as it has come down to us, is corrupt. One suggestion (cf. J. Tigay, Deuteronomy: JPS Torah Commentary [1996], p. 301) is that originally the line read something like—

/m%a@ wn`B* ol Wtj&v!
šiµ¦¾û lô b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“His sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

or, possibly:

/m%a@ wn`B*-aý Wtj&v!
šiµ¦¾û lœ°-b¹n¹w °¢m¥n
“(the ones who are) not-His-sons ruined (their) firmness [i.e. loyalty] to Him”

Admittedly, this would make a better fit with the second half of the line, but it remains quite speculative.

The Greek version (Septuagint, LXX) is somewhat confusing as well:

h(ma/rtosan ou)k au)tw=| te/kna mwmhta/
h¢mártosan ouk autœ¡ tékna mœm¢tá
perhaps: “they sinned, children (of) blame (who are) not to him [i.e. not his]”

Unfortunately, verse 5 is not present among the manuscript fragments of Deuteronomy preserved at Qumran, so there is no help from that side in elucidating the Hebrew syntax. One must always be cautious in emending the text that has come down to us (i.e. the Masoretic text), especially when there is no clear manuscript support for such emendation. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to accept the MT blindly, ignoring places where the received text is difficult or unintelligible. Here textual criticism reaches it finest, and most challenging, point.

August 6: Exodus 3:13-15 (continued)

Exodus 3:13-15, continued

Verse 15

In the previous note, we looked at the famous revelation of God’s name, Yahweh (YHWH/hwhy), in Exodus 3:14. There is strong evidence, both here in the book of Exodus (see esp. 6:3), and in the Patriarchal traditions of Genesis, that Israel’s ancestors did not worship or refer to the Creator God primarily as Yahweh, but as °E~l. This makes the revelation of the divine name in verse 14 something genuinely new—a distinctive revelation to his people from God himself. At the same time, as we saw, there are indications that the name Yahweh (in older form, Yahw£ or Yaµw£) would not have been entirely unknown to the Israelites in Egypt in the time of Moses.

The evidence is perhaps best explained by positing that Yahweh was an epithet or title used of the high Creator °E~l, in certain parts of the Semitic-speaking world (i.e., among Canaanites and Amorites), by  the mid-2nd millennium B.C. It may have come to greater prominence, as a divine name, among the peoples of south Palestine, the Negev, and Sinai, reaching even to the Israelites in Egypt. It is plausible to surmise that the name was in use among the Midianites and Kenites, SW Semitic peoples closely associated with Moses and the Israelites in early tradition. The narrative episode of chapters 3-4 is, of course, set in the context of Midian. The extent to which the name was in use among the earlier ancestors of Israel in Canaan is a matter of some dispute (cf. the occurrences in the traditions, Gen 24:12, 27, 42, 48; 28:13; 32:9).

In any event, beginning with verse 14, the “God of the fathers”, previously known primarily by the name °E~l, is now identified definitively for the people of Israel by the name Yahweh. This is clear from the words that follow in verse 15:

And (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm, i.e. God] said yet again to Moshe: “You shall say this to (the) sons of Yisrael: ‘YHWH, the Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm] of your fathers—(the) Mighty (One) of Abraham, (the) Mighty (One) of Yiƒµaq, and (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob—sent me to you’. This (is) my name for (the) distant (future); this (is) my memorial [i.e. how I am to be remembered] for circle (to) circle [i.e age to age]”.

God thus declares here that the tetragrammaton name (YHWH/Yahweh) is to be his name from this point on, into the distant future (<l*u)l=). Whenever the Israelite people—God’s people—think or call on him (vb rk^z`), it is to be with the name hwhy. And, indeed, we can note that the earlier °E~l names and titles recorded in the early Genesis traditions have generally fallen out of use by the 1st millennium, mainly being preserved in the older/archaic poetry of the Old Testament.

This leads to the interesting point of how the name would have been vocalized or pronounced. The Masoretic text offers no real indication of this. As is well known, the vocalization ho`hy+, reflects the customary reverential substitution of yn`d)a& (“my Lord”) for the divine name. This restriction against pronunciation of the name itself is of later origin, developing and becoming widespread during the Second Temple period. For Israelites in the late-2nd millennium, and into the kingdom period, we can only make an educated guess as to how the name would have been pronounced. The simple English transliteration Yahweh (Yahw£ > Yahwê) would seem to give an adequate approximation. Since a literal translation of the name remains difficult (and a bit awkward), and in regard for the pious convention of avoiding its pronunciation, I typically render it as “YHWH” in my own translations (cf. above).

The establishment of God’s name is preliminary to the act of delivering his people from their bondage (in Egypt). With the declaration in vv. 14-15, the message shifts to a commission of Moses in his role as God’s representative, who will lead Israel out from Egypt. It is noteworthy that the same identification of YHWH with the “God of the fathers” is repeated at the start of this commission in verse 16. It also is foundational for the message that Moses (with the elders of Israel) is to deliver to the Pharaoh (v. 18). Thus, the Exodus itself is rooted in Israel’s newly realized identity as God’s people, with their protecting God known forever more by the name YHWH.

Before concluding, let us return once more to the question of the precise meaning of the divine name (discussed in the previous note). On the generally accepted premise that it is a verbal name, derived from the root ywh / hwh (verb of being/becoming), there remain two possibilities:

    • It is a 3rd person (stative?) imperfect of the G/Qal stem, in which case it would essentially mean “He (who) is” or “He (who) will be”; this meaning is supported by the explanatory expression in v. 14 (according to the Masoretic pointing).
    • It is a 3rd person active (yaqtil pattern) imperfect of the causative (= Hiphil) stem, meaning “He (who) causes to be”, i.e. “He (who) creates”, or (possibly) “He (who) makes happen”. The external Semitic evidence, in my view, tends to support this meaning.

What significance would either of these have for the name in the context of our passage? First, it is clear that YHWH is the all-powerful Creator (= °E~l), and, as the Exodus narratives will detail, He holds power over all of creation, and will use it to protect and preserve His people. The causative stem more properly relates to this aspect of God as Creator. Second, the Exodus begins a process that will lead to YHWH re-establishing His binding agreement (covenant) with Israel; two aspects of this covenantal relationship are worth noting: (1) God’s role as protector of his people, and (2) the blessing/favor he provides, primarily in terms of the life-giving fertility and bounty of the promised land. Third, there is here also a newfound emphasis on YHWH’s presence with his people. This begins with Moses, and ultimately extends to the people as a whole as they emerge from their time in Egypt. Note the wording in 3:12; 4:12, 15, and how this relates to the revelation in 3:14:

;yP! <u! hy#h=a# (yk!n)a*) [3:12; 4:12, 15]
I will be with your face [i.e. with you]”
hy#h=a# rv#a& hy#h=a# [3:14]
I will be that which I will be

It seems likely that there is an intentional wordplay involved here, and that this wordplay may have influenced the particular form (and/or vocalization) of the expression in 3:14. Following the Masoretic pointing, the sense in this regard may be that God (YHWH) is the one who “will be” with his people, i.e. ,”I am the (One) who will be (with you)”. The same phrase “I will be with your face [i.e. with you]” is found also at other key points in the early history of Israel—cf. Deut 31:23; Josh 1:5; 3:7; Judg 6:16—all of which seem to relate to the same basic line of tradition.

August 5: Exodus 3:13-15 (continued)

Exodus 3:13-15, continued

Verse 14

In Exodus 3:14, God gives his answer to Moses’ question (in v. 13), regarding His name: “…if (they) say to me, ‘What (is) His name?’, what (then) do I say to them?”. The significance of this question was discussed in the previous note. It implies an unfamiliarity with the name given in v. 14—Yahweh (hwhy). The identification of the divine voice with “the Mighty One [i.e. God] of the fathers [viz. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob]” leads to the important point that, in the ancient traditions in the book of Genesis, the Creator God is worshiped (and referred to) as °E~l rather than Yahweh (cf. also the explicit notice in Exod 6:3). All of this means that the revelation of the divine name here in vv. 14-15 is something truly unique and revolutionary, which will provide a new religious definition for the people of Israel. From this point on, God’s people will worship him by the name corresponding to the tetragrammaton hwhy.

But what of this name Yahweh/YHWH? To begin with, here is how it is introduced in the divine declaration of verse 14 (working with the Masoretic text and its pointing):

And (the) Mightiest [°E_lœhîm, i.e. God] said to Moshe, “I am that which I am [°ehyeh °¦šer °ehyeh]”, and (then) He said, “You shall say this to (the) sons of Yisrael: ‘I am [°ehyeh] sent me to you'”.

I have rendered the MT syntax quite literally; however, many commentators would maintain, quite plausibly, that true sense of the expression hy#h=a# rv#a& hy#h=a# (°ehyeh °¦šer °ehyeh) in context is “I am (the One who) is”. I tend to agree with this assessment. A more difficult critical issue surrounds the relationship of the expression to the name hwhy (YHWH) itself.

It is all but certain that hwhy has its origins as a verbal name or title, most likely derived from the root ywh > hwh (later hyh), a principal verb of being/becoming (i.e. “to [come to] be”); the explanation here in v. 14 confirms that derivation. If so, then it would have to be parsed as an imperfect form—hwhy being the third person singular, and hwha (= hyha) being the first person singular form, respectively. The real question (and one much disputed) then becomes whether it should be read as the simple G/Qal stem or a (Hiphil) causative stem. A strong argument can be made for the latter, even though there are no (other) clear occurrences of the hiphil for hwh / hyh in the Old Testament. However, if Exodus 3 contains genuinely ancient traditions from the time of Moses, then it is possible that the text here preserves older Semitic usage that disappeared from later Hebrew. The 2nd millennium evidence, such as the Mari personal names with a yahweh verbal element, tend to support this view (cf. below).
For a more detailed exposition and defense of the causative-stem view, see the now-classic studies by D. N. Freedman, “The Name of the God of Moses”, Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 79 (1960), pp. 151-6, and F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 60-71. Their essays build upon the earlier ground-breaking studies of Paul Haupt and W. F. Albright.

If the causative stem in verse 14 is correct, then the vocalization would need to be altered slightly from the MT—viz., hy#h=a^ rv#a& hy#h=a^ (°ayheh °¦šer °ayheh), “I cause to be that which I cause to be”, or “I create that which I create”, i.e. “I am (the One who) creates”. In other words, the declaration identifies the God speaking to Moses, the “God the the Fathers”, as the Creator (= °E~l), through the specific verbal name/title “the (One who) causes to be”. Cross (pp. 68-9) would reconstruct the expression in the older language as °ahw£ ¼¥ °ahw£—or, using the third person singular, yahw£ ¼¥ yahw£.

Note: ¼¥ (> ) is the older relative particle (corr. to Aramaic yD!), which came to be replaced in Hebrew by °¦šer (rv#a&).

There is some reasonably good evidence to support the view that Yahw£ (= Yahweh) was a name or title applied to the Creator °E~l in parts of the Semitic-speaking world (i.e. Canaanites and Amorites) during the 2nd millennium B.C. For example, there are attested a number of personal names in the Mari texts which contain a yahw£ -verbal component, following the pattern yahw£-{name of deity}, including yahw£-°Il (cf. Cross, pp. 62-3). The meaning in such instances, presumably, is “the deity caused to be”, i.e. caused this child to be, brought it into existence, gave it life, etc; the imperfect as jussive (or precative) would indicate a wish or prayer, i.e. “God, give life”, etc.

Regarding the existence of Yawheh as an independent divine name , there is no certain extra-biblical evidence prior to 9th century, where it occurs in the famous Meša± stele. More questionable is the apparent (or possible) occurrence in syllabic lists of South Palestinian place names in the 14th and 13th centuries, roughly contemporary with the time of Moses (cf. W. F. Albright, JBL 67 [1948], p. 380; Cross, pp. 61-2). This may not seem so significant, except for the fact that there are clear connections in the Moses/Exodus traditions between the Israelites of the period and the Semitic-speaking peoples of south Palestine (Edom), the Negev, and Sinai. Moses is associated in the tradition with the Midianites and Kenites, for example, and this may not coincidental, but rather may involve relationships that had existed among the Semitic peoples of the region. The 15th century Sinaitic inscriptions from Serabit el-Hadem provide evidence of cultural contacts among regional south Canaanite speakers, outside the immediate confines of Egypt; such contacts likely evolved over a number of centuries, providing the cultural and historical background for the traditions in the book of Exodus.

Along these same lines, we should note that Moses’ own mother has a Yah(weh)-name—db#k#oy (Yôke»e¼, “Yah[weh] is worthy [?]”)—the oldest such name recorded in Scripture (Num 26:59; cf. Exod 6:20). Beyond this, we must also take seriously the occurrences of the tetragrammaton within several of the Patriarchal traditions in the book of Genesis (24:12, 27, 42, 48; 28:13; 32:9). Taken together, and viewed objectively, this evidence suggests that, even if the Creator God was not worshiped by the ancestors of Israel primarily with the name Yahweh, it was a name or title that would have been familiar to the Israelites by the time they were dwelling in Egypt in the mid-2nd millennium. It may also have been the principal name used by the Midianites and other south Semitic peoples of Palestine and Sinai.

These points discussed above will be considered further, along with the overall significance of the divine revelation of vv. 14-15, in the next daily note.

August 4: Exodus 3:13-15

These daily notes during the month of August are supplemental to the current Study Series The People of God. Before proceeding with these notes on Exodus 3:13-15, I would recommend reading the current article (Part 1 of the topic “Israel as the People of God”).

Exodus 3:13-15

Following the initial revelation of God to Moses (vv. 1-6), the revelatory message comes in vv. 7-15. This message provides the basis for the commission of Moses to serve as God’s representative in leading Israel out of Egypt (3:16-4:17). The revelatory message climaxes with the declaration of God’s name (vv. 13-15). This is one of the most famous passages of the Old Testament, and yet one that is fraught with considerable difficulties for interpretation. In particular, the historical-critical issues surrounding these verses are significant.

Verse 13

The first point to note comes from a careful reading of verse 13:

And Moshe said to the Mightiest [°E_lœhîm]: “See, I am coming to (the) sons of Yisrael, and (if) I say to them ‘(The) Mighty (One) [°E_lœhîm] of your fathers has sent me to you’, and they say to me ‘What (is) His name?’, what do I (then) say to them?”

As noted on numerous occasions, I take the plural form <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm) in such instances to be an intensive (or comprehensive) plural, meaning something like “(the) Mightiest (One)”, more or less equivalent to the more common (and older) word la@ (°¢l < °il[u]), “Mighty (One)”, i.e. “God”. By the mid-1st millennium B.C., <yh!ýa$ was the established word for “God” in Hebrew, and is used regularly throughout all the writings of the period. In works which contain much older traditions (such as Genesis and the Pentateuch), these typically have been ‘modernized’ in certain respects, including the regular use of <yh!ýa$. Earlier Hebrew/Canaanite speech would have used °il[u] (= la@) instead—i.e., “the Mighty (One) [°E~l] of your father(s)” (e.g., Gen 49:25, preserved in poetry). Cf. further on the names El and Elohim.

The force of Moses’ question is curious, especially when one considers it from the historical standpoint. Does Moses already know God’s name (Yahweh/ hwhy)? or does the question imply that the name is unfamiliar to him? Indeed, what name would the Israelites, and other south Canaanite-speaking peoples, in the 14th-13th centuries, have used to worship their Creator God? Can a distinction be made between the Israelites in Egypt and their earlier ancestors (in Canaan)?

To begin with, it is important to note that the evidence from the book of Genesis strongly indicates that the ancestors of Israel worshiped (and referred to) the high Creator God as °Il / °El (la@), rather than Yahweh (hwhy). The early traditions themselves clearly support this (14:18-22; 16:13; 17:1; 21:33; 28:3; 31:13; 33:20; 35:1, 3, 7, 11; 43:14; 46:3; 48:3; 49:25). Moreover, there are no Yah(weh)-names recorded in the book of Genesis, whereas many El-names (personal and place-names) are attested, including a number of key religious/cultic sites (35:7, etc).

To this must be added the direct statement in Exodus 6:3, that God made himself known to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), not by the name YHWH, but as °E~l (spec. °E~l Šadday, something like “Mighty [One] of the mountain”). Some commentators have sought to gloss over this, and thereby harmonize the passage with occurrences of hwhy in the book of Genesis. However, it is important to distinguish the use of hwhy in the Genesis narrative, written in the kingdom period (and certainly no earlier than Moses’ time), from the older traditions (where la@ is used). A devout Yahwist surely would make use of the tetragrammaton in writing a history based on those traditions. There are, however, several references where the tetragrammaton appears to be prominent within the early tradition itself (cf. 24:12, 27, 42, 48; 28:13; 32:9), and these are a bit harder to explain in light of the statement in Exod 6:3.

Even so, it is all but certain that the divine name Yahweh was not entirely unknown to the Israelites of Moses’ time. This can be affirmed, with some confidence, based on objective evidence from the Semitic-speaking world of the mid-2nd millennium B.C. It is also worth noting that, by all accounts, the earliest Yah(weh)-name recorded in the Old Testament is that of Moses’ own mother—Yôke»e¼ (db#k#oy), meaning something like “YHWH is worthy”. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 14).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 24

Psalm 24

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 1-2)

This Psalm has one of the clearest liturgical settings of any in the Psalter, even if the historical situation cannot be reconstructed in detail. The superscription itself merely indicates that it is another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, and offers no other information regarding the performance tradition. The structure of the composition is more enlightening, divided as it is into two main strophes, each of which may tell us something about how this Psalm was used in the ancient liturgy. Following an opening pair of couplets (vv. 1-2), the first strophe (of irregular meter) is comprised of vv. 3-6; the second strophe (of 3+3+3 tricola) is in vv. 7-10. A hl*s# (selah) notation comes at the end of each strophe.

VERSES 1-2

“The earth and her fullness (belongs) to YHWH,
(the) productive land, and (the one)s sitting [i.e. dwelling] in her;
for He set her firmly upon the seas,
and fixed her upon (the) flowing (water)s.”

This pair of 3+3 couplets establishes YHWH as the Creator and Sovereign Lord of the universe. It is a fundamental statement of Israelite monotheism, identifying YHWH as the one supreme Deity. His position as Creator and Lord makes him worthy of worship and honor.

The “earth” (Jr#a#) is paired with the noun lb@T@, difficult to translate in English, emphasizing what the earth contains and produces (“brings forth”); for lack of a suitable alternative, I have rendered it above as “productive land”. Both terms refer to the flat disc or cylinder of the earth (or land) in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, a geocentric view of the universe. The notice in verse 2, that YHWH set the earth firm and fixed “upon the seas / waters” is an allusion to the the primeval waters that surround the universe (Gen 1:2). This founding/fixing of the earth implies that the chaos of the primeval condition has been ‘subdued’, allowing for order to be established in creation. In ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth, this is often described and depicted in terms of the deity defeating the Sea (and its allies) in battle. While this cosmological myth-aspect is virtually absent from the Genesis Creation account, vestiges of it—i.e., of El-Yahweh’s defeat of the waters—are preserved in the poetry of the Old Testament. For the relevant examples, and the ancient background of this mythic theme, cf. my article “Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

VERSES 3-6

“Who shall go up on (the) mountain of YHWH,
and who shall stand in (the) standing place of His holiness?
(The one) clean of palms [i.e. hands] and pure of heart,
who has not lifted his soul to the (thing that is) empty,
and has not (bound himself) seven-fold to deceit.” (vv. 3-4)

The expression “mountain of YHWH” in the Old Testament, while also deriving from cosmological myth, typically refers to the city of Jerusalem—in particular, the ancient fortified hill-top site around which the larger city grew. This original location, a Canaanite fort-city captured by David, was known as the “city of David” and also by the name /oYx! (Zion). Like most such Canaanite walled cities of the period, it was comprised largely of the Temple-Palace complex (rather than being a residence for the populace). So it was also with “Mount Zion”, the most ancient part of Jerusalem—it had a special association with the Temple sanctuary as the dwelling place of God.

The Temple mount was thus a holy site, and no one could approach God’s dwelling in the sanctuary if they were not themselves holy. This applied principally to the priests who officiated in the Temple precincts; however, by extension, the principle of holiness and (ritual) purity related to the wider community of Israel as well. Much of the legislation in the Torah involves the preservation of ritual purity, so that sacrificial offerings and other business conducted in the precincts of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple, performed in God’s presence, would not be rendered impure and ineffective.

This purity requirement is described in verse 4, a tricolon with irregular meter (3+4+3). Any one coming into the Temple courts and sanctuary must be both ritually pure (“clean of hands”) on the outside, but also inwardly “pure of heart” (bb*l@ rB^)—that is, one’s mind and intention must be pure. The final two lines function as a couplet with synonymous parallelism, expressing purity in terms of true religion—devotion to YHWH alone. The expression “lift (up) his soul” is parallel to the verb form uB^v=n], a Niphal (reflexive) of the root ub^v*. The precise meaning of this root in the Niphal is uncertain, but is perhaps best understood in its presumed literal sense as “bind oneself seven-fold” (i.e. by an oath or vow). The nouns aw+v* (“emptiness”) and hm*r=m! (“deceit”) are also parallel; while they could simply connote wickedness in a general sense, here, as in other instances in the Psalms, they seem to carry a specific association with the worship/veneration of false deities (i.e., any deity other than YHWH).

“He shall take up blessing from YHWH,
and justice from (the) Mighty (One) of his salvation;
(Yes,) this (is the) circle (that is) seeking Him,
(the one)s searching for (the) face of Ya’aqob. Selah” (vv. 5-6)

The couplet in verse 5 affirms the relationship between YHWH and the one who is righteous; the covenant bond is preserved, and God will provide hk*r*B= (“blessing”) and hd*q*x= to such a person. The latter noun has a semantic range that can be hard to translate consistently; it is usually rendered “righteousness” or “justice”, but in the context of the covenant bond, it can also connote loyalty, generosity, and the like.

The concluding couplet in verse 6 is most difficult, but the (demonstrative) pronoun hz# (“this”) gives the final answer to the question in v. 3: “Who shall go up…?” — “this is who…”. However, the syntax is by no means clear; the first line is alliterative, and reads:

ovr=D) roD hz#
zeh dôr dœršô

The translation would be “this (is the) circle seeking him”, a reference, presumably, to the faithful ones (the priests?) of YHWH, parallel with the initial word of the second line, “(the one)s searching for him” (<yv!q=b^m=). The last two words are the main source of confusion, the Masoretic text apparently being in error (“your face [;yn#P*], Jacob”). Critical commentators are inclined to emend the text here, one of two ways:

    • His face [wyn`P*], Jacob”, following the Targum
    • “(the) face of the Mighty One [i.e. God] of Jacob”, assuming that yhla has dropped out of the text, following some Syriac MSS; for this expression cf. Exod 3:6, 15; Psalm 20:1; 46:7, 11 (and elsewhere in the Psalms), etc.

The latter option is to be preferred; however, it is possible that the expression “face of the God of Jacob” here is preserved by the shorthand “face of Jacob”, the MT suffix ; either being a scribal mistake or representing an emphatic/enclitic particle (yK!) that has been mispointed (cf. Dahood, p. 152). The “face” is the manifest presence of God (Exod 33:14, etc).

Verses 7-10

“Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
and be lifted up, openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH, strong and mighty,
YHWH (the) mighty (one) of battle!

Lift up your heads, (you) gates,
lift up, (you) openings of (the) distant (past),
and (the) King th(at is) worth(y) shall come!
Who (is) this King th(at is) worth(y)?
YHWH (Creator) of (the heavenly) armies—
He (is) the King th(at is) worth(y)! Selah

By all accounts this is a very old piece of poetry (10th cent. B.C., cf. Cross, pp. 91ff), perhaps older than the remainder of the Psalm. It certainly retains the ancient ritual/liturgical context much more so than the first strophe. Many commentators would associate it with a ceremonial transport of the golden box (or ark) that served as the symbolic throne and dwelling of YHWH in the Temple. It is theorized that a procession of priests and people led the ark into the Temple complex, and that these verses were recited, perhaps in alternating chorus, as accompaniment. Even if this were correct, the exact occasion remains unknown and can only be guessed at. The reference to the Creation in vv. 1-2 raises the possibility of a New Year ceremony, when YHWH takes his place in his house after his victory in battle over the primeval forces of chaos and darkness. Another possibility is that it involves a ceremony commemorating the building/founding of the Temple itself, or of the moment when the ark of God’s Presence first entered the Temple (cp. the setting of Psalm 132).

The gates/doors of the Temple (and city) are directed to “lift up” their heads in homage to YHWH as he enters. This solemn bit of ritual imagery as always seemed curious, but there is some evidence that the basic portrait is derived, in different ways, from cosmological myth. The identification of the Temple-site with the “mountain of God” confirms the correspondence between God’s dwelling in heaven and his symbolic, manifest dwelling on earth. The Semitic Creator deity °E~l (“Mighty [One]”) was thought to dwell on a great (cosmic) mountain also depicted as a (heavenly) Tent. The same basic imagery was applied to YHWH, otherwise identified with as the Creator °E~l. Any local mountain could serve as a form of the cosmic “mountain of God”, even a modest hill-top site such as Jerusalem/Zion.

The heavenly dwelling of God was itself divine, and could be conceived as living or alive. Moreover, the mountain/palace of °E~l in west Semitic (Canaanite) tradition served as the heavenly court where the gods would assemble for feasts and other important occasions. In the great Canaanite Baal Epic (tablet II, column ii [CAT col. III]), as part of the conflict between Baal-Haddu and the Sea (Yamm), messengers from the Sea appear while the gods are assembled in the mountain/palace of °E~l. The purpose of their appearance is to deliver a threatening message that Baal should be handed over as a slave to the Sea. The deities lower their heads at the sight of these fearful emissaries from the Sea, to which Baal rebukes them with an opening line nearly identical to vv. 7a, 9a of Psalm 24:

š°u °ilm r°aštkm
“Lift up your heads, (you) Mighty (one)s [i.e. gods]!”

The only difference is that in the Psalm personified gates of the heavenly dwelling take the place of the gods residing within. It is hard to imagine that the formula used in the Psalm does not stem from the same basic line of tradition. A significant point is that, in the Baal Epic, following his battle with the Sea, a great heavenly palace is constructed for Baal-Haddu comparable to that of °E~l. It is only natural that the gods would likewise “lift their heads” to greet Baal as he comes into his palace, thus affirming his kingship and rule over the universe (cp. verses 1-2 here); it is easy to see how, in an Israelite monotheistic setting, the circle of deities might be replaced by the surrounding gates of the palace.

The gates are called <l*ou, a term which can mean either the distant past or the distant future; it can connote the idea of “eternity, eternal”, and thus implies that these ‘gates’ are somehow divine, or at least have an ancient and eternal quality. It is the heavenly dwelling itself that greets YHWH on his victorious return from battle. Dahood (p. 153) notes the use of the expression “king of the gate” in the Ugaritic texts, as a title for the Canaanite king; even more so would the Creator deity deserve such a title.

The construct expression dobK*h^ El#m# deserves some comment. Literally, it means “king of the weight”, i.e. “the king of weight”. The noun dobK* has the fundamental meaning “weight”, in the sense of have a certain worth or value. It often connotes the idea of “honor”, especially when applied to God, and in such cases is typically translated as “glory” (i.e., “the king of glory”). However, in my view, the force of the ritual has to due with YHWH’s worthiness to be enthroned in his palace as king—sovereign over the universe. A proper translation of the expression might then be “the king of worth”, which preserves the construct form. Along these lines, I have opted for a rendering which is less accurate syntactically, but which, I think, better captures the sense of the passage: “the King th(at is) worth(y)”. Because of YHWH’s strength and might, demonstrated in battle against the waters of chaos, He is worthy to be recognized as King over all Creation.

It is, indeed, YHWH’s role as a warrior (“mighty [man] of battle”) that is emphasized in vv. 7-10, and the cosmological background of the ritual scene best explains this. That is to say, the primary association is with God’s victory over the primeval waters of chaos (the “Sea”), by which He established the current order of creation. The extent to which this same pattern applied to the “holy war” tradition—i.e. YHWH achieving victory for Israel over her enemies—can be debated. Certainly the expression “YHWH of the armies” (toab*x= hwhy), essentially shorthand for “…creator of the heavenly armies”, relates to God’s role as protector of Israel, who fights (with the forces of heaven) on behalf of His people. Whether the ritual setting of Psalm 24 specifically refers to the “wars of Israel” —Exodus and Conquest, etc—remains uncertain.

How do the verses of the first strophe (vv. 3-6, cf. above) fit into the ritual/liturgical context of the second? Possibly, before the procession with the ark entered the Temple precincts, there was a liturgical affirmation of the holiness and purity of the officiants (priests and people), represented in these verses. There was often a magical quality inherent in such ritual formulae—that is to say, the proper performance of the ritual was essential to its efficacy. Without the ritual affirmation of purity, the effectiveness of the entire ceremony—including the divine blessing and favor that result from it—would be put at risk. The ceremonial aspect, however, was only intended to confirm the reality of the situation—i.e., that the priests, etc, had kept themselves pure, conducting themselves in a holy and righteous manner, in accordance with the regulations of the covenant bond.

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

 

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 16

Psalm 16

The heading to this Psalm simply describes it as a <T*k=m! (miktam) belonging to David. The meaning of <T*k=m! remains uncertain; it has been related to the word <t#K# (“gold”), and to a separate root <tk that only occurs once elsewhere in the Old Testament (Jer 2:22). The Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targums translate it as referring to an inscription on a stone slab or pillar (Grk sthlografi/a). The meter of the Psalm is mixed/uneven, except for verses 5-9 which consistently have 4+3 beat couplets. There is also some textual uncertainty at several points, especially in verses 3-4. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the portion about which there are textual questions is not preserved in the Dead Sea manuscripts; very little of Psalm 16 survives (a tiny fragment of verse 1, and a fragmentary portion with vv. 7-9). In style, theme, and setting, this Psalm has similarities with Ps 5 (cf. the earlier study), as the protagonist contrasts his loyalty to YHWH with the worship of other deities by people around him. It is almost impossible to recapture the sense of this religious aspect of Israelite society in the early periods. Syncretism of various sorts was common in the ancient Near East, and it would have been quite natural to blend together worship of El-Yahweh with that of other Canaanite religious beliefs and practices. The surviving historical and prophetic writings (in the Old Testament) only give us a partial picture of the conflicts and tensions that existed for those determined to remain faithful to YHWH and worship Him exclusively.

I would divide the Psalm into two parts. The first (vv. 1-4) contrasts loyalty to El-Yahweh with the worship of other (Canaanite) deities. It is comprised of an initial petition (v. 1), followed by a declaration of allegiance and trust in YHWH (v. 2), and a statement whereby the Psalmist disavows any worship of other deities besides YHWH (vv. 3-4). The statement in verses 3-4 establishes a contrast—a pair of 3+3(?) couplets, with an intervening line (v. 4a, in italics below).

Verses 1-4

“Watch over me, Mighty (One), for I seek shelter with you!
I said to YHWH, ‘You are my Lord,
my Good (One)—no (other is) over you!’
For the ‘holy (one)s’ in the earth, they (were so),
and the ‘great (one)s’ of (the land), my delight was in them;
their pains shall increase, (those who now) hurry after another,
but I will not pour out to them (offering)s poured out from (my) hands,
and I will not (even) lift up their names upon my lips!”

In my translation here I have not emended the text, though some commentators feel that it is corrupt. There are several apparent peculiarities of syntax, but much of the confusion stems from the seeming thematic shift from speaking about “holy ones” (<yv!odq=), assumed to be righteous persons, in verse 3, to the discussion of worshiping pagan deities (v. 4). Kraus, for example (pp. 233-4), assumes something is missing between verses 3 and 4. The point might be confirmed, one way or the other, if those verses were preserved in the Dead Sea Psalm manuscripts, but, as noted above, that is unfortunately not the case. A more consistent line of thought is retained if we understand the plural substantive <yv!odq= (“holy ones”) in the sense of “those treated as holy”, “those considered sacred”, “those honored”, etc. The expression “in the earth” (or “in the land”) may be intended to qualify it this way. Certainly the construct plural yr@yD!a^ (“great ones of…”) is meant to be taken parallel with <yv!odq=; I have filled in an implicit link in the construct chain (“…of the land”) for the sake of the translation: “holy ones in the earth…great ones of (the land)”. This, then, allows for two possibilities: (1) the expressions refer to great and honored persons in society, or (2) they are used as epithets for pagan deities. The phrase “my delight was in them” further complicates the situation, as it comes just before “their pains shall increase”. Without assuming a lacuna in the text, the juxtaposition of those phrases clearly is meant to establish a contrast. Following the same two lines of interpretation mentioned above, it might be suggested:

    • (1) The Psalmist once delighted in these great and honored persons, but now they have turned away from faithfulness to YHWH and have “hurried after other (deities)”
    • (2) The protagonist of the Psalm once delighted in the other deities of the land, but now he only follows YHWH, and wishes pain for any who would continue to worship those other gods

The second approach seems to fit the sense of these verses better, but it is not without difficulties. These may be illustrated in the following textual and exegetical notes on verses 1-4:

“Mighty One” (la@)—The noun la@ is the Hebrew reflex of the common Semitic word for deity, literally “mighty (one)”; it also serves as the proper name for the high Creator God (‘El) throughout much of the Semitic world, West (Canaanite) and East (Amorite). ‘El was the name of God in the period of the Patriarchs, and Yahweh (hwhy, YHWH) was identified with ‘El. This is seen precisely here in the Psalm, where la@ and hwhy are used interchangeably as proper names.

“I said” (T=r=m^a*)—The consonantal Trma represents the first person singular form of the verb (yT!r=m^a*) written defectively; compare at Isa 47:10, MT trma with 1QIsaa ytrma. Dahood characterizes this as an example of Phoenician orthography (p. 87).

“my Good” (yt!b*of)—Here the noun bof (“good”) seems to be used as another divine title, probably in the covenantal sense of “one who does/brings good (things) for me”.

“no (other is) over you” (;yl#u*-lB^)—The negative particle lB^ is used here in verse 2, and again in verse 4; it can be used specifically as an adverb of negation, e.g. “it will not be..”, “it can hardly be…”. Here it affirms the superiority and uniqueness of El-Yahweh (the preposition lu^ can also be used in the sense of “next to, alongside”)—there can scarcely be any other deity as great as YHWH. This is not an expression of absolute monotheism; such did not characterize early Israelite religion, but represents a secondary (and later) development. However, already in the kingdom period, and certainly by the time of the seventh-century Prophets, the belief that the deities worshiped by the surrounding peoples did not have any real existence, was being expressed.

“they” (hM*h@)—The word hmh at the end of the first line of verse 3 is, apparently, the third person plural pronoun (hM*h@, “they”) in emphatic position. Assuming that nothing has dropped out, the syntax and sense of the line is problematic. The line could be read, “For they, the holy ones in the earth…”, but it is also possible that the predicate of the clause is implied: “For the holy ones in the earth, they (were…)”. I have opted for the latter; the idea being expressed, I think, is that the other deities in the land are being (or were once) honored and worshiped just as the Psalmist (now) worships YHWH.

“and the great ones of…” (yr@yD!a^w+)—This construct form creates a difficult syntax. In the translation above, I fill it out (“…of the land”) to establish the clear parallel with “holy ones in the earth”. However, syntactically, it is probably better to regard the construct chain as governing the phrase that follows (see GKC §130d; Dahood, p. 88). Literally, this would be: “and the great ones of my delight in them”. In English we would perhaps phrase this as, “and the great ones in whom I have/had delight”. If one supplies a verb to fill out the phrasing, it is not entirely clear whether it should be in the present or past tense. Much depends on which of the two lines of interpretation (cf. the discussion above) is to be preferred.

“they hurry after another” (Wrh*m* rj@a^)—This phrase relates awkwardly to the preceding. Assuming that the Masoretic parsing/pointing is essentially correct (cf. Dahood, p. 88, for a different approach), it would seem that a relative/demonstrative pronoun is required to fill out the sense of the line—i.e., “…those who hurry after another”. The ‘other’ these people follow after is a deity other than YHWH.

“(to them) from (my) hand” (<D*m!)—The Masoretic Text would seem to read “from blood”, i.e. “offerings of blood poured out”, with the motif of blood perhaps emphasizing the wicked character of the offerings to other deities. However, I have here (tentatively) chosen to follow Dahood (p. 88) in reading <dm as representing a contracted form of dy (“hand”) in the dual (regularly Heb <y]d*y~). The juxtaposition of “hands…lips” seems better to preserve the parallelism of the couplet.

Verses 5-11

“YHWH, you have numbered out my portion and my cup,
you (firmly) hold the stone (that is) my (lot);
the boundary (line)s fallen to me (are) in pleasant (place)s—
indeed, (this) possession is (most) beautiful over [i.e. next to] me.
I will kneel to YHWH who counsels me—
indeed, (by) nights His (inner) organs instruct me.
I have set YHWH to (be) stretched long in front of me,
(and) from His right (hand) I will not be shaken (away).
For this my heart rejoices, my heaviest (part) circles (with joy),
indeed, (even) my flesh can dwell in (peaceful) security,
for you will not leave [i.e. give] my soul (over) to Sheol,
you will not give your loyal (one) to see (the place of) ruin.
You will make me (to) know the path of Life,
being satisfied with joys (before) your Face,
(and) lasting pleasures at your right (hand)!

After the syntactical and textual difficulties in verses 3-4, the remainder of the Psalm is relatively straightforward. Verses 5-9 make for a consistent sequence of five 4+3 bicola, followed by a 4+4 bicolon in verse 10. The Psalm concludes with a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.

The imagery in the first two couplets (vv. 5-6) derives from the binding agreement (covenant) idea as it would have been realized between a superior (sovereign) and his vassals. God (YHWH) is the good sovereign who bestows benefits upon his loyal vassals. He measures out (vb hn`m*, “number [out], count”, i.e. assign, appoint, etc) the appropriate benefit, viewed as a share (ql#j#) of the good things controlled by the sovereign. This includes the place at the table (“cup”, soK), also used to symbolize generally all that the person will receive—i.e. his “lot” (literally, “stone, pebble” lr*oG, indicating that the person is to receive the benefit). A common socio-political benefit is property—a territory or fief bestowed upon the vassal. The tribal territories of the Promised Land itself was seen as such a covenantal benefit (and promise) for the descendants of Abraham. The parallel wording used here in verse 6 relates to territory: “boundary (line)s” (<yl!b*j&) and “possession” (hl*j&n~), described as “pleasant” (<yu!n`) and “beautiful” (vb rp^v*, be clear/bright). It is given over to the vassal (“fallen to me”) and now belongs to him (“over me”, i.e. alongside, next to me).

In verses 7-9, the covenantal relationship itself (i.e. between sovereign and vassal) is depicted. The couplets in vv. 7-8 express this through two actions by the Psalmist (the loyal vassal):

    • “I will kneel to YHWH” —The verb Er^B* generally denotes giving praise and honor to a person; in the case of a person’s response to God (as the superior) it more properly indicates showing homage. It is acknowledged that there is a close connection between the root and the word Er#B# (“knee”), but it is not entirely clear if the verb is denominative (i.e. giving homage/honor by way of the idea of “bending the knee, kneeling”). My translation assumes this derivation.
    • “I have set YHWH (in front of me)” —Here the verb is hw`v* (“set, place”), the action perhaps best understood in the sense of a person placing his/her attention and focus firmly on God. The context would also suggest that the Psalmist is affirming his covenantal loyalty to YHWH. The word dym!T*, literally meaning something like “(stretch)ed out long”, is used here in an adverbial sense. It may be taken to mean that the Psalmist is continually doing this, or that it is a deep and abiding expression of his loyalty.

In each couplet, the second line describes the effect of this relationship on the Psalmist (the vassal). Even at night (every night) YHWH instructs the Psalmist out of His (i.e. YHWH’s) innermost being. The plural toyl=K! refers to the deep inner organs (i.e. kidneys) of a person, representing the source of deep feelings and emotions, i.e. God’s care and devotion to those who are loyal/faithful to him. If verse 7b emphasizes the inner aspect of the relationship, verse 8b stresses the outer aspect. Instead of the inner organs, we have the prominent outer motif of a person’s right hand. From the standpoint of the covenant, and expressed in terms of royal theology, it means the vassal has a prominent place at the side of the sovereign. Early Christians, of course, applied this royal motif to the position of the exalted Jesus, following the resurrection, at the right hand of God the Father. In both lines, the suffix y– is best read as a third person (rather than first person) singular. The suffixes y– and w– were often interchangeable, especially in poetry, which tended to preserve earlier (NW Semitic, i.e. Phoenician, etc) features otherwise rare in Old Testament Hebrew. On this use of the y– suffix for the third person masculine, cf. Dahood, pp. 10-11 (on Ps 2:6), and 90.

Verse 9 summarizes the preceding lines and anticipates the climactic reference to death and the afterlife in v. 10. The couplet begins with the expression /k@l*, “for this”, i.e. for this reason (LXX dia\ tou=to). The Psalmist can rejoice and be at ease because of the covenantal relationship with YHWH, entailing both benefits and protection. The former was emphasized in vv. 5-6, the latter here in vv. 9-10. The noun dobK*, usually translated as “honor” or “glory”, is better understood in terms of the related word db@K*, i.e. the liver as the “heavy” organ. The root dbk fundamentally refers to heaviness or weight, often in the basic sense of what is of value. The “heavy” organ is parallel here with the “heart”. The security the Psalmist experiences extends to his very life being preserved and protected by YHWH. This is described in terms of being saved/delivered from Sheol, also here called “the (place of) ruin”. On the meaning and background of the term “Sheol” (loav=, Š®°ôl), see my earlier article. It is not entirely clear whether the emphasis here (esp. with the verb bz`u*) is on being left in the grave (i.e. after one has already died), or being given over to death in the first place. The references to Sheol in the Psalms suggest the latter. However, the New Testament use of vv. 9-10 in Acts 2:25-28ff (Peter’s Pentecost speech, cf. also 13:35) indicates the former, as it is applied to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The closing tricolon of verse 11 suggests the imagery of a heavenly/blessed afterlife, with the covenantal relationship now being re-imagined in heavenly/eternal terms, with the Psalmist standing before God’s face and at His right hand. It is little wonder that early Christians would come to interpret these lines in terms of the place of the exalted Jesus with God in heaven (Acts 2:25-28ff).

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, Biblischer Kommentar series (Neuchkirchener Verlag: 1978), translated in English as Psalms 1-59, Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 11

Psalm 11

After the lengthy acrostic Psalm 9-10, with its many textual difficulties, Psalm 11 is simple and straightforward by comparison. Which is not to say that there are not challenges in interpreting some of the lines. The meter is mixed/inconsistent, and there seem to be a fair number of archaic features present, better preserved perhaps due to the very brevity of the Psalm.

This is also the first in a series of Psalms which simply indicate that it is a composition “belonging to David” (dw]d*l+); there is no other musical direction given in the heading. The general structure of the work is divided into two parts: (1) a lament by the Psalmist (vv. 1-3), and (2) a praise-description of YHWH in heaven as Ruler and Judge (vv. 4-7). It draws upon many of the same themes we have seen previously, including those in Psalm 9-10. The praise in the second half serves as an effective counter to the lament in the first, implying that YHWH will indeed act with justice on behalf of those who are faithful and loyal to Him.

Verse 1

The initial lines pose a metrical problem. It appears to be a bicolon, but with an awkward and extended (4+3?) poetic rhythm:

With YHWH (do) I seek refuge—(yet) how you show to my soul
(that) I must flee like a bird (into the) mountains!

The place of the first two words (yt!ys!j* hw`hyB^, “with YHWH I seek refuge”) is unclear. It seems to stand alone as a sentence, but the poetry of the verse suggests that it relates, conditionally, to the remaining words. Perhaps the first line is meant to establish a contrast: the Psalmist declares that he trusts in YHWH, seeking refuge in Him, yet circumstances force him to flee “like a bird (into) the mountains”. I would read the particle Eya@ (“how”) more as an exclamation than introducing a question. Dahood (p. 69) parses the second line differently, pointing the consonantal text as roPx! omk= rdh)d=n] (“rushing [after me] as a bird”) instead of roPx! <k#r=h^ WdWn (“flee [into the] mountains [as] a bird”).

Verse 2

For see! the wicked (one)s step down on the bow,
they make firm their arrows upon the (cord) stretched down
to shoot (out) in the darkness toward the straight of heart.

The poetry demands that this verse be treated as a tricolon (4+3+3). In the first two lines, the wicked (plural) are shown preparing their bows, stepping down on them to string them, then setting the arrows upon the string stretched across the frame. This tightened/bent cord (rty), with the arrows pointed out from it, serves as contrast (using a bit of wordplay) to the “straight” (rvy) heart of the righteous. The phrase “in the darkness” (lp#a) omB=) refers to the wicked hiding in the darkness to shoot arrows out at the righteous. Arrows are a common image for attacks by the wicked.

Verse 3

That the (thing)s set in place should be broken down–
what work is (the) Just (One) doing (to correct this)?

The force and meaning of this (2+2) couplet depends on how one understands the substantive adjective qyD!x^ (“just/righteous [one]”). It can refer either (a) to righteous human beings, or (b) to YHWH, as a divine title. If the former, then the second line expresses the despair of the just person (“what can the just [person] do [about it]?”); if the latter, then it is a question posed toward God, asking why He is allowing this to happen. The tone of lament in verses 1-3, suggests the latter, which I have adopted in the translation above. The plural noun totv*, “(thing)s set in place”, implies the order established by God, including the law and justice that is meant to regulate society and protect the innocent (from the wicked). This order has broken down (vb sr^h*), as indicated by the wicked shooting arrows out at the righteous from the darkness. The “work” (lu*P*) that God is expected to do, as the Just One, is to establish justice. That is fundamentally the plea of the Psalmist, and, to this end, he brings out the imagery of YHWH on His seat of rule, from which He judges over the world. This praise-description, in the following vv. 4-7, is meant to spur God to act in fulfillment of his role as heavenly Judge.

Verse 4

YHWH (is there) in (the) palace of His holiness;
YHWH (is) in the heavens (on) His covered seat—
His eyes perceive (all things),
His roving (eye)s examine
(all) the sons of man.

Verse 4 is made up of a 3+3 bicolon, followed by a 2+2+2 tricolon. The initial couplet locates YHWH’s place of rule in heaven—first in the holy place of his heavenly Palace (lk^yh@), then on his actual throne (“covered seat”). The two are essentially synonymous—Palace/Heaven, Holy-Place/Throne. The cover or canopy (ask) of his throne is the “holiness” (vdq), or glory/splendor, which surrounds him. The tricolon, with three short dual-beats, emphasizes the all-seeing character of YHWH, from this position high above the heavens.

Verse 5

YHWH (the) Just (One) examines even (the) wicked,
and (the one) loving violence His soul hates.

The force of the conjunction w+ relates back to v. 4b, where it is stated that YHWH’s eyes examine (vb /j^B*) all humankind; now, it is specified that even the wicked are so examined. This is important since the apparent lack of justice in the world might lead one to think that God does not see what is going on (cf. the discussion on Psalm 9-10 in the previous studies). Not only does YHWH see the injustice of the wicked, but he hates what he sees. Here the behavior of the wicked is characterized in its most egregious form, as sm*h*, wrong doing that results in violence. Dahood (p. 70) would treat ovp=n~ (“his soul”) as the object, rather than the subject, with ha*n+c* as an archaic form of the 3rd masculine singular—i.e., “the one loving violence hates his (own) soul”. While this is certainly possible, it distorts the parallelism of the couplet, which is better served by having YHWH (“His soul”) as the subject.

Verse 6

He shall rain down upon the wicked puffs of fire and sulphur,
and (His) burning breath (will be) the portion of their cup.

The word <yj!P^ in the MT of the first line remains quite uncertain. Many commentators would emend it to <j#P^, or perhaps the plural construct form ym@j&P^, i.e. “coals of fire…”. I tentatively relate it to the root jWP, “blow (out), breathe”, as that provides a fitting parallel for the noun j^Wr (“breath/wind”) in the second line. Though the exact morphology here is unclear, there are conceptual parallels, relating to fire, burning, etc, for the root in Exod 9:8ff and Prov 26:21 (cf. also Jer 6:29; Dahood, p. 70). I take the overall imagery here to be that of the anger of YHWH, depicted within the traditional idiom of the burning nostrils, etc, like the angry bull, snorting out hot puffs and breaths. The idiom of the cup from which a person drinks is also traditional, referring to a person’s fate, often in the context of suffering and death. Jesus famously uses this image in the Gethsemane scene in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:36 par). I understand the “portion” (tn`m=) here in light of the idea that YHWH will “rain down” the burning/fiery Judgment, and, like rainwater, it will fill up the cup to a certain measure (count/number, hnm).

Verse 7

For (the) Just (One), YHWH, loves just (action)s,
(and so the) straight (in heart) will perceive His Face.

The reference to YHWH as the “Just (One)” (qyD!x^) parallels a similar use of the divine title in verse 3 (cf. above). The final word of the Psalm remains difficult to decipher. One would expect the form wyn`P*, rather than the MT omyn@P*. However, the archaic suffix om– occurs at least once in this Psalm (v. 2, possibly also in v. 1b), but suffixed to the preposition (omB=), and this may be a similar sort of poetic/enclitic use, perhaps to fill out the meter of the final line. Dahood (pp. 70-1) reads it as a first person plural pronominal suffix, in which case the adjective rv*y` (“straight”) must be a divine title similar to qyD!x^—i.e., “our face will see the Straight [i.e. Upright] One”. This does not seem at all correct to me, as nowhere else in the Psalm is the 1st person plural used. More appropriate to the context of the poem is the idea of the righteous experiencing the manifest blessing of YHWH as he comes to act on their behalf. The “face” of God is an idiom used to describe the divine power and Presence, lit. his turning toward his people (i.e. turning to face them). More to the point, the Psalmist hopes YHWH will turn to act as Judge, establishing justice for those who are just, aiding and protecting the righteous from the hostile and violent attacks of the wicked.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10 (continued)

Psalm 9-10, continued

Last week’s study examined the first part (9:2-17 [1-16]) of the acrostic Psalm 9-10; today we will explore the ‘interlude’ (9:18-21 [17-20]) and second part (Ps 10). In terms of the structure of the composition, it is noteworthy that the musical direction hl*s# (selâ, “Selah”) occurs at the end of verse 17 [16], and again after v. 21 [20]. The precise meaning of this term remains unknown, but it would seem to indicate a pause and/or (musical) transition of some sort. Furthermore, at the end of v. 17, hl*s# is preceded by the word /oyG`h! (higg¹yôn), apparently another musical direction, but only used (as such) here in the Psalms. Elsewhere the word occurs in Ps 19:15 and 92:4 [3] (and also Lam 3:62); it presumably derives from the root hg*h*, which fundamentally signifies a low moaning, growling, etc, sound such as an animal makes, but for humans also a kind of muttering, murmuring, etc, sometimes in the deeper sense of the intention or motivation from inside a person (i.e. utterance from the heart). In Psalm 19:15 the word is used in this latter sense, while in Ps 92:4 it refers specifically to a sound made on a harp (roNK!). This would seem to justify the idea that the word here marks a kind of musical pause (‘meditation’) and interlude in the composition. Along these lines, it is also likely that the second “Selah” marks the end of the interlude, and a transition to the next part of the composition (Psalm 10) with a different tone/style/tempo[?], etc.

The ‘Interlude’: Psalm 9:18-21 [17-20]

I divide these four bicola (8 lines) as follows: (1) two bicola (vv. 18-19 [17-18]) which continue the acrostic pattern (letters y and k), and a second (separate) pair of bicola (vv. 20-21 [19-20]) which specifically call on YHWH to act.

y They shall turn [WbWvy`], (shall the) wicked (one)s, (back) to Sheôl,
the nations (hav)ing forgotten the Mightiest (shall) come to an end.
k For [yK!] (it is) not to (be) lasting (that the) needy are forgotten,
(and) what (the one)s beaten down wait (for) does not perish for (all time) passing.

These two couplets admirably encompass and restate much of what was expressed in the first part (cf. the previous study), here presented as a precise contrast between the fate of the wicked and the hope of the righteous (i.e. those suffering in the present). This will also be the juxtaposition that dominates the thought of the second part (cf. below). Once again, the “wicked” (adj. uv*r*) are identified with the “nations” (<y]oG), and here defined more clearly as those who have “forgotten” (root jkv) God (“the Mightiest”, <yh!ýa$ Elohim), probably in the sense that they are unaware of Him. On the term loav= (Sheol), in the context that it is used here, cf. my earlier article. The verb bWv here echoes its use back in verse 4 [3], with the Psalmist’s expectation that YHWH’s act of judgment would “turn (back)” his enemies; now the idea is expressed more generally, that the wicked would “turn (back), return” to Sheol (the realm of death and the grave). I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 58) in emending Masoretic ÁlK* (i.e. “all the nations”) to read the related verb form WLK* (i.e. “the nations [shall] come to an end“), as this perhaps better fits the parallelism of the line. In the second couplet there is some parallel wordplay with the root jkv (“forget”)—while the wicked may have “forgotten” God, He will not “forget” (i.e. abandon) His people. The temporal expressions indicating future permanencejx^n#l* (“for[ever] lasting”) and du^ (“[all time] passing”)—where also used earlier in the first part, but of the fate of the wicked rather than the suffering righteous.

Stand up, YHWH, man(kind) shall not (remain) strong—
(the) nations shall be judged upon [i.e. before] your face;
set, O YHWH, (that) fearfulness on them—
(the) nations shall know (that) they (are only) (hu)man!

This is a powerful theological (and anthropological) declaration, given in parallel couplets. The first line of each mentions the divine name YHWH, calling upon God to demonstrate his authority over humankind, using the collective noun vona$ (“[hu]man[kind]”, also in the closing line). YHWH in his “standing up” (vb. <Wq), i.e. for judgment, has two related effects on human beings: (1) they shall not “be strong” (vb zz~u*) anymore, i.e. they will lose their strength, and (2) fear (reading MT hr*om as ar*om) is placed on them; another possibility for the third line is to read hr*om from the root hr*y` in the sense of something by which people will be directed or controlled (i.e. under the power of YHWH). By contrast, the second line of each couplet mentions the nations (<y]og), specifically who will face judgment in God’s presence (lit. “upon [i.e. before]” God’s face). The wicked, in their brazen and oppressive actions, imagine that they, in their own way, are God-like, possessing great power; however, in the face of YHWH’s terrifying judgment, they will come to realize that they are “only human (vona$)”.

Second Part: Psalm 10

The second part of the acrostic composition (Ps 10), as noted above, takes on more the character of a lament—the Psalmist cries out to YHWH on behalf of the poor and oppressed in society. The structure of this half is relatively straightforward:

    • An initial plea to YHWH, in the form of a question (v. 1)
    • A description of the Wicked, their actions and attitudes, esp. in relation to those they oppress (vv. 2-11)
    • A call for YHWH to act against the Wicked, demonstrating His power and authority (vv. 12-16)
    • A final plea for YHWH to act on behalf of the poor/oppressed (vv. 17-18)

In the context of the Psalm, the initial question raised by the Psalmist gives to the composition the character of theodicy—the longstanding philosophical and theological issue of why God allows evil and suffering in the world, why the wicked apparently flourish without being punished (by God) in the present.

Verse 1

l For what [hm*l*, i.e why], YHWH, should you stand in a far(-off place)
(and) conceal (yourself) from (our) times of (being) in distress?

The final construct phrase is difficult to render in English, with the prefixed preposition B= on the articular noun hr*X*h^ (“the distress”); despite the awkwardness of syntax in translation, I have rendered it quite literally. As it happens, there is a parallelism in the way each line closes, as each word represents a spatial/temporal prepositional phrase with B=, a preposition with an extremely wide range of meaning:

    • qojr*B=, “in a far (off place), at a distance”
    • hr*X*B^, “in the distress”

The parallel is contrastive—when we are in times of distress, how can our God (YHWH) be standing far off, at a distance from our suffering? This certainly is how things seem, at times, for God’s people, who are oppressed and suffer at the hands of the wicked. This striking question, phrased almost as a challenge to YHWH, frames the entire section, and is essentially repeated at the end.

Verses 2-11

The lengthy description of the wicked in vv. 2-11 is a dramatic tour de force, at once vivid and colorful, capturing their attitude and mindset, both in terms of their callous disregard of YHWH and their hostile (and even violent) actions against the innocent. The acrostic pattern is almost entirely lost (to be picked up again at verse 12), likely indicating corruption in the text, which would seem to be confirmed by apparent confusion at several points (cf. below). Unfortunately, neither the Septuagint nor the Dead Sea Scrolls offer any real help in clarifying the situation; the only Dead Sea MS containing Psalm 10 (5/6„evPs) is fragmentary, with nothing preserved prior to verse 6.

Verses 2-3:

In the rising of the wicked affliction burns,
they take hold on this purpose they devise;
for the wicked makes a shout upon the desire of his soul,
and cutting off <?> he bends the knee to <…>.

The LXX does not offer much beyond a generalized rendering of what we have in the MT:

“(in) that [i.e. because] the sinner gives praise upon (himself) in the impulses of his soul,
and the unjust (one) gives a good (word) on (his own) account [i.e. blesses himself]”

In Hebrew, the idiom “bend the knee” (vb Er^B*) means to give homage, worship, bless, etc, and is presumably intended to be taken parallel with ll^h*, “shout, praise, boast”. Similarly the participle u^x@b), “cutting off”, is meant to describe the character of the wicked—i.e. one who gains for himself through violence (cutting/breaking [off]).

Verse 4-5a:

n He spurns [Ja@n]] YHWH, (does) the wicked (saying)
‘As (for) the Exalted (One), his (burning) nostril(s) he hardly seeks (to satisfy)!’
(It seems) there is no Mighty (One) (to hinder) all his (evil) purposes—
his paths (of wickedness) remain firm in all time(s).

Again, it is likely that something has dropped out; the text is barely intelligible as it stands, and commentators divide and interpret it in a variety of ways. There would seem to be present an expression of the wicked’s thoughts, but it is by no means certain where the ‘quotation’ begins or how far it extends. I follow Dahood (p. 62) in reading hbg as H^b)G` as a divine title “High/Exalted (One)”, though I am less confident about emending the prefixed preposition K= to the particle yK!. If the Masoretic text and pointing is retained, then it is likely that oPa^ Hb^g)K= refers to the wicked, rather than YHWH:

“The wicked spurns YHWH by the lifting high of his nose (i.e. face)”

The Hebrew/Semitic word [a^, “nose, nostril, face”, is frequently used as an idiom for anger, especially the anger of God (YHWH)—i.e. the burning/flaring of His nostrils, presumably drawing upon animal imagery (of the snorting bull, etc). In this regard, it seems likely that the phrase vr)d=y]-lB^ (“he does not search/seek [out]”) relates back to the anger of God; in other words, the wicked, by their actions and attitudes, have no fear that YHWH will seek to satisfy His anger by punishing them for their wickedness. Above, I treat the end of verse 4 as a summary comment by the Psalmist, further emphasizing the apparent way the wicked person is able to act and behave with impunity. The position of the first line of verse 5 is unclear, but it would seem to belong as part of this description of the apparent success of the wicked in this present life.

Verses 5b-7:

From high (up) your judgments (are far) from in front of him,
(out of) all his inner (recess)es he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, ‘I (can) hardly be moved—
for cycle a(fter) cycle, happiness with no(thing) bad (for me)!’
(With) cursing his mouth is filled, a(lso) deceit and oppression,
(from) under his tongue (comes) trouble and weariness.

This ‘strophe’ expands on the prior (vv. 4-5a), giving a fuller picture of how the wicked “spurns” YHWH; it may be divided into three distinct components, one for each couplet:

    • 5b: The wicked is far removed from the judgments of God which are “from high (up) [<orm*]”; this must be understood at two levels:
      (a) apparent distance from the standpoint of his own attitudes and character, and
      (b) real distance, the lowness of his wicked nature compared to the exalted holiness, righteousness, etc, of God
    • 6: In his own heart, the wicked imagines that he will continue to prosper in his wicked ways
    • 7: As he speaks, expressing his wicked character, thoughts, and intention, all sorts of harmful things come out

In the last line of the first couplet (v. 5b), the word wyr*r=ox is typically translated as “his adversaries, (one)s hostile to him”. However, this does not fit the context or parallelism of the lines, in which the wicked is responding to the judgments of God; therefore, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 63) in deriving it from a separate root rrx, referring to the (narrow) inner organs or spaces within a person. This makes a fitting contrast between the high/wide space of heaven (where God dwells), and the narrow confines inside the wicked. If the description in vv. 5b-7 relates to the thoughts and word of the wicked, that in vv. 8-10 relates to his evil actions.

Verses 8-10:

He sits, lying in wait (among the) settlements,
in the hidden places he slays (those) free (of guilt)—
his eyes conceal (what he intends) for the unfortunate.
He lies waiting in the hidden place, like a lion in (the) thicket,
he lies waiting to catch (one to be) beaten down—
catches (the one) beaten down, by dragging him (off),
(caught) in his possession, and broken, bowed (over),
the unfortunate (one)s fall in(to) his <power>.

The actions of the wicked are represented by a single basic scenario, described using repetitive language, and building by way of an overlapping step-parallel approach. The wicked lies in wait, like a vicious hunter, looking to capture one whom he will “beat down”, the basic meaning of the term yn]u*. This word is often translated “poor”, “oppressed”, but here it does not necessarily mean that he is preying on the poor or weak (though that may be true enough); rather, the emphasis is on the role of the wicked in oppressing and ‘beating down’ his victims. What we do know about these victims is that they are innocent, in the sense of being free of any guilt that would justify a violent attack (for revenge, etc). In a general sense they are righteous—and thus make a precise contrast with the wicked themselves—and all those who are righteous and loyal (to YHWH) will identify with these victims of oppression, as the Psalmist does. The final line is especially difficult, due to the word wym*Wxu&B^, the meaning of which in context is unclear. Literally, the MT as we have it would be “his mighty (one)s”, but this does not fit very well with the image of a wicked predator, unless, collectively, a gang of the wicked is now to be envisioned. Possibly the reference is to the strength of the trap or prison which now holds the oppressed person(s) in the possession (tv#r#, often understood as a hunter’s net, etc) of the wicked. Dahood (p. 63) suggests that it derives from a separate (and rare) root meaning to “dig”, as in a pit, which would generally fit the context, but otherwise rests on extremely slim evidence. I have translated very loosely above as “power”, recognizing the possibility the MT may be corrupt, or that something has dropped out of the text at this point.

Verse 11:

He says in his heart, ‘(The) Mighty (One) forgets,
he hides his face (and) scarcely sees for (the) duration!’

This closing couplet repeats the basic idea expressed in verse 4 (cf. above)—that the wicked acts as though YHWH will not respond to punish his evil and harmful behavior. This underlying attitude would seem to be confirmed by the fact that, in the present, the wicked seem to prosper, often facing no justice or proper punishment for their actions. This, indeed, is at the heart of the Psalmist’s lament, and it leads into the call for YHWH to act, in vv. 12-16.

Verses 12-16

With this section, the acrostic pattern comes back in full, for the remainder of the Psalm—letters q, r, ?, t, each for a clear pair of couplets (bicola).

Verse 12-13 q:

q Stand (up) [hm*Wq], YHWH, Mighty (One), lift your hand,
you must not forget the (one)s (who are) beaten down—
upon what [i.e. why] (should) the wicked spurn the Mightiest,
(and) say in his heart ‘You will not seek (to punish)’?

Some commentators would eliminate la@ (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. God) from the first line, but it may well be a relic of Israelite religious expression that is preserved, specifying something long understood—that YHWH is to be identified with the high Deity and Creator °E~l (la@). A summary of vv. 2-11 is provided in verse 13, establishing the attitude and behavior (of the wicked) that the Psalmist wishes YHWH to address and punish. I have translated yn]a* throughout as “(one who is) beaten down”, to capture the concrete idea of what the wicked is doing to their victims. Other common renderings, such as “oppressed”, “afflicted”, etc., are fine and generally capture the idea as well.

Verse 14 r:

r For you (must surely) see [ht*a!r*] (all) the trouble and (what this) provokes,
you will (certainly) look to give (justice) with your hand!
Upon you the unfortunate (one) places (his trust),
(and) the fatherless—you are (his) helper.

The noun su^K^, parallel with lz`u* (“trouble”), is difficult to translate accurately here; it has the basic meaning of provoking to anger, and it may be a subtle way for the Psalmist to stimulate God’s own anger, provoking him to act. The perfect tense in the first line is perhaps to be understood as a precative perfect, with the Hiphil imperfect in line 2 following, to express the wish (and hope/expectation) of the Psalmist. In the second couplet, YHWH is reminded that He is the only one whom the weak and unfortunate in society can go to for help; again the purpose is to sway God to take action by this appeal. There is a bit of alliterative word play between the verbal root bz~u* (II, “place, put, set”) and rz`u* (“help”).

Verses 15-16 ?:

? Shatter [rb)v=] the arm of the wicked and evil (one),
seek (out) his wickedness—you can scarcely (fail to) find (it)!
YHWH (is) King (for) the distant (future) and (all time) passing–
(and so) may the nations perish from the earth!

Here the section concludes with a fierce and lively imprecation, using the familiar ancient Near Eastern (and Old Testament) idiom of breaking/shattering the bodily limbs of the wicked. In particular, the arm (u^orz+) symbolizes the wicked person’s strength and ability to act—he stretches out his arm to do violence and injustice to others. The second line of this strophe is the most difficult, due to its peculiar syntax and metrical tension; it is made up of two construct phrases:

    • ouv=r!-vorD=T!—”you shall seek his wickedness”
    • ax*m=T!-lb^— “you will scarcely find (it)”

The verb vr^D* (“seek, search”) has a two-fold meaning: (a) the basic sense of seeking to find something, but also (b) the more specific sense of seeking something out so as to address it or deal with it. This latter meaning has been used more than once in the Psalm already, including earlier in v. 13, where the wicked expresses the thought the God will not “seek (out)” his wicked behavior, i.e. to avenge or punish it. The particle lb^ usually indicates negation, but often in the sense of failure, i.e. being unable to do something. Here the nuance of the expression perhaps is “you will scarcely (fail to) find it”, that is to say, there is so much wickedness around, and the wicked person acts so brazenly and repeatedly, that YHWH will have no trouble finding evidence of it.

The final line (v. 16b) again makes the standard identification of the wicked with the nations—i.e. all the surrounding (non-Israelite) nations. For generations, this would be a common way for Israelites and Jews to reference wickedness—immorality, and false/improper religious behavior, etc. Of course, it is predicated on the fundamental idea of the unique covenant bond between YHWH and Israel; any Israelites who violate the covenant and act wickedly, are behaving, not as God’s people, but in the manner of the surrounding nations who are not His people.

Verses 17-18 t

t The wish [tw~a&T^] of the (one)s beaten down, YHWH, you shall hear,
you make firm their heart, you incline your ear,
to judge (for) the fatherless and broken (ones)—
(then the wicked) will no longer continue
to make man(kind) tremble from the earth.

It is possible to read the < of <B*l! as an enclitic (cf. Dahood, pp. 66-7), in which case it refers to YHWH’s heart (“you make firm [your] heart”); however, the parallelism of the couplet suggests rather that it relates to the “wish/desire of the afflicted ones”, representing YHWH’s answer to their plea. The awkward syntax and metrical tension of the final verse opens the possibility that it should be read/divided as a tricolon (3 lines), as I gave generally done above. The referents of this last declaration are not entirely clear, but the basic point is, I believe, that the wicked will scarcely be able to act as they have been doing, once YHWH chooses to act and judge/punish their behavior. The actions of the wicked are described by the verb Jr^u* (“[make] tremble”), which sounds similar to the word Jr#a# (“earth, land”), creating a bit of wordplay in the final line.

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

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 9-10

Psalm 9-10

As nearly all commentators recognize, Psalms 9 and 10 likely were originally a single composition. This is seen primarily from the fact that there is a single acrostic (i.e. the first letter of each line/strophe in alphabetic order) pattern running through them. The Greek Septuagint, followed by the Latin Vulgate tradition, treats them as a single Psalm, resulting in the number of the Psalms being offset (by one) between the Greek/Latin and the Hebrew. The use of the acrostic technique in poetry seems wholly artificial and contrived to most readers today; however, the number of surviving acrostics in the Old Testament—seven other Psalms (25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145), as well as Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations 1-4—is evidence of its popularity. Apart from any artistic concerns, the device served as an aid to memory, especially for lengthier compositions. Undoubtedly the most famous acrostic is Psalm 119, with the alphabetic structure being indicated in many modern English Bibles. The alphabetic arrangement of the Lamentations was preserved in Roman Catholic liturgical tradition (the settings for Holy Week). The acrostic structure of Ps 9-10 is incomplete (discussed in the notes below), suggesting that the text may be corrupt (esp. in the first half of Ps 10); however, any attempt at reconstruction, to restore a complete acrostic, is highly speculative and scarcely worth the effort.

This Psalm is another Davidic composition following the superscription pattern we have encountered thus far throughout Pss 2-8. The specific musical direction (indicated by the preposition lu^ “upon…”), like most in the Psalms, remains obscure to us today. It clearly relates to performance tradition, but beyond this, it is often unclear whether it refers to (a) instrumentation, (b) musical mode/key, (c) melody, or something else entirely. Here the direction is /B@l^ tWml=u^ (±almû¾ lab¢n), the meaning of which is quite uncertain (cf. also in Psalm 46). The pattern of these directions suggests that twmlu be parsed as tWm-lu^ (“upon [the] death [?] of…”), which scarcely seems intelligible. One plausible suggestion is that the preposition has dropped out, and that the text originally read toml*u&-lu^, indicating, perhaps, that the composition was to be sung by female voices (hm*l=u^ fundamentally referring to a young woman who has recently become mature). The significance of the following /B@l^ (“for a son” [?]) would still be unclear; a direction for male treble voices is possible.

As would be expected for a composition of this length and (textual) complexity, the meter in the Psalm as we have it is inconsistent, and there are a number of questions regarding the division of lines and strophes, especially where the acrostic pattern appears to have been disrupted. I will indicate this Hebrew alphabetic pattern throughout the notes. Generally a new letter is introduced for each pair of bicola (4 lines). I tentatively divide the composition, as it has come down to us, into two main parts (9:2-17 [1-16], and 10:1-18), with an ‘interlude’ at 9:18-21 [17-20]. The first part has a more confident tone, the second more in character of a lament, with urgency in the Psalmist’s prayer for YHWH to act.

Part 1: Psalm 9:2-17 [1-16]

Verses 2-3 [1-2]a

a I will give out [hd#oa] (praise), YHWH, with all my heart,
I will (re)count all your wondrous (deed)s;
I will rejoice and rise up (with joy) in you,
I will make music (to) your name, Most High!

This initial strophe is one of praise to YHWH, as in the opening of Psalm 8 (cf. the study last week); however, the composition overall is not a hymn of praise, but rather a prayer (with lament characteristics), drawing upon the same themes of the justice/judgment of YHWH, in the context of the Psalmist’s opponents/adversaries, that we saw, especially, in Psalm 7 (cf. the study). This comes immediately into view in the following couplets.

Verses 4-5 [3-4]b

b (For) with the turning [bWvB=] (back) of my enemies behind (me),
they (shall) have fallen and been destroyed from your face.
(O) that you (will) have made judgment and ruled (for) me—
you (who) have sat on the covered (seat) judging (with) justice!

The prepositional phrase that opens the bicolon in v. 4, “with (the) turning [bWvB=] of my enemies”, could be seen as continuing the thought of v. 3 (Dahood, p. 53, 55), however it seems preferable to regard it as establishing the setting for what follows. It begins a precatory section, describing, in this Prayer-composition of the Psalmist, what he wishes YHWH will do. As such, I would tend to agree with commentators who read the perfect-tense verb forms as precatory perfects—stating what the author wishes would happen, in terms of what YHWH has already done. This comes out most clearly in the second bicolon (v. 5), for which I read the initial yK! particle as emphatic, heightening the entreaty: “O, that you (would) have…”. It is important to understand how these lines relate in the mind of the Psalmist:

    • The turning back of his enemies behind him—God’s action realized in terms of a life situation (line 1)
      • The concrete manifestation of this—the falling/failing and death/destruction of the persons hostile to him (line 2)
        • yK! “O, that…” – the petition of the Psalmist
      • This reflects God judging and ruling on his behalf (judicial setting) (line 3)
    • And, because God rules (over all) as Judge, His judgment (i.e. what happens to the enemies) is right and just [qdx] (line 4)

The verb bv^y` (“sit”) here implies YHWH sitting on the ruling seat (i.e. throne), as both King and Judge, over the entire world. The “face” of God signifies his manifest Presence and Power—here also in the specific context of facing God in his role as Judge.

Verses 6-7 [5-6]g

g (O, that) you (shall) have called out [T*r=u^G`] (against the) nations (and) destroyed (the) wicked,
their name you have rubbed (out) for the distant (future) and until (the end).
The enemy, (that) they (would) be finished—dried (out ruin)s lasting for (all time)—
and (even) the guarded (place)s you have torn up (so that) memory of them is destroyed!

These two couplets continue the same theme (and the Psalmist’ request), but framed in a global, cosmic sense, reflecting YHWH’s rule over all people (all the “nations”). Here the “nations” (<y]og) are treated as synonymous with the “wicked” (collectively, uv*r*). The verb ru^g`, a bit difficult to translate in English, essentially refers to preventing someone from acting, often by means of a forceful word or command; it is generally synonymous with bWv (“turn”) in v. 4, YHWH stopping the Psalmist’s enemies and turning them back, away from him. It is a manifestation of YHWH ruling as Judge, executing judgment on the Psalmist’s behalf; this is also so of the verb db^a* (“[make] perish, ruin, destroy”, also used in v. 4), which is here parallel with ru^g`—the divine Judgment involves the death/destruction of these enemies, an idea that is most difficult, even repellent, to modern day Christians. Moreover, in these lines the permanence of this judgment—not just death for those persons involved, but perpetual ruin and disgrace, their very memory being “rubbed out”—is most clearly expressed. The idea of future permanence of this judgment is conveyed through several expressions, each of which closes a line:

    • “for the distant [<l*ou] (future)” and “until [du^] (the end)” (line 2)
    • “for(ever) lasting” [jx^n#l*] (line 3)
    • “their memory [rk#z@]” will perish (line 4)

All of this ultimately reflects the power and authority YHWH possesses—His rulings as Judge last forever. As an interesting side note, I have translated the plural noun <yr!u* here literally as “guarded (place)s”, which, in most instances, generally means “cities”, i.e. walled/fortified towns, sometimes guarded with watchtowers, etc. The emphasis here, I believe, is that even the fortified, guarded sites of the wicked are to be destroyed, left as desolate ruins, as part of YHWH’s judgment. However, Dahood (p. 55f) reads the plural in a different sense, as “watchers, protectors”, i.e. referring to the ‘gods’ of these people (the nations), drawing upon a use of this root attested, for example, in Aramaic and Syriac—ryu! = “watcher, (one) watching, guarding”, specifically a heavenly being or ‘Angel’ (cf. Daniel 4:10, 20). I do not find this very convincing, in terms of the immediate context and imagery in the line, though I agree that there may be a bit of dual-meaning wordplay involved here.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]h

In the acrostic pattern, there is no strophe present for the letter d, skipping from g to h. Possibly a portion has been lost; however, in the only relevant Dead Sea manuscript (11Psc), a corresponding d-strophe is also absent, the text generally matching that of the MT. If a strophe has dropped out, it must have occurred by the first century B.C. The apparent confusion surrounding the final word of v. 7, hmh, which, it would seem, properly begins the couplet of v. 8, suggests that the text here may well be corrupt.

h Behold [hmh], YHWH has sat (ruling) from the distant (past),
He set firm His covered (seat) for judgment,
and He judges the productive land with justice,
and rules for the tribes (of earth) with straight (decision)s.

Metrical considerations, along with the acrostic pattern of the Psalm, would seem to require that the last word in MT verse 7, hM*h@, begin the couplet of v. 8; in which case, a slight emendation and/or repointing of the text is likely needed, though the proper solution remains unclear. Dahood (p. 56), on the basis of Ugaritic evidence, posits an interjection (<h, hmh) similar to hN`h!, “see, look, behold!” Kraus (p. 190) would repoint hmh as hm#h), “roaring”, but it seems inappropriate to apply the verb to God in this way; it may, indeed, be the underlying Hebrew read by the Greek Version (met’ h&xou, “with [a] noise”), but the LXX relates it to the end of v. 7 (referring to the destruction of the wicked), not the beginning of v. 8. For lack of any better solution, I tentatively follow Dahood, or, at least, I assume a Hebrew equivalent of hmh => hN`h!; in any event, such a reading fits the tenor of the strophe, which depicts YHWH ruling, from His heavenly throne, since the most distant past. The word <l*ou can refer to either the distant past or distant future; in verse 6, the latter was meant, here it seems better to understand it in the former sense. Both aspects, taken together, connote the idea of “eternity”, God’s “eternal” rule in Heaven. The noun lb@T@ is difficult to translate in English; basically, it refers to the productive parts of the land (i.e. fertile, able to bring forth produce), and thus the areas (of the earth) that are inhabited by human beings, though occasionally it can signify the world as a whole (as understood in the ancient Near East). In any case, here it is the entire inhabited earth that is in view—YHWH rules as King and Judge over all human beings everywhere.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]w

w And (indeed) is [yh!yw]] YHWH a high place (of refuge) for (those being) crushed,
a (safe) high place for times (when they are) in distress;
and they shall be secure in you, (the one)s knowing your name,
for you do not abandon (those) seeking (refuge in) you, YHWH.

The primary image in this strophe is of YHWH himself as a citadel—the fortified city. Ancient Near Eastern cities were rather small in terms of area, comprised primarily of the temple and palace complexes where ruler (and his family, etc) dwelt. They were walled, fortified spaces, set on a hill, or otherwise elevated as a result of being built upon successive occupation levels. Most of the population did not reside within the city walls, being farmers and herders, but would seek refuge there in times of “distress” (warfare, invasion, etc). The specific word used here is bG`c=m!, literally a high, elevated place. It draws upon the idea of YHWH seated high up (above the heavens) on his throne; those faithful and loyal to Him will seek refuge in the place where He is. This proximity to YHWH is defined, in ancient religious-cultural terms, as “knowing [vb ud^y`] His name”. On the significance of this idiom, cf. my earlier Advent/Christmas season series “And you shall call his name…” (esp. the articles on the Names of God). The promise is that God will not abandon or forsake the one who remains loyal to Him, meaning, in the context of the Psalm, that God will answer his prayer. The verb jf^B*, which I translate above as “be secure (in)”, could also be rendered generally as “trust (in)”; as for the verb vr^D* (“seek [out], search [for]”), I have likewise translated with the idea of God as a place of security and refuge in mind (“seek [refuge in]”).

Verses 12-13 [11-12]z

z Make music [Wrm=z~] to YHWH, (to the One) sitting (over) ‚iyyôn,
put His deeds (out) front, (there) among the peoples;
for (He is) seeking (out the one)s wailing, He remembers them,
He does not forget the cry of (the one)s being beaten down.

With this strophe, the Psalm shifts from a petition within a judicial setting to that of a personal appeal or lament by the Psalmist. The exhortation to praise in verse 12 is parallel, in certain respects, to that which opens the Psalm (v. 2). In the second bicolon, God’s faithful ones are described as those who suffer, weeping/wailing/groaning (vb <md) and having been beaten down (vb hnu)—the latter verb denoting a position of lowness and affliction, not necessarily as a result of violent action. As in the prior strophe, the Psalmist expresses confidence that YHWH will not abandon his people when they are in distress. It is interesting how this personal appeal blends so deftly together with an appeal on behalf of the people—i.e. Israel, the faithful among them. The localization of Zion places God’s rule directly in relation to Jerusalem and the kingdom of Israel/Judah.

Verses 14-15 [13-14]j

j Show favor to me [yn]n@n+j*], YHWH, see my beatings down by (the one)s hating me,
(and) raise me up from (the) gates of Death!
In response, I would (re)count all (the) shouts (of praise) for you,
in the gates of Daughter ‚iyyôn will I go round with (news of) your help!

Again, in this strophe the personal merges with the idea of the people (the righteous) as a whole. It is safe to say, I think, that in this Psalm, more than any other we have yet examined, the Psalmist represents the people—the righteous ones loyal to YHWH—and stands for them. Rather than referring to a specific situation of distress for an individual—whether an historical figure (i.e. David) or literary protagonist—it is that of the people generally that is in view. This perhaps explains why the idea of the Psalmist’s enemies/opponents now shifts so decidedly toward the “nations” and the “wicked” in a more general, universal sense. At any event, the suffering of the righteous is still expressed in terms of the Psalmist’s own, in the first bicolon (v. 14). The plea for YHWH to rescue him and “raise” him up from the point of death is presented most vividly, using mythological-poetic imagery to describe death and the grave as a great kingdom (with gates) ruled by a king (Death, personified). On this motif, cf. the discussion on Psalm 6 and also the separate article on “Sheol”. The basic idiom “gates of Death” is preserved in the Greek of the New Testament as “gates of the Unseen [a%|dh$, hád¢s] (realm [i.e. of the dead])” in Jesus’ famous declaration to Peter (Matt 16:18). There is an intentional parallel to “gates of Death” with “gates of Daughter Zion” in the second bicolon (v. 15); the latter is a personification of Jerusalem, as the place where God’s people dwell (and thus opposite of the realm of death and the wicked). The Psalmist promises that, if delivered from his distress, he will spread the praise of YHWH, and news of the help given by Him, throughout all of Jerusalem—that is, to all of God’s people.

Verses 16-17 [15-16]f

f (O, that) they (would) be sunk [Wub=f*], (the) nations, in the ruin they made,
this trap hid to possess (others will) have captured their (own) feet!
(Yes) YHWH (shall) be (made) known (by) the judgment He makes—
with (the) works of his (own) palms is the wicked (one) struck down!

The final strophe of this part shifts to an imprecation (perfect vb. forms again read as precative perfects) against the “nations” (plural) who, as a whole, are synonymous with the “wicked” (singular). YHWH’s judgment against the wicked is notable in that it draws upon humankind’s own evil intent, described three ways:

    • “the ruin [i.e. with connotations of death/decay] they made”, possibly meant to convey the idea of digging a grave
    • “this trap hid to possess (others)”, probably to be understood as an ensnaring net
    • “the works of his (own) palms”, here “palms” being a more concrete and visceral synonym for “hands”

The wicked are buried, ensnared, and/or struck down by their own devices. This is a popular motif in the Psalms and wisdom literature, one which we have already encountered in Ps 5:10-11 [9-10] and 7:15-17 [14-16].

The remaining ‘interlude’ of 9:18-21 [17-20] and the second part (Psalm 10) will be discussed next week, along with a summary discussion of the composition as a whole.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965). Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1 Teilband (Psalmen 1-59), Neukirchener Verlag (1978), English edition Psalms 1-59 in the Continental Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1993).