Saturday, June 30, 2012

Psalm 83

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 83 and its interpreters.  Psalm 83 is about ten nations conspiring to wipe out Israel.  The Psalmist asks God to deal with these nations as God dealt with Israel's enemies in the past, namely, to confound and destroy those who would destroy Israel.  I have three items.

1.  Scholars have debated about the historical setting of Psalm 83.  Because Psalm 83 mentions Assyria as part of the confederation, there is a view that the Psalm dates to the ninth-eighth centuries B.C.E., when Assyria was dominant and (during part of that time) in control of several of the nations mentioned in the Psalm that are part of the confederation against Israel (i.e., Tyre, Ammon, Moab, Edom, and others).  Another view is that Psalm 83 dates to the second century B.C.E., during the time of the Maccabees.  In I Maccabees 5, Israel's neighbors rose up against Israel after Judah the Maccabee had defeated Antiochus Epiphanes and purified the Temple.  Assyria in Psalm 83, in this scholarly scenario, refers to Syria, the country of Antiochus, who still had some soldiers in Israel even after he went to Persia.  An author in Peake's Commentary prefers this scenario because he believes that was the only time in history when a simultaneous attack against Israel occurred.

Then there's the view that Psalm 83 is not connected with a specific historical event, but rather lists some of Israel's traditional enemies from the past, perhaps to make the general point that God will acknowledge Israel's suffering and deliver her.  There are Jewish and Christian interpretations that view the Psalm as eschatological.  Some apply it to Gog and Magog, and others regard it as a type of the attack against Israel by the ten-nation confederation that is mentioned in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13.  And then there were those who discussed the Psalm in the context of the current situation of the Middle East, as some had a "Yay-rah" Israel attitude, whereas others cautioned against that.

2.  Psalm 83:3 says (in the King James Version): "They have taken crafty counsel against thy people, and consulted against thy hidden ones."  Why does this verse refer to the victims of the confederation as hidden ones?  Or does it?

One view is that the verse is saying that the Israelites are hidden ones in the sense that God is protecting them.  Another view is that God's people are hidden in the sense that they hide from their persecutors, but that probably does not work for Psalm 83, for the entire nation of Israel cannot hide from her enemies, who know where she is!  The Targum says that the verse is about the enemy nations coming after the hidden things in God's treasuries.  The idea here may be that the nations covet the hidden treasures in God's Temple.
Another approach is to say that the word translated as "thy hidden ones", tsephunechah, actually means God's treasured ones.  The root ts-ph-n can mean to hide, but it can also refer to storing up something that is valuable (see here).

3.  Psalm 83:16-18 says (in the KJV): "(16) Fill their faces with shame; that they may seek thy name, O LORD. (17) Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame, and perish:  (18) That men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth."
In v 18, the KJV supplies the word "men", meaning that it's not in the Hebrew text.  V 18 should read "That they may know", or "And they will know".  So why does the KJV supply the word "men"?

Vv 16-18 are puzzling verses because they talk about the Psalmist's desire that the enemies of Israel seek the name of the LORD and know that God is supreme, and yet the Psalmist also wants for these enemies to perish.  Are these contradictory desires?  When a person seeks God and acknowledges God's supremacy, the result is that he lives rather than dies from God's punishment, right? So how can the Psalmist hope that Israel's enemies will turn to God and yet perish?

The way that the KJV appears to handle this problem is to insert the word "men" into v 18: to say that Israel's enemies perish, and that causes other people to realize that the God of Israel is supreme.  That does not entirely resolve the problem, however, for v 16 expresses the hope that the enemies of Israel will seek God's name.  We cannot escape the fact the Psalm 83 presents Israel's enemies seeking God, in some capacity.

The Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary presents two Jewish interpretations.  The first is that God will not accept the repentance of Israel's enemies but will cause them to perish.  A voice in the Midrash on the Psalms adheres to this idea, citing Psalm 18:41, which depicts the Psalmist's enemies crying unto God and God refusing to answer them.  In my opinion, this view is important to consider because I think that too many evangelicals read the Hebrew Bible as a document that is obsessed with the conversion of the Gentiles. When the Hebrew Bible says that the nations will know that God is the LORD, many evangelicals read that as a desire for the Gentiles to enter into a personal relationship with God.  There may be something to this, for there are plenty of passages in the Hebrew Bible that talk about the Gentiles worshiping God.  But is that the only way to understand passages about the nations knowing that God is the LORD?  Perhaps some of those passages mean that God is gloating----that the proud nations at their last breath will learn who is truly in charge, but it will be too late for them.

The second view in Artscroll is that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who said that Psalm 83 is saying that Israel's enemies will be at the edge of perishing, yet they will call out to God, repent, and accept God's dominion at the last minute, presumably (if I'm not mistaken) saving themselves from destruction.

Augustine had another take on Psalm 83:16-18.  He suggested that the repentant enemies of God's people indeed will perish, but not in the sense of being killed by God in God's wrath.  Rather, their old sinful selves will die, and they will emerge as new creatures.  For Augustine, conversion itself is a process of perishing and rebirth.

I realize that many biblical scholars do not think that much of the Hebrew Bible had a rigorous conception of the afterlife.  But I wonder if there are any interpreters who have said that vv 16-18 concern a deathbed repentance that leads Israel's enemies into a glorious afterlife.

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