Saturday, May 26, 2012

Psalm 78

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 78 and its interpreters.  I have three items.

1.  Psalm 78:18-22 states (in the King James Version): "And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust. Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?  Behold, he smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed; can he give bread also? can he provide flesh for his people?  Therefore the LORD heard [this], and was wroth: so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel; Because they believed not in God, and trusted not in his salvation".

Augustine says that the Israelites were tempting God rather than believing in him, and Marvin Tate characterizes their question about God providing a table in the wilderness as "willful and mocking", asserting that "they did not ask God sincerely for food, nor wait to see whether or not he would provide it."  Regarding v 21's statement that the Israelites did not believe in God, the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary states that the issue is not belief, for the Israelites in the wilderness knew that God exists, since they saw his activity on their behalf.  Rather, they were failing to apply their knowledge by trusting God.

Often in Christian circles, I have heard that it is acceptable for us to be honest in our prayers to God----to share with God what we are truly feeling: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Christians are told that they can even express to God their anger towards him, for God is big enough to take it.  After all, was not the Psalmist honest with God when he expressed his anger with God and his impatience at God's apparent reluctance to act?

But were not the Israelites being honest with God when they asked if God were able to furnish a table in the wilderness, when they were frustrated and impatient, when God appeared to be slow to act on their behalf?  And, while they knew that God existed and saw his wonders, should they be faulted for being deluded in their hunger and for wondering if God could truly turn a barren land like the wilderness into a table?  Sure, they technically should have known that God was able to do so, but it's quite a feat!  Moreover, they knew that God existed, but how could they be sure that God would provide for them in the future?  In a sense, they were called upon to have faith in the unseen, for the future is unseen.

And what does Psalm 78:18-22 have to do with us?  Granted, the Israelites could arguably be faulted for not trusting God after God had displayed his wonders on their behalf, but what about those of us who live in a time when it's uncertain whether or not God even exists, when some can attribute their "blessings" to luck rather than to God's provision?  Can we really be faulted for lacking faith?

I think that Augustine and Tate would say that there was a difference between the Psalmist and those who wrestle with their faith, on the one hand, and the Israelites in the wilderness, on the other hand.  The Israelites in the wilderness were incessant in their negative carping against God.  They lacked gratitude.  They lacked humility.  That's different from desiring God's presence and goodness and being upset when those things are delayed.  While I'm having a hard time coming up with the words to express why the complaining Psalmist was okay whereas the Israelites in the wilderness were wrong, I have a sense that there is a difference between being a desperate petitioner and being a brat.

2.  Psalm 78:38-39 states: "But he, [being] full of compassion, forgave [their] iniquity, and destroyed [them] not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.  For he remembered that they [were but] flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again."  The note for this verse in The Jewish Study Bible says, "Clearly this author, as is typical of the biblical period, does not believe in resurrection."  

How do interpreters who believe in the resurrection handle this verse?  Theodore of Mopsuestia and Augustine interpret it to mean that human beings by their own power are incapable of rising from the dead, but that God can raise them up by his power.  The problem with this interpretation is that the verse does not appear to discuss human capability, but rather says that people pass away and do not return.  The Midrash on the Psalms denies that the verse negates the resurrection, for its point (according to the Midrash) is that the evil inclination does not return to people when they are resurrected.

I wonder if there are other ways to get around the apparent denial of the resurrection in Psalm 78:39.  Could the rabbinic tradition that the generation in the wilderness has no place in the World to Come be relevant (see here and here), since Psalm 78:38-39 is about the wilderness generation?  I guess that depends on whether or not the Israelite generation would be resurrected before being denied a place in the World to Come!  Could one argue that Psalm 78:39 is saying that people pass away and do not return as they were before, but in a glorious state?  I've not encountered these last two interpretations, but I'm curious as to whether or not interpreters went these routes.  (See here for how Pope Gregory handled passages in Job that appear to deny the resurrection.)

I think that the point of Psalm 78:38-39 is that God had mercy on the wilderness generation because he recognized that their life was short.  Perhaps one can derive a lesson from this: that we should cut ourselves and others some slack because life is short!  Personally, I draw comfort from the idea of an afterlife, but I believe that it's important to see this present life as precious.

3.  Psalm 78:9 states: "The children of Ephraim, [being] armed, [and] carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle."  There are numerous ideas about what this passage is referring to.  When did Ephraim turn back in the day of battle?  The view of Rashi and Radak is that the Ephraimites left Egypt prematurely----before God performed his miracles----and the outcome was that they were whipped by the people of Gath (see I Chronicles 7:21).  Perhaps Rashi and Radak thought this because v 9 precedes a discussion about the Exodus.  Others contend that Psalm 78:9 is about Ephraim murmuring at the Red Sea or on the outskirts of Canaan, when the Israelites were debating about whether or not to conquer the Promised Land (in Numbers 14).

Another view is that Psalm 78:9 refers to events in the time of the Judges.  Ephraim was a prominent tribe, and some have suggested that a reason that Israel lost battles so often in the Book of Judges is that Ephraim was holding Israel back, either through a lack of will to fight, or by disobeying God's commandments and thus bringing a curse on Israel.  Some refer to specific incidents in Judges, such as the Ephraimites not helping Jephthah to fight the Ammonites in Judges 12, or the Ephraimites bringing idolatry to Israel in Judges 17-18.

Others apply Psalm 78:9 to events in I Samuel.  I Samuel 4:10 states that men fled during a battle with the Philistines, and another view says that the Ephraimites could have chickened out during the Battle of Gilboa in I Samuel 31, the battle that cost Saul his life.  In favor of the I Samuel 4 interpretation is that Psalm 78 culminates in the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, which occurred in I Samuel 4.

Others have related Psalm 78:9 to the North seceding from the South during the time of Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  I'm not entirely certain what this has to do with Ephraim turning back in the day of battle.  In I Kings 12 and II Chronicles 11, Rehoboam and Jeroboam almost get into a battle, and the result is that Jeroboam's Northern Kingdom survives and moves forward.  Could that be what Psalm 78:9 means when it says that Ephraim turned back in the day of battle: that the battle did not occur, and so Jeroboam could uphold Northern Israel's secession (turning back) from Judah?

Another view is that Psalm 78:9 is about the destruction of Northern Israel in 722 B.C.E.

There are probably positives and negatives to each interpretation.  Marvin Tate even speculates that Psalm 78 is aware of a tradition that is lost to us!  In any case, the goal of Psalm 78 in its references to Ephraim is most likely to elevate the South above the North.


  1. Note the difference between lament which addresses God directly and this talk about God which considers ‘him’ of no account, recalling the disbelief of Psalms 14 and 53. There is a lot of talk about God in this day but less clear is the obedience that goes with 'faith'.

  2. That's a good point----about talking ABOUT God as opposed to talking TO God.


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