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.

No comments: