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.

Thoughts on Psalm 91

Caves throughout Palestine are big enough to shelter hundreds of troops. According to 1 Samuel, David and his Mighty Men used caves extensively to escape King Saul.

Caves throughout Palestine are big enough to shelter hundreds of troops. According to 1 Samuel, David and his Mighty Men used caves extensively to escape King Saul.

By Joe LaGuardia

For preachers who use the lectionary, Psalm 91 is scheduled for the First Sunday of Lent in Year C.  This article comes a bit early for that, and you may not find this until you research for that particular cycle, but I have some insights that may benefit you.

Many scholars argue that Psalm 91 is a hymn that pilgrims recited while entering the Temple in Jerusalem.  One commentator, for instance, posits that pilgrims sang verses 1-13 while entering the gates of Jerusalem, only to have priests recite verses 14-16 back as a “response” that confirms God’s provision.

Several clues tip the scales in this theory’s favor: In v. 1, the language of “shelter” is synonymous with the Temple.  “Pinions” and God’s “wings” might allude to the cherubim that decorated the top of the ark of the covenant, wings that–according to some OT visions–“shielded” God’s radiance and blinding brilliance from humanity’s view.  Verse 10 mentions a tent, that which pilgrims used as they traveled from afar.

Satan recited parts of Psalm 91 when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:5-7).  It was upon the “pinnacle of the Temple” where this temptation took place.

What if Psalm 91 was not a liturgy for Temple, but instead was a sort of battle hymn for soldiers heading to war?  Perhaps the “refuge” and “pinions” did not refer to fixed objects of Temple, but to God’s ark and tabernacle that accompanied the wandering Israelites in battles over the Promised Land.

Surely, soldiers stayed in tents and took refuge–as David did throughout 1 Samuel–in caves, “secret places” (KJV, v. 1), and “fortresses.”

The mention of fallen soldiers, shields, and arrows also point to a violent, uncertain context in which this Psalm may have been recited.  Perhaps it was a liturgy, not of parishioner and priest, but of soldier and commander, a battle march with the familiar 3+3 poetic cadence with which the Hebrews were familiar.

A uniquely divine hope certainly surfaces in the last section of the psalm (verses 14-16), as the poet sings God’s prayer back to us.  Preachers who use various translations may want to pay close attention to v. 14: The NRSV reads, “Those who love me, I will deliver.”   In attempting to keep things gender neutral and change the singular pronouns to plural, the translation misses the beautiful language that this verse evokes regarding our intimacy with God and God’s intimacy with us.

Better is the Revised Standard Version: “Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him.”  Sure, its gender exclusive, but certainly you can take liberty with that in your sermon to get at this amazing language of abiding, cleaving, and seeking.  It is where the psalm’s spiritual impact comes to a crescendo and climax.

Whether the psalter designed this psalm for worship at Temple or the battlefield, it became a comforting hymn that has spanned the life of God’s people in Palestine as well as Christ’s Church.  Even Athanasius, one-time bishop in the early church, stated that Christians who wish to know confidence and make the mind fearless would do well to rehearse Psalm 91 as a part of their worship and liturgy to God.

Indeed, regardless of our garb–battle fatigues or clerical robes–we can all take comfort in God’s provision and presence with us as we abide with God in the shadow and care of His love.

Focusing on God’s magnificence

magnificentBy Joe LaGuardia

Psalm 90, penned by Moses according to the superscription, is a reflection on humanity’s fragility and God’s omniscience.  It challenges us to meditate on God’s magnificence, providence, and gift of time.

The first verse affirms that God is our dwelling place–a safe refuge for all generations.  But then the psalm quickly moves to a meditation about the frailty of humanity, the brief existence we all share, and the toil that consumes most of our days.

Whereas one day is as “a thousand years” in God’s sight, a person’s life may span seventy to eighty years and then “fades and withers.” Our days are but a dream.

Although Psalm 90 seems melancholy at best and depressing at worst, the poem is actually a reflection not to be taken as negative or morose, but as a re-focusing on God’s intimacy with us.  Yes, our lives are but a breath, but God pays attention to us anyway.  The hours of the day may pass by quickly, but God’s love still kisses us awake every morning with new life (v. 14).

The challenge is one not of resignation, but of focus.

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not on our lack, but on God’s magnificence.

The creation theme that runs throughout the psalm reminds us of God’s majesty and power.  God’s careful attention to us brings with it awe, as well as a sense of discipline and testing (v. 7).

This is an attribute of God’s magnificence, an acknowledgement that the same God who created the heavens and the earth cares about us, cares so much in fact, that God is willing to keep us accountable to being holy and a righteous people.  What parent who cares for her child does not discipline that child and invest in the character and integrity with which that child approaches all of life?

God is so amazing, even God’s discipline inspires a sense of magnificence of who God is in our life, the world, and all of history and the cosmos.

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not our limits, but on God’s providence.

According to vv. 5-6, God has the power to sweep away all our days.  With a divine thought or a command, God can end everything right here and right now.  What is to say that we don’t deserve it, with all of the messes we get ourselves into — from our inability to fight on behalf of justice for the oppressed, to form a comprehensive and intentional approach to ecological sustainability, to combating poverty and oppression that wreaks havoc on communities local and global, to our penchant for violence in the face of adversity or war?

Yet, God chooses (I think) to renew our days as grass is renewed in morning.  God gives us new life in which to flourish, to experience steadfast love and have a second chance.

Satisfy us, O Lord, in the morning with your steadfast love…” (Ps. 90:14)

Although we may blow our opportunity at joining God at work in the world over and over again (“For we are consumed by your anger!”), we have the ability to learn what the Spirit will have us to learn about our world and our neighbors (v. 12).  We have to be open to the lessons God has in store for us: “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

Psalm 90 challenges us to focus not on our toil, but on God’s gift of time.

Sometimes we forget that work and toil are God’s punishment for Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden.  Although many of us enjoy our jobs, we still complain that working means spinning our wheels, trying to make ends meet, belaboring day after day to provide for our families, our retirement accounts, even our churches.

Yet, the emphasis of this psalm–from God’s point of view, and ours–is that of time.  Time is short, time is valuable.  Time is a gift, and we are to make the most of our time by responding to God, living for Him (v. 16a), and living in the power of the Spirit that we might prosper in both our mission for God and our ministry in life.

Let your work be made manifest to your servants…Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper the work of our hands.”

In closing, there are three major movements in Psalm 90: One, of God’s power and majesty; two, of our fragility; and, three, of the fact that as a people of God, we still have work to do and can do it joyfully.

It is about focus and intentionality, about acknowledging that God still cares deeply for us.  Let us, in the wake of Psalm 90, meditate on God’s magnificence, on God’s providence, and on God’s gift of time.