“The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions”

Routledge Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Religions. General editor Eric Orlin. NY, New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 1054.Religion

In a day and age when new encyclopedias seem to be published every other day, The Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (henceforth referenced to as REAMR) is a breath a fresh air. Unlike many specialized encyclopedias, REAMR attempts to offer a general overview of a wide variety of cultures and practices relevant to the Mediterranean. These entries provide a cross-cultural perspective, noting unique and distinct elements of particular topics. Similarly, authors for entries were instructed to focus on writing for the Religious Studies field who did not share that specialty. In other words, a scholars writing an entry about the Hebrew Bible would assume the reader is within the field of Religious Studies; however, it should be oriented to a non-specialist in that particular field, such as a scholar of Islamic Studies.

This was, I think, successful for the most part. Although there were a few problematic entries, they generally presented the information in a clear and concise manner. Because the academic environment encourages inter-disciplinary scholarship, this volume offers an entry point into sub-fields distinct from ones own. Furthermore, the volume covers from the Bronze Age up to Late Antiquity. In terms of the traditions, it attempts to be as comprehensive as possible. So, the volume includes, though is not limited to, Judaism, Roman religion, Greek religion, Persian religion, Ugaritic religion, Canaanite religion, Egyptian religion, South Arabian religion, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Thus, in terms of its diversity of represented religious traditions, this REAMR is distinguished from other encyclopedias.

Before I offer notes on particular encyclopedia entries, I have one primary criticism of the volume. The beginning of the volume comments on the issue of defining the category of religion: “The term religion is itself disputed, as a number of recent discussions have highlighted. Because we realized early on that we would need to include many headwords to provide cultural background that might not be strictly religious (such as Hellenistic Age), we decided that it was not necessary to offer a specific definition of “religion” in order to exclude material felt to be “non-religious”. (xvii)” They continue by noting that religion was often times not seen as a distinct category from social or cultural. In principle, this decision makes sense.

Even though it is difficult to define religion, the editors of REAMR missed an opportunity. For an entry titled “Religion” could have at least offered a succinct overview of the history of scholarship, problems, and various ways of defining ‘religion.’ This criticism, though, is minor. Even so, the volume is incredibly valuable as a whole. While individuals probably will not purchase this volume, there are two groups in particular for which is will be helpful: small organizations in need of a thorough dictionary on ancient Mediterranean religions [1] and universities with a small library budget. Regarding the latter, the volume is $285 as an eBook (Hardback $408). Because REAMR covers such a wide range of traditions and time periods, though, it is well worth the investment. As far as I am aware, few encyclopedias offer such a comprehensive overview of Mediterranean religious traditions at that price.

Following, I will offer notes on specifics within the volume:

  • Some contributions were unnecessarily lengthy. For example, the entry on ‘Conversion’ is about four pages. So, it seems more like a lengthy argument regarding the topic of Christianity and conversion than an overview/succinct explanation of conversion. Similarly, the following are too lengthy, each for differing reasons: ‘Gnosticism’, ‘Imperial Cult’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Jupiter’, ‘Sacred Law’ (6 pages), ‘Mithraeum’, ‘Orphism’, ‘Revelation of John’, and ‘Women’.
  • One contribution is particularly exemplary in terms of providing a broad overview of a major religion topic: ‘Cult Statue’. Although three pages long, it does an excellent job at offering an overview of cult statues in Mesopotamia, Egypt/Northwest Semitic areas, and Greece/Rome (See also the entries on ‘Domestic Religion’, ‘Myth’)
  • The entry on ‘Figurines’ is far too lengthy as an entry. More problematic, though, is that it seems hyper-focused on Greek figurines. It only briefly mentions ancient Near Eastern figures.
  • The entry on ‘Purity’ is far too focused on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East. Purity in other contexts is ignored.
  • The beginning of the volume has a series of maps and a chronology. The chronology places the following side-by-side: Near East, Judea, Egypt and North Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, and Italy. Both the maps and chronology are particularly helpful for understanding the broader world events within specific time periods.

Even with these critiques, the volume is excellent. REAMR offers a broad overview of many religious traditions and cultures. Because of this, it is a valuable addition to libraries, in particular to small schools with low budgets. The value of REAMR is well worth the cost.

Typos: pg. 321: “… resemble AGNES” martyrdom.”; pg. 87 “… The Arabization of the Near East let to a decline…” (presumably “led” to a decline); p. 334, ‘Ezra, Vision of’ (the caps formatting is funky).

[1] I make this comment based off my experience visiting a local NPR station. At it, a few encyclopedias were sitting around. I suspect that the were used as general references for reporting on any relevant issues.

On the Meaning of “To Make a Covenant”

What does it mean to “make a covenant”? Often times, people recognize that a covenant is an agreement between two parties. It is a type of treaty between a stronger party and a weaker party. In the Hebrew Bible, those two parties are Yahweh and Israel. A more literal translation of the text, though, would be to “cut a covenant.” Growing up I’ve heard many explanations for why the Hebrew text uses a verb meaning “to cut.” One explanation is that a covenant is “cut” with regard to tablets on which are the ten commandments. In other words, Yahweh “cut” a covenant by writing on stone and cutting the stone out of the mountain. For a while, this was satisfactory. There is, though, a more likely explanation. Here, I hope to demonstrate how the underlying concept behind “cut a covenant” is that of sacrificing an animal.

Because the Hebrew Bible was developed and composed within the ancient Near East, it is helpful to look toward other literary evidence from (1) the Near East more broadly and (2) more localized evidence. One text from the 8th century BCE offers such evidence. It is from the ancient Near East more broadly because it was produced by the Neo-Assyrian empire. It is more localized because the treaty is between the Neo-Assyrian empire and a king in Syria-Palestine. As an Aramean king, it was local too a certain extent because the Hebrew Bible speaks about interaction between Arameans and Israel. This means they would have experience intercultural exchange and shared ideas between their respective cultures. Thus, the treaty may help us to better understand notions of “covenant” because the Hebrew Bible and treaty are within a similar geographic region (Syria-Palestine), time period (8th century BCE), and there is evidence for interaction between Aramean kings and Israel.

The Neo-Assyrian Treaty

The treaty is between a Neo-Assyrian king and an Aramean king in Northern Syria (Arpad). It dates from about the 8th century BCE. The Neo-Assyrian king is Assur-nerari V. The Aramaean king is Mati’-ilu. In the treaty, the sovereign figure, Assur-nerari V, demands the support of subordinate figure, Mati’-ilu and his kingdom. In order to cement the treaty, they bring out a lamb: “[This lamb] has been brought to conclude the treaty of Aššur-nerari, king of Assyria with Mati’-ilu.”

The text, though, is careful to note that the lamb is not for sacrifice or a basic meal; rather, the lamb seems to symbolically represent  Mati’-ilu and his kingdom. Rather than acting upon the lamb, the treaty compares head of the lamb to Mati’-ilu:

This head is not the head of a spring lamb, it is the head of Mati’-ilu, it is the head of his sons, his magnates and the people of [his la]nd. If Mati’-ilu [should sin] against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is c[ut] off, and its knuckle placed in its mouth, [] the head of Mati’-ilu be cut off…” (SAA II 02, lines 21-28).

Likewise, the shoulder of the lamb is compared to Mati’-ilu:

This shoulder is not the shoulder of a spring lamb, it is the shoulder of Mati’-ilu, it is the shoulder of his so[ns, his magnates, and the people of his land. If Mati’-ilu] should sin against this[treaty], so may, just as the shou[lder of this spring lamb] is torn out and [placed in], the shoulder of Mati’-ilu, of his sons, [his magnates] and the people of his land be torn out and [placed] in[]” (SAA II 02, lines 29-35).

In other words, the head and shoulder of the lamb are metaphorically Mati’-ilu. In order to cement the treaty, the parties slaughter this lamb. This is the treaty says “just as the shoulder of this spring lamb is torn out.” In both cases, the treaty seems to symbolically represent the consequences of breaking the treaty. The slaughter of the lamb is a representation of what will happen to Mati’-ilu if he opposes the Neo-Assyrian empire.

From Neo-Assyrian Treaty to Covenant in the Hebrew Bible

Previously, we discussed how a Neo-Assyrian text utilizes the cutting of an animal in order to vividly illustrate the consequences of breaking the treaty. If one breaks a cut covenant, they will be destroyed and cut like the animal. One narrative in the Hebrew Bible which expresses a similar sentiment is Genesis 14-15. In Gen. 14:22-24, Abram (Abraham) expresses his devotion to Yahweh:

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them take their share” (NRSV).

In this passage, Abram declares his dedication to Yahweh, who is the superior figure. While Mati’-ilu agrees to support the Neo-Assyrian empire in the treaty, Abram is demonstrated as supporting the deity Yahweh. Furthermore, this occurs after Abram defeats a series of tribal leaders. In Near Eastern thought, military victories were often understood as evidence of support from the divine realm. Whereas the treaty is an agreement to be dedicated to the Neo-Assyrian empire, Gen. 14 illustrates that Abram is dedicated to the deity. Both texts express the same notion of supporting the superior with whom a treaty is made, albeit in different ways. Gen. 14 occurs in the genre of a narrative, while Neo-Assyrian text occurs in the genre of a treaty/covenant.

In Gen. 15, Yahweh makes a series of commitments to Abram. Abram responds with a question: “how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (NRSV; Gen. 15: 8). So, in accordance with the will of Yahweh, Abram gathers animals for sacrifice and he cuts them. This serves as a way to cements the treaty/covenant between Yahweh and Abram. Likewise,  the lamb serves as a way to cement the treaty/covenant between the Neo-Assyrian empire and Mati’-ilu.

What Genesis 15 doesn’t express clearly, though, is the underlying significance of Abram’s cutting of the animals. In light of treaty between Assur-narari V and Mati’-ilu, the cutting may be representative of what happens if the subordinate party, namely Abram, does not uphold his side of the treaty. Although the text is not necessarily implying that Abram will be cut like the animals if he breaks the treaty, the Neo-Assyrian treaty at least suggests a possible explanation for why an animal would be “cut” in context of a covenant or treaty.



SAA 02 002. Treaty of Aššur-nerari V with Mati’-ilu, King of Arpad (AfO 8 17+)


Memorizing Akkadian Vocabulary with Images

One of my greatest challenges in Elementary Akkadian was memorizing vocabulary. I need to have it memorized and internalized, though, by the time I begin Intermediate Akkadian. So, this summer I’m working on a project which may be of value for anybody using A Grammar of Akkadian by John Huehnergard.

I am using Quizlet to make flashcards of the chapters. One set will be chapters 1-5, another chapters 6-10, another 11-15, etc. For each word in the vocabulary section, I’m including the word, a basic definition, and a picture. I hope that including the picture with the word will help me to learn the vocabulary and internalize it.

If you’re interested in using it, here is the link: Chapters 1-5Chapters 6-10, Chapters 11-15, Chapters 16-20, Chapters 21-25, Chapters 26-30

NOTE: Chapters 1-5 are different from Chapters 6-10. In 1-5, the English is next to the picture, while in 6-10, the Akkadian is next to the picture. The remaining flashcards, namely chapters 11-38, will have the Akkadian next to the picture.

Created Order, the Deity, and Humanity

At the latest, the Hebrew Bible was compiled between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE. In other words, over 2200 years separate us from the cultures in which the Hebrew Bible was compiled. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible reflects traditions as far back as the 11th centurie BCE. So, nearly 3000 years separate us from some aspects of the cultures and traditions reflected in the Hebrew Bible. This vast distance of times can make it difficult to understand what is happening in a text of the Hebrew Bible. After all, people living in ancient Syria-Palestine, or the ancient Near East more generally, did not see the world the same way as us. 

I hope to demonstrate this by offering a Psalm as a case study. In it, I want to show how many people in the ancient world understood created order, the divine realm, humanity, and politics to be intrinsically intertwined, if not the same things. This may be strange in a culture where people constantly refer to the separation between state and religion. In the ancient world, political was religious and religious was political.

Following is my own translation of verses (vss.) 2-5 of Psalm 89:

(2) The devotion of Yahweh is eternal; I sing to it from generation to generation. I make known your fidelity with my mouth (3) For I have declared: eternal devotion will be built; (in) the heavens you will establish your fidelity in them.

(4) I have cut a covenant with my chosen one; I have been sworn to my servant David. (5) Until eternity, I will establish your offspring; and I will build your throne from generation to generation – Selah.  

In vss. 2-3, a person is speaking the 1st person. The individual speaks towards Yahweh. In vss. 4-5 the speaker is Yahweh. Yahweh first speaks about his covenant with David. Following, he speaks towards the Davidic dynasty.

In order to illustrate how the various spheres overlap (divinity, created order, and humanity), I will first show where they appear within this small selection of verses. Regarding Yahweh, the deity, it is clear that he plays a role in this Psalm. He acts in such a way that demonstrates his fidelity and devotion. The human speaker even declares Yahweh’s fidelity and devotion. What exactly, though, does Yahweh do in order to demonstrate his fidelity and devotion as a deity?

Verse 3 is a helpful avenue to explore, as it assists in working out how the ancient author may have understood his world. In vs. 3 devotion is built and fidelity is established in the heavens. Both of these concepts, though, are abstract. In other words, they have no material reality. If vs. 3 is meant to recognize Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity, his actions must have some material benefit to humanity, not just a feeling of devotion and fidelity. When we consider how ancient Judeans may have seen the world, though, it becomes clear why vs. 3 exemplifies Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity.

As early as 1910, biblical scholars realized that ancient Judeans may have seen the sky as a real structure. Genesis 1:6 references the firmament, namely the sky. The word used to describe the firmament has to do with flattening a material like metal. Consequently, Genesis 1:6 may demonstrate that some ancient Judeans thought the sky was a large, metal structure above them (Driver 1910, 21; Speiser 1964, 7).

If this imagery is at play in Ps. 89:3, it offers insight into the logic of the writer. Devotion is “built” and fidelity is “established” in the heavens because Yahweh has built the sky and established the heavenly structure. Consequently, the heavenly structure holds back the pre-creation, primeval waters (Genesis 1:1-2).  In other words, a deity literally built a structure which (1) prevents a return to the primeval waters and (2) protects all humanity.

If this is the world view of the Psalmist, then it is quite reasonable for Yahweh’s devotion to be demonstrated through devotion being built and his establishing the heavens, namely the sky. Created order is sustained by the deity, which in turn allows humanity to live. What better way to show devotion and fidelity than to prevent a massive flood through building the sky?

While it clear that the divine realm, humanity, and created order are connected in some regard, how does it relate to politics?

Vss. 4-5 detail Yahweh’s covenant with David. Vs. 4 specifies that he made a covenant. Vs. 5 details how Yahweh will establish and build David’s line. Notably, vs. 5 uses the same words as in vs. 3. In vs. 3, “establish” and “build” are used in context of Yahweh’s building a giant structure, namely the sky. In vs. 5, those same verbs are used to describe Yahweh’s commitment to enable the line of David to maintain its places on the throne. In other words, Yahweh commits to supports the line of David in its political endeavors. He makes this commitment in the same way that he upholds the dome structure above humanity, namely the sky.

Use of the same words to describe (1) Yahweh’s upholding the sky and (2) covenant to the line of David suggests they are correlated. Although it is difficult to tell to extent to which they are correlated in these particular verses, one thing is clear: Yahweh’s role in created order is used to legitimize and justify the political authority of the Davidic line. In turn, David is to act as a special servant to the deity.

This sort of relationship between a king-figure and deity is consistent with other regions, groups, and Empires throughout the ancient Near East. Notably, though, it was not an issue to people in the ancient world. To them, it was completely normal for a king to be supported by the a deity, a deity who supported created order itself. In turn, it was completely normal for a king to serve the deity as a particularly special servant.

These roles, though, were one and the same. To be legitimized by the deity in political terms was also to be legitimized by the deity in religious terms. This legitimization of kingship was often times supported by recognition that the sponsoring deity also kept creation in order.

Many texts in the Hebrew Bible reflect the aforementioned notions. With this awareness, we should be careful to immediately assume that something is either religious or political. In many cases, it is both. They are one and the same. If we don’t work with this notion, we do a disservice to ancient Judeans. They were a people group who, like any culture, should have their own autonomous and independent voice. It is up to us to decide whether or not we want to hear and understand what their world was like and what they have to say.


Psalm 1: Translation and Notes

This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which I am offering translations and notes of particular Psalms. I am doing this to prepare for my Psalms final. I did not divide this verse by standard versification (the way the verses are divided in the Hebrew Bible). Instead, I used an outline so that I could illustrate the structure of the Psalm more clearly.

  1. Blessed is the man [1] who
    1. Does not walk in the council of the wicked
    2. And on the path of the sinners he does not stand
    3. And in the dwelling of the scoffers he does not dwell [2]
    4. But rather [3]
    5. In the law of Yahweh he delights
    6. And on his law he meditates continually. [4]
      1. So, he is like a tree transplanted onto channels of water which
        1. its fruit it gives in season
        2. And its leaves do not wither [5]
          1. And all that he does will prosper [6]
          2. Not so the wicked [7]
          3. But rather [8]
        3. Like chaff which is blown in the wind [9]
      2. For that reason [10]
    7.  They will not be vindicated, the wicked, in judgement
    8. And {they will not stand}, the sinners, in the council of the righteous. [11]

a. For Yahweh takes care of the path of the righteous and the paths of the wicked perish. [12]

[1] This phrase is potentially problematic. The word for here is אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי. It is a Masculine Plural Noun in the construct form. This means that it is directly connected to the following word. As a rule of thumb, we can insert the word “of” between the construct noun and the following noun. So, “blessings of the man” would be a more literal translation. Throughout the Psalms, and other texts, this word אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי seems to function as a sort of claim. So, “blessed is the man” = “the blessings of the man.”

[2] 1.1-3 serve to define what the blessed man does not do. The word “who” (BH אֲשֶׁ֤ר) begins this by marking the beginning of a series of subordinate clauses. This means that 1.1-3 are not complete sentences; rather, they serve to define the parameters of the phrase “blessed is the man.” Notably, each thing used to define what a blessed man does not do is very similar. In 1.1, we see the following structure: a negative particle (namely, not) + verb + location in construct with a preposition + masculine plural noun (to represent people groups). 1.2 and 1.3 use the same elements; however, they re-order the sentence structure: location in construct with a preposition +masculine plural noun + a negative particle + verb. Because 1.1-3 are so similar in structure and all use the same preposition (a bet), they are best understood as one unit. This unit serves to define what the blessed man does not do.

[3] The short phrase כִּ֤י אִ֥ם serves to transition into the next set of parameters for the blessed man. As with most particles, prepositions, or conjunctions, it may mean a wide variety of things. I am taking it as a way of marking the transition into something else. This new thing being introduced is meant to be distinct from 1.1-3. So, I translate “but rather.”

[4] 1.5-6 describes what a blessed man does. Like 1.1-3, it uses the same preposition bet. By doing so, it links itself to 1.1-3. With the conjunction, though, we know that it is a contrast to what 1.1-3 describes. Furthermore, 1.5-6 continue the same sentence structure found in 1.1-3; however, there is now no negative particle. Thus, whereas 1.1-3 were what the blessed man does not do, 1.5-6 is what the blessed me does do.

Because 1.1-3 and 1.5-6 are so closely linked in terms of sentence structure and the preposition which they use, they should be read as a unit. Recall, though, that I argued in note [2] that 1.1-3 are a unit. In light of 1.5-6, 1.1-3 are still a unit, albeit a sub-unit. 1.5-6 is, likewise, a sub-unit. These two sub-units operates in conjunction (together) to present a full picture of what a blessed man does.

Notably, though, this consistent structure is broken by two slightly different elements. First, we see in 1.6 a different verb form. 1.1-5 use QATAL (Perfect) verb forms. 1.6 shifts to a YIQTOL (Imperfect) form. Second, vs. 6 has the additional words “day and night” (יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה). I translated these as “continually” because it seems to be what the text is trying to express. The addition of “continually” breaks the sentence (syntactical) pattern which I noted in [2]. For these reason, namely the breaking of a pattern from 1.1-1.6, the minor shifts and changes in 1.6 may serve to say to the reader, “Hey! Things are about to change. I’ve some new ideas to talk about, so I’ll prepare you with a minor shift in pattern of the text.”

[5] 1.6.1 is the shift which I mentioned in [4]. Rather than continuing with more parameters about how a man is to blessed, 1.6.1 uses a metaphor. It compares 1 and 1.1-6 to being planted by channels of water., then, serve to specify the parameters of a tree planted by water. It (1) gives fruit in season and (2) does not whither. This is imagery is important because it is what allow life to thrive. One can have water. Without food, though, one is unable to survive. This imagery, then, metaphorically describes the blessed man as one who enables others do survive. A tree transplanted by water will be (1) thrive as an individual tree and (2) sustain the life of other animals and people.

The extent to which one blessed man may impact the environment positively is not too surprising. In an early post, I spoke about how miscarriage of justice could make the foundations of the earth totter. There was a correlation between ethical behavior and creation. Thus, we see in Psalm 1 a similar idea at play. The blessed man is not merely an ethical man who avoids the wicked and studies the law of God as an entity autonomous from everything else. Rather, his being blessed is correlated to creation. He doesn’t necessarily cause creation to prosper; however, the Psalmist does correlate the provisions of nature and wildlife to the ethical behavior of man.


The Dan River in Israel

[6] is not entirely clear. The verb for “to do” is not clearly referring to a particular thing. Likewise, the verb for “to be caused to prosper” has no clear subject. Up till this point, though, the only present character is the blessed man and the wicked ones. Because the two verbs in are a 3MS forms, it is best to understand the subject as being the blessed man from 1.

Another interesting feature of this metaphor is the use of verbs. Recall in note [4] that 1.6 was the first occurrence of a YIQTOL verb form. In the metaphor, the only verbal form used is a YIQTOL form (except for one WǝQATAL which functions like a YIQTOL). The implication is that this metaphor is durative. Consequently, the blessed man is thought to be this way unceasingly. At no point in the imagination of this Psalm does the blessed man cease being like a tree.

Furthermore, the use of YIQTOL forms in this metaphor emphasizes it as a particular unit. The end of the first unit, 1.1-6, offers a transition into this new unit of the tree metaphor.

[7] shifts directions, yet again. Whereas previously the Psalm focused on the metaphor of the righteous man, it draws a contrast with the wicked ones.

[8] Until this point, “but rather” has only occurred once as a way of describing what the blessed do. By re-using “but rather” in context of the wicked ones, the reader now expects to see a contrast between what the blessed to and what the righteous do, or are like.

[9] The contrast derived from the phrase כִּ֥י אִם strongly contrasts the imagery of a healthy, fruit-giving tree. The notion of being “chaff” blown in the wind implies absolute lack of value. When gathering grain, the chaff is, quite literally, blowing away in the wind. They do this because it serve no value. It does not contribute to the sustaining people. Additionally, the tree is said to “give.” In, the verb establishes the tree as the agent of giving. In, the chaff has no agency in the action. Thus, the role of chaff is less significant in the sentence. Whereas the tree is an acting agent, the chaff is only acted upon.

[10] “For that reason” serves as another transition to describing the nature of the wicked. Notably, there are two conjunctions which introduce the wicked: לֹא־כֵ֥ן (lo’ ken) and עַל־כֵּ֤ן (‘al ken). These two conjunctions are strikingly similar in terms of how they sound (lo vs. al). Because of this similarities, the Psalmist may be attempting to tie these two phrases together into a larger unit.

[11] 1.7-8 reflect 1.1-6. Whereas 1.1-6 demonstrates what a blessed man did and did not do, 1.7-8 reflects what a wicked man will not do, namely stand in judgement. The notion of “standing in judgement” may have to do with what I wrote about regarding Psalm 82. If one is standing in judgement, their honor has been, to a certain extent, restored. If the wicked will not stand in judgment, their honor will not be restored. Consequently, 1.8 acknowledges that they will not stand among the righteous. For the righteous will have their honor restored.

This imagery of “the righteous, a MP N, reflects well 1.1-6. In 1.1-6, the wicked ones, a MP N, are juxtaposed to the blessed man. Now, the wicked ones are juxtaposed to the righteous ones.

Furthermore, the reason I placed “will not stand” in {} is because it not actually in the text at this point. This is what Greenstein refers to as “deep structure.” Grammatically, it should be translated “and the sinners in the council of the righteous.” As cognitively aware readers, though, our minds fill in the place where we expect a verb. Because 1.7 contains the verb, the mind fills in the blank.

Finally, the description of the wicked, including the metaphor has more brevity than the blessed man. This is important because it further demonstrates that the focus of the Psalm is the blessed man. Even though a stark contrast is being drawn between the wicked and the righteous, the focus is ultimately the righteous.

[12] a serves as the summation of Psalm 1. Before explaining a, though, note the structure of Psalm 1. Here is a small, easy version:

  1. Ways of the blessed are described.
    1. Ways of the blessed are described metaphorically.
      1. Conclude the ways of the blessed.
      2. Shift to the ways of the wicked.
    2. Ways of the wicked are described metaphorically.
  2. Ways of the wicked are described.

Each number 1 reflects the same type of description in 2. The only different is that one describes the blessed, while the other describes the wicked. This structure is what is called a chiasmus. The chiasm allows us to see a stark contrast between the wicked and blessed not just in terms of the specific words used, but in the places where they are employed. The summary is a. picks up on this by summarizing the entire Psalm in terms of the the way of the righteous as opposed to the way of the wicked. One major addition occurs here, though.

This is the only place in the Psalm where Yahweh becomes the agent of the verb. Although Yahweh appears as a figures to describe the “Law of Yahweh”, he was not the subject for a verb. As the subject a verb, Yahweh is said to “care for” (lit. “know”). I take this verb “to know” as a way of expressing how the divine watches over the blessed.

In contrast, the path of the wicked may be taken in two ways. First, the “path” could be a collective notions of “paths.” This is possible because the wicked don’t all act wicked in the same way. Thus, “path” could be understood as a plural. Furthermore, although “path” is typically understood as a masculine noun, it shows up a feminine noun. In light of these two observations, it is possibly that the subject of “to perish” is the paths themselves. So, we would translate, “and the paths of the wicked perish” (taking תֹּאבֵֽד in a stative sense). Alternatively, Yahweh could be the subject. In this case, the verb “to perish” should be taking as a 2MS, with Yahweh acting as the subject: “the paths of the wicked you, Yahweh, cause to perish.”

The alternative is less likely for two reasons. First of all, I am hesitant to give a Q form a causative meaning unless absolutely necessary. The other option, with “path” as the subject, demonstrates that using the verb as a causitive Qal is not necessary. Second, Yahweh as the subject is odd in the structure of a. Like any good syntax, the first part of a. reads as a verb followed by the subject. Thus, the subject, namely Yahweh, “knows.” The syntax clearly correlates the two. There is no reason, though, to correlate Yahweh with “perish.” Structurally and grammatically, it makes more sense for the subject of “to perish” to be “paths” (lit. path).

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Psalm 82: Translation and Comments

This short series of posts is part of my preparation for my Psalms final. Here, I offer a translation and other comments about Psalm 82.

  1. Yahweh[1] was positioned within the assembly of El [2]; in the midst of the gods, he will judge.[3]

2. “How long will ya’ll judge injustice [4]
And raise the faces of criminals?!?”[5] [6]

3. “Judge the poor and the orphan; the poor and hungry cause to be righteous
4. “Save the poor and the needy; from the hand of the wicked, pull [the poor and                      the needy].”[7]

5. “They have not known and they did not discern;
in darkness they walk continuously;
they will be made to totter, the whole foundations of the earth.”[8] [9]

6. “Indeed, I have spoken [10], “You are gods and sons of the most high you all       are!”;
7. however, like humanity, you will be mortal; like one of the kings, you will                          fall!”[11]

8. “Rise, Yahweh, and judge the land, for you will take as possession all the

[1] In the Hebrew text, we read the word elohim, which can reference either to God (=Yahweh), gods, other deities, ghosts, etc. The reason we translate “Yahweh” rather than “God” is because this Psalm is part of the Elohistic Psalter (Psalms 42-83. The Elohistic Psalter is a series of Psalms which used the name “Yahweh” very sparingly, at least in comparison to other Psalms. For example, Psalm 53 is part of the Elohistic Psalter. This Psalm is strikingly similar to Psalm 14. They differ, though, in that Psalm 53 uses the term elohim instead of Yahweh. While it seems pretty clear that many of these Psalms replace the name “Yahweh” with the title “God”, there is no conclusive reasoning to explain why the editors did this.

[2] In West Semitic myth, the highest deity was El. Naturally, as a divine king, he had an assembly of deities. The name/title El, though, may be problematic. It could refer to multiple things. First, it could refer to “the council of El” in the sense of “the divine council. Second, it could refer to “the council of El” in the sense of “the council of El, the highest deity in the pantheon.” Third, it could refer to “the council of El” in the sense of “the council of Yahweh, who is referenced as El.” I choose the first option because El, as the highest deity, would be normal in the ancient context of this Psalm. There is no reason to oppose the notion of El being the highest deity because it is a common idea in West Semitic religion and culture. In Ugaritic literature, Ba’al is arguably the primary deity; however, El, his father, is still above him in terms of authority and power. Thus, the idea that El was thought to be above Yahweh at some point in history in continuous with other West Semitic conceptions of the divine pantheon.

[3] Another important issue in this Psalm is that of the speaker and addressee. Verse 1, I think, is pretty straight forward. Because the speaker is (1) not defined and (2) there are no allusions to who may be the speaker, it is best to assume that the speaker is the narrator. As the Psalm goes forward, though, later verses may change how we think about who the speaker is. Like, the addressee is not clear either. It is not obvious who vs. 1 is directed towards. I suspect that verse 1 serves to illustrate the context of the rest of the Psalm.

I suspect this for a few reasons. First of all, nobody takes any actions within the verse. The first verb is a passive verb, meaning that Yahweh was stationed/standing. The agent of this action is not Yahweh; rather, somebody else made him to be standing or stationed among the council. Likewise, the second verb, meaning to judge, is in the YIQTOL form. In other words, it is an incomplete action. In terms of the tense, it means that the action that will occurs in the future. It has not occurred yet, though. Therefore, it sets a scene for a moment in time.

[4] The phrase “how long” (עד מתי) occurs 26 times. The majority of these occurrences occur in questions with a negative answer. Because of this, the use of the phrase may be intended to suggest to the reader that the outcome of the question is not good.

[5] The statement “raise the faces of criminals” means “to show favor to.” In Number 6:25, for example, the same words are used: “lift your face.” As a popular paradigmatic blessing, the Aaronic benediction is asking that the deity, Yahweh, show favor to the people. Likewise, in Ugaritic literature, “Ba’al tells deities to “Lift up, O gods, your heads from upon your knees…” as a way of implying boldness and independence… and reestablishment of honor” (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament). Therefore, in this Psalm, the “council of El” seems to be accused of showing favor to the wicked. 

[6] Who is speaker of verse 2? Because Yahweh is positioned, standing, in the midst of the council of El, it seems reasonable that Yahweh is portrayed as the speaker. As for the addressee, vs. 2 uses two YIQTOL in the second-person masculine plural form. This means that the actions which he references have not been completed. They are ongoing. Also, the words are directed towards of group of characters, namely those in the divine council. Therefore, it is reasonable to view vs. 2 as Yahweh questioning the miscarriage of justice.

The verbs seem to be used in a sense of ongoing action in the moment. So, the deities are giving justice a bad-name currently, in an ongoing sense.

[7] Vss. 3-4 suddenly switch in presentation. Whereas vs. 2 was about what the deities currently do, vss. 3-4 use imperative forms. This means that in vss. 3-4, the deities are commanded to act in these particular ways. As imperative forms (commands), though, one must do something in the future in order to follow the command. So, is Yahweh now saying what they must do in the future? This is one possibility. First, he questions what they are doing now. Then, he commands what they must do in the future.

Another possibility is that he is quoting El’s words. In this situation, Yahweh first says, “What in the world are you deities doing!?!” Then, he following it by citing the original command to the council of Yahweh: “Serve justice to the weak and poor.” In the end, it is difficult to find conclusive evidence. For, there is nothing like, “Remember when El said.” Thus, the speaker is ambiguous, while the addressees, the deities, seem fairly obvious. For my translation, the best option seems to be Yahweh citing an older command of El.

[8] Before commenting on what vs. 5 means and the speaker/addressee, I will begin by commenting on verb structure of vs. 5. First, the first two verbs refer to a completed action. The actions of “not knowing” and “not discerning” seem to be situated in the past. Second, the next verb refers to an ongoing actions which describes their current state: they are in a state of continually walking in darkness, a metaphor for ignorance or lack of understanding. Third, the final verb, “to totter” may be understood as something which will be in the future: in the future, the foundations of the earth will totter.

The verbs in vs. 5, then, seem to cover a wide range of time by noting (1) actions in the past, (2) actions in this moment, and (3) actions which will take place.

As for the speaker, it seems reasonable to see Yahweh as the speaker. Recall, for example, that Yahweh asked “how long” in vs. 2. Now, in vs. 5, Yahweh may be describing that actions of what the deities actions do. The addressee, though, is harder to nail down. Unlike vss. 2-4, which were directed toward the deities through the use of second-person forms, vs. 5 references the deities in the 3rd person. Because the only other other character references (possibly) until vs. 5 is El, I suspect that the addressee of vs. 5 of El. In other words, Yahweh is now offering El a narrative of what how he saw his fellow deities behave.

[9] What does it mean for the “foundations of the earth” to totter? This has to do with the cosmogony of ancient Judeans. By “cosmogony”, I mean how they conceived of the mechanics and origins of the world and universe. In the ancient world, good behavior and justice was correlated to the state of created “stuff” (behavior did not cause good nature; it was simply correlated). So, by noting the tottering foundations of earth, the Psalmist (author) and speaker (Yahweh) express the miscarriage of justice on a cosmic scale.

[10] Vs. 6 returns to the issue of speaker: who says, “I have said”? If we assume from the beginning of the Psalm that El is not present (we only have Yahweh and the divine council), then Yahweh is the speaker. If we continue with the notion that El is the supreme deity in this Psalm, then the speaker must be El. For it only makes sense that they most prestigious deity would have the authority to deem deities “gods and sons of the most high”, namely El. As I mentioned previously, El was considered the father of Ba’al in Ugaritic myth. Thus, El seems to be the speaker here.

[11] Vs. 7 stand in contrast to vs. 6: “even though ya’ll are divine beings, I’m going to change that status.” How does this demotion take place, though? First, the root from “be mortal” is, in its simplest form, “to die.” So, El may be saying “like humanity, you will die.” While there is nothing wrong with this, I prefer “like humanity, you will be mortal.” I prefer this translation because humanity does more than just die. Humanity lives. In the future they die. Because the Psalmist says that they will be like humanity, it is reasonable to assume that they are going to be demoted in the sense that they are now mortal. Before, they didn’t have to worry about death because they were immortal. Now, being made like humanity, they must worry about death. Even though they have to worry about death, the underlying implication is that they are made to be mortal.

The second portion demotes the deities to be like kings who fall. One possibility for the metaphor is that it could be utilizing the notion of kingship throughout the ancient world. As any historian or reader would know based on a quick read of a history of the ancient Near East, there were always kings rising to power and falling to power. So, by noting that the deities will “fall”, the implication may be that they will no longer be in power. Unlike before, when they ruled over territories as divine beings, it is now made clear that they will lose their authority and right to rule.

This is accomplished through falling from heaven, demotion, and loss of social status (Is. 14).

[12] In vs. 8, Yahweh is clearly not the speaker because Yahweh is referenced. Because the other deities have been condemned, El seems to be the speaker. He addresses Yahweh. The idea of “possessing” the nations is important. In West Semitic religion and culture, individual deities ruled over particular regions. With the demotion of deities in Psalm 82, though, Yahweh is the sole remainder of the “council of El.” So, Yahweh is now the only one left to rule over the nations. Consequently, Yahweh will “possess” the earth in the sense of inherit. He will inherit the responsibility of kingship among all the nations.