Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

Poetry is an art and not a science. Rather than existing by virtue of agreed rules, or laws, it has conventions. The art of poetry is to obey and, at times, break these conventions. Over time, these conventions evolve and change. Some fossilise and are admired at a distance or honoured by the homage of modern poets.

The biblical psalms are many things. Above all they are poems. This comes first, ahead of any other claim on their form and content. I recently explored the implications of this for the preacher, in a short article [1]. Others have explored a psalm’s poetic nature to a fuller extent, and in a more scholarly manner [2].

The Psalms have, at times, had modern poetic conventions foisted upon them. This unhappy situation largely ended with the work of Robert Lowth (1710–1787) [3]. Lowth mercifully rescued the psalms from the anachronism of applying Graeco-Roman poetic ideals to them. This welcome outcome still left the question open as to how we moderns might inhabit and celebrate these ancient poems, given our quite different notions of poetic form. One obvious way in which the psalms are contemporised is through being set to music for corporate worship. This is generally not just a process of translation but a process of transformation too. It is commonly the case that such works not only provide rhythm but also make use of rhyming. A notable recent and accomplished example of this is Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era [4].

Such work is essential for the ongoing recovery and rediscovery of the Psalms. Valuable though this is, it is not enough. Poetry is polysemic and as such, one transposition cannot capture all its possibilities. Given these poems are Scripture we should welcome multiple translations, transpositions, and responses. Even those fluent in biblical Hebrew and culture could not leave these texts fossilised, for they inhabit the modern world, as well as the world of Second Temple Judaism (cf. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ interpretive paradigm [5]). To make interpretation even more complex we should note that there is not even a singular ancient horizon—the psalms were written, collected, arranged, selected, and edited over hundreds of years [6].

Every translation and every setting of a psalm is a response to that psalm. They vary in freedom depending on the aims of the new poet. There is increasing freedom from strict literal translation, such as that of an interlinear, to readable translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, to paraphrases, such as The Message. The poetic freedom continues as interpreters and poets seek new poetic forms. This trajectory continues as the interpreter breaks free of any notion of representation to aim for re-presentation. Of course such responses can differ in both form and use. They are for study, prayer, sung worship, meditation, or reflection. All such attempts look to the original, and pay homage in different ways—this might range from a meaningful bow to a knowing nod.

Three examples of such responses, in alphabetical order by surname, are:

1. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody [7]. This is a response in the form of poems describing a relationship, between a secular man and a Christian woman, in which aspects of the Psalms and the Life of David are echoed.
2. Edward Clarke’s A Book of Psalms [8]. This is a personal response to each psalm. Sometimes the poetry is very close to that of the original text, sometimes beautifully and even provocatively distant.
3. Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown [9]. Which we refer to below.

The diagram below captures something of the nature of the ‘responsorial’ freedom in translating and presenting the psalms. The scale is not meant to be linear and is presented to enable readers to reflect for themselves. The diagram reminds us that the English Bible versions, even those that are not metrical, are a step away from the original Hebrew. This is true of all attempts to translate, such as the LXX which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Even today’s critical Hebrew text is a reconstruction using multiple manuscripts, of what is the best effort to match the unknowable autograph produced by the ultimate editors of the Psalter.

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

Once an effort is made to not only translate but to set to music then the freedom of interpretation increases so as to make the task possible. The three responses to the psalms mentioned above are also shown on the diagram. Whilst it is easy to argue that Apichella’s work is the one that has the most freedom, and therefore distance from the biblical Psalter. There is room for debate with the other two. Let the reader make up their own mind.

To conclude this post, we turn to Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown. This is in one sense a live project. Every few days Malcolm posts the next poem on his Blog [9]. On the day of writing he has reached Psalm 29. The complete work will be available as a full response to the Psalter when published by Canterbury Press, hopefully in early 2021. In Malcolm’s own words:

So I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic. [10]

His poems are indeed woven together just like that first crown of thorns. The delightful play on words links not only Christ’s suffering and Covid-19 but additionally they allude to a poetic convention. I had not heard of this convention until his project began. The convention is simply stated, but rather more challenging to deliver. Each poem in a corona, or crown, of sonnets is linked to its neighbours. This is achieved, as Guite explained above, by the closing line of one poem being identical to the opening line of the next. Fifteen sonnets linked in this way can be termed a heroic crown. I am not sure what term might be given to 150!

This remarkable project sublimely conveys the idea of convention and convention-breaking in poetry. In the first instance there is immense discontinuity in this response to the Psalter and the entity that inspired it. Each and every psalm response has the same literary form. This is clearly not the case with the original psalms. Indeed, scholars still spill ink on their categorisation. The continuity is found in some rich connections between the defining convention of a corona and some features ubiquitous in the Psalter.

The intertextual link, of identical closing and opening lines of adjacent psalm responses, is a reminder of the parallelism that is so characteristic of biblical poetry. The richness of parallelism, which goes beyond the three proposed ideals of Robert Lowth [3], is still the subject of analysis to this day [11]. This link also echoes another feature of the psalms. The biblical psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours. This pairing takes on many forms. Sometimes it is simply through the use of headings or repeated opening and closing words. The Hallelujah Psalms, Psalm 111 to 118, exemplify this with their propensity to open or close with Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). Sometimes chiasmus is employed. A good example of this is how Psalms 1 and 2 are linked with a macarism, or blessed/happy saying, see Psalms 1:1a and 2:12. Phrases can also be used. For example, ‘holy hill’ in Psalms 2:6 and 3:4. This linking of psalms forms a continuous chain and has therefore been termed concatenation [12].

The precision of the parallelism in Guite’s project also reflects a peculiar feature of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) which have the poignant convention of making the same statement twice. Perhaps most famously in Psalm 130:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NRSV

I hope that many readers will join me in waiting for the complete Corona Spina that echoes not only David’s crowning glory, the Psalter, but the glory of the one who bore the crown of thorns for us all and today bears a better crown.

 

References

  1. Mark Whiting, ‘Singing a New Song’, pp.3–5, The Preacher, 178, July 2020.
  2. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Poetry of the Psalms’, pp.79–98 in The Oxford Handbook the Psalms, William P. Brown (editor), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, G. Gregory (translator), Andover: Codman Press, 1829 [Latin original 1753].
  4. Adam Carlill, Psalms for the Common Era: Hebrew Psalms in Modern Metrical English for Individuals, Choirs and Congregations, Independently Published, 2018.
  5. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (translators), New York: Continuum, 1989.
  6. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macron: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  7. Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016.
  8. Edward Clarke, A Book of Psalms, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  9. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/corona-spina-the-crown-of-thorns-and-the-crown-of-glory-psalm-21/
  10. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/beatus-vir-a-reflection-on-psalm-1/
  11. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
  12. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey’, pp. 52–70 in Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, J. Clinton McCann (editor), Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, p.54.

The Voice of the Good Shepherd is Blowin’ in the Wind

‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:14–16, NIVUK

I have been working at home for around nine weeks now. I am missing all the chance conversations I used to have with my work colleagues. I miss the ongoing joke with the painter and decorator about my twin brother that no one else understands. I miss the encouragement of a friend very much on my wavelength. I miss the exchange of little snippets of life that connects my story to that of others.

There are a handful of colleagues whose conversation I do not miss so much—the handful of cynics who turn everything sour. These are the small number of people who turn anything good to dust. Being cynical is easy—I know I have tried it. Of course, sometimes being cynical is wise when we have seen how certain things operate, especially when they involve people and power. But being cynical is an unhappy state. It is a surrender to fate. It is a denial of new possibilities. It is contrary to the vitality and new life afforded by the gospel.

Our brokenness and frailty can give us a default setting to cynicism. We see this in casual ways. We make children embrace drawing, painting, stories, drama, and poetry, but often deny these things any role or influence over us as adults. These creative, imaginative, and reflective things all take time. And we have bought into the lie that we are time poor when we have more time at our disposal than at any previous time in history.

Being a Christian does not immunise us from the malaise. Often we have little time for stories about sheep, bad shepherds, the Good Shepherd, gates, and green pastures. We have been there and done that. The poetic seems too vague and idealistic—we do not have time in our schedule for these things.

But if we do not embrace story and imagery, we have little left of what God has given us in the Bible. The Bible is not a list of propositions for adults who have graduated from stories and poems. It tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how Jesus Christ makes a relationship with God possible. It does this in imagery, in stories, and in poetry. We live in the Information Age. We must not mistake information, for understanding, or wisdom, or the possibility of spiritual growth. We must not embrace the information deception, in which facts eclipse imagery and story. I was found by God when I heard the story of the crucifixion. I was saved when I understood a poetic parable about a vineyard.

The ‘facts’ of our faith are of course important, but rather short and to the point. You can catch them in a good creed. But these propositions are just the dry roots of our relationship with God, not its end. They require feeding if they are to enable our growth. We are changed and transformed on our pilgrimage to God by the richness of the biblical story and its intersection with our own. The Bible is full of stories, imagery, metaphor, and poetry.

Or, to switch images, we are sheep following a shepherd. We are journeying through mixed pasture with a shepherd to a final green pasture. The picture of God as the Good Shepherd is just one of a huge variety of images. But it is a biggie. We find it in Psalm 23, the book of Jeremiah, the book of Ezekiel, in Zechariah, in different ways in all four gospels, and in Peter’s First Letter. And as someone who I admire, called Jason Byassee, once said “We do well to listen when the Bible talks to itself.”

In Ezekiel we read a prophecy about Jesus:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:23–24, NIVUK

This is God promising to send the messiah, the New David, to be the shepherd of his people. Just a few verses before this we hear God promising that he himself will be the shepherd:

I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.
Ezekiel 34:14–16a, NIVUK

These words from Ezekiel are the foundation of the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. Where we read:

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognised them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32–34, NIVUK

A few verses later, Jesus does what Ezekiel promised:

Then Jesus told them to make all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Mark 6:39–44, NIVUK

This is all ‘very nice’, but in all this talk of sheep, shepherds, and green grass, we are in danger of missing something. Because of our wet climate and experience of the English countryside and fluffy well-kempt sheep, all these stories and images becomes sickly sweet and as pointless as a poster of sheep in a field in Somerset with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ stuck on it.

Even in this serene story it is not all pastoral idyll and tenderness. The people with Jesus have walked many miles—there is nothing to eat. This is no miracle done only so Jesus can be the David Blaine of the first century. This is provision of their greatest need—a meal so they have the energy, having not eaten all day, to make their way back home across many miles.

In the wider accounts of the Good Shepherd we need to appreciate that a Good Shepherd is the difference between life and death. A Good Shepherd is the only chance the sheep have of surviving the night! In the first century there were no walls or fences keeping predators out – the shepherd is the only hope for being alive in the morning. This is why the Good Shepherd will go out looking for the one missing sheep.

Psalm 23 can also be misheard as a rural niceness:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

But the same first century Palestine realities lie on the background. As a sheep you would very quickly lack everything. You need a shepherd to protect you from predators to guide you to safe water and good pasture. You wouldn’t know the right path without this sure guide.

Martin Luther expressed it like this in 1536:

A sheep must live entirely by its shepherds help, protection and care. As soon as it loses him, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and must perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. The reason? It is a poor, weak, simple little beast that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. Moreover, it is by nature timid, shy and likely to go astray. When it does go a bit astray and leaves its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. Though it may find other shepherds and sheep, that does not help it, for it does not know the voices of strange shepherds. Therefore it flees them and strays about until the wolf seizes or it perishes some other way.

Of course, we know the Psalm is not an idyll:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

The Good Shepherd is not good because he hides us from trouble, hardship, and death. He is the Good Shepherd because he is our guide and our comfort in the midst of all life’s challenges. He is there leading on the path even when it goes places, we’d rather it didn’t. I sometimes feel that the cynical are those who have unknowingly chosen to make their home in the valley of the shadow of death.

Returning to the opening words from John:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

As Gentiles we have been let into the sheepfold that is home to all God’s people. We are called to listen to his voice. The voice of Jesus is not a one-off reality in our lives, though of course there is that first day when metaphorically we hear him.

How do you listen to his voice? What space and time do we make for this? There are so many competing voices. The needs of family and friends. Our own internal voice. The news that seems like Groundhog Day at the moment. The froth of Facebook. The insanity of Twitter. How many voices do we have to choose from?

For some of us the current situation means a possibility of more time to hear our Lord. It is a test in some ways. When asked what we did in an Age of Covid-19 what will our answer be. Will it be binge-watching TV? Or might it be the time we came before God to hear his voice—a time of quietness by still waters before our Shepherd? Might it be the time we ensured we were on the path looking ahead to follow our guide to put ourselves close enough to him to hear his voice?

Amidst so many voices clamouring for our waning attention it can be like being in a Bob Dylan song.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

The true voice of the shepherd is blowin’ in the wind. The still small voice of the Spirit is there to be heard if we just turn off the other voices for a time.

 

Reference

The quote from Luther comes from his Exegesis of Psalm 23 at Table, Luther’s Works Volume 12, Muhlenberg Press, 1955.

Psalmody by Maria Apichella: A Review

Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016

How does one review poetry? The critical propositions of analysis seem ill at ease when juxtaposed with lyrical beauty. And yet review I must. How else can I have any chance of persuading another to imbibe this book? And like scripture it indeed deserves to be eaten.

Who would have thought that a collection of poems could mirror the psalms that are themselves a reflection of our own souls? And yet this is exactly what this collection does—as its name implies it is a Psalter. But do not think for a moment that this is some crass like-for-like echo of each-and-every psalm. No. These ninety-three poems are so similar and yet oh so different to canonical psalmody.

In one way they are much alike, for there is a narrative here, from beginning to end. Yes, a story. A story that is initially difficult to discern. But discern it the reader will as the hermeneutical circle spirals ever-on. Piece by elegant piece the unself-similar bricks fit together to work a greater synergy than any anthology of poems.

The attentive reader will delight as intertextual connections with the Psalter of Psalters are made. The faithful reader will share the psalmist’s journey betwixt failing and faith. The unpublished reader will wish they had such a psalmody in print. The trusting reader will understand that before Jehovah Jirah they are already themselves a Psalter as important to Adoni as that of King David.

Eat this book it won’t turn your stomach sour.

 

S is for Song of Songs

Perhaps one of the last things the person new to the Hebrew Bible might expect to find is a book of erotic poetry. This is, however, exactly what the Song of Songs appears to be at face value—eight chapters of poetic episodes that speak of the intimate sexual relationship between a man and a woman. This erotic poetry has traditionally been seen as the work of King Solomon and the text itself mentions him several times. It is likely, however, that he is the deliberate subject of the book rather than its author. The clearest evidence of this is that once we have appreciated the obvious erotic nature of this book, it becomes clear that there is more going on than just love and sex. In particular it becomes apparent that the sexual relationship between King Solomon and his many wives is contrary to the rich mutuality intended by God for the relationship between a man and a woman.

In this way the broad nature of Song of Songs dismisses any idea that the Bible is prudish or rejects the importance of, and positive aspects of, human sexuality. For here in the Hebrew Bible we see the sexual union of man and woman celebrated joyfully. The more subtle agenda is however a critique of the all too commonplace corrupted sexual relationships in which the relationship is uneven.

A large number of interpreters of the Song of Songs have supressed both of these perspectives by either dismissing or at least subordinating the eroticism of this poetry beneath an allegorical interpretation. To be fair, allegorical interpretations abounded from early on in the history of the interpretation of this book. It is likely that for cultural reasons both within Judaism and early Christianity that the allegorical interpretation eclipsed the literal one because of a wider cultural disdain for sex—gnostic influences sought to separate the supposedly corrupt body from the purity of the spirit. This is not to say that there is no intention of allegory in these poems. It is very much the case that the collectors of the texts that now make up the Hebrew Bible saw not only erotic poetry but also a connection between the love between man and woman with that of the love between Yahweh and Israel. In this way it is vital that an allegorical interpretive dynamic should neither overshadow the literal celebration of the sexual union of man and woman, nor should it become fanciful, as allegory can so easily become. Rather than using the term allegorical, the term parable is probably a more appropriate one. Viewing these poems as parables implies that they have an analogical function in connecting the erotic relationship of love with that of God for his people. Allegory would attempt to interpret every detail in a fashion that is clearly forced and alien to any authorial or editorial intent.

A lot of attention has focused on identifying the narrative of the Song of Songs. Some see a simple story of lover and beloved. Others have seen a more complex narrative in which the shepherd and the king are two separate male characters. In this latter interpretation, followed by Iain Provain [1] for example, a contrast emerges between the true love between the women and the peasant shepherd with that of a forced relationship between the women and Solomon. I am more persuaded by Tremper Longmann III [2] who sees the book as an anthology of erotic poems. Free from an imposed storyline these poems speak of the delight of sexual intimacy and carry an analogical insight into the love of God for humanity and the possibility of its reciprocation. There is also within the poem an implied criticism of the still prevalent practice of powerful males purchasing women as commodities. In all of these ways it really is a Song of Songs.

 

References / Further Reading

  1. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs: An NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
  2. Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs: New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Downers Gove: Eerdmans, 2001.

P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

Good Friday

The poem below is a refraction of Jesus’ experience on the cross with an episode from my teenage years.

 

Good Friday

My father, my father, why have you forsaken me?

A cry of dereliction from parched lips.

Real words unspoken yet perfectly formed, through

Knotted stomach and coughed up bile.

So can time heal this pain and this fear?

Utter rejection—can it found some greater purpose?

Entering something new by painful paradigm shift?

Not a path you would choose, but a new road all the same.

So many fathers and so many sons—

Broken relationships over decades and centuries lie.

Yet at least one broken son in history

Crystallised magnalia Dei though he did die.

 

 

C is for Creation

There is no escaping the centrality of the theme of Creation in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is it encountered on numerous occasions, both explicitly and implicitly, but it is also the point of departure of the book of Genesis and therefore the whole Hebrew Bible.

In the previous post we considered two polar opposite approaches to the Hebrew Bible and their respective presuppositions. These were scientific atheism and highly conservative Christianity. Both conservative Christian approaches and militant atheism share a tendency to translate the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1–2 into propositional truth. In this way the outcome is either:

  1. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that the biblical account is false, or
  2. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that these sciences are wrong.

Of course there are alternatives. These alternatives centre on considering what these texts are—i.e. they are not a series of straightforward propositional truths. This is not to question their potential for conveying truth but rather to recognise that there is something more complex at work in these texts and that their interpretation is richer than a series of true/false statements. I want to suggest that an initial reading of the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1–2 which recognises their cultural milieu indicates two useful starting points.

Firstly, there is a poetic dynamic to the accounts:

  • They are highly rhythmic and stylised—for example the six fold refrain of ‘. . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31).
  • There is word play—for example the use of ‘adamah as earth (as in topsoil) in 1:25 and 2:6 and the use of ‘adam as the first man (earth creature) in 2:7.

Some poetic features are lost in translation but the rhythm and form are readily apparent.

Secondly, the two creation accounts in Genesis and other elements of Genesis 1–11 are part of a number of Ancient Near-Eastern texts which deal with origins. They arose in a context which saw a number of accounts for the origin of the world and explanations of the way things are. For example, there are Akkadian, Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories. These Hebrew accounts provide their own unique answers to the questions being asked at that time.

Of course even when such considerations are handled sympathetically these texts can still be dismissed as wrongheaded, but the way we can dismiss or embrace them is richer than polarising modern science against ancient text as propositional statements which capture timeless truth. The possible ‘thicker’ readings lack the simplicity and closure of the ‘thinner’ alternatives. They raise questions as well as provide answers. The central claims of Genesis 1–2 provide the presuppositions underpinning the whole of the Hebrew Bible—that the Hebrew God, Yahweh, created the universe and that humankind are, at some level, special within this creation. There is no scientific proposal here which can be tested. Rather, this is elegant use of the possibilities of poetry to populate the imagination with rich theological images. This thicker possibility leads us to wonder and perhaps argue about how we interpret the account—how do Adam and Eve fit with the scientific consensus? As a Christian who is also a scientist I welcome the fact that neither scientific consensus nor the Bible trumps the other at the outset of a process of critical evaluation and consideration.

 

Further reading

For a stimulating scholarly exploration of the centrality of creation in the Hebrew Bible see Herman Spieckermann, ‘Creation: God and World’, pp. 271‒292 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016

Beautiful Lord: An Advent Reflection on Revelation 1:12‒18

What is Beauty?

Beauty tends to be something that is peripheral to Western society and culture today. At least that is my view. When things are marginal there is a danger that they are neglected. Worse still, in an age of soundbites we might define important things by a short saying or an aphorism.

In the past Beauty was a central concept within Christian Theology. It was joined by Goodness and Truth. Some theologians organised their whole theology around these three. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called urgently for a need to reclaim beauty in our theology and thinking. His stark claim that instigated a multi-decade project is worth a lengthy quotation:

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 1 Seeing the Form

I want to speak positively about Beauty. But this positivity is in the context of the danger posed by Western culture. The values of our culture in practice are:

  • Post-goodness—morality based on any absolutes is under attack. Only a shallow concept of rights exists.
  • Post-truth—politics has become so cynical that plain untruths are said and the electorate are, either powerless to change this or collude with it.
  • Post-beauty—advertising tells us what is beautiful.

When it comes to beauty there is no shortage of sayings that spring to mind. Two in particular pervade Western culture:

  1. Beauty is only skin deep. Sir Thomas Overbury is the first person known to have used this in print, in his poem A Wife (1613). She was probably less than impressed.
  2. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has been used in many forms and its origin is obscure. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford first used in this form in her novel Molly Bawn (1878).

Whilst both have some value, the latter’s potential to deny absolute beauty is problematic for a Christian Theology of beauty.

The Bible and Beauty

A typical English translation of the Bible does not have many Hebrew and Greek words translated as beauty. For example, the New International Version has 71 occurrences of Beautiful and 33 of Beauty. Most of these uses of the two words refer to physical human beauty. The first usage in the Bible has this meaning:

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.

Genesis 6:2 (NIV)

Around 20% of the uses of beauty and beautiful occur in the erotic love poem Song of Songs and relate to physical beauty. But this in itself tells as something further about God. Song of Songs is an erotic love poem but its place in the Bible has as much to do with how it tells of God’s love for his people and the love of his people for him.

We are meant to find God beautiful just as he recognises the beauty of his people perfected in Christ.

Some uses of the words beauty and beautiful refer to the importance of an inner beauty, picking up on beauty being ‘only skin deep’. In Ezekiel 16 we find almost 10% of all Bible uses of the words beauty and beautiful. It is imagery about the beauty of God’s people and how as God’s beloved they looked for another lover. The inference is that their beauty should have been more than skin deep—the beauty of God’s people lies in who they are in God.

Some of these words from Ezekiel use imagery which is coherent with what God has done for us in Christ:

“‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewellery: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Ezekiel 16:914 (NIV)

In the New Testament, Peter, being a fisherman points out the relationship between inner and outer beauty more succinctly:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:34 (NIV)

I am reminded of the words of the humble hobbit gardener, Sam Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings:

“Handsome is as handsome does.”

Very few, if any, of the occurrences of beauty and beautiful (in most English Bible translations) refer to creation. In an exception, Ezekiel 31:9 one of the trees of Eden is referred to as beautiful, surpassing all the other trees. So exceptional is this usage that it proves the rule. A few uses of these two words refer to God, for example:

From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes
and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.

Psalm 50:2‒3 (NIV)

Glory

So how can beauty be a central biblical concept if when reading Scripture we find the semantic range refers largely to physical appearance with only an occasional acknowledgement that inner beauty is more important?

What of the beauty of God?

What of the beauty of creation?

We have a different word in English that overlaps with beauty. A word that translates the Hebrew word, kavod. This word captures the idea of being heavy—of having serious substance or great importance. It is often translated heart—literally liver in Hebrew, the liver being the heaviest and therefore most important organ—as the most important part of somebody.

Glory, comes into its own as the tangible importance and greatness of God; it goes beyond the visibility of beauty into beautiful presence and beautiful physicality. My favourite example is Psalm 24 where it is intertwined with Yahweh’s kingship, strength and might:

Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory.

Psalm 24: 710 (NIV)

The Beauty of God

In the Book of Revelation John the Elder, describes his encounter with Christ. Like all of this remarkable book it is written in the symbolic language of apocalyptic—a rich poetic way to describe things beyond the everyday. His description of Christ can sound reminiscent of the unhelpful ‘old man on a cloud’ view of God, for example, hair like white wool, but when understood as imagery it becomes much richer.

One day we too will each encounter the living Christ as he judges all of creation ahead of the renewal of heaven and earth. Unlike John’s vision ours will be a full encounter with the beautiful resurrected Christ.

Isaiah described the suffering servant in this way:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isaiah 53:2 (NIV)

The risen Jesus is not just beautiful he is full of majesty and glory. Perhaps like John our encounter with Jesus will make us fall to the ground as though dead.

The vision of John portrays Jesus Christ among his Church, the seven lamp stands. He is living and active in our midst when we gather.

His clothes are those of a priest. The ultimate priest who enables us to come before the living God. A priest, who as a sacrifice without beauty, makes us beautiful before the Father.

For this beautiful figure is not just the risen Jesus. He is the Christ. Not just Son of Man, but one like a Son of Man. Now shown to be God himself in resurrection glory. Lest we be in any doubt, we see his hair, white like wool, white like snow—this is the ancient of days, the God of Israel.

Through the cross and resurrection his purity and holiness have been found perfect—we can see this as his feet glow like bronze in a furnace.

Like his Father before him his spoken word is like the sound of rushing water—a sound so loud that it silences everything else. His spoken word is inflected by a tongue like a double-edged sword.

In this way he judges all. Those made clean by his priestly sacrifice will withstand this judgement, being found pure like him. His beauty and glory given to them as a free and gracious gift. And because of this his people can stand before him bathed in the light shining from his face; illuminated not blinded, warmed not consumed.

One day we will know the very touch of the living Christ. He will declare to us that we need not fear, he has led the way into God’s beautiful presence. He was First, there with God in the beginning. He is Last, in that he has restored the creation broken by the sin of Adam. In a sense he became Adam but he did not stray. In resurrection he makes an end to Adam’s sin. He is the Living One—not just the resurrected Jesus but the Living God Yahweh. God of Israel and God of all the redeemed of mankind.

He was dead just as we will die, but he is alive, just as we too shall be made alive in him. He holds the keys of both death and Hades. As his followers we have no need to fear death or Hades.

Please see Malcolm Guite’s O Rex Gentium which provides an appropriate reflective prayer.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as Midrash

Midrash is a complex type of Jewish exegesis that blossomed as Judaism become Rabbinic. One, and it is only one, of the tools of midrash is using diverse texts from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) to answer questions asked by hearers of the text. In this way a deep reverence for the text is combined with the poetic imagination—two things which in my view should unite to do justice to Scripture. I am personally convinced that Hallelujah in doing the latter echoes, either consciously or inadvertently, the former. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has become something of a key text in Western culture. Through its use in diverse cinematic contexts, covers by other artists and simply because of its innate qualities of profundity and yet ambiguity, it is known to many at some level. My fascination with it centres on my admiration of Cohen as a poet and the central role of the biblical psalms in the song. What follows here is not meant to be an analysis but only a meditation on this remarkable song. The very title of Cohen’s most famous song is a frequent refrain in the Biblical Psalms. The Psalter would be familiar to Cohen given his Jewish heritage. That this is the case is evident from any number of biographies about Cohen. The Psalter has two collections of psalms united by their use of the word Hallelujah, which means literally ‘Praise Jah’, the covenant God of Biblical Israel. One of these series of psalms, Psalms 146–150, have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah. They all end with the same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups-and-downs of individual and corporate experience. There is, in these five psalms, only cause for praise and its execution. In this way they are, therefore, all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the each of the parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter. This is echoed in Cohen’s Hallelujah which exclaims:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Of course, for much of the song the singer has anything but the certainty and stability captured at the end. Psalms 111–118 are sometimes referred to as Hallel Psalms or the Hallelujah Psalms. As with concluding five psalms of the Psalter they make extensive use of the word Hallelujah. They do this in a less systematic way than the closing five psalms. Psalms 111, 112 and 113 all start with the word Hallelujah. Psalms 113, 115, 116 and 117 all close with this word. Thus only Psalm 113 has the inclusio device we saw above where the entire psalm is caught between to exhortations to ‘praise the Lord’. Psalms 114 and 118 do not contain Hallelujah. A subset of this series, Psalms, 113–118, are known as the Egyptian Hallel. They are known by this name partly because of their content and especially because they are used liturgically in the Passover meal which takes place on the eighth day of the Passover celebrations. The six psalms are used progressively through the meal: Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal. The other four are said at the end of the meal, during the drinking of the fourth cup of wine. So what question might Hallelujah be a midrash on? Perhaps its concern is how King David with all of his failings could be the author of the Psalter? The narrative of the Tanakh says very little about David’s musical ability. The most important thread being his playing of the lyre before Saul (1 Samuel 16:23ff. and 19:9ff.). David’s musicianship variously quietens a demon and angers Saul. Perhaps the former ability makes use of Cohen’s ‘secret chord’? Referring to David as a ‘baffled king’ seems appropriate because his life was full of the most momentous ups-and-downs just like the life of faith recorded in the Psalter—for every Hallelujah there is an opposing problem. Cohen’s song makes a direct mention of a key episode in referring to David’s voyeurism on seeing the bathing Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2). Cohen’s mention of moonlight might refer to the text ascribing the event to the ‘late afternoon’ (NRSV) or it might hint at the madness that was to follow—in biblical times the moon was thought to be a source of mental illness (cf. Psalm 121:6b). The initial result of David’s lust for Bathsheba is that she does indeed draw a Hallelujah from his lips and this results in the conception of a child that dies shortly after his birth. Later they have another son, Solomon. Whether his dalliance with Bathsheba broke his throne, or not, is speculation. The problems David has with his son Absalom might well stem from Absalom’s jealousy over Solomon’s status. Less ambiguous is that the domestic imagery of kitchens and the cutting of hair hints at another leader in Israel brought down by lust for a woman, see Judges 16. Hallelujah  speaks of a Holy Hallelujah and a Broken Hallelujah. These two descriptions are true of the biblical psalms in more than one sense. At one level we have the question of how David, in spite of his immense failings, was chosen by God and indeed favoured by God. How did a broken king write a holy book? Of course David’s identification as the Psalter’s author are idealistic. The psalms are the product of many psalmists. But many of the most poignant are those redolent with the sort of lament that David must have voiced when things went wrong, and in particular his battle, both physical and political, with so many enemies. Such psalms declare the brokenness which is so often the experience of the life of faith. All of the psalms, those from David’s pen and all the others, are of course the work of frail human beings. Yet the mystery is that their collection and canonisation has indeed made them holy to Jew and Christian because their experience is that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’. Anyone seeking an explanation or a theology of Scripture would do well to meditate on the midrash that is Hallelujah. Having said this, they might be better off looking to that which is signified rather than only a sign.

Reflecting on Tweeting the Psalms: Psalms 81-100

I have been tweeting the psalms for well over two years now. The idea is a simple one: I pray a psalm a day as a basic daily devotional activity. I have set it as the bare minimum of my daily engagement with Scripture. Most days it is a foundation to other reading and reflection. Posting a tweet provides a focus to the devotional reading and Twitter can be an aid to ongoing reflection on the ‘psalm of the day’.

Sometimes others join the psalmtweeting and this can be a great encouragement. Currently active psalmtweeters include:

@TermsofHeart
@gwpm
@mlaporte74
@OtisRobertson
@TerryThePeoples

The remarkable thing is seeing how different people psalmtweet. Over time I find I too, do it different ways. Here are just some of the options:

1. Tweeting a verse which captures the whole psalm.
2. Rephrasing a key verse to restate it differently, perhaps poetically.
3. Tweeting a verse that holds special significance; with or without a personal comment.
4. Tweeting a refrain which can be taken as a prayer with you for the day.
5. Creating a tweet that captures the whole psalm. Either as a proposition or better still, in my view given the genre, in poetic form.
6. Making a prayer for others; perhaps obvious world events for example.

Some of the above are visible to the reader, others are understood only by the author.

Why not give it a go and join @TermsofHeart @gwpm @mlaporte74 @OtisRobertson @TerryThePeoples and me – @PsalterMark – on what with God’s grace will be a transformative spiritual discipline. Below are twenty of my recent psalmtweets, which I hope illustrate the idea. One final point, please remember that psalmtweets are a dialogue with the Psalms not a replacement.

Psalm 81:
Individuals & nations all follow a path.
But what guides them on the journey?
Feeding on Yahweh makes a path into The Way.

Psalm 82:
Yahweh plays in 10,000 places;
Let the King of Glory in this Sunday.

Psalm 83:
Yahweh, why do so many hate your people? Why?
We look to you for justice and for shalom.

Psalm 84:
Hallelujah for the Psalter,
our A-Z of the highways to Zion.

Psalm 85:
Father, we praise you that righteousness proceeds your Son;
That we might follow his steps on The Way.

Psalm 86:
Frail and beleaguered, you, Yahweh, are my comfort.
At journey’s end I see the nations gathered in your name.

Psalm 87:
Zion permeates the Psalter:
Earthly city,
heavenly city,
throne,
God’s presence,
our goal,
Eden redux.

Psalm 88:
We can pray to Yahweh in despair when we have nothing left other than the knowledge of his existence.

Psalm 89:
The sad story of a failed throne becomes a lens of joy through which we see David Redux, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Psalm 90:
Lord we will worship you with gladness this day as we gather like so many before us.

Selah
The Psalter is a concept album;
But Western society has forgotten not only what the Psalms are but has no time to ‘listen’ to a whole album.

Psalm 91:
Dwelling & shelter.
A shade to abide under.
A fortress of refuge.
A shield from terror.
Yahweh our protector.

Psalm 92:
Gardener, I praise You.
Pruner, I proclaim Your deeds.
I photosynthesise Your Light.
I am rooted in Your word.

Psalm 93:
From eternity you have defined kingship.
Your decrees are everlasting.
The oceans reverently echo your might.

Psalm 94:
They band themselves together against the life of the righteous
And condemn the innocent to death.

Psalm 95:
Yahweh is the king who shaped mountains and seas.
If we do not harden our hearts he will shape our little lives too.

Psalm 96:
O Yahweh as we praise you today may we turn an old song or psalm into a New Song as you quicken our hearts & minds.

Psalm 97:
El Elyon, Lord most high, we look to you in your majesty and splendour.
May our worship this day honour you.

Psalm 98:
If seas will roar and mountains clap, how could we possibly refrain from singing a New Song?

Psalm 99:
We marvel at your revelation through pillar of cloud & holy statute.
Yahweh you surpass statues & awkward silence.

Psalm 100:
Lord you must laugh at the idea of self-made men and women.
Perhaps you weep?
Take our joy as trust; re-make us.

As I look back on these twenty psalmtweets I can see a snapshot of God’s grace in my life in late-August to early-September. I am sure that psalmtweeting is not for everyone but I hope some who read this post might try it or be inspired to do something fresh that will welcome the King of Glory in, with a fresh earnestness, on the journey to Zion.