Friday 13 February 2009

David Noel Freedman et al. on Psalm 119

David Noel Freedman with Jeffrey C. Geoghegan and Andrew Welch, Psalm 119: The Exaltation of the Torah, Biblical and Judaic Studies Volume 6 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999).

The first chapter looks at acrostic psalms, which are treated in pairs – 111 & 112, 25 & 34, 9/10 & 37, 119 & 145 – with an overall concern to show the acrostic as ‘a legitimate option for Israelite poets rather than as the refuge of uninspired epigones’ (vii). The authors also argue that metrics, syllable counts, colon length, and symmetry within and between psalms ‘provides the foundation for further considerations of the psalms’ theology and poetics’ (vii).

The bulk of the book (chs. 2 and 3) looks at the structure of Psalm 119. Essentially it is a simple symmetrical structure based on the alphabet, but with a series of ‘refinements and elaborations’ (25).

The first part of the discussion (ch. 2) considers the number, frequency, and distribution of the key words for ‘torah’ (‘all roughly synonymous or sharing an extended semantic field’, 78) in each of the psalm’s 22 stanzas. The eight-line fixed stanza is extended to include eight key words, although there is ‘extensive variation in the distribution and arrangement of these words in the poem itself’ (55). Four of the lines do not use one of the ‘torah’ words (3, 37, 90, 122), while some have two key words (16, 48, 160, 168, 172), demonstrating the ‘principle of compensation, whereby a deficiency in one place is made up for in another place’ (79).

The second part of the discussion (ch. 3) deals with quantity and metre, concluding that there is ‘an underlying or overriding pattern, and with it considerable deliberate variation and deviation controlled by target numbers, the goal of symmetry, and the principle of compensation’ (79). An old tradition sees the poem as consisting of ‘hexameters of sixteen syllables’ (79). Although there remain too many which deviate from that for it to be a rule for every line, there does seem to be an effort ‘to match up long lines with short lines, so that they pair off at the mean or average’, once again demonstrating ‘the principle of balance, and the method of compensation or pairing, to achieve symmetry’ (80).

‘In sum, the poem is a mechanical and technical marvel, with an intricately worked structure, within which the poet exercised considerable freedom to express his originality and creativity, while keeping within the self-imposed boundaries of the overall construction’ (80).

Chapter 4 deals more briefly with the theology of Psalm 119. Scholars have denigrated its repetition and lack of originality, even accusing it of being monotonous; but, according to Freedman and Welch, it is ‘endlessly inventive – but not according to contemporary standards’ (87). ‘The creativity of Psalm 119 is the creativity of the puzzle-builder, the craftsperson, mathematician rather than metaphorically complex’ (87-88). Its construction is unique in known ancient Near Eastern literature.

They aver that wordplay augments the theological message of the psalm, so that the ‘artificiality’ can be seen ‘not as a stultifying structure that kills the poet’s creativity, but as the broadest canvas possible for the poet’s skill in making the psalm’s form assist its function, the praise of tôrat yhwh’ (88).

The A to Z structure of the psalm shares with other acrostics ‘a clear message of totality and completeness’ (88). From A to Z, Yahweh’s torah is the psalmist’s joy and delight, light, wealth, and life itself. The acrostic form reinforces this, along with the message that a blessed life ‘can be found only my immersing oneself’ in it (89). Much more than a set of laws by which Israel should live, torah ‘has become a personal way to God’ (89).

In fact (according to Freedman and Welch), Psalm 119 gives torah ‘virtually the status of a divine hypostasis, like wisdom… in Proverbs 8’ (with which Psalm 119 shares some similarities) (89).

In terms of comparison and contrast, Psalm 19 has five of the key ‘torah’ words and makes nearly identical statements to Psalm 119, but Psalm 19 links torah to Yahweh’s power and revelation in creation. In Psalm 119, they argue, creation as an analogy has all but disappeared: ‘in Psalm 119, only Yahweh’s tôrâ manifests Yahweh. Tôrâ is unique among Yahweh’s creations’ (90).

Likewise in Deuteronomy, torah is grounded in Yahweh’s mighty acts; but Psalm 119 contains no mention of the Exodus or the promise of land, or even the covenant [and here I would have to plead that it is surely implicit throughout]. Although in Deuteronomy torah is a direct revelation of Yahweh, in Psalm 119 it is more: ‘the perfect expression of Yahweh’s nature and character, divorced from Israel’s history, without Moses as mediator. Tôrâ is unique among Yahweh’s mighty acts’ (91).

Thus – creation, patriarchal promises, covenants (patriarchal, Mosaic, Davidic), temple, Davidic dynasty past or future, Yahweh’s mighty acts of salvation in Israel’s history – are all significant by their relative absence from Psalm 119. ‘Only tôrâ is left as the theological category of Yahweh’s revelation and activity in the world’ (91).

Freedman and Welch ask whether the psalmist has rejected these other things, and conclude no – not if torah includes the Pentateuch with its narrative and law, poetry and prose. Even so, the eight key words used show that ‘the essence of tôrâ is Yahweh’s revelation of his teaching: the precepts, commandments, laws, words, stipulations and pronouncements’ (91). Other things are subsumed under torah.

Although recognising the difficulty of delimiting exactly what the Psalmist is referring to, torah is ‘the sacred, authoritative, written revelation of God’, and seen as ‘the specific revelation of God’s will in the various instructions that the sacred text contains’ (92).

No comments: