Do We Read The Bible Through Rose-Shaded Glasses?

Last week I attended a seminar which was a bit out of my usual academic range: a joint venture between the faculty of Semitic Languages and Hebrew Bible (otherwise known as “Old Testament”, although I have to admit that I’m 100% ready retire that term for good in academia). It was an interesting experience, and I learned hordes of peculiar facts that I never would have even gotten close to learning if I hadn’t gone (for example, I am now able to distinguish between three different types of deer based on the Hebrew word used to describe them in the HB, something which I’m actually childishly excited about). During the seminar, we examined different usages of the term “ayal” or “ayelet” in order to determine exactly which animal the term refers to (deer, ram, gazelle etc). Ps 42 was used as a point of departure, something which propelled my mind in a multitude of directions (as psalters are bound to). One of the professors said that the literary function of the word “ayal” was not to specify which sort of animal it was, but rather to use the animal as a comparative tool, so as to highlight certain qualities or attributes. I agreed that this was the word’s function, and proceeded to attempt to establish exactly which qualities or attributes the animal was meant to emphasize or highlight in the text at hand:

As a deer (אַיִל) longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

Ps. 42:1-4

Two answers presented themselves to me: either a) אַיִל is used to highlight the feeling of an animal low down on the food chain searching for life-giving water or b) אַיִל is used as part of a larger imagery scheme. Option a) is pretty much self-explanatory, and who knows, it might even be the better of the two, but my mind couldn’t just let option b) slip away unnoticed. When I looked up ayal in BDB Abridged Hebrew Dictionary (courtesy of Accordance, as so much is nowadays), the word was translated as “ram”, and the explanation dealt largely with cultic usages of the animal: the sacrifices of Abraham, Balaam, Aaron and his sons, as well as in shelamim and Passover sacrifices and various consecration rituals. At first I dismissed this as irrelevant information, in favour of option a), especially since the definition is ayal also includes mention of how it is used as a simile for leaping/skipping behaviour. But upon closer inspection, it occurred to me that the verses actually include a number of other cultic images. Water can, albeit perhaps rather hazily, be linked to the temple via Ezekiel’s visions, ‘beholding the face of God’ was a temple-related activity, and, of course, we have the explicit mention of the “house of God” and “festivals” in the latter verses. Thus, I would posit that ayal, as a common sacrificial animal, was used as part of a larger temple-based imagery scheme. The aim of the psalmist is to express a desire to come closer to God, for God to draw near to him/her. The natural setting for such divine closeness during this time period was, in fact, the temple, and thus it is, to my mind at least, not unthinkable that an author wishing to express a desire to draw nearer to God in a concrete way would situate this desire within the narrative framework of cult and temple.

This little tangent lead me down a disconcerting thought-path. Regardless of whether my musings about this particular psalm are justified or not, how often do we miss the meaning of a text because our minds are not perceptive enough to the more subtle examples of temple imagery? Take Ps. 69:22-25 as an example. Here, the psalmist writes about his/her enemies, that their “table (שֻׁלְחָן)” should be a “trap and a snare for their allies (shelomim; from the root שָׁלוֹם)”. Many commentaries state that this “table” is related to v.21: “they gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (thus: the psalmist wishes his/her enemies and their allies to be poisoned). I have my (perhaps unjustified albeit still strong) doubts about this hypothesis. I would rather see v. 22 as the beginning of a new section. After naming the various injustices the psalmist has been subjected to, s/he now turns their attention to the misfortune s/he in turn wishes his/her enemies to fall victim to. These misfortunes are not necessarily related to the specific injustices the psalmist as fallen victim to. In fact, I believe them to be much, much worse. Shulkhan (table) can also be used to describe an altar, and there are several scholars (as well as a Targum) who wish to connect the word shelomin to the shelamim sacrifices. If these two things are emphasized, the summa summarum of v. 22 is that the psalmist wishes his/her enemies to loose their divine connection and thus all their fortune – if their altars become a trap for them and a snare for their sacrifices, they can no longer uphold a relationship to the divine. To my mind, this interpretation is a nice narrative fit – the psalmist juxtaposes his/her desire for God to draw nearer to him/her (vv. 17-18) with the desire for God to remove God’s presence from the camp of her/her enemies (v. 25).

These thoughts left me with the question: how can I apply this in my studies? I decided that the next time I am indulging in a bit of Bible reading, in particular NT reading, I would try to read the text from a perspective of temple and cult, just to see if the meaning of the text could be altered. It’s been an exciting experiment so far, one which I think I will continue with for a while! Matthean texts in particular take on a life of their own when you read them from a perspective of temple and cult, especially the Sermon on the Mount (I won’t say how – that’s for you to discover!), but I’m really enjoying reading John from a temple-oriented perspective as well. Is there any greater feeling than the realization that a text has been severed from the constraints of your own presuppositions and biases, if only for a moment? We have a regrettable tendency to colonize our texts with our own wants and needs – it’s high time we took a hint from postcolonial exegetes and set them free!

PS. I don’t usually keep my posts as gender neutral as this one when speaking of Biblical literature (because, let’s be honest, the authors were in all historical likelihood men, so I don’t see the point in pretending this unfortunate historical statistic doesn’t exist), but in the spirit of setting the texts free from my own constraints, I thought it would be fun to experiment with the thought that the psalmist could be either male or female, and if marking this in my analysis would have an affect on my own perception of the text. I have to admit that I enjoyed the affect it had – textually admitting that the author of a Biblical text could be either male or female actually opened it up for me, made me feel closer to the psalmist and more connected to the narrative. I’m still not sure how historically productive it was, but not everything has to be done from a functional perspective!

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