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Desert sturm and God drang it

By Alexander Carpenter
I just read this review in the New Yorker on a new Robert Alter translation of Psalms. Anyone using the that book of scripture in a sermon or theological argument will want to consult article and then Robert Alter’s new translation of that long book of storms.
James Wood reviews:
Psalm 90, like many others, belongs to a
theological landscape quite remote from our own. Its wisdom is spacious
and fortifying, but while we all feel the brevity and smallness of
human life—perhaps especially so now, with our new, borderless
knowledge of the cosmos—most of us no longer use an angry and
capricious deity as the means of our measurement. This is what the
Biblical scholar James Kugel refers to as the “starkness” of the Hebrew
Bible, a bare, hard world in which a desert landscape of rocks and rare
streams is briefly lit up by columns of fire. For the Psalms, as well
as being prayers, are also a people’s military songs, with martial
values very different from those we nowadays cherish. How many people,
dabbing at tears at some memorial service, actually listen to the words
of Psalm 23, in which an archaic satisfaction is taken in the fact that
God, now more of a captain or a warlord than a shepherd, will set out a
table for me in front of mine enemies? Look, I’ll stuff myself while
you just watch! (I suppose it might bring to mind the reception
afterward.) In his commentary for the Anchor Bible text on the Psalms,
Mitchell Dahood finds a useful analogue for this attitude in an ancient
Akkadian text: “A petty ruler of the fourteenth century B.C. addressed
the following request to the Pharaoh: ‘May he give gifts to his
servants while our enemies look on.’ ”
The Psalms, like the
rest of the Hebrew Bible, are haunted by the traces of the paganism
that Judaism must refute. God is merciful and just but is also seen as
what Alter calls “a warrior god on the model of the Canaanite Baal
riding through the skies with clouds as his chariot, brandishing
lightning bolts as his weapons.” Throughout the Old Testament, one is
aware of the unnaturalness, in ancient terms, of choosing only one God
and sticking with him. A bargain has been struck, in which Yahweh says,
in effect, “If you choose only me I will choose only you.” But both
sides find it hard to honor their pledges. How much more consoling,
really, to worship lots of gods—to make grateful images of them, to
have certain gods work for you as personal helpers and aides—than to be
rescued from such comfiness by the irascible and nearinvisible
singularity that is Yahweh. The Israelites waver, and thus, in the Book
of Exodus, after the parting of the Red Sea, they give thanks to God in
a psalmlike hymn in which, as in a kind of straw poll, Yahweh has
beaten various contenders. . .
The Desert Storm: Understanding the Capricious God of the Psalms

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