Poetry isn’t for everyone, especially for the more literal-minded among us. Poets try to put the ineffable into words, using images and metaphors that may or may not connect with a reader. We can’t ask the poet to sum up her “point” in a concise declarative sentence or two. And something similar to this disconnect is what can make it difficult to appreciate the fullness of a particular psalm.
Sometimes, though, the disconnect is a matter of the distance between our historical contexts. Let’s face it: ancient Hebrew and modern-day English are very different languages. Much of the time, the translation task is far more complicated than trying to find a verbal equivalent for “I have a yellow pencil” (which I still remember how to say in French, though I’m not sure I can say much else).
To make matters even more complicated, the psalmists draw upon a rich and resonant stock of memories and stories that their readers share but we do not. At best, these may reside at the level of factual knowledge about the history of a people distant in time and space; at worst, the psalmists’ words may be confusing and alien to us.
I think, for example, of why it is that so many believers of my generation or earlier mourn the disappearance of classic hymns from contemporary worship. At one level, we might argue about the theology of hymns versus praise songs, but that surely isn’t the only issue.
Much of the tension resides at a deeper level: the older words were once taken for granted as vehicles of worship, and are inextricably bound up with some people’s experience of the presence of God. It’s not just about the meaning of the words, as if the tension could be erased by translating the theology of the hymns into the style and cadence of contemporary worship songs. It’s about leaving your spiritual hometown to live in a far-off land. Even if you learn to appreciate your new environment, you can’t help feeling a little wistful about what you’ve left behind, and your new neighbors don’t quite understand the problem.
. . .
Psalms 135 and 136, as mentioned in the previous post, are like two sides of a poetic coin. Both psalms call the people to worship, praising and thanking God for his goodness and greatness. Both psalms address the covenant love and faithfulness of God, first in creation, but also in God’s historical relationship to his people, rescuing them from their enemies, and bringing them into the land of their inheritance. If Psalm 136 is treated as a call and response as I’ve suggested, then we can imagine a worship leader reciting a list of the wondrous deeds of God; with each declaration, the congregation responds, “For his steadfast love endures forever.”
But if we slow down our reading long enough to be curious about the words, we might puzzle over the part of the text that seems most alien. We know the story of Moses and Pharaoh, of the Passover and the exodus from Egypt, so the following words from Psalm 135 (and similar words from Psalm 136) make sense to us:
He it was who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
both human beings and animals;
he sent signs and wonders
into your midst, O Egypt,
against Pharaoh and all his servants. (vss. 8-9, NRSV)
But then we read this:
He struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings—
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
and Og, king of Bashan,
and all the kingdoms of Canaan—
and gave their land as a heritage,
a heritage to his people Israel. (vss. 10-12)
The same words, “Sihon, king of the Amorites” and “Og, king of Bashan” appear as part of the call and response in Psalm 136. One imagines the people simply taking these as obvious examples of God’s faithful and steadfast love and responding accordingly. Nobody looked around in puzzlement; nobody asked, “Umm…king who? Of where?” They remembered, even if we don’t.
And they weren’t the only ones. In Joshua 2, we have the story of Rahab, the woman who harbored the spies Joshua sent into Jericho. Here’s what she told them as she cut a deal for her and her family:
I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. (vss. 9-11)
Apparently, the defeat of Sihon and Og had become something of a local legend! We can get the context from Numbers 21 and Deuteronomy 2 and 3. Picture Moses leading his people northward, along the eastern side of the Dead Sea. Moses sent word to king Sihon to ask permission to pass through their land, asking to buy food and water and promising not to stray from the main road. But the king refused, met the Israelites in battle, and was defeated; the Israelites took over his land.
The people kept journeying north toward Bashan, with a similar result: Og came out to fight against the Israelites and lost both the battle and his kingdom. According to Moses, this included sixty towns plus the surrounding villages (Deut 3:4-5). Og, furthermore, was the last of a race of giants, who slept on a 14-foot long bed (Deut 3:11). No doubt this made the Israelites’ victory that much more impressive to the locals. After that, the Israelites set up camp “in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho” (Num 22:1).
That explains the jitters in Jericho. What happened to Sihon and Og was all over social media.
Later, when the worshiping people of Israel heard the names of those vanquished kings, they would have thought of the last great battles of Moses, before Joshua led the people across the Jordan against “all the kingdoms of Canaan.” Moses, because of one angry and disobedient act as leader, was left behind (Num 20:1-13). But the people would still recall the steadfast love of God both to the east of the Jordan and to the west of it, under Moses first and then Joshua.
Our “Jordan” may be different. But God is the same God, and we can praise and bless him for the same faithful love.