Understanding the capricious God of the Psalms.
by James WoodNew Yorker
What is God like? Is he merciful, just, loving, vengeful, jealous? Is he a bodiless force, a cool watchmaker, or a hot interventionist, a doer with big opinions, a busy chap up in Heaven? Does he, for instance, approve of charity and disapprove of adultery? Or are these attributes instead like glass baubles that we throw against the statue of his invisibility, inevitably shattering into mere words? The medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides thought that it was futile to belittle God by giving him human attributes; to do so was to commit what later philosophers would call a category mistake. We cannot describe his essence; better to worship in reverent silence. “Silence is praise to thee,” Maimonides wrote, quoting from the second verse of Psalm 65.
Whatever one thinks of Maimonides’ chilly rigor, it is cannily paradoxical that even as he advises silence he quotes from the noisiest book in the Hebrew Bible. And, not only that, but from the very book that dramatizes, again and again, the gap between our language and the indescribable God, between our certainty that God is with us and our anxiety that he has abandoned us, between his cosmic proportions and our comic littleness.
The Book of Psalms is the great oasis in which a desert people gathers to pour out its complaints, fears, hopes; the Psalms are prayers, songs, incantations, and perhaps even soliloquies. In them, the supplicants invoke God as their light, their water, their warrior, their scourge, their buckler, their rod, and their staff. But these images, these human metaphors, also expose the frailty of such supplication, since just as God is conjured into words he seems to disappear: many of the Psalms are like flares sent out into the night sky of appeal. Jesus cried out at his abandonment on the Cross by quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” The verses continue:
Far from my rescue are the words that I roar.
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer,
by night—no stillness for me.
The famous beginning of Psalm 19 announces that the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky declares his handiwork. Eighteenth-century deists were fond of these verses, because they seem to argue that we can infer God’s existence from the glorious evidence of his creation. But the psalm uncomfortably changes course a moment later:
Day to day breathes utterance and night to night pronounces knowledge.
There is no utterance and there are no words,
their voice is never heard.
Now the psalmist seems to say that, if the heavens speak anything, it is not language but possibly only a highly visual silence. Almost three thousand years before such modern doubt, we are briefly in the world of Melville, who complained of “that profound Silence, that only Voice of our God,” asking “how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?” This struggle between faith and doubt, hope and despair, is undoubtedly one of the features that have made the Psalms such a help to so many readers and writers, both believers and nonbelievers—and especially to Christians, who have appropriated this book like no other in the Hebrew Bible. The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert perfectly captures this dappled texture in his psalmlike poem “Bitter-Sweet”:
Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.
Robert Alter’s new translation, “The Book of Psalms” (Norton; $35), is radical, at least to a reader brought up on the early-seventeenth-century King James Version. Alter has previously translated a good portion of the Old Testament: the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch, or Torah) and the two books of Samuel. His work has been characterized by eloquence, scholarly scrupulousness, and a desire to convey in English the concrete ferocity of the original Hebrew. He is particularly alive to formal aspects of ancient Hebrew poetry and prose such as repetition, internal rhythm, and parallelism (in which a phrase amplifies and almost repeats a preceding phrase, as in “He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth,” from Psalm 72). Because the Psalms are poems, he wants to preserve in English what he calls the “rhythmic compactness” of the originals, “something one could scarcely guess from the existing English versions.” His helpful introduction is more polemical than the exegeses he has provided for his other translations: he argues that even the King James translators, whom he, like everyone else, has always admired, pad out their versions with filler.
Look at what Alter does with the last three verses of Psalm 23, that loyal retainer at funerals and memorial services. The K.J.V. is seemingly indelible:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Alter reminds us that Hebrew has a structural brevity that is hard to mimic in English, because in Hebrew, among other differences, “the pronominal subject of verbs is usually indicated by the way the verb is conjugated, without need to introduce the pronoun, unless it is added for emphasis.” Thus, in Alter’s example, “He will guard you” is one word, yishmorkha. Since the verb “to be” has no present tense, and is only implied by the relation of a subject noun and a predicate noun, “The LORD is my shepherd” is only two words and four syllables in the Hebrew—YHWH ro‘i. Alter’s version of the psalm wisely retains the chaste brevity of the K.J.V.’s first verse: “The LORD is my shepherd, / I shall not want.” But Alter thinks that the famous and beautiful phrase “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (which was not, in fact, the invention of the King James translators but mostly Miles Coverdale’s version, from 1535) conveys little of the original. The Hebrew amounts to eight words, eleven syllables. The English flops in at seventeen words, twenty syllables. So here is Alter’s inspired attempt to English the Hebrew:
Though I walk in the vale of
I fear no harm,
For You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long days.
Alter compresses the opening lines into just thirteen words, fourteen syllables. He also tries to capture the two-beat and three-beat stresses of the original, an attempt that the King James translators here waive, though in other psalms one sometimes hears the ancient pulse.
Most of the Psalms were probably written between about 1000 and 300 B.C.E.; Alter thinks it unlikely that any of them are later than the fifth or the fourth century B.C.E. Some of them were liturgical in origin and function, chanted or sung at the temple. Others, probably the shorter Psalms, were songs, poems, individual prayers, which is why we so often have the sense of a person moving through different stations of belief, and emerging into the light of what Herbert, in his poem “Prayer,” calls “something understood.” Many Psalms seem to involve three modes, shuffled into different combinations, which one could call plea, plaint, and praise. Psalm 13 is characteristic, beginning in plaint with the great central cry of the Psalter, “How long”: “How long, O LORD, will you forget me always? / How long hide your face from me? / How long shall I cast about for counsel, sorrow in my heart all day? How long will my enemy loom over me?” (In the very psalmic middle section of “To the Lighthouse,” in which time eats away at the Ramsays’ house and war booms and empires clash, Virginia Woolf knowingly uses this “how long” refrain, putting it into the mouth of the weary lady who has come to clean the summer house.) Then, in the fourth verse, the supplicant switches to a plea: “Regard, answer me, LORD, my God. / Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death.” And in the last verse of this short psalm the writer switches again, this time to a kind of formulaic praise, apparently sure that his prayer has worked: “But I in Your kindness do trust. . . . Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me.”
The three modes are very close to each other in spirit, staining each other: one often hears a barely suppressed note of desperation in the praise, as if it were about to collapse back into plea or plaint. When the psalmist exults “Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me,” at the end of a prayer that is only six verses long, and which has barely earned its right to such certainty, do we accept it as a statement of fact or as an expression of wishful yearning? Why would a God so absent six verses earlier suddenly make himself present?
This is all part of the human drama of the Psalms, that sense we have of a voice arguing with itself and its God. You could say that soliloquy begins in the Psalms, in a private prayer that is subsequently written down. In the second Book of Samuel, King David, flush with military victory, launches into a long psalm, in which he thanks God for his victory, praises him in grandiloquent terms, and relishes his triumph: “He mounted a cherub and flew, / He soared on the wings of the wind. . . . I pursued my foes and destroyed them. . . . I cut them down, smashed them, they did not rise.” (Psalm 18 is virtually identical to David’s song.) One can imagine David, in a stage version of his story, approaching the audience and speaking these thoughts aloud. The residue of this origin is still apparent in Shakespearean soliloquy, in which heroes and heroines invoke the gods as they speak their thoughts—Edmund’s “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!,” Lear’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!,” Lady Macbeth’s “Come, you spirits . . . unsex me here.” Macbeth’s soliloquies borrow from Psalm 18 and from Psalm 90. Verse 9 of Psalm 90 (“we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told,” in Coverdale’s translation) becomes “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”
Psalm 90 is one of the most exquisite of the Psalms. Shakespeare was no doubt happy to borrow from it because it has a quality of desolation (despite its religious affirmations) that he wanted Macbeth to feel and transmit at the end of his life. The psalm uses different temporalities to evoke the massiveness of God’s presence. Before the mountains were born, the psalmist says, you not were but “are God.” A thousand years in your sight, he continues, “are like yesterday gone, / like a watch in the night.” (Alter nicely comments that this triadic diminishment takes us from a thousand years to a day, and, finally, to a night watch, lasting just a few hours.) We humans, by contrast, are like the grass that grows up in the day and withers by night; “all our days slip away in Your anger.” Our days are “but seventy years, / and if in great strength, eighty years.” At any time, God can cancel a life. “So teach us to number our days,” as the King James Version has it, “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Philip Larkin’s little poem “Days” offers a sarcastic commentary on the idea of numbering our days:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
As always in the Psalms, there are two Gods: the known God, who gives and takes away life, and the unknown God, who may or may not be amenable to pleas. The certainty of God’s presence and the mystery of his salvation dance around each other.
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:
Who is like You among the gods, O LORD,
who is like You, mighty in holiness?
One of the verses of Psalm 92—“For, look, Your enemies, O LORD, / for, look, Your enemies perish, / all the wrongdoers are scattered”—virtually repeats a line from one of the polytheistic Ugaritic texts found in Syria, in 1928. The earlier Ugaritic text, however, invokes Baal: “Look, your enemies, O Baal, / look, your enemies you will smash.” Psalm 82 tells a story in which God—the Jewish God of the Psalms—stands up in a council of other gods and essentially fires his colleagues for not being compassionate enough.
Alter’s translation is especially helpful in these cases, because he is determined to remind his readers that they are reading ancient texts with hybrid origins, not Christian prayers with dedicated destinations. The Psalms (like the Book of Job) were relentlessly Christianized by the King James translators. Nefesh, meaning “life breath” and, by extension, “life,” was translated by Jerome in the Latin Vulgate as anima and then as “soul” in the K.J.V., even though, as Alter points out, soul “strongly suggests a body-soul split—with implications of an afterlife—that is alien to the Hebrew Bible and to Psalms in particular.” The ancient Hebrew word for the shadowy underworld where the dead go, Sheol, was Christianized as “Hell,” even though there is no such concept in the Hebrew Bible. Alter prefers the words “victory” and “rescue” as translations of yeshu‘ah, and eschews the Christian version, which is the heavily loaded “salvation.” And so on. Stripping his English of these artificial cleansers, Alter takes us back to the essence of the meaning. Suddenly, in a world without Heaven, Hell, the soul, and eternal salvation or redemption, the theological stakes seem more local and temporal: “So teach us to number our days.” Psalm 23, again, is greatly refreshed by translation. Everything is clearer, seeming to have been rinsed not in the baptismal water of the New Testament but in the life-giving water of the desert. Verse 3 of the K.J.V. has “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Alter offers “my life He brings back. / He leads me on pathways of justice / for His name’s sake.” God saves not our souls but our lives, in Alter’s version. And instead of God anointing our heads with oil, as in the K.J.V., in Alter’s English “You moisten my head with oil.” A footnote points out that the Hebrew verb is not one used for anointment, “and its associations are sensual rather than sacramental.” By its end, the psalm is no longer an extended Christian analogy (Christ as the Good Shepherd, anointing his flock) but the giving of thanks by a vulnerable tribe to a deity for its protection. The K.J.V. has the last half line of the psalm as “and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” Alter slaps a term limit on the eternal, and suggests “And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD / for many long days.” Again, a footnote anchors the decision: “The viewpoint of the poem is in and of the here and now and is in no way eschatological. The speaker hopes for a happy fate all his born days.”
But Alter is musically and poetically sensitive, too, and when the King James translators get something right he lets it be. Psalm 137, my favorite in the book, was written during or after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E., when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians and the Judeans deported. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” as the K.J.V. has it. The psalmist goes on to say that their captors taunted them: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” But the exiles had hung their harps on trees rather than “sing the LORD’s song in a strange land.” It is an exceptionally beautiful and complex lament, in which the poet pledges never to forget Jerusalem (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning”) even as he claims to find it impossible to sing of Jerusalem while in exile. And, in a further twist, the psalm itself represents just such a song of Jerusalem, a remembrance. These paradoxes combine in an electrifying moment in verse 7, when the poet reminds his readers of the awful day when the Babylonians, the enemies of the Jews, razed Jerusalem to the ground:
Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
A few months ago, I was reading this psalm, in the King James Version, and wondering about the powerful repetition of “Rase it, rase it,” and as I said the words out loud I was struck by the genius of the Jacobean translators, who knew, working in the age of Shakespeare, a thing or two about puns and double meanings. “Raze it, raze it” is also, in English, “Raise it, raise it.” It is inconceivable that the seventeenth-century translators did not intuit this doubleness, which is what the poem is about, anyway: even as we remind ourselves that Jerusalem was razed, we are raising it up. Even as we refuse to sing a song of Zion, we are singing a song of Zion. Even as we stay silent, we are making music. There is a splendid anthem by William Byrd, written in the fifteen-eighties, which sets to music a Latin text, later translated into English: “Bow thine ear, O Lord, and hear us: let thine anger cease from us. Sion is wasted and brought low, Jerusalem desolate and void.” The anthem proceeds by repeating a downward series of five notes, and this series creates a falling, dirgelike effect, as it is taken up by all five parts. (The five notes are attached to the words “Bow thine ear, O Lord.”) But when the music reaches the word “Jerusalem” the soprano part lunges upward, an interval of a perfect fifth between “Je” and “rusalem.” The anthem goes down and up at the same time, exactly as the psalm both laments the loss of Jerusalem and finds Jerusalem impossible to lose.
The translator of the Anchor Bible edition of the Psalms exchanges “Rase it, rase it” for the simpler, more brutal “Strip her, strip her,” but Alter, without explaining why, retains “Raze it, raze it, / to its foundation.” I can’t be sure, but I have an idea that this fine literary scholar, with one ear perfectly cocked for English poetry and the other for Hebrew poetry, instinctively understood the verbal power of “Raze it, raze it.” ♦