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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Psalm 68: Part 8: turns on a tent peg

Update: Bob has ventured into the next few verses.

Some readers might feel that by letting myself imagine the "background" to this psalm, I have left the text, as it is, and have added what is not there. On the contrary, it turns out that I have wandered into what really is there.

When I chose to write about this psalm, I had no notion of women being involved in writing it. I decided to start without the commentaries and develop my own feel for the text first and then go back and read the commentary.

After writing about the woman pegging down her tent, I then realized that this psalm contains several quotes and allusions from Deborah's Song in Judges 5 spread throughout the passage.
    Psalm 68:5,8,9

    Sing unto God,
    sing praises to His name;
    extol Him that rideth upon the skies,
    whose name is the LORD;
    and exult ye before Him.

    O God, when Thou wentest forth before Thy people,
    when Thou didst march through the wilderness; Selah

    The earth trembled,
    the heavens also dropped at the presence of God;
    even yon Sinai trembled at the presence of God,
    the God of Israel.

    Judges 5:3-5

    Hear, O ye kings;
    give ear, O ye princes;
    I, unto the LORD will I sing;
    I will sing praise to the LORD,
    the God of Israel.

    LORD, when Thou didst go forth out of Seir,
    when Thou didst march out of the field of Edom,
    the earth trembled,
    the heavens also dropped,
    yea, the clouds dropped water.

    The mountains quaked
    at the presence of the LORD,
    even yon Sinai
    at the presence of the LORD,
    the God of Israel.
Several phrases are recited from Deborah's Song, with little or no change. One notable change, however, is that יְהוָה YHVH in Deborah's Song becomes אֱלֹהִים Elohim in Psalm 68. Here God is addressed as Elohim, with the added clarification that YAH is his name.

Other phrases throughout the psalm are taken from Judges as well, without necessarily retaining the same connotation. For example, in Judges the ones who divided the spoil were Canaanite women, not Israelite women. The meaning of many of these references is obscure in Psalm 68.

    Ps. 68:13

    and she that tarrieth at home divideth the spoil.

    Judges 5:30

    Are they not finding,
    are they not dividing the spoil?


    Psalm 68:14

    When ye lie among the sheepfolds

    Judges 5:16

    Why sattest thou among the sheepfolds,
    to hear the pipings for the flocks?


    Ps. 68:19

    Thou hast ascended on high,
    Thou hast led captivity captive;
    Thou hast received gifts among men,
    yea, among the rebellious also,
    that the LORD God might dwell there.

    Judges 5:12

    Awake, awake, Deborah;
    awake, awake, utter a song;
    arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive,
    thou son of Abinoam.


    Ps. 68:28

    There is Benjamin, the youngest,
    ruling them, the princes of Judah their council,
    the princes of Zebulun, the princes of Naphtali.

    Judges 5:14

    after thee, Benjamin, among thy peoples;
    out of Machir came down governors,
    and out of Zebulun they that handle the marshal's staff.
Apart from the initial reference, many of these phrases are difficult to interpret and integrate into the meaning of the psalm as a whole. They seem to function as allusions to Deborah's Song, to bring those events to mind for the hearers.

It seems entirely unlikely to me that Deborah's Song itself was kept alive by men, considering these lines,
    Her hand she put to the tent-pin,
    and her right hand to the workmen's hammer;
    and with the hammer she smote Sisera,
    she smote through his head,
    yea, she pierced and struck through his temples.

    At her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay;
    at her feet he sunk, he fell;
    where he sunk, there he fell down dead.
There is a note of exultation over an enemy and a stronger one at that, that I think might not have appealed to the male warrior, although surely the victory itself was welcome.

There is, then, an overwhelming probability that this psalm was composed by a woman who was familiar with the Song of Deborah, and borrowed bits and pieces of it to retain a connection to a famous victory.

However, there is no indication that subsequent readers, or singers of this psalm perceived it as a feminine song, or thought that it had a feminine voice. In fact, the Parliamentary armies sang this song during the English civil war.

    Psalm 68 was a favourite of the Parliamentary armies, but one should not forget that it was an indelible part of the religious culture of the day. It would have been sung by the King's side as well. The Prayer Book version, though, is not the one they would have sung. When one reads of the soldiers of the Civil War advancing into battle singing psalms, it is a misimagination to think of them going into battle chanting Anglican chant. Almost certainly, they would have sung the words they would have known and loved:

    Let God arise, and then his foes
    will turn themselves to flight:
    His enemies for fear shall run,
    and scatter out of sight.

    This is the Old Version of Psalm 68, by Sternhold.
Although there is much in this psalm to indicate that it was composed by a woman, or women, there is nothing intrinsically feminine about its sentiments. The author expresses the desires of all singers of this psalm - recognition of the greatness of God, appeal to him to scatter their enemies and understanding that he is a God of restoration and goodness. The psalmist does not compose a text for women, the psalmist composes a text for the nation.

Note: All citations are from the JPS.



At Sun Sep 09, 10:52:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

What a great post Suzanne - the commentaries mention judges 5 but none of them has the scope to expand the exploration of this song as we seem to be approaching. I wonder: What role does the allusion make? how does it make the poem stand on its own? and does it coalesce the meaning at least to some extent? These are some of the questions I will pursue. The feminine endings reinforce the possibility that the Psalm was written by a woman. These were all ignored by our traditional translations.

At Sun Sep 09, 10:58:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

The allusions don't seem to have the same meaning in the Psalm as they did in Judges, so I think they are there to recall the victory commemorated in Deborah's song. What was the central meaning of that event - maybe how lack of trust turned into victory with God's provision.

I like the way your are taking a more cohesive approach to the psalm, whereas I seem to be wandering in the labyrinths.

Some translations, the ESV, for example, do reflect the feminine endings. I will explore the history of that in due course. It is slow going but fascinating.

What do you make of the change in God's name from Deborah's time to the time of the psalm?

At Mon Sep 10, 11:39:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

This is really great. Why didn't I see that! It's an amazing connection between these two songs. I'm glad you caught it and also that you researched it more carefully than I would have.

The metrical versions are also a good catch especially Isaac Watts.

Any of a number of Hebrew dudes would be able to tell us about the name change if they wished.

At Mon Sep 10, 01:12:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yes, where are all the Hebrew dudes?

At Mon Sep 10, 07:38:00 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

The psalms are in a sandwich structure; Elohim predominates as the meat, YHWH as the bread - see the graph on the bottom of my emerging portrait.

Books 2 and 3, psalms 42-89, the first psalms of Korah, more David, Asaph - all use Elohim more than YHWH. Michael Goulder supposes that the children of Korah are northerners - some call it speculation, but how else do you try it on? I find his arguments very appealing. I wondered if there was more tendency to use Elohim in the North and whether this is reflected in the final redaction of the psalter in the south after the defeat of both Israel and Judah.

At Fri Sep 14, 07:30:00 PM, Blogger InHim said...

Not sure if you're reading this far back but the quote labeled Ps. 68:19 should be Ps. 68:18.

On that note, I can't figure out why (T)NIV says "who daily bears our burdens" when the other translations are so different from this.


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