Sunday, September 09, 2007

The precipices in Psalm 68

I suppose I should be cautious, for I don't think we ever exhaust the 'meaning' or the application of a psalm. This is not just a matter of translation, but of the work of the psalm in our lives, a liturgy of transformation, our smoke dissipating in the presence of fire. But still I am asking, what parts of the psalm do I seem to 'understand' and what parts are difficult to understand?

Some of my questions are simple.
1. There are a number of repeated words - as if this poet likes to repeat words. Are some of them figures of speech or common conventions or are they innovations in the poet's language?
2. The word Adonai gets frequent use. Is this a northern convention? (Does Korah own a piece of this psalm?)
3. Of the difficulties: verses 14, 21, 24, and perhaps 31 stand out for me.

Returning to my original purpose in examining the psalms: how would a first century writer such as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews read the psalm - would he or she see our difficulties? This writer used words from the psalms as dialogue between the Father and the Son. Is there any hint of such dialogue in Psalm 68? It can be granted that the original poet(s) would not have had such an explicit referent - but are there hints that allow for such a possibility at a different level of apprehension than that of the first century?

Taking just verse 14 (13 in English)
אִם תִּשְׁכְּבוּן בֵּין שְׁפַתָּיִם
)Im tishkbun bein shepataim

Available translations:
Weiser: Do you want to camp among the sheepfolds?
Dahood: O that they would empty out between the sheepfolds.
Jerusalem Bible (1962): Meanwhile you others were lolling in the sheepfolds.
KJV: Though ye have lien among the pots.
RSV: though they stay among the sheepfolds.
Iyov's post of Alter's translation: If you lie down among sheepfolds . . .
Robert Davidson: no translation given - only notes

It's a rather wide field of possibilities. The woman of the prior verse is described as נְוַת (nvat). I think this is being read as a singular participle, a word that suggests a pastoral environment. BDB translates 'she that is abiding at home'.

Here is the phrase in its wider context:
The Lord gives utterance with a loud voice
great is the host of maidens who bring glad tidings
The kings of the armies flee, they flee,
and the women at home divide the spoil
Do you want to camp among the sheepfolds?

Weiser's next sentence is not a sentence - it is meaningless to me - it must have lost in the translation from the German.
The wings of a dove covered with silver
and its pinions with green gold,
when the almighty scattered kings therein
thou causest (sic) snow to fall on Zalmon.

Let the Lord send forth the word
rejoicing a numerous host.
May the kings of the hosts bow themselves, bow themselves,
the country's pasture land share the boon;
O that they would empty out between the sheepfolds!
The wings of the dove are plated with silver,
and her pinions with yellow gold.
When Shaddai covered the kings,
then snow fell on Zalmon.

The Master gives word
--the women who bear tidings are a great host:
"The kings of armies run away, run away,
and the mistress of the house shares out the spoils."
If you lie down among sheepfolds . . .
The wings of the dove are inlaid with silver,
and her pinions with precious gold.
When Shaddai scattered the kings there,
it snowed on Zalmon.

(What would Handel do with these!)

The simplest resolution - to guess at the meaning - seems to be to take the approach that contrasts the women (singular or plural?) with the kings fleeing, and the threats with the division of booty which is then perhaps referred to in "the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold." This, Weiser suggests, is what the RSV has done, allowing a reading similar to KJV but without the period at the end of the prior verse.

The women at home
divide the spoil,
though they stay among the sheepfolds --
the wings of a dove covered with silver,
its pinions with green gold.

It is an obscure verse - as dark as that mountain at Salmon. I leave this one as unresolved for the moment - all questions outstanding. Maybe the dish ran away with the spoon. Perhaps we are missing the irony or humour in the piece.

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