Musings on the greatest set of books ever written, etc.

Month: June, 2013

A Hermeneutical Shift (No, It’s Not a Dance)

I was reading Psalm 41 recently, and when I came to the end, I was reminded that I had just completed “Book One” of the Psalter (“the Psalter” is not a condiment dispenser, but another name for the Book of Psalms). I of course knew about the various “Books” to be found in the “Book” of Psalms (there are a total of five), but still it caught me afresh, bringing back into conscious recollection the complicated nature of the editing of the current collection of the 150 poems and hymns found in that “book.” Like hymnbooks in churches and synagogues “back in the day,” the Psalter represents a carefully chosen collection of “the best of the best”—individual hymns of praise, corporate hymns of praise, and—in contrast to more traditional hymnbooks—a surprisingly large number of laments as well (the gloomiest psalm of all has to be Psalm 88, with no note of hope pervading the darkness anywhere in the poem).

But back to the “hermeneutical shift.” The term “hermeneutics” simply means “interpretation,” but often in a more careful and precise manner than that found in popular thought. And everyone knows what a “shift” is—some sort of change or alteration. So the “hermeneutical shift” I have in mind is some type of intentional variation, or change in perspective. And for that, we need to look at Psalm 1, the first psalm found in the Psalter. Like any psalm, this “torah psalm” was once an independent composition, not part of the one-hundred-fifty chapter work which now constitutes the psalter. As just noted, this psalm stands in praise of “torah” (basically representing the five books of Moses which are placed at the beginning of all Jewish and Christian Bibles). Psalm 1 was not originally written to head the other collection of five books—the five books of the psalter—even though it now stands as the introduction to that very collection. I guess some later editor is responsible for this—and he or she is the one who now signals the “hermeneutical shift” by that current placement. For we find another “torah” of sorts in the book of Psalms, with its five subsections. Psalm 1 (verse 2) declares to its readers that a truly blessed person “takes delight” in studying Torah, meditating on it “day and night.”  But now we know that a blessed person—at least in the opinion of a later psalms editor—should also take delight also in studying the “torah” which is found in Psalms. Many have meditated “day and night” with great profit on the words of the psalter—for example, I recall that in the middle ages, priests up for ordination in the Catholic church were expected to commit the entire psalter to memory!

So do you catch the “hermeneutical shift”? Now, Psalm 1, in its current location, serves to indicate that there is more than one five-volumned “torah” to enjoy. Of course we are to continue to meditate on the Torah of Moses, and enjoy its varied and often surprising teachings. But we are also to enjoy the “torah” (the basic idea of this Hebrew term is “teachings”) of the Psalms too—again with their varied and definitely surprising observations. Therefore, be encouraged to meditate on these poems day and night. And be blessed.


P.S. Don’t be upset if you still don’t understand the exact nature of the “hermeneutical shift.” Just be aware that the current location of Psalm 1 now encourages us to meditate on the following psalms as well as on the original books of Moses. [The term “hermeneutical shift” in this context was employed by the noted OT scholar Brevard Childs, who in turn cited its use by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.]


King Hezekiah, Man of God (Continued)


In my last blog post (“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter”), I talked about King Hezekiah, the great Judahite reformer king who reigned in Jerusalem near the end of the eighth century BCE. Once again, in Proverbs 25:1-2, the editor tells us that it was under Hezekiah’s auspices that chapters 25-29 of that book were compiled. And once again, I quoted the great German bible scholar Gerhard von Rad concerning kings being patrons of wisdom literature (that is, champions and promoters of all searching after wisdom to live a more satisfying and successful life). We were reminded in the very next verse, Prov 25:2, that it is the glory of God to conceal matters, but (or, and?) the glory of kings to search out and reveal matters.

In passing, I made reference to Hezekiah’s seal impression, the one once again pictured above (the formal name for such clay seal impressions is “bullae” [singular, “bulla”]). I translated the Hebrew words found on it (in essence, “Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah”), but I did not discuss the curious iconography (that is, the analysis of symbols—akin to the “symbology” of Robert Langdon’s fictional fame) which is found prominently on the bulla. The symbol in the center is, of all things, a two winged scarab or dung beetle—an insect depicted as rolling a piece of dung with its two front legs! And this circular bit of dung represents, of all things, the circular sun disk as it rises in the sky (compare Malachi 4:2, “For you [Judeans] who revere my name [that is, Yahweh’s name], the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings”). This iconography ultimately derives from Egypt, but more immediately from Phoenicia, which was basically located in what is now the nation of Lebanon. Recently I have written a summary article about the importance of Phoenicia, and more immediately, of the seacoast city of Tyre (see my brief entry in the recently published New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 693-694). The city of Tyre figured prominently in the history of monarchical Israel and Judah since the time of David and Solomon—and the present bulla of Hezekiah only gives more evidence of its continued influence (at least, culturally) on the little nation of Judah in the eighth century BCE, although by this time the empire of Assyria mostly held political and military sway throughout the region. It is one of history’s great ironies that the nation of Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, the infamous worshipper of the Phoenician god Baal back in the ninth century (see 1 Kgs 16:29-33; 19:1-2; 21:1-24; etc., for details), is thus pictorially represented on the royal seal of Judah’s later great worshipper of Yahweh (see 2 Kgs 18:1-7, and especially verses 5 and 6 [” . . . there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah . . . for he held fast to Yahweh, he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that Yahweh had commanded Moses”]). This was the same Hezekiah who, as we have just noted, was the promulgator of significant parts of the biblical book of Proverbs, and, indeed, probably of the books of Kings, as well. As my late mentor, Professor Frank Moore Cross, put it:

“Both Hezekiah and Josiah [the later prominent king of Judah who ruled in the seventh century] instituted religious reforms to centralize worship [of Yahweh] in the Jerusalem Temple and to purify the cult [of Yahweh]. From the evidence thus far available, it appears that the reforms of Josiah were more rigorous in their anionic thrust [that is, condemnation of all pictorial images in line with the Ten Commandments of Moses] than those of Hezekiah” [this quote, and much of the above discussion is indebted to Frank Cross’s article found in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April, 1999, pp. 42-45, 60].

So Hezekiah, the great Yahwistic king (according to 2 Kings chs. 18-20, as well as 2 Chronicles chs. 29-32), had a Phoenician symbol of the sun disk on his royal seal? One never knows how later history will treat one’s religious actions (or in this case, inactions, since Hezekiah is probably only representing popular artistic motifs current in Israel at the time). In any case, as Frank Cross concluded his article, “it is quite extraordinary to be able to look at original impressions formed by the seal of one of Judah’s most important monarchs 2,700 years ago.”


NOTE: For the next several weeks, I suspect I will only publish a blog post about once a week or so—so please be patient if the blog posts diminish in frequency during this time.


“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter”


In Proverbs 25:1-2 we find a curious editorial reference to the king under whose authority the next five chapters of this book were compiled—King Hezekiah of Judah. You might have expected King Solomon, the famous patron of wisdom in ancient Israel, and traditionally the king who wrote (or at least compiled) the book of Proverbs (see Prov 1:1, 10:1), but, no, it is the eighth century King Hezekiah (above is a drawing of his seal impression, with the reference to “Judah” at the top, and to “of Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king . . . ” at the bottom). Hezekiah is one of the heroes of the books of Kings and Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible; indeed, I (and many others) have argued that under the auspices of Hezekiah a very important edition of Kings was first compiled.

Let’s look at what we read in the very next sentence in Proverbs chapter 25, just after the reference to the literary efforts of King Hezekiah:

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, / but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”

And that is precisely what the book of Proverbs (or, for that matter, the entire wisdom tradition in the ancient Near East) aims to do: to make the hidden come to light, especially in the realms of successful living among people in general and among court bureaucrats in particular. For the proverbs (short, apt sayings, easily memorized) in Proverbs give us good advice: when to talk and what to talk about, when to be silent, what to expect from others, etc.

But let’s look again at the proverb I just quoted. Many of the proverbs give sharp contrasts (“A wise son brings joy to his father, / but a foolish son grief to his mother” [Prov 10:1]), but here the contrast is between the work of God and the work of a king. God delights to conceal things (life is often much less straightforward than you might expect), so the work of a king (like Hezekiah, and before him, Solomon) is to reveal what God has concealed! So does that mean that kings are to “undo” the work of God? Well, maybe it does. Some years ago, an eminent German biblical scholar named Gerhard von Rad, in commenting on this verse, expressed it well:

“This is a fine, wide-ranging sentence which can set one’s thoughts moving in many different directions. It speaks of the king’s glory in investigation (at that time the king was the foremost champion and promoter of all searching after wisdom); but before this there stands the saying about God, whose glory lies in concealing, whose secrets, therefore, are to be worshiped by men. God conceals, kings discover—to both, glory is due. What a profound knowledge of God and of men is encompassed by this handful of words!” [from von Rad’s Wisdom in Israel, p. 34].

Well, we (at least in North America) do not believe much in the wisdom of kings any more. But, be that as it may, we all now have access to “wisdom,” whether ancient or modern. And therefore we too can “undo” the work of God (or, “the gods,” or “providence,” or even “dumb luck” and fate) by seeking after, and then promoting widely, discoveries of the practical principles which can so help us succeed in life. Let’s end with some painful but profitable advice found earlier in the book of Proverbs:

“Anyone who rebukes a mocker [or scoffer] will get an insult in return. / Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt.

So don’t bother correcting mockers; / they will only hate you.

But correct the wise, / and they will love you.

Instruct the wise, / and they will be even wiser.

Teach the righteous, / and they will learn even more.” [Prov 9:7-9, New Living Translation]


My advice: go “uncover” some new stuff today. Let’s “undo” the work of God!


[NOTE: In my next blog post I will discuss the Hezekiah seal impression in more detail.]



“An eye for an eye . . . “


Critics of the Bible often get ammunition from seemingly bloodthirsty sayings like the following: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” They say, not without reason, that plucking out an eye or a tooth is harsh punishment for committing a crime. Thus, any god who commands this, such as Yahweh the God of Israel, must be a cruel god without compassion, prone to wiping out the innocent due to the actions of the guilty, and showing no mercy. (The instructions to the early Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites without exception would also demonstrate this very thing: see Deut 7:1-5; 20;16-18; Josh 6:21; 11:14-15; etc.) But what about “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”? Should we take this literally? As Tevye in “The Fiddler on the Roof” reminds us, then the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.

First of all, we should look at the larger context for this saying. The classic exposition is to be found in the so-called Book of the Covenant in Exodus chs. 21-23, “[But] if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25). Here Moses is depicted as speaking the very words of Yahweh, addressing the people of Israel less than half a year after they escaped in the “Exodus” from Egypt (whence the name of the book). The “Book of the Covenant” takes its name from a statement in Exod 24:3-8, and especially verse 7.

But there was an earlier “lawgiver” who also took pride in the fact that he had his lawcode reduced to writing and available for all to see (all who could read, that is, and since it was written in the complicated cuneiform of Old Babylonian, this would have been only a small minority of the upper class). Still, this “Hammurabi” (sometimes spelled “Hammurapi”—I told you it was a tricky language to read), depicted above as receiving the commission to write his famous lawcode from the sun god Shamash—recorded some 282 separate laws, plus a prologue and an epilogue extolling his royal role as keeper of justice, a “salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight.” And Hammurabi ruled back in the 18th century BCE, at least three, and more likely five, centuries before the time of Moses.

Now you can figure out where this essay is going—back to the “an eye for an eye” legal principle. Sure enough, Hammurabi uses the same criterion for his expression of justice:

[Law number] 196: If a seignior [feudal lord] has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.

197: If he has broken a(nother) seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.

198: If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner or broken the bone of a commoner, he shall pay one mina [60 shekels; 700g or 1.5 lbs.] of silver.

199: If he has destroyed the eye of a seignior’s slave or broken the bone of a seignior’s slave, he shall pay one half his value.

200: If a seignior has knocked out a tooth of a seignior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

201: If he has knocked out a commoner’s tooth, he shall pay one-third mina of silver.

202: If a seignior has struck the cheek of a seignior who is superior to him, he shall be beaten sixty (times) with an oxtail whip in the assembly.

203: If a member of the aristocracy has struck the cheek of a(nother) member of the aristocracy who is of the same rank as himself, he shall pay one mina of silver.

204: If a commoner has struck the cheek of a(nother) commoner, he shall pay ten shekels of silver.

205: If a seignior’s slave has struck the cheek of a member of the aristocracy, they shall cut off his ear . . .

Well, you get the idea.

The “eye for an eye” principle was common in the ancient Near East, and it simply signified that the punishment must fit the crime—no less than, but also, no greater than the extent of the crime. (Of course, back in Hammurabi’s time—and for that matter, typically throughout the history of any socially stratified society—aristocrats experienced much more lenient “justice” than did commoners or slaves.) Moses—or if you will, Yahweh—actually advanced the legal principle that any Israelite male would be treated equally before the law (it took much longer, alas, for women to be included). So the biblical “eye for eye” principle represented, of all things, an improvement on the legal practice of the time. And of course, the “eye for eye” principle was just that, a principle, not a literal punishment. Monetary fines or the like were the rule of the day.

Let me sign off with what was the ideal legal status of ancient Israel: shalom [peace, completeness, blessing].