A few things draw me to this poem. It is completely different from most poems in Psalms. It has no parallelism and little of the standard rhythms; it uses many prose particles and formulations, and it repeats them. It also amounts to a single sentence, which is made up almost entirely of noun-clauses; its one finite verb comes at the end in a subordinate clause. The many repetitions and the piled-up noun-clauses together give the poem an overlapping structure, like links in a chain, that actually matches the images in it of cascading oil and falling dew, and conveys its main topic, flowing abundance. I try to represent the cascading effect by using the repeated elements to divide the poem into lines and indenting each line more than the previous one all the way down to the end.
1 An ascending song, of David.
Look, how fine and how sweet
brothers living as one
2 like the finest oil over a head
descending over a beard
the beard of Aaron
descending over its/his length
3 like the dew of Hermon
descending over the mountains of Zion
because there Yahweh decreed blessing
When I first looked at this case, it seemed simple enough, just three verses. How hard could it be?
The case started out easy, right up my alley. The first words, a heading, are familiar to bible sleuths everywhere. But those Joes and Janes are on the wrong track, thinking that “ascents” (Hebrew מַעֲלוֹת) refers to when the song was sung, when people climbed Mount Zion on pilgrimage. Trust no one, I always say. So I went through the Book of Psalms. Slow as I work, it took a few days, but here’s what I found. Most pieces in Psalms look like the lyrics to music, and most headings refer to musical things, like instruments and musicians. I put two and two together, and came up with this: the Hebrew refers to a type of composition, how the song should be sung, its speed or scale or mood, not a type of event. It’s an ascending song, not a song of ascent.
I was feeling good about the heading, and moved to the body. But then I hit a snag. Every time I looked for a sentence, a clause, or a cause, the thread kept slipping away from me. The song starts with an exclamation about how great it is when siblings can live together. I wanted a sentence ending so I could try to figure what that meant. Every sleuth has a docket full of cases telling the same story: adult siblings living together is a recipe for a whole lot of trouble. But before I could pause to crack that nut, the sentence went on with a comparison to the finest oil. I plied my best surveillance skills to follow that thought, but it kept eluding me. The oil started on a head, dripped over a beard, which turns out to be Aaron’s. At this point things got even hairier. I couldn’t tell whether the oil flowed down the length of the beard or the length of Aaron or whether it was the beard that flowed down over the length of Aaron. It was a case of cascading oil in a cascading verbal style that had me tangled in knots.
Before I could stop and consider the strange comparison, that siblings living together is like cascading oil, the sentence kept moving, now drawing a comparison to dew. But what’s like dew — Aaron’s beard, the finest oil, or siblings living together? I was stumped. The questions kept piling up. Does the poem say Hermon dew flows to the mountains of Zion? I know the lay of the land, and it does not. It’s a stretch if I ever saw one. Maybe it says that Hermon-like dew falls over the mountains of Zion? That could happen, but I checked annual weather patterns and it’s wishful thinking. Then again, the song started out with wishful thinking, siblings living together…
Before I could stop to consider this, the sentence continued with the explanation that “there Yahweh decreed his blessing.” This ambiguous reference posed the biggest question of them all. Where is there? Where exactly is it that Yahweh decreed blessing — the mountains of Zion, Hermon, the dew, Aaron’s beard, the finest oil, or siblings dwelling together? A person could find blessing anywhere they looked. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
I was getting to the end the trail now and it went cold, a cryptic phrase “life evermore” loosely connected to the rest, in apposition you could say. Is the blessing considered to be life evermore or siblings living together? I’d wandered into a dead end.
I turned the whole thing over in my mind for days on end: siblings living together… divine blessing… life evermore… life evermore… divine blessing… siblings living together…
After what felt like an eternity — awash in burnt coffee — the main pieces suddenly clicked into place. Family farms couldn’t be divided up among the next generation. They’d be too small to support them all. One would have to inherit alone, a regular cause of strife in a Bible sleuth’s line of work. A family that did stay together, well, that would be fine and sweet. What would they need? Enough yield to stay together, and enough yield is like flowing oil, which is like and also caused by flowing dew, which is caused by divine blessing. Family identity was a multi-generational affair back then, so that a family that could stay together over generations would be life evermore itself.
Some parts of the case are still hard to pin down and they may have to stay that way: where the dew falls and flows, and whether the oil flows over Aaron or just the beard and the beard flows over Aaron. But the main lines of the case are clear enough: A family with enough supplies to stay together for generations surely has been allowed to do so by divine blessing. I put my feet up and pull my hat down. Case closed.
Actually, the case got me to thinking and reminded me of an old cold case, the law of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5–10). That law too starts with brothers living together. But these flat feet need a rest from all the gumshoeing. I’ll have to get to that another time.
Now I know some of you out there trust no one, which is how it should be. It’s exactly what I always tell my sleuths-in-training, my protégés if you fancy-pants types like. So see the original for yourselves and my scribbles on it.
1 שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד
הִנֵּה מַה־טּוֹב וּמַה־נָּעִים
שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם־יָחַד
2 כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב עַל־הָרֹאשׁ
שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל־פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו
שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל־הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה
שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת = construct phrase in which the second noun functions as an attributive adjective to the first: “ascending song”
כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב = there are several ways to analyze this phrase grammatically; I understand it to indicate the superlative, “like the finest oil;” you could still persuade me it’s the indefinite “like fine oil,” but not the definite “like the fine oil”
הָרֹאשׁ…הַזָּקָן = here the definite article marks a previously unspecified thing, “a certain head…a certain beard,” which is common in biblical Hebrew
עַל־פִּי = not the usual idiom “by (the mouth of)” indicating a source, entry, or beginning point; here it introduces the measure, extent of something, like in Lev 25:18; Prov 22:6, like the expression כְּפִי
מִדּוֹת = measure, extent, length (clothing would be מַדִּים)
מִדּוֹתָיו = the pronominal suffix refers either to Aaron (“his length”) or to the beard (“its length”)
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