Saturday, May 18, 2013

Psalm 119: Kaph

For my weekly quiet time today, I will post Psalm 119: Kaph in the King James Version (which is in the public domain) and comment on select verses.

81 CAPH. My soul fainteth for thy salvation: but I hope in thy word.

The Jewish Study Bible (specifically, Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler) says about this verse: "Hoping or longing...for God's word (see also vv. 43, 81, 114, 147) rather than God (e.g., 31.25; 38.16) typifies the psalmist's attitude."  Berlin and Brettler actually make this point a lot in their comments on Psalm 119: that the Psalmist in Psalm 119 is, in a sense, substituting God with God's word.  There may be something to that.  I don't want to suggest that this never happens in Psalm 119.  But I don't think that it's the whole story.  God still plays an important role in Psalm 119, as the one whom the Psalmist is asking to deliver him.  On God's word in Psalm 119, my impression is that it includes yet extends beyond the laws of the Torah (or some body of laws within the Pentateuch, such as the code in Deuteronomy): the Psalmist in Psalm 119 indeed values God's statutes, but also God's promises to him personally.  In addition, the Psalmist seems to desire a fresh word of comfort from God to help him through his difficulties.  Whether Berlin and Brettler have this broad, expansive understanding of God's word in Psalm 119, I do not know.

I have issues with divorcing God's word from God himself in Psalm 119.  I'm not saying that God's word is God, but rather that God communicates who God is to people through God's word.  When God speaks to people, there is more intimacy than if God were merely to perform acts of deliverance without providing any communication.  The Psalmist does not just want to be saved from his perils; he also desires for God to speak to him, to offer personal words of care.  His love for God's word is part of his relationship with God.  That said, I still acknowledge Berlin and Brettler's point: that there is an emphasis on God's word in Psalm 119.

There are many Christians nowadays who say that Jesus, not the Bible, is the Word of God.  They accuse fundamentalists of idolatry when it comes to the Bible, as if the Bible is an idol for fundamentalists.  I can somewhat understand and sympathize with their sentiments.  These Christians regard Jesus as a nice person, whereas they look in the Old Testament and see God sanctioning or commanding acts that strike them as morally reprehensible (i.e., genocide); consequently, they prefer Jesus to the Bible!  And maybe (and I'm just speculating here) they would also prefer to interact with a person rather than a book that is purported to contain inflexible rules and principles for all times and situations.  A person is more flexible than a book.  The Psalmist in Psalm 119, however, has a personal relationship with God, while also maintaining faithfulness to God's statutes, which are probably recorded somewhere, since the Psalmist assumes that even his enemies are aware of them.

82 Mine eyes fail for thy word, saying, When wilt thou comfort me?
83 For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes.

I tend to agree with the commentaries that say that people back then used to hang their wineskins when they were not using them, and the wineskins were susceptible to smoke and thus became "dried and blackened" due to the smoke (to quote Peake's commentary).

The Septuagint understands this verse differently, saying that the Psalmist has become like a bottle in the frost.  Augustine says that this means that God's blessings cool the heat of a person's fleshly desires when that person meditates on God's "righteousnesses" to avoid forgetting them; Augustine says that "the fervor of lust has cooled, that the memory of love might grow" (J.E. Tweed's translation).

Interestingly, Jerome's Latin Vulgate, which often goes with the Hebrew, follows the LXX in this case, seeing frost in v 83 rather than smoke.  I am not entirely sure why, but my guess is that there is some ambiguity in the Hebrew word qitor.  It occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible (see here).  In Psalm 148:8, it is juxtaposed with snow, and the KJV translates it there as "vapour".  Qitor can mean smoke, as it does in Genesis 19:28 (where the context is the destruction of Sodom), but perhaps it could have meant other things as well.

I'd like to comment on Augustine's claim that meditating on God's word can cool our passions.  I vaguely recall reading a similar sentiment in a writing by Ellen White, the founder of Seventh-Day Adventism.  She said that looking at the cross and seeing God's love for us there can undermine our lustful passions.  Do I buy this?  It may work for some people, on a certain level, as a way for them to discipline their thoughts, and some may be so enthralled with God that this overshadows their bodily passions.  But I don't think that it works for everyone.  And I'll add that I don't believe that those for whom it does work are superior to those for whom it doesn't work.

84 How many are the days of thy servant? when wilt thou execute judgment on them that persecute me?
85 The proud have digged pits for me, which are not after thy law.

My reaction when I read this verse is, "You think?"  Of course pits that are dug to trap others are not in accordance with God's law!  I doubt that people who dig such pits are seeking the Torah's permission!
But the Psalmist may be saying this to encourage God to punish his persecutors: God should punish them because they have no regard for God's law.  God should intervene to uphold his own standard.

As far as I can see (and I am open to correction on this), there is no explicit command in the Pentateuch against digging a pit for somebody to fall in.  But I tend to agree with Keil-Delitzsch that such an action would violate the Torah's general standard of compassion and love for others.  Plus, perhaps one can perform a qal va-chomer: if a person is culpable in Exodus 21:33-34 for digging a pit that someone else's animal falls into, how much more would he be guilty for deliberately digging a pit for a person to fall into?
The Septuagint has another understanding of v 85.  Brenton's translation of the LXX says: "Transgressors told me idle tales; but not according to thy law, O Lord."  Augustine appears to apply these "idle tales" to Jewish legends and secular literature, which give pleasure, and also to "the vain and wandering loquacity of heretics."  Augustine affirms that the point of v 85 is that "truth, not words, pleases me therein" (Tweed).  There is much for me to learn about Augustine, but his sentiments here remind me of a perspective that I heard in a class that I took in pagan exegesis: that there was a Christian view that the Bible was for instruction, not for entertainment.

As in v 83, Jerome's Latin Vulgate follows the Septuagint.  The Hebrew word translated as "pits" in v 85 is shichot, and I think that Jerome (and probably the LXX, for that matter) may be working with a manuscript that has the similar word siach, which Holladay says can mean "babble" (II Kings 9:11, and I also refer you to Proverbs 23:29).  Siach, according to Holladay, can also mean an object of concern or interest, and he offers a similar definition for the Hebrew word sichahAugustine relates that some Latin translators were understanding the Greek word adoleschias in the Greek for Psalm 119:85 as delights (which is ironic, for the Greek term in the LXX of I Samuel 1:16 appears to mean a complaint, which siach, the term that the LXX is translating as adoleschias in I Samuel 1:16, often means), whereas other Latin translators regard it as babblings. 

Could adoleschias in the LXX for Psalm 119:83 relate to complaining, as it does in I Samuel 1:16 (LXX), the point being that the Psalmist's enemies are telling him their complaints, which are not according to God's law?  I don't know.  Such an interpretation would rub me the wrong way, for it reminds me of pastors or Bible study leaders who dismiss complaints by saying that the complainers have a problem with what's in the Bible, as opposed to actually listening to what the complainers are saying to see if they are making some legitimate observation.  If such an interpretation would mean that the Psalmist is dismissing the complaints of those who are unhappy because they cannot perpetuate injustice or game the system at the expense of the vulnerable, however, then I would be more open to it.

What do I think of Augustine's application of the "idle tales" to Jewish and secular legends?  I don't care for it, to tell you the truth.  I think that legends are good because they entertain, but also because they can instruct and provide people with insight into what makes people tick.  See Krista Dalton's post here.  Interestingly, I read in one book, The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature, that the ancient Christian Eusebius saw value in Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Bible! Yet, I can identify with Augustine's point that people should value statements for their truth value, not according to how well they are phrased.

On Christians studying Judaism, does not Titus 1:14 say that Christians should not give heed to "Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth"?  That question deserves a post of its own, which I may someday write (but see my post here, where I addressed it, on some level).  There were early Christians who were concerned that some of the Christians were paying too much attention to Judaism and were perhaps feeling obligated to observe certain Jewish regulations, and they felt that such activity was hindering them in or distracting them from their walk with Christ.  I can appreciate these early Christians' desire to keep Christians' attention on what they believed was important: Christ.  At the same time, for me, learning about Judaism enhances my spiritual and religious life, rather than detracting from it.

86 All thy commandments are faithful: they persecute me wrongfully; help thou me.

The word translated as "faithful" is emunah, which Holladay associates with such terms as "reliability" and "honesty", among others.  The Psalmist here is probably affirming the truth of God's commandments, and yet he asks for God to vindicate and uphold that truth by punishing those who are disobeying God's law by persecuting the Psalmist.

87 They had almost consumed me upon earth; but I forsook not thy precepts.
88 Quicken me after thy lovingkindness; so shall I keep the testimony of thy mouth.

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