Saturday, June 2, 2012

Psalm 79

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 79 and its interpreters.  I have four items.

1.  Psalm 79:1 says in the King James Version: "O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps."  For the Hebrew word for "heaps" in this verse (iyim), the Septuagint has the Greek word oporophulakion.  Oporophulakion is a combination of two words: opora, which means "fruit", and phulakion, which has to do with guarding.  The Liddell-Scott lexicon on my BibleWorks translates oporophulakion, however, as a "hut for a garden-watcher", which it appears to mean in the LXX for Isaiah 1:8 and Isaiah 24:20.  Perhaps the word came to have that meaning because people would set up huts to monitor the fruit that was growing in gardens.

Why does the LXX use oporophulakion for iyim (or variations of that)?  The Hebrew word is used four times in the Hebrew Bible (see here), and, three of those times (Psalm 79:1; Micah 1:6; 3:12), the Septuagint translates it as oporophulakion.  (For Jeremiah 26:18, the LXX translates it as abaton, which often means "desolate".)  Why oporophulakion?  I am not entirely sure.  Perhaps it's because Micah 1:6 also talks about vineyards, and so the translators assumed that i has to do with fruit.  This topic deserves more study on my part.

What have interpreters who have used the Septuagint done with oporophulakion, as they have sought to interpret its significance within Psalm 79?  Theodore of Mopsuestia simply says that Jerusalem will be beaten up so badly that it will become reduced to something like a hut for a garden-watcher.  Augustine, however, highlights the significance of the fruity element of the word.  According to Augustine, Psalm 79 is about the persecution and martyrdom of Christians, and the word oporophulakion in Psalm 79:1 is communicating that the souls of the Christian martyrs were like sweet apples to God.

2.  Psalm 79:3 states (in the KJV): "Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem; and [there was] none to bury [them]."  The commentaries I read talked about the importance in the Hebrew Bible of burying the dead, even the dead of one's enemies.  For example, the Canaanite kings whom the Israelites conquered were buried (Joshua 10:27), as was the evil son of Ahab (II Kings 9:25-26).  In addition, Deuteronomy 21:23 mandates that a criminal who is hanged be removed from the tree and buried.

Marvin Tate states that "throughout the ancient Near East, the bodies of the conquered dead were dishonored by being left as carrion (cf. Deut. 21:23; Isa 14:18-19)", and the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary refers to first millennium B.C.E. Assyrian records in which Ashurbanipal talked about throwing the corpses of his enemies into the streets and dragging them around.  The commentary states that burial of the dead was believed to guarantee the departed one a peaceful and restful afterlife.  When the dead were not buried, they were restless, and that's why ruthless conquerors refrained from burying the conquered dead.

Did the Israelites' burial of their enemies stem from a humanitarian impulse, a belief that they should love even their enemies?  Perhaps, for the burial of the dead was believed to help the dead out, by helping them to have a restful afterlife.  And yet, the motive may simply have been to cleanse the holy land of Israel from corpse impurity, for corpses in the Hebrew Bible were thought to defile.  That's why Ezekiel 39:11-12 says that the corpses of Israel's enemy Gog will be buried: they were defiling the land of Israel.  And you will notice that, when the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible bury an enemy or an evil person----such as the Canaanite kings, the son of Ahab, and the hanging criminal----this occurs in the land of Israel.  The aim in burying the dead was probably to ensure that the corpses did not defile the holy land; and yet, in the process, the dead were helped out because burial allowed them to have a peaceful afterlife.

3.  On a related note, Psalm 79:11 asks God to spare the "sons of death".  Who are the sons of death?  One interpretation is that these are people who are condemned to die, and that the Psalmist is asking God to intervene so that their lives might be spared.  The Septuagint, however, understands the phrase to refer to the sons of those who have been slain.  I do not see an explicit belief in the afterlife in Psalm 79.  Technically-speaking, I suppose that one can walk away from Psalm 79 concluding that it offers no hope regarding the slain Israelites who were deprived of a restful afterlife because their bodies were not buried, and that its main concern is people in this life, as it hopes that more people will not die, or that the offspring of the dead will be cared for.  But why limit God and the extent of his deliverance?

4.  But not only is God able to deliver one from death; God can also free people from the guilt of their sin.  Psalm 79:2 states: "The dead bodies of thy servants have they given [to be] meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth."  This puzzled the Jewish commentator Rashi because he wondered why the Israelites are called God's servants and saints, when they were being punished for their gross sins.  Rashi's conclusion is that the wicked Israelite is reckoned as pious after he is punished.  The Psalmist acknowledges in Psalm 79:8 that the Israelites have sinned, that they have "former iniquities".  But, somehow, the Israelites are still considered to be God's servants and saints.

This interpretation intrigued me because of debates concerning the identity of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.  Many Jews have said that the Servant is Israel, whereas many Christians have maintained that the Servant is Jesus.  Against the "Israel" interpretation, many Christians have asked if Israel fits the description of the Servant, who is described as innocent.  After all, does not God in Isaiah and throughout the Hebrew Bible portray Israel as guilty, not as innocent?  I think that a Jewish interpreter can respond, however, that God reckoned Israel to be innocent after she paid the penalty for her sins (and Isaiah 40:2 asserts that Israel received double for her sins).

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