Monday 9 September 2013

From the Deep - Praise the Lord - Psalm 148

Marduk and Tiamat
Psalm 148:1-7
1] Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise Him in the heights. 2] Praise Him, all His angels, praise Him all his hosts. 3] Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him all the bright stars. 4] Praise him, highest heavens, and waters that are above the heavens. 5] Let them praise the name of the Lord, for He commanded that they be created. 6] He made them endure forever, placing a boundary that they cannot cross. 7] Praise the Lord from the earth, sea monsters (taninim) and all depths (tehomot).

 א הַֽלְלוּיָ֨הּ ׀ הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־ה מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֑יִם הַֽ֝לְל֗וּהוּ בַּמְּרוֹמִֽים: ב הַֽלְל֥וּהוּ כָּל־מַלְאָכָ֑יו הַֽ֝לְל֗וּהוּ כָּל־צבאו [צְבָאָֽיו]: ג הַֽ֭לְלוּהוּ שֶׁ֣מֶשׁ וְיָרֵ֑חַ הַ֝לְל֗וּהוּ כָּל־כּ֥וֹכְבֵי אֽוֹר: ד הַֽ֭לְלוּהוּ שְׁמֵ֣י הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וְ֝הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר ׀ מֵעַ֬ל הַשָּׁמָֽיִם: ה יְֽ֭הַֽלְלוּ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם ה כִּ֤י ה֭וּא צִוָּ֣ה וְנִבְרָֽאוּ: ו וַיַּֽעֲמִידֵ֣ם לָעַ֣ד לְעוֹלָ֑ם חָק־נָ֝תַ֗ן וְלֹ֣א יַֽעֲבֽוֹר: ז הַֽלְל֣וּ אֶת־ה מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ תַּ֝נִּינִ֗ים וְכָל־תְּהֹמֽוֹת:

If you've been reading 'From the Deep' from the beginning, you might be starting to wonder why I keep talking about the sea monsters as the enemies of God and God's divine order. Where are all the mentions of combat and fighting? Apart from in Psalm 74, we've seen little evidence of such myths. Well, today we still won't, as we conclude our journey through the sea monsters of the book of Psalms with a final harmonious view of the sea monsters in creation.

Psalm 148 is traditionally recited every day as part of the morning service, and it describes God's harmonious creation with everything in it praising God. Among those mentioned that should praise God, in a list that goes on to include mountains, beasts and all human beings, are the sea monsters and the depths. We've already seen in Genesis 1 that the word Tanin shares a root with the Canaanite Tunannu, but the word 'depths' or Tehomot in Hebrew, is new to our exploration.

Tehomot is related to the Babylonian Tiamat, who in the epic myth of Enuma Elish, is the divine primordial ocean, progenitor of the gods, who must ultimately be slain by Marduk in his rise to chief deity. Thus both Taninim and Tehomot have deep mythological connections.

So why are they placed in the list of beings that should praise God?

The author of Psalm 148 has a similar view of sea monsters as that behind Genesis 1 and Psalm 104, that the sea monsters are a part of God's balanced and well-ordered creation, not opposed to that order. But by juxtaposing verses 4-6 with verse 7, the psalmist here is adding a new insight into the role of these beings.

Verses 4-6 talk about how God placed a boundary on the heavens and the water above the heavens, restricted them so they could never cross it. This is exactly the same kind of language elsewhere used to describe the sea and the sea monsters (for example Proverbs 8:28-9, Psalm 104:9, coming soon to From the Deep). Yet Psalm 148 does not describe the monsters this way, and in fact deliberately juxtaposes this image to the sea monsters. Why?

It seems to me that we are being told that unlike the water above the heavens, the sea monsters here are not constrained, not bound by any eternal restraint. These are free beings, chaotic forces being contrasted with the unchanging nature of the sky.

And yet these monsters still praise God. What does this mean?

I'm writing this between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when thousands of Jews head to synagogues that they never set foot in the rest of the year. They come and wear unfamiliar clothes, sit in strange seats, and try to wrap their minds and tongues around unfamiliar words and concepts. They must sometimes wonder why they come at all.

And even if you're a regular shul goer, who understands how prayer services work and what the high holidays are all about, at this season of self-reflection it's easy to feel that one's sins are too great to really belong in God's house. After all the mistakes I've made, all the bad thoughts I've had, the good deeds left undone, does God really want me in synagogue? Does God really want my prayers too?

Psalm 148 tells us that no one and nothing is too far from God that they cannot praise God's name.

Even the sea monsters and ocean depths are necessary, their songs unique and irreplaceable.

And if God wants even their song added to the mixture of the chorus of the universe, how much the more does God want yours?

May you find your place in the community of worshipers this Yom Kippur, so that you can sing your praise of the divine creation with a full heart, and find in it the atonement you seek.

Next week on 'From the Deep' - Isaiah 27: Battles at the end of time.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment