Psalm 133: Translation and Comments

(1) A Song of Pilgrimage for David:

Behold! What good and what pleasant dwelling of brothers, even altogether!

(2) As scented oil upon the head, which is descending upon the beard, the bearded chin of Aaron, which is descending until the mouth of his [priestly] garments.

(3) [And] as the dew of Mt. Hermon, which is descending upon the mountains of Zion.

Indeed, there Yahweh ordained the blessing; [there Yahweh ordained] life until forever.

Psalm 133 can easily be overlooked, as can most Psalms. There are, however, a few interesting features about Psalm 133 which may help to bring it to life.

First of all, Psalm 133 is a very physical Psalm. Through the Psalm, the word “descending” is repeated. Oil is “descending” upon the beard of Aaron and upon his garments. Likewise, the dew of Mt. Hermon is “descending” upon the mountains of Zion. The notion of “descending” oil and “descending” dew are important because they are important religious terms.

In rituals throughout the ancient world, oil is an important substance. Exodus 29:7, for example, commands that oil be poured upon the head of the high priest. This is part of the consecration of Aaron as the high priest. This oil has a life-giving effect. Consequently, he is enabled to serve as the figure who stands between the people and the deity. Thus, the imagery in Ps. 133 uses temple imagery in order to draw the reader into the world of the Psalm.

As readers in the 21st century, it is easy to miss something like this. After all, we don’t often sacrifice animals and pour oil on other people’s heads.

After conjuring up images of temple worship in vs. 2, vs. 3 continues it. Like vs. 2, it uses the word for “descending.” This is important because it signals to the reader that vss. 2 and 3 are connected to each other. Thus, vs. 3 may continue the temple imagery. And, in fact, it does just that.

In ancient Syria-Palestine, mountains where the abodes of deities. It is similar to Greece, where deities like Zeus resided on the mountains. In ancient Israel, Hermon and Zion were both mountains where some people perceived Yahweh to reside. In other words, the deity lived in a house on the mountains. The house is what most people refer to as the “temple.”

From the house of the deity, or temple, “dew” descended, or “light rain.” Again, this is extremely important to understanding what the Psalm is trying to say. Unlike places like Washington, where mist and rain are regular occurrences, rain was not common in Syria-Palestine. So, when a mountain provided light rain, it was also providing life-sustaining water for people.  And in wider Syria-Palestinian ancient literature, the “Dew of Hermon” is a mythological metaphor for “Dew of the Gods.” Consequently, people understood the light rain from the mountains to have been given by the deity.

For this reason, vs. 3b says that “Yahweh ordained the blessing from there,” namely the mountain. What is the blessing? Life. In other words, dew which descends from the mountain provides life for the people. In a very real way, Yahweh is thought to give rain which allowed the people to find food, drink water, and live life.

Other Observations: 

There are a few interesting features of this Psalm. First of all, there is only one proper verb, namely “ordained.” While “descending” looks like a verb, it is really a participle, meaning it has no tense or mood. In other words, “descending” is not placed on the time spectrum; rather, it describes the status of a thing. In this way, than, “descending” is more of an adjective than a verb. “Ordained,” though, describes an action. Thus, it is the only proper verb.

What is interesting about this is that, in Ps. 133, the only character to do some sort of action is Yahweh: Yahweh ordained the blessing and life itself. By only using a verb with Yahweh as the person doing the action (subject), it suggests that this Psalm is ultimately focused on the life-giving sustenance of Yahweh. In the world constructed by the Psalmist, Yahweh is the only figure who truly matters. The fact that brother dwell within a temple in vs. 1 is important; yet, even here we only see participles describing the state of the brothers. Ultimately, the focus is upon the centrality of Yahweh and how he provides life for his people. He does so through his temple and priesthood.



International Critical Commentary (2 vols; Charles A. Briggs, 1906 [2000])

Hermeneia (2/3 vols; Frank-Lothar Hossfeld – Erich Zenger, 2005, 2011)

Continental Commentary (2 vols; Hans-Joachim Kraus, 1993–2000)

NOTE: I am writing these as part of my preparation for my Psalm III final. They are not meant to be definitive in any way, shape, or form. 

“Syria-Palestine in the Late Bronze Age” by Emanuel Pfoh

Review_Image_SyriaPalestineInTheLateBronzeAgeEmanuel Pfoh. Syria-Palestine in the Late Bronze Age: An Anthropology of Politics and Power. Copenhagen International Seminar. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016, 246 pp..

Emanuel Pfoh (Researcher at the National Scientific and Technological Research Council; teacher at the National University of La Plata, Argentina) utilizes anthropology in order to analyze from emic and etic perspectives the inter-polity dynamics of Syria-Palestine during the Late Bronze Age. Through consideration of competing theories, concepts, and analytical categories, he constructs a political anthropology of the Late Bronze Age indispensable to historians. Broadly speaking, Pfoh advances a well-argued, distinctive hypothesis:

“this study will attempt to show… that the societies of the ancient Levant seem to have been internally organised, at the smallest level, through kindship bonds, which also constituted the basis for ideological, economic, and political practices outside the local community, establishing a basic social differentiation between kind and not-kin. Such distinction affected the level of reciprocity exerted among people… Thus, when we detect language proper of kinship relations in the Late Bronze Age’s diplomatic exchanges, we might also be finding a particular expression of politics and power display at work in ancient Syria-Palestine, built on the principles and kinship (and patronage)” (6).

The book itself is divided into three pars. Part I establishes the historical context of politics during the Late Bronze Age, the Amarna period in Syria-Palestine in particular. After a succinct overview of the political history, political being concrete social relationship between two figures expressing valued exchanges (prestige, authority, and/or power) between polities (8; Chapter I), he provides an overview of international diplomacy in the Late Bronze Age. Following a review of significant textual corpora, Pfoh emphasizes the importance that references to diplomacy “depends on a particular set of cultural and ideological presuppositions… constructed according to the general parameters of ancient Near Eastern worldviews” (36). He illuminates this by highlighting the worldview differences between Egypt, Hatti, and Syria-Palestine, smoothly transitioning into how socio-linguistic analysis evidences “ideological-political clash”, encompassing differing conceptions of political terms and semantics between polities in epistolary translations (Chapter II).

Having established historical context in terms of culture and diplomacy, Pfoh continues by the “merging of epistemological and methodological preocedures from anthropology and history as interpretive disciplines” (64), consequently constructing an engaging and creative methodology relating to the nature of alliances and exchanges in the LBA. He uses elements from three schools of economic anthropology (Formalism, Substantivism, and Marxism) in order to best represent “the economic realities of the Late Bronze Age” (66). Subsequently, Pfoh highlights the role of gifts and luxury goods as exchanges for prestige, especially evident in exchange of women and specialists (Chapter III).

Part II “offers a general theoretical characterisation regarding the structural organisation of ancient Near Eastern societies and their socio-political dynamics” (9). Pfoh first attends to the analytical, social anthropological view of the LBA Syria-Palestine. Taking into account lack of “monopoly of coercion in [Syrian king’s] political communities” (102), regional spatial fragmentation, socio-political practices, and tribal structures, he concludes with an analytical concept which balances these details. And I quote:

“The Syro-Palestinian ‘kings’ of these polities are no necessarily leaders of a state formation, holding and displaying the monopoly of power in society. In fact, the concept of ‘kingdom’, with a king as the articulator of the social whole in its executive but also ideological aspects, may actually provide a better framework to interpret the archaeological and epigraphic evidence of Syro-Palestinian polities, since it implies the existence of a certain internal social hierarchy and recognises the particularity of the monarchic office, without requiring an institutionalised centralisation of power in order to exist as a polity” (105-106).

In other words, Pfoh opposes understanding Syro-Palestinian states as city-states because in socio-political praxis they operated under the constriction of foreign power, thereby deeming them not autonomous city-states (Chapter IV). Eventually, in Chapter VII, Pfoh specifies two types of kingdoms (patronage and patrimonial).

Having explored analytical concepts, he proceeds to consider the model of the Asiatic Mode of Production and two-sector model, both of which are valuable for “the internal socio-economic working of Levantine societies of the Late Bronze Age” (116). Additionally, drawing on V. Korosec’s 1931 formula of Hittite treaties, he considers the role of Hittite treaties in a vassalage as “a medium for and a symbolic expression of the monopoly of coercion that Hatti exerted over the petty kingdoms” (116), comparison with a feudal system being insufficient for understanding the relationship between Hatti and Syro-Palestine. Finally, he suggests two interpretive concepts for understanding socio-political practices: patrimonial model of society and patron-client relations.

Part III articulates Part I and II with an anylitical discussion of the patron-client relations in Syria-Palestine. Chapter VI first expands on how Mediterranean ethnographic data offers a functional, theoretical approach to patronage in the ancient Near East. Patronage finds its foundation in kinship relations, which are the basis of patron client relations. For patron-client relations utilized kinship terminology to express political relations. This analytical concept, Pfoh claims, is an effective tool for considering inter-polity diplomacy. Importantly, the patron-client relations have to do with praxis.

Having characterized the praxis of patronage relationships, Pfoh demonstrates the patrimonial nature of Levantine societies and places it as a base to patronage relations. He ultimately constructs a coherent and cogent argument for personalized, familial terminology “not because of a mere diplomatic protocol based on family metaphors, but because of the active manifestation of a conception of politics constituted by a patrimonial scheme” (146). He further relates, albeit briefly, how this model is sufficient for developing refined terminology for LBA societies: patrimonial kingdoms and patronage kingdoms (Chapter VII).

Wrapping up Pfoh’s engaging, informative, and constructive reading of the LBA through an anthropological perspective, he reads the Amarna letters, and agents therein, through concepts, terminology, and the analytical framework discussed throughout the book. Regarding socio-religious practice, he illuminates how “the notion of justice and righteousness is derived precisely from an earthly patron-client relation” (162). Ultimately, he states the climax of his political anthropology best:

“we may affirm that the practice of patronage in Syria-Palestine created a native political ontology indicating how to behave politically, as a protecting master and as a protected servant, two basic interdependent socio-political poles whose expansion in society maintained the whole socio-political order” (164).

He expands further in his conclusion:

“patronage as an analytical concept is a most effective tool for understanding how people in the ancient Levant behaved politically and imagined politics through a vertical hierarchy of patrons and clients” (171).

To no surprise, Pfoh utilizes a large, already existing framework of political anthropology; however, throughout this book, Pfoh presents convincing arguments for a more holistic perspective, unifying several existing theories, offering nuances to critical terminology, and constructing an approach to the LBA Syria-Palestine. One particular term he suggests which could be a valuable term for future studies of the LBA and other periods is designation of polities in Syria-Palestine as patrimonial kingdoms and patronage kingdoms. These terms avoid the baggage of city-state and can be utilized to clarify future studies on Syria-Palestinian history. As Pfoh writes:

“a critical definition of what is meant and implied by such concepts [as ‘kingdoms’, ‘city-states’, ‘states’ and ‘empires’] has been lacking. Every concept carries a semantic range of meaning that, unless clarified, may direct us to represent historical realities in a distorted way…” (94).

While he is speaking of societal organizational territories in particular, this is a rule of thumb throughout his work. Thus, through and through, Pfoh provides excellent, nuanced, and well-explored definitions for utilization by futures scholars.

Again relating to his discussion of the applicability of city-states as an analytical concept, he explains that explaining why “change from a non-state society to a state society is produced is beyond the scope of this study” (97). While detailed analysis of the topic may have been too much, brief coverage of the topic would have been valuable because it would have provided a comparison that does in not ignore local Syro-Palestinian particularities, one of Pfoh’s critiques of comparing LBA Syria-Palestinian societies with other Messites like Niniveh (96).

Finally, while wrapping up his discussion about patron-client relations in the LBA, he argues a purpose for a particular representation of the divine:

“In the sphere of the representation of the divine, the notion of justice and righteousness is derived precisely from an earthly patron-client relation, expressed and represented as the cosmic order established by a godly father and guaranteed on earth by his client, the king, through rituals, but also by a behavior emulating the gods” (162).

While it obvious why Pfoh presents this argument, one alternative must be considered. Rather than religious imagination being anchored in patrimonial order of the cosmos, order which is first-and-foremost located in an earthly socio-political scheme, perhaps the religious imagination informed the earthly patron-client relations. In emic terms, it could be said that they performed the earthly socio-political scheme because they saw it within their religious imagination. In etic terms, Pfoh’s argument could stand, yet it is also possible to explain the socio-political scheme in the inverse: heavenly, religious imagination, and thereby ‘heavenly’ socio-political scheme, informs earthly socio-political scheme.

Overall, aside from the minor critiques, Pfoh’s explication and unification of various factors in political anthropology result in a coherent and cogent model and interpretive framework for reading LBA sources. Likewise, the model may be utilized for other periods, albeit with caution and adjustments. While it may be a while, I look forward to how others will utilize his approach to the LBA through an anthropological perspective. I highly recommend this work for scholars of Levantine history, especially the LBA. Outside of the LBA, consideration of how Pfoh constructs his approach is informative for scholars and students working from a similar approach.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Routledge for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

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