Monday, October 15, 2012

Psalm 44 - the 'we' are in trouble

It's Blog Action Day and the conveners are probably wondering if we bloggers will get the point they were hoping we would get from their tag -'the power of we'. Maybe I didn't.

I have been studying the Psalms for nearly 7 years. A book is pending publication, 525 pages on the patterns of word recurrence in the Hebrew text. Also in the embryonic stage are books on the music implied in the te'amim, those little marks that could be made with two hands, perhaps implying hand signals for the notes of a scale and ornamentation, a compact musical score. Here's a rapid intro to the do-re-mi. The resulting music is striking and often tender even when you might expect an angry old man in the skies. And who are we to complain if the condemnation of our actions is in song rather than in fire?

The first we, the first usage of first-person plural in the Bible is in Genesis 1:26. Notice the last two letters of the last two words (reading from right to left) in the following text. Also note the 'n' in the first letter of the third word. These affixes signify the first person plural in their context. The final letters of the last two words both make the sound 'nu' expressed in our latin letters.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ
And God said, Let us make humanity in our image as our likeness

The music of this phrase begins on the tonic ('mi') and ends on the sub-dominant ('la'), a place of 'rest' mid-verse. You can hear the whole of Genesis 1 impeccably and exquisitely sung by Esther Lamandier here. This particular verse (1:26) is at location 8:46 in the recording.

The tension between the individual and the corporate is as evident in the Bible as it is to us today. The question is - who's in charge? This is an ancient question. The one who is from the dust, the human created in the image and as the likeness of God, is both singular and plural. The problem of governance and of the consequences of domination rather than service is evident on every page of history, whatever your tradition. 

One particular tradition is raised up as an example for us. David, a commendable individual in some ways, is a ruler of Israel who is put forward as a sin offering in Psalm 51, showing us just how much personal desire can ruin a tender heart. 

'Adam', that exemplar human, almost immediately find themselves exiled from the garden. The people, Israel, give us a history of trouble, escape, wilderness wanderings, struggle against enemies, greed, self-aggrandizement, idolatry, exile. 

Does any of this resonate with us, individually or corporately. The trouble of the city, our expression of corporate humanity, is nowhere more poignantly told in the Bible than in the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  
Ah how solitary sits the city
Filled with people she became as a widow 
Filled from the nations 
Princess among the provinces she came into forced service
Four of these five chapters are alphabetic acrostics. The city is addressed in chapters 1 and 2. In chapter 3, a valiant  individual speaks on behalf of all. In chapter 4 the fate of the people is again addressed. All four of these acrostics have a deliberate error in them. The letters Peh and Ayin are reversed. The order of the world is out of joint.

A similar tension between first-person singular and plural is found in the Psalms at the beginning of Book 2. Psalm 42, 
As a hart yearns over a watercourse
so my being yearns for you, O God
and its continuation, Psalm 43. 
Judge me O God, and strive my strife
with a nation without one who is merciful
From a deceitful and unjust person secure me

These two psalms are expressed as lament in the first person singular. Psalm 44 is striking with its first person plural. The sound of  'nu', a sound that frames the whole poem, is heard 40 times. 
You set us up as a reproach to our neighbours
derision and ridicule to those around us
You set us up as a proverb among the nations
a nodding of a head among the tribes

The 'we' are in plenty of trouble. How did 'we' get to this state? It is not a lack of religion. It is not a matter of intellectual assent to a doctrine and damn the rest of humanity that does not so assent. Is there a clue in the image and as the likeness of God that would help us govern ourselves corporately without recourse to the me-first or me-only mentality that is so destructive of the one, the enemy, the other, who appears to be not like me?

It seems very difficult to give an answer to this perennial question. At least it is not an answer that satisfies. Yet rather than forced service, one might find the image in voluntary service. But you object, voluntary service will be taken advantage of, and will displace necessary jobs. Yes - from a human point of view, I agree. Is there no solution then?  It seems impossible without the help of a source that is outside of our own desires. People do name this source as 'God'.

Perhaps it is possible to walk through the fiery swords that separate us from such a Governor... Perhaps the sword is a song. Then maybe our cities will come to resemble the promised city of God (Psalms 48 and 87).  I think there are many who do sing such a song. One is being sung now in a hospital somewhere in England over the wounds of a young woman, Malala Yousafzai.

Look at Psalm 87. No one is excluded. Consider the list of enemies: Rahab (monster) , Babylon (confusion), Philistia (one who rolls in the dust), Tyre (the hard-nosed) and Ethiopia (the children of Ham). They are all in this same city - all born there. Could the violent learn love over fear? Could our corporations learn responsibility and mercy to their resources? Oh my rose spectacles. Self-giving triumph over self-preservation?

I have added Psalm 44 to my worked out psalms. I have not tried to sing it yet. The modes are very strange. The mid-verse is often an A#, finding no rest. But exile is an undesirable state of affairs. Perhaps we will find rest in the middle of each troubled verse when we stop exiling each other in the name of the image and according to the likeness in which we are imprinted. There might be power in what we stop doing.