Saturday, March 9, 2013

Psalm 119: Aleph

Psalm 119 has twenty-two sections, in accordance with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Over the next twenty-two weeks, I'll blog about one section of Psalm 119 a week for my weekly quiet time.  Why will I be doing my weekly quiet time this way?  Because I want to give myself a bit of a break!  I've blogged through short Psalms, and I've blogged through long Psalms.  For the next twenty-two weeks, I'd like to blog about short sections.  A possible problem may be that I won't be able to come up with a different thought each week in my write-ups, since Psalm 119 seems to be repeating the same ideas over and over.  But I may be surprised!

Psalm 119 is a Psalm that praises God's law.  One thing that I notice is that Psalm 119: Aleph (and the rest of Psalm 119, for that matter) uses certain terms: Torah (v 1), testimonies (v 2, from the Hebrew word edut), precepts (v 4, from the Hebrew piqqud), statutes (v 5, from the Hebrew choq), commandments (v 6, from the Hebrew mitsvah), and judgments (v 7, from the Hebrew mishpat).  Are these simply different words for commandment?  Or does each word communicate a specific nuance?  I read the former in scholarly sources, and the latter in more homiletical sources.  

I tend to think that, at least within Psalm 119, they're different words for God's commandments, for Deuteronomy often groups at least some of these words together when it exhorts Israel to keep God's commandments (Deuteronomy 4:45; 5:31; 6:1; etc.).  But wouldn't it be cool if a couple of these words conveyed a specific nuance?  Suppose that the mishpatim in Psalm 119:7----the mispatim that inspire the Psalmist's praise----are not God's commandments (as important as those are in Psalm 119), but rather God's acts of judging evildoers and vindicating the poor, for mishpat can mean judging a case (Deuteronomy 1:17; 16:18-19; etc.) or God vindicating the needy (Deuteronomy 10:18).  Suppose that God's testimonies are not just laws, but are laws that actually testify to things: God's historical acts on behalf of Israel, God's lordship over Israel, and Israel's status of belonging to God.  The Hebrew word edut is sometimes used for memorials that remind people of certain events from the past or realities (Genesis 21:30; 31:52; Joshua 24:27), and, within the Pentateuch, a number of laws serve to remind Israel of things that God has done in Israe's history, of God himself, or of Israel's relationship with God.

But does Psalm 119 even have Israel's history in mind?  On the one hand, one could argue in the affirmative, for Psalm 119 does use terms for God's commands that Deuteronomy employs in clusters, indicating a possible reliance on Deuteronomy.  And Deuteronomy actually does tie the observance of the law to Israel's history, so maybe Psalm 119 assumes that the two are linked.  On the other hand, Psalm 119 does not appear to mention Israel's history, and a note in the Jewish Study Bible likens Psalm 119 to biblical wisdom literature.  Within biblical wisdom literature, Israel's history is largely absent, and the Torah is not the Pentateuch or writings within the Pentateuch but rather wise teachings.  Moreover, in my post here, I summarize elements of Jon Levenson's discussion of the identity of the Torah in Psalm 119: "According to Levenson, the 'Torah' that Psalm 119 exalts is not the Pentateuch (although the Psalm draws some from Deuteronomy), but rather '(1) received tradition, passed on most explicitly by teachers (vv 99-100), (2) cosmic or natural law (vv 89-91), and (3) unmediated divine teaching (e.g., vv 26-29).'  Levenson still acknowledges, however, that Psalm 119 draws from 'books we consider ‘biblical’', for they 'hold a kind of normative status for him' and 'provide the language with which to formulate a significant statement.'”  According to Levenson, Torah in Psalm 119 is far more that the Pentateuch (if it even includes the Pentateuch).

Personally, I think that the Torah can be the Pentateuch while also being passed down by teachers, coinciding with cosmic or natural law, and being taught to the student directly by God.  God can use Scripture to guide people!  Why doesn't Psalm 119 mention Israel's history, however?  I don't make too much of that absence.  Perhaps Psalm 119 simply prefers to focus on the Torah, while assuming that its audience is aware of Israel's history.

2 comments:

Bob MacDonald said...

I'm looking forward to your comments. This is a beautiful psalm and one often considered boring - but it is not so. You will find some potentially useful hints on p. 398 of my book. I would be interested to know if you think those first-time recurring words are significant for the whole psalm. It occurs to me that we always concentrate on the 8 'synonyms' - which are clearly foreground in the psalm, but there is also a background. Some of the unique words are also of interest.

Pascal makes that beautiful statement of this Psalm (see p 464):
Cette supplication déroule lentement ses 176 versets en un long récitatif et n’est en son fond
que la même protestation d’amour indéfiniment répétée sous diverses formes.

Indeed it is the love of Psalm 116 and the passion of Psalm 18.

James Pate said...

You ask a good question, Bob, one that was actually going through my mind earlier today: "I would be interested to know if you think those first-time recurring words are significant for the whole psalm." I'm finding that, as I go through it, I tend to treat the words as synonymous----rightly or wrongly, I don't know.

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