Saturday, March 5, 2011

return, return, that we may look upon you.

When we asked our lecturer on Thursday which biblical translation she preferred for the poetic books, she simply replied that she reads them in Hebrew. This is more frustrating than amusing for me, since I don't read any Hebrew, but the surrounding discussion justified her answer well. Poetry is incredibly heightened in its awareness of every part of language as part of its meaning. The literal sense, the effect of sound and rhythm, the atmospheres emerging and the subtle implications of all the words' order, patterns and relationships enflesh the sub-literal parts of what is uniquely expressed.

A simple example of this is the gender of language, where for example strength and power in Psalm 21:13-
Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength!
We will sing and praise your power.
are paired; one is feminine, one masculine. I wrote about parallelism earlier here, where the second line of each pair often reflects and expands on the first one. This is happily translatable, but the felt sense of each is still dampened in a non-gendered image.

Another difference between the languages is that Hebrew has a much more complicated case system than English. A lot of our words don't change, regardless of where they are in a sentence. We usually rely on sentence order to know what a word is doing or having done to it, but Hebrew poetry easily places important words early in a phrase. Many words also have very particular, clustered meanings that take a number of words to translate- so that a very simple line of just a few words, carefully placed together for meaning, usually becomes a long sentence in English.

That said, the translations are still wonderful, still the words of God in our hands. Even if the literary and devotional senses of poetic lyrics can't be split, the simple meaning of the words themselves is deeply true and fully relevant. This seems to be the way with God! There is always so much vastness, so much reality to be amazed by, yet His knowledge (in love) is already near. His goodness is overflowing for everyone who seeks Him, and He makes our worlds larger forever.

We looked at some beautiful things. In Song of Solomon 2:14, "Let me see your face" is stronger than it seems: let me doesn't mean 'I'd like to' so much as it is an imperative to the listener. The words for see and face are related as well, so that the lover is really telling his beloved to let him see her face, and in her face her visible self. This whole book is also fascinating when the titles are taken out of modern translations, so that it is difficult to know who is speaking at which point, who is listening, what they are doing and where; it changes often. This is true of many of the psalms and other poetry, and gives a sense of sounds and conversations- an entire atmosphere- being taken out real social or relational moments to be held in the pages. As a side note, ancient readers seem to have always read out loud, and ancient writers to have 'written out loud' as well, dictating to themselves. Many 'readers' were really a collective audience of listeners, and many of these poems would have been music. It gives the literature a different way of being.

The structure of thoughts within a psalm often tells a story on its own, as in Psalm 136:10-15. There, the firstborn of Egypt are killed; Israel is brought out from among them; the Red Sea is divided; Israel passes through it; Pharoah and his host are overthrown in the sea. The structure is a-b-c-b-a, fulfilling Israel's deliverance through the waters. The psalm begins with praise for God's goodness and love, then sees Him spreading out the earth on the water, then forming all the great lights named as rulers of their times. The deliverance centrepiece is followed with God's leading of His people out of the wilderness (which is like what is "formless and empty"), overthrowing kings and providing food for all people. The reflection is not so precise, verse by verse, as to feel contrived, but it is a strong declaration of who God is as the Lord and the Shepherd of the earth, of the whole cosmos, of the nations and of His people whom He loves. All through the song there is also repeated a response, "for his steadfast love endures forever", embodying this trustworthy, unchanging strength. The final line is beautiful after the first three and after the rest of the psalm:
O give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Psalm 80 does something similar, repeating its plea and adding to it.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock...
Restore us, O God,
let your face shine, that we may be saved!

Restore us, O God of hosts...
and finally again,
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts,
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Among these refrains is the story of Israel led like flock, and the stirring cry for restoration of this covenant:
O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
and our enemies laugh among themselves.

The picture is repeated and articulated as a story, this time with a vine rather than a flock. In a few final verses this is told again, the travellers and animals that ravage the vineyard being now people who burn it and cut it down; and then, at this height, the Davidic promise is remembered (astounding that these worshippers were led to write about their God like this) and the covenant is renewed in heart and in blessing.
But let your hand rest upon the man of your right hand,
the son of man you have made strong for yourself!
Then we will never turn back from you...

In these ways the image is expanded, the scene embroidered, from line to line and from part to part. Song of Solomon 5:1 does this clearly, with a different sense:
I come to my garden, my sister, my bride,
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.

We talked as well about how the second part often particularises the thought it reflects. In Psalm 144:1,
Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle
the wider reality of a hand or a war is brought down to smaller details, the fingers and battles. It feels like the lesser things look after lesser things, the greater ones the greater; every detail is seen and known among the vast plans of God. Meaning is formed in the poetry, infusing the literal words.

The other thing I hadn't noticed was the idea of fixed pairs in the Bible- sons and daughters, the heavens and the earth, night and day- and how embedded these are in the idea of Hebrew songs. Some translators even consider the positioning of these pairs to determine which passages are prose and which, with pairs as the heart of their parallel lines, are poetry. Here is Psalm 19, which is exquisite when it's read with the ear of all this tradition.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, there are no words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and there is nothing hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern his errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

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