L is for Lamentations

A reader new to the Hebrew Bible might well be puzzled by just how much of its content seems to rail against God. The prophet Jeremiah and the book of Job are riddled with cries to God from a place of anger. The Book of Psalms which has provided a template for Jewish and Christian prayer over the centuries is made up of a great variety of songs and poems, but by any reckoning at least one third are cries to God. This Hebraic style of calling out to God is often termed Lament. No matter how provocative and desperate this language of lament gets it is always said (or cried) from a stance of faith—these are no cries into the empty void, but they are desperate pleas to a God who can and from the psalmists standpoint, should deliver.

However profound the anger and suffering found in the Psalms of Lament there is a place that goes further still into the depths of dark experience, the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations deals with the horror of events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the immediate aftermath. Its nature, as a collection of distinct literary units means that there is a recapitulation of key themes like abandonment by Yahweh, suffering, judgement and confession. Given the desperate context we might expect that the laments of Lamentations would be crude spontaneous prayers. The truth could not be further away from this, for despite the terrible nature of the event as a whole, and the specific grim details, all of Lamentations is intricately-crafted poetry. It is not only poetic but has all the hallmarks of meticulous care and attention in its design. All five chapters use an acrostic device—in each separate lament each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This device quickly explains why chapters 1,2, 4 and 5 all have 22 verses and why the central chapter 3 has 66, see the table below.

Lamentations Structure

Although there is no over-arching narrative to the book, there is a certain symmetry about its structure, with the larger chapter three lying at its heart. Some scholars hesitate in identifying chapter 5 as an implied acrostic. Recently, however, attention has been drawn to the existence of implied acrostics, or quasi-acrostics, in the Psalter too, see [1]. Although chapter 5 of Lamentations clearly differs from the other chapters—it is not an acrostic, but it has 22 verses and is by association an implied acrostic. Quite why it has been composed free of the normal constraint of an acrostic will probably remain a mystery. Perhaps the book has finally freed itself of the constraint necessary to contain grief?

Why would the author or editors of the book of Lamentations choose such a dominant  literary form as the acrostic device? It is perhaps an attempt to bring poetic order to what appears to be so thoroughly disordered. It is as if the poet is trying what is almost impossible, voicing the most profound questions, and in doing so has found that the order imposed by the acrostic device gives a framework to hold on to. The existence of the five literary units highlights the ongoing nature of attempting to ask the right questions whilst dealing with acute pain and grief. It is possible that the constraints of poetry provide a way to structure and shape the work of the poet, to enable processing of the terrors experienced and seen. This type of catharsis is certainly part of the preservation of this text. It is thoroughly human to rehearse tragedy and reiterate injustice. How much more appropriate when events have challenged the very core belief of your people, that Yahweh shows his people irrevocable covenant faithfulness?

 

  1. O. Palmer Robertson, ‘The Alphabetic Acrostic in Book I of the Psalms: An Overlooked Element of Psalter Structure’, pp.225-238, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2015, p.236.

A is for aleph to tav

The Hebrew alphabet seems an ideal way to start an A to Z series of posts on the Hebrew Bible. In this way we can celebrate the English language and the Hebrew Bible simultaneously. The Hebrew alphabet begins with aleph and ends with tav. We shall see that the Hebrew Bible invented the idea of an A to Z before the English alphabet even existed. The alphabet is a good place to start for other reasons too. It is a helpful reminder that when most of us read the Hebrew Bible we read it in translation. Even the act of picking up a copy of the Hebrew Bible is a choice—a choice of one rendering into English over another (I hope any Hebrew readers will forgive my presumption). Rather than seeing the need to read in translation as a problem however, its positive dimensions should be noted. The very necessity of translation makes us appreciate head-on the nature of the task of reading this profoundly important cultural object. As we read it we will find it is not just the language that we find alien.

If we read the Hebrew Bible out of interest and genuine enquiry we must address not only the linguistic challenge but also recognise that this is only the first rung on the ladder to understanding these texts. Whilst one alphabet and language can be rendered into another it is perhaps a more proscribed process than connecting the modern reader’s cultural perspective with those of the authors, editors and characters of the Hebrew Bible.

This blog aims to provide a starting point for the journey of both understanding and appreciation needed to bridge the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Despite some thinker’s scepticism about the possibility of bridging what has been termed an ‘ugly broad ditch’ [1], I am writing from a conviction that a ‘fusion of horizons’ [2] is a genuine possibility. More than that, that reading the Hebrew Bible is a fruitful and rewarding venture. At the outset, I must point out that I am writing from the vantage point of Christian faith. This stance is inevitably founded on presuppositions although of course there is no truly neutral viewing gallery alternative. I hope that anyone reading from a different perspective will see that my attempt is at least honest in its presuppositions and able to display critical judgement.

The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet turn out to be linguistically richer than the English alphabet—they are strictly speaking consonantal phonemes rather than letters. Each of them can have vowels appended to them. Despite this, these twenty-two consonantal phonemes often function in ways analogous to the English alphabet. This is especially true in terms of the A–Z motif so familiar to fellow April A–Z bloggers. In fact the Hebrew Bible takes the concepts of completeness and organisation that an A–Z motif implies and utilises it time and again. Some of the poetic parts of the Hebrew Bible, as we shall see, embrace aleph to tav as a profoundly meaningful literary device.

 

Notes

  1. Gotthold Lessing (1729–81) was a German Enlightenment philosopher. He famously (or infamously) used an image of “the ugly broad ditch” (der garstige breite Graben) to describe the problem of historical distance between the present and past historical events.
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) was a German philosopher. He was a proponent of a rich idea of “the fusion of horizons” (horizontverschmelzung). The concept involves a connection between a modern vantage point, or horizon, and an ancient one. When a proper connection or fusion, is established the contemporary observer understands from a new vantage point. This approach has had an impact on modern hermeneutics (theories of interpretation).

An A-Z of Praise: Psalm 111

In looking at this specific psalm we shall see how the idea of an acrostic works and at the same time consider how this specific psalm raises some broader issues that any A-Z of the psalms must address. Here is this psalm laid out so that the acrostic device can be seen:

1. Praise Yah!
Aleph – I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart,
Beth – in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2. Gimel – Great are the works of Yahweh,
Daleth – studied by all who delight in them.
3. He – Full of honour and majesty is his work,
Waw – and his righteousness endures forever.
4. Zayin – He has gained renown by his marvellous deeds;
Heth – Yahweh is gracious and merciful.
5. Teth – He provides food for those who fear him;
Yodh – he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6. Kaph – He has shown his people the power of his works,
Lamedh – in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7. Mem – The works of his hands are faithful and just;
Nun – all his precepts are trustworthy.
8. Samekh – They are established forever and ever,
Ayin – to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9. Peh – He sent redemption to his people;
Sadhe – he has commanded his covenant forever.
Qoph – Holy and awesome is his name.
10. Resh – the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom;
Shih – All those who practice it have a good understanding.
Taw – His prise endures forever.

[the above follows the NIV but with Yahweh replacing ‘The Lord’.]

When scholars discuss Hebrew poetry they use the term colon to describe the small parts that in English usage might be referred to as lines. The reason why the term colon is used is that Biblical Hebrew has rather different principles of grammar and punctuation which leaves much greater ambiguity than conventional English verse. In each of verses 1-8 of psalm 111 the Hebrew text is readily translated into a bicolon. In other words each of these verses reads as two statements, with the second elaborating or building on the first in some manner. Importantly the recognition of this poetic device will lead to a different translation than if each colon is taken as a statement in its own right. In the case of psalm 111, modern translations and scholars all follow this bicolon structure. The same structure follows in verses 9 and 10, it is just that in these two verses three colons have been allocated to each verse, potentially obscuring the bicolon comprising v.9c and v.10a.

What different biblical translations and scholars do not agree upon is how this psalm might be put into, what we might call, paragraphs or verses (the technical term strophe is often used in Hebrew poetry). Interpreters of psalm 111 also disagree to an extent over the context in which psalm 111 originated and was used. Fortunately such disagreements, in this case at least, do not lead to significant differences in what the psalm is understood to be claiming. This difficulty of establishing the original circumstances for which a psalm was written is a topic on which a whole scholarly career might, indeed has, been founded. We will return to this matter later, but for now we can note that perhaps this ambiguity is part of the reason why the canonical psalms were preserved-people of faith wanted something which they could ‘make their own’, they were not about the task of preserving archaic texts.

Returning to psalm 111, it does not take a lot of attention to see that its acrostic nature has constrained the poet and this has played a key role in making the poem what it is. As an artistic device which constrains, the acrostic pattern has taken the poet where they might otherwise not have gone. Similar results occur when poetry is written to conform to say, the iambic pentameter of a Petrarchan sonnet or the traditional 5, 7, 5 syllabic pattern of traditional haiku. The result of the constraint of the acrostic device, in this instance, produces pithy statements about the psalmist’s and audience’s actions, and in particular about what Yahweh has done. Sometimes the individual colons are formulaic echoing, or restating, ideas from elsewhere. This is the case with verse 10’s ‘The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom’, which is very similar to Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10, and is a pervasive motif in the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever the uncertainties regarding the original setting of psalm 111, its opening implies use within the community of faith-the differences of opinion amongst scholars concerns whether its use was (a) generic, (b) specific to a given festival or (c) used during a pilgrimage. Whatever the specific occasion of use, the opening bicolon implies that the psalm would be read by an individual on behalf of those gathered together. Verses 2 to 9 then rehearse the most fundamental claims about Yahweh the God of Israel, namely that:

1. His deeds are great and worth meditating on.
2. His righteousness and faithfulness are unchanging.
3. He is a God who will honour the covenant he made with his people.
4. His deeds testify to the veracity of the other claims being made.

The focus on Yahweh’s covenant with Israel is perhaps greater than the NIV translation used above indicates. This arises because of the ambiguity of tense in Biblical Hebrew. For example, in v.5a we hear of Yahweh providing food for those who fear him. In the context of covenant (v.5b) it might well be better read as ‘He provided food for those who feared him’; referring back to the gift of manna and quail during Israel’s wilderness wanderings following the Exodus from Egypt. The very next verse refers to the end of the wanderings as Yahweh grants them the Promised Land.

The psalm, having rehearsed this story, or worldview, then concludes with an exhortation as to the right three-fold response: (i) fear of Yahweh, (ii) following his precepts and (iii) praising him. All three of these are central to the content and themes of the Psalter. In this way psalm 111 is a neat A to Z of the reasons to carry on being a faithful Jew (or Christian).

An Acrostic of Psalms Books

A number of the Psalms take the form of acrostics, in other words they make use of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, one by one, to begin a verse or series of verses (see earlier article on acrostics). This poetic device raises complications for the poet. This post uses this device to identify 26 psalm books (well 22 thanks to the letters I, U, X and Y!). Of course the constraint is perhaps to constraining for some letters of the English alphabet! If you disagree with a particular letter, feel free to lament to MarkWhiting@psaltermark for some dialogue. Please note that the individual choices contribute to the whole in an attempt to provide a miniature rounded Psalms library.

Alter, R., The Book of Psalms: A translation with commentary, New York: Norton, 2007.
Where else can we begin, but with the Psalms themselves? This translation is both thought provoking and beautiful in equal measure.

Brueggemann, W., The Psalms and the Life of Faith, P. D. Miller (Ed.), Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
The first article in this collection bridges the Then and Now in a way which will change your use of the Psalms for ever.

Craigie, P. C., Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, Waco: Word Publishing, 1983.
A commentary by a master of exposition, but only one third of the Psalter is covered by Allen.

Day, J., Psalms, Old Testament Guides, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
A helpful concise introduction to the Psalms. It majors on genre and does this well.

Eaton, J. H., The Psalms: A historical and spiritual commentary with an introduction and new translation, London: T & T Clark International, 2007.
A wonderful example of how academic rigour and spiritual devotion can come together as a powerful whole.

Futato, M. D., Interpreting the Psalms: An exegetical handbook, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007.
A serious engagement with the Hebrew text for the novice.

Goldingay, J., Psalms, Three volumes, Grand Rapids:Baker Books, 2006.
These three volumes are arguably the best evangelical commentary on the Psalter by a single author.

Holladay, W. L., The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a cloud of witnesses, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
There is no other book quite like this tour de force through the history of the Psalms.

I

Johnston, P. S. and Firth, D., Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and approaches, Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.
This is a great introduction to the diverse ways that Psalms can and have been interpreted.

Kraus, H-J., Theology of the Psalms, translated by Keith Crim, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
This thematic exploration of the Psalms is an enriching and rewarding read from a scholar who you will know has lived in the Psalms.

Lewis, C. S., Reflections on the Psalms, London: Fontana Books, 1976.
A classic book on the Psalms. It’s thought provoking but should not be taken as the last word on the Psalms.

Mays, J. L., Psalms, Interpretation Bible Commentary, Louisville: John Knox Press, 2006.
One of the very best single-volume commentaries on the Psalms.

Nasuti, H. P., Tradition History and the Psalms of Asaph, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
OK let’s be honest, I have not read this nor do I own it – it is the best I can do for the letter N!

Oesterley, W. O. E., A Fresh Approach to the Psalms, New York: Scribner, 1937.
This is a space filler in this acrostic, it has some value if you want a snapshot of what Psalms scholarship was like when form criticism was coming to the fore. It is far from fresh now!

Peterson, E., Answering God:The Psalms as tools for prayer, New York: HarperOne, 1991.
Who better than Eugene Peterson to set us up to pray the Psalms so that we might be transformed by these ancient poems.

Quaster, J. and Burghardt, W.-J., St Augustine and the Psalms, Volume One, Mahweh: Paulist Press, 1960.
Augustine was serious about the Psalms. He is the earliest Christian theologian for whom a complete commentary of the Psalms has survived.

Ryrie, A., Deliver us from Evil: Reading the Psalms as poetry, London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2005.
An outstanding reminder of how we need to take the Psalms as poetry without doing violence to their use and meaning.

Spurgeon, C. H., The Treasury of David, Three volumes, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004.
The devotional richness of this work makes it a worthwhile companion to more modern commentaries.

Tate, M. E., Psalms 51-100, Word Bible Commentary, Dallas: Word Books, 1991.
A good solid commentary on the Psalms.

U

VanGemeren, W. A., Psalms: Volume 5 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
A commentary which contends with Goldingay head-to-head and comes a very close second (in my view).

Wilson, G. H., The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1986.
A scholarly work which has reset the course of all later Psalms research and has implications for seeing the Psalter as a whole. This is a work only for those of a scholarly persuasion.
X

Y

Zenger, E., A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of divine wrath, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
The Psalms provide a wonderful resource for understanding our God. This book helps us use them wisely in this respect.

Acrostic Psalms

Nine of the biblical Psalms are acrostic poems. The general idea is a simple one: they comprise a sequence of uses of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. So, for example, in the two shortest complete acrostics, psalms 111 and 112, half a verse or less of material starts with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph through tav in turn. In psalms 25 and 34 there is one verse beginning with each of the 22 Hebrew letters in turn. In psalm 119 there are famously 8 verses beginning with each of the Hebrew letters, giving the 176 verses that make this by far the longest of the canonical psalms.

These nine (or eight, see below) psalms are not alone in Scripture. Proverbs 31:10-31, the book of Lamentations and Nahum 1:2-8, all use the same acrostic device.

The acrostic psalms are not of a specific genre (or Gattungen). They can variously have strong elements of thanksgiving (34, 111), wisdom motifs and style (34, 37, 112), they can praise (9, 145), they can lament (10, 25, 119?) or there can be a focus on Torah (119). So what is the point to this literary device, one that in many cultures appears as something of a poetic oddity?

There are probably a number of interrelated ideas going on.

1. There is something here about convention and order. The biblical Psalms obey a number of conventions like all poetry rooted in a linguistic tradition. The acrostic form is one additional convention which gives a further constraint for the poet to work with. One of the challenges of poetry is to achieve something special within a set of rules that provide a framework. The idea of order takes on an especially poignant dynamic in the acrostic poems found in Lamentations 1-4 because of the horrors depicted there. The ordered response to the disorders experienced by Israel is the poets attempt to both highlight the dire nature of events and at least in language terms a step towards order, at least in defining the problem.

2. There is also a sense of completeness, just as in English we think of an A to Z as a compendium on a subject. A particular poem has in this sense made a complete point, argument or appeal. If this is so, then psalm 119 takes on almost manic proportions of completeness. Psalm 119 actually goes further still with its use of eight synonyms for God’s word or instruction. In nearly every verse one of these eight words appears.

3. Convention and completeness of this type also support the memorisation of the Psalms and this seems to have been important to the psalmist as Gordon Wenham has argued in a couple of recent books (Psalms as Torah, The Psalter Reclaimed).

A couple of final points are worth mentioning. Psalms 9 and 10 are not individual acrostics but they actually form a single acrostic. The fact that they belong together is further indicated in their being a single psalm in the LXX and in psalm 10 having no heading in the main Hebrew manuscripts. What is puzzling is why they have been separated and why the perfection of the acrostic has been lost in a couple of places by editing. There is also some disruption of the acrostic pattern in a couple of other cases. For example, in psalm 145 there is no clause corresponding to the ‘letter N’. Perhaps this is a deliberate disruption of perfection to make a theological point about the impossibility of perfection before the eschaton. As with many other aspects of the Psalter we can learn much, but also find some mysteries. It probably shouldn’t be any other way!