Continuing my translation with comment of Psalms 90-106
Celebrate Yahweh, cry out his name,
Make known his deeds among the nations!
Sing to him, make melody to him
Mention all his miracles!
Announce your pride in his holy name;
May those who search for Yahweh have happy hearts!
Search for Yahweh and his strength;
Ask for entry to his presence always.
Remember the miracles he has done
His prodigies and the pronouncements of his mouth.
You seed of Abraham his slave,
Children of Jacob his chosen ones,
He, Yahweh, is our God;
His decrees govern the whole earth.
He remembers forever the covenant he made,
The word given to a thousand generations,
The agreement with Abraham,
The oath sworn to Isaac,
Established with Jacob as a statute,
An everlasting covenant with Israel, saying:
“To you I will give the land of Canaan
As your allotted inheritance.”
When they were small in number
Insignificant strangers in the lands
Walking from nation to nation
From one kingdom to the next
He permitted no man to oppress them
And corrected kings for their sake, saying:
“Do not annoy my anointed ones
Do not ill-treat my inspired prophets.”
When he summoned famine to the land
Afflicting it with lack of food
He sent a man in advance of them,
Joseph, sold as a slave.
They hurt his feet with fetters
His neck was caught in an iron collar.
Until his prophecy came true,
Yahweh’s command refined him.
Then the king ordered his release,
The lord of the people loosed him,
He made him head of his household
And ruler of his riches;
To bind his officers to his bidding
And his advisors to his wisdom.
Then Israel entered Egypt
Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham.
Yahweh increased the numbers of his people
So that they outnumbered their enemies
Whose hearts he changed to hate his people
And to use subtlety against his slaves.
Then he sent Moses his slave
And Aaron whom he had selected
To make real his warning signs among them
His wonders in the land of Ham.
He sent deep darkness
And they did not disobey his word.
He changed their waters into blood
Which was fatal to their fish;
Their land was crawling with marsh-leapers
Even the king’s private quarters.
He spoke, and swarms of flies appeared
Gnats throughout the nation.
He gave them heavy showers of hail
And flickering fire over the land.
He beat down their vines and figs
And destroyed the trees of the territory.
He spoke and locusts came
And their larvae without number
Which ate up all the herbage of their land
And swallowed the fruits of the soil.
He beat down all the firstborn in the land
The first fruits of all their vigour.
Then he led them out with silver and gold
And among the tribes no one was tottering.
Egypt was glad of their going away
For fear of Israel fell upon them.
He stretched out a cloud for a covering
And fire to illumine the night.
They requested and he sent quails
And satisfied them with bread from the sky.
He opened wide the rock and waters flowed
Running through the barrens like a river.
For he held in mind his holy word
And Abraham his slave.
So he led out his people with laughter
His chosen ones with merriment.
He gave them the lands of the nations
And they inherited the labour of their peoples.
So that they might heed his commandments
And honour his laws.
This may seem on the face of it, a rather prosaic psalm. The key to it, however, is Israel’s possession of Canaan. I think the psalm was written after the return from exile in Babylon, which is not mentioned because its place is taken by the slavery in Egypt and the exodus from it. The older story was already embedded in holy tradition and could provide a model for how the returnees should think of their own story.
Joseph is used as the image of the exile, a Jew who prospers in the land and helps his family to prosper, which may have been also the story of some exiles in Babylon. This very success however leads to envy, hatred and oppression, as may also have happened in Babylon.
But the psalm begins with the nomad patriarchs, especially Abraham to whom God makes the promise of the land. This promise, and indeed Abraham himself are “held in mind” by God who therefore plans his people’s exit from Egypt. The psalmist delights in the plagues by which Yahweh God persuades the Egyptians to be rid of their guests. Although the circumstances were different the psalmist means his contemporaries to imagine that the same act of remembrance had prompted Yahweh to free them from Babylon and restore them to Canaan.
We know that most Jews did not return but remained as a vibrant community in Babylon for another 1000 years. The psalmist is reassuring and comforting the small community of returnees that God has overseen their exodus, and will be with them in the land.
The image of the peoples whose land the Israelites took over, may refer to the mixed society of Jews and non- Jews which the returnees found in possession of the land. Perhaps the psalm encourages the returnees to be confident in repossessing it – provided they remember the purpose of exodus, that they honour the wisdom and commandments of God.
It is worthwhile noting that while the tradition of exodus and conquest of the land is inspiring to the oppressed and weak, it can become, as it did in America, a justification for genocide, in the hands of the strong.