My interest in the Hebrew Psalms began ten years ago through the means of a series of accidents. After my retirement I took a year assignment to a pair of upstate New York parishes. My first task I set my self was to read the New Testament in Greek. This was to make up for what I had not done in my active ministry even though a group of us had promised that when left seminary that we would not fail to continue read the New Testament in Greek. In the course of that year I found in a pile of books tucked into the dusty bottom of a closet in one of these churches. It included Volume Two of Isaac Leeser’s historic 1853 publication of the Hebrew text with his parallel English translation, and B. Davidson’s Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon. Some pastor had left them behind. Given the age of Leeser’s volume and the fact that Davidson was printed in England, it was probably some time in the 19th century. Imagine a parish priest in the heart of New York’s milk shed, laboring away at his Hebrew!
The what-next-question had a ready answer. In spite of the rustic state of my seminary Hebrew, why not read the Hebrew of the Tanach? The Book of Psalms commended itself to me. It seemed like a manageable task. The Office that I kept, causes me to read through the Book of Psalms every month. That meant that the psalm were particularly familiar to me and the study would enhance that particularly act of my Spirituality. It also fit my plans to write poetry in my retirement. I was involved, at the time, in completing a book of poetry which would appear as To Make Myself a Word: The Collected Poems and Images of a Parish Priest, in 2010, and presumed that poetry would continue to occupy me during my retirement. The Book of Psalms, though seldom thought of in that way, is one of the great masterpieces of human poetics and it would enhance my own work as a poet.
The venture has proven quite compelling and after 10 years, I have no indication that might back off of it any time soon. I have made it through Leeser’s text and translation, Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg’s, Mikraoth Gedoloth, three volume work, several times and more recently The Metsudah Interlinear Tehillim by Helene and Josh Peyser. I read each day and find the study as compelling as my Office.
If adding this as a track in this blog might seem to be an aside, I should beg to differ. What I find in my study of the Psalms is deeply connected with my search in general and in particular this blog to serve the narrative. My experience is that the poetic of the psalter is very much connected to the narrative and can be understood as an attempt to pray the narrative.
Not a Psalm
It has been widely recognized that Psalm 1, is not a prayer, neither a petition nor an act of praise. It is a statement which precedes the psalms and indicates the spirit and attitude with which the body psalms are to be prayed. In its singularity, there is already a story. It was, obviously, not always the opening psalm, a role that must have belonged for some time to Psalm 2. It must have been the work of an editor who hoped to frame the collection of psalms into a whole and to remove them from any further variations, either by way of additions or subtraction to the text. In this he was amazingly successful, although it might be noted that famous Greek translation of the third century did add one, making its total 151.
The person from whom these prayers are intended for the person who has not walked or sat in the council of the wicked, but has delighted in the Torah and who meditates on the Torah day and night. This person like the editor belongs to the congregation of the righteous. The word Torah immediately tags this psalm as unique because it occurs in only in 11 psalms, most notably in Psalm 119 where it occurs 25 times and all of these psalms have other things that connect them with Psalm 1. The development of the term comes late in the kingdom and will only with the exile that it will begin to mean the Five Books of Moses. If these writings contain law codes, they are mainly a narrative beginning with the story of the creation of the heavens and the earth, their generations. To clarify that the psalms are Torah, this late editor divides the Psalms into five books, suggestion that the psalms are a reflection of the Five Books of Moses.
The word torah is derived from the word for light, illumination, teaching. Moreover the verb in Psalm 1 regarding the way Torah is to be treated is יהגה which indicates “murmuring,” “sighing,” “uttering,” “speaking,” and “meditating” only by extension. This person is not in some deep state of abstract thought, but in the active state of recitation. Thus this psalm is pointed precisely at the recitation of this body of psalms which are in some way a recitation of the Torah in another form!
Once a month, on the new moon, I find myself set to recite/pray Psalm 1, and begin again a journey through the Psalter. I will find myself once again pondering who in my deep past is this guy is who recast the collected psalms as Torah, as light and illumination. Where is it that he sat? Our only clue is that he calls it צדיקים עדח, “the congregation of the righteous.” How did he imagine that this יהגה of the Book of Psalms would take place? Here we might take a quick look at Psalm 119, which have already suggested is tied to Psalm 1. While it is impossible to claim that both psalms were authored by the same person, it is rather clear that they both were introduced to the collected psalm by the same editorial activity, the one to open the psalter, and the other to be a psalter within the psalter, to be a normative recapitulation of the whole.
Psalm 119 is an acrostic and it lines are rhythmically balanced in a pattern that is like breathing in and breathing out. Very clearly one can יהגה Psalm 119, that is to say, murmur it, or to coo it like a dove. In fact, it would be comic to try to preform it differently. This is not a psalm the would make it in the halls of the palace or in the courts of the temple. It is meant for an intimate setting of a pious congregation, or for the solitude of a pious one’s study.
This raises the question of how one applies this to the rest of the psalter. How, indeed, is it possible to coo their way through Psalm 2! More soon.