Commments & Feedback Welcome:
Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
Still following the order in Rabbi Sandmel’s The Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Psalms is next. When I think of Psalms I remember my grandfather reading them for family evening worship. I can almost hear his voice, strong and clear, as he solemnly recited the elegant lines of the King James Version of those ancient poems. I don’t remember when I learned Psalm 23 “by heart.” But it must have been relatively early in my life. Maybe I simply learned it via hearing it so often. Other psalms I remember less perfectly in the form of lines detached from the rest of the poem. One I remember being sung so many years ago by the Sunnydale Academy choir: “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom then shall I be afraid?” (27:1).
In The Old Testament: A Historical, Theological, and Critical Introduction, Richard Hess discusses in some detail the structure of ancient Hebrew poetry and its relation to other ancient Near Eastern literature. Poetry in the Bible, like the poetry of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, isn’t based on what we think of as the usual poetic basics of rhyme, rhythm, and meter. Which makes it easier to preserve the original meaning in translation than is the case with some other languages. But some features of Psalms are unavoidably lost in translation.
The basic unit of Hebrew poetry is two, or sometimes three, lines in which the second and sometimes third line develops, reinforces, or contrasts with the first line. For instance this from one of my favorite psalms:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
Psalm 19:1-2 RSV
Something else I was unaware of is the close relationship of biblical poetry to the literature of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The fourteenth century BCE Amara letters exchanged between Pharaoh and the heads of Canaanite city-states that were vassals of Egypt praise Pharaoh using phrases that Psalms applies to God. The thirteenth century BCE “Hymn to the Sun” of Akhenaton, the pharaoh famed for briefly establishing an Egyptian monotheistic religion, contains many lines and expressions similar to those of Psalm 104. A second century BCE hymn to the Egyptian god, Horus, parallels Psalm 20 on which it may have been based.
The 1928 discovery of a number of inscribed clay tablets, some containing mythological poems, from thirteenth century BCE Ugarit contributed to a new understanding of the background of the Bible. The Ugaritic language is closely related to ancient Hebrew and the mythological poems are similar to biblical poetry, especially that of Psalms. Descriptions of the Ugaritic god Baal use phrases that are almost identical to those used to describe Yahve. Some psalms seem to have borrowed and adapted earlier Ugaritic poetry, apparently without regard for its origins in the worship of “false gods.” Evidently there was a good deal of back and forth literary borrowing in the ancient Near East.
Numbering of the psalms differs in the Septuagint and Masoretic Texts but there are only minor textural variations. There are more fragments of Psalms than any other OT book in the Dead Sea Scrolls including fifteen psalms that are not in the Jewish/Christian canon.
In reading Psalms I found it somewhat difficult to stay focused. There is a lot of repetition of phrases with one psalm seeming a lot like others. Then it occurred to me that the psalms were not intended to be read but performed. The book of Psalms is believed to have been the hymnal of the Jerusalem temple, and few people read through a hymnal!
I thought I knew the book of Psalms relatively well, but reading it now makes me realize that there is a lot that, if I noticed at all, I must have let pass without thinking much about it. One of the things that particularly stands out now are mysterious words and phrases that are not part of the psalms themselves. Some are dedications or brief explanations of the situation in which a psalm was composed. For many of the psalms there are instructions for liturgical performance, instruments to be used, and what would would seem to be the tunes, with names like The Hind of the Dawn, The Dove, and Do Not Destroy, to which they were to be sung. Others name the author of a psalm. Some are Hebrew words, most prominently “Selah,” the meaning of which is unknown.
David is credited with about half of the psalms; others are attributed to Solomon and some otherwise unknown persons. There one hundred fifty psalms, with a few duplicated either in whole or part, divided into five “books” for no obvious reason. Each book ends with a doxology which is not part of the preceding psalm. Some scholars have speculated that the fivefold division is meant to parallel the five books of Torah. Or perhaps Psalms was simply a compilation of five already existing collections of psalms?
The collected psalms vary a great deal in topic and intent. Perhaps the best known are hymns of praise to God. Some seem to be linked to temple ceremonies. Psalm 45 is a love song for a royal wedding. I noticed at least three reviews of the history of Israel. There are confessions of sin and supplications for forgiveness, often combined with an entreaty for deliverance from physical illness. And a great many pleas for God to save the psalmist from his enemies, some calling down terrible curses such as “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks” (137:9). There are expressions of utter despair such as, “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me,” (22:1) which Jesus quoted on the cross. And also poems of thanksgiving and rejoicing.
Many of the psalms are lyrical masterpieces; others seem less than inspired. Some are perhaps more clever than inspired. There are several alphabetical acrostics, something which of course is lost in translation. Psalm 9 and 10, which are a single psalm in the Septuagint, begins every second verse with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Which an Oxford Bible footnote says “helps to explain the seeming lack of logical sequence.” Another acrostic poem is found in Psalm 119. Each of the twenty two stanzas, for the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, contains eight lines each of which begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line also contains some reference to the law which is the psalm’s subject. It is a very long, rather tedious psalm; I think a congregation would have to be very patient to sit through it!
In this exploration of the OT I have so far been reading the Revised Standard Version without comparing the King James Version and New English Bible which I also have. While I didn’t try to read all three versions of Psalms I was curious as to how the KJV and NEB compared to the RSV. The KJV, at least in the inexpensive copy I have, doesn’t format the text as poetry like the RSV and NEB do. The NEB drops the extra words and phrases that accompany the psalms - I miss the reminders that the words we have were only a part of an ancient performance which is a mystery to us now. The NEB also modernizes the text a bit too much for my taste. The RSV I think strikes a happy medium between archaic King James English and the more modern language of the NEB which, for me anyway, loses some of the mystique of the ancient sacred text. I can’t help but wonder in what setting and with what accompaniment this poetry originally came to life. What would it have been like to hear and see it?
© 2021 James Moyers