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.

 

Bibliography:

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. 

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Syntax and Thinking in the Study of Language

Before I express my thoughts, I should provide my background. First of all, I haven’t had the opportunity to read much literature about linguistic theory. So, while I may be touching upon ideas present within linguistics, I am not aware of how I am doing so. Secondly, I have taken a year a biblical Hebrew. Third, I am actively learning Germany via Fluenz and Greek via Decker’s Reading Koine Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014). Greek, though, has been a struggle to keep up with because I’ve been so busy.

Anyway, as I worked through my German today, I began to consider the relationship between the syntax and how I actually think through information. For example, German places the infinitive verb at the end of the phrase:

German: Ich möchte eine rote Tasche kaufen.

English literal: I want a red bag to buy.

English: I want to buy a red bag.

Such differences intrigue me because the German sentence must be approached totally differently from how one would approach the English sentenced due to the syntax. That said, how might I prepare myself to not only read a different language and think in a different language, but to alter my approach to language all together?

After all, language is not a static entity; rather, language is living and dynamic, infiltrating every aspect of human life. Taking into account the issue of approach to language and dynamic nature of language, the vastness of human culture is illustrated. It is done so only by recognizing that language is, in many respects, defined by its own culture, that in which it is utilized.

With this understanding, biblical studies, my own especially, should always take into account that simple things, such as how a native American English speaker approaches Hebrew, Greek, or German, make huge differences as to how it is read and interpreted. When one takes the leap from Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic to an English translation, there are then two cultures to take into account.

Thoughts, questions, or advice? I’d love to hear your response!


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