Behar, Psalm 100, and Psalm 123: Master and Slave

May 9, 2018 at 8:20 pm | Posted in Behar, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

Who owns you?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”), sets limits on ownership of both humans and land.  God owns all the farmland.  The people are tenants with long-term leases, but God mandates that they must let the land rest every seventh year,1 and every fiftieth year (the jubilee/yoveil) any land that was purchased returns to the family that originally owned it.2  (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)

The same goes for human beings.  God owns all the Israelites.  If some of them become so impoverished they have nothing left to sell but themselves or their children, they can join another household as servants.  But they will not be permanent, inheritable slaves, like the foreign slaves Israelites own.3  Their extended families can buy them back from their Israelite masters at any time, and if they are still serving their masters when the jubilee year comes, they and their children are freed from service anyway—and can return to the land they once sold.4  (See my post Behar: Exclusive Ownership.)  God explains:

“Because they are my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt, they may not be sold as an aved.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:42)

avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, subordinates.  (Singular:  eved, עֶבֶד or aved, עָבֱד.)

In this context, the Israelites are slaves of God, and can only become temporary servants or subordinates of human beings.  Even Israelites who sell themselves to resident aliens can be redeemed by their kinsmen, and must go free along with their children in a jubilee year.5

The master-slave relationship between God and the Israelites is a mutual obligation.  The Israelites are supposed to serve God by obeying all of God’s rules and commandments, which number in the hundreds.  God has absolute power over “their” lives, as well as over “their” land.  But just as the human owner of slaves is supposed to provide them with food, clothing, lodging, and all their other needs, God is supposed to take care of the Israelites.6

How did God acquire the Israelites as slaves?  In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

“Because the children of Israel are [already] avadim; they are my avadim that I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God!”  (Leviticus 25:55)

In the book of Exodus, after God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them as far as Mount Sinai, God tells Moses to tell the people:

“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  For all the earth is mine, but you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  (Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6)

After Moses has passed this on,

They answered, all the people as one, and they said: “Everything that God says, we will do!”  (Exodus 19:8)

Thus they wholeheartedly accept their new master.7

*

The relationship between God and God’s slaves is not always peaceful.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar in particular, which we begin next week in the annual cycle of Torah reading, reports many incidents in which thousands of Israelites refuse to do what God asks, and God kills them.

The psalms offer contrasting opinions of what it is like to be God’s slave.  (Since the two psalms below compare God to a human master, my translations use the pronoun “he” and “his”.)

Psalm 100

A chant for thanksgiving:

            Call out homage to God, all the earth!

                        Ivdu God with joy!

                        Come before him with a shout of joy!

            Know that God is God;

                        He made us and we are his,

                        His people and the flock he is tending.

            Enter his gates with thanks,

                        His courtyards with praise.

                        Thank him!  Bless his name!

            For God is good.

                        His loving-kindness is forever,

                        And his faithfulness goes on from generation to generation.

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = Serve!  (An imperative verb from the same root as avadim.)

 

Psalm 123

A song for ascending [stairs].

            To you I lift my eyes,

                        Dweller in the heavens.

            Hey, as the eyes of avadim are on the hand of their masters,

                        As the eyes of a female-slave are on the hand of her mistress,

            So our eyes are on God, our God,

                        Until he favors us.

            Be gracious to us, God!

                        For we have had too much contempt.

            Our soul has had too much ridicule from the complacent;

                        It is moaning over contempt from the arrogant.           

When life is going well, we rejoice in serving a God that is kind and faithful to us.  When life is going badly, we look for God anxiously and beg for succor.

Both of these psalms imply an external god who owns us.  But on another level, they can speak to an inner psychological truth: we do not fully own ourselves.

In today’s world, some people are still slaves to other human beings.  But even those of us who are relatively independent have only limited freedom to make our own decisions.  Most of our behavior is determined by our history, habits, complexes, and abilities.  Usually our conscious minds merely notice what we have already done—and instantly generate reasons for our unconscious decisions, to keep up the illusion that we are our own masters.  Only occasionally does a new bit of information stop us in our tracks, so that we take the time to think out a new response to life.  Only occasionally are we truly free.

Is God the mysterious force that determines the physical and mental operating systems for all creatures, like a master commanding his slaves?  If so, we can praise God when things happen that we consider good, and wait with trembling for the next move in God’s plan when things happen that we consider bad.  And we can consciously develop a habit of noticing and praising the good that comes our way—the food our master gives us, the beauty of a view, the companions assigned to us, the times when our required behavior is pleasant.

Or is God what we encounter in our moments of freedom?  If so, we can cultivate a habit of watching for other moments when we might seize the chance to do something new, and of welcoming the sudden uncertainty when we pause, trembling, and open ourselves to inspiration.

  1. Leviticus 25:5.
  2. Leviticus 25:13-17, 25:23-24.
  3. Leviticus 25:35, 25:39, 25:44-46.
  4. Leviticus 25:40-41.
  5. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  6. “…just as they belong to Him in that He can confiscate and apportion their land, so, too, do they belong to Him in the sense that He is responsible for looking after their wellbeing and welfare for all time.” (Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 267)
  7. Ibid., p. 268.
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Pesach and Psalm 118: Still Singing

April 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

After drinking, eating, talking, and singing our way through the Haggadah, we still have six more days of Passover/Pesach.  What do we do besides continuing our matzah diet, unleavened by any bread?

One of the 14 steps in the seder follows us all week: the Halleil (הַלֵּל = praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118.  The Levites sang these psalms in the second temple1 during the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 2  All three festivals originated as harvest celebrations: Pesach for the first barley harvest, Shavuot for the first wheat and first fruits, and Sukkot at the end of the growing season, for all the other crops.  A harvest is a good reason to celebrate and praise God.

In my years of organizing Pesach seders and Shavuot and Sukkot services, I have been grateful that the Halleil includes Psalm 118.  Why?  Because the good lines in that psalm have inspired song and chant writers to come up with melodies.  Now, for the rest of the week of Pesach, I have the perfect excuse to keep on singing them!

Singing a verse again and again makes me ponder its meaning—which may be one reason we sing the psalms.  Here are my thoughts about some of the verses in Psalm 118:

118:1-4

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov,                         Thank God, because it is good,

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomar na Yisrael,                               Let Israel please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na beit Aharon,                       Let the house of Aaron please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na yirey Adonai,                      Let yirey God please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

yirey (יִרְאֵי) = those who are afraid of, those who are in awe of.

(Note:  In Hebrew, nouns and verbs have grammatical gender; in English they do not.  Therefore a masculine noun suffix or verb affix in Hebrew can be either masculine or neuter in English.  In this essay, I am translating references to God using “it” or “its”.)

Levites, from James Tissot, The Choristers

The first verses of Psalm 118 are scripted for call and response singing.  The choir, or choir leader, of the Levites invites three groups to respond. The first group, Israel, covers everyone present who is not a Levites or a priest.  The second group is the priests, whose hereditary office is traced back to Aaron in the Torah.  The third group is yirey God.3

It is tempting to consider the “yirey God” as the “God-fearers” of the Hellenistic period (the first through third century C.E.).  This was the name for people who had converted to worshipping the God of Israel, but did not go so far as to follow all the rules (such as circumcision).  One argument for this interpretation is that 118:4 calls for a class of people who are not “Israel”.  An argument against this interpretation is that Psalm 118 was probably written well before the first century C.E.

I can identify with the “yirey God”, despite my conversion to Judaism over 30 years ago, because I am not an ethnic Jew.  When the psalms were written, there were few apostates and few full converts; most of the people called “Israel” belonged by both birth and religion.  Today, when many people with Jewish ancestry live with no ties to the Jewish religion, and many converts are passionately engaged in that religion, I would appreciate a separate call for Jews by religion.4  We, too, can use a reminder that God’s “kindness is everlasting”.

118:14

Ozi vezimrat Yah,                               My strength vezimrat God,

          vayehi li liyshuah.                               and it became my rescue.

vezimrat (וְזִמְרָת) = and/or/but the zimrah of (a construct form of the noun zimrah).  Zimrah (זִמְרָה) = praising-song, melody, music.5

This line also appears in Exodus 15:2 in a song attributed to Moses, and is quoted in Isaiah 12:3.

English inserts the word “the” and forms of “to be” in places where Biblical Hebrew has no such connecting words.  Thus it is not always obvious, when translating from Hebrew to English, where to throw in the extra “the”, “is”, or “are”.  These grammatical differences mean there are at least two equally valid translations of Psalm 118:14:

“My own strength and song are of God!  And it [God] became my rescue!”  (Both the speaker’s strength and his song are attributed to God.  God rescues him by giving him superhuman strength and a song.)

“My own strength, and the song of God!  And it [the song of God] became my rescue!”  (The speaker has his own strength, but it is not enough to save him.  It is the song about God that rescues him—by calling in divine strength.)

When I sing verse 118:14, I imagine that singing in praise of God is giving me enough extra psychological strength to rescue me from my troubles.

118:19-20

Pitchu li shaarey tzedek                     Open to me the gates of righteousness

          Avo vam odeh Yah!                                         I will enter and praise God!

Zeh hashaar l’Adonai;                                    This is the gateway to God;

          Tzadikim yavo-u vo.                                    The righteous enter through it.

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = righteousness, what is right, what is just.

tzadikim (צַדִּיקִים) = (plural) the righteous, those who are innocent and in the right, those who act according to morality and justice.

When the Levites sang Psalm 118 in Jerusalem, the “gates of righteousness” probably referred to gates in the second temple complex.6  The pilgrimage festival may have included a ritual in which the double doors of a gate opened and the Levite choir sang while Judeans filed through.

The second temple had gates from the city into the outer courtyard (the “Court of Gentiles”); three gates from the outer courtyard into the eastern inner courtyard (the “Court of Women”) which only women and men of Israelite descent or full converts could enter; one gate from that court into the “Court of Israel” (for men only) with its view of the altar; and a curtained gate into the vestibule of the temple proper, which only priests were allowed to enter.

Was coming to the temple and worshiping the God of Israel enough to make someone righteous?  Or did stepping through the designated gate express a desire and commitment to become righteous?

The first time I sang this part of Psalm 118, I felt as if I were pretending I was already righteous and commanding the gates to open for me.  Then I realized that the request in 118:19 could also be a plea.  Now when I sing, I beg for the gates of righteous to open to me, so that I can receive whatever I need to become righteous.

Rashi7 wrote that the “gates of righteousness” were the entrances to synagogues and study halls.  I would agree that these are places where one can become more enlightened about righteousness—through an emotional channel in a synagogue service, and through an intellectual channel in a study hall.  But personal gates of righteousness may also open to us, if we ask.

*

As I sing Psalm 118, using different melodies for different sections, I think of God in terms of infinite kindness; I feel the strength of a divine source entering me as I sing to God; and I humble myself to pray for the ability to become righteous.

And all that comes before Psalm 118 reminds me to look again when I reject or feel rejected, since:

The stone the builders rejected

          Has become the cornerstone!  (118:22)

  1. Scholarly consensus is that Psalm 118 was written during the time of the “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the first temple dedicated to the God of Israel in 586 B.C.E.  After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, King Cyrus decreed that exiles could return to their original lands and rebuild sites of worship.  Under Ezra and Nehemiah, returning exiles from Judah laid the foundations of a second temple on the site of the old one in Jerusalem.  The temple was completed in 516 B.C.E.
  2. The Talmud determined that only the “Half Halleil”, which abbreviates Psalms 116 and 117, should be recited during the last six days of Pesach (Arachin 10a-b).
  3. Psalm 115, earlier in the Halleil, appeals to the same three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron, and “yirey God”. In this case, the leader asks each group to trust in God, and the group responds: “Their help and their shield is he!”
  4. Converts are currently called “Jews by choice”, but I do not want to exclude people of Jewish ancestry who also choose to practice Judaism.
  5. In this verse only, zimrat is often translated as “the might of” or “the strength of” . Yet the root verb zamar, זָמַר, means “pruned” in the kal form, and “sang praises” or “made music” in the pi’el   There is only one verse in the Hebrew Bible in which zimrah or zimrat is not translated in terms of music: Genesis 43:11.  There Jacob lists six products he considers zimrat the land: four kinds of aromatic resin, fruit syrup, and almonds.  All these luxuries come from trees, and therefore could be considered “prunings”.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), The Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 968; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 417; The Koren Siddur (Nusach Sepharad), commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 771.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Psalm 127: Anxiety and Security

February 21, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments

Vigilance can be contemplative, as when one keeps a vigil.  Or vigilance can be stressful, as when one keeps watch for the least sign of trouble, afraid to blink.

Parts of an almond tree

In last week’s post, Terumah: Tree of Light, I explored how the Hebrew word shakad (שָׁקַד) has two different meanings: “it was like an almond”, and “he was vigilant”.  In the Hebrew Bible, some words based on shakad describe how the menorah is made like parts of an almond tree.1   Others refer to God’s vigilant attention to the Israelites,2 human vigilant alertness for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching vigilantly for someone to leave a town and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake and alert at night.5  One appearance of shakad that refers to staying alert at night is in Psalm 127:1.

This week I noticed that Psalm 127 as a whole is a meditation on the anxiety of vigilance and the serenity of acceptance.

Humans are easily gripped by anxiety.  In simple situations, a bit of anxiety can be helpful, motivating a person to take action against a threat, or to create a more secure life.  But continuous anxiety, like continuous suffering, damages both one’s physical health and one’s ability to make good decisions.

Psalm 127 begins with three different examples of how we cannot guarantee our own security, no matter how much we do.  Knowing this makes humans anxious.  How can we find serenity despite our insecurity?  According to Psalm 127, the answer is God.

(A song of ascents for Solomon.)

          Unless God builds a bayit

                        In vain do its builders labor.

          Unless God watches over a city

                        In vain is the watchman shakad. (Psalm 127:1)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, home, household; temple.

Psalm 127 is dedicated to King Solomon, who built the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem.  He implication is that despite all the fine materials and the labor by both willing craftsmen and temporary slaves (corvée labor), the temple could not have become a home for God if God had not chosen to dwell there—or had not been welcomed into the hearts of the people.

The word bayit also means a physical house providing protection from the weather, wild beasts, and enemies; a home providing a place to rest in comfort and security; and a household or family providing mutual support.

City of Megiddo

A walled city also provided protection, security, and mutual support for its residents.  Its watchmen served as guards to sound the alarm if they saw anything threatening.  Today nation-states are supposed to fill the function of ancient cities, protecting their residents from external attack and internal crime, and providing systems for mutual aid and support.

The point of the first verse is that no matter how hard we work to achieve security, we cannot guarantee it.  A house with locks and alarms and bars over the windows might still be smashed by a bomb or an earthquake; while setting the locks and alarms and seeing the bars help to keep the inhabitants in a state of useless anxiety.  A nation with walls and guards on its borders, and X-ray machines in its airports, is still not safe from its own natives (especially when they are armed); while talking about “homeland security” generates more useless anxiety.

Real security comes not from anxious labor, but from a different state of mind, which this psalm attributes to God.

*

The next verse of Psalm 127 remains a puzzle for translators and commentators.

          In vain you rise early

                        And stop to sit late,

          Eating the bread of suffering;

                        Indeed [God] gives “his” beloved ones sheina.  (Psalm 127:2)

sheina (שֵׁנָא) = ?  (The usual translation of sheina here is “sleep”, but the word is a hapax legomenon, i.e. it occurs only once in the entire bible.  This translation is based on the word sheinah (שֵׁנָה) = sleep, which occurs 22 times.  Perhaps sheina in Psalm 127 is merely a misspelling.  On the other hand, sheina could be related to shena (שְׁנָא) = changed, altered.)

The psalm’s reference to eating “the bread of suffering” alludes to the story of the Garden of Eden.  There God tells Adam:

“… accursed is the earth on account of you; in suffering you shall eat from it all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles it will sprout for you…  By the sweat of your face you will eat bread …”  (Genesis 3:17-19).

Psalm 127 suggests that even if people get up early and toil away at agriculture, only sitting down late in the day, their labor might still be in vain, unless God sends the right weather for their crops.  Yet those whom God loves have a different attitude.  They work, but they also rest—perhaps because God helps them to change.  They no longer suffer anxiety about their crops, since they find security in their own relationship with God.6

In the Garden of Eden story, God also predicts that Eve will suffer as she labors to bear children:

To the woman [God] said: “I will certainly multiply your suffering and your pregnancies; in suffering you will bear children …”  (Genesis 3:16) 7

*

The third verse of Psalm 127 points out that childbirth can be viewed either as a hardship or as a reward.

          Hey, an inheritance from God is sons;

                        A reward is the fruit of the womb.  (Psalm 127:3)

It takes more than the two parents to make a baby.  In the Torah, God is responsible for opening and closing wombs, i.e. making pregnancy possible.8

Quiver & arrowheads
16th century BCE

The praise of having children continues from the male point of view.

          Like arrows in the hand of a warrior

                      So are the sons of youth.

          Fortunate is the man

                    Who fills his quiver with them.

          They will not be shamed

                    When they speak to enemies in the gate.  (127:4-5)

These last two verses offer a resolution of the first verse.  If you want to build a household (one meaning of bayit), you will labor in vain unless God lets you have a son.  In ancient Israel and Judah, the head of a household was a man, who acquired a wife (or wives), children, and servants.  His household was worthless without at least one son to inherit his land, livestock, and/or business.  Sons could also defend his property if he were attacked.9  So a literal interpretation of the opening and closing of Psalm 127 is:

          Unless God builds a household,

                      In vain do its builders labor …

          Unless God opens a womb,

                      In vain does a man seek security.

*

An interpretation of Psalm 127 for our own time might be:

         Unless we see God in each other,

                        In vain does our household exist.

          Unless we want friends more than walls,

                      In vain do we watch out for foes.  (127:1)

          Unless we change suffering to love,

                      In vain do we work for our bread.  (127:2)

            From God we inherit our world;

                      The fruit of each womb is a gift.  (127:3)

            Fortunate is the human who learns

                      How to speak to an enemy in the gate.

            Accept what life brings with a full heart,

                      And you will not be insecure.  (127:4-5)

  1. Exodus 25:33-34, 37:19-20.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, Psalm 127:1, Job 21:32.
  6. “An ordinary person, once he becomes aware of this inadequacy of all human endeavor, will worry without cease; he will be driven to overtax his energies; he will lose rest and sleep, and he will be unable to enjoy the very bread he eats. But it is through this same knowledge of inadequacy of all human effort that he who is aware of God’s tender love, of His friendship, as it were (ידיד is passive, i.e., ‘beloved’), will acquire that serenity which will enable him to sleep in peace.”  (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 2014, pp. 1049-1050.)  Hirsch was a 19th-century Orthodox rabbi.
  7. The Hebrew words I translate as “suffering”—atzavim (עֲצָבִים) in Psalm 127:2, itzavon (עִצָּבוֹן) in Genesis 3:16 and 3:17, and etzev (עֶצֶב) in Genesis 3:16 all mean “suffering, hardship, pain, distress”. All three words come from the same root verb, atzav (עָצַב), which means “caused suffering or pain” in the kal form, and “felt distressed, anxious” in the nifil form.
  8. The belief that only God opens or closes a woman’s womb appears in Genesis 29:31, 30:2, and 30:22; and 1 Samuel 1:5-6.
  9. “The man who begets many sons in his youth creates the equivalent of a little army on which he can depend. In the social structure of ancient Israel, this may not have been an entirely fanciful notion.”  (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 450)

Shemini: Prayer and Glory

April 19, 2017 at 8:17 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Shemini | 1 Comment
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For seven days after Moses consecrates Aaron and his sons as priests, they sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The Torah portion Shemini (“Eighth”) opens on the eighth day, when the new priests are ready to make their first offerings on the altar: two different offerings for the high priest Aaron, and four different offerings for the people.1 Moses explains:

Because today God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:4)

After the animals and the grain have been assembled, and the rest of the Israelites are standing in front of the altar, Moses gives further instructions, saying:

This is the thing that God commanded you must do; then the kavod of God will appear to you.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:6)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, importance, impressiveness, magnificence; a glorious manifestation (often translated as “glory”).

Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817

The Israelites have already witnessed a long string of miracles in Egypt, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea.  They have followed the kavod of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. On the day of the revelation they experienced God’s kavod as lightning and smoke on the mountain itself, along with thunder and blasts of a shofar.2

Yet once miracles stop, it is hard to keep faith.  When Moses stayed on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, and no pillar of cloud and fire reappeared near the camp, the Israelites felt abandoned.  Who would lead them to a new home?

In desperation, the men asked Aaron for an idol, then worshiped the golden calf he made.3  Moses returned to them, but God’s cloud and fire did not.  The Israelites were so anxious to see the kavod of God again that when Moses called for donations to make a dwelling-place for God, they donated more than enough treasure and labor.4  The dwelling-place, the new Tent of Meeting, is completed at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot.

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:34)

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and fire was in it at night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

Presumably the cloud is resting over the Tent of Meeting on the day the new priests make their first offerings at the altar.  So why do the Israelites need another view of God’s kavod?

Perhaps God, or Moses, knows that the Israelites are still insecure. The survivors of the Golden Calf incident have committed their work and treasure to God, and they are ready to follow the new version of God-worship Moses has laid out, in which priests are intermediaries.  But they need divine confirmation that Aaron and his sons really are God’s chosen priests. After all, it was Aaron who made the Golden Calf—choosing to pacify the people rather than sticking to God’s commandment against idols. Could they trust him to serve only God from now on—and keep the Israelites in God’s favor?

While all the people watch, Aaron and his sons carry out the required procedures for the six offerings at the altar.

Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them …  (Leviticus  9:22)

The Torah doesn’t say what Aaron’s blessing is, but the Talmud assumes that it must be the blessing prescribed for priests in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar 5 (and still used in Jewish liturgy today):

May God bless you and guard you; May God illuminate Its face for you and be gracious to you; may God lift Its face to you and place peace over you.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 6:22-27)

After this blessing, one might expect the kavod of God to appear as promised. It does not.

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, claimed that God delays the divine manifestation on purpose so as to prevent any belief that animal offerings make God’s glory appear by magic.6  The kavod appears when God wants it to appear.

Then Moses came, and Aaron, into the Tent of Meeting. Then they went out and they blessed the people … (Leviticus 9:23)

What is this second blessing?  According to the Sifra, a 4th-century collection of commentary on the book of Leviticus, Moses says: “May it be God’s will to cause His Presence to rest upon the work of your hands!  May God, the God of your fathers, increase your numbers a thousandfold and bless you, as He promised you!”

And the people respond with a verse that appears in Psalm 90:

May the comfort of God, our God, be upon us, and may the work of our hands be an enduring foundation for us.  (Psalm 90:17) 7

Moses’ blessing is a prayer that God will indeed dwell in the new Tent of Meeting that the Israelite people made.  The people’s response, in this context, is a prayer that the work they did with their own hands will result in both divine comfort and an enduring commitment to serving God.

The children of Israel are moved to commit themselves further to God when Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, come out of God’s dwelling-place and bless them. After this commitment,

… and the kavod of God appeared to all the people. Fire went out from the presence of God, and it devoured the rising-offering and the fatty animal-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted with joy and they fell on their faces.  (Leviticus 9:23-24)

At that sign of God’s acceptance, the people shout with joy—and relief.

*

A blessing from another person can seem like a useless exercise.  After all, a human being has no power to make the blessing come true.  We can only express the hope that God will make it happen.

And today, the sudden appearance of fire means an emergency, not divine acceptance.

Yet I remember when I received blessings from Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, and I felt a transfer of good will and even a sense of kavod.  This feeling made a psychological difference to me, changing my attitude toward life and toward the divine.

I find I can be committed to an abstract principle, but not comforted by it. Comfort and joy come more naturally when the abstraction is connected with a human being, someone whose warm feelings are palpable.  Maybe a blessing in itself can be a manifestation of God.

Bless someone today.  It might make a difference.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 20, 2010.)

1  First the new high priest, Aaron, makes a reparation-offering (חַטָּאת) and a rising-offering (עֺלָה) for himself. Then he makes a reparation-offering, a rising-offering, a grain offering (מִנְחָה), and a wholeness-offering (שְׁלָמִים) for the people.  For an explanation of these four types of offerings, see my posts Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.

2  Shofar (שׁוֹפָר) = a ram’s horn modified for blowing as a wind instrument.

3  Exodus/Shemot  32:1-6.  See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.

4  Exodus/Shemot  35:4-29 and 36:2-7.

5  The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38a, assuming that Aaron’s first blessing of the people in Leviticus 9:22 is the same as the blessing God commands all priests to give in Numbers 6:22-23, argues that therefore the “priestly blessing” in Numbers 6:24-26 must be pronounced with the hands raised. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) and the majority of medieval commentators agreed that Aaron spoke the “priestly blessing”.

6  Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002,  p. 289-290.

7  Sifra, quoted by W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 804.

Vaykheil & Psalm 18: Wings for Chariots

March 22, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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(This is the last of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms. Next week I will begin revisiting some sparks in the ancient priestly religion described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.)

Skilled artisans among the Israelites make all the items for the portable tent that is to be a dwelling-place1 for God in the Torah portion Vayakheil. Moses then assembles the new Tent of Meeting, the divine fiery cloud covers it, and the glory of God fills the inside in the next Torah portion, Pekudei. The golden calf was a mistake, but this time the Israelites got it right! The success in this week’s double portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, completes the book of Exodus/Shemot.

One replica of the ark, Jerusalem

The focal point for God’s presence is the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber of the tent.  The ark is a gold-plated wooden box holding the second pair of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The master-artisan Betzaleil hammers out a solid gold lid for the ark—not just a slab of gold but a sculpture, with two winged creatures rising from the lid in one continuous piece of gold.

And he made two keruvim; of gold hammered work he made them, from two edges of the lid: one keruv from this edges and one keruv from that edges. From the lid he made the keruvim, from its edges. And the keruvim were spreading out wings above, shielding the lid with their wings. And each one faced its brother, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the lid.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:76-9)

keruv (כּרוּב) = a hybrid creature with wings and a human face. Plural: keruvim (כְּרוֻבִים  or  כְּרוּוִים). (The English word “cherub” is derived from the Hebrew keruv, but a keruv in the Bible does not look like a chubby baby with stubby white wings.)

Keruvim and ark in First Temple (one interpretation)

When King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem, its back room, the Holy of Holies, contains two free-standing gold-plated sculptures representing keruvim. Each is 10 cubits tall (15 to 20 feet) and has a 10-cubit wingspan. Solomon has the ark carried in and placed under their wings. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

The Hebrew word keruv may come from the Akkadian word kuribu, “blessed ones”, their name for the colossal statues of hybrid winged beasts guarding doorways and gates. Commentators have speculated that keruvim might have the bodies of bulls (like Assyrian shedu) or lions (like Egyptian sphinxes or Phoenician lammasu) or humans. Raanan Eichler has made a good argument that the keruvim spreading their wings over the ark must have stood upright on two legs, and therefore probably had human bodies.

Hybrid beings with wings and human faces appear in many Ancient Near Eastern sculptures. When they are not demons battling heroes, they are either guardians of gates, or servants transporting a god. Keruvim in the Hebrew Bible are never demons, but they do appear as both guardians and transportation.

Guardians

Kusarikku from palace of Sargon II

Assyrians placed sculptures of shedu, winged bulls, as guardians at either side of a gateway into a city or palace. Another guardian figure, called Gud-alim by Sumerians and Kusarikku by later Mesopotamians, represented a door-keeper who protected a house from intruders. He stood upright and looked fairly human, except that he often had wings, horns, or a bull’s legs. In some depictions he carries a bucket.

Phoenician artworks from coastal cities west of ancient Israel and Judah also feature a pair of hybrid winged creatures on either side of a tree of life. Their tree of life is a composite of a lotus and a papyrus (borrowed from Egyptian art) and sometimes a palm tree.

Phoenician sphinxes and tree of life

Similarly, the decorations carved in the walls of King Solomon’s temple—by artisans from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre—featured keruvim and palm trees.2

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, two keruvim serve as guardians of the way back into the Garden of Eden, where the Tree of Life remains untasted.3

One of Ezekiel’s prophesies compares the king of Tyre with a keruv that is supposed to protect its city.4  In an earlier post, Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day, I suggested that since God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark,5 the two keruvim are also guardians of an entrance: a portal to the invisible God.

Baal Hadad with thunderbolt, Ugarit

Divine Transportation

Tarhunz from Arslantepe, Turkey

The gods of other religions in the ancient Near East rarely rode on the backs of winged creatures; instead they used these creatures to pull their chariots. Tarhunz, the high god of the Luwian people living north of Canaan, was in charge of weather and war. He used lightning as a weapon, and rode in a chariot pulled by winged horses. South of the Luwians and north of Israel, the Canaanites of Ugarit worshiped Baal Hadad (“Master of Thunder”), a weather and war god who also wielded lightning. The Ugarit writings call this Baal “Rider of Clouds”.

The God of Israel also seems to have a chariot of clouds, in the poetry of Jeremiah and Psalm 104.6

God’s cloud chariot is pulled by keruvim in a poem that appears twice in the Bible, once as chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel, and later (with only slight changes) as Psalm 18. The speaker, King David, faces death at the hands of an enemy army, and calls on God for help. God descends from the heavens.

            Smoke went up from His nostrils

                        And fire from His mouth devours.

                        Embers blazed from Him.

            He tilted the heavens and descended,

                        And a thundercloud was beneath His feet.

            And He drove a keruv and flew,

                        And He soared on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:9-11)

I use the pronoun “He” in this translation because God is presented as if “He” were Baal Hadad from the Canaanite pantheon of male and female gods. Psalm 18 continues with imagery of dark clouds, hail, thunder, and arrows of lightning. God then stages a dramatic rescue, and David wins the battle.

A Chariot Throne

The ark with its two keruvim is often considered God’s throne in the Bible—the authoritative location where God sits like a king. But sometimes this throne is movable, like a chariot.

Before David conquers Jerusalem, when the ark is housed in a temple at Shiloh, the Israelite army decides to carry it with them into battle against the Philistines, hoping that God will fight for them.

And they took away from there the ark of the covenant of God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim … (1 Samuel 4:4)

Although the Israelite forces carry God’s throne, they lose the battle. The Philistines capture the ark, then later abandon it in Israelite territory. When King David retrieves it for his new capital in Jerusalem, it is called

the ark of the god whose name was invoked, the name of God of Armies Sitting upon the Keruvim.  (2 Samuel 6:2)

The title is also used in psalms 80 and 99.

            Listen, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, shine forth!  (Psalm 80:2-3)

           God, King, the peoples will tremble!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, You will shake the earth!  (Psalm 99:1)

The Babylonian army razed the first temple in Jerusalem in 579 B.C.E., burning it to the ground. The army carried off some of its gold items as booty, but the ark and its keruvim disappeared from history. When some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule and built a second temple, they left the Holy of Holies empty.

Ever since the destruction of the first temple with its ark and gold keruvim, God’s throne could only be an abstraction or a vision. The prophet Ezekiel reports two mystical visions of hybrid winged creatures during the exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-23). In his second vision he identifies these creatures as keruvim.

Ezekiel’s Vision, by Matthuas Merian 1670 (some assembly required)

In both visions, the glory of God (not God Itself) appears as a fiery figure on a throne that looks like sapphire, suspended above four keruvim, each of which is accompanied by an interlocking wheel covered with eyes.  Each keruv has a single leg ending in a calf’s hoof, a human body, four wings, a human hand below each wing, and a head with four faces: one human, one lion, one eagle, and one that is called the face of an ox in the first vision and the face of a keruv in the second vision.

The keruvim and their wheels move up and down as well as in all four directions, and the throne suspended above them moves along with them. Although Ezekiel does not call this arrangement a chariot, subsequent Jewish writers developed a school of mysticism based on the merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה = chariot) in the book of Ezekiel.

Clouds by John Constable

Even without a temple, even without keruvim, the human mind needs poetic images to think about God. Today many of us no longer need to assign God a face, a hand, or a body in robes; we can handle the paradox of God as both invisible and manifest in everything we see. Yet poetic images still well up around the notion of God:  clouds, beams of light, opalescent radiance, perhaps even wings. They are not God, yet God is in the imagery.

When God Itself seems too abstract, perhaps we can think of something like a keruv, a creation that pulls the presence of God toward us when we need rescue, and that stands at our gateways when we need a guardian.

1  (See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.)

2  In the first (Israelite) temple in Jerusalem, keruvim and palms  are carved in relief on the wooden walls and two sets of double doors (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34). Keruvim, palms, and lions are engraved on the stands for ten bronze wash-basins (1 Kings 7:36).

3  Genesis 3:24.

4  Ezekiel 28:14, 16.

5  Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.

6           Hey! Like clouds it ascends;

            Like a whirlwind is [God’s] chariot;

            Lighter than eagles are His horses.  (Jeremiah 4:13)

In Psalm 104, God’s cloud chariot is pulled by the wind:

            Setting beams for [God’s] roof chambers in the waters [above the sky],

                        Making the clouds His chariot,

                        He goes on the wings of the wind.  (Psalm 104:3)

 

Ki Tissa & Psalms 109 & 69: Wiped Off the List

March 15, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Psalms/Tehilim, Rosh Hashanah | Leave a comment
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Gold calf from Byblos

Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?

Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.)

And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)

Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt, 1659

The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.

“And now, if you will only lift their guilt!  But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses:  “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book.  Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.”  (Exodus 32:32-33)

mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)

emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too.  God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.

When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:

“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)

emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)

The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).

God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.

What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?

One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.

And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)

yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

Similarly, a name is erased from God’s book if God decrees that the man will pass out of collective memory—perhaps by his own early death, or perhaps by dying without heirs to carry on his lineage.

*

Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.

            May no one extend kindness to him;

                        And may no one be gracious to his orphans.

            May his posterity be cut off;

                        In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)

yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused.  Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:

            Place guilt upon their guilt,

                        and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.

            Yismachu from the book of life,

                        And among the righteous do not record them.  (Psalm 69:28-29)

yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.

The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E.  Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another.  People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.

What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2

But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E.,  says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.

*

The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.

Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death.  I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.

Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.

May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness.  And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.

1  The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).

2   Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.

3  Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.

Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.

Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer

March 7, 2017 at 11:20 am | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh | Leave a comment
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(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Outdoor altar at First Temple

Two kinds of smoke please God, according to the book of Exodus:

* the smoke from burning sacrificial animals and grain products on the copper altar in front of the Tent of Meeting described in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah,1 and

* the smoke from burning incense on the gold altar inside the tent, described in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”):

And you shall make an altar for miketar ketoret; from wood of acacias you shall make it. …And you shall plate it with pure gold …And place it in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Reminder, …where I will reveal myself to you. Vehiketeyr on it, Aaron, ketoret of spices …  (Exodus/Shemot 30:1-7) 

miketar (מִקְטַּר) = letting smoke rise; scenting with smoke. (A form of the verb ketar, קִטּר  = burned incense.)

ketoret  (קְטֺרֶת) = incense. (From the root verb ketar.)

vehiketeyr (וְהִקְטֵיר) = And he shall make smoke. (Another form of the verb ketar.)

In the Wilderness

The altar for burning animals and grain (which would otherwise be food for people) is outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites construct in the wilderness of Sinai.  The incense altar is inside, right in front of the Holy of Holies. All the Israelites worship God by bringing food offerings for the priests to burn on the outdoor altar. Only the high priest, Aaron, burns spices on the incense altar for God.

Food offerings are sent up in smoke for various reasons. Some offerings express gratitude to God, some atone for transgressing God’s rules, some mark a change in ritual status, and some observe holy days. The fragrance of the incense, however, is intended only to honor and please God.

The Israelites send columns of smoke up to God. And God sends columns of cloud and fire down to the people. When the Israelites are walking from Egypt to Mount Sinai,

God was walking in front of them in a column of cloud by day, to lead them on the way, and in a column of fire by night, to make light for them, [so they could] walk day and night.  (Exodus 13:21)

After God’s tent-dwelling is completed, the book of Exodus ends with:

For the cloud of God was over the dwelling-place by day, and there was fire in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel, on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:38)

During the Babylonian Exile

Israelites continue to use the smoke from burning food and incense as their main communication with God until the Babylonians destroyed the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. (The Bible also mentions a few individual prayers, but does not portray Levites as singing psalms until the time of the second temple.)

The Israelites deported to Babylon were not sure what to do.  Should they continue sending up smoke to God, even without the temple, the food altar, or the incense altar?  Or should they use another approach?

Psalm 141 is a plea for God to help the psalmist avoid harmful speech and bad company. The psalm opens with a request that this prayer be considered as a substitute for making smoke.

           God, I called You. Hurry to me!

                        Listen to my voice when I call to You!

            May my prayer endure as ketoret before You,

                        Lifting up my palms2 as an evening offering.  (Psalm 141:1-2)

After the Second Temple

After the Persians conquered Babylon, some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and built a second temple in 516 B.C.E. They reinstituted the sacrificial system in their new temple, making both an outside altar for burning food offerings and an inside altar for incense. This type of worship continued until the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E.

After the fall of the second temple, some Jews hoped for a third temple, and another return to worshiping God through smoke. The Amidah (“standing”) prayer, which is recited at morning and evening services to this day, begins with a verse from Psalm 51 about spoken prayer:

             My lord, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Psalm 51:17)

However, Psalm 51 ends:

            May You rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

                        That is when You will want slaughter-offerings of righteousness,

                        Rising-offerings and complete offerings.  (Psalm 51:20)

Similarly, in traditional prayer books the Amidah3 includes this request: “And return the service to the inner sanctum of Your house, and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer, with love, accepting it with favor.”  According to this tradition, prayer is good, but prayer and smoke together are better.

Many liberal prayer books produced in the last century or so omit or reinterpret this prayer in the Amidah, so as to avoid praying for either reinstituting animal sacrifices or building a third temple.

Psalm 40, composed at least 2,000 years ago, is bolder and more direct:

            Slaughter and grain offering You do not want.

                        You dug open a pair of ears for me!

                        Rising-offerings and guilt-offerings You do not request.

            That is when I said:

                        Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

            I want to do what You want, my God,

                        And Your teaching is inside my guts.

            I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

                        Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 insists that God does not want smoke, only words. Nothing can make this prophetic poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.

Tomorrow

I almost envy the simplicity of the early Israelite religion, in which people and priests burn something to make a column of smoke rise up to God in the sky or “heavens”, and God sends down a column of divine smoke (described as cloud and fire) to guide the people.

Personally, I could not even imitate this process by burning incense, since I am allergic to any type of smoke.  And these days, columns of cloud and fire do not descend from the sky; we only get lightning and general precipitation.

But I do pray to God with words, for all the reasons the ancient Israelites made smoke: to express gratitude, to ask for forgiveness and self-improvement, to observe holy days, and just to honor the divine. And though I often say, or sing, the words out loud, I do not pray to a God in the sky, but to a divine source I encounter “inside my guts”, like the author of Psalm 40.

I was brought up to be an atheist; I did not begin praying until I was 32.  My life for the past 30 years has been deeper, thanks to prayer; I have become more grateful, less egotistical, and more accepting.  And, God willing, I can continue to improve.

May everyone who would benefit from a prayer practice discover a good one.

            Oh God, may you open my lips,

                        And my mouth will declare Your praise.  (Amidah and Psalm 51:17)         

1  See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home about the Tent of Meeting, and my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy about smoke from animal sacrifices.

2  The Hebrew Bible describes two postures for prayer.  Prostration—bowing until you lie face down on the ground) indicates submission and the willingness to receive any word God might send you.  Raising your hands, palms up, toward the sky (with or without kneeling) indicates a petitionary prayer, in which you are asking God for something.

King Solomon

One example is when King Solomon dedicates the first temple in Jerusalem:

As Solomon was finishing praying to God all this prayer and this supplication, he got up from in front of the altar of God, from kneeling on his knees and his palms spread toward the heavens.  (1 Kings 8:54)

3   This prayer, called the Avodah (“Service”), is number 5 in the Shabbat Amidah, and number 17 in the longer weekday Amidah.

 

Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home

March 1, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Psalms/Tehilim, Terumah | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
David Addresses God, P. Comestor Bible Historiale

David Addresses God, Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

Where does God live?

The “heavens” are the primary residence of many gods, including the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  In Canaanite and Babylonian religions, the gods inhabit both the heavens and any number of statues on earth.  The God of Israel flatly rejects idols, but still wants a second home on earth.  In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), Moses is receiving instructions from God on top of Mount Sinai.  God tells him:

They shall make a holy place for me, veshakhanti among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the mishkan and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:8-9)

veshakhanti (וְשָׁכַנְתִּי) = and I will dwell, and I will stay.   (A form of the root verb shakhan (שָׁכַן) = stay, settle, dwell, inhabit.  This is the first occurrence in the Bible of the verb shakhan.)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) =  dwelling-place, home.  (Also from the root verb shakhan. This is also the first occurrence in the Bible of the noun mishkan.)

Gold calf from the temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from the temple of Baalat in Byblos

Moses stays on top of Mount Sinai so long—40 days and 40 nights—that in the Torah portion Ki Tissa the Israelites at the foot of the mountain despair of seeing him again.  So they make a golden calf in the hope that God will inhabit it.1 God refuses the golden statue and threatens to destroy all the Israelites except Moses and his direct descendants.  Moses refuses God’s offer, and God settles for sending a plague.2

Cloud descends on the mishkan

Cloud on the mishkan

After the surviving Israelites have built an elaborate portable tent-sanctuary according to God’s instructions, God descends on it in a pillar of cloud.3  In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark in this mishkan’s innermost chamber.

Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the only mishkan for God is the portable tent-sanctuary. In the first book of Samuel a temple in Shiloh houses the ark, and God speaks to Samuel there.4

King Solomon builds a temple of stone and wood in Jerusalem for God to inhabit.  (See my post Terumah & 1 Kings: Tent vs. Temple.)  This temple lasts until the Babylonian army razes it in 587 B.C.E., along with most of the city.

Psalm 74 argues that this act was not merely a political conquest by the expanding Babylonian empire, but an attempt to eradicate the worship of God by destroying God’s home on earth. The psalmist, like most prophets writing after the fall of the first temple, probably believed God arranged the fall of Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for worshiping idols. Now that the punishment is complete, the psalmist is waiting for God to rescue the deported Israelites (and punish the Babylonians).

            Why, God, do You endlessly reject us?

                        Your anger smokes at the flock You tended.

            Remember Your community You acquired long ago!

                        You redeemed the tribe of your possession.

                        Mount Zion is where shakhanta.  (Psalm 74:1-2)

shakhanta  (שָׁכַנְתָּ) = you dwelled, you lived. (Another form of the verb shakhan.)

History repeats itself: Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850 (history repeats itself)

History repeats itself:
Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, by David Roberts, 1850

The psalm then describes how the Babylonian army replaced all the emblems of the Israelite religion in the temple with their own emblems, hacked up the carved ornamentation, and burned the wooden parts of the building down to the ground.

            They set Your holy place on fire;

            They profaned the ground inside the mishkan of Your name.  (Psalm 74:7)

Given this disrespect, and given that the Israelites are the people God adopted and brought to Jerusalem in the first place, Psalm 74 asks why God is taking so long to restore God’s own mishkan, city, and people.

            Why do you draw back Your right hand,

                        Holding it in Your bosom?  (Psalm 74:11)

The psalm then points out that God created the world and the day and night, then did great deeds without a mishkan on earth. Lack of power is not holding God back.  And the Israelites, particularly the poor and needy, belong to God.

           Look to the covenant!  (Psalm 74:20)

If God would only pay attention, the psalm implies, God would honor Its covenant, restore the Israelites to Jerusalem, and cause a new mishkan to be built there to facilitate worship.

           Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced.

                        Let the poor and the needy praise Your name!  (Psalm 74:21)

In Psalm 74, the mishkan of God is also the mishkan of the people. They need their own home, and they need to have a home for God in their midst.  Then, instead of suffering miserably, the needy can praise God and rejoice.

*

Many Jews still want a home where we are free to praise God, to practice our own religion without fear or discrimination.

Half of the Jews in the world live in the nation of Israel, founded in 1948 as a homeland where Jews could escape the genocide, as well as less drastic forms of discrimination, inflicted on them in Europe. Yet over the next 69 years, the Jewish and Muslim residents of Israel have been attacked both by neighboring countries and by each other.

Most of the Jews living outside Israel today are American citizens. Discrimination against Jews in the United States has fallen over the past sixty years, and many of us view America as our real home, where we can participate in the life of our country and remain free to practice our own religion. God has many second homes among religious American Jews; every synagogue is a divine mishkan, and each of us can make a mishkan for God to dwell in our own hearts.

Yet in the past year, discrimination against ethnic and religious groups has become more socially acceptable in the United States.  Psalm 74 suddenly seems more relevant.

I pray that the divine spirit blooms in all of our hearts.  May we quickly reverse this dangerous trend.  And may all people, everywhere, find a safe home.

           Do not let the miserable turn back disgraced!

1  Exodus 32:1-5.

2  Exodus 32:35:  Then God struck the people over what they had done with the calf that Aaron made.

3  Exodus 40:33-34:  When Moses completed the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the magnificence of God filled the mishkan.

4  1 Samuel 3:1-10.

Mishpatim & Psalms 39 and 119: Foreigners

February 23, 2017 at 8:46 am | Posted in Mishpatim, Psalms/Tehilim | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , ,
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Us and them.  Citizens and foreigners.  Friends and enemies.

Human nature always divides members of our species into two or more groups. But how we treat the “out” group depends on our ethical, religious, and political rules.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), is set at Mt. Sinai, long before the Israelites conquer part of Canaan and set up their own government. But it includes a series of laws written after the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were founded. One of the subjects these laws address is how to treat immigrants and conquered natives.

Egyptian beating a slave

Egyptian beating a slave

A geir you shall not cheat nor oppress, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt. (Exodus/Shemot 22:20)

geir (גֵר) = foreigner, stranger, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant, non-citizen. Plural geirim (גֵרִים).  (The meaning of geir shifted in Jewish writings after 100 C.E., coming to mean a proselyte or convert.)

And a geir you shall not oppress, for you yourselves know the feelings of the geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus/Shemot 23:9)

Unlike foreigners who are merely visiting another country, geirim are displaced persons who cannot call on their former clan chiefs or national governments for protection. They are at the mercy of the country where they now live, subject to the whims of its ruler and its wealthy citizens. Unless their new host country protects them, they are subject to deportation even when they no longer have a home to return to (like resident aliens in the United States today), or to slavery (like the Israelites in Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus).

This week’s Torah portion gives one example of not oppressing a geir who works for you:

Six days you shall do your doings, but on the seventh day you shall stop, so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your slave woman and the geir shall refresh their souls.  (Exodus 23:12)

Ruth (a foreigner) Gleaning, by R.F. Babcock

Ruth (a foreigner) gleaning,
by R.F. Babcock

The Hebrew Bible includes many more injunctions to treat geirim with consideration.1 In summary, if geirim are servants of Israelites, they must get the same holiday feasts and days off as native slaves or servants.  If geirim are hired laborers, they must be paid daily, like Israelite laborers.  If geirim are not attached to an Israelite household and are impoverished, they get the same rights as impoverished citizens. Geirim are even urged to flee to the same cities of refuge if they are unjustly accused of murder.

Since the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are theocracies, treating their geirim like citizens also means the geirim must conform at least outwardly to Israelite religious life, and suffer the same punishments for transgressions.2

The Bible does sanction discrimination against geirim in two ways: an Israelite may not charge interest on a loan to a kinsman, but may charge interest on a loan to a geir 3; and while an Israelite can always redeem a kinsman from slavery by paying the slave’s owner, a geir has no such right.4

Nevertheless, the Bible urges the Israelites to love the geirim living in their land.5

Mt. Gezerim left, Mt. Eival right.

Mt. Gezerim left,
Mt. Eival right.

In three books of the Bible, resident geirim are even included in the covenant with God.6  One example is when Joshua enters Canaan and enacts a covenantal ritual at Mt. Eival.

All Israel—its elders, its officials, and its judges—were standing on either side of the ark, facing the priests of the Levites, carriers of the ark of the covenant of God—the geir the same as the native.  (Joshua 8:33)

(In this case, “native” (ezrach, אֶזְרָח) means someone of Israelite ancestry, since both the Israelites and their fellow travelers are newcomers to Canaan.)

Another example is when the prophet Ezekiel predicts a new covenant with God once the Israelite deportees in Babylon move back to their old land.

You shall divide up this land for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. And you shall throw [lots] for hereditary possessions, for yourselves and for the geirim who are garim among you … And the geir will be in the tribe that gar with; there you will give him his hereditary possession—declares my Master, God.  (Ezekiel 47:21-23)

garim (גָּרִים) = sojourning, staying with, residing with (as foreigners).

gar (גָּר) = he sojourned, stayed with, resided with. (From the same root as garim, geir, and geirim.)

All these rules ensuring fairness to the geirim would not have been written unless some native Israelites were in the habit of mistreating resident aliens. The Torah correctly points out that the geirim are vulnerable outsiders, just as the Israelites were once vulnerable outsiders in Egypt.

*

Psalms 39 and 119 take the idea of the geir to the next level. If non-citizens are vulnerable in the country where they live, then perhaps even faithful worshipers of the God of Israel are vulnerable before God.

The last two verses of Psalm 39 address the personal feeling of being a stranger with God.

praying           Hear my prayer, God,

                        And listen to my cry for help!

                        Do not be silent to my tears.

            For I am a geir with You,

                        A resident alien, like all my forefathers.

            Look away from me, and I will recover,

                        Before I depart and I am not.  (Psalm 39:13-14)

Earlier in the psalm, the speaker is worried about the shortness of his life. He alludes to a scourge from God, possibly an illness that reduces his life span.  Like a geir, he feels vulnerable and uncertain of God’s ultimate protection. So instead of asking God to intervene, he begs God to ignore him so he can at least enjoy the remainder of his life.

Psalm 119, written during the time of the second temple, is the longest in the book of Psalms: 176 verses whose beginning letters go through the alphabet from A to Z (alef to tav), with eight verses for each letter.  All are variations on the theme of praying to God for help in learning and understanding God’s laws.  The verses that begin with the letter gimmel (ג) open with:

           Finish maturing (גְּמֺל) Your servant!  I will live and I will observe Your word.

            Uncover (גַּל) my eyes, and I will look upon the wonders of Your teaching.

            A geir (גֵּר) I am in the land; do not hide from me Your commands.

            She pines away (גָּרְסָה), my soul, longing for Your laws at all times.  (Psalm 119:17-20)

The psalmist expresses the feeling of being a vulnerable outsider who does not understand what is really going on. Thus the speaker feels like a geir as he seeks to serve a God who has issued hundreds of laws yet remains as inscrutable as if God’s commands were hidden. The theme of the entire psalm is the longing to understand what God wants—which is the longing of geirim to understand the rules and the system of the strange country where they now live.                    

*

I appreciate how the Torah insists we must treat non-citizens with fairness and consideration, and reminds us that we have all been geirim at some time.  Even if we have enjoyed the rights of the innermost in-group of native citizens our whole lives, we are still geirim with God.

And even within our own circles, we get along better if we continually work to understand what our friends are really saying, how the world really looks to them. Ultimately, every individual is a geir with everyone else, with God, and with themselves.

I pray that everyone may learn to consider the feelings of all human beings, whether they look, sound, and act like us or not.  Perhaps only then will our alienation from God end.

1  Enjoying Shabbat and holidays:  Exodus 12:19, 12:48, 20:10, 23:12; Numbers 35:15; Deuteronomy 5:14, 16:14, 26:11-13.

Receiving wages promptly:  Deuteronomy 24:14.

Receiving assistance like the native poor:  Geirim are usually listed along with widows and fatherless children as entitled to glean produce from private fields, orchards and vineyards (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 21:20, 24:17, 24:19, 24:20; also see Ruth ch. 2); to take home a share of the tithe for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29); and to receive just redress (Deuteronomy 24:14; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5).

Using cities of refuge: Joshua 20:9.

2  Observing the native religion:  Both citizens and geirim must fast on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29), bring their burnt offerings to the alter of the God of Israel (Leviticus 17:8-9, 22:18), refrain from eating blood (Leviticus 17:10, 17:13), obey Israelite laws about permitted sexual partners (Leviticus 18:26), avoid taking God’s name in vain (Leviticus 24:16), and refrain from worshiping idols (Leviticus 20:2; Numbers 15:26, 15:29, 15:30, 19:10; Ezekiel 14:7).

3  Paying interest:  Leviticus 25:35.

4  Lacking the right of redemption:  Leviticus 25:35-36.

5  Being loved: Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 24:14.

6  Being included in the covenant: Deuteronomy 29:9-11, 31:12; Joshua 8:33, 8:35; Ezekiel 47:21-23.

 

 

 

Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods

February 16, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Psalms/Tehilim, Yitro | 2 Comments
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Miriam's Song, 1909

Miriam’s Song, 1909

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:

           Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?

                        Who is like You, glorious in holiness,

                        Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)

Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1

eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)

The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant.  Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.

Yitro advises Moses in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro advises Moses
in Figures de la Bible, 1728

Yitro and the First Commandment

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)

Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.

I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)

(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)

Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.

A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel.  Here are three examples:

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:

           Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,

                        Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!

            Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,

                      Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!

           The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;

                      The eil of magnificence is thundering.  (Psalm 29:1-3)

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Baal preparing lightning, bronze

Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.

Then the psalm declares:

And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!

Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,

                        And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever.  (Exodus 29:10)

Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.

The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.

Psalm 82

In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4

Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

The Council of Gods, sketch by Peter Paul Rubens

Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,

           Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)

In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods.  “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.

Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.

            They neither know nor understand,

                      They walk around in darkness;

                      Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter.  (Psalm 82:5)

Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:

           I used to say to myself: You are elohim,

                      And children of the Most High, all of you.

           Nevertheless, you will die like humans,

                      And you will fall like one of the princes.  (Psalm 82:6-7)

Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.

On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.

Psalm 97

           The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;

                        All the peoples saw Its magnificence.

            Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,

                        Those who boast of the elilim.

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

Sumerian annunaki (gods from the sky)

             All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)

elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.

“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.

*

According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.

Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?

I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive.  The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.

A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.

My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction.  And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.

1  I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.

The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai  (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.

2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.

3  Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.

4  A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.

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