Desert sturm and God drang it

(system) #1

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

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at