Psalm 102: Bird on a Wire

This is the third of a series of occasional posts on the penitential psalms. Here we will focus on a single aspect of Psalm 102: its use of ornithological imagery. Pictorial language is not only central to the very nature of the psalms, but it is also key to understanding them. Focusing on the threefold use of bird metaphors will help us reflect on the question, ‘who is speaking this psalm?’

Here are verses 6 and 7 [verses 7 and 8 in the Latin and Hebrew textual traditions] from the NIVUK translation:

6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.

Augustine, following the Latin text, identifies the three birds as pelican, owl (or night raven) and sparrow. Perhaps because of his desire to distil everything of value from the Scriptures he argues that the three birds are not necessarily to be understood as a metaphorical unity:

We have three birds, then, and three habitats. A single person may combine the characteristics of all three birds; alternatively, the characteristics of the bids may be distributed among three persons. [1]

This is arguably a case of overinterpretation when we consider the uncertainty of the original terms and the use of parallelism in the Hebrew text. When we recognise the parallelism of v.6a and v.6b, the ‘pelican’ and ‘owl’ become one and the same. It is perhaps the case that the translators of the NIVUK have made this more readily apparent by their choice of rendering the first two uncertain Hebrew words as ‘desert owl’ and ‘owl’, and thus inviting a singular interpretation. The identity of a single persona behind the threefold imagery is also natural in that v.7 in its entirety parallels v.6.

Augustine also makes another interpretive decision that does not chime with modern understanding, although this time it is scientific rather than poetic understanding that has changed. And to be fair Augustine seems at pains to indicate the facts are far from certain:

Pelicans are alleged to kill their chicks by pecking them, then for three days to mourn the dead chicks in the nest. Finally the mother is said to wound herself gravely and pour her blood over her babies, which came back to life as her blood flows over them. [1]

From this supposed ornithological observation an argument is then developed by Augustine linking the pelican’s unusual childrearing approach with Christ’s salvific blood. Reading Augustine on the Psalms is worthwhile but, on this occasion, his Christological interpretation is forced. Interestingly, although Augustine is often thought to have established the identification of the seven penitential psalms—Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143—he does not make a consistent focused penitential interpretation here. Writing a century, or so, later Cassiodorus dismisses a Christological interpretation of the bird imagery and the psalm as a whole [2]. He does focus on a penitential interpretation. He also makes much of the physiology and behaviour of the three birds [3]. In doing so he argues that they are figuratively distinct types of penitents. His close reading is nevertheless an over-interpretation of the text given its overt reliance on a rich parallelism. This Hebraic poetic convention has often, and perhaps surprisingly, been variously forgotten and eclipsed over much of the past two millennia.

Writing rather more recently than the two Fathers, Goldingay, argues that tawny owl, screech owl and bird are fitting translations arguing from both a philological and poetic basis that the three terms point to birds that stay awake at night and are likely to keep people awake through their cries. His translation reads:

6 I have come to resemble a tawny owl of the wilderness,
I have become like a screech owl among the ruins.
7 I have been wakeful and I have become like a bird
on its own on a roof. [4]

Comparison with the NIVUK text above reveals this to be a less terse and more explanatory translation. The tension between preserving the terseness of the Hebrew text and helping the modern reader is a constant challenge for the translator. Robert Alter famously accuses the modern English textual tradition of ‘the heresy of explanation’, of being too quick to explain, thus undermining the texts intentional mystery and polyvalency [5]. In translating these verses, Alter captures both the terseness of the original and provides a clear poetic translation:

7 I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,
I become like the owl of the ruins.
8 I lie awake and become
like a lonely bird on a roof. [5]

Addressing the question of the psalmist’s identity in a given psalm, or set of verses, can be a fruitful reflection. It can also be rather vexed, if any singular and overriding claim or assumption is applied across the Psalter. Over the centuries attempts have been made to read the psalms as consistently the words of David. Others have pursued, with similar singlemindedness, Christological readings. Hypothetical religious festivals have been proposed which make the words of the psalms the words of the king of Israel. In the past century there have been a series of critical methods for reading the psalms. My suspicion, however, is that those who have read the psalms as a spiritual discipline have rarely felt the need to be so singular in their reading. The same words and psalms can readily be heard as David, Christ, a precentor, or an anonymous ancient poet. Such polyvocality is not always welcomed by the academy because of its desire for explanation nor some conservative readers who expect contextual certainty. Early Christian interpreters were sometimes too quick to read Christ—his person and actions—into the text. Historical critical interpreters have sometimes been guilty of reading quite different things into the text. The nature of the Psalter stands against any such singular agendas.

Our reflecting on the identity of the psalmist is arguably most important in as far as it helps us to become the psalmist. How do we make these words our own? Are we being instructed? Are we being given words to pray? Are we being taught a vocabulary of prayer? How do we sing these words as a new song?

Psalm 102 is an example of the plasticity of so many of these poems. Countless faithful followers of Christ have owned this song in the midst of old age, loneliness, failure, impending death, and/or moral failure. Numerous others have prayed these words remembering and praying for others whose experience of the life of faith is currently a dark valley. We can also find Christ here, whether in his own experience or in gathering all our prayers as petitions to the Father. The ‘I’ of this psalm at the authorial level is undoubtedly singular, the voice of one psalmist. And yet in faith by the Spirit the reading of this psalm is infinitely polyvalent: it is a sing for all the faithful who are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.

To conclude, we note that Psalm 103 might have been deliberately placed after Psalm 102 because it frames the answer to the psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 102 with a positive bird metaphor:

1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits –
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

1. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, volume 5, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2003, p.53.
2. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms: Volume 3, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990, p.1.
3. Ibid. pp.6–8.
4. John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 3: Psalms 90–150, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, p.152.
5. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 3 The Writings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, p.xix.

Q is for Quelle

Quelle is the German word for source and is used as a technical term by scholars who advocate source criticism. This approach to biblical texts was introduced briefly in an earlier post and the basic idea is a simple one. Its implications however are far from simple and raise a lot of questions.  Source criticism assumes that behind many of the Hebrew Bible’s books there are previous documents or sources. This is neither controversial nor even surprising. Many biblical books even refer to their sources as we shall see in the next post. What can be more complex, and sometimes controversial, is the quest to recover these sources and what might be done with the results of such an exercise. In the Hebrew Bible the most famous example of source criticism is that applied to the torah/Pentateuch.

It was Julius Wellhausen (1844‒1918) who provided the first detailed hypothesis about the textual origins of the Pentateuch. He suggested that there had been four separate sources, or documents, which all originated centuries after the time of Moses, hence it became known as the documentary hypothesis. This is the first complication of source criticism: it challenges traditional views of authorship. The four-document hypothesis came to be generally accepted in the early twentieth century although like all scholarly proposals of this nature there are many rival variations on the theme. In its classic expression the four hypothesised sources were designated:

  • J—a document which names God as Yahweh. The German for Yahweh is Jahweh hence the use of the letter J.
  • E—a document which refers to God as Elohim.
  • D—for essentially the book of Deuteronomy.
  • P—for a document with a priestly outlook.

These four hypothesised documents were said to date from the mid-9th century BCE, mid-8th century BCE, mid-7th century BCE and around 500 BCE respectively. Despite its original popularity this model is no longer the consensus view. This is not to say that the idea of sources is wrong. Rather it is recognised that the use of sources and the subsequent editing processes will never be reliably recovered. To complicate matters further some of the features of the Hebrew Bible which were said to provide evidence supporting the fourfold documentary approach are quite possibly literary devices. For example the two accounts of creation are said by some source critics to be contradictory accounts. It is possible however that there is a deliberate theological point behind the two accounts—they are designed to be complementary since one conveys the story of creation from a transcendent perspective (1:1‒2:3) and the other from an immanent one (2:4‒25).

Robert Alter in his brilliant book The Art of Biblical Narrative [1] looks at type scenes and explores how similar events in a book are actually a reflection of literary artistry rather than an indication of a patchwork quilt of sources. He uses the conventions of Hollywood Westerns as a masterful illustration of how conventions can be misunderstood. In this way he shows just how wide of the mark some biblical source criticism is. His concerns it should be noted are not whether the events are true but simply squashing the hegemony of sources as the explanation of similar stories and narrative motifs.

From a stance of faith there is no sense in awaiting a final outcome of such critical work as this will never arrive. Instead the question must be faced: given that there are some complex editing processes and source texts behind the Pentateuch (as well as other parts of the Hebrew Bible), does this invalidate the possibility that we have Scripture, i.e. an authoritative religious text? If the Pentateuch is understood as Scripture, then even if some original texts could be recovered what would be done with them?


Reference / Further Reading

  1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York: Basic Books, 1981.