I have now read all of Robert Alter’s translations of the Old Testament. The last book of his translations I was yet to read is “The Book of Psalms.”
The Music of the Psalms
But it makes me very sad I will never hear the psalms. Because they are songs, and we have lost the sheet music.
Even basic questions, such as which words are intended to be song and which are directions, are lost to us.
Consider Psalm 118:1-4
Acclaim the LORD, for He is good forever in His kindness
Let Israel now say: forever is His kindness
Let the House of Aaron now say: forever is His kindness
Let those who fear the LORD now say: forever is His kindness
Israel presumably (possibly?) refers to natural born Jews, “the House of Aaron” to the Priests, and “those who fear the LORD” to gentile converts, so is this call-and-response? Is “let… now say” a stage direction that was silent? We don’t know.
We have some idea of the instruments used, but a naive read would be wrong. For instance, it seems sensible to think that lyres would be used along with some Psalms. But couches and axes are presumably not (Psalms 149:5-7)
Let the faithful delight in glory
sing gladly on their couches
Exultations of God in their throat
and a double-edged sword in their hand
We are left with imagination, separated by millennia from the First Temple, Exile, and Second Temple periods in which these psalms were composed.
Psalms and Hip Hop
In the ambiguous instrumentation and focus on the word, Psalms appear to be the ur-genre of hip hop music, which wiki defines as “music genre consisting of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted.” The basic components of a psalm are (a) description of one’s mistakes in the past, (b) enthusiastic descriptions of one’s dedication to the Lord, (c) enthusiastic defense of one’s homeland, (d) and praise to God. “Deliverance,” by Bubba Sparx, has all these elements
Can you recall a time people loved you unconditionally?
Toast in the New South: “This one is for history!”
Then I slipped fell and caused the number’s injury
Called the same people and it’s, “Yo, you just missed them, B.”
That hip hop piece has the the same format (a recollection of the indomitable past, a lamentation of the intolerable present) as Psalms 44:8-11
For You rescued us from our foes,
and our enemies You put to shame.
God we praise all day long,
and Your name we acclaim for all time, selah
Yet You neglected and disgraced us
and did not sally forth in our ranks
You turned us back from the foe,
and our enemies took their plunder
Sometimes even the analogies are the same, such as the traveling road in Bubba Sparx’s “Comin’ Round”
To see you coming ’round the bend
I just can’t think of anything
That could make me smile like you can
When you’re coming ’round the bend
I’ve been in love a time or two before
And all of that experience allows me to be sure
That you’re the one
Sure as darkness brings the rising sun
And traveling on the road in Psalm 123:1-3
A song of ascents.
To You I left up my eyes
O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the LORD our God
until He grants us grace
Robert Alter, the translator, brings to this translation is the same many strengths and the same few weaknesses as in other translations. His notes contain withering scorn for the idea that Psalms are simply translations of Canaanite songs (one might as well say Paradise Loss is a “translation” of the Odyssey!), or over literal interpretations (such as the claim that any Psalm with a prison reference was meant exclusively for prisoners.).
But Alter is allergic to christological (what in The Five Books of Moses he referred to as pre-monotheistic) interpretations, which sometime mean that important cultural context is lost. Parts of the Hebrew Bible as quite “new” — the Book of Daniel is probably as close to the Nativity in time as is the Book of Revelations — and certainly both friends and enemies of the early Christians considered them to be a collection of “The House of Israel” and “Those who fear the LORD.” So what to make of Psalms like Psalms 69:18-19
And hide not Your face from Your servant
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me.
Come near me, redeem me.
Because of my enemies, ransom me.
Or Psalms 130:
I hoped for the LORD, my being hoped, and for His word I waited
My being for the Master — more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn
Wait, or Israel, for the LORD,
and with the LORD is steadfast kindness,
and great redemption is with Him,
and He will redeem Israel
from all its wrongs.
Might Dr. Alter chose this moment to describe the forming of Hebrew messianic traditions or… no, no he won’t.
Unlike most of the Old Testament there is no plot, no heroes, no villains, no prose. Psalms is a collection of poems and songs. It feels like it serves as a bridge between the Temple from the latter parts of Kings to the wisdom literature in Job and Ecclesiastes. The Book of Job ends with God declaring the sea monsters, ancient foes of the Canaanite deities, to be His pet.
And that, at its heart, was Job’s mistake. Job was good as sarcastically quoting Psalms and Proverbs. But the monsters of the world are God’s pet too. They praise him too. The sun and the moon, the snow and the smoke, the sea monsters and the mountians all things praise the LORD
Praise the LORD from the heavens
praise Him on the heights
Praise Him, all His messengers
praise Him, all His armies.
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you stars of light.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
sea monsters and all you deeps.
Fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormwind that performs His commands
I read The Book of Psalms in the kindle edition.