Monday, September 27, 2010

The Psalms and Sumerian Hymns

Second presenter: The Psalms and Sumerian Hymns
Presenter: Erhard Gerstenberger (University of Marburg)...
From the abstract: comparing the 200 hymns with the psalms; apart from incantation prayers and sapiental compositions. Coinciding phenomena and theological insights?

I am continually impressed with the care that the Hebrews took to preserve their poetry. Other ancient poetry from the period has not fared so well but is 'in debris'. I think it is Harold Fisch, Poetry with a Purpose, a book I read a few years ago, who writes of a similar record of fragmented love songs from the surrounding cultures.

Sumerian figures praying 
I have to say that now - a few days away from the conference - I am feeling just a little more critical of the presenters. Almost all of them read their papers and a large percentage of them had no handout. In this paper, it meant that the word being repeatedly spoken (tsa me?) as an invocation of the deity in Sumerian had no visible means of reinforcement with respect to the hearer. I think this, combined with too little time for questions, made the intense stimulus of the conference less valuable overall. (I do have points of great praise for this large and complex undertaking - but as a teacher of both adults and children, simple and complex things, I think the importance of learning from a presentation cannot be underplayed.)

Anyway, I will rapidly forget Sumerian, even if it was the archaic Latin of its day for the period 2600-1900 BCE. There is lots about Sumer on the web - to be taken with the usual grain of salt. But one thing I found here was this sentence - "One of the key concepts of Sumer life was their belief in something called me (pronounced may)".

The thesis of our presenter was that the Hebrew hymns are in the stream of Ancient Near Eastern hymnody. This thesis seemed to be combined with the sense that praise activates the deity. I read from my notes - mostly untranscribable - that Psalms 19, 29, and even 139 stand in this tradition. Also Psalm 22 - "But you are holy, seated on the praises of Israel." Praise is seen as "active interference in the power structure of the world".

The claim was made early in the lecture that Sumerian praise "includes the one who is articulating praise thus empowering the one who is praised". This is an interesting self-referential way of reading. I suppose one could try it and see if there is any response from the deity. Would one then measure success by seeing if there are any Sumerian worshipers left in the world? (Just kidding).

Is this how praise works in the psalter? Are psalms 19 and 29 the "active involving of the adorants to ascribe power to יְהוָה?" Psalm 19 doesn't even come close to this thesis. Silence is the operant word. Psalm 29? The operant word is voice - the voice of יְהוָה in creation. The response of "the adorants" in each case is the obedience of faith. In psalm 139, the operant word is knowledge. It is not a knowledge that is possessed by the "adorant", but rather it is a knowledge that produces the adoration.

Yes it is worth trying - but not as if it is like pressing the on-switch on יְהוָה though it might press our on-switch and actively interfere in the power structure of our world.