Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Remnant Motif - 3


“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O LORD”:
The Remnant Motif in the Book of Psalms
 (Part Three)


Pss. 51, 130, 89: Repentance, Appeal to the Lord’s Name and to His Covenant

The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, among others, have time and time again uttered that exile had befallen Israel due primarily to her sins, more precisely, due to her apostasy. Isa. 1:4-9 says:
Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward…

Jer. 2:5-15 makes it even clearer that not only the people and the kings but also the priests as well as the (false) prophets, who were supposed to teach the former ones, had forsaken the Lord:
Thus saith the LORD, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain? Neither said they, Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt… The priests said not, Where is the LORD? And they that handle the law knew me not: the pastors also transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal, and walked after things that do not profit… Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the LORD. For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water…

Therefore, they all had to be punished. In fact, there is no doubt that the actual punishment, i.e. exile, was undertaken through the Gentiles, to wit, through the Babylonians. But it should also be noted that Israel was defeated and deported by the Gentiles not because the later were powerful. From the perspective of the Bible, the role of the Gentiles is clear: they only served as instruments to punish Israel. Once again, I would like to stress that exile befell Israel due of course to her sin, truly through the Gentiles, but indeed from God! So that, as Jeremiah brings it out, her own wickedness shall correct her, and her backslidings shall reprove her: “know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord GOD of hosts” (v. 19). What is left then for the remnants to do, except to repent?

Bearing the prophets’ words in mind let me now turn to the Psalms. Among the Psalms assigned by the Ethiopian tradition to be “prophecy about the remnants,” many of them can rightfully be regarded as Psalms of repentance. Take Ps 51, for instance, which is correctly considered by many scholars as a Psalm of confession. I don’t however want to go into much detail here except to mention a couple of points, which may indicate that this confession could possibly be better interpreted in connection with the remnant situation.

Manifestly, I have all along stressed that the forsaking of God, i.e. apostasy, was the main reason for Yahweh to punish Israel with exile and its consequences, and such an emphasis was indeed based on my observation of what the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel said. If that was really the case, Israel had thus been punished primarily for the offense she committed against none other than Yahweh Himself. Hence, it should correspondingly be expected that the repentant remnant would indeed have to acknowledge this in his/her confession: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest” (v. 4). The other point pertains to the sacramental element of confession. Based on the commentary to Psalm 24, I have mentioned in Part Two of this article that the Psalmist was exhorting the remnants to conduct a modest kind of worship in “little sanctuaries,” so to say—a synagogue worship that involves mainly reading (and teaching) of the Scripture and some minor cleansing practices. Such a situation is reflected here, when the Psalmist says: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee” (v. 7, 13). And that this confession was proper to someone who did not have access to Temple worship involving proper sacraments may easily be learned from the last four verses:
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar (v. 16-19).

It would have been worth demonstrating that the whole content of this Psalm could be taken as the best example of confession in general, but for lack of time and space I shall now consider another, even so important, Psalm of repentance.

Psalm 130: this is the Psalm that best exemplifies how the remnant—in utter humility—appropriately applies what I have referred to as the Appeal to the Holy Name of God. Here the Psalmist begins by establishing the distance between him and Yahweh, an almost unbridgeable distance between someone at the most low and another one at the most high: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD” (እማዕምቅ ጸዋዕኩከ እግዚኦ)! 

To be sure, this reflects the psychological and spiritual distance. But the Ethiopian tradition takes it to express the physical distance as well: the remnant who finds himself in the low lands of Babylon trying to look up to the One whose throne he believes is in Heaven! Not that if he were on the high lands he would have been able to come closer, it is just to express how destitute a feeling the remnant had about the place where he finds himself in, both physically and mentally. That salvation comes not as a reward for what even the repentant remnants might do, say or acknowledge, but from God alone, for the glory of His name, the Psalmist knows very well and makes a very good use of it: “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared”[1] (v. 4). Again, the remnant knows that, in the final analysis, Yahweh would save him not in favor of anything he did but only ex nihilo, out of nothing, as it were; or, ex amore, shall we say, out of love!

As to the appeal to the Covenant with the Fathers, I may just refer to Psalm 89 which indeed tries to evoke Yahweh into the remnant’s salvation by way of reminding Him of the Mercy that He shall build for ever and of His faithfulness which He shall establish in the very heavens. This Psalm mentions Yahweh’s covenant both to His chosen ones in general and to the House of David in particular; it sounds as if the Psalmist had a written copy of the pact out of which he could reproduce Yahweh’s exact words:
I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant, Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations… Then thou spakest in vision to thy holy one, and saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people. I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him: With whom my hand shall be established: mine arm also shall strengthen him… (v. 2, 3, 19-21)

Heir of such a splendid covenant, the remnant nonetheless finds himself in a situation where “All that pass by the way [the Gentiles, i.e. the Assyrians and the Babylonians] spoil him: he is a reproach to his neighbours” (v. 41)! He in fact knows that it was his own entire fault, not Yahweh’s, which led him into such a situation. And yet, he remembers that Yahweh said:
If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David. His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before me (v. 30-36).

He thus had no better alternative to evoke Yahweh than recounting all this and asking Him: “Lord, where are thy former lovingkindnesses, which thou swarest unto David in thy truth” (v. 49)? The Psalmist even seems to be extremely provocative when he refers to the fact that his enemies were none other than Yahweh’s own enemies and those of His own anointed one: “Wherewith thine enemies have reproached, O LORD; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine anointed” (v. 51).

Concluding Remarks:

It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes. The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver. Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments. Ps 119:71-73

To sum up, that the remnants had learned the hard way, when they in fact did not have to, was due solely to their refusal to obey the Torah and to take heed of the prophets' admonitions. That God nevertheless brought them salvation, even though they did not deserve it, was due exclusively to the Holiness of His Name and to His faithfulness for His Covenant, evoked as He was by the remnants’ repentance and even provoked more so by the scolding of the enemies. Not only how the remnants learned to live with their crisis situation, the Psalmist tells us also what they would finally take to be the significance of their afflictions: It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps 119:72). This being so, there still is something mysterious in all this.

I do not mean mysterious in the sense that there was something obscure behind the event, something that cannot be explained. But rather I want to refer to an important element of the significance of the exile that was beyond immediate, ordinary understanding of the remnants. And that is the preparation for the establishment of Yahweh’s new Covenant and His new partner, namely, “Israel in Spirit,” i.e. the Church! Whether all the remnants understood it that way or not, such a transformation from “Israel of the Flesh” to “Israel of the Spirit” has already been indicated by the prophets. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, for instance (31:31-34; cf. Hebrews 8:8). Those Psalms that speak of a creation of new heart or of a renewal of spirit may thus be interpreted along this line. After all, as a result of the exile, open-minded remnants must have learned that it was not they but Yahweh who has always been sovereign and free to do whatever would please Him to do. In other words, although it is always spoken of a covenant, conversation etc. between Yahweh and Israel, the two partners should not be understood as standing on the same footing.  God was totally free to add Gentiles of pure heart into His folk and bring about a somewhat new chosen people—the ecclesia—into existence, which He did through the incredible mystery of Incarnation. Hence, among the then mysterious significance of the exile, it can now with hindsight be mentioned the establishment of synagogues, the spread of Yahweh’s name and word among the Gentiles that paved the way for their acceptance of the Lord. 

In the introduction to his Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Brueggemann points out that during the Old Testament period of exile “pastoral responsibility was to help people enter into exile, to be in exile, and depart out of exile.” He further argues “the loss of the authority of the dynasty and temple in Jerusalem is analogous to the loss of certainty and dominance, and legitimacy in our own time.” Following upon such a consideration, I would say that if those Psalms assigned by the Ethiopian exegetical tradition as “prophecy about the remnants” are sufficiently studied in light of that tradition, they may provide insights that would help the Church in particular and Ethiopians in general cope with the exilic situation they currently find themselves in and, ultimately, depart out of it!

ሶበ ጸውዑከ በባቢሎን እምውሳጤ ልቦሙ ማዕምቅ
ዘሰማእኮሙ ክርስቶስ ለትሩፋነ ሕዝብ ደቂቅ
ለውሳጤ ልብየ ዐይኑ ከመ ይርአይከ በጽድቅ
ፍጥር ሊተ እግዚኦ እስመ እስእል በጻሕቅ
ወሠሩ እምኔሁ ፍትወቶ ለወርቅ

ከጥልቅ ልባቸው በጠሩኽ ጊዜ በባቢሎን
የሰማኻቸው ክርስቶስ ሆይ የሕዝብ ትሩፋን ልጆችኽን
በጽድቅ ያይኽ ዘንድ የልቤ ውሳጣዊ ዐይን፤ 
አቤቱ ፍጠርልኝ በትጋት የምለምንኽን
ከሥሩም ነቅለኽ አጥፋልኝ የገንዘብ ምኞትን  

["በደመወዝ ጭማሪ ተደልዬ ከጽድቅ እንዳላፈገፍግ ርዳኝ" ማለቱ ነው፤ "ፄዋዌ" ማለፉ አይቀርምና!] 


[1] In the Ethiopic version, the second clause goes like this: “…I hope [You will save me] for the sake of Your Name!”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Remnant Motif - 2


“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O LORD”:
The Remnant Motif in the Book of Psalms
 (Part Two)

Psalm 24: The Question of Worship in the Midst of Babylon

Gunkel considers Psalm 24 to belong to “Psalm Liturgies.” Building upon him, Mowinckel believes that this Psalm was made even for “festal procession” and “can only be understood in connection with a vision of the procession itself and its different acts and scenes.” He thus provides an interesting interpretation along these lines. But let me present my interpretation, assuming that it was a “prophecy about the remnants” as the Ethiopian tradition holds it to be.

The particular attitude that is thought to have motivated the composition of this Psalm is the remnants’ hesitation to pray to God while they were in Babylon; on the grounds that Jerusalem, which they know to be the City of God, has already perished, and that the Temple, which they consider to be the only place where a proper worship of Yahweh can be conducted, has already been destructed. It sounds like they were thinking that Yahweh’s presence could be experienced only in Jerusalem and that He could heed their prayers only if they were conducted in the Temple. Against such a disposition, the Psalmist instructs them that not only Jerusalem but the whole world is owned by Yahweh.  Even Babylon and Babylonians belong to Him. His opening phrase, “The earth is the LORD'S, and the fullness thereof,” can in fact be taken almost as it is, that is, to refer literally to Yahweh’s comprehensive ownership of the whole world of creation, of the universe; whereas the phrase that follows—“the world, and they that dwell therein”—is interpreted as denoting, metaphorically though, to “Babylon” and “its residents” in particular.  Thus, the Psalmist exhorts them to pray (if not to conduct cultic worship of a higher order) even when they live in the foreign land of Babylon, as exiles, amongst Babylonians.

In verse 3, the Psalmist poses a question for the remnants who might have taken it for granted that they would of course be able to pray just one day, that is, when they would return home and when the Temple would be reconstructed. He seems to ask them: “[Even if there is a hope to return home and to enjoy the Temple worship], Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD [Jerusalem]? Or who shall stand in his holy place [the Temple]?” The answer he provides in the following verses unambiguously makes it plain that not all of them but only few remnants who strive for perfection—those with “clean hands” and “pure hearts”… those “that seek him”—are destined to return home. The logic is clear: if they want to return home and enjoy the Temple worship, they are supposed to keep their hands clean, their hearts pure… and to seek Him in prayers now while in exile, or wherever they find themselves to be. For the whole world, even Babylon, belongs to Him.

I think, this and similar exhortations by other prophets have definitely helped a lot to hit upon the idea of synagogue. Indeed, synagogue worship could not become a complete substitute for Temple worship. What the Psalmist summons to, is not the highest form of worship with sacrifices and offerings of the type that can only be conducted in the Temple. What is needed then, after all, is to conduct some sort of common prayer involving scriptural instruction that would lead to repentance. Psalm 4o speaks thus:
Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required… yea, thy law is within my heart. I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips, O LORD, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation” (6-10).

And, the prophet (and priest) Ezekiel was also instructed to say: “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary [=Synagogue] in the countries where they shall come” (11:16). Yahweh knows better than anyone that His people lost their “big sanctuary” as a result of their apostasy, a deadly sin which they committed due to their lack of heed to Torah instruction and prophetic reproof. And yet, these very people are the ones who still carry His Holy Name and who are heirs to the covenant He entered with their fathers---His Holy Name and His Covenant, for the sake of which He would want to save a remnant. However, the remnants should not be mere survivors—and here is my point based on the connotation of the Ethiopic word təruf—they needed to be perfected. How else than in a prayerful re-instruction of the Torah and a heedful prophetic exhortation could they be led to repentance and perfection? And, where else than in any part of the face of the earth including Babylon (where they momentarily found themselves to be) could they do this?

Psalm 73: Learning the Hard Way (Theodicy)

Gunkel assumes that Psalm 73 belongs to “wisdom poetry” while Mowinckel treats it under the category of “Personal (Private) Thanksgiving Psalms.” If von Rad, who believes that “Yahweh had not chosen his people as a mere dumb object of his will in history, but for converse with him,” was right to assert that Israel’s answer can be gathered “for the most part from the Psalter,” I would insist that Psalm 73 would constitute the central place, in that it posits and deals with the most essential theological question, namely: with theodicy. And I firmly believe that a contemporary Old Testament scholar, Brueggemann has thus all reason to consider it as “the most remarkable and satisfying of all the Psalms.” In fact, it is important to note here that although the Psalm deals with the question of theodicy, “the course of the argument and the resolution are on terms other than sapiential,” as Brueggemann rightly observes. “The question and the answer of theodicy are set in the context of the tradition, in the authority of torah, in the promise made to this people.” In any case, taken in the context of the remnants, the Psalm seems to depict their exile as a school of life where they had to learn the hard way!

It may of course sound overambitious to attempt here to configure the life of the remnant in a way that fits into Brueggemann’s triadic scheme of “orientation-disorientation-new orientation.” But if I just combine some crucial insights of traditional Ethiopian exegesis and Brueggemann’s excellent interpretation of this Psalm with my own reflection, I may come up with a pattern that amounts to a configuration of the life span of the remnants. Brueggemann basically treats this Psalm as one of the Psalms of disorientation; he in fact takes it to be “the last word of disorientation.” However, he also recognizes that “it utters the first word of new orientation.” I want to add that the Psalm even begins with words of vivid memory of orientation, if not with the exact experience thereof. Hence, I find this Psalm all the more helpful to reconstruct the complete triadic scheme of orientation-disorientation-new orientation as played out in the life span of the remnants.

Once regarded as “prophecy about the remnants,” Psalm 73 can be taken to have spoken on behalf of the remnants that they had a certain time of orientation in Jerusalem (or at least a good memory of such one), that they went through a really tempting period of disorientation in Babylon, and then that they came to a new orientation upon their return to Jerusalem. Let us imagine a concrete example: if someone, who was 85 years old by the time the exiles returned, died at the age of 90, it can safely be assumed that this person must have been born in Israel and lived there for about 15 years, being attached to the old order in Jerusalem (orientation); this person must then have passed through the 70 years of exile in Babylon, suffering the afflictions and disorder that the exile entailed (disorientation); and upon return to Jerusalem, the same person must finally have had some 5 years to experience the new order that Yahweh entrusts the remnants to cherish once again (new orientation). Does not what the poetic prayer of Psalm 73 recounts fit well into such person’s life span? Let us have a closer look at it.

Verse 1, where it says: “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart,” may be understood to have already established the experience that the remnant had of some sort of orientation, to wit, of the religious order in Jerusalem. For how can one see and speak of the goodness of God and His relationship with Israel unless one has gotten a clear religious orientation of the type the Torah offers? It is also to be recalled that not only those who had actually sinned but also people with “clean hearts,” even true prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were exiled. Verses 2 and 3 in particular, and the whole bunch of verses that follow them, in general, express the loss of such an orientation while the remnant was in Babylon. What can best give tongue to one’s disorientation than saying: “my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped” (v. 2)? Once disoriented, the remnant further utters, “I was envious at the foolish [Babylonian], when I saw the prosperity of the wicked [Babylonian]” (v. 3). As to the new orientation, I deem it was attained only gradually. Although the remnant considered the Babylonians as foolish and wicked ones, and recounted their evil deeds, he nonetheless observed that it all worked for them in a way he could not explain: “Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches. Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency” (v. 12, 13). And yet, the remnant seems to maintain a certain order and orientation if only for the sake of the coming generation: “If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children” (v. 15). However, what seems to have finally helped the exiled remnant gain comfort was the understanding that, "like a dream when one awakes,"  the Lord "will despise them as fantasies" and the belief that a return was foreordained: “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel,” that is, on the way back home, “and afterward receive me to glory” (v. 24).

to be continued...

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Remnant Motif - 1


“Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O LORD”:
The Remnant Motif in the Book of Psalms
 (Part One)
The theme of the remnant has always had a significant bearing upon the Christian concept of the Church. This was more explicitly felt during the controversy which raged in pre- and early post-war Germany concerning the origin of the idea of ekklesia in Jesus’ ministry; where, in order to defend a position that Jesus has attempted to establish a new community, “a number of scholars appealed to the Jewish notion of a remnant or a ‘true Israel’ in Jesus’ ministry.”

Considered in a broad context of the concern about human flourishing and of the relationship between God and man (or better, of the all-embracing covenant between God and creation), the very situation of the remnant reminds us, on the one hand, of the destruction of a large part of humanity when they turn away from God, and on the other, of the survival of few ones because of their return to Him. I believe that the idea of the remnant can be redeveloped in such a way that it may play a transformative role in the art of building a society that keeps the covenantal relationship with God. 

The remnant motif could be looked at within a broad scope of the history of mankind as a whole, stretching from Adam to Eschaton. Reference can be made in this regard to such narratives in the Bible as that of the flood. The flood story told in Genesis 6-9 describes the destruction of all creatures—save very few remnants—because of man’s wickedness. The biblical narrative has it that only the righteous Noah and his family, along with representatives of the animal kingdom was saved. Both Jewish and Christian scholars believe that “the earliest explicit reference to the Hebrew remnant motif… is from the start securely anchored in salvation history.” Time and space may not allow me to pursue on this, however, except to highlight on the hint that the threat of total destruction comes as a result of sin, due to apostasy in particular; and that repentance of the people, God’s grace and His covenant with the fathers, have each played indispensable role in the salvation of a remnant. 

The Gə’əz word for ‘remnant’ is ‘təruf,’ which is rendered to mean two things: a) left over (remained), and b) perfect—a rendering that, I submit, may give impetus to emphasize the current significance of the theme in the way I try to depict it. For Ethiopian scholars, the concept of the remnant at once combines two seemingly mutually exclusive vocations in human existence. Namely, it combines the need for survival as well as the call for perfection.[1]  It does so in that it refers to survival on the one hand, while it pertains to perfection on the other. What is implied here is that, in a person inspired by the vocation of the “təruf,” the one is not/should not be required at the expense of the other. That is to say, survival is not/should not be secured at the total expense of perfection; nor is/should be perfection sought after at the total expense of survival. And this, I argue, ensures the covenantal relationship between God and humans.

The Theme of the Remnant in the Psalms

Let me state the reason why I chose the Book of Psalms as the basis of my reflection on the remnant motif. From my rather brief survey of literature, I realized that there are detailed studies on the remnant motif as it appears in most parts of the Old Testament. However, I haven’t as yet come across even a tacit recognition, by Christian scholars, that the remnant situation could possibly be the “Sitz im Leben” (the “life setting” or the “social context”) of a significantly large part of the Book of the Psalms. Some medieval Jewish scholars have in fact indicated that “all of it [i.e. of the Book of Psalms] is instruction and guidance for the people of the Exile, teaching them how to repent—to weep, fast, and wear sackcloth, and beseech the Merciful One for salvation…” But many scholars who greatly influenced contemporary Psalm scholarship do not seem to know anything about this position, let alone to follow and build upon it. On the other hand, the Ethiopian tradition identifies about 74 Psalms as “tənbit bä’əntä tərufan” (which literally means: “prophecy about the remnants”). However surprising it may sound, according to the Ethiopian traditional exegesis, in almost half of the Book, the Psalmist is thus considered to have spoken to, or on behalf of, the remnant.[2] For which reason I find it interesting to attempt a kind of interpretation informed by this tradition, but of course in such a way that it can somehow be shared with a modern reader. 

Ethiopian scholars consider the Book of Psalms, along with the Prophecy of Isaiah and the christologically interpreted Song of Songs of Solomon, as the Fifth Gospel. In the introduction to the commentary of the Book of the Psalms, they state that King David was endowed with seven gifts from God. The last gift in the list they provide is that of prophecy, which they believe King David has told in the poetic language of the Psalms, and which they interpret guided by the ten titles received from the tradition. One of the titles is: “Prophecy about the Remnants."

Psalms 137 and 126: In the Beginning and End of Exile 
 
These are among the very few Psalms which contain within themselves explicit historical references that would help identify what might have been their Sitz im Leben or life setting. Namely, the references in Psalm 137 to “Babylon” and in Psalm 126 to “the captivity of Zion” plainly indicate that these Psalms are dealing with issues related to exile, allowing thus for assuming the situation of the remnants to be their Sitz im Leben. I picked out these two Psalms first, because they project the contrasting images of the lives of the exiles at the beginning and end of the Babylonian captivity. Psalm 137 speaks of the gloomy situation of the remnants as they were taken captives, that is, when they were just crossing the rivers of Babylon, hanging their harps “upon the willows in the midst thereof” as they refused to sing “the LORD’S song in a strange land;” while Psalm 126 attends to the favorable circumstances surrounding their return, that is, when the captivity of Zion have just been brought back home, their mouth “filled with laughter” and their tongue “with singing!”

One of the most renowned Old Testament scholars noted for his contribution to “form criticism” and for coining such a very useful technical phrase as “Sitz im Leben” (life-setting/sociological setting), Herman Gunkel considers this Psalm as a mere poetic saying of blessing and curse. Such a consideration may not come as a complete surprise when it is noted that Gunkel’s primary task was in fact to attack the historical atomistic approach to Psalms and to introduce a method of classifying types. Yet, as his very method of classification was based not only on form and function but also on social context, one cannot help but wonder how the remnant situation did not cross his mind as a possible sociological setting for certain Psalms including this one. 

Sigmund Mowinckel, who accepts Gunkel’s method but prefers to label it “type-critical” or “type-historical” and to reduce the categories to only four main types (from about ten), considers Psalm 137 to have been a congregational Psalm and entertains the question as to “why they had to sit on the river banks and why the harps had to hang on the willows;” for “when they did not wish to use them, they might as well have left them hanging on the walls at home." Mowinckel believes that the poet created a “fancied situation” in his imagination: seeing himself as a wanderer harp-player, who used to sit down to rest nowhere but by springs and river banks, and who might have imagined being asked by one of the tyrants to sing and would have known well what he would have had rejoined: “How could we on a strange soil, sing the songs of the Lord!”
My answer would indeed be otherwise. For one thing, rather than a past-oriented imagination, the Psalm in question sounds more like future-oriented prophecy. Consider the last two verses:
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
For another, the situation might have looked like this: as they were taken captive, every household had a chance to go together, in groups; taking whatever they could carry with them, including their harps. They might even have been given false promises of leading normal life in Babylon. But once they reached and sat by the rivers of Babylon, they might have just started to experience the actual enslavement; when they had been given over to individual slave owners and would thenceforth have to be separated from one another. Only then might they have undoubtedly realized that they would engage in the duties of a slave and thus would not have time to use their harps any more. Even if they would have had time to do so, they must have come to realize that their songs could be offered only for (the pleasure of) their (wicked) owners, not for their Almighty God Yahweh, nor for their beloved City Jerusalem/Zion, certainly not to entertain themselves! Hence, realizing that their harps would no more serve any purpose of their own, they just wept remembering Zion and hanged them upon the willows.

Let me move on to Psalm 126. This Psalm clearly shows that its life setting is the remnant situation when they returned home. Having paid the bitter price of apostasy in Babylon and elsewhere, Israel’s remnants are now coming back home. Verses 2 and 3 emphasize that not only were great things done for them but also were those things recognized by the heathen: “then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them.” 
 
There are a number of other Psalms that the Ethiopian exegetical tradition considers to be expressions of the attendant circumstances of the beginning and end of the captivity. Here is the context of Psalm 23, for instance. When second round exiles were brought to Babylon, in order to avoid any contact between them and those who were formerly exiled and thereby to forestall any opportunity for a sort of strong rebellion, the Babylonians forced those who were already established in the city to go further to a more distant area and let the new comers settle in their place. Psalm 23 is believed thus to reflect the hopes against hope, so to say, of those former exiles in the face of such state of affairs: “[Although you Babylonians have deported me again to a further distant and inhospitable area], the Lord is my Shepherd; and I shall not want… 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 they comfort me” (v. 1, 4).

In between the two events (i.e. the captivity and the return), however, there is a long 70 years of life in exile that provide the sociological setting for numerous other Psalms. Below are a couple of Psalms the settings of which is the heavy weight of the remnant’s life in exile. 

to be continued...



[1] I tend to take survival and perfection as, in some way, mutually exclusive; because, taken in their logical extremes, the principle of survival requires that, whatever it takes (i.e. even killing others and destroying anything else than oneself), one has but to survive, to live; while the principle of perfection demands that, come what may (i.e. even in the face of one’s death and the total destruction of what one holds dear), one has but to be perfect.
[2] For anyone who operates with historical critical method, this might be translated to mean that these Psalms were composed after the exile and hence by remnant-Psalmists. However, not only because I do not totally buy into such a method, but mainly in order to be able to reflect the traditional view from which I come from, in what follows, I will continue to hold fast to the ascription of the whole Psalms to King David.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

በዘለሊሁ ፈቀደ... ወበዘውእቱ ሠምረ...

አገበረቶ ኂሩቱ ከመ ይሕምም በእንቲአነ፤ 
ወፍቅረ እጓለመሕያው ሰሐበቶ ከመ ይስተይ ጽዋዐ ሞት በእንተ ኀጣውኢነ። 
ስለኛ ይታመም ዘንድ ቸርነቱ አስገደደቺው፤
ስለኀጢአታችንም የሞትን ጽዋ ይጠጣ ዘንድ የሰው ፍቅር ሳበቺው።
...
ንበልኬ እንከሰ፦
በዘለሊሁ ፈቀደ አሕመምዎ...
ወበዘውእቱ ሠምረ ጥዕመ ሞተ በሥጋ። 
በዘለሊሁ ፈቀደ ነበረ ውስተ ከርሠ መቃብር ሠሉሰ መዋዕለ ወሠሉሰ ለያልየ...
ወበዘውእቱ ሠምረ ሦጣ ለነፍሱ ውስተ ሥጋሁ ወተንሥአ በኀይለ መለኮቱ። 
እንግዴኽስ  እንዲኽ እንበል፦
ራሱ በፈቀደ ገንዘብ ሕማምን ተቀበለ...
ርሱው በወደደ ገንዘብ ሞትን ቀመሰ።
ራሱ በፈቀደ ገንዘብ ሦስት መዓልት ሦስት ሌሊት በከርሠ መቃብር ዐደረ...
ርሱው በወደደ ገንዘብ ነፍሱን ከሥጋው አዋሕዶ በመለኮቱ ኀይል ተነሣ። 
[አባ ጊዮርጊስ ዘጋስጫ]  
 እንኳን ለበዓለ ስቅለቱ ወትንሣኤሁ በሰላም አደርሳችኍ አደረሰን!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

እንኳን ለብርሃነ ጥምቀቱ አደረሳችኍ፤ አደረሰን!

ውስተ ባሕር ፍኖትከ
ወአሠርከኒ ውስተ ማይ ብዙኅ
ጎዳናኽ በዮርዳኖስ ተገለጸ
ወንጌልኽ በዚኽ ዓለም ተነገረ።
(መዝ 76፡19)
[የዘይቤ ሳይኾን፤ የምስጢር ትርጕም ነው!]
በዐበይት በዓላትና በመሳሰለው ዅሉ መልካም ምኞትን ለመግለጥ የምንጠቀምባቸውን ትውፊት-ወረድ ኀይለ ቃሎች ልብ ማለት ይገባል። ስለ "እንኳን..." ከዚኽ ቀደም ተናግረናል። አኹን ደግሞ እስኪ ስለ "ብርሃነ..." አጭር ነገር እንጠቍም፦

"እንኳን ለብርሃነ መስቀሉ/ልደቱ/ጥምቀቱ/ትንሣኤው አደረሳችኍ እንላለን። ለዚኽም መሠረታችን ቅዱሳት መጻሕፍት ናቸው፦ "ወንዜንወክሙ ከመ እግዚአብሔር ብርሃን ውእቱ..." (1ኛ ዮሐ 1፡5) "እስመ ብርሃን መጽአ ውስተ ዓለም..." (ዮሐ 3፡19) ወእለተርፉ/ወዘተርፉ (የቀሩትም ኹሉ)።

ብርሃን ማያ ነው አይደል?  በመስቀሉ ብርሃን ድኅነትን፤  በልደቱ ብርሃን ዕርቅን፥ ሰላምን (ፍቅር አንድነትን)፥ በጥምቀቱ ብርሃን የእውነተኛው ሕዳሴ፥ የዳግም ልደት መሠረት የኾነውን ሕፅበት፤ በትንሣኤው ብርሃን ደግሞ ሕይወትን እናያለን። እናያለንና፦

እንኳን ለብርሃነ ጥምቀቱ አደረሳችኍ አደረሰን!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ethiopia's Foreign Relations Then and Now!


The following is an invaluable piece of document in which we find an extremely riveting story. It is a story not just interesting and entertaining to read, like some kind of fiction. Rather, it is a story as strongly inspiring as it is really real! For precisely which reason, however, it is a kind of story that “developmental” historians and researchers of all sorts, who have put themselves to the service of the Zeitgeist, would not want us to hear about. In fact this kind of story does not sit well with those who have a “grand plan” of fragmenting a great nation. But I believe it indeed is ennobling for us Ethiopians to know about it, even when we have fallen, alas, on such awfully hard times!