Enslaved souls, and the oddity of Psalm 105:18

shackles

By Joe LaGuardia

Psalm 105 recalls the Lord’s faithfulness in leading Israel from Abram’s call from Ur to liberation out of enslavement in Egypt.  It is a prayer or hymn of thanksgiving, and invitation to remember Israel’s past in order to appreciate God’s future.

Psalm 105 is a part of a triad (Psalms 104-106) that celebrates God’s story of redemption.  Psalm 104 is a creation psalm, for instance, that transports readers to the earliest pages of Genesis, while Psalm 106 rejoices in God’s Law, delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai by way of fire and smoke.

Psalm 105 addresses Israel’s sojourn from the wilderness of Canaan to Egypt.  In the center of the Psalm is the story of Joseph, that ancient Patriarch who was thrust into slavery only to reach the highest echelons of power in the great halls of Egypt.

Psalm 105:16-22 maps out Joseph’s rise: Joseph went into slavery, and there was famine in the land.  Joseph became a magistrate in Egypt, saved Israel, and became a hero noted for his wisdom and righteousness.

Tucked into this saga is v. 18:

Joseph’s feet were hurt with fetters, his neck was put in a collar of iron” (NRSV).

Although some acute readers may note that iron is a bit misleading — shackles of iron did not come about during Joseph’s era, his were likely bronze — the real puzzle of this verse is the word neck, or nephes in the Hebrew.

As noted above, the NRSV, NIV, and other modern translations state that Joseph’s “neck” was in a collar.  The King James Version, as well as the Jerusalem Bible, similarly state that Joseph was “laid in irons.”

Oddly, however, the Revised Version (an old English translation that reaches back to the tradition of the Coverdale Bible) and some King James versions have a footnote providing an alternate translation:

His soul entered the iron.”

This caught my attention, and I dug deeper.  One commentary on Leviticus — the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary by R. K. Harrison — noted that the Hebrew word nephes may derive from the Akkadian or Ugaritic word meaning “throat,” thus affirming contemporary translations such as the NIV.

But Harrison also contended that the word’s wider meaning can bring a range of translations into the poetic repertoire of the psalter.  The word can also mean soul, life, or self.  A quick glance at the Langensheidt’s Pocket Dictionary of Hebrew-English (a must for seminarians and Bible scholars) echoes Harrison’s theory.

Harrison noted:

“It was more than Joseph’s flesh that felt the iron: his whole being came into its embrace.  While Genesis highlights his undaunted spirit of service in prison, the psalm poetically emphasizes the other side: the cruel fact of being caged” (Harrison: 375).

The Hebrew’s play on words (or meanings, as it were) brings about a spiritual reading that makes for two powerful lessons: (1) Enslavement is as much theological as it is physical; enslaving, oppressing or subduing another makes a claim on the inherent value (or lack thereof) of that other person–it is a theological slight of hand that actually devalues or discriminates against a person’s identity as one made in God’s image.  Enslavement, therefore, robs slaves of life because they have become property to be expended, bartered, sold, or belabored.

What some fail to realize in the slavery of the South and Jim Crow is that enslavement was based on theological misnomers and definitions of personhood, not just a bunch of laws that favored a certain regional economy.

Those who claim that some slaves “had it good” under the plantation or segregation systems do not realize that any theological construct that robs anyone of their God-given personhood is not good regardless of one’s quality of life on the plantation.

And (2) Even when we are shackled in the spirit, bound by that which entangles us as deep as our soul’s abyss, God can still wrangle us free and liberate us to a higher plane of prayer, purpose, and ministry.  If enslavement is theological, then so is the liberation that God enacts in letting a people go free.  People move from anonymous to “anointed”, protected children of God (Psalm 105:15).

On this verse, F. B. Meyer stated:

“There is a process also by which God can turn Iron to Steel.  It means high temperature, sudden transitions, and blasts of heavenly air. . . Indeed, life would be inexplicable unless we believed that God was preparing us for scenes and ministries that lie beyond the vail [sic] of sense in the eternal world, where highly-tempered spirits will be required for special service” (Our Daily Homily, 233).

Next time you feel the heavy soul weighed down by the cares of the world or the snares of sin, remember that God may just turn that iron into steel, exalting the humbled and liberating those oppressed, a spirit caged by circumstance but pointed towards a divine liberation upon landscapes yet unseen.

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