Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I'm Not Really A Cynic But I Play One On The Internet


When I started this blog I gave it the name "Both Saint and Cynic" mostly as a pun. Martin Luther described the Christian as simul iustus et peccator. That Latin motto translates roughly into English as "at the same time saint and sinner." Wesley's idea of Christian perfectibility was centuries in the future but Luther wouldn't agree with it anyway. Saint and sinner were not, in Luther's mind, mutually exclusive categories. Luther was big on both/and.

Anyway, I'm not really a cynic though I admit that I have my moments.

A couple of weeks ago I won a free copy of the CEB (Common English Bible) Study Bible with the Apocrypha. You could win one, too. They're giving one away every Friday for a while. All you have to do is "like" the Live the Bible page on Facebook. Then, on Friday, reply to the question that they post. If they choose your reply, bingo! You get a Study Bible just like I did. Whether it includes the Apocrypha is your choice.

When the Common English Bible was first introduced in 2011 I took part in the CEB Blog Tour and was able to give away several paperback copies of the CEB. With a few small reservations, I like the CEB translation very much. And let's be honest, I have a few small reservations about any translation of the Bible. I even have reservations about my own translations of the New Testament from the Greek. The CEB is highly readable and clear.

I haven't spent a lot of time with the CEB Study Bible, but so far I like the articles and notes that I have read. They take serious scholarship into account and enhance understanding of the text.

Preparatory to blogging about Ecclesiastes (I bet you wondered when I was getting around to Ecclesiastes in this post) I read the introduction in the CEB Study Bible and found this:

Ecclesiastes can strike the reader as a dark book because the Teacher seems more like a cynic than a saint. But readers of the book shouldn't give up. The Teacher repeatedly interrupts the seriousness of his speech to advise us to enjoy what is given to us as much as we can, whenever we can....

Of course I immediately cried "false dichotomy!" The cat gave me funny look and jumped off my lap. Cynic and saint are no more mutually exclusive categories than sinner and saint. The difference is that, while a saint is necessarily also a sinner, a cynic can be a saint. The CEB Study Bible intro to Ecclesiastes comes around to that point:

Ecclesiastes authorizes an edgy spirituality that makes room for doubt or skepticism (within limits) about various matters. The book shows that skepticism and intelligence don't have to result in unbelief or be an excuse to opt out of a faithful life. The Teacher is both skeptical (Eccl. 3:21) and very wise (Eccl. 11:9-10), but throughout his reflections, he realizes that he must do his thinking with God. Ecclesiastes will repay close and repeated study, even though it isn't always easy, because the life of wisdom and the life of faith are often marked by difficulty and the pain of learning....

After I read that, I coaxed the cat back onto my lap and scratched his ears.

If I'm about anything it's the idea that people of faith don't have to shut their brains off. We do not have to deny the findings of science, the conclusions of reason, and the evidence of our own senses. We do not need to read our Scriptures uncritically or according to some fundamentalistic hermeneutic.

This is why I love the book of Ecclesiastes. It dares to raise difficult questions. Questions which sometimes it is sometimes unable to answer.

 A little background to Ecclesiastes: The book consists of rambling observations about life by a narrator who calls himself, in Hebrew, Qohelet. Ecclesiastes is a Greek translation of the word Qohelet. In English the word is sometimes rendered as "teacher" or "preacher." I will be calling the narrator Qohelet and the book Ecclesiastes.

Qohelet drops hints that he may be Israel's king Solomon. Good critical scholarship concludes that the book was written in the 4th century BCE or later which would make Solomonic authorship impossible.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is a poem that was adapted and set to music by Pete Seeger as "Turn, Turn, Turn." The song has been widely covered, most notably by the Byrds. And here, as a reward for reading this far is a video of Bruce Springsteen, the E Street Band, and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds performing "Turn, Turn, Turn."

Monday, December 30, 2013

Proverbs 30:1-31:31


Today we put a bow on the Book of Proverbs. The last two chapters of this book are also the last two collections of sayings.

Chapter 30 contains the sayings of Agur, son of Jakeh, possibly of Massa. None of those names is otherwise known and, in fact, they may not be proper names at all.

Agur's sayings are of a different character than what has come before. There is a little of the cynicism of Ecclesiastes in them.

Surely I am only a brute, not a man;
   I do not have human understanding.
I have not learned wisdom,
   nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One.
      (Proverbs 30:2-3)

And there is something of Job in Agur's statement of the limits of human wisdom.

 Who has gone up to heaven and come down?
   Whose hands have gathered up the wind?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak?
   Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is the name of his son?
   Surely you know!
      (Proverbs 30:4)

Tacked onto the end of Proverbs like an appendix, Agur's sayings may be a critical commentary on the Hebrew wisdom tradition, or a kind of advanced seminar in wisdom.

Chapter 30 is characterized by numeric proverbs which find sometimes surprising connections between 4 otherwise unrelated things. Verses 24-28 have long been among my favorite Proverbs.

Four things on earth are small,
   yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength,
   yet they store up their food in the summer; 
hyraxes are creatures of little power,
   yet they make their home in the crags;
locusts have no king,
   yet they advance together in ranks;
a lizard can be caught with the hand,
   yet it is found in kings’ palaces.

In case you wondering about the hyrax, here's a picture of one.

Kinda cute, isn't he?

Proverbs 31 consists of the sayings of King Lemuel, who may also have been of Massa and about whom nothing is known.

Actually, these are the sayings of Lemuel's mother who warned her boy against the dangers of "Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wild, Wild Women." Okay, maybe she didn't mention cigarettes, but she would have if they'd been invented. Besides it gives me an opportunity to insert this video:

Between Lemuel's mother and the description of the Valorous (or Strong, or Virtuous, or Noble, or Whatever) Woman in verses 10-31, chapter 31 of Proverbs belongs to women.

Concerning the woman of verses 10-31, I'll give the first word to Rachel Held Evans:

At my Christian college, guys described their ideal date as a "P31 girl," and young women looking to please them held a "P31 Bible Study" in my dormitory lounge at 11 p.m. on Mondays. She's like the evangelical's Mary--venerated, idealized, glorified to the level of demigoddess, and yet expected to show up in every man's kitchen at dinnertime. Only unlike Mary, there is no indication that the Proverbs 31 woman actually existed....

And yet many Christians interpret this passage prescriptively, as a command to woman rather than an ode to women, with the home-based endeavors of the Proverbs 31 woman cast as the ideal lifestyle for all women of faith.
      (from The Year of Biblical Womanhood in the chapter "January")

Making a checklist of womanly virtues from this poem is, to say the least, problematic. Jana Reiss gets the next word:

The "Proverbs 31 woman" has been used through the centuries both to praise women's strength and to keep them in their place, which many biblical interpreters have insisted is the home. But if you read the text more carefully, you can see it is a bit more complicated than that.
      (The Twible, p. 148)

As Rachel Held Evans discovers, the use made of the Proverbs 31 woman in her Evangelical Christian context was far from its application among Jews. The Jewish Study Bible notes:

The poem is traditionally recited by Jewish men to their wives on Sabbath evening, before the Kiddush (the sanctification of the Sabbath over wine). It is also often recieted at funerals of women. The poem is an acrostic, with each line beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence.

Rachel Held Evans gets the last word:

Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday. The only instructive language it contains is directed toward men, with the admonition that a thankful husband honor ihis wife "for all that her hands have done" (Proverbs 31:31). Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis notes that the poem was intended "not to honor one particularly praiseworthy woman, but rather to underscore the central significance of women's skilled work in a household-based economy." She concludes that "it will not do make facile comparisons between the biblical figure and the suburban housewife, or alternately between her and the modern career woman."

Next: Ecclesiastes 1-4

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Proverbs 27:1-29:27


Today's reading concludes the fifth collections of sayings in the book of Proverbs. Here's what I've gleaned:

Proverbs 27: 13 repeats the advice of Proverbs 20:16.

Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger;
   hold it in pledge if it is done for an outsider. 

Proverbs 20:14 made me chuckle. Proper behavior is at least party contextual.

 If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning,
   it will be taken as a curse

Please don't bless me loudly early in the morning. Proverbs 20:17 is quoted frequently among certain Evangelical males.

As iron sharpens iron,
   so one person sharpens another. 

Although I love the sentiment, it seems to me that rubbing two dull people against one another just makes them duller.

 Proverbs 20:23-27 declare the value of taking care of one's flocks and fields. Don't have flocks and fields? Extrapolate!

Be sure you know the condition of your flocks,
   give careful attention to your herds; 
for riches do not endure forever,
   and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
   and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
   and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family
   and to nourish your female servants.

Proverbs 28:1a was quoted at the beginning of the Coen brother's movie True Grit. (Great movie, by the way).

The wicked flee though no one pursues....

 Proverbs 28:6 repeats the idea that wisdom is preferable to wealth.

Better the poor whose walk is blameless
   than the rich whose ways are perverse. 

Proverbs 28:21 could have been quoted at the beginning of Les Miserables.

To show partiality is not good—
   yet a person will do wrong for a piece of bread. 

Judgment, like behavior, is colored by context.

Proverbs 29:2 is just one saying that links the fortunes of the people to the character of their ruler.

When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice;
   when the wicked rule, the people groan. 

And if you want to know how those righteous rulers behave, look to Proverbs 29:7.

  The righteous care about justice for the poor,
   but the wicked have no such concern. 
Proverbs 29:13 reminds those who would oppress the poor that they share a common humanity under God.

The poor and the oppressor have this in common:
   The LORD gives sight to the eyes of both. 

Next: Proverbs 30-31

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Proverbs 24:1-26:28


There are seven collections of sayings in the book of Proverbs.

I. The Proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel (Proverbs 1:1-9:18)

II. The Proverbs of Solomon (Proverbs 10:1-22:16), which includes the "royal collection" (Proverbs 16:1-22:16)

III. The Thirty (more or less) Sayings of the Wise (Proverbs 22:17-24:22)

IV.  Further Sayings of the Wise (Proverbs 24:23-34)

V. More Proverbs of Solomon compiled by the men of Hezekiah, King of Judah

VI. Sayings of Agur, son of Jakeh, (Proverbs 30:1-33), and

VII. Sayings of King Lemuel which his mother taught him (Proverbs 31:1-31)

Today we read the conclusion of the third collection, all of the fourth, and the beginning of the fifth.

Proverbs 24:1-22 continues in much the same vein as what has come before. The sayings in this section are generally longer than the simple contrasting aphorisms of Collection II. The advice is specifically directed toward young men who seek to advance in the royal court.

Fear the LORD and the king, my son,
   and do not join with rebellious officials,
for those two will send sudden destruction on them,
   and who knows what calamities they can bring?
      (Proverbs 24:21-22)

Proverbs 24:3 should be stitched on a sampler.

The fourth collection (Proverbs 24:23-34) is short. Among its sayings there is a little narrative with a moral (verses 30-34):

 I went past the field of a sluggard,
   past the vineyard of someone who has no sense;
thorns had come up everywhere,
   the ground was covered with weeds,
   and the stone wall was in ruins.
I applied my heart to what I observed
   and learned a lesson from what I saw:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
   a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
   and scarcity like an armed man. 

In general the Proverbs are against laziness. "Sluggard" is an odd word to find in a modern translation but the NIV uses it frequently.

Chapter 25 begins the section of Solomonic proverbs "collected by the men of Hezekiah." Remember King Hezekiah? He was one of Judah's later kings. In was portrayed as fallible and weak. 2 Chronicles gave an overwhelmingly positive portrait of the man. Both accounts credit him with positive religious reforms in Judah.

In the fifth collection there are more sayings making comparisons and fewer making contrasts than we saw in the previous Solomonic collection (Proverbs 10:1-22:16). Take Proverbs 25:13 for an example:

Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time
   is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him.

 Or Proverbs 25:16-17:

 If you find honey, eat just enough—
   too much of it, and you will vomit.
Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house—
   too much of you, and they will hate you. 

Good advice to a guest: Don't overstay your welcome. After all:

Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.

That last bit is from Benjamin Franklin, not Solomon. Some advice is timeless.

In Luke 14:7-11 Jesus alludes to Proverbs 25:6-7:

Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
   and do not claim a place among his great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
   than for him to humiliate you before his nobles

And 2 Peter 2:22 uses the same graphic image found in Proverbs 26:11:

As a dog returns to its vomit,
   so fools repeat their folly. 

Proverbs 26:4-5 present a pair of contradictory sayings:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
   or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
   or he will be wise in his own eyes.

The contradiction here might be intended, like a Zen koan,  to tease the brains of the readers. Or, they might be meant to be applied in different situations in which case, moral absolutists should take note, we have a biblical instance of situational ethics.

The image of the Sampler came from this website. Scripture quotes are from the New International Version.
Next: Proverbs 27-29

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Proverbs 22:1-23:35


Proverbs 22:1-16 conclude the "royal collection." Reading behind these sayings one can discern their intended audience. They were written for the privileged, for wealthy, educated, young men. These verses remind their readers that it is important to maintain a good reputation (v. 1), that the rich and the poor are equally God's children (v. 2), that it is important to raise children right (v.6). Corporal punishment may be useful in this latter regard (v. 15). They tell their audience to be generous (v. 9), to keep good company (v. 10), and to avoid loose women (v. 14). There is also a little mockery of the lazy and their excuses in this section (v. 13).

That the Proverbs can be extrapolated to apply to other audiences should probably go without saying but, there, I said it anyway.

Proverbs 22:17-24:22 is the third collection of this book. It is headed "Sayings of the Wise." The Jewish Study Bible notes that a connection between this section and an Egyptian work called the Instruction of Amenemope has been recognized since 1923.  The sayings in this section are similar in theme to what has gone before but tend to be longer in form. This section emphasizes right behavior in the presence of one's social betters. Client/patron relationships were the social norm in the ancient near east.

 Proverbs 22:20 says that the Sayings of the Wise contains 30 sayings. The New Interpreters Study Bible calls this:

An apparent reference to the Instruction of Amenemope, which has 30 sections. This part of Proverbs, however, does not have 30 elements.

On the other hand, the New International Version (2011 edition)  "helpfully" numbers the 30 sayings. The NIV, I've noted before, tends to translate difficulties out of existence.

I will give the Jewish Study Bible the last word in this debate:

There is disagreement...on identifying thirty proverbs in the present form of [this] section.


Proverbs 23:1-3 has advice on table manners:

When you sit to dine with a ruler,
   note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
   if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
   for that food is deceptive.

There is also advice for those who are invited to dine with a stingy host:

Do not eat the food of a begrudging host,
   do not crave his delicacies;
for he is the kind of person
   who is always thinking about the cost.
“Eat and drink,” he says to you,
   but his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the little you have eaten
   and will have wasted your compliments.
      (Proverbs 23:6-9)

I'm thinking its best not to eat to much no matter who your host is.

Proverbs 22:28 and 23:10-11 both warn against moving property markers, a form of theft.

Proverbs 23:29-35 warn against drunkenness with a comically detail description of the dangers of too much wine:

 Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
   Who has strife? Who has complaints?
   Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
   who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
   when it sparkles in the cup,
   when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
   and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
   and your mind will imagine confusing things.
You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
   lying on top of the rigging.
“They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt!
   They beat me, but I don’t feel it!
When will I wake up
   so I can find another drink?”

That little old winemaker, Noah

The Mosaic of Noah, the first wine-maker, is from S. Marco Basilica, Venice.

Next: Proverbs 24-26

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Proverbs 19:1-21:31


At least one of the Proverbs presents a false dichotomy:

Better the poor whose walk is blameless
   than a fool whose lips are perverse.
      (Proverbs 19:1)

Some of the Proverbs are apparent non sequiturs:

What a person desires is unfailing love;
   better to be poor than a liar.
      (Proverbs 19:22)

The book of Proverbs is not shy about recommending corporal punishment:

 Penalties are prepared for mockers,
   and beatings for the backs of fools.
      (Proverbs 19:29)

  Blows and wounds scrub away evil,
   and beatings purge the inmost being.
      (Proverbs 20:30)

Some proverbs state evident truths:

  A person’s own folly leads to their ruin,
   yet their heart rages against the LORD.
      (Proverbs 19:3)

That one reminds me of a man who did not take his blood pressure meds and, when he had a stroke, wondered why God had punished him.

Kindness to those in need is a recurring theme in Proverbs:

  Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD,
   and he will reward them for what they have done.
      (Proverbs 19:17)

Abiding by the commandments is a good idea:

Whoever keeps commandments keeps their life,
   but whoever shows contempt for their ways will die.
      (Proverbs 19:16)

Some of the proverbs deal with business practices:

  “It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer—
   then goes off and boasts about the purchase.
      (Proverbs 20:14)

I am not sure what that proverb actually advises. It might be a simple observation. I'm sure that it sounds different to a seller than to a buyer.

There is more advice about the conduct of business in Proverbs 20:16:

Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger;
   hold it in pledge if it is done for an outsider. 

 That one should probably be tempered by this commandment:

If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge,
   return it by sunset,
      (Exodus 22:26)

Fairness in trade is a recurring theme:

The LORD detests differing weights,
   and dishonest scales do not please him.
       (Proverbs 20:23)

So is sobriety:

Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler;
   whoever is led astray by them is not wise.
      (Proverbs 20:1)

And the importance of a wife who is not quarrelsome:

Better to live on a corner of the roof
   than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.
      (Proverbs 21:9)

 Better to live in a desert
   than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.
      (Proverbs 21:19)

As I've mentioned before, the Proverbs were written for, by, and about men. I have also mentioned the Proverbs ambivalence about bribery. Receiving them is bad. Giving them, not so much.

A gift given in secret soothes anger,
   and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.
      (Proverbs 21:14)

The attitude of the Proverbs toward the practice of sacrifice is like that of the prophets:

 To do what is right and just
   is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.
      (Proverbs 21:3)

 The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable—
   how much more so when brought with evil intent!
      (Proverbs 21:27)

This proverb must have been written by someone about my age:

 The glory of young men is their strength,
   gray hair the splendor of the old.
      (Proverbs 20:29)

And this one echoes the notion "Man proposes; God disposes."

  The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
   but victory rests with the LORD.
      (Proverbs 21:31)

Commenting on the Proverbs has been challenging. There is no narrative, nor any clear organizing principle. I have been trying to pick out a few of the proverbs from each day's portion that are in some way noteworthy.

Next: Proverbs 22-23

Merry Christmas!

This morning I unwrapped my present: a copy of the Jerusalem Bible, Reader's Edition with illustrations by Salvador Dali. The English language Jerusalem Bible was published in 1966 and based on an earlier French Translation. It was updated, with closer attention to the original languages, as the New Jerusalem Bible in 1985. Both editions are readable translations with good literary quality. Fun fact: J.R.R. Tolkien was the translator of the book of Jonah for the 1966 edition.

The Jerusalem Bible with Dali illustrations was published in 1970 and has long been out of print. It is a large, heavy book (think pulpit Bible) with gilt edges and sewn in ribbon markers. The copy I was given is in its original box. The box is a little rough. A previous owner wrote his name inside the front cover. There are a few light pencil markings in the Song of Songs. I am happy with the condition of the book. I am delighted with the gift. It is, in fact, just what I wanted.

I'm a fan of Salvador Dali. He was great technician and an imaginative artist. Part of his genius was a talent for self-promotion. At its worst, Dali's work was calculated and commercial. At its best, it was brilliant. Some of his work was beautiful, some humorous, some repulsive. It was never dull.

The illustrations in my Bible are dated 1964-5. They appear to have been done in watercolor and are more abstract than Dali's oil paintings. Many have the same sketchy quality of his pen-and-ink drawings.

For Christmas, here is Dali's illustration of the nativity. Though abstracted and surreal, it incorporates elements of traditional iconography: e.g. the figures poses, the virgin's blue cloak, the halos, and the Christ child's cross.

Just for fun, here's Dali's illustration of the tower of Babel. I love the Dali-esque touches: the decay and the crutches propping up the structure.


Merry Christmas to you, dear reader. Click the pictures to enlarge. I found the Nativity here and the Tower of Babel here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Proverbs 16:1-18:24


Proverbs 16:1-22:16, the second part of the second division of the book of Proverbs, is called the "royal collection." At least that's what some of my study Bibles say. What distinguishes it from the first part of the second division? The Harper Collins Study Bible says that the royal collection is characterized by less antithetical proverbs (simple contrasts) and more synonymous parallelism (the second part of the proverb restates the first part in different terms). The New Interpreters Study Bible says that a major theme of the royal collection is "people's roles within social structures." The CEB (Common English Bible) Study Bible says that this collection is characterized by proverbs contrasting God's wisdom with the limited wisdom of human rulers. It also notes that "Many of the themes of the two sections are the same."

YHWH is mentioned by name nine times in Proverbs 16:1-11. Verses 10 and 12-14  all have to do with kings. This section of Proverbs may be organized more thematically than what we have seen before. May be. A little.

Proverbs 16:18 might sound familiar:

Pride goes before destruction,
   a haughty spirit before a fall. 

I've usually heard a shortened paraphrase of this saying: "Pride goeth before a fall."

Proverbs 16:25 is a word-for-word duplicate (in the NIV, at least) of Proverbs 14:12:

There is a way that appears to be right,
   but in the end it leads to death.  

Proverbs 16:30 is the third and, I think, last reference to winking in the book of Proverbs.

Whoever winks with their eye is plotting perversity;
   whoever purses their lips is bent on evil.

Gestures can be interpreted differently in different cultural contexts. The Jewish Study Bible refers to winking and lip-pursing as "the body language of a scoundrel." The Harper Collins Study Bible suggests that winking may be related to "the evil eye." The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggests that winking is a sign of "duplicity."

Did I mention that I own a few study Bibles?

The book of Proverbs mentions bribery several times. In general it is in favor of giving bribes and opposed to taking them.

  A bribe is seen as a charm by the one who gives it;
   they think success will come at every turn.
      (Proverbs 17:8)

The wicked accept bribes in secret
   to pervert the course of justice.
      (Proverbs 17:23)

Do I need to say that perverting justice is a bad thing?

 Acquitting the guilty
and condemning the innocent—
   the LORD detests them both.
      (Proverbs 17:15)

Proverbs 18:13 has good advice for those who engage in debates on the internet or, for that matter, in person.

 To answer before listening—
   that is folly and shame. 

And Proverbs 18:23 might be directed to the "top 2%"

The poor plead for mercy,
   but the rich answer harshly.

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Alistair Sim is my favorite movie Scrooge. Merry Christmas!
Next: Proverbs 19-21

Proverbs 13:1-15:33


Chapters 13-15 of Proverbs bring us more gnomic sayings, mostly in the form of simple contrasts.

The wise woman builds her house,
   but with her own hands
   the foolish one tears hers down.
      (Proverbs 14:1)

It's nice to have a  proverb for women, even if it does confine them to the home. Gender roles in the culture that produced Proverbs were pretty strictly defined.

There is more wisdom concerning wealth and poverty.

A person’s riches may ransom their life,
   but the poor cannot respond
   to threatening rebukes.
      (Proverbs 13:8)

Clearly it is better to be rich. Does this proverb suggest that the wealthy have an obligation to protect the poor?

Proverbs 13:19 seems a non sequitur. If you can explain the connection of the two thoughts I would be obliged:

A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul,
   but fools detest turning from evil. 

Some of the proverbs seem a little obvious:

  An honest witness does not deceive,
   but a false witness pours out lies.
      (Proverbs 14:5)

But the ancient sages thought the idea important enough to repeat:

 A truthful witness saves lives,
   but a false witness is deceitful.
      (Proverbs 14:25)

The parenting advice of Proverbs 13:24 is outdated:

Whoever spares the rod hates their children,
   but the one who loves their children
   is careful to discipline them. 

Discipline, yes, but these days that rod thing will get the Department of Children and Family Services called on you.

Proverbs 14:20 could have been the inspiration for the song "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
   but the rich have many friends. 

The next proverb compliments this one by telling us what to do when our neighbors are poor.

It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor,
   but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.
      (Proverbs 14:21)

And Proverbs 14:31 makes clear that kindness to the needy is God's will.

Whoever oppresses the poor shows
contempt for their Maker,
   but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Sorrow and joy sometimes go hand-in-hand. No one else can feel your feelings.

Even in laughter the heart may ache,
   and rejoicing may end in grief.
      (Proverbs 14:13)

Each heart knows its own bitterness,
   and no one else can share its joy.
      (Proverbs 14:10)

But God knows what you're going through.

 The eyes of the LORD are everywhere,
   keeping watch on the wicked and the good. 
      (Proverbs 15:3)

Death and Destruction lie open before the LORD—
   how much more do human hearts!
      (Proverbs 15:11)

Some of the wisdom of the Proverbs is obvious. Why then is it so hard to learn?

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
   but a harsh word stirs up anger.
      (Proverbs 15:1)

Scripture quotes are from the New International Version.
Next: Proverbs 13-18

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Proverbs 10:1-12:28


The second collection of material in Proverbs is, like the first, attributed to Solomon. Where the first collection (chapters 1-9) was made up mostly of poems praising wisdom and contrasting it to folly, this second (chapters 10-22:16) collection consists almost entirely of short wise sayings organized according to no principle I can discern.

Many of these proverbs are two line sayings that make a simple contrast between something wise and something foolish.

Lazy hands make for poverty,
   but diligent hands bring wealth. (Proverbs 10:4)

Not all of the proverbs fit this pattern.

The blessing of the LORD brings wealth,
   without painful toil for it. (Proverbs 10:22)

Overall, the proverbs in this section extol the value of hard work, honesty, integrity, humility, prudent speech, kindness, generosity, and even kindness to animals.

The righteous care for the needs of their animals,
   but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel. (Proverbs 12:10)

The themes of wealth and poverty are treated repeatedly in Proverbs.

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city,
   but poverty is the ruin of the poor. (Proverbs 10:15)

 Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath,
   but righteousness delivers from death. (Proverbs 11:4)

A sidebar in the CEB Study Bible (page 1021, OT) notes that the various Proverbs display differing attitudes toward the rich and poor.

Such sayings reflect the changing nature of human relationships and proverbial wisdom (See Prov. 26:4-5). Is wealth always to be celebrated and poverty criticized? Are some folks poor through no fault of their own? Is a lack of generosity to be praised or criticized? One's place in the journey of life determines the answers to such questions. A single proverb isn't appropriate to every circumstance. According to the book of Proverbs, neither poverty nor wealth is given high status in God's eyes, except as they have to do with one's pursuit of wisdom.

Some of the proverbs do, I think, have universal application. Lazy workers always irritate their employers (Proverbs 10:26). It's never a good idea to secure a stranger's debt (Proverbs 11:15). A friend's, maybe....

Proverbs 11:22 uses a vivid image to make its point.

 Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout
   is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.
There is no corresponding saying about good looking but stupid men. Proverbs comes from a patriarchal culture.

I found the picture of Solomon teaching here. Scripture quotes are from the New International Version.

Next: Proverbs 13:15

Friday, December 20, 2013

Proverbs 7:1-9:18


Look out, boys. There are loose women out there. They'll snare you with their feminine wiles, sexy clothes, perfume, and meat. Like the deer caught in the headlights, you won't know what hit you. So keep away from them.

So says Proverbs 7. And yes, the attitudes of a patriarchal culture are evident here. So is a certain binary thinking.

Chapter 8 is a stark contrast to Proverbs 7. Here Wisdom is personified once more as a woman. In verses 22-36 she is described as YHWH's consort and partner in creation.

Chapter 9 is yet another poem about Lady Wisdom, a refined and lovely woman. She invites those who seek wisdom to her feast (vv. 1-6). In contrast Dame Folly, brash and loutish, entices the simple to drink stolen water and eat bread in secret, luring them down a path that leads to death (vv. 13-18).

Sanwiched between these two descriptions are a few more short aphorisms. The wise accept correction. The foolish take offense at reproof. The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom and folly benefit or harm the individual.

Next: Proverbs 10-12

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Proverbs 4:1-6:35


Proverbs 4 continues in much the same vein as the previous chapters. It is couched as advice passed from father to son. Like the much of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is written by, for, and about men. That's not to say that women can glean nothing from it. It's just that this is a man's book.

The advice passed down through the generations is simply to pursue the acquisition of wisdom.

Verse 7 tells us that the beginning of wisdom is: Get wisdom. Elsewhere, of course, the fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom (e.g. Proverbs 9:10). Perhaps there is a hint here that we shouldn't take such statements as absolutes. Wisdom keeps one on a path of righteousness and success.

In chapter 5, the father warns his sons against the wiles and guiles of an adulterous woman. This wanton is a contrast to Lady Wisdom, who we met in the first chapter and who we will meet again.

Verse 11, according to the Jewish Study Bible "seems to refer to venereal disease."

At the end of your life you will groan,
   when your flesh and body are spent.

The patriarchal assumptions underlying the description of the adulterous woman should be clear. At any rate, the advice to stick to one's own spouse is sound. Avoiding STDs is just one benefit.

Chapter 6 begins the pity advice. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be (verses 1-5)." "Be industrious like the ant (verses 6-8)." "A stitch in time saves nine (verses 9-11)." "Beware of false friends (verses 12-15)."

Okay, those aren't precise paraphrases. But they are close.

Verse 16 uses "step parallelism." It states a number and then increases it:

There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are destestable to him:

And what are those six or seven things?

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 person who stirs up conflict
   in the community. (verses 17-19)

This is a handy verse for biblicists to quote against anyone who disagrees with them.  "Quit stirring up conflict in the community." It's much easier than actually engaging in reasoned debate.

Verses 20-35 return to the theme of adultery. Don't mess with another man's wife. Hiring a prostitute is cheaper. Another man's wife "preys on your very life." And you don't want to face an angry husband. Adultery in biblical times was a crime one man committed against another man.

Did I mention that Proverbs was written by, for, and about men?

Yeah, I thought so.

Still, adultery is a bad idea. For men or women.

Scripture quotes in this blog post are from the New International Version. The picture of the ants and the grasshopper came from the Library of Congress website.

Next: Proverbs 7-9

Harold Camping, July 19, 1921-December 15, 2013

I only learned of Harold Camping's death yesterday, two days after the fact. It has taken me a full day to think of how I might respond to the news.

Harold Camping was the radio preacher who famously predicted that Jesus would return to rapture all true believers out of the world on May 21, 2011. After a short time of tribulation, he claimed, the world would be destroyed on October 21 of that same year. For a while Camping provided plenty of fodder for this blog. He was responsible for a huge spike in readership in May 2011. Now, at the age of 92, Harold Camping is dead.

I don't think Camping was deliberately evil. He was simply wrong. Unfortunately, he convinced others to share in his delusion, some of whom could ill afford it. I feel badly for those who committed their time and resources to promoting Camping's strange biblical interpretations and failed predictive schemes.

I also feel badly for Camping's friends and family. Surely they mourn his death. I pray that they will be comforted.

As for Camping himself, I can only entrust him to the hands of God who is gracious and merciful.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Proverbs 1:1-3:35


The book of Proverbs is, in the main, just what it sounds like: a collection of aphorisms--short, pithy sayings--that convey the wisdom of ancient Israel. Granted, there is other material, all wisdom related, in the book, but the name is descriptive.

The People's Companion to the Bible is a textbook that looks at the Christian Scriptures from the perspectives of various marginalized peoples: native Americans, African-Americans, women, Latina/os, etc. There is a lot of good material in this book. (The same material is also available, with the text of the Bible in the New Revised Standard Version, as The People's Bible). On page 142 of The People's Companion, Joseph F. Scrivener defines biblical wisdom as "the ability to navigate human relationships and realities."

The Gideon's Society, which places Bibles in hotel rooms, also distributes pocket-sized books containing the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. An old preacher once told me, "That's all you need. The Psalms teach you to worship and pray. The Proverbs teach you how to live in this world and the New Testament gets you ready for the next." I think that old preacher overstated his case. He discounted the rest of the Hebrew Bible and overestimated the value of the Proverbs. The fact is, the Proverbs were collected and written primarily for the benefit of young men in ancient Israel who wanted to advance themselves in the royal court. Granted, some of the material in this book is of a more general nature and I think we'll see that some of it is quite timeless. To the old preacher's credit I will also concede the wisdom of the Proverbs is quite worldly. Still, the book's intended audience was other than he suggested.

Two sections of the book of Proverbs are attributed to Solomon. Though it is debatable whether Solomon wrote any of the book of  Proverbs, the attribution is unsurprising. Solomon was to wisdom what Moses was to the Law or David to music. 1 Kings 4:32 credits Solomon with writing 3,000 proverbs.

The opening verses of Proverbs (verses 1:1-7) are a prologue describing the purpose of the collection. In verse 8 there is an unusual reference to the reader's mother as an instructor:

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
   and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
       (Proverbs 1:8 NIV)

Verses 9-19 warn about the dangers of keeping bad company. In verses 20-33 wisdom, personified as a woman, rebukes fools and says that she will abandon the wayward to their fate.

See the woman under God's left arm in Michaelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam?
That's Wisdom, God's consort and partner in creation.

Chapter 2 begins (verses 1-26) with a description of the many benefits of having wisdom. Among them: success, YHWH's protection, knowledge of what is right and just, prosperity, freedom from fear, and untroubled sleep. Verses 27-30 instruct readers to be kind to their neighbors. Verses 31-35 tell us that God detests the wicked and blesses the wise.

Chapter 3 encourages the reader to get wisdom at any cost. There's a bit more about the benefits of wisdom, too.

Next: Proverbs 4-6

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Psalms 146-150


The last five psalms all begin and end with the imperative "Praise the Lord" (Hallelujah in Hebrew).

We read a portion of Psalm 146 in church this morning. In a nutshell this psalm says that human beings, no matter how powerful, are mortal and fallible. God, the creator is concerned for the poor and downcast.

Psalm 147 seems to come from after the exile.

The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the exiles of Israel. (verse 2, NIV)

In addition to YHWH's concern for Jerusalem, this psalm declares the Almighty God's concern for the downtrodden, and invites Jerusalem to join in praise.

Psalm 148 calls all of creation, things in the heavens and things on the earth, even the inanimate hills and trees to praise YHWH.

Psalm 149 continues the theme of praise but takes an ugly turn beginning at verses 6-7:

May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
to inflict vegeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples... (NIV)

Friedrich Nietzsche remarked that bad music and bad logic sound good when one is marching to war.

Psalm 150 calls all living things to praise God with music and dancing.

Jana Riess's The Twible, which I wrote about in my last post,  boils Psalm 150 down to a tweet thus:

150: Praise for G's typical awesomeness. Praise with loud clanging cymbals. Praise that we're finally finishing the Psalter. Selah.

Tweeting the Psalms at the rate of one a day would have taken a while!

Next: Proverbs 1-3

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Psalms 140-145 Revisted

I've been having a lot of fun lately with a book called The Twible by Jana Riess. Riess takes every chapter of the Bible and reduces it to a tweet, 140 characters or less. And, the cover of the book proclaims (with no hyperbole whatever) "...now with 68% more humor."

Since I complained in my last post that I might be getting a little tired of the Psalms, I thought I'd share with you what The Twible does with Psalms 140-145. If you don't mind a little irreverence, this book is a hoot. (Personally, my motto is "Sacrilege Before Sanctimony"). I got my copy through Amazon. For some reason my local independent bookseller wasn't able to get it for me.

To stay within the 140 character limit, Reiss uses quite a few abbreviations. In the following "G" stands for God.

140: Let burning coals rain down on my enemies! May they fall into a ravine! I'd dance a little jig. Just dreaming out loud here.

141: A psalm of David, which is a lot like the other psalms of David. Being king means never having to admit you're redundant.

142: Allegedly David's song when he was hiding in a cave from Saul. He had extra time on his hands to work out all the chords.

143: I  remember the days of old, G, back when you used to stand up for me. Bring back that lovin' feeling. Whoa, that lovin'...

144: Life is sweet when our kids grow to adulthood and no one's getting murdered in the town square. It's the little things, really.

A little background before we move on to the last psalm. Psalm 145 is an alphabetic acrostic in Hebrew. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but, for reasons unknown, the letter nun is skipped. Whether this was the psalm's original state is an open question. The Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate both supply a missing verse. A version of the Psalm 145 found among the Dead Sea Scrolls also includes a verse which, in Hebrew, begins with nun.

145: In this ABC poem the verse for the letter N was missing until Super Grover from Sesame Street found the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Psalms 140-145


If I have been citing the New Interpreter's Study Bible (NISB) a lot lately, it is because it is my newest study Bible. I have enjoyed using it and getting know its apparatus.

The NISB has a note on Psalm 140 that intrigues me. It says:

An individual prays for protection and deliverance from an enemy. Once again, the {New Revised Standard Version] uses the plural to refer to the enemy throughout, in order to make the language gender inclusive.

In a post from last year, I discussed some of the issues involved in translating gender language. Pluralizing nouns is one way to avoid gender language. In this case, however, it gives a false impression. It makes it seem as if the psalmist has multiple enemies. I decided to see how other translations dealt with the issue.

Here is verse 1 in the NRSV:

 Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from those who are violent...

Next, the same verse from the New International Version (NIV), which has been roundly criticized in some circles for its gender inclusive language:

Rescue me, LORD, from evildoers;
   protect me from the violent...

 So the NRSV and the NIV deal with the gender issue the same way. They pluralize sex out of existence.

The English Standard Version (ESV), which claims to use "gender correct" language, has been widely adopted by some of the NIV's critics. Here's the ESV's rendering:

Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men;
preserve me from violent men...

What I find interesting here is that the ESV is "gender correct" but number

The venerable (if not hoary) King James Version (KJV), made before gender language was an issue, managed to preserve the singular form for the enemy:

 Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man:
preserve me from the violent man...

But in the very next verse, the dear old KJV does something else odd. It uses the singular they:

Which imagine mischiefs in their heart...

I suspect that the KJV's singular "they" translates the Hebrew accurately. I don't read Hebrew but the Greek of the Septuagint also uses a plural pronoun ("they") and a singular noun ("heart") in verse 2.

 Enough of Psalm 140. Psalm 141:1-4, 8 is sung at Vespers (Evening Prayer), I suspect because of its references to a) incense (which can be used at Vespers), and b) the "evening sacrifice" (v. 2). This psalm "of David" basically asks YHWH to keep the psalmist in good company.

Psalm 142-145 are also attributed to David.

Psalm 142 is the prayer of one persecuted by enemies.

Psalm 143 is the last of the seven "Pentitential Psalms."  It, too, asks for protection from enemies.

The themes of Psalm 144 are familiar from other psalms: God is strong; Human life is fleeting; YHWH's power is demonstrated in nature; Rescue us from enemies; Sing a new song; Children and cattle are blessings.

Maybe I'm getting a little weary of the psalms. Fortunately there are only a few left.

Psalm 145 praises God for his greatness and for his concern for the poor. It repeats that theme that plays throughout the Hebrew scriptures:

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (verse 8).

I never get tired of that.


Next: Psalms 146-150

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Psalm 137 Revisited

There is a type of rock song that begins slow and low, vocals over arpeggiated acoustic chords, and then builds in tempo and volume until it reaches a screaming electric crescendo. There should be a name for this kind of composition but, if there is, I don't know it. Examples of this type of song include The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes," Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," and, of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird."

In a recent blogpost, I wrote:

It might be an interesting exercise to read through the psalms and assign each one to a musical genre. Psalm 46 is country. Psalm 102 is blues. Etc. I'm not going to do it, but it might be interesting.

While I don't plan to do this exercise for all of the psalms, it occurs to me that Psalm 137 would benefit from the Behind Blue Eyes/Stairway to Heaven/Free Bird treatment. It begins slow, sweet, and sad.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
   when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
   we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
   our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
   while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

In the middle section sorrow gives way to resolve. Bring in the drums and electric guitars.

  If I forget you, Jerusalem,
   may my right hand forget its skill.
 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
   my highest joy. (Psalm 137:5-6)

Insert a guitar solo here and then crescendo on the last verses as resolve gives way to unrestrained anger.

Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did
   on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
   “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
   happy is the one who repays you
   according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
   and dashes them against the rocks.  (Psalm 137:7-9)

The song then either ends with a long fade on an instrumental jam or a return to acoustic instruments and a repeat of the first line.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept....

If I were a musician, I'd be working on this.

Psalm 137 is quoted from the New International Version

Psalm 137

If you are an American of a certain age, chances are you're familiar with some version of the song "Cotton Fields." It has been covered by many artists including Johnny Cash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Beach Boys. It was written by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, a folksinger/songwriter of legendary stature.

Years ago I read somewhere an author's speculation that Lead Belly first improvised this number in response to some racist lout's request, "Play us a song about them ol' cotton fields back home." With its rollicking melody and simple rhyming couplets, "Cotton Fields" starts innocently enough.

When I was a little bitty baby
My mama would rock me in my cradle
In them old cotton fields back home.

The song then quickly takes a hard left turn. "Cotton Fields" is neither minstrelsy nor nostalgia, neither work song nor romantic fiction. This ain't no "Jump down, turn around pick a bale of cotton."

When them cotton bolls get rotten
You couldn't pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home.

It may sound a little funny
But you couldn't make very much money
In them old cotton fields back home.

Picking cotton was miserable, back-breaking, hard work. Lead Belly's song doesn't pretty it up. Instead he subverts a genre and undermines a hypothetical lout's expectations. The song "Cotton Fields" gives the finger to the oppressor.

One might wonder if a hypothetical lout would even notice.

So, flash back a few millenia to a Judean musician, captive in Babylonian exile, sitting beside a river far from home. It may have been a deliberate taunt. It may have just been an insensitive request. Maybe it was a single Babylonian, maybe a bullying group. For some reason, someone said, "Sing us one of your songs from back home." And so Psalm 137 was born. It begins as a fine, beautiful, heart-breaking lament:

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
   and our tormentors asked for mirth,
   saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How could we sing the LORD's song
   in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)

I couldn't begin to count the musical settings to which these words have been adapted. There was lovely one in Godspell. Sinead O'Connor included one on her album Theology. Don McLean's American Pie album ended with a version, in the form of a round composed by Philip Hayes.

None of these versions, however, include the psalm's last verses. That's because Psalm 137, which starts out so fine and sad, takes an ugly turn toward the end.

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)

The image is ugly but the sentiment, I think, understandable. The Judeans had suffered horrors at the hands of the Babylonians and now they lived as captives. The desire for revenge, probably in terms very much like what they had suffered, is simply human.

Human. I'm not sure how those whose doctrine of inspiration teaches that the Bible is the direct Word of God, that the Holy Spirit is Scripture's "Author," deal with verses like these. I would not try to expunge these words from the canon. I think they can be instructive; they teach us that we can express our every thought, emotion, and sentiment in prayer without self-censorship. But I will disagree strongly with anyone who suggests that these verses represent the will of God. God does not desire babies, even Babylonian babies, to be dashed against the rocks.

Psalm 137 is subversive, I think, in a way similar to that in which "Cotton Fields" was subversive. It is delicious to think that this is  the "song of Zion" which was sung, in Hebrew, to an uncomprehending Babylonian audience. Psalm 137 gives the finger to Judah's oppressor.

In a wicked and wonderful book called the Twible (page 140) Jana Reiss quotes Robert Alter on this Psalm. Alter says,

No moral justification can be offered for [Psalm 137's] notorious closing line. All one can do is to recall the background of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion: The Babylonians have laid waste to Jerusalem, exiled much of its population, looted and massacred; the powerless captives ordered--perhaps mockingly--to sing their Zion songs, respond instead with a lament that is not really a song and ends with a bloodcurdling curse pronounced on their captors, who, fortunately, do not understand the Hebrew in which it is pronounced.

Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Psalms 133-139


Psalm 133, a "Psalm of Ascents," declares that it is good for siblings (O.K. specifically brothers, though its not clear to me whether the psalmist meant only males) to live together in unity. How good? It's a lavish blessing like the oil with which Aaron was copiously anointed or the dew on Mt. Hermon.

Psalm 134 is the last of the psalms "of Ascents." Like its immediate predecessor it is very short. It calls on the priests who serve in YHWH's temple at night to bless the Lord. The New Interpreter's Study Bible notes suggest that this psalm might have been used in a liturgy for a shift change in the temple staff. It's an interesting and plausible suggestion. It makes me wonder if Psalm 133 didn't serve some similar purpose.

In Jewish tradition Psalms 135 and 136 make up the Great Hallel (not to be confused with the "Egyptian Hallel," Psalms 113-118).

Psalm 135 calls on the priests to bless YHWH for his greatness which is demonstrated a) in creation, b) in the exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 19), and c) in the defeat of Kings Sihon and Og whose lands were given to the Israelites (Numbers 21). The gods of other nations are mere idols.

Psalm 136 recounts the same events as Psalm 135, this time punctuated with the constant refrain "for his (i.e. YHWH's) steadfast love endures forever.

Psalm 137 gets its own blogpost.

Psalm 138, another psalm "of David" is a personal prayer of thanksgiving. The "gods" of verse one may be YHWH's heavenly court, or maybe the gods of other nations. Our reading of the Hebrew Scriptures is so colored by later monotheism that it is hard to know. This psalm strikes a note of universalism saying "all the kings of the earth shall praise" YHWH (verse 4). It also expresses the psalmist's profound trust in YHWH.

Psalm 139 describes God's inescapable scrutiny. It's a little creepy in an "Every Breath You Take" kind of way. A lot of contemporary praise music is described as "Jesus is my boyfriend," music. This psalm is more like "YHWH is my stalker." That's not how the psalmist meant it, of course. The psalmist is essentially saying "You know me, Lord. You really know me. I'm a good guy. So, help me out, okay?"

Next Psalms 140-149

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Psalms 126-132


Today we have seven more Psalms of Ascents.

Psalm 136 recalls the return from exile and asks for God's help again. Based upon the water imagery in this psalm, the New Interpreter's Study Bible (NISB) guesses that the occasion might be a drought.

I thought that Psalm 72 was the only psalm attributed to Solomon. I was wrong. Psalm 127 is also a psalm "of Solomon." That this psalm reflects the wisdom tradition would be reason enough for the attribution. The NISB suggests that the attribution may have something to do with the word "beloved" (yahid) in verse 2. This, it says, is a play on "Jedidiah," a Solomonic family name. Could be, I guess. What do I know?

No matter the attribution, Psalm 127 is a reflection on the vanity of any human endeavor undertaken without YHWH. Verses 4 and 5 speak of the blessing of having sons. Sons in ancient Israel were an asset. They carried on the family name and contributed to income. Daughters were a drain. These verses also give the name "Quiverfull" to a fundamentalistic Christian movement that encourages its members to have lots and lots of babies...and so, as I understand it, take over society for Christ. Quiverfull adherents eschew the use of birth control thereby giving God charge over conception.


Probably the movement's best-known adherents are Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar who, for a while had a reality show on TV called 19 Kids and Counting.

Psalm 128 is similar in theme to Psalm 127. It states that those who trust in YHWH are blessed with children and long life.

Psalm 129 is another psalm that uses the cue "Let Israel now say...."  It is the prayer of an individual, but seems to be intended for communal use. It speaks of enemies who have not prevailed in the past and asks that they not be allowed to prosper in the future.

Psalm 130 is the sixth of the seven "Penitential Psalms." It is often called by its Latin title De Profundis ("Out of the Depths"). The psalmist places trust in YHWH's forgiving character and invites the community to share in that trust with the hope that it brings.

Psalm 131 is attributed to David but, of all the psalms, has the best chance of having been written by a woman. It expresses quietude of soul that comes from childlike trust in the Lord. In verse 2 there is an open question as to whether the psalmist identifies herself with the mother or the weaned child:

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
   like a weaned child with its mother;
   my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

Either way, the feminine imagery is unusual. 

I have a negative reaction to this psalm. It seems to express the willful ignorance that is a characteristic of some American Protestantism. Anti-intellectualism is rife among Fundamentalists. I don't think that's what the psalm is actually about, but it can be read that way.

Psalm 132 recalls 2 Samuel 5-6, where David captured Jerusalem and brought the ark of covenant there. The NISB notes suggest that this psalm may have been a liturgy for a regular commemoration of those events. The psalm extols Davidic kingship. For David's sake, it says, YHWH blesses Zion.

Next: Psalms 133-139

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Psalms 120-125


Psalms 120-134 are designated "Psalms of Ascents." As with much of the terminology of the Psalms, no one is entirely sure what this means. The best guess is that these psalms were used by pilgrims "going up" to Jerusalem. In the Bible, Jerusalem is always "up."

Psalm 120 is the prayer of an Israelite living uncomfortably among foreigners. Meshech and Kedar are nowhere near each other. Their use in verse 5 must be metaphorical.

Lutheran liturgical resources recommend Psalm 121 for use at funerals. It is a brief meditation on YHWH's protective care. The "hills" in verse one may be the location of threatening dangers or, on the contrary, the hills may be the source of the desired help, i.e. Zion. The image is not entirely clear but, this being poetry, it doesn't have to be.

For some reason I believe that I am familar with the first verse of Psalm 122 from some liturgical use:

I was glad when they said unto me
"Let us go up to the house of the Lord."

I can't seem to locate the liturgical context in which that verse was used, though. Can anyone help? The psalm, in its entirety, is for pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem. They pray for the city.

Psalm 123 is a prayer for mercy. The psalmist asks for relief from the "contempt of the proud."

Psalm 124 gives thanks for escape from dangers. If this is indeed a pilgrim psalm, then I think the dangers of travel in the ancient world might have been the occasion. I know the liturgical use of the psalm's final verse:

Our help is in the name of the Lord
Who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 124:8)

This verse was a part of the order for Confession from the old Service Book and Hymnal of the Lutheran Church.

Psalm 125 declares that those who are faithful to YHWH can no more be moved than could Mt. Zion. YHWH surrounds the faithful as the mountains surround Jerusalem. Commentators seem to think that the "scepter of wickedness" in verse 3 may refer to foreign rulers. Jerusalem certainly saw its share of those. But, as is usual with the Psalms, this conclusion is tentative at best.

The good old Septuagint translated the expression "A Psalm of Ascents" with a term that the New English Translation of the Septuagint renders "An Ode of the Steps."
Next: Psalms 126-132

Friday, December 6, 2013

Psalm 119


Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms, the longest chapter in the Bible according to anyone's canon. It is an alphabetic acrostic, made up of 22 stanzas, each 8 lines (verses) long. Each line of a stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The stanzas go through the Hebrew alphabet in order.

The psalm is a prayer which praises God for the Torah, asks for help in understanding and keeping the Torah, and requests relief from the afflictions visited upon the psalmist by enemies.

According to the Jewish Study Bible there are 8 synonyms for torah in the Hebrew. Reading the psalm in the NIV, I found the English terms law, statutes, ways, precepts, decrees, commands, word, and promise. One of these words occurs in every verse of Psalm 119 with only four exceptions that I found, verses 84, 90, 121, and 132.

This psalm's earworm is verse 105:

Your word is a light to my feet and a lamp to my path.

The song it calls to mind is not my favorite.

Verse 84 uses a striking image:

Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke,
   I do not forget your decrees. 

I'm not sure what a wineskin in the smoke looks like, but it can't be pretty.

Next: Psalms 120-125

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Psalms 115-118


Today we finish up the Hallel (praise) Psalms (Psalms 113-118) that are read as a part of the liturgy for the Jewish Passover Seder.

Psalm 115 declares that YHWH, the God of Israel, is the one true God. The gods of other nations are mere idols. The typical Israelite rhetoric of this psalm probably misrepresents the way that the Gentiles regarded the figures of their gods. I suspect that such polemical language was intended not only to dissuade Israel from worshiping other gods, but also to discourage the Israelites from making images of YHWH. Verses 16-17 reflect the typical biblical three-tiered cosmology. The universe is divided into the heavens, the abode of God, the earth, the realm of the living, and the underworld, the place of the dead. The christological hymn in Philippians 2:5 ff. follows the same pattern.

Psalm 116 is a prayer of thanksgiving for recovery from illness. Verse 13 speaks of the "cup of salvation," which was probably a libation offering. Christians of a sacramental bent love the image for its eucharistic resonance. In verse 14 the psalmist promises to "repay [his] vows" in return for the gift of healing. Verse 16 is a model of devotion:

I am your servant,
The child of your handmaiden.

A scant two verses in length, Psalm 117 is the shortest psalm. (Psalm 119 is the longest). It strikes a note of universalism, calling all nations to join in Israel's praise of YHWH.

Psalm 118 begins and ends with the same words.

Give thanks to YHWH for he is good.
His steadfast love endures forever. (vv. 1 and 29)

It appears to be a liturgy. Verses 2 and 3 invite Israel, the priests, and all who fear YHWH (including Gentiles?) to repeat

His steadfast love endures forever.

Verse 3-18 are spoken in the first person by an individual voice. They comprise a thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies. Verses 19-25 speak of entrance at the "gates." Are these the gates of Jerusalem? The gates of the temple? The hymn "Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty" is, I believe, based on this psalm. (I can't read the psalms without hearing music).

Verse 22 is quoted, in reference to Christ, no less than 5 times in the New Testament (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7. There is an additional allusion to this verse in 1 Peter 2:4).

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

I am only stating the obvious when I say that this image was important to the early Christian movement.

Verse 26 is quoted in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' "triumphal entry" (Matthew 23:39. Mark11:9, Luke 19:38, John 12:13) into Jerusalem, celebrated on Palm Sunday. It also features in the Sanctus which is sung after the Proper Preface in the Communion liturgy.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH.

Next: Psalm 119