This is going to be my last case in Psalms for a while. A sleuth’s gotta vary up the cases they take, or you get too narrow. Life throws a whole spectrum of experience at you to figure out 🎨. If all you see is one color, you’re not seeing anything at all, are you?
So, what’s next — Qohelet (Ecclesiastes)? My favorite work in the Bible. Doesn’t seem so poetic, right? Actually, it’s obsessed with poetry, chasing it down, attacking it, calling it out; but then towards the end it puts up its own masterful poem. The worst cases have this kind of twistedness. My kind. 😈
Song of Songs? Also my favorite work in the Bible. It’s über-poetic. The title even says so, “The songest of songs.” How can a song be more song-like than other songs? That’s a case with my name on it.
Something prophetic? If you’re working the dark alleys of the Bible… Whoa! I oughta get back to Psalm 19. When you work alone, the line between what you’re thinking and what you’re saying can get kind of porous, if you know what I mean. You get so used to following threads and leads in your mind 🧠, you let it wander after its own yarn 🧶, and before you know it your mouth is running like a getaway car. 🏎💨
Psalm 19 is actually two different cases that someone dumped into a single file. ☝️is about El making the sky for the sun; ✌️is about Yahweh’s wise rules for humans. Their theme, topic, rhythm, style, and voice are all different. There are some points of contact, and reading them together sparks some good ideas that neither one has alone, I’ll give you that. And I’ll get to it later. But it’s ☝️that caught my attention.
Most poems praise Yahweh for holding back the Waters Gang 🌊 and drying out the neighborhood to make it livable 🏝. And most authors in the Bible and most sleuths investigating it cast a wary eye 🤨 on the sun as a real shady character, always threatening to knock off Yahweh and become the new boss. Case in point: Deut 4:19. And it’s true. If you look at mug shots and surveillance film 📷🎞from around the region (southwest Asia; aka the Middle East, aka the Near East), everywhere you look, there’s the sun hovering in the background, trying to get into the spotlight, trying to be the spotlight. You know the type. See for yourself a stunning piece of art from around the 10th century BCE (what would be the times of David or Solomon): this, which was found here. At the top you can see the sun riding a horse with two heads. Back then too, people’s imagination ran way with them. I’ve seen enough to know, people have always come up with weird ideas about what could be. Some call it optimism; some call it escapism. Me? It’s just another case to solve. 🔦🗝🔎 (By the way, forget the official description; there is no evidence it was a pedestal.) And see for yourself the royal insignia that Judean kings in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE used on documents, like this, and on the handles of storage jars, like this (no. 5; see also nos. 7, 10, 20). Back then too, bosses marked their goods and took their cuts. It’s just like I said, people don’t change.
I’ll give you Poem✌️too. A sleuth has to go all in on a case. If you don’t tie everything up, the loose ends’ll come back and trip you up. As pious as Poem✌️ is — a sure way to get me to Neverland 💤😴💤 — it actually makes me chuckle. The voice speaking in it goes on about how ennobling Yahweh’s ways are and how committed to them the speaker has been (עַבְדְּךָ נִזְהָר בָּהֶם), but then it admits to confused slip-ups (שְׁגִיאוֹת), mindless mistakes (נִסְתָּרוֹת), deliberate ones (זֵדִים), and even outright villainy (פֶּשַׁע רָב). Then it asks Yahweh to, you know, look the other way and give it a fresh start. It ends by asking that this speech itself will do the trick. It’s the thought that counts, right? Look, to plenty of joes and janes the poem’s idea is that people are hopelessly lousy and depend on Yahweh being more Grandpa than Godfather, if you get my drift. Truly pious. And a sleuth knows better than to claim to see into a person’s soul. But this isn’t a person, let alone a soul, just the voice of a poem, and like all suspects and witnesses, poetic voices have a way of giving up some unintended truths. A sleuth’s job is to listen for those 🎧, and I can’t help hearing it my way…and chuckling. What person doesn’t rig the game with God now and then, right? 🎰 Maybe that’s just me on the outside looking in, a sleuth jaded by sludge. You be the judge. ⚖️
Now, about my translation and formatting. In this case too, if you divide Poem ☝️ into lines by following the verse numbers, you end up with a jumble of irregular line-lengths. Some will have two segments, some will have three. Same goes for dividing the lines by trying to keep similar ideas in the same line. And don’t even think about trying both, following verse numbers and keeping similar ideas together. BUT, when you make all the lines two-segment lines, all the pieces fall right into place. (I rambled on about this in the case on Psalm 24.)
On Poem✌️I’ve got to warn you: it’s highly repetitious, like a list. Also, all the main Hebrew terms are hard to translate and differentiate in a way that doesn’t just sound biblical but makes sense from your regular life (תּוֹרָה, עֵדוּת, פִּקּוּד, מִצְוָה, מִשְׁפָּט). What they all share is this idea: any statement that Yahweh makes or instruction that he gives must be good for humankind and must be true for all time. One thing that catches my attention is “Yahweh’s dread,” because just like in English, Hebrew יִרְאָה usually means what someone feels, not what causes the feeling in someone else. Obviously, Yahweh dreads nothing; he causes dread. (You want me to say “Yahweh’s dreadedness!?”) English used to have the perfect term for this, “eye,” but it’s obsolete. Eyeball it yourself 📖👀 in the OED, entries 2a and 3, here.
1 For the musician. A psalm, of David.
2 The skies recount the glory of El / and of his handiwork does the sky tell. //
3 Day by day it utters its speech / and night by night it expresses what it knows. //
4 There is no speech and there are no words / without their voice being heard. //
5 Throughout the land their voice went out / and to the end of the world are their words; //
5–6 For the sun he made a tent in them. / And it — like a groom bursting from the wedding chamber — //
6–7 It rejoices like a champion to run a course. / At one end of the skies is its starting point, //
7 and its cycle is until their other ends; / And nothing hides from its heat. //
8 Yahweh’s instruction is flawless, restoring one’s body;
Yahweh’s declaration never fails, wisening the simple;
9 Yahweh’s orders line up, gladdening the heart;
Yahweh’s command is bright, lighting up the eyes;
10 Yahweh’s dread is pure, standing forever;
Yahweh’s decrees are true; they vindicate together;
11 Which are more desirable than gold and great nuggets,
And sweeter than honey and honeycomb.
12 Yes, your servant has minded them! / In keeping them is great reward! //
13 Mix-ups, who catches? / Of the overlooked cleanse me. //
14 Also from the intended spare your servant; / let them not dominate me. //
Then I’ll be flawless, / and I’ll be cleansed of great crime. //
15 May my mouth’s words be pleasing, / and my heart’s sentiments, before you, /
O, Yahweh, my rock and my rescuer! //
1 לַמְנַצֵּחַ מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד
2 הַשָּׁמַיִם מְסַפְּרִים כְּבוֹד־אֵל וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדָיו מַגִּיד הָרָקִיעַ
3 יוֹם לְיוֹם יַבִּיעַ אֹמֶר וְלַיְלָה לְּלַיְלָה יְחַוֶּה־דָּעַת
4 אֵין־אֹמֶר וְאֵין דְּבָרִים בְּלִי נִשְׁמָע קוֹלָם
5 בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ יָצָא קַוָּם וּבִקְצֵה תֵבֵל מִלֵּיהֶם
5-6 לַשֶּׁמֶשׁ שָׂם־אֹהֶל בָּהֶם וְהוּא כְּחָתָן יֹצֵא מֵחֻפָּתוֹ
6-7 יָשִׂישׂ כְּגִבּוֹר לָרוּץ אֹרַח מִקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם מוֹצָאוֹ
7 וּתְקוּפָתוֹ עַל־קְצוֹתָם וְאֵין נִסְתָּר מֵחַמָּתוֹ
8 תּוֹרַת יְהוָה תְּמִימָה מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ
עֵדוּת יְהוָה נֶאֱמָנָה מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי
9 פִּקּוּדֵי יְהוָה יְשָׁרִים מְשַׂמְּחֵי־לֵב
מִצְוַת יְהוָה בָּרָה מְאִירַת עֵינָיִם
10 יִרְאַת יְהוָה טְהוֹרָה עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד
מִשְׁפְּטֵי־יְהוָה אֱמֶת צָדְקוּ יַחְדָּו
11 הַנֶּחֱמָדִים מִזָּהָב וּמִפַּז רָב
וּמְתוּקִים מִדְּבַשׁ וְנֹפֶת צוּפִים
12 גַּם־עַבְדְּךָ נִזְהָר בָּהֶם בְּשָׁמְרָם עֵקֶב רָב
13 שְׁגִיאוֹת מִי־יָבִין מִנִּסְתָּרוֹת נַקֵּנִי
14 גַּם מִזֵּדִים חֲשֹׂךְ עַבְדֶּךָ אַל־יִמְשְׁלוּ־בִי
אָז אֵיתָם וְנִקֵּיתִי מִפֶּשַׁע רָב
15 יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי־פִי וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ
יְהוָה צוּרִי וְגֹאֲלִי
Poem ☝️does some interesting things. I’ll give them to you one at a time. 1️⃣ The ancients looked up at the sky and saw a dome, a solid object, one that is translucent, literally: light (lucent) passes through (trans). And when they looked out at the beach they could see that beyond the seas that circle the dry land (that’s how they figured it), the sky drops down and doesn’t sink. So it must be standing on a solid band that runs around the water. The world is a snow globe. The wonder of it is that the sky does not come crashing down. There are no pillars holding it up in the middle, where you’d expect. We would say this magnificent architecture is evidence of the artisan, the god who built it. But the poem flips this around. Instead of people seeing the sky and declaring how wonderful its maker is, the poem makes the sky the speaker; the sky actually gives evidence, it testifies. Wherever the sky is and as long as it endures, it speaks and people hear what it says, that its maker is a master craftsman.
2️⃣ The poem then speaks of the thing that runs across the sky tracing its shape, day by day, with incredible steadiness, bursting with the joyous energy of a groom and keeping up that furious pace — the sun😎. As it runs, with a champion’s furious rage, it lights up the world. The poem imagines a tent where the sun sleeps in between courses, leaving us in darkness, our night.
3️⃣ The poem names the god only once, and it uses “El,” not “Yahweh.”
To sum up: the poem expresses wonder that El has made a racetrack and keeps the sun running it — which sustains life below. You see just how different this is from the other cases, Psalm 93 and Psalm 24, which are all about making life possible by controlling the waters and making dry land.
I know where you think I’m going with this. That originally this poem was about the father of the gods, El, not Yahweh (like in the case of Psalm 82). All the evidence points that way. 👉🏼 Just add it up, right? Unusual focus on sky and sun + using the name El alone = smoking gun 🔫♨️. I’m plenty bold, never backed down from a theory because it’s unpopular or upsetting. But a sleuth has to know when there isn’t enough to go on to draw big conclusions. Too many works in the Bible present El and Yahweh as aliases of the same god. So this poem could have that 🆔 in mind. But why select El at all, then, right? Sharp question. 🎯
The advantage of my kind of cases is that time isn’t running out⏳. Sure, time’s running out on all of us from the day we’re born ⏲, but emergency medicine 🚑 Bible sleuthing is not. I can wait a long time to make my case solid before I go to the press🎙. Some sleuths work possibilities. Me? Probabilities. But what makes something probable, right? There’s no silver bullet or magic pill on that one. Every professional has to work that out for themself. But just put it that way and you’re already ahead of the pack. You’ll take fewer cases and be slower to crack them, but your track record will be solid. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway, solid.
If you’ve read my files, you know how I work: I try to keep every case its own, look at all the pieces that make it up, and make them fit as a pattern. People are people; they all do the same things. But people are also individuals and each does what they do in their own way. I try to see the patterns of a single individual.
Wouldn’t you know it? There’s my mouth again. 🗣
So why does someone stick Poem✌️ right after Poem☝️? When you’re trying to dig up a past that doesn’t want to be found and so little evidence turns up, motive is always hard to establish, even impossible. It’s always safer to ask what’s the effect.
The poems have some similar ideas, images, and elements: important speech that people receive; divine wisdom being enduring and good for people’s lives; and brightness. Effect 1️⃣ of presenting the two poems as one is that it balances ideas about divine power and wisdom regarding the elements, with ideas about divine instruction and insight regarding people. To put it differently: it balances ideas about how well the material world runs (nature), with how well human beings ought to run (ethics and justice). This combination occurs in plenty of poems, like Psalm 104, and in different ways. Turning the combination upside-down and inside-out, as a sleuth like me would, you see that poems like this, and prose works too, all struggle with a conundrum. The deity made the world run so well. The deity made people. Why don’t people run so well? These works don’t solve that conundrum, but they react to it.
If you think there’s a strong case that Poem☝️is about El, the father of the gods, not Yahweh, then Effect 2️⃣ of having it lead into Poem✌️ is like what’s in Psalm 82. El made the physical world such that people can live, but Yahweh runs it ethically so they can thrive. Now if you don’t buy that El’s a different god, I don’t blame you. And I have an alternative for you. Effect 2️⃣ of putting Poem✌️right after Poem☝️is precisely that it identifies El and Yahweh as aliases, faces or facets, of the same god. As Ei he created the world; as Yahweh he guides humanity. Rarely do I present a client with this kind of split option. But a sleuth’s no good if they aren’t straight up. No evidence can turn up to prove conclusively that this poem had El the father of the gods in mind — or that it didn’t. This is a case with no probability. So I have to give you both possibilities.
You know my motto: trust no one. So here are some case notes.
קַוָּם “their voice” — Emended from קַוָּם “their line” to קוֹלָם “their voice” according to the context. (קו isn’t an abstracted line, but an object that measures things, a measuring tool.)
עַל־קְצוֹתָם “until their (other) ends” — Emended from עַל to עַד according to the context. But if one understands תְּקוּפָה not as the period or cycle, but as the end of a period, the turning point of the cycle, then עַל makes sense: the sun turns back on the far edges of the skies.
נֶפֶשׁ “body” — Of course I wanted to go with “soul,” because it communicates a sense of wholeness. But today “soul” mainly communicates an idea about something apart from the body, and that is not a biblical idea. נֶפֶשׁ primarily means “throat” (Jonah 2:6; Psalms 63:2; 69:2; 124:4–5) and, by extension, appetite, body, vitality, life, and so on — the self as a physical thing and a physical process.
Like I said, that’s enough cases from Psalms. You got the point. But, hey, try your hand at these interesting ones yourself: Psalm 45 is not about Yahweh at all; the voice of the poem speaks praise to a human king then explains to a young woman why becoming his wife is an excellent idea. Psalm 50 gives a philosophy of sacrifice and ethics. Psalm 78 gets its history just a little bit wrong right at the very end, in a way that makes it look like an allegory for the fall the northern kingdom, Israel (aka Ephraim), and the sudden prominence of the southern kingdom, Judea (aka Judah) — in the late 8th cent BCE, over two-hundred fifty years after David and Solomon. Psalm 89 presents a comprehensive statement about Yahweh’s oath of fidelity to the Davidic dynasty, then it accuses Yahweh of betraying that very oath. The statement features surprises like a host of divinities and divine combat. Psalm 91 portrays Yahweh as a protector against demons and whatnot, pretty much like the charms from the late 6th cent. BCE (right before the Babylonians destroy Judea) buried with upper-class dead in a cave-grave opposite Jerusalem, etched with the “priestly blessing” (Num 6:24–26): these found here. Similar to Psalm 19, Psalm 104 expresses the idea that the sound of the world running as it always does is itself a song of praise to Yahweh who made it all; it ends with a punchline about what that means for humanity. But the punchline is actually unclear. Either it declares that, so too, the wicked will be dealt with, or it demands that, so too, the wicked better be dealt with. What a wicked ambiguity! Anyway, you can read these poems here — but don’t go starting to trust everything you read.
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