Friday, October 30, 2015

A reflection on Psalm 135

At some point one has to get serious about why the Bible is important and how to read it without getting one's feet trapped in the quicksand.

For there is no doubt there is quicksand here of a thousand sorts. Why bother then?

It is first of all a time-dependent quicksand. We have some notion of time in the 21st century, each of us, and it is not something we express well or thoughtfully. We do not live in the time in which these poems were written, if indeed time is ultimately so important.

It is also a political quicksand. Certainly this is true of Psalm 135 which we must somehow set in its place. If you have no table, it is hard to set it. If your table is lopsided, the settings will fall off. If we have no floor, the table will disappear when we place something on it in the gravity of the moment. Is this poem purely nationalistic and self-serving?

First read it with me - just the first 8 verses because already this post will be too long. I write now for the trolls and the devoted - for both. Can I do it? Skipping the Hebrew then, here is my rendering of the first 8 verses.
Hallelu Yah. Praise the name of Yahweh.
Praise O servants of Yahweh,
who stand in the house of Yahweh
in the courts of the house of our God.
Hallelu Yah, for Yahweh is good.
Sing a psalm to his name for pleasure.
For Yah has chosen Jacob for himself,
Israel for his own treasure trove.
For I myself know Yahweh is great,
and our Lord more than all gods.
All that delighted Yahweh he did
in the heavens and in the earth
in the seas and all abysses,
making the mist ascend from the extremity of the earth,
lightnings for the rain he made,
bringing forth spirit from his treasury,
who struck the firstborn of Egypt,
from human to beast.

O - only 8 verses, but we must set it in its poetic context. I want to skip ahead already and hold the rest of the psalm with this - its invitation to everyone even after the defeat of local kingdoms, its repudiation of idolatry in its own amusing way, imitating Psalm 115 - but more importantly, what precedes this psalm in the Psalter. We are more than half way through the 5th book of the Psalter. Book 3 has detailed the failure of the monarchy of Israel and Judah. We are not a political Israel. Quicksand!

Book 4 has detailed the renewal from the disaster of the monarchy. Renewal is a significant frame for the book. Book 4 is also framed by Moses and two prayers (90 of Moses, 102 a prayer of the disabled). Renewal is through prayer and the teaching (Torah) of Yahweh, the God of Israel. (Religious quicksand - Torah is not rule-bound but it is read that way by millions.) Torah defines Israel. Israel so defined is an example to the rest of the world of what not to do in your own defense. (Political and religious quicksand.)

But now to this psalm - Israel is beloved, chosen, a treasure trove to Yahweh. Get that. And hear a little Job from chapter 14 as I posted yesterday.
You would call and I, I would answer you.
For the work of your hands, you would ache.
Does Yahweh God ache for Israel - you bet right. Relationships are fractured in Jerusalem like nowhere else in the world. How long will it hold together using vinegar and brown paper (or walls and razor wire)?

This Psalm also occurs following the 15 Psalms of ascent, traditionally thought to have been sung as a sequence, one on each of the temple steps. This Psalm with Psalm 136 celebrates the arrival in the courts of Yahweh. (These 2 psalms are practically identical in length and share a host of keywords - 20 of them in the same sequence in the two psalms).

The music has some unusual components - how I would like to take you through it one verse at a time, but time is of the essence in a post and there is not enough of it. The music is all available online as described on this blog elsewhere. One verse (v2 below) shows the arrival in the courts and reflects some of the complexity of the musical accents that I have seen elsewhere only in the Decalogue (disproving a thesis that there are two conflicting sets of signs in the Decalogue - but that's academic quicksand.)
Psalm 135 v2 showing multiple changes in note on the first syllable, so connecting this verse to the prior verse.
All that Yahweh delighted in, he did. Yahweh has a lot to answer for. When will we demand the answer and how will we respond to the requirement to fix the mess we have made with God's creation (the mist) and redemption (the slaying of the firstborn) and in all time, the treasury of spirit. What an immense cost. What a God of terror and fear. Who would want to be his treasure trove? What sort of spirit are we from?

Political? You bet - get on with the salvaging of refugees, stop the violence towards others, find a containment of radicalization, it's up to us because God is depending on us. There is no magical Deus ex Machina. There is our responsibility with the blessing of the Invisible (without which nothing is possible - depend on it).

We are those who stand in the courts of Yahweh. There can be no triumphalism. We are a charade of blackness (Psalm 120), but held in hope (Psalm 121), with responsibility for the pomegranate in razor wire that is the partnered Jerusalem (Psalm 122). There is enough contempt to go around (123), our help is in a name - a name that cares for the dispossessed (124), good receives good (125), tears in the night but joy in the morning (126), joy in children (127, 128), trouble a plenty (129), watch and wait (130), there are wonders beyond us (131), there is a rest of God (132), live in unity with your kin (133), who is it makes heaven and earth? (121, 134).

But trust, waiting, and watching are not a recipe for passivity. Our action, our part will be called out of us - if we have ears. Mind you our deafness may have been caused by the deafness of the market that we worship. The people are called together to share in the work and character of this God. In effect, the psalms are saying - he is not terrible but a God who cares for the dispossessed (Psalm 146 and many others).

It is true that there is this character of caring in the body of the people. It is encouraging that the refugees are being processed. Obviously there is great difficulty, and the source of power and strength for us to do what is right is not obvious. We could easily retreat, easily retrench, turn back to our own self-protection (and sometimes this is needed and called for). There is much quicksand. It is important to lay a strong net over it so that we don't get distracted.

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