Saturday, March 17, 2012

Psalm 68

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 68.

Psalm 68 is about God doing battle against God's enemies. This occurs within the realm of both human events and also nature. According to Psalm 68, God in the past has delivered Israel from her enemies, and there is hope that God will soon defeat those who love war. God in general is one who is concerned for the well-being of the lonely, the vulnerable, and the prisoner. And, in the area of nature, God brings rain and fertility to the earth.

There are debates about the setting of this Psalm. Is the Psalm largely about such events as the Exodus, Sinai, and the Conquest? Is the Psalm an exilic or post-exilic expression of hope that God would intervene and restore Israel, after defeating her enemies? Does the Psalm pertain to Israel's battles and the jubilant processions that occurred after Israel won them, as well as the celebration of God acting as king when God defeated the forces of chaos and brought rain? It's hard to tell. Scholars have observed that Psalm 68 is difficult, and some have even called it the most difficult Psalm in the entire Book of Psalms! But, whichever interpretation is correct, Psalm 68 is about a righteous God bringing order to the world.

I'd like to mention three items from my study:

1. Psalm 68:18 is quoted in Ephesians 4:8. In the King James Version, Psalm 68:18 states: "Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them." In this verse, God receives gifts. The KJV says that God receives gifts "for" men, but the Hebrew actually has the preposition "b-", which often means "in". According to Richard A. Taylor, the meaning here could be that God receives gifts "among" man, or the idea may be that God receives them "from" man, for some have argued that "b-" can mean "from" in some cases. The idea in Psalm 68:8 is probably that God has returned from battle and ascended onto his holy mountain, and that God is getting tribute or plunder.

Ephesians 4:8 states (in the KJV): "Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men." In Ephesians 4:8, Christ gives gifts rather than receiving them, and the gifts are the spiritual gifts for the edification of the church. Christ descended into the earth through his death and then ascended into heaven after his resurrection, and now he has imparted gifts to people in the church. Whereas Psalm 68:18 in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint talks about the reception of gifts, Ephesians 4:8 quotes it in a manner that pertains to the giving of gifts.

There have been different attempts to explain what is going on here, and Taylor discusses them in an article that he wrote for the July 1, 1991 Bibliotheca Sacra. The solution on which Taylor settles is that Ephesians is drawing from a variant. After all, the Targum for Psalm 68:18 interprets the verse to mean that Moses gave gifts to the sons of men, so there was at least one other person besides the author of Ephesians 4:8 who thought that Psalm 68:18 was about the giving rather than the reception of gifts. Taylor appears to believe that, originally, the verse was about the reception of gifts, but someone transposed the letters of the word for "receive", l-q-ch, into ch-l-q, which can mean "to apportion".

Looking at Psalm 68 itself, the Psalm appears to present God both giving and also receiving gifts. God blesses Israel with victory and rain, but God also receives praise and worship from other nations.

2. Bashan appears prominently in Psalm 68. In verse 15, we read (and this is my translation of the Hebrew): "Hill of God, hill of Bashan, hill of peaks, hill of Bashan". V 16 asks why the hills are jealous, right before mentioning the hill where God will dwell forever. And God affirms in v 22 that God will return his people from Bashan and the sea.

Bashan is a hill in the Transjordan, perhaps in the northern Transjordan. These references to Bashan are puzzling. Regarding verse 15, is Bashan being called a hill of God? If so, why? On verse 16, where is the hill where God will dwell forever? V 17 refers to Sinai, but God left that mountain, did he not? And why does verse 22 say that God will return his people from Bashan? The Israelites were not exiled there, were they? I thought they were exiled in such areas as Egypt and Babylon.

Different solutions to these sorts of questions have been proposed. On verse 15, some claim that Mount Zion (the hill of God) is being compared to Bashan, not identified with Bashan. Others hold that Bashan is being called a god-like or a majestic mountain----perhaps even a mountain where divine beings congregate----and yet the Psalmist deems it to be inferior to Sinai (where God gave the law) and Zion (where God dwells). On verses 16-17, some believe that the references to Sinai are secondary. Regarding verse 22, one solution is that God will deliver Israel from her oppressors as he defeated her enemy, Og the king of Bashan (i.e., Numbers 21:33). Another view is that Israel's enemies are called Bashan because the Psalmist in Psalm 22:12 referred to his enemies as strong bulls of Bashan. Then there's the view that "Bashan" refers to the serpent of chaos, which is based on a Ugaritic text. An idea I have (which may be held by others) is that God will bring the Jews through Bashan when he restores them to their land, for Bashan is in the northeast and thus could be on the route from Babylon to the Promised Land.

3. In the KJV, Psalm 68:26 states: "Bless ye God in the congregations, even the Lord, from the fountain of Israel." The Hebrew translated as "fountain" is "maqor". The Targum and Rashi relate that word to fetuses in the womb, perhaps because Leviticus 12:17 uses it when discussing the blood of childbirth (see also Leviticus 20:18, where it pertains to menstrual blood). For the Targum and Rashi, fetuses in Psalm 68:26 are being exhorted to praise God. I wonder if this could be relevant to Jewish views on abortion.

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