Thursday 1 August 2013

From the Deep - God Fights! - Psalm 74

John Singer Sargent, 'Hercules', 1921
Psalm 74:11-15
11] Why do you withdraw Your hand, Your right hand? Take it out of your bosom! 12] For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
13] You parted the sea (Yam) by Your strength; You broke the heads of the sea monsters (Taninim) on the water. 14] You crushed the heads of Leviathan, and gave him for food to the people inhabiting the wilderness (or: to sea-faring people). 15] You cleaved open springs and torrents; You dried up ever-flowing streams.

יא לָ֤מָּה תָשִׁ֣יב יָ֭דְךָ וִֽימִינֶ֑ךָ מִקֶּ֖רֶב חוקך [חֵֽיקְךָ֣] כַלֵּֽה: יב וֵ֭אלֹקים מַלְכִּ֣י מִקֶּ֑דֶם פֹּ֘עֵ֥ל יְ֝שׁוּע֗וֹת בְּקֶ֣רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ: יג אַתָּ֤ה פוֹרַ֣רְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ֣ יָ֑ם שִׁבַּ֖רְתָּ רָאשֵׁ֥י תַ֝נִּינִ֗ים עַל־הַמָּֽיִם: יד אַתָּ֣ה רִ֭צַּצְתָּ רָאשֵׁ֣י לִוְיָתָ֑ן תִּתְּנֶ֥נּוּ מַֽ֝אֲכָ֗ל לְעַ֣ם לְצִיִּֽים: טו אַתָּ֣ה בָ֭קַעְתָּ מַעְיָ֣ן וָנָ֑חַל אַתָּ֥ה ה֝וֹבַ֗שְׁתָּ נַֽ֘הֲר֥וֹת אֵיתָֽן:

I've already looked at Psalm 74 here, in which I compared it to Psalm 104 for two different perspectives on the nature of Leviathan, and by extension chaos itself, in the universe. But for today's From the Deep I wanted to take a deeper look at the psalm itself.

In it we shall have our first vision of ancient combat between God and the primordial forces of chaos, the primary biblical motif of the relationship between the divine and the monstrous.

What does it mean for us that Judaism's most central texts portray God with such a violent image?

In its context, Psalm 74 seems to emerge from the time of the first exile (roughly the 6th century BCE) a time in which the Jews found themselves surrounded by Babylonian culture. The psalmist writes in verse 7 that his enemies have burnt down God's sanctuary, and despairs in verse 9 that God's people "don't see any signs, nor is there a prophet' to help us in our time of exile.

In this place of feeling distant from God, alone and despoiled by one's enemies, the psalmist calls on God to save His people. Why? Because in the past God has done mighty deeds, slaying the sea monsters here referred to as Yam (meaning the sea in Hebrew), Taninim (that we saw in Gen 1:21), and the many-headed Leviathan.

It is the belief in God's victory over the sea monster that justifies the psalmist's present cry. He calls on God to save us now against our enemies because we know that God has done exactly that kind of thing in the past. Slaying the Leviathan in the distant past is the example par excellence of God slaying His enemies - now the enemies are smaller but very present in front of us, and we call on God to slay the monsters once again.

While we could understand this from its historical context to be a political statement, concerning the defeat of enemies such as the Babylonians, I will hold back on such thoughts until we get to Ezekiel 29.

Instead I want to look at Psalm 74 at the personal, individual level, (understanding the book of Psalms to be intended for some kind of individual prayer). What does it mean for us to recite Psalm 74 and call on God to once again slay "the sea monsters"?

Rashi here, in a characteristic move, explains that the taninim is really a reference to the Egyptians, and the Leviathan is a reference to Pharaoh. Thus the situation that the psalmist is evoking is the exodus from Egypt.

I take Rashi not to be limiting the mythical scenario but to be giving an example to help us understand what the psalm is saying - when did we experience God slaying Leviathan? The Exodus from Egypt, freedom from slavery.

According to the Passover Haggadah, we are all required to see ourselves as if we personally were redeemed from Egypt. All of us experience moments of slavery - to pain, to illness, to exclusion, to racism - but all of us have also experienced God's power to save.

Psalm 74 is telling us that not only have we been redeemed, we have seen God slay evil, even the many-headed beasts that seemed unbeatable. We have seen tyrants fall, empires crumble - we've seen people achieve remarkable recoveries from crippling injuries and illnesses.

And so we call upon God to do the same once again, to once more do the seemingly impossible task of slaying evil, and redeeming us from our slavery.

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Psalm 104 - Leviathan as God's favourite pet.

'From the Deep' has been made possible by Nishma, a summer of learning in the JTS Beit Midrash.

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