Sunday, November 08, 2009

Blog Sabbath 2009!

And with the conclusion of the Book of Proverbs, it's time for the annual November - December MRtB Sabbath!

I read only six Books this year, but that included the massive and in some ways daunting Book of Psalms. In total, I've finished 20 of the Bible's 66 Books now, so I'm 30.3% of the way in. I read 256 chapters, though, which brings me up to 659 out of 1189, well over halfway through (55.4%). I'm at 55.7% of the way through in Verses, having completed a whopping 16401 out of 31102.

I stayed on task pretty well in 2009, despite the trouble that the Books of Job and Psalms gave me. I covered 5299 verses over the course of the year, down from 7124 last year but well over the 4687 in 2007 and 206 in 2006). I have 5829 verses to go to reach the New Testament, which would be a nice break point; it's an ambitious goal, but I will see if I can finish off the Old Testament in 2010. That would put the end of the whole project sometime in 2012. Mercy.

So, whatever readers there may be: Have lovely winter holidays of your choosing. I may well be back for a few pieces of unfinished business -- Elaine's request for me to read the book about the rabbit, for instance -- but we'll get back to actual Bible-readin' sometime around the new year. Ecclesiastes ho!!!

Proverbs 22-31: Wrapping Up Proverbs

The specific material we have been looking at in the last few posts – the entire stretch from Proverbs 10 to halfway through Proverbs 22, in fact – falls under the heading “Proverbs of Solomon.” In today’s reading, there are several subdivisions, and the content starts to change up a bit from Proverbs 25 to the last chapter, Proverbs 31.

Proverbs 22 - 24 for Dummies

The first half of Proverbs 22 still comes under the “Proverbs of Solomon” label. The second half of Proverbs 22, all of 23, and the first half of 24 are labeled “Sayings of the Wise.” The second half of 24 is labeled “Further Sayings of the Wise.” There are some minor stylistic differences here from the material we’ve been going through, but it certainly covers the same terrain in terms of themes. It has the same basic teachings about what’s good and what’s bad. And here, as a public service, I present the summary list!

Good Things:

A good reputation
Fear of God
Bringing up children well
Being rich
Purity of Heart
Disciplining children
Being skilled
Being wise (x6)
Listening to your parents
Having advisers
Rescuing people in trouble
Doing the outside work first, and making sure your crops are planted before building your house.
This last, very specific piece of wisdom (24:27) reminds us that the Bible comes from a specific time and place, one where the outside work generates food to sustain life and housing is a luxury. Presumably, Eskimos and those of us living in food-abundant technological societies are given a pass on this one.

Bad Things
Being wicked
Being poor
Sowing wickedness
Kissing an adulteress
Mocking (x2)
Oppressing the poor (x2)
Giving gifts to the rich
Crushing the needy in court
Being friends with a hot-tempered man
Backing the debts of others
Moving an ancient boundary stone (x2)
Gluttony (x2)
Being too excited about riches
Eating the food of a stingy man
Speaking to a fool
Encroaching on the fields of the fatherless
Withholding discipline from children
Envying sinners (x3)
Drinking too much (x2)
Cavorting with prostitutes
Plotting evil
Pretending you didn’t know that other people were in trouble
Being a biased judge
Giving false testimony
Rebelling against the king
So there you have it! All the does and don’ts, in a convenient list form!

Proverbs 25 – 29

This section is called “More Proverbs of Solomon,” but Chapters 25 and 26 in particular are quite a bit different than the previous Proverbs of Solomon. The first half of Chapter 25 consists of what I am calling “Proverbs of Court” – pieces of advice for kings and people going to a king’s court. The second half of 25, and almost all of 26, are mostly analogies. These vary from the obvious to the cryptic:
Like the one who seizes a dog by the ears
is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.

As a dog returns to its vomit,
so a fool repeats his folly.

Like a lame man’s legs that hang limp
is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on soda,
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
I spent quite a while trying to figure out whether 26:4-5 was a flagrant contradiction:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Well, maybe. Or maybe the Bible is just expressing a paradox to the effect that “you just can’t win when you’re talking with a fool!” That’s some catch, that Catch 26:4-5.

Proverbs 27-29 return to the same style and themes of Proverbs 10-22. In fact, these Chapters often return to the exact same words, even whole Verses, of earlier Chapters. There are a fair number of reruns here in Proverbs.

Proverbs 30

This Chapter is called “Sayings of Agur,” Agur having been either an “oracle” or the son of a Man from Massa; the interpretation isn’t clear. I’m betting on “oracle,” though, as his sayings are pretty mystical. Which is to say, trippy:
Who has gone up to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands?
Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and the name of his son?
Tell me if you know!

The leech has two daughters.
“Give! Give!” they cry.
Much of the chapter consists of a peculiar kind of list, a type I’ve noticed one or two other examples of in earlier passages. In Agur’s Sayings, the form goes “There are four things that [are {x}], three things that [are {synonym of x}], and then a list of four items.
There are three things that are stately in their stride,
four that move with stately bearing:
a lion, mighty among beasts,
who retreats before nothing;
a strutting rooster, a he-goat,
and a king with his army around him.

There are three things that are never satisfied,
four that never say, ‘Enough!’:
the grave, the barren womb,
land, which is never satisfied with water,
and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!”
This is a pretty cool riddle form, but I’m not sure what they are really supposed to mean, why they are supposed to be significant. There’s only one that seems straightforward; I think that in 18-19 Agur is trying to make the ancient joke that woman are just too darn inscrutable. He chooses his words poorly, though, and would likely get laughed out of the bar if he were to repeat them today:
There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
Really, how does a guy get to be oracle without understanding that last bit?

Proverbs 31

The final Chapter of Proverbs is split in two sections. The first are the Sayings of King Lemuel, or actually the sayings of King Lemuel’s mother. He reports that she warned him that he, as a king, should avoid women, wine, and beer, that he should be a fair judge, and that he should defend the rights of the poor and the needy.

Part two is the Epilogue: The Wife of Noble Character. In 21 Verses, this passage describes the Proverbial dream girl. She is, you may have heard, worth far more than rubies. (10) It is pretty specific about tasks appropriate to a pre-modern agricultural society, but the gist is that a good wife is hard-working, smart, trustworthy, generous, even-keeled, religious, and responsible. She doesn’t need to be charming or pretty, but those things aren’t important in the long run anyway.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Proverbs 19-21: Proverbs and the Poor, Proverbs in the Marketplace, and other good advice.

Let's begin with my favorite Proverbs from #19, just because it's fun to imagine them cross-stitched, or carved on a plaque, hanging on a kitchen wall:

A foolish son is his father's ruin,
and a quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping.
Houses and wealth are inherited from parents,
but a prudent wife is from the Lord.
Proverbs and the Poor

The Proverbs continue to be a mixed batch here in Chapter 19, but five of the twenty-nine happen to deal with the poor. They are the following:

Better a poor man whose walk is blameless
than a fool whose lips are perverse.

Wealth brings many friends,
but a poor man's friend deserts him.

A poor man is shunned by all his relatives --
how much more do his friends avoid him!
Though he pursues them with pleading, they are nowhere to be found.

It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury --
how much worse for a slave to rule over princes!

What a man desires is unfailing love;
better to be poor than a liar.
OK, Verse 1 is straightforward enough, and Verse 22 is a bit disjointed but means basically the same thing. What is a little more surprising is Verses 4 and 7, with what appears to be a negative attitude about the poor. On one hand, the observation that it's easier for people who are well off to attract friends could be passed off as a neutral observation, a simple statement of the way things are. But this is a book of wisdom, as we have been repeatedly told, and the assumption is that all its verses have moral weight. Looked at in this light, Verses 4 and 7 acquire the sense of "It's obnoxious to be poor, so you have an obligation to avoid poverty." Harsh!

The class dynamics of 19:10 are a little puzzling too. I can remember a time back in Exodus that the Bible was all about slaves getting to rule over their masters, but it seems here like there has been a turn towards the Conservative. Well, these are the Proverbs of Solomon, after all, and Solomon is a king, and kings are not known for their calls for the poor to rise up and throw of their chains.

Proverbs in the Marketplace

Again, Proverbs 20 has the usual mix-and-match, but I'm picking out a handful that have to do with economic life.

There are a lot of Proverbs about laziness, including these:

A sluggard does not plow in season;
so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.

Do not love sleep or you will grow poor;
stay awake and you will have food to spare.
Well, fair enough. A certain amount of get-up-and-go is required to prosper here in our modern age, but it's reasonable to assume this was all the more so when food supply was never far from anyone's mind.

Another thread of Proverbs concerns economic fair play:

Food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man,
but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel.
More explicit, and more common, are Proverbs about weights and measures. This seems a little comical to us today, but that's only because we generally HAVE standard, regulated weights and measures, and have lost sight of how difficult it is to conduct fair exchanges when you have to renegotiate the rules every time.

Differing weights and differing measures --
The Lord detests them both.

The Lord detests differing weights,
and dishonest scales do not please him.
Then there's this odd little gem:

"It's no good, it's no good!" says the buyer;
then off he goes and boasts about his purchase.
Again, you could see this as a wry observation about human behavior. But as with 19:4 & 7, this comes in a list of moral injunctions, so we have to assume it has moral weight. My guess is that it is criticizing the buyer for his hypocrisy, but I'm not sure.

I'm even less sure about 20:16.

Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger;
hold it in pledge if he does it for a wayward woman.
Baffled. Anyone?

Mixed in with these commercial Proverbs, of course, are the continual reminders that, although the material world is important, there's something even importanter. Care to guess?

Gold there is, and rubies in abundance,
but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.
Tricked you! You thought it was going to be "wisdom!"

Proverbs 21

The grab-bag goes on. Themes that we've just looked at are repeated:

The sluggard's craving will be the death of him,
because his hands refuse to work.

A fortune made by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare.
There's a different note sounded about the poor:

If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor,
he too will cry out and not be answered.
And encouragement of thrift:

He who loves pleasure will become poor;
whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.

In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil,
but a foolish man devours all he has.
But the very, very most interesting Proverb of Chapter 21 -- one of the most interesting sentences in the whole book to date, really -- is this:

To do what is right and just
is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
WOAH WOAH WOAH WOAH WOAH!!! This is big news, as it appears to very casually undermine much of the Law of Moses. And it is strange to see this notion ascribed to Solomon, since we've already read through Kings and Chronicles that sacrifice was very important indeed for many, many generations after the death of Solomon. Indeed, if memory serves God was still judging kings and the fates of Israel and Judah according to the orthodoxy of their sacrifices, punishing them not just when altars were set up to other gods but when altars to God were set up not according to code.

So this is a rather explosive verse to find tucked in with the nagging-wife Proverbs, which may well be wise counsel to choose well in marriage but which must have always been a bit of comic relief:

Better to live on a corner of the roof
than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.

Better to live in a desert
than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.

Next time: Proverbs 22-31: the Sprint

Today's Text: Proverbs 19-21

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Proverbs 17 - 18: The Weakness of Categories; The Power of Language

Proverbs 17

My first thought for this go-round was that I'd extend my typology of Proverbs from last time and do a proverbial census. This is the kind of thing that, if all goes well, could lead to a pie chart, which would of course be awesome.

It started off well enough, with two new categories added to the ones from last time (dubious assertions, tautologies, judgments): assertions of faith and Proverbs of reward and revenge, the promises of better life for the virtuous and punishment for the evil, which I also talked about last time. But as I began the business of fitting each Proverb into one of the categories, I found my definitional edges starting to crumble.

Take 17:26, for instance:

It is not good to punish an innocent man,
or to flog officials for their integrity.
My first impulse was "judgment," a statement of principle. But then, you could also be a little cynical and call it a dubious assertion, for surely anyone who has read Machiavelli can imagine situations where it might be a good idea to punish some innocent men in order to preserve peace, prosperity, and public order. Or on the other hand, you could call it a tautology: the definition of "innocent" is more or less "those not deserving punishment."

Similarly with Verses 21 & 25:

To have a fool for a son brings grief;
there is no joy for the father of a fool.

A foolish son brings grief to his father
and bitterness to the one who bore him.
My first thought was "judgment"; they are an assessment that foolishness is bad. But then I thought, wait a minute, that's a pretty dubious assertion -- I know people whose children are kind of numbskulls, and they are happy enough in general and have reasonably good relationships with their kids too. Too, there's a whiff of tautology here in the obviousness of the statement, the idea that a parent wouldn't want they child to have bad qualities hardly being breaking news.

So, I gave up the categorizing.

Proverbs 18

In reading this Chapter, I noticed statements that seemed to imply a philosophy of knowledge. That's not to say that this chapter is "about" a philosophy of knowledge, mind you -- the individual Proverbs seem as much a grab-bag as ever. What set me off was probably 18:4

The words of a man's mouth are deep waters,
but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.
Now a statement like this leaves lots of room for interpretation, of course, but it also seems to suggest that it doesn't want to be interpreted too much. It seems to argue for the concept of "Keep It Simple, Stupid" or of Occam's Razor. This might be a comfort for someone trying to dredge some understanding out of Derrida or Kant. Calls to prefer "common sense" over that too-fussy book larnin', though, are dangerous; they tend to render people resistant understanding or appreciating the workings of complex systems, and most systems are complex systems.

The chapter has numerous admonitions that it is better to shut up and listen than to shoot your mouth off.

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding
but delights in airing his own opinions.
A fool's lips bring him strife
and his mouth invites a beating
A fool's mouth is his undoing,
and his lips are a snare to his soul.
He who answers before listening --
that is his folly and his shame.
The idea that you should shut up when you don't know what you are talking about is of course a compelling one, especially to anyone reading the reader comments on the average newspaper article. But there is also a very conservative element at play here. Solomon the King is famously wise -- he's really made it the hallmark of his brand -- and here he is saying that people who aren't wise should just shut the hell up. It is awfully convenient for him and his hold on power.

Because certainly, the author of Proverbs 18 understood the power of language. Check out Verse 17:

The first to present his case seems right,
till another comes forward and questions him.
Or the odd Verse 8:

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to a man's inmost parts.
This is perhaps an unfortunate metaphor, as the first thing that jumps into most heads about "choice morsels" is that they are tasty and highly desireable. I think the intended concept, though, is that gossip will worm its way into a person's inner being and be destructive there, rather than nourishing. Another curious metaphor follows at Verse 21:

The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit.
Bizarre imagery aside, the idea seems fairly clear: language is powerful, and knowing how to use language confers power.

Next Time: Proverbs and the Poor, Proverbs in the Marketplace, and other good advice.

Today's Text: Proverbs 17 - 18.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Proverbs 7 - 16: 235 Propositions

As we continue on into the Book of Proverbs, there is a break in style beginning with Proverbs 10. Chapters 7, 8, & 9, though, continue in the same vein as the material we were looking at last time. Chapter 7 is a warning against spending time with adultresses, and Chapter 8 is another paean to wisdom; Chapter 9 is a little folktale contrasting wisdom and folly.

Proverbs 7:6 - 22 is an uninterrupted narrative, which came as a real treat -- it had been a long time! It begins:

At the window of my house I looked out through the lattice.
I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who lacked judgment.
(6 - 7)
This young guy has the misfortune to meet a woman whose husband is out of town. She kisses him with a brazen face and invites him home to check out her fine Egyptian linen sheets, which she has perfumed with myrrh, aloe, and cinnamon. After some smooth talking on her part,
All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter,
like a deer stepping into a noose.
Now, I don't want to be unduly cynical, but having such an relatively long, detailed, and sexy story suddenly pop up in the text made me think about the exploitation paperbacks of 50 years back, a briefly popular genre that allowed publishers to print prurient sexual material under a paper-thin disguise of social criticism. Is it possible that this tale -- the sad story of the poor unfortunate lad who gets tricked into a terrible terrible night of hot cinnamon-scented sex with the beautiful, assertive, seductive woman -- was an occasion for more chortling, smirks, and elbowing in the ribs than solemn contemplation? No way of knowing, I suppose.

Chapter 8's praise of wisdom extends to a kind of personification, with capital-W Wisdom speaking in first person:
The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old...

I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.
(22, 30-31)
It is unusual to see an abstract virtue assigned a voice in the Bible, and it recalls for me a speech you might expect to hear from a god or goddess of wisdom in a pantheon. If you are willing to read this passage metaphorically, it's not too hard to accept it as a literary device, a way of praising wisdom by pretending to personify it. A strict Biblical literalist runs into another trouble spot here, though, as Wisdom is elevated to a minor god and we find ourselves once again confronted by a whiff of polytheism.

The Book of List

The heading for Proverbs 10 is Proverbs of Solomon, and what follows is a list of aphorisms that lasts for at least the next six chapters. These do not seem to be organized in any particular order, and the chapter breaks seem fairly arbitrary as well. Every individual verse, unless I am mistaken, is in the form of a couplet, the two halves of which often express opposite forms of the same idea (e.g. The Lord abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight. (11:1))

The Proverbs assert the same values that we saw praised in the Psalms. They are pro-wisdom, of course, and also pro-honesty, pro-obedience, pro-work, pro-patience, and pro-charity. They are also pro-righteousness, although I still get question marks in my head when I see righteousness, which could reasonably be defined as "that which is praiseworthy," described as worthy of praise. The Proverbs are, as you might expect, anti-wickedness. They are anti-pride and anti-sloth, against mocking, lying, and shooting one's mouth off. And like the Psalms, they frequently offer promises of long life, prosperity, and security to the righteous and threats of destruction to the wicked.
The fear of the Lord adds length to life,
but the years of the wicked are cut short.
The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it. (10:22)
The righteous man is rescued from trouble, and it comes on the wicked instead. (11:8)
The Lord tears down the proud man's house but he keeps the widow's boundaries intact. (15:25)
Three Kinds of Proverbs

There are probably a lot of ways that you could categorize this long list of moral statements, but three categories leapt out at me as I read. This is not to say "there are three kinds of Proverbs"; my three types are potentially overlapping and not comprehensive. Nevertheless:

The Tautologies

Quite a few of the Proverbs, at least in the English translation we are reading, are so circular as to be nearly meaningless. A particularly vivid example is Proverb 11:13,
A gossip betrays a confidence,
but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.
It is certainly a wise statement in the sense of being true, since it essentially recites the definition of "gossip" and "trustworthy." It adds little beyond this, however. Similarly, 15:13 doesn't tell us much we didn't already know:
A happy heart makes the face cheerful,
but heartache crushes the spirit.
Or 12:17:
A truthful witness gives honest testimony,
but a false witness tells lies.
And when 16:27 tells us that A scoundrel plots evil, there is nothing to be done but nod in agreement. That's what a scoundrel does, all right!

Most of the Tautological Proverbs are not quite so blatant. Take 10:26:
As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
so is a sluggard to those who send him.
Well, yes. A sluggard is essentially someone who is annoyingly slow or lazy. So, to say that sluggards are annoying adds nothing that is not already inherent in the word "sluggard." People curse the man who hoards grain, begins 11:26 -- but then, unpopular anti-social behavior is already implied in the word "hoards." Again, the Proverb is stating a truth that is uncontestable, but only because it is circular.

The Dubious Truths

The Dubious Truths are confident assertions that, once you think about them, are vulnerable to obvious counterexamples.
Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs.
For lack of guidance a nation falls,
but many advisers make victory sure.
A kindhearted woman gains respect,
but ruthless men gain only wealth.
These are probably better thought of not as hopelessly naive musings, but as statements of principle, of the way that things should be in a just society, all other things being equal.
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but he who hates correction is stupid.
A man's riches may ransom his life,
but a poor man hears no threat.
He who spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.
It would be unkind and unrealistic to think that Solomon, or his eventual amanuensis, really believed that all smart people love discipline, that the poor are safe from crime, and that indulgent parents hate their children. Once again, we must be looking at figures of speech, poetic ways of saying "It's good to discipline kids," "Being too rich can get you in trouble," and "It's a good idea to listen to constructive criticism."

Proverbs of Judgment

The Proverbs that are most user-friendly are the ones that simply state a principle. They make a judgment. Mind, this is not to criticize them. After all, wisdom is "good judgment" and the Proverbs are supposed to be all about the wisdom. So here, according to Solomon (or whomever), are some nuggets of pure wisdom:
Like a gold ring in a pig's snout
is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.
How much better to get wisdom than gold,
to choose understanding rather than silver!
These are, however, surprisingly rare. To eyeball these six chapters, the majority of Proverbs seem to fall into the Dubious Truths category, with Tautologies leading Proverbs of Judgment among the minority categories.

Three Favorites
A heart at peace gives life to the body,
but envy rots the bones.
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love
than a fatted calf with hatred.
Well, I'm a quasi-vegetarian, and I like cows.
Grey hair is a crown of splendor;
it is attained by a righteous life.
A very Calvinist sentiment, reflecting the idea that people who please God will live a long time while the bad guys are cut down in their prime. Whatever! It makes me think of my mom!

Next Time: I bet this list continues.

Today's Text: Proverbs 7 - 16.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Proverbs 1 - 6: Bring on the Wisdom!

In the last entry, looking forward to the book of Proverbs and trying to imagine what I would find in it, I had the vague notion that it might be like Polonius' famous advice speech in Hamlet -- you know, "neither a borrower nor a lender be" and all of that. Well, to my considerable amazement... I was right. Proverbs really is a lot like Polonius' famous advice speech in Hamlet!! It is suggestions for right living, couched as a long speech from a father to his son, and even -- forgive me -- has some of the long-winded and too-obvious qualities of the Shakespeare speech.

Each chapter begins with a variation of "Listen to your old man, you little punk." Proverbs 4, for example:

Listen, my sons, to a father's instruction;
pay attention and gain understanding.
I give you sound learning,
so do not forsake my teaching. (1-2)

Proverbs is very big on "wisdom," and spends a lot of time talking about how awesome wisdom is. This is the aspect of the Book that seems a bit tedious; in these first six chapters at least, it often seems as though the writer is spending more time stating how great wisdom is than he is actually dispensing any wisdom.

Good Advices

Much of the wisdom, once it arrives, can be generalized into two ideas: Obey God, and Don't Be Evil. An example of the first idea appears, with the difficult-to-verify claim that belief in God is healthful, in Proverbs 3:
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

An example of the latter concept arrives early in Proverbs 1:
My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them
If they say, "Come along with us;
let's lie in wait for someone's blood,
let's waylay some harmless soul;
let's swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse"--
my son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths;
for their feet rush into sin,
they are swift to shed blood.
This is certainly not bad advice at all, and indeed I hope any of you dads out there are discouraging your kids from joining bands of opportunistic killers. It's just that telling someone that they shouldn't hang out with opportunistic killers because they are violent and sinful seems like a bit of a restrained argument. (What I suspect might be really going on in passages like this, really, is that the "for" doesn't exactly mean "because," but something slightly different that is hard to render in English. This would go a long way toward explaining why the logic of the Old Testament so frequently seems off-kilter. But who knows; I know absolutely nothing about the linguistics involved.)

The most prominent piece of concrete guidance given in Proverbs 1-6 is that you should try to avoid hanging around with adulteresses. It's rather implied that you should avoid collaborating to create adulteresses too, although this is never directly stated. In a frank and earthy passage, the writer spells it out for his son:
May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer --
may her breasts satisfy you always,
my you ever be captivated by her love.
Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress?
Why embrace the bosom of another man's wife?

In addition to further admonitions against adultresses and prostitutes, Proverbs 6 has the very famous warning against laziness:
Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest

How long will you lie there, you sluggard
When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest--
and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man.

Six or Seven Things God Hates About You

And it also has a list that immediately caught my eye as resembling the kind of thing you might expect to find if the capital-B Bible was like a small-b bible, a straightforward handbook of rules and tips for proper conduct, practice, and belief. It is a list of the six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestible to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a man who stirs up dissention among brothers. (16-19)

Although the numbering is a little confusing -- which one is the one that the Lord finds detestible, but doesn't hate? -- this is an extremely interesting list. It is almost the opposite, if you think about it, of the Ten Commandments. The one consists of ten rules (most, admittedly, in the negative -- thou shalt NOT) you should follow; whereas the Proverbs 6 list implies six or seven things to avoid. It's interesting that the list isn't better known -- unless it is, and I've just somehow missed it all these years.


Today's reading included something I haven't seen for many months: a marking in the margins of this Bible. Extremely long-time readers might recall that I am the first and only owner of the official project Bible, so this notation -- a simple bracket alongside Proverbs 3:21 - 22 -- was undoubtedly made by me. Why I found this passage significant, or when it was that I was poking around in Proverbs, though -- of this, I have no memory at all.
My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.

NEXT WEEK: More Proverbs!

This Week's Text: Proverbs 1 - 6

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Psalms 144 - 150: End of the Psalms

The stretch from Psalm 144 to Psalm 150 -- the final Psalm! -- begins with Praise be to the Lord and ends with Praise the Lord, and in between there are numerous praises sung to the Lord. What is not praise is mostly affirmation: statements to or about God that indicate his magnificence, power, mercy, love, and justice. What is left over is petitions: requests for the destruction of enemies and foreigners, and for peace and prosperity.

There is nothing in these final seven Psalms about the sorrow and despair of one who feels failed by God, and relatively few complaints about the vindictive enemies and evil-doers who have it in for the Psalmist. Other than that, they are fairly representative of the whole set of 150. They cover familiar topics and employ the Psalmic style: an energetic, declaritive, loosely structured poetry with a fairly narrow range of themes and images. They are rich in ringing phrases and chockablock with abrupt shifts of topic and mood. Having been composed for singing or chanting one at a time, they make -- as I have often complained -- for a tedious, numbing experience when read through en masse.

Reading the Psalms as an Outsider

There are some styles of music that, as an occasional guitar noodler, I enjoy playing even though I don't especially enjoy listening to them. Heavy Metal, bluegrass, and a lot of folk music fall into this category. Others will differ, of course, but for me these are musics that are best experienced as a performer, not as a listener. And to stretch a point, maybe this is somewhat true of the Psalms as well. To a worshiper -- to someone in the actual act of "Praising the Lord" -- the Psalms may be a rich library of texts, and therefore of practices, that enrich and add structure to that experience. To their original writers and to someone using them in the context of religious practice today, the affirmations and petitions of the Psalms may be perceived as ringing with the most sacred holy truths.

To an outsider to this experience, however, there is an arid and lifeless quality to the Psalms. In their singleminded assertions, stripped of anything like argument or narrative flow, it is hard to find anything like inspiration. They have been, to be sure, different from anything else we've encountered so far in the Bible, certainly unlike the epic historical accounts and the lists of stern Mosaic Law. The poetic Book of Job, although I found it equally inpenetrable as Psalms, was at least steeped in theological ideas, whereas Psalms itself consists merely of thousands of essentially unconnected religious statements. There is not enough development of ideas in Psalms for anything but the loosest theological concepts to be apparent, and even these are often at odds with each other: God is merciful, and vengeful; God is all-loving, and has abandoned me; God reigns over all kingdoms, and will protect me from the foreigners.

I knew when I picked the Bible up that it would not be a wholely unified document, but I did not realize just how much of a... scrapbook it would turn out to be. The range of materials is quite a bit broader than I realized. I don't recall exactly what I expected from the Psalms, but I don't think I expected them to be no more (and no less, I suppose) than the hymnal tucked in among the histories and prophets. Yet that's pretty much what they are.

Progress Report!

Reading Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, took 21 posts spread over 5 months and 6 days. Having completed Psalms, I've got through 19 of the 66 Books of the Bible: 28.8%.

Well, that's all fine and good, but I've also completed 628 of the Chapters of the Bible, or 52.8%! Or 16401 of the Verses, 52.7%! I'M MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH, PEOPLE!

NEXT TIME: Here come Proverbs! Which I expect to be... somewhat like Psalms, except pithier? And more addressed to everyday life, rather than religious practice? I guess I imagine Proverbs as being like Polonius' long advice-giving speech in Hamlet. I bet I'm wrong. But here's an advantage Proverbs is sure to have over Psalms: it's only 31 Chapters long!

We'll tuck into it next time!

This Week's Reading: Psalms 144 - 150

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Psalm 135-143: Psenultimate Psalms!

Psalm 135: A "Praise the Lord" Psalm, using that phrase three times along with a "Praise the name of the Lord," a "sing praise to his name," and a "Praise be to the Lord." The Psalm includes brief peregrinations on the power of God, his historic assistance to the Israelites, and the inadequacy and unreality of other gods.

Psalm 136: What must be a call-and-response kind of Psalm, consisting of 26 short phrases, each immediately answered with the words "His love endures forever." Psalm 136:17-22 is essentially Psalm 135:10-12 with the response phrase inserted six times.

Psalm 137: Wow! Check out Psalm 137:1!

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

OK, that is TOTALLY ripping off an old reggae song.

Verses 5-6 are also familiar: If I forget you, O Jerusalme, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if if do not remember you....

It ends on a bit of a bummer, though, both viscerally and philosophically:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us --
he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 138: This song, ascribed to David, begins:
I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart;
before the "gods" I will sing your praise.
This passage raises an interesting question: do our ancient Hebrew or Greek sources really have an equivalent for ironic quotation marks? I certainly don't think we've seen such leading punctuation employed employed up to this point in the Bible, although we have often seen references to the other gods besides God. Is there something in the source materials that lead the NIV translators to indicate that by saying "gods," David didn't really mean to suggest that he believed in other gods? Is it a surmise based on David's abundantly demonstrated piety? Or are they -- strange as this might sound -- trying to protect David from the taint of polytheism? Because the latter is actually kind of what it looks like.

After this interesting beginning, the 138th is a fairly straightforward Psalm of praise.

Psalm 139: The 139th, on the other hand, is an interesting, distinctive, and nuanced Psalm about being thoroughly known by a creator:
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
There is a lovely passage here that has a bit of a Shakespearean ring to it:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Oh, what a piece of work is man!

Psalm 139 veers away from its main thrust only for four of its twenty-four verses, for one of the fairly alarming rants so common in the Psalms ascribed to David (as this one is). The mood swing is swift: When I awake, I am still with you. If only you would slay the wicked, O God! (18-19)

Psalm 140 is a more extended version of the angry rant that snuck into #139, with inspirational, uplifting thoughts like:
Let the heads of those who surround me be covered with the trouble their lips have caused.
Let burning coals fall upon them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise.

Psalm 141: Begins as a prayer not to be drawn into evil deeds, but then morphs into the now-familiar if less interesting contrast of self versus the "evildoers": their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs (6) and so on.

Psalm 142: Much like Psalm 141, it is largely a prayer of humility and supplication before God, interwoven with requests for God to destroy sinister, vaguely-defined enemies.

Psalm 143: And much like Psalm 142, it is largely a prayer of humility and supplication before God, interwoven with requests for God to destroy sinister, vaguely-defined enemies.

NEXT TIME: The End of the Psalms!!!

Today's Text: Psalms 135-143.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Psalms 130-134: The End of the Ascents

These five Psalms are the last of the “songs of ascents,” Psalms 120-134, which are supposed to be a cycle of songs sung on the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Except for Psalm 132, they are all quite short.

Psalm 130: Throughout the Old Testament, there has been a decided emphasis on salvation through obedience. One is supposed to obey the Law to the letter, and in exchange for this God will not bring you sufferings or just snuff you out altogether. But here in Psalm 130, we have another of the occasional glimpses of a different sort of theology, in this case a theology of forgiveness.

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.
Fearing someone for their power of forgiveness seems off-kilter at first blush, but consider the context: EVERYONE is guilty, and their only hope is forgiveness, so of course the decision-maker is someone to inspire a certain amount of trembling. (This strikes me, incidentally, as a very Christian sort of passage.)

And here’s a lovely passage, I think:
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 131: A very short song of abject humility, echoes the “watchman waiting for morning” line with a metaphor which doesn’t ring quite as well to the modern ear:
But I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Really, I’m not even sure what that means.

Psalm 132: A longer Psalm in three parts. First, it recalls David’s oath to build a suitable temple for the Ark of the Covenant. Second, it expresses the need and desire of the people to go and worship at the “dwelling place.” And third, it recounts God’s promises to David to provide leadership, prosperity, and success to Israel. As usual in the Old Testament, the contractual nature of religious practice is much in evidence, with the implication that “here we are, God, doing our part by coming to worship in the proscribed manner; don’t let us down with your part of the bargain.”

Psalm 133: The first line of this short Psalm conveys the meaning of the whole: How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! (1) If you continue past that very quotable first line, though, you get a great example of how ringing sound bites from Psalms often seem pretty curious when they are not cropped out of their surrounding text:
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard,
Running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.
Anyone here especially like oil running down into their beard? No?

Psalm 134: Three short lines, the condensed version of which is: “Praise the Lord! Left up your hands and praise the Lord! May the Lord bless you!” This is religious practice at its most fundamental level. Even when this simplified, however, there is still an element of the contractual in the picture: Praise, that you may be blessed. You do your bit for God, and God will do his bit for you.

Next Time: The Penultimate Psalms!

This Week's Text: Psalms 130-134

Monday, September 14, 2009

Psalms 120 - 129

All of the songs of the 120s are labelled "songs of ascents." I'm not sure what that means. They are all quite short, though, at four to nine verses long. All ten of them together are considerably shorter than Psalm 119.

120: The Psalmist complains of lying lips and deceitful tongues (2), and tells such liars that God will punish them with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree. (4) Then, he laments living among those who hate peace. (6)

121: I recognize Psalm 121 immediately from, of all places, the soundtrack of the 1980s movie "The Falcon and the Snowman." Funny.

It is an eight-verse poem of reassurance in second person that reads almost as a lullaby, affirming to the readers or listeners that God will watch over them and preserve them from harm. And although I have often expressed scepticism over whether the Bible should really be promising physical protection to believers, in this context I find the sentiment rather touching. This might be my new favorite Psalm.

122: A jumbled and upbeat Psalm about how nice it is to pray and worship communally, especially in Jerusalem.

123: A short Psalm of devotion and submission to God, asking mercy for those who have endured the contempt of "the proud" and "the arrogant."

124: States forcefully that Israel would have been doomed in its conflicts with its neighbors, if not for the direct assistance from God.

125: Compares people who believe in God with unshakeable mountains.

126: A song of joy and happiness, stating that the Lord has done great things for us (3), especially in returning the exiles from captivity.

127: The first two verses of this Psalm state that all labor is futile unless it is in accordance with God's will. The remaining three verses are in praise of sons, who are a blessing from God; it's best to have a lot of them and to have them young.

128: A promise of prosperity to believers, with this great line: Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. (3)

129: A somewhat disjointed Psalm that seems to be about how the peoples who were against Israel have now fallen on hard times.

Well, I still don't know what a "song of ascents" is. This set of Psalms seems unusually upbeat and brief; maybe that has something to do with it. Or, maybe it just has to do with the musical setting?

...ah-ha. Says here that they probably are the songs traditionally sung while climbing up to Jerusalem. Also that they are short and upbeat, so I guess I was on the right track.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Psalm 119: The Longest Psalm

I singled out Psalm 119 for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's freakin' long. One hundred seventy-six Verses long, in fact, which (sez here) makes it not only the longest Psalm but also the longest book in the Bible.

Secondly, it is divided into 22 sections, each of which is labelled with a Hebrew letter. On the page, this makes it look pretty cool and potentially experimental and interesting. On reading it, unfortunately, I was a bit underwhelmed and unable to see what the point of all the alphabetic divisions was. Then, however, I consulted an authoritative commentary on holy scripture and all other things -- it's called "Wikipedia" -- and was glad I did. Check this out:

This psalm is one of about a dozen alphabetic acrostic poems in the Bible. Its 176 verses are divided into twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each, and in Hebrew forms an acrostic, with each stanza starting with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Further, within each stanza, each line begins with that same letter.
In other words, the eight verses of the "Aleph" section all start with the letter Aleph, the eight verses of the "Beth" section all... well, you get the picture. Cooool.

This aspect of the Psalm doesn't survive in the translation, however, so in reading I naturally focused on the simple meaning of the text. And the meaning is fairly straightforward, and consistent throughout the Chapter. I'll give you a sample line from each section, and you can see if you can find any sort of overarching theme. Ready? Here we go.

Aleph: You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. (4)
Beth: I rejoice in following your statues as one rejoices in great riches. (14)
Gimel: My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. (20)
Daleth: I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws. (30)
He: Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. (33)
Waw: ...for I delight in your commands because I love them. (47)
Zayin: I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them. (52)
Heth: I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. (60)
Teth: The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. (72)
Yodh: I know, O Lord, that your laws are righteous.... (75)
Kaph: Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth. (88)
Lamedh: Your laws endure to this day, for all things serve you. (91)
Mem: Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (97)
Nun: My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end. (112)
Samekh: My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws. (120)
Ayin: Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. (124)
Pe: I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. (131)
Tsadhe: The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy. (138)
Qoph: Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever. (152)
Resh: Look upon my suffering and deliver me, for I have not forgotten your law. (153)
Sin/Shin: I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you. (168)
Taw: May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. (172)

EXTRA CREDIT: Rewrite an English translation of Psalm 119 so that, in each eight-verse section, each verse begins with the same letter. For full credit, get all twenty-two sections in alphabetical order. You may skip any four letters you wish.

AMAZING SIDENOTE: As I finished today's reading, I was all like "wow, it looks like I'm getting to the halfway point in this book!" Well. There are 923 pages in my Bible. Today, I read most of page 462. ~You~ do the math!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Psalms 111 - 118

Eight More Psalms!

111 A short "Praise the Lord" Psalm -- it opens with that phrase -- touching on the greatness and majesty of God, his propensity for giving his followers sustainance and the ability to conquer other peoples, and his justice and uprightness.

112 A Psalm about how great and successful life is going to be for a righteous man who believes in God, with a short coda about how miserable things will go for wicked people.

113 The third Psalm in a row beginning with "Praise the Lord," this is a short passage that does just that. God is praised particularly as one who lifts up the poor and makes barren women fertile.

114 A short and somewhat cryptic celebration of God's miracles during the Exodus.

115 Ooh! Psalm 115 is suddenly RICH in theological content! For starters, it introduces the brand-new idea that there is a specific non-earthly dwelling place of God: Why do the nations say, "Where is their God?" Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. (2-3) Then, it explicitly takes on polytheism. In verses 4-8 it says that the idols of the surrounding peoples have mouths, but cannot speak, and so on through eyes, ears, noses, hands, and feet, which can not walk, and then it darkly hints that those who worship the idols will end up the same way.

Yet even while it makes these big gestures towards standard Christian theology as I learned it in Sunday school, it retains the general Old Testament line against life after death: The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to man. It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence; it is we who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore. (16-18)

116 A fairly ecstactic prayer of fealty to God, in thanks for having "turned his ear" to the Psalmist and delivered him from all of his problems.

117 Is tiny. Here it is in its entirety:

1 Praise the Lord, all you nations;
extol him, all you peoples.
2 For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord.
(It says here in the footnote that the bit translated as "Praise the Lord" is, in Hebrew, Hallelu Yah. I'll be.)

118 A long prayer proclaiming the physical protection afforded by God, and encouraging everyone to celebrate and praise God.

Psalm 119: Is long and looks kind of... unusual. So we'll stop here for now.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Psalms 101 - 110: Let's Speed This Up

Ten More Psalms!

101 A first-person vow to God that the Psalmist will behave well.

102 One of the most negative Psalms yet, a lament of sickness, destitution, and humiliation. The Psalmist compares his misery with the greatness of God, more or less blaming God for his downfall but seemingly without rancor.

103 Literally a "Praise the Lord" sort of hymn; the phrase crops up five times in the Psalm. It is a catalog of God's virtues. The most memorable phrase, though, is a brief break to describe humanity by way of contrast: 15 As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. Kind of a downer.

104 A long Psalm of praise, ascribing all natural phenemona to God. Light, winds, earth, rivers, plants, wine, the moon, animals, the sea, whales, everything: God made it all, and it's all good. There's only one negative note, as the last verse calls for sinners and the wicked to be swept from the earth.

105 A long song of Thanksgiving, recounting the history of the Israelites from Genesis and Exodus.

106 More or less a sequel to Psalm 105, Psalm 106 continues the summary of history from the Exodus through to at least the wandering in the desert.

107 The first of a new set of Psalms, "Book V." This is a Psalm of wild contradictions, exhorting everyone to give thanks for God's "unfailing love" and celebrating the good things he provides for his worshipers, but at the same time also celebrating the miseries, captivity, and deprivation that those who "rebelled against the words of God" are subject to. Love can apparently be both unfailing and extremely conditional.

108 A military Psalm, calling on God to support the armies of David and ensure their victory.

109 We haven't seen any of the paranoid Psalms for a while, but this one starts out in good form with complaints against wicked, deceitful enemies full of hatred. From there, it transforms into a scorching curse, wishing all manners of misfortunate and woe on the people who wished the Psalmist ill, as well as their friends and family.

110 And Psalm 110 is just kind of... weird. It's definitely about the power of God, but... well, it's short, I'll just give it to you whole.

1 The LORD says to my Lord:
"Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet."
2 The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion;
you will rule in the midst of your enemies.

3 Your troops will be willing
on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy majesty,
from the womb of the dawn
you will receive the dew of your youth.

4 The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind:
"You are a priest forever,
in the order of Melchizedek."

5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.

6 He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead
and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.

7 He will drink from a brook beside the way;
therefore he will lift up his head.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Psalms 90-100

Wait, What?

I still have a Bible project? And I'm still in the Psalms? Sigh....

The good news is, I've finally made it to Psalm 100! ...and the bad news is, there's 150 Psalms. Well, onward! The strategem today is just to identify the main point of each Psalm -- this batch consists for the most part of thematically unified chapters -- and give you a short soundbite that captures the mood. Ready? Let's go!

Psalm 90

This is another Psalm on a topic that is always surprising to me, how much the world as created by God kind of sucks. The tone isn't complaint, but resigned acceptance of the limitations of human life, and the harshness of God:

7 We are consumed by your anger
and terrified by your indignation.
...and then you die, as lain out in this famous passage:

9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
10 The length of our days is seventy years—
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
There is just this one upbeat, uplifting passage to break the gloom, toward the end of the Psalm:

14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Otherwise, this is a hard-bitten, that's-just-the-way-it-is sort of Psalm. Psalm noir, as it were.

Psalm 91

A far more optimistic Psalm than its immediate predecessor, #91 is on the popular theme of how God will protect and shield his worshippers.

9 If you make the Most High your dwelling—
even the LORD, who is my refuge-
10 then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
These assurances always seem a little problematic in a prayer or a religious song. After all, does God really provide complete physical protection for all his believers? Well, ask any saint.

Psalm 92

This one is a straightforward song of celebration, an upbeat celebration of greatness of God and the greatness of worshipping God.

5 How great are your works, O LORD,
how profound your thoughts!
The second half continues in the same mood, but reintroduces the theme of material benefit for believers:

12 The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon

Psalm 93

A short piece, five verses long with a loopy, repetitive quality, you can just imagine this one as a a slow number in a minor key. It is on the theme of the mightiness of God.

4 Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea—
the LORD on high is mighty.
Psalm 94

The 94th Psalm is, by contrast, a long and rather blunt recitation on the theme of God's vengeance. It complains of the actions of the evildoers, and predicts their punishment by God, rooting God on in the process:

1 O LORD, the God who avenges,
O God who avenges, shine forth.
2 Rise up, O Judge of the earth;
pay back to the proud what they deserve.
Psalm 95

The 95th starts out as a call to worship God and ends with a sort of monologue by God to the Israelites. It is hard to tell exactly where one morphs into the other, but I think it's somewhere in here:

7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
At and before verse 7, God is "he"; at and after verse 9, God seems to be "I."

Psalm 96

A fairly ecstatic song of praise, with a bit of a prosylatizing edge to it:

3 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
4 For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
You don't often see calls in the Old Testament for believers to spread their faith, but this seems to be a bit of an exception.

Psalm 97

Another straightforward song of praise.

5 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the Lord of all the earth.
6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all the peoples see his glory.

Psalm 98

This is one of a great many Psalms that starts along the lines of Sing to the Lord a new song, which is kind of ironic seeing as how they are all now old, old, old songs. Of course, every song is a new song when it's being written, but the phrase happens often enough so that one wonders if it has any particular meaning in this context.

This is, in any event, another song of religious celebration, specifically religious celebration through music.
4 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram's horn—
shout for joy before the LORD, the King.
Psalm 99

A song of praise and thanksgiving -- we seem to have uncovered a rich vein of them here -- this time with references to earlier Old Testament history.
5 Exalt the LORD our God
and worship at his footstool;
he is holy.
6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel was among those who called on his name;
they called on the LORD
and he answered them.
Psalm 100

And Psalm 100, finally, an uncomplicated thanksgiving Psalm that simply exhorts the reader to get happy and praise God:

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.

And with that, we're 2/3 through the Psalms.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Psalms 83-89: Eighties Songs

Psalm 83

This is a solid example of a Psalm about enemies and about smiting enemies. The first eight verses talk about and list the foes that have it in for God's people, and the last ten verse exhort God to punish them and punish them good.

...pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm.
Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O Lord.
May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace.
The idea that God should lay into enemies of his followers with especial harshness in order to make a big impression is a very common one in the Bible; we've seen it at least since the Plagues of Egypt, which Exodus says were orchestrated by God in order for a chance to showcase his power. It is always a disappointing thing to read about a God whom you hope will be less about vengeance, hate, and destruction and more about mercy, goodwill, and loving thy

Now Psalm 83 is a Psalm, a song of praise, and there is no indication in the text that it aspires to predicting the future. Indeed, it is pretty self-evidentally a plea to God for support in a local crisis of the moment. This has however not stopped Biblical prophecy nutters from getting all excited about the enemy nations listed in Verses 6-8. A web search reveals several discussions of "prophecy in Psalm 83," illustrated with maps like this:

Well, the Bible is abundant with cryptic detail, and if you want to use it as a magic fortune-telling book there is enough material to keep you chasing your own tail indefinitely. It is an abuse of both the text and of your own intellect, but I suppose it keeps you off the street.

Psalm 84

This Psalm is about the "dwelling place" of God, which immediately resonates with ideas of heaven. But I don't think the house of God here is anything but the Temple in Jerusalem. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you, reads Verse 4, and it's hard to take that as anything but a metaphorical way of talking about the community of believers. But I think it's quite literal, and is referring to the priesthood which actually lived and worked in the temple and indeed was always praising Him. The clue is in the next three lines, which talks about pilgrims comes through the Baca Valley to "appear... before God in Zion"; this is almost certainly referring to the annual pilgrimages that believers were supposed to make in order to make their most important sacrifices at the one temple.

Psalm 85

The Psalms since Psalm 73 have tended to be much more individual coherent and unified than the "Psalms of David" that preceded them, and this one is another example. It is again on a common theme: the idea that God punishes a lack of faithfulness by withdrawing his favor and his favors from his people. Apparently written during a dark time, it asks for forgiveness as of an angry spouse:
will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?
As before, we see an element here of bargaining with God -- if he overdoes his withdrawal of favors, than people will lose interest in him and it will cost him the worship he has become accustomed to. However, later in the Psalm it's implied that righteousness is supposed to come first.
The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.
In other words, you aren't supposed to wait and see what God offers, and then worship accordingly; you are supposed to start worshipping, and if you do that will please God and he will provide for you.

Psalm 86

Now THIS is kind of interesting: Psalm 86 is so ecstatic in it's praise of God, and has such a ring of paranoia in its sudden invocation of mysterious enemies -- The arrogant are attacking me, O God; a band of ruthless men seeks my life (14) -- that I thought "uh oh, this really breaks down the division I've noticed between the Psalms of David and the post-David Psalms." But then I noticed up at the top that Psalm 86 is, indeed, a "Psalm of David." Spiritually blissed out, paranoid, brazenly asking for divine favors like some guys bum cigarettes -- that's David for ya all right. The Chapters of Psalms said to have been written by David may or may not have actually been written by the possibly fictitious king, but they certainly seem to have been written by someone with a distinctive set of concerns.

Psalm 87

A short Psalm about how much God loves Jerusalem: the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. There's a list of surrounding countries that will submit to Jerusalem, and lots of famous people are going to be born there. After Solomon, this song would obviously appeal more to the Judeans (who controlled Jerusalem and its local region) than the remaining Kingdom of Israel (who controlled everything else).

Psalm 88

The theme of despair is all over the Book of Psalms, and it runs through all 18 verses of this chapter. The singer addresses God, reminding God that he prays continually for help and comfort but receives only sickness, trouble, and humiliation. Why, O Lord, he asks, in a fairly common Psalms lament, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (14) Often times, these kinds of passages end on a positive note, with an indication that God has come through in the end or with a solumn determination to redouble one's faith, but not this time. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend. (18)

In Verses 10 through 12, the Psalmist reasons with God in an interesting way. In a heavily paraphrased form, the argument goes "It won't do you any good to let me die young; dead people can't praise you or tell people how great you are." This shows that the Israelites thought of God as needing, or at least wanting, their praise and acclaim for reasons of His own; again we see the idea that to a certain extent, they can bargain with Him because He NEEDS them. It is also further evidence for the notion that the Israelites did not believe in a significant life after death.

People who make inspirational images are way too selective in the scripture they choose to illustrate. Wouldn't this image be so much more challenging, bracing, and thought-provoking with the text You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend?

Psalm 89

A very long Psalm, number 89 begins with 18 Verses of praise addressed to God, telling him how powerful, awe-inspiring, and righteous he is. After that, there is a recounting of God's covenenant with David that lasts another 19 Verses.

Then, a surprising detour: the next eight lines talk about how God then borke his covenant with David, and how without God's protection the kingdom has been subject to humiliation, plunder, and the scorn of its enemies. A final seven Verses plead with God to resume his support and love, to make things better for his people. Essentially, it is a plea for mercy, although there is a subtle reprise of the idea that God is being silly to let his people experience so much trouble, since they can't be praising him if they are always getting killed off.

Whoops, that's the end of "BOOK III" of the Book of Psalms.

NEXT TIME: The first half of "BOOK IV" of the Book of Psalms.

This Week's Text: Psalms 83-89

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Psalms 73-82: Psalms by Numbers II

I broke off last time because Psalm 73 marks the transition from the Psalms of David to the Psalms of Asaph, whoever he is. I wasn't expecting this to be a terribly significant shift, though. Truth be told, I've been pretty skeptical about the idea that the "Psalms of David" were really written by King David -- people who study such things are apparently not even unanimously convinced that such a person really ever existed, after all, let alone that we can say much about his life and works.

That as may be, however, there is a definite stylistic shift between Psalm 72 and Psalm 73, marked enough so as to suggest -- through the many complications of translation, form, and history -- a different authorial voice. As a Psalmist, "Asaph" is more even-tempered and narrative. The sudden shifts of mood and topic are gone, and Psalms follow a single line of thought more or less from beginning to end. These Psalms are less personal and less emotional, more about the history and experience of the Israelites as a people. They have fewer resonant, ringing phrases -- I'm guessing that they are far less popular as sound-bite Psalms -- but are much easier to read in their entirety.

They still touch on many of the same themes as the previous 72 Psalms, however, so I was by and large able to evaluate them according to the categories I was using last week. Three chapters didn't quite fit the pattern, though, so the following number-crunching is for Psalms 73-77, 79, and 80.

Characterizations of God as Powerful

Asaph preaches the power and might of God. In 25% of the verses enumerated, Asaph is in some way referring to the past, present, or potential ability of God to shape the world and its events. Psalm 76, for instance, is about God's ability to make peace through the use of might: Surely your wrath against men brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained. (10)

Two of the Psalms that didn't work with my categories are also largely about the power of God as well. Psalm 78 has an 8-verse preamble followed by a 64-verse summary of Israelite history from Moses to David -- two hundred and two pages of text, from Exodus to 2 Samuel, laid out in a single chapter! This summary, moreover, stresses God's power to bless the Israelites when they are properly obedient, and to lay them low when they stray.

Then, Psalm 82 stresses God's authority and power among the ""gods."" Got that? The ""gods."" That is, it talks about God's authority over the gods as if he were the CEO of a polytheism, but the word "gods" is in quotation marks. The text doesn't make clear if it is actually referring to other deities -- as I have often said, polytheism always seems to be lurking at the edges of Old Testament theology -- or whether it is making fun of puffed-up human bigshots:

"I said, 'You are "gods"; you are all sons of the Most High.'
But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler."

Psalms of Despair

This new set of Psalms is no less willing than the first 72 to complain of the absence of God. The theme of despair, which represents 20% of the text, is most evident in Psalm 74, where Asaph asks questions like "Why have you rejected us forever, O God?" (1) and says things like "We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be." (9) This continual refrain has been the most surprising element of the Psalms to me, but its presence has also been kind of reassuring. To me, doubt seems a necessary element of faith in a divine, inscrutable supernatural being, and I am always surprised and rather confused by people who claim to have never doubted, or feared that God might be other than they imagine or indeed altogether absent. That the Psalmists wrestled with this most obvious of religious problems lends them a credibility that escapes the blindly faithful.

The Wicked

Description of the Wicked was the third most common theme in this set, with 16% of the text. Most of this came in Psalm 73, which lists most of the typical problems with the wicked -- tautological characteristics like iniquity, evil conceits, malice, and oppression, and vague characteristics like violence, arrogance, and the propensity to lie. It begins, though, with a startlingly different take on the wicked than we've seen previously:

For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong
They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.
This flies straight in the face of what has been the party line throughout earlier Psalms, that the Wicked are due for a comeuppance in this world. It is quite a while -- not until verse 17 -- that Asaph makes clear that you shouldn't go out and sign up for the Wicked team. The Wicked do well in the short term, he suggests, but despite their prosperity, or indeed because of it, they are in trouble in the long term: Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (18-19) This stands out as the first suggestion I've seen in the Bible that wealth could be a morally problematic or hazardous thing, as opposed to a simple blessing or even a sign of God's favor.

Let's Make a Deal!

Another theme that runs through the Psalms, although it would be hard to enumerate, it that of deal-making between God and humans. This element shouldn't be surprisingly, I suppose in a religion that is based on a Covenant, but it is still sometimes rather jarring and -- to my arguably prissy middle-class sentiments -- sometimes seems a bit distasteful in a sacred context. Psalm 81 talks about the deal from God's point of view, and quotes God as saying essentially "if you would obey the laws and lay off of other gods, I'd make things really easy for you; when you go do your own thing, though, you are totally on your own.

But then elsewhere, as in Psalm 80, the Psalms present God with a laundry list of complaints and requests, sometimes with the implication that worship is going to require a bit of a quid pro quo. If God restores the prominence of the Israelites and makes them successful among the surrounding kingdoms, Psalm 80 suggests, then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. (18) It all suggests a rather practical relationship, a sort of alliance, between deity and worshiper, with less in the way of unconditional love than a modern observer might expect. Did they have unconditional love in the iron age? Hard to say. The Psalms are, we are often forced to remember, from a culturally very distant world.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Psalms 65-72: Psalms by Numbers

Last week, I was kind of flirting with classifying the Psalms into different types -- I mentioned "Sanctuary Psalms," for instance, and "Celebratory Psalms." The problem with that idea is that, as I have mentioned numerous times, most Psalms don't cleave to a single topic. Like a lot of songs, they are filled with sudden mood swings and changes of topic.

In looking at today's set of Psalms, I decided to try to ennumerate out some of the key themes and see what proportion of the text they occupy. We've seen a lot of fretting about enemies in the Psalms, for instance, and calls for God to punish these enemies. This theme SEEMS super-prominent, but that's partially just because it's so jarring; I guessed that in terms of raw volume, it would be somewhat less impressive, and that seems to be more or less true.


  • If fifty people read the Psalms and enumerated out the main themes, you would very possibly have fifty different versions of what constitutes "the main themes." Nothing special about MY version.
  • Even if you thought my themes were the definitive set, we would probably argue from time to time about which category an individual verse belongs to. Categorizing stuff is always a messy exercise.
  • Doing this at the verse level obfuscates that there are some Psalms that are relatively thematic, some that split into two or three coherent themes, and some that ramble around all over the place. (In this set, #s 67, 65, and 68 are prime examples). The first three Psalms in this set are all reletively celebratory in nature, and so the set as a whole is probably more celebratory than your "average" ten Psalms, whichever those ones are.
  • Occasionally, there are verses that go right over my head. See below.

I meant to just tally up the next ten Psalms, 65-74, but predictably there were complications. One complication is Psalm 72, which is unlike anything I've seen previously; it's all about how great the king is and how things are going to be wonderful because of him. It is bracketed with a request for God to bless the king, but as (it says) a work by Solomon, it seems not a little self-serving. It is also a breakpoint, the end of the "prayers of David." The next several Psalms are all "of Asaph." Who? I don't remember an Asaph, but then I've read an AWFUL lot of names in this book.

So, anyway, the numbers here are just for the seven Psalms 65-71. The plan is, I'll come back next time and see if I can use the same breakdown for Psalms 73-82. K? K. With no further ado:

Celebratory Psalms

In this category, I place anything that amounts to pure praise: ecstatic professions of faith or devotion, as well as statements of intent to praise, give sacrifice, and so on. These kinds of verses are sometimes addressed to God in second person and sometimes about God in third person; I didn't distinguish these in my counting.


65:1 Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled.

66:17-20 I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.
Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!

In this sample, these made up a whopping 37% of the Psalmic real estate by verse.

Psalms of Sanctuary

The second most prevalent category of Psalm was the appeal to God for physical shelter and protection.

71:2-4 Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil and cruel men.

These verses made up 14% of the sample.

Psalms of Despair

You can not escape the depressive streak that runs through the Psalms, as so often they address God with a catalog of profound miseries.

69: 1-3 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.

At 10%, these were the third most common kind of verse in this batch.

Other Categories

The other categories I've come up with so far are

  1. the related Complaints Against Enemies and Calls to Smite Enemies. At 4% and 7% of the same, you would say that they constitute 11% in an "Enemies" category and outweigh "Despair." Although there is some overlap between "Enemies" and "Despair," too. THIS IS JUST A LEARNING EXERCISE. IT ISN'T SCIENCE!!!
  2. Characterizations of God as Powerful (10%)
  3. Characterizations of God as a Bringer of Abundance (7%)
  4. References to Past Trials and Punishments Endured by the Israelites (2%)
  5. Discussion of The Wicked (1%) and The Righteous (1%)
  6. Mystical Visions (3%)
  7. Self-Accusation (1%)
  8. ?!???!!! (4%)

I'll talk more about some of these categories next time if they still seem to be meaningful. But if you are wondering what "?!???!!!" is all about, that would be those verses that I'm unable to make much sense out of. The main stumbling block this time was Psalm 68: 11-16, which goes like this:

11 The Lord announced the word, and great was the company of those who proclaimed it:
12 "Kings and armies flee in haste; in the camps men divide the plunder.
13 Even while you sleep among the campfires, the wings of my dove are sheathed with silver, its feathers with shining gold."
14 When the Almighty scattered the kings in the land, it was like snow fallen on Zalmon.
15 The mountains of Bashan are majestic mountains; rugged are the mountains of Bashan.
16 Why gaze in envy, O rugged mountains, at the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the LORD himself will dwell forever?
It probably belongs under "mystical visions," but it's so quirky that I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Which of course makes me rather fond of it.

NEXT TIME: Psalms 73-82 -- the Breakdown.

This Week's Text: Psalms 65-72

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Psalms 55 - 64: The "Second Batch of Colorado Psalms"

Psalm 55

We begin a second set of Colorado Psalms – using the Revised Standard Version I have here at hand in the Centennial State – with Psalm 55, a fine example of a Psalm that doesn’t make any kind of conventional narrative sense. It starts off as a fairly typical riff on the “enemies” theme, asking God for protection from “the enemy” and “the wicked.” The Psalmist says he wishes he had “wings like a dove” so that he could fly away into the wilderness, and just get away from his troubles; then, that not being an option, he asks God to just destroy his opponents for him instead.

Then, there is a rapid mood swing, and instead of addressing God the Psalm addresses some former buddy of the Psalmist:

It is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it;
It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide from him.
But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,
We used to hold sweet converse together;
Within God’s house we walked in fellowship.

This is an abrupt and confusing shift not only because we don’t know what the hell he is talking about – it’s possible that this is all about the Saul/David rivalries, but it sure isn’t spelled out – but because the Chapter up to now has clearly been talking about a large group of enemies, not just one guy.

Speaking of rapid mood swings, the text continues immediately into:

Let death come upon them;
let them go down to Sheol alive;
let them go away in terror into their graves.

We have whiplashed back into addressing God and talking about a host of enemies. And after this single bizarrely vindictive verse, our mood changes again:

But I call upon God;
and the Lord will save me.

See what you miss when you get just a few lines of Psalms in quotation? Everything seems so much more inspirational and level-headed after a good cherry-picking. And behold! We are only 2/3 of the way into Psalm 55. It continues through seven more verses of self-pity, confident affirmation of God’s protection, more accusations against the “companion,” a call to trust in God’s support, and a confident statement to God of trust that he will humiliate and kill the bad guys. It’s a twisty road, Psalm 55.

Psalm 56

Psalm 56 is far more straightforward, and follows what seems to be a fairly common pattern: seven Verses describing the downtrodden state of the Psalmist, followed by six Verses of ecstatic affirmation of faith in God. It is to be sung to the tune of “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths,” which is cool, and here in the NRV contains the startling claim that Thou hast kept count of my tossings. (8) I must remember to cross reference this with another translation.

Psalm 57

Here again we have an easily understood song. It has abrupt changes of mood and content, but they are in the regular rhythm of chorus and refrains. A few Verses describing the Psalmists suffering and despair are followed by a few Verses celebrating the intervention and power of God, and this pattern is repeated three or four times. It is sung to the tune of “Do Not Destroy,” which must have been a big hit as it is also the music for Psalm 58.

Psalm 58

Despite its tune, this is a text about destroying. The first five verses are about how very bad bad people are, and how some people are just born bad. It also, in this translation, mentions the amorality of other gods aside from God, which is the first really noteworthy example of Old Testament polytheism we’ve seen in awhile; a footnote, however, gives an alternate translation of “mighty lords.”

The next four Verses call on God to punish the bad guys in creative ways: having their teeth broken and torn out, vanishing like evaporating water, being trampled like grass, dissolving into slime like a snail, etc. There is, here as elsewhere, no suggestion that “the righteous” should care much about the fate of “the wicked.” Indeed,

The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
He will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.

This is followed immediately by:

Men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

Hypothesis: I am guessing that Psalm 55:11 is fairly popular in quotation, but almost invariably de-linked from the context of the proceeding verse. I am guessing that Psalm 55:10 is invoked not at all, save in the most marginal and extreme of churches.

Results: Quick internet search reveals little to confirm or disprove the hypothesis.

Psalm 59

A mildly disturbing Psalm in its naked xenophobia, characterizing “all the nations” as snarling, lying, plotting packs of dogs, and calling on God to punish them, but to draw it out a bit so their suffering provides a good object lesson.

Psalm 60

Another downbeat, military Psalm, the 60th begins with a complaint of the troubles God has inflicted on people, and then shifts into a ambiguous series of passages that seem to both gloat of the military victories that will be achieved with the help of God and to accuse God of having abandoned the military effort.

Psalm 61

A straightforward example of what I am starting to think of as the “Sanctuary Psalms” – those that request and/or celebrate the physical protection that God provides to the faithful.

Psalm 62

Perhaps there is a category of the “Jumble Psalms.” Number 62 has two Verses of devotion; two of ranting about enemies (one in second person, one in third); four mystical Verses on the “sanctuary” theme; two Verses admonishing against the desire for worldly things; and two Verses that are hard just to get your head around, let alone to categorize:

Once God has spoken;
Twice have I heard this:
That power belongs to God;
And that to thee, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For thou dost requite a man according to his work.

Psalm 63

Mostly what you might call one of the “Celebratory Psalms,” this one is an ecstatic professing of faith and devotion. It moves through a comparison of God to water in the dessert, something thirsted for which sustains life – a powerful metaphor in the Middle East, then as now – to a comparison of God to a rich and sumptuous feast. Here as in so many Psalms, though, the mystical vision of a just, loving, affirmative God is complicated by an intrusion of fear and vengeance:

But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.

Psalm 64

Psalm 64 is a plot point in the book I read last night! Jar City is an enjoyable and engrossing detective novel by the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason. He uses this Psalm, a complaint against the malice and aggression of an unnamed enemy, to good effect. I have been thinking of these as the “Psalms of Paranoia” but that seems a bit loaded; “Psalms of Despair” isn’t quite right either. “Psalms of Complaint Against the Malice and Aggression of an Unnamed Enemy” is just too cumbersome. I’ll have to think on this.