This blog resumes my translation of book three of the psalms
Pay attention my people, to my teaching
Turn your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a proverb;
I will pour out wisdom from the past,
which we have heard and understood,
which our fathers passed down to us.
We will not hide them from their heirs
but declare to the generation to come
Yahweh’s glory and his battle strength,
the wonderful deeds he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob
laid down a Law in Israel
appointing parents to teach it to children,
so that the generation to come, the unborn,
might know them and teach them to the next.
that they might ground their hope in God,
remember his deeds and keep his commands;
that they might be unlike those ancestors,
the unbudging and rebellious generation
who did not make ready the road of their hearts,
whose spirits were not steady for God.
The Ephraimites, archers armed with their bows,
they turned back on the day of battle.
They did not keep the covenant of God;
They did not want to walk in his Law.
They passed over his exploits
the marvels he made in their sight.
The wonders he worked for their fathers
In the land of Egypt, in the fields of Tso’an.
He split the sea and let them step through it;
He made the waters stand up like a wall.
By day he led them with a cloud
and with a light of fire by night;
He split rocks in the desert
and let them drink as if from the great deep.
He drew streams from the crags
and let waters run down like rivers.
But still they increased their iniquity towards him
rebelling against the most high in the barren land.
By choice they challenged God
demanding food at their fancy.
They slandered God by saying.
“Can God set a table in the desert?
Oh he gouged the rock and water gushed,
torrents burst out; but can he do bread?
Can he source meat for his people?”
So when God heard, his anger was aroused
fanning a flame against Jacob,
a rising wrath towards Israel
because they were not steadfast with God
and put no faith in his power to rescue.
Yet he commanded the clouds above,
heaved open the gates of heaven,
rained down manna for their mouths
and gave them the harvest of heaven.
Mortals ate the bread of angels;
He handed them rations in heaps.
He made the east wind surge in the heavens,
And dispatched the south wind by his power.
Pouring down meat upon them like dust,
Flying fowl like the sand of the sea,
Which he made fall in the midst of their camp,
Leaving them outside their living quarters.
And they ate and were well stuffed,
For he made available all that they craved.
They had not departed from their desire,
The meal was still in their mouths,
When the wrath of God rose against them
Slaughtering some of their strongest
And laying waste the warriors of Israel.
Still they sinned in spite of all this
Placing no trust in his wonderful works.
So he made their days vanish like a mist
And their years in sudden destruction.
When he slaughtered them they searched for him;
They turned round their lives and longed for him;
They remembered that God was their rock,
The most high God their redeemer.
But they misled him with their lips
And lied to him with their tongues.
Their hearts were not firm towards him,
They had no commitment to his covenant.
Yet in his compassion he covered their crimes;
He did not ruin them but often held back his wrath;
He did not awaken all his anger.
He reflected that they were only flesh
A wind that goes and does not come back.
How often they defied him in the desert
And wearied him in the wilderness.
Many times they tested God,
Hurting the Holy One of Israel.
They forgot God’s hand:
The day he delivered them from the enemy,
When he presented his signs to the Egyptians
His portents on the plain of Tso’an:
Turning their rivers to blood
Making their streams undrinkable.
He sent insect swarms to feed on them
And swamp-leapers that polluted them.
He gave their crops to the caterpillar
And the fruit of their labour to the locust.
He devastated their vines with hail
And their sycamore trees with moths.
He gave over their cattle to hailstones
And their flocks to flashes of lightning.
He sent upon them his burning anger
His furious indignation and his pain,
A detachment of destroying angels.
He prepared a path for his anger,
He did not spare their souls from death,
But committed their lives to catastrophe.
He struck all the first-born sons in Egypt
the best of their vigour, in the House of Ham.
Then he led out his people like sheep
and guided them in the desert like a flock.
He fetched them safely so that they felt no fear
but the sea engulfed their enemies.
He brought them to the borders of his holy land
to the hill country which his right hand had won
expelling peoples before them,
marking out territories by measurement
and settling Israel’s tribes in their tents.
Still they tested God Most High with their rebellion
and did not practice his precepts.
Backsliders, they cheated like their fathers
twisting awry like a slack bow.
They irritated him with their hill- shrines to idols
and made him jealous with their carved images.
God paid attention and poured out his anger.
rejecting Israel completely.
He deserted his dwelling at Shiloh
the tent where he mingled with mortals.
He surrendered his strength to captivity,
His glorious ark to the hand of the adversary.
He gave his people to the sword
and poured out his anger on his property.
Fire devoured their virile young men
and the virgins had no wedding hymns;
Their priests fell by the sword
and their widows made no mourning.
Then the Lord awoke as if from sleep,
Like a warrior roaring mad with wine.
He punished his enemy with piles
and put them to everlasting embarrassment.
He rejected the house of Joseph
he did not select the tribe of Ephraim
but chose the tribe of Judah
and the hill of Zion, which he loves.
He built his sanctuary, like the heavens
and like the earth, founded to last forever.
He also selected David his servant
plucking him from the sheep pens;
from tending ewes with their young
he placed him as shepherd of Jacob his people,
of Israel his inheritance.
With a whole heart he herded them
and held them with a wise hand.
This is one of the longest psalms in the Bible and has taken me more than a week to translate. Before I began translating, it seemed to me dull and repetitious, but as I worked, I began to appreciate it as a witty, elegant survey of the story of Israel from Exodus to KIng David, designed to reveal the character of Israel and its God.The fact that it dismisses the northern tribes and focuses on Judah, suggests that it was written after the destruction of the Northern kingdom in 720 BCE and probably after the exile in Babylon (538 BCE).
As only a translator can know, the writer is very careful with the balance of his lines, or couplets as I have rendered them. This allows him to maintain a kind of wise detachment from his material, appropriate to an extended meditation on the battle between Israel’s stubborness and the stubborness of God, who limits his capacity to throw his weight around because he doesn’t just want obedience, he wants it from this beloved and exasperating people, who want not just their own way, but want it in partnership with their own beloved and exasperating God.
By means of this contentious history, the psalmist holds to the “testimony” of God, that is, the basic story of God’s goodness to Israel in the Exodus and the giving of the Torah, although the latter is not much emphasised. The story reaches a climax in the choice of David as shepherd king. Given that the pslamist would have known that the actions of David’s successors led to disaster and exile, the choice of ending with David,is probably saying, “Let’s forget the rest and get back to the kind of shepherding shown by the great King,” who, after all, was just as disobedient to God as his people had been, only with a profound trust in the relationship.
Paradoxically the story of a people’s unfaithfulness to their God and their God’s anger and forgiveness is made into a hopeful model for the life of thge psalmist’s community, “Let’s trust above all this difficult relationship.”
NB. The story of how God punishes the enemy (Philistines) with piles and eternal embarrassment is a little -known gem.