Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Judgment with equity in the psalms

When I first began to study the psalms closely in August 2006, I scarcely knew where I was going. What was the OT that I should pay attention?  What would the study of a single OT book do to me?  In those days, as I translated each new psalm, something personal happened to me, sometimes which only I know about, which was then directly related to the psalm I was translating. Barely two months into this project, I wrote:
These poems are dangerous. I find it impossible to avoid the reality they portray - judgment and mercy; enemy and chosen; how can one cry out or whisper in safety when the answer comes from consuming fire?
Then, gradually, as this horse and mule learned a little obedience - and that's a mystery too - don't follow just any voice.  Anyway, as time passed, I have not been required to learn with such fear but I have I think learned something else: What can these psalms say as a living word to those who build nations, to those who run companies, to those who must cope with massive bureaucracies, to those who carry out destructive orders, to those who are displaced by war, and to those who displace with violence?

It's difficult to know - but the first lesson is easy.  As Spike Lee wrote in his film title: Do the right thing.  How many contortions of words will we require to say what the right thing is?  How much self-justification? How much destruction of our conscience?  Or will the right thing build conscience and not need self-justification or legal complexity?

Judgment with equity: the first thought on this that comes to mind is the centre of Psalm 67:
Make tribes glad and shout for joy
for you judge peoples with equity
and tribes on the earth - you guide them
That's a non-specific tribes - and it is surrounded by an appeal to make non-specific peoples be thankful

I suppose we could read this as forceful, but that is not the character of the one with whom the poet converses in the psalms. No one will be thankful out of force. The character of God is love, mercy, holiness and judgment with equity, not coercion, self-seeking, or violent.  Indeed HaShem, the Lord, is a God of war, but pick your battles.

I wasn't reading Psalm 67 when I came across this film in the Guardian. I had just read the Psalms of the reign of the Lord - Psalms 96-99 filled with singing and celebration, and I was in the middle of Psalm 101, thinking about the last two verses. These two verses lie outside the frame of that psalm which circles verses 1 to 6. The frame is 'walking in completeness', a vital theme in the Psalter (that's the 150 psalms as a unit for those of you to whom this word is rare).  Here is what the Lord says in verses 7 and 8
The one who does deceit will not sit within my house
a tale of falsehoods
will not be established before my eyes
The film has been called propaganda. Does that mean it is lies? a tale of falsehoods? If so, it will not be established - at least so one should think who has faith in God.  Then he says
in the mornings I will annihilate
all the wicked of earth
to cut off from the city of יהוה
all workers of mischief
Who will do the annihilating? Not the government. Not the police. Not those who are violent or who fail to 'walk in completeness'. But the Lord himself.  My wife said - sometimes all you can do is pray. And so be it. But some parties in this agreement are not praying, waiting on God, or walking in completeness - though it appears they ought to know better.  Instead they are violating the principles of hospitality to strangers and guests in the land that is clearly in Torah (Leviticus 19:33-34: the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself) as well as in the Psalms. The character of the Lord is again determined by his actions, frequently listed in the psalms, and never (outside the recitals of the canonical history and the eschatological hope) are they violent or creating the poor and the displaced. The God who promises is not a God who fulfills promises by violence. [Bob - you've got work to do here.]

In days that should never be repeated, violence was done in the evenings and in the mornings. So this is my prayer. Let it not be continued by those who were subject to it - either politically or individually.  It is important to read the psalms - and learn the right lessons from the Lord, the 'One who teaches humanity knowledge' (Kimhi).