Archive for the ‘Mitchell J. Dahood’ Tag

Psalms 65, 66, and 67: Blessed Silence   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XLVIII

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Psalms 65, 66, and 67

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Psalms 65, 66, and 67 are similar to each other; they speak of the universal acknowledgment of God.  Furthermore, Psalm 67 resembles Psalm 65 and continues the theme of blessing present at the conclusion of Psalm 66.  The clustering of these psalms is logical.

Sometimes I compare translations and wonder what is happening in the Hebrew text.  Consider Psalm 65:2 (Jewish versification), O reader.  Mitchell J. Dahood’s version reads:

Praise to you in the mighty castle,

O God in Zion.

And vows shall be paid to you….

The “mighty castle” is Heaven, according to Dahood’s germane note.

TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures offers:

Praise befits You in Zion, O God;

vows are paid to You….

“Zion” refers to the Temple, not Heaven.

Robert Alter’s version reads:

To You silence is praise, O God, in Zion,

and to You a vow will be paid.

Dahood’s “mighty castle” has become “silence.”  Alter’s germane note cites linguistic reasons for this translation choice and argues that the verse teaches that divine greatness exceeds that which human words can express.  Ironically, the psalmist does not remain silent, as Psalm 65 attests.

Psalms 65 and 66, which feature the Temple (First or Second?) prominently, speak of the blessings and universality of God.  The greatness of God is evident in nature, we read.  People across the world stand in awe of God and signs of God’s works.  Divine glory is also evident in victory.  And God, having tested the Hebrews, has never abandoned them, we read in Psalm 66.

Exegetes disagree whether the origin of Psalm 66 was before or after the Babylonian Exile.  Either one seems probable.  I suggest a plausible scenario:  the psalm is pre-exilic yet the version we have is the edited, final form after the Babylonian Exile.  We cannot be sure which explanation is correct.

Psalm 67, picking up where Psalm 66 terminates, predicts that people across the known world will praise God or says that they do–depending on translation.  God rules equitably, we read.  Also, the blessings of God are evident in the fertile earth.

Words have their place.  They can be useful and necessary.  Psalms 65, 66, and 67 use many words for noble and pious purposes.  However, I return to Robert Alter’s translation of Psalm 65:2:

To You silence is praise, O God, in Zion,

and to You a vow will be paid.

Has anything ever moved you, O reader, to reverent silence?  I have known that spiritual state.

My culture fears silence.  I seldom enter a store or a restaurant that does not have music playing in it.  When I visit some homes, the din of the television distracts me.  My lifestyle entails much silence–no radio, television, et cetera–blaring for hours at a time.  I do consume audio and visual media, but at a reduced rate.  Distracting sounds get in the way of my thinking and listening.

Silence can be more than praise; it can enable listening to God.  Contemplative prayer is a legitimate form of prayer.  My experience tells me that the silence I need to achieve primarily inside my mind.  That is more difficult to gain and maintain than external silence.  When we can turn off all the noise–both external and internal–and intentionally be in God’s presence–we have blessed silence.

I am halfway there most of the time.

May we all, by grace, have and embrace utter silence before God.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 22, 2023 COMMON ERA

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY, YEAR A

THE FEAST OF JOHN JULIAN, ANGLICAN PRIEST, HYMN WRITER, AND HYMNOLOGIST

THE FEAST OF ALEXANDER MEN, RUSSIAN ORTHODOX PRIEST AND MARTYR, 1990

THE FEAST OF BENJAMIN LAY, AMERICAN QUAKER ABOLTIONIST

THE FEAST OF LADISLAO BATTHÁNY-STRATTMANN, AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC PHYSICIAN AND PHILANTHROPIST

THE FEAST OF SAINT VINCENT PALLOTTI, FOUNDER OF THE SOCIETY FOR THE CATHOLIC APOSTOLATE, THE UNION OF CATHOLIC APOSTOLATE, AND THE SISTERS OF THE CATHOLIC APOSTOLATE

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Psalms 54 and 55: Justice and Revenge   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XLI

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Psalms 54 and 55

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Psalms 54 and 55 are individual petitions.

The tacked-on superscription of Psalm 54 links the psalm to 1 Samuel 23, in which David, on the run from King Saul, took refuge in the territory of the Ziphites.  1 Samuel 23 tells us that some Ziphites told Saul where David was hiding (verses 19 and 20).  The superscription contradicts Psalm 54:

For strangers have risen up against me,

and ruthless men seek my life.

they are unmindful of God.

–Verse 5, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (1985, 1999)

Saul and David knew each other well.

The author of Psalm 54, beset by foes, trusts in God to issue a favorable judgment, as in a legal proceeding.  The psalmist affirms that God is more powerful than the enemies and will act from hesed–steadfast love.  Yet the psalmist is vengeful; he prays that God will exterminate the enemies, literally.

The translation by Father Mitchell J. Dahood, S.J., places that verse in the past tense:

He made the evil recoil on my defamers,

in his fidelity he annihilated them completely.

Revenge fantasies abound in the Book of Psalms.  Psalm 54 is not the first text in this series to contain them.  Neither is it the last.  My comments about the folly of revenge are on the record in this series of posts, so I move along.

Psalm 55 is a challenging text. m Not only does it contain difficult vocabulary, but it also seems to be the product of splicing two poems together.  The psalm opens in the midst of a threat by armed enemies.  The psalm addresses God then a treacherous former friend then God again.  The text concludes with a prayer that God bring “those murderous, treacherous men” down to Sheol, followed by an expression of trust in God.

The text in verses 19-22 (Jewish versification) is difficult, especially in the first half of verse 20.  A comparison of translations of verses 19 and 20 demonstrates this point.  TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures reads:

He redeems me unharmed

from the battle against me;

it is as though many are on my side.

God who has reigned from the first,

who will have no successor,

hears and humbles those who have no fear of God.

Robert Alter’s translation reads:

He has ransomed my life unharmed from my battle,

for many were against me–

Ishmael and Jalam and the dweller in the east,

who never will change and do not fear God.

Mitchell J. Dahood’s translation reads:

And the Ransomer heard my voice,

making payment for my life.

He drew near to me

when full many were against me.

El heard me and answered,

the Primeval One sent his reply

because in him there is no variation.

But they did not fear God.

What is happening in verse 20a?  Based on the three translations I have quoted, we have either “Ishmael and Jalam and the dwellers in the east,” “God who has reigned from the first,/who will have no successor,” or “El heard me and sent me his reply/because in him there is no variation.”  A literal translation of the Masoretic Text is gibberish:

God hears and answers them and is seated as of old.

Robert Alter’s translation follows one scholarly approach to verse 20a:  listing some enemies by name.  Alter’s commentary is the only I have read that refers to this approach in verse 20a.

The concluding petition of Psalm 55 suits the text:

And You, O God, bring them down

to the pit of destruction.

Men of bloodshed and deceit

will not finish half their days.

But I shall trust in you.

–Verse 24, Robert Alter

In contrast, these enemies were attempting to kill the psalmist.  Yet I detect revenge again.  Yet I cannot dispute that those who live by the sword will also die by it.

One commentary I consult argues that these passages in Psalms 54 and 55 are not prayers for revenge.  J. Clinton McCann, Jr., writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 4 (1996), insists that they are petitions for justice instead.  So, where is the line that separates justice from revenge?  It may be difficult to identify sometimes.  May we, by grace, favor justice and eschew revenge.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 15, 2023 COMMON ERA

THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY, YEAR A

THE FEAST OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER AND MARTYR, 1968

THE FEAST OF BERTHA PAULSSEN, GERMAN-AMERICAN SEMINARY PROFESSOR, PSYCHOLOGIST, AND SOCIOLOGIST

THE FEAST OF GUSTAVE WEIGEL, U.S. ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND ECUMENIST

THE FEAST OF JOHN COSIN, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF DURHAM

THE FEAST OF JOHN MARINUS VERSTEEG, U.S. METHODIST MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF SAINT NIKOLAUS GROSS, GERMAN ROMAN CATHOLIC OPPONENT OF NAZISM, AND MARTYR, 1945

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Psalm 46: Letting Go and Being Still   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XXXIV

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Psalm 46

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The vivid poetry of Psalm 46 invokes creation mythology.  Poetically, even if creation starts coming undone, God will remain “our refuge and our stronghold.”  YHWH, the warrior God, will even end wars forever.  God is sovereign.

I focus this post on verse 11 (Jewish versification).  That verse, in TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures, reads:

“Desist!  Realize that I am God!

I dominate the nations,

I dominate the earth.”

Artur Weiser’s translation has God commanding the nations to “leave off” from waging war.

Mitchell J. Dahood’s translation has God ordering the nations to “Be still.”  A note explains that this means to “do nothing” and to cease entering into military alliances with other nations, for God controls history.  Dahood links this verse to Isaiah 30:15:

By sitting still and keeping quiet you will be saved.

Robert Alter’s translation has God commanding the nations to “let go.”  The literal meaning in the Hebrew text is to relax one’s grip–in this case, to unclench the warrior’s fist.

I do not mistake Psalm 46 as containing a commentary on NATO or any other military alliance that has prevented wars for decades.  No, I read Psalm 46 in historical and Biblical context.  I recall that many military alliances were with untrustworthy partners, and ended badly, predictably.

Human beings are a species of control freaks.  Some of us are context to avoid that trap.  However, many of us fell into that trap a long time ago.  Many control freaks may not realize that they have fallen into a trap.  As more than one religion teaches, human control is a delusion and an illusion.  Yet it makes many people feel comfortable and boosts a host of egos.

I confess that I have struggled with this delusion and illusion.  I admit that the struggle continues.  So, O reader, I do not present myself as a spiritual giant.  I am a pilgrim on a path.

Sometimes we–both collectively and individually–must act.  Our actions and inactions have consequences, whether positive or negative.  Sometimes inaction constitutes disobedience to God.  On other occasions, a particular action is sinful.  May we–both collectively and individually–act properly and faithfully when action is necessary.  Likewise, may we do nothing when that is proper.  In all circumstances, may we contextualize our actions and inactions within the sovereignty of God.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 8, 2023 COMMON ERA

THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY:  THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD, YEAR A

THE FEAST OF SAINT THORFINN OF HAMAR, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP

THE FEAST OF A. J. MUSTE, DUTCH-AMERICAN MINISTER, LABOR ACTIVIST, AND PACIFIST

THE FEAST OF ARCANGELO CORELLI, ITALIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC MUSICIAN AND COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF NICOLAUS COPERNICUS AND GALILEO GALILEI, SCIENTISTS

THE FEAST OF HARRIET BEDELL, EPISCOPAL DEACONESS AND MISSIONARY

THE FEAST OF SAINTS PEPIN OF LANDEN AND ITTA OF METZ, THEIR RELATIONS, AND SAINTS AMAND, AUSTREGISILUS, AND SULPICIUS II OF BOURGES, FAITHFUL CHRISTIANS ACROSS GENERATIONAL LINES

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Psalm 40: Thanksgiving and Lament   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XXX

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Psalm 40

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Just as the Book of Psalms is repetitive, many of my comments in the posts in this series are also repetitive.  However, I seek to rein in that repetition.  So, O reader, I refer you to the previous post in this series for analysis that applies to the end of Psalm 40.

When I read this psalm for this post, I got poetic whiplash.  The psalmist spent twelve verses thanking God for rescuing him.  Then the psalmist opened verse 13 with a lament, which may be in either the past or the present tense, depending on the translation one prioritizes.  I first read Psalm 40 in TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (which uses the present tense in verse 13) then read the translations by Robert Alter and Mitchell J. Dahood.

The translation of 40:13 in TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures reads:

For misfortunes without number envelop me;

my iniquities have caught up with me;

I cannot see;

they are more than the hairs of my head;

I am at my wit’s end.

Robert Alter’s translation of 40:13 follows:

For evils drew round me

beyond count.

My crimes overtook me

and I could not see–

more numerous than the hairs of my head–

and my heart forsook me.

Mitchell J. Dahood’s translation of 40:13 reads:

Alas, evils have encompassed me,

till they are without number;

My iniquities have overtaken me,

and I am unable to escape.

They are more numerous than the hairs of my head,

and my heart fails me.

The lament borrows linguistically from the son of praise.  Commentators detail parallels; I choose not to repeat the work of exegetes regarding that topic.  Instead, I opt to focus elsewhere.  As Walter Brueggemann notes, the progression in Psalm 40 is superficially wrong.  Yet, that progression makes sense the more one thinks about it.  For example, one who struggles with grief may move back and forth through the five stages of grieving.  One may thank God then fall into lament immediately afterward.  Emotions and spiritual states are not always linear.

I attest to that truth.  Perhaps you, O reader, can attest to it, also.  Regardless of where you are on the spiritual and emotional spectrum at any given moment, take your honesty about your feelings to God.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JANUARY 4, 2023 COMMON ERA

THE ELEVENTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

THE FEAST OF SAINT ANGELA OF FOLIGNO, ITALIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC PENITENT AND HUMANITARIAN

THE FEAST OF SAINT ELIZABETH ANN SETON, FOUNDER OF THE AMERICAN SISTERS OF CHARITY

THE FEAST OF SAINTS GREGORY OF LANGRES, TERTICUS OF LANGRES, GALLUS OF CLERMONT, GREGORY OF TOURS, AVITUS I OF CLERMONT, MAGNERICUS OF TRIER, AND GAUGERICUS, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS

THE FEAST OF JOHANN LUDWIG FREYDT, GERMAN MORAVIAN COMPOSER AND EDUCATOR

THE FEAST OF MARY LUNDIE DUNCAN, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN HYMN WRITER

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Posted January 4, 2023 by neatnik2009 in Psalm 40

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Psalm 31: Honesty with God   2 comments

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XXIV

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Psalm 31

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People steeped in scripture speak and, if they are literate, write in scriptural terms.  I know this from experience.  Perhaps you, O reader, do, too.  And, not surprisingly, the Bible contains texts from people steeped in scripture.  Therefore, some parts of the Bible echo other portions of the Bible.  Psalm 31 is a fine text for a study of this pattern.  Psalm 31 quotes the prophet Jeremiah, alludes to Jonah, and echoes other psalms.

The psalmist had been seriously ill for a long time.  He, feeling abandoned by friends and besieged by enemies, turned to God.  The psalmist also acknowledged his sinfulness and confessed his sins.  He was also honest about his anger:

Let the wicked be humiliated, 

hurled into Sheol!

–Verse 18b, Mitchell J. Dahood

I understand that resentment-fueled anger.  I recall easily praying along similar lines, minus Sheol.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from you no secrets are hid:  Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Chrit our Lord.  Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 355

God knows us better than we know ourselves.  So, misguided piety which tells us not to tell God x, y, and z does not conceal x, y, and z from God.  May we be honest with God and ourselves.  If that honesty leads to seemingly impious prayers, so be it.  We can take everything to God, who already knows everything about us.  Those parts of our spiritual lives that are not all sunshine and kittens can transform, by grace.  But we need to be honest.  We cannot move forward in the right direction until we (a) admit where we are, and(b) trust God and lead us along the proper path forever.

The paths of God may not be identical for any two people.  The paths will vary according to circumstances.  Yet the paths of God terminate at the same destination and have the same moral-spiritual definition.  They are paths of love for God, other people, ourselves, and all of creation.  They are paths of mutuality and the Golden Rule.  They are paths of honesty with God and ourselves.  Many of these paths intersect, and overlap, so some of us may walk together for a while.  May we support each other as we do so.

One of the most difficult conditions about which to be honest is brokenness.  Admitting that one is spiritually and/or emotionally broken may violate a cultural norm or a social more.  Doing so may also threaten one’s ego.  Admitting one’s brokenness to God leads to accepting one’s complete dependence upon God.  So much for rugged individualism!

I admit frankly and readily that I am not spiritually and emotionally whole.  I carry a heavy load of grief from which, I expect, I will never recover fully.  Trauma persists.  I tell you nothing that I have not admitted to God.  I know that spiritual self-sufficiency is a delusion.

“How happy those who know their need for God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs!  

“How happy are those who know what sorrow means, for they will be given courage and comfort.”

–Matthew 5:3-4, J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English–Revised Edition (1972)

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 29, 2022 COMMON ERA

THE FIFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

THE FEAST OF ANTONIO CALDARA, ROMAN CATHOLIC COMPOSER AND MUSICIAN

THE FEAST OF JOHN BURNETT MORRIS, SR., EPISCOPAL PRIEST AND WITNESS FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

THE FEAST OF PHILIPP HEINRICH MOLTHER, GERMAN MORAVIAN MINISTER, BISHOP, COMPOSER, AND HYMN TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF SAINT THOMAS BECKET, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY, AND MARTYR, 1170

THE FEAST OF THOMAS COTTERILL, ENGLISH PRIEST, HYMN WRITER, AND LITURGIST

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Psalms 27 and 36: The New Eden and the Land of the Living   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XXI

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Psalms 27 and 36

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Psalms 27 and 36 share some themes.  Many psalms share themes, of course.  Yet writing this series of blog posts properly does require breaking off portions that are not too big.

Psalm 27 is purely individual.  The pious psalmist, beset by foes, trusts God.  He expects that God will preserve his life.  The psalmist anticipates remaining

in the land of the living

–not dying and going to Sheol.  In the last verse, the psalm changes voice; the singular first person–I, me, and my–addresses the reader.

Hope for the LORD!

Let your heart be firm and bold,

and hope for the LORD.

–Robert Alter

For the sake of thoroughness, I mention a dissenting interpretation of “the land of the living.”  Mitchell J. Dahood’s translation has

the land of life eternal

instead.  Hayyim denotes eternal life in Daniel 12:2. Dahood follows that usage and draws it back into the Late Bronze Age.  I find this argument unconvincing.

As we turn to Psalm 36, we read that crime, perversity, or transgression (depending on the translation) speaks within the heart of a wicked person.  This is the kind of human being who plans iniquity and lacks regard for God.  This person, like the “benighted man” of Psalms 14 and 53, fears no divine consequences of actions.

In contrast, we read, God is kind and just.  God grants the needs of beasts and human beings alike.  God is the fountain of life and the source of light.  The imagery is Edenic.  The wicked cannot reside in such a setting, so they cannot oppress the righteous in the new Eden.

We do not live in the new Eden, though.  We reside in the land of the living, but many wicked people do, too.  So, until we arrive in the new Eden, may God deliver the oppressed from oppressors.  And may they repent of their iniquity.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

THE THIRD DAY OF CHRISTMAS

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST

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Posted December 27, 2022 by neatnik2009 in Daniel 12, Psalm 14, Psalm 27, Psalm 36, Psalm 53

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Psalm 26: Judgment and Vindication   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XX

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Psalm 26

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Psalm 26 bears striking similarities to Psalms 1 and 25.  The placement of this tex as Psalm 26 makes sense as a follow-up to Psalm 25.  However, Psalm 26 is a purely individual lament.

The psalmist is perplexed.  He had assumed, as Job’s alleged friends did, that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  Yet the psalmist’s situation belies or seems to belie that theological position.  Whether he requests a divine judgment or divine vindication depends on the interpreter/translator.  Mitchell J. Dahood asserts that no vindication was necessary, for the psalmist, assured of his integrity, sought divine recognition of it.  Robert Alter follows Dahood’s position.  Yet TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures renders the germane verb as “vindicate,” as in, to grant the reward for righteousness.

Despite the Reformed insistence that human beings are damnable creatures by our corrupted nature, the Book of Psalms holds a higher opinion of people.  We are a little less than divine–or as a familiar translation of Psalm 8 says,

a little lower than the angels.

This position is consistent with the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  So, the Jewish and Roman Catholic assertions of human merit hold theological water.

We mere mortals still know far less than God does.  Our “received wisdom” and inherited theological orthodoxy do not always match our circumstances.  Will reality override a theory, or will we double-down in ideology?  That is a matter we have the power decide for ourselves.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

THE THIRD DAY OF CHRISTMAS

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN THE EVANGELIST

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Psalm 25: Absolute Integrity   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XIX

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Psalm 25

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The Hebrew acrostic poetic form occurs in the Book of Lamentations and in nine psalms.  Psalm 25 is one of those texts.  Interestingly, the psalm omits two Hebrew letters and repeats two Hebrew letters in the acrostic pattern.  This curious fact may indicate revision of the text in antiquity.

Many people around whom I live think of the Bible as a collection of texts dictated by God.  Their attitude ignores the reality of extant ancient copies of the same Biblical texts that differ from each other, sometimes subtly.  There is also the matter of the “seams” in Genesis-Judges.  One can recognize the “seams” of the editing of different texts together if one pays very close attention.  But what does fundamentalism have to do with facts?  The attitude of those who regard Biblical authors as glorified secretaries would have been foreign to ancient Hebrews, who edited and revised texts.  The last great editor, my reading tells me, was Ezra, whom we can thank for the current form of much of the Hebrew Bible.

Another fascinating tidbit is that Psalm 25:16 is the last time until 142:5 that a psalmist claims to be alone.  We read a personal lament.  The psalmist is alone, in human terms.  He pleads with God and has many enemies.  The psalmist prays for the forgiveness of his sins and affirms the hesed–steadfast love–of God.  The psalmist trusts in God.  He is not alone; God is with him.

What will preserve or watch over the psalmist?  Comparing translations proves helpful in answering that question.  Mitchell J. Dahood and TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures read:

integrity and uprightness.

Robert Alter’s translation reads:

uprightness, wholeness.

Alter, preferring to maintain the rhythm of the Hebrew text, proposes that the synonyms, bracketed together, convey one concept.  He identifies that concept as:

absolute integrity.

Psalm 25 concludes on a national focus:

O God, redeem Israel

from all its distress.

–Psalm 25:22, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures

Such a turn from the individual focus to the national focus occurs frequently in the Book of Psalms.  The individual’s troubles are real.  They are also a microcosm of the problems of the collective.  Yet the interpretive difficulty in Psalm 25 comes into sharp relief with verse 22.  The text is the lament of a pious individual through verse 21.  As other parts of the Hebrew Bible attest, such assertions of piety cannot apply to the people as a whole.  So, we find more evidence of editorial alteration in antiquity.

Nevertheless, the placement of the ills of the individual within the context of the community makes sense to me.  I cannot be whole in a sick and divided community.  The actions and attitudes of others affect me, just as I influence my community.  Also, the decisions of others may restrict or expand my options, regardless of the scope of my talents, abilities, and ambitions.  So, the ills of the community are my problems, too.

May we–both individually and collectively–revere God and take care of each other.  May we, by grace, build up and maintain the common good.  May we encourage all our members and enable them to achieve their full potential.  May God’s absolute integrity, protecting us, inspire us to lead lives of absolute integrity, both collectively and individually.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 26, 2022 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT STEPHEN, FIRST MARTYR

THE SECOND DAY OF CHRISTMAS

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Psalms 14 and 53: Practical Atheism   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART XIII

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Psalms 14 and 53

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Psalms 14 and 53 are nearly identical, hence their pairing in this blog post.  The record of interpretation provides a list of proposed geographical and temporal origins of Psalms 14 and 53.  According to the most likely hypothesis, Psalm 14 comes from the southern Kingdom of Judah and Psalm 53 comes from the northern Kingdom of Israel.  The textual evidence of YHWH in Psalm 14 and Elohim in Psalm 53 supports this theory.

Sometimes a literal translation does not convey the meaning of the words in a different context.  A meaning clear to a Jew millennia ago in the Near East may not be obvious to a Gentile Christian in North America in late 2022.

The scoundrel has said in his heart,

“There is no God.”

–Psalm 14:1a and Psalm 53:2, from Robert Alter’s translation

The point Alter makes in a note is a matter that TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (1985, 1999) makes partially clear in translation:

The benighted man thinks,

“God does not care.”

I will take each line in order.

The standard English translation describes this person as a fool.  Alter’s “scoundrel” is a better rendering, based on the following verses.  Yet I prefer “benighted man.”  As a note in The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition (2014) tells me, “benighted” carries moral overtones, as in the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:13) by her half-brother, Amnon.  “Scoundrel” seems like a tame understatement.

The fool/scoundrel/benighted man is a practical atheist, not a dogmatic one.  Psalms 14 and 53 come from a time and a place in which dogmatic atheism was rare yet practical atheism was commonplace.  For evidence, consult the Hebrew prophetic denunciations of the poor and other vulnerable people, O reader.  Such malefactors still exist.  The attitude that leads to senseless violence and exploitation is timeless, sadly.  Such malefactors do not fear retribution.

Psalms 14 and 53 are about people who think of God as an apathetic and absent landlord.  Thus, we can read Mitchell J. Dahood’s translation of Psalm 53, in which the fool thinks in his heart that

God is not present.

TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures gets more to the point; this malefactor imagines vainly that

God does not care.

A note in The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition gets to the point:

The claim of this benighted individual would invalidate two of the basic assumptions of Psalms:  the ability of God to hear prayers, and the ability of God to hear prayers, and the ability of God to punish the human wrongs that various psalmists lament.

–1281

And, as Alter tells us in one of his notes, the scoundrel lacks a conscience and acts with impunity.

As the entirety of the Jewish Bible and the various Christian canons of scripture attest, God cares deeply and is present.  God can also hear prayers and punish human wrongs.

Nobody can flee from the reality of God.  Hence it is foolish to attempt to do so.  Such an attempt must necessarily end in moral corruption; for it is the fruit of disobedience which results in the inability to do that which is good.  Where there is no sense of duty to God, there man goes astray and experiences already by that very fact that the hand of God the Judge is upon him, and he cannot escape.

–Artur Weiser, The Psalms:  A Commentary (1962), 165

My cultural context is one of the rise of fashionable agnosticism and atheism, accompanied by the decline in religious observance.  Meanwhile, bigotry, fascism, and Christian nationalism are openly part of vocal segments of the church.  The rise of agnosticism and atheism are partially backlashes against the latter point.

An Episcopal priest I know has a positive method of responding to people who tell him that they do not believe in God.  Father Dann asks them to describe the God in whom they do not believe.  He always hears a version of God in which he does not believe either.

I do not pretend to have formulated the definitive concept of God.  My faith is complicated, for I am complicated.  I cannot fathom having a simple faith, for I am who I am.  Anyhow, I affirm with the authors of Psalms 14 and 53 that God is present, that God cares, that God hears prayers, and that God can punish human wrongs.  And I have a conscience.  I pray that God may direct and, as necessary, reshape that conscience, for I have moral blind spots.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 25, 2022 COMMON ERA

CHRISTMAS DAY

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Psalm 11: When the Foundations are Destroyed   Leave a comment

READING THE BOOK OF PSALMS

PART X

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Psalm 11

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I collect Biblical commentaries.  My preferences run toward the best scholars, for I want only the highest quality of Biblical commentaries.  I read a few commentaries and think that I know what a reference or a passage means.  Then I read another commentary, which contradicts that consensus.

Welcome to Psalm 11, O reader.

The psalmist seeks refuge; that much is plain.  But does he seek literal refuge from the wicked by fleeing to the Temple in Jerusalem or does he seek metaphorical refuge in God?  Scholars disagree.  Anyhow, these enemies are wicked.  They are so wicked that they warrant a rain of fiery coals, even if that is a metaphor.  These enemies are so wicked that they are like Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).

Psalm 11 concludes with an affirmation that God, who is righteous, loves righteous deeds.  Also, the upright will behold the divine face.  Recall, O reader, that Biblical righteousness is right relationship with God, others, self, and all creation.  Righteousness is tangible, not abstract.  So, righteous deeds build up others, self, and all creation, as well as glorify God.  Naturally, God lives righteous deeds.

I make no pretense of being qualified to join the Biblical scholarly debate as a peer of Robert Alter, Mitchell J. Dahood, William R. Taylor, W. Stewart McCullough, Walter Brueggemann, and J. Clinton McCann, Jr.  Nevertheless, I offer two suggestions which you, O reader, are free to dispute with injuring my ego.  I propose that (a) Psalm 11 may have originally had one meaning regarding the Temple, but the interpretation eventually changed, or (b) the psalmist may have intended a double meaning.  My reading of Biblical commentaries regarding other texts tells me of the repurposing of texts within the Bible itself.  My reading of some commentaries has also informed me double meanings in certain passages.

Anyhow, we mere mortals can seek refuge in God, as many of our forebears have done.  When people who may have our best interests at heart give us bad advice (such as “flee to the hills” in Psalm 11), we can flee to God.  When the foundations have become ruins, we can flee to God.  When errant coreligionists side with the wicked and the bigoted, we can flee to God.  Thanks be to God!

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

DECEMBER 24, 2022 COMMON ERA

CHRISTMAS EVE:  THE LAST DAY OF ADVENT, YEAR A

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