03 September 2020

A Brief Introduction to Hebrew Poetics in Psalm 1.


The message of the First Psalm overlaid on a painting by Floyd County Artisit Winnie Carthel which hangs on the wall of my bedroom.

[Teaching notes by K Cummings Pipes, SouthwestCentralHouston, ZOOM class]

"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful."  Psalm 1:1  KJV


How blessed! Happy! How happy!
It's not a statement of fact. Not a teaching or code of law.
It's a proclamation, a shout, an assertion of deep fulfillment, a state of harmony with the world, with others, and with oneself
It's a bold and joyous celebration of unity and peace with the God whose name we know, the God whose name we whisper.

Blessed! ‘ashrei in Hebrew a strong, masculine interjection
So begins the first Psalm.

The word “bless” in its various Hebrew forms is the most commonly used word in the Psalms. Over 100 times.

The idea of blessing is the over-arching theme of the Psalms.

What does it mean to be blessed?
Who is blessed?
How do we see blessing in times of fear, pain, loss, doubt, oppression, separation, death?
How do we recover our balance?
How do we find “the level place” [that idea is one of the meanings of the word “bless”] that level place where we can walk in safety and security?
Where is the “straight path, the open way” to promised blessing? [those, too, are meanings in the word “bless”]
When I’m lost, when I’ve stumbled, when I don’t know the way, how do I find the way back?
What is the “next step”? [yet another meaning of “bless”]

 A Hebrew scholar notes the possibility that “Blessing!”  ’ashrei may be an sound-alike  pun on ‘ashurim “steps” and this idea reinforces the walking metaphor of the first Psalm. 

[Robert Alter citing Nahum Sarna]

In the handouts for this lesson, I provided a copy of Psalm 1 from one of the most recent translations of Hebrew scripture into English.  Robert Alter’s highly annotated translation is excellent and belongs in the library of any serious student of the Bible.

I took the liberty of changing Alter’s v. 1 “Happy” to “Blessed” and added 2 “!” to make visible the strong masculine interjection of the Hebrew.

Psalm 1 (Robert Alter’s translation.)

1    Blessed! 

“the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel, 
nor stood in the way of offenders has stood, 
nor in the session of scoffers sat.
2    But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,                    
And His teaching he murmurs day and night.
3    And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water  
that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither—
and in all that he does he prospers.

4    Not so! the wicked,  but like chaff that the wind drives away.
5    Therefore, the wicked will not stand up in judgment,  
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.
6    For the LORD embraces the way of the righteous,    
And the way of the wicked is lost.”

Today I’m charged with presenting a brief introduction to some aspects of Hebrew poetics applied to the First Psalm. Some of those basic principles are:

1.    Word choice not only definitions but hidden meanings and the “sounds” of alliteration, rhyme, puns, play on words, shadings of meaning.

2.  Metaphor and Imagery 
3.  Structure which in Psalms is usually defined by key word repetition and parallelism of phrases.

Imagery and metaphor are the language of poetry, where a simple picture of something quite common and ordinary is elevated into something greater, more complex, more powerful, more beautiful, more eternal:

"all the world’s a stage, 
love is a red red rose, 
hope is the thing with feathers, 
conscience is a man’s compass, 
let justice flow down like a river, 
shall we gather at the river, 
I am the light of the world, 
I am the good Shepherd…"
Throughout Hebrew scripture, one of the primary identities of God is the One Who Speaks. God speaks in Creation, God speaks to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God speaks from a burning bush, from Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Words; God speaks to kings, and by prophets etc.

As the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews reminds us:

“Long ago God spoke… in many and various ways… but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.”
The Apostle John asserts that Jesus is the Word, from Alpha to Omega, from beginning to end, the final word. 

There can be a lot of meaning wrapped up in a single word.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Hebrew scripture.

Biblical Hebrew has fewer than 9,000 words (8,198 attested) formed from 2,099 roots.  
Modern Hebrew has 6 times that many words. 
English may have many as ¾ of a million. 
William Shakespeare (approx. contemporaneous with the KJV) used 31,534 unique words, more than 3 times the number of words in all of Biblical Hebrew.
So, we begin to see the translators’ dilemma:
every Hebrew word has layer after layer after layer of meaning.

When I studied Hebrew with Rabbi Samuel Karff, he suggested that, when translating a passage from Hebrew to English, one should look carefully at all the possible meanings of a Hebrew word and all the possible meanings of that word’s root. The words chosen to translate are strongly dependent on context. Especially in the wisdom writings which include the Psalms, one should “hold in one’s mind, all the meanings” and look carefully at the repetitions of those words within the psalm. “When in doubt, include more not fewer meanings and look at them in the context of all scripture.” The Rabbi laughed and  told me, “don’t bother with the Greek just bring your reading, your understanding of Hebrew scripture into your understanding of Messiah in your Christian text."

Now returning to Psalm 1.
I’ve already noted the “walking metaphors” hidden in the root meanings of the word “bless.”
We might even say that, at its most basic level, to be blessed is to be walking in the way of the LORD.

[It is worth noting the Hebrew words used to refer to God. The Hebrew Elohim is translated “God.” The Hebrew Adonai is translated “Lord” and emphasizes God’s authority. That word may also be used for a man in authority. 
Here in this first Psalm and elsewhere, particularly in the older Psalms 3-72 which are offered in the context David’s life—as man and as God’s anointed King—the Hebrew word is the personal name of God, too holy to be spoken aloud. Thus, the word in text would be written “Yah-weh” or “Y-h W-h” but is always spoken as “the LORD” to distinguish from “Adonai.” 
Some newer translations omit the all caps, but the distinction between these words is important to preserve. We bow to the Lord; we have an intimate personal relationship, a spiritual relationship, a breath-to-breath relationship with the LORD whose name we know and whisper.]

The Hebrew word “the way” derek and its primitive root darak are used over 800 times in Hebrew scripture, 80 times in the Psalms.

phrase “walking the way” means
a road as it is walked one step at a time, 
a pathway, a journey, a course of life, 
a mode of action, custom or habit, 

Eugene Peterson titled  his book about the Psalms of Ascent (120-134) using the apt phrase: “a long obedience in the same direction.”

I should also note that the root word darak can mean treading the harvest, threshing the grain from the chaff which is blown away with the wind. This layer of meaning in the word "darak" is a powerful reinforcement of the shortened metaphor in v. 4

The Hebrew word “the law” is Torah and its primitive root is “yarah” yaw-raw are frequently associated with “walking the way.”

We usually think of Torah almost as a legal term, meaning precept or statute but the derivation and related words expand our idea of Torah to  include 
“teaching” the word Robert Alter chose for his translation, to instruct, to inform, to direct.

There are other images hidden in the idea of The Law, the Word of the Lord:
flowing as water (or falling as rain) – a blessing image,
to point out as if by aiming a finger, to indicate direction,

a boundary, a hedgerow that marks the path, a turning in the road. [which became the dominant understanding of the word in 19th and 20th Centuries commentaries.]

Also hidden deep in the layers of the word yarah are words for “turtle dove” and “bullock” the sacrificial animals for the poor and the rich. I wept with joy when I first noticed this hidden meaning. The primary purpose of Torah, the Law of the LORD, is not legalism but chesed, the Hebrew word that can be translated as grace, unfailing love, the steadfast love of the Lord. 
The Torah of Hebrew scripture and the Gospel’s new commandment of love both point to reconciliation with God, with our selves, and with others.

It is no surprise, then, that within the structure of many Psalms, Torah, the Law of the Lord, is often associated with words for salvation and blessing.

Finally, both Hebrew words or their roots, Torah the law of the LORD and darak the pathways of righteousness, include archery images: setting the arrow, bending the bow, and shooting the arrow on a straight course to the target.

Which is why I often pray a short prayer I wrote many years ago while on retreat with our Youth Group at Rockcleft:

Lord God, shoot us like arrows along your chosen course.
Let us fly straight and true as you direct us.
Let us hit the target.
          Let us not miss the mark.

Psalm 1 is rich in other metaphors:

“A tree planted by the water” which the Apostle Paul echoes in Ephesians with “rooted and grounded in faith”
“by rivers of water” “living water” which in Hebrew imagery evoke a reminder of God’s Spirit on the face of the waters teeming with life and of God’s provision of springs in a desert.

Let’s pause to visualize these images of the growing tree with roots nourished in living water. Recall all the times in the Bible where rivers are the setting, where water is mentioned:

Creation, Jacob’s Well, the Red Sea and the Jordan river where the  foreign leper Naaman found healing, the waters of Babylon where the people hung their harps because they could no longer sing the psalms of Zion, baptisms 
[both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament offer examples. The Hebrew word is "mikvah" a pool of living water for immersion and purification which brings one into the presence of God.]

The tree that is planted is living water is a rich, rich metaphor.
This broadening understanding of Hebrew scripture brings a new perspective to Jesus changing water into wine and speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well and proclaiming that the those who receive his “living water will never thirst”…

What the tree and the water and the blessed man of Psalm 1 have in common is growth and movement. Living things grow. The one who is blessed is walking, moving toward God. Note that the verbs used in v. 1 of this Psalm are those used in the beloved 23rd Psalm

v. 3 offers a rich and verbose description of that blessed growth: fruit abundant in season, leaves that don’t wither.
A tree can withstand a drought without withering when it drinks living water. It is fruitful and prospers. 
It is worth noting here that a tree that bears fruit often requires pruning, its growth is not only nourished by the living water but shaped by the will of One who tends tree.

The word "prosper" yatsliah is a masculine verb, more likely to be used to refer to a man than a tree. Its use here makes clear that this image of a fruitful tree is a metaphor of the blessed man, the godly man who is walking the way.
This metaphor of the fruitful tree and the prospering man (blessed!) pushes us back up to the descriptors in v. 1
This poetic device--word choice and metaphor reinforced by the structure of the poem--reminds us that there is a man who made other choices. There is a man who chose to walk in the counsel of the ungodly and to stand in the way of sinners and to sit down with the scornful.  That man moved in the wrong direction and stopped moving.

Then in verse 4, the interjection: “Not so! the wicked”

Usually KJV does a better job than many more recent translations at catching the rhythms of the Hebrew but here it fails.

“Not so!” punches in forceful opposition to the “Blessed!” of v. 1
The verse that follows that “Not so!” is so very short in comparison to the blessed abundance of v. 3
v. 4 is short and abrupt and very sharp and serves as a verbal “cutting off” a perishing, if you will. The structure of the psalm implies "Torah" but there is no "Torah" in any of its many layers in the ungodly man who is not fruitful and is blown away in the wind as chaff from the threshing floor.

v. 5  because they would not walk in the way of the Lord, because they “stood in the way of sinners” they will not stand up in the judgement.
Here the psalmist is using two different words for "stand" but playing with the images. Because they stood where they should not have stood and sat down, the wicked now cannot stand up. They do not have a leg to stand on in the congregation of the righteous.
["the congregation of the righteous" is an image of judgement and is a thematic idea which we will revisit at the end of this study when we look at Psalm 150.]

Finally, there is a metaphor in v. 6 although it is hidden in our English translations.

“The LORD knoweth the way of the righteous” could be more rightly translated using a visually evocative metaphor:
“The LORD shepherds the way of the righteous.” 

Robert Alter translated this phrase: “… the LORD embraces the way of the righteous” and noted that the “The Hebrew-- literally “knows” -- is a verb often used for intimate connection, the sexual union of man and wife.

I like Alter’s  translation, because it calls to mind the 85th Psalm which also speaks to the idea of judgement;
“Gracious love and faithful truth are joined together; righteousness and peace embrace and kiss.”  (my translation)

I close with a quote from my favorite Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggmann (Israel’s Praise):

“Psalms are not only responses to the reality of relationship with the biblical God but also expressions that help reshape that relationship with God.  That is, psalms not only reflect reality but also shift reality." 

We stopped here for a short Q&A before continuing with a very quick look at the structure of Psalm 1. 


Psalm 1 has two interlocking structures: (1)  two lines in parallel, repeated which is the structure of the oldest Hebrew poetry and (2) the chiastic/nested or ring structures of newer, [post Captivity] writings.
Structure: linear through time, A & B offer contrasting rather than similar parallel lines:

present:         A         1-3      Blessed 
not walking, standing,  or sitting with the wicked
B         4-5      the wicked
                        not standing with the assembly of righteous
future:            A         6          Blessed
walk the way God watches over
B         6          the wicked
walk the way that perishes

And a chiastic structure: 
[think of this kind of structure as Russian dolls, go in and then back out. 
The key point is usually in the middle and I’ve seen a few examples that go all the way into a G or even an I point. 
Psalm 1 presents one of the less common structures where there is no middle point, which shifts the emphasis to A and A’.  
In this case, the interior point D has been moved to the end, probably to support the linear, parallel structure ABAB of the older Hebrew poems. 
It is very unusual for a Psalm to have such a complex structure.]

            A                                 1          The blessed walk/stand/sit not with wicked…
                        B                     2                      their way (Torah)
                                    C          3                                  Comparison:  like tree/water
                                                                                    fruitful, useful
                                    C’         4                                  Comparison:  like chaff/wind
                                                                                    not nourishing, trash
                        B’                                            "not so" (their way implied:  not Torah)
A’                                5          The wicked do not stand with righteous

powerful & authoritative:   D         6          God shepherds the way of the righteous
the way of the wicked perishes

Taken together the structure of this Psalm underline the primary message of this psalm:

To be blessed is to walk the way that God knows, watches over, shepherds.  
The wicked (ungodly) follow a way that is cut off (from God) and that way is not "the way" and  perishes. 

30 December 2019

One syllabus of my life...

I recently accepted a Facebook challenge: "One book a day, for seven days, which has had an effect on you. No details, just the cover." 
Such a challenge can nearly kill me because I always have something more I want to say, but mostly I played by the rules. I chose 7 books from my library shelves, arranged them on my library table in the order in which I had read them, took a photo of each, and posted. After the fact, I realized that in some sense, this list was one possible syllabus of The Life I Read.
I had been tagged for the challenge my the daughter of my dearest high school friend. When Sarah and I were together, our conversations usually began, "What are you reading and what have you learned."  Our primary shared interest was science but there were multiple intersections and crossroads. She read a lot more art and music than I did; I spent more time with poetry and philosophy/theology. Our tastes in fiction/literature were very different but we were both working our way through the recommended reading list for college prep and it really helped to bounce our ideas of each other.
In Sarah's memory, I wanted the first book to be one that we had read and discussed. So I dug deep into the past for Book 1: Albert Schweitzer's autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought, originally published in 1931. Sarah and I read it circa 1965. I have revisited it several times over the years and I bought the 2009 version pictured. 
"I can do no other than be reverent before everything that is called life. I can do no other than have compassion for all that is called life. That is the beginning and the foundation of all ethics." 
- Albert Schweitzer
Book 1
What effect did this book have one me? At a time when I was very unsure if I believed in God at all, it made me consider faith and belief from a different perspective.  I learned that meaningful faith required a lot more than the mental assent to a list of beliefs or even a series of regularly practiced rites and worship. Meaningful faith demanded a day-in-day-out practice (like playing any musical instrument well) and was grounded not only (or possibly not at all) in Scripture but in caring for others.  
Meaningful faith required sacrifices of time, of thought, of talent, of work, of engagement with people and cultures that were not my own, and finally of life itself.
"We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness." - Albert Schweitzer

Book 3
I found myself revisiting Schweitzer's life and thought when I was introduced to Dorothy Day  whose autobiography is titled,  The Long Loneliness.  
"We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community." - Dorothy Day
I read Day for many years in bits and pieces as she was quoted by others who shared her devotion to "the care of the least of these," her hands-on care of the poor and displaced, and her social activism.  At first I considered her difficult, strange, and radical but I have come to see that meaningful faith is radical. I've done much of my reading of Dorothy Day digitally but her Selected Writings is part of my print library. 
"I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only by their actions." - Dorothy Day

Book 4
There was a time when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring would have been on my list. It echoes Schweitzer's "Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace." 
Rachel Carson writes beautifully and her work is the bedrock of the environmental movement. "In Nature, nothing exists alone." - Rachel Carson  As much as I love it, I do not have a copy of Silent Spring in my print library so I turned to Annie Dillard. 
I was introduced to Dillard as part of a course on environmental writers but her work is so much more. She has taught me more about seeing the profound in the prosaic, the eternal in the passing moment than any other prose writer. Her books are both environmental and theological in tone and outlook.  I posted both Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the lesser known Teaching a Stone to Talk, Expeditions and Encounters. 
"The notion of the infinite variety of detail and the multiplicity of forms is a pleasing one; in complexity are the fringes of beauty, and in variety are generosity and exuberance." - Annie Dillard

Book 7
The seventh book I posted was W. Caleb McDaniel's Sweet Taste of Liberty. A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America. It's an unusual choice for me for a couple of reasons: (1) it's history, very readable history but not a genre I dive deeply into and, frankly, I most likely would not have read it if it had not been written by a friend and (2) it's recently published and I read it within the past year. Ordinarily I allow a book to ferment a bit more before it becomes something that has had an affect on me. 
This book tells the story of one woman and her fight for freedom and justice, justice that is defined as restitution. It gives a particular face to a pervasive problem. 
This book popped onto my reading list at just the right moment when I am seeing more clearly how slavery has always been the Achilles heel of American Democracy. I thought we had fought and won the battle with the Civil Rights Movement and all we needed was some time to bring about "liberty and justice for all." 
I see now that was wishful thinking. Seeing the cost of slavery detailed in one life makes it easier for me to extrapolate to the costs still carried by the black communities today.  
Because I read McDaniel's book, I revisit Dorothy Day's radical social activism which is grounded in radical Christian practice. 
A year ago, I'm not sure I would have seen (perhaps I wouldn't have even tried to see) a case for reparations. Having read this book, I gave full consideration to and endorse without reservation Pete Buttigieg's Douglass Plan for restorative justice. If you want to know about it here is the link:  https://peteforamerica.com/policies/douglass-plan/

Book 2
So what other books were on the list?
Voyage of the Dawntreader. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis which shows how bravery, even in the very small, is powerful and effective in the battle between good and evil.  Reckless, radical faith is often needed and that is an idea that both Schweitzer and Day would have honored.

Book 6
All such lists of books always call me to post one of my favorite theologians which means not only C.S. Lewis but these days whatever has recently come from the pen of either  Walter Brueggemann  or N. T. Wright. I went with this N.T. Wright because it is a very clear statement of how and why no one political party owns the Bible. This book is one of the many that has helped me formalize my insistence that I am neither Evangelical nor Fundamentalist and it is my Christian calling not to be.
Book 5
The remaining selection is from my Evelyn Whitaker Library because it's my project and never far from my heart. I can never pass up a chance to make others aware of the wonderful writings of "the author of Tip Cat" who published anonymously.  Laddie was one of her first published works and tells of the story of a successful London doctor and his loving  mother and his failure to care for her. Over 20 years later Whitaker published another story reversing the gender. A woman nurse of exceptional ability and potential is called home to care for her aged and abusive father. Together the books present a deft contrast between gender roles and societal expectations.  

20 October 2019

LAMENT: "a time to weep... to mourn... to rend... to speak..."

The serious study of Hebrew Prophets is a dangerous business but the church where I worship is willing to grapple with serious things and to hear judgment and instruction. We have spent the last several weeks with the Prophet Jeremiah whose words all too often seem all too pertinent for our time. 
Today I was asked to lead our congregation in a prayer of lament.
A biblical lament [there are many examples in the Psalms] is comprised of 5 parts:
  1. The cry. A suffering people cry out to their God, uncertain that there is a God to answer.
  2. The complaint. The suffering is described and the people demand that God see their pain.
  3. The confession. The "real problem" is acknowledged and the source of suffering becomes clear to the people.
  4. The profession. The people turn back to God in trust and dare to hope that God hears, God sees, God restores.
  5. The shout of praise. The people, still suffering but now hopeful, praise the God whose love is the one eternal thing in a challenging world. 

A Psalm of Lament by K Cummings Pipes 20 October 2019

Based on Lamentations and The Beatitudes
[I begin with the cry from the 130th Psalm. Phrases in quotations are from Lamentations with the exception of the one marked with * which is from Walter Brueggemann's collection of prayers, "Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth," Fortress Press, 2003.]

“Out of the depths, we cry” to you,
O Lord, Our God.
We are “lost and wandering”
and no longer know The Way.
We “weep through the night
and know no rest.”
We are “deceived” and “betrayed”
and all that was sweet is now bitter.
“Out of the depths, we cry” to you,
O Lord, Our God.

“See, O Lord!”
We have been “caught in the net and stumbled.
We have rebelled against you.
Our sins are a yoke around our necks;
we are enslaved in darkness.”
We take your blessing for granted
in our greed for more and in our refusal to share.
We take your mercy for granted
while refusing to be merciful
       to orphans and strangers and exiles
who plead for help.
We claim to be your children
while making war, not peace.

We live in a “seduced world…  so that we rarely see 
      the truth of these matters.”*
But this morning, in this moment,
we see the truth
and we come to you as we are
in all our faithless faith
and dare to hope for rescue.

For you, O LORD, are enthroned forever.”
“Bring us back to you.”
"Forgive us."
“Renew us."
"Revive us.”

“The LORD’s kindness has not ended.
The LORD’s mercies are not exhausted.
Your steadfast love is new every morning.
Great is Your faithfulness!”

O Lord, Our God, hear our cry. 

11 December 2018

Gingerbread Bundt Cake

I usually serve this cake with my homemade lemon curd and I use the same mixing bowl and beaters for the cake. Since I don't wash them in between the cake has just a touch of lemon. This cake is extra moist and tender. 
I have, at times, added golden raisin, chopped dates, pecans, and a little candied ginger and called it fruitcake. Good fruit cake. As my sister-in-law once said, "This is wonderful! It's what you always hope fruitcake will be but it never is."

Cake baking tip: Be sure to let the butter, eggs, and water warm to room temperature if at all possible. It will make for a better rise and an improved texture.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 10- to 12-cup bundt-style pan. (I use Baker's Joy spray to prep the pan.)

In a large bowl sift 2 1/2 cups of all purpose flour. Then remeasure and remove 2 1/2 cups from the bowl and put it back into the sifter. Some of the first will be left and will not be used.
To the sifter add
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ginger, 
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg,
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves, 
  • [the traditional would reduce the cinnamon by 1/2 teaspoon and use allspice but no one in my family has every used allspice. We all like cinnamon.]
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
and sift again.
[This double-sifting will make for a lighter cake with a more tender crumb.]
Set aside.

In the large mixer bowl, cream together (beat until fluffy)
  • 3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
  • Add, one at a time, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl after each addition. 
  • 2 large eggs
  • Stir in
  • 1/2 cup of Louisiana or East Texas dark cane syrup.
  • [The traditional is molasses but I live in the South and my great grandparents made cane syrup.]

  • Add the flour mixture in three additions alternately with
  • 1 cup water (room temperature)
  • starting and ending with the flour. Mix just until smooth.
  • Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top.

  • Bake the cake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.
[I set a timer at 45 minutes to check to see. In my oven this cake usually takes just a bit less than an hour.]

Remove the cake from the oven, cool it in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a rack.

While the cake is baking, make the glaze.

Pour the glaze over the warm cake. I usually have a plate under the rack to catch the glaze that runs off so I can pour that back over the cake.. 
The granulated sugar gives the cake a sugary coat which is another nod to Pfeffernüsse.
Allow the cake to cool completely before serving.

I like to garnish the cake with a good dollop of lemon curd and either a small dip of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

  • 1/3 cup Grand Marnier [French cognac with bitter orange liqueur]
  • [some would use Triple Sec or rum or even water]
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • [I'm excessively fond of ginger so I double this which gives the glaze the bite of  Pfeffernüsse]
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

Here is a link to my 2014 post with my recipe for lemon curd. The Life I Read: Holiday recipes 2014 Lemon Curd

16 November 2018

How to Secure Peace in an Anxious World: the 23rd Psalm

YWWH Ra'ah LORD, My Shepherd

Sometime last August, Andrea Castle Engle  handed me her outline for the Thursday Bible Class at SouthwestCentralHouston and asked me to reflect on How to Secure Peace in an Anxious World.
She had chosen a key verse: 
"I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for Thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8 
Andrea focused on the 4th Chapter of Philippians for the semester's study, asserting that it is a toolbox for dealing with anxiety, for finding peace and rest.
She's right! 
Andrea invited me as a guest speaker to conclude the study, asking me to consider how the Pauline Epistle related to the Davidic 23rd Psalm.
 These two texts go hand-in-hand:
(1) Paul urging the Philippians and us to “be anxious in nothing” but to "rejoice in the Lord" and trust God’s provision to meet our needs and
(2) David’s song celebrating the ways that the LORD shepherds us.

This post includes not only my teaching on that day in November 2018 but links to a number of resources I use for Psalms and Hebrew study. It does not include any additional commentary on Philippians.
From early childhood, we learn the 23rd Psalm and are taught to recite it in times of stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty.  My sister repeated it over and over and over on her Careflight to the Emergency Cardiac Unit in Waco after her heart attack.  She said she was never afraid because, no matter what might happen, she was safe because “the Lord is my shepherd.My own husband David often recited the 23rd as well as the 130th Psalm last year as we walked through the dark valley. Many others have similar stories.  
The 23rd Psalm is the standard scripture imprinted on funeral memorial folders. It is known as the American funeral psalm and read at almost all funerals. At my parents' memorials we recited it by memory because our family flock all know and find comfort and peace in these words which echo down the generations.
This song of an ancient shepherd, this prayer of Israel’s shepherd king is still our comfort even in the darkest valley. Saying these words enables us to “lay me down in peace and sleep” for the “LORD only makes me dwell in safety.”

Like many Psalms, the 23rd is very visual and grounded in the day-to-day life of Israel. Here is a link to a 4-minute video to help with our visualization of shepherds and sheep in Israel where you won't find sheep grazing in "belly-deep alfafah... What are those? Rock eating sheep?"

"Worry is dealing with tomorrow's problems on today's pasture."

In most English translations, the psalm begins with what sounds to our ears as a straightforward statement: "The LORD is my shepherd." 
In Hebrew, it begins with a Name of God: 
YWWH Ra'ah LORD! My Shepherd! 
The word that is translated "LORD" is an appeal to the great "I AM" who is the One who keeps covenant and rescues His people.  It is the personal name of God, almost too holy to be spoken aloud. The addition of "Ra'ah" makes it personal to the psalmist; it is an appeal to the One who is "My Shepherd." Yes, He is the shepherd of the flock but He is unequivocally the shepherd of each individual sheep. 
When a sheep falls off a cliff, or wanders from the path and away from the flock and green pastures, or is threatened by a predator, or gets a hoof trapped in the rocks and is alone and in danger, the sheep bleats,  "BAA! BAA! BAA! "My Shepherd! Come! Help me! I'm in a dark valley; you are my shepherd. I know your name; I hear your voice.  I am completely dependent on you to save me." The 23rd Psalm begins with a call to remember that relationship between me and my shepherd. For God to remember; for me to remember.

The Psalms are poetry and poetry is by far the most difficult genre to move from one language to another. Poetry is not literal; it is not word-for-word. Poetry is more like music than it is like narrative. Much of the meaning of poetry happens between the lines, by the sounds of the words, by repetitions, by alliterations, by re-definitions and nuance, and by the structure of the verse. 
Noted translator and author of The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, and Practice (1993) Willis Barnstone said:

 "A translation is an x-ray, not a xerox."

Hebrew poetics are not always visible in our translations. 

Here is link to a gathering of many the translations of the 23rd Psalm into English:

I have recast an English translation of Psalm 23 as a spoken word duet.
I chose to use a less familiar  version (NEB 1966) and have toyed with it a bit, hoping to make it more reflective of the assumptions and emphasis which are obvious in the Hebrew but don’t really translate into English. 
In particular the phrase "for His name's sake" is the central idea of the Psalm. Hebrew poetics make it the unseen modifier of every verse. Every action in the Psalm is "for His name's sake" and flows from the very being of God because of the relationship of the Psalmist to his God, because of the relation of the shepherd to His sheep. I hope you will hear these very familiar verses with fresh ears and perhaps with new understanding.

I am most grateful to Cynthia Byrd Clemmons, my partner in spoken word. 
[I have fine-tuned it a bit since we read it.] 

 YHWH Ra’ah – LORD my Shepherd!
For his name’s sake, I shall want nothing.
For his name’s sake he makes me lie down in green pastures,
and leads me beside the waters of peace.
For his name’s sake, He renews life within me.  

He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake,
even though I walk through a valley dark as death.
Even though I walk through a valley dark as death,
He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake,

For your name’s sake, I fear no evil,
for thou, YHWH Ra’ah, art with me,
thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.

For your name’s sake,
Thou, YHWH Ra’ah, spread a table for me in the sight of my enemies;
thou, YHWH Ra’ah, have richly bathed my head with oil,
and my cup runs over.

For his name’s sake, Goodness and love unfailing,
these will follow me all the days of my life, and
because He is my shepherd,
I shall dwell in the house of YHWH my whole life long.

One the tools I use to understand the poetics of Hebrew is to listen to the Psalms as they are sung in the Hebrew. Here is link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn2Tw1IEAF0

 Now for a close reading of the Psalm.

The structure of the Psalm is:
ABCDA'B'C' which indicates a linear correspondence between verses in the first and in the second half of the Psalm. It would also indicate that verse 4 is the main point and the turning point of the Psalm. "Even though" is the pivot  which marks the psalmist's act of remembering who God is and who he is. It is an act of profound rebellion in deviance of current circumstance which moves the sheep nearer and back  into the presence of his shepherd. This movement is reflected in the psalm which moves
  1. from exterior pastures to interior banquet table in the house
  2. from needs of today to all the days and forever
  3. from the Shepherd leading to Goodness and mercy following
  4. from "He" to "Thou" 
 According to the paradigm of my favorite Christian scholar of Hebrew Scriptures, Walter Brueggemann, ABC represent Orientation - I understand my relationship to the Shepherd and have everything I need. D is the event of Disorientation - the dark valley that challenges my understanding of that relationship, the lack that makes me question the Shepherd's provision and maybe his existence, that moment of dissonance  marked by  doubt, despair, and death which forces me to change direction. A'B'C' represent Reorientation - "the faithful self speaks to the doubting soul" and I again trust the Shepherd to provide abundantly, fears lose their power, and my hope is renewed. 
 [Brueggemann's impeccable scholarship and prophetic voice are unsurpassed.
I highly recommend any book by Brueggemann but for the purposes of this blog I'll go with 

I am currently reading: The Gospel of Hope.

I've been privileged to "sit at his feet" several times. Here is a link to the lecture I listened to this morning:
Here is a gathering of Brueggemann quotations:

Psalm 23 NEB 1966 with notes
 1 The LORD is my shepherd;
YWWH -Ra'ah Personal name of God and relationship to psalmist.
The name that is the source of "for His name's sake" and the impetus of all God's action and all my response.
I shall want nothing
 Because the LORD is my Shepherd I need nothing more. All the actions are God’s: makes to lie, leads, renews, guides. I respond to God’s actions.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
and leads me beside the waters of peace;
"lie down" is יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי  carries meanings of rest and to spread out in a safe resting place. It shares a common root with "dwell" which will be echoed in verse 6 
Recall that "green pastures" is a place where the needs of today are met.
It is essentially the prayer Jesus taught: "Give us today our daily bread."
 3 he renews life within me,
All life comes from the breath of God who provides the needs of our lives in food, water, peace, rest. I think "he restores my soul" is the better translation. The Hebrew word translated "life" or "soul" is "nephesh" נַפְשִׁ֥ which also means a living being, a self, a person having desire, passion, appetite, emotion
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake,
Note: "paths' is plural like the grazing paths cross-crossing the Judean hillsides.  While each sheep chooses and follows its own narrow path, the flock moves in the same direction as the shepherd. I think we are often quite arrogant sheep when we criticize another's path.
for his name’s sake,
recalls the opening shout of the psalmist: YWHW Ra'ah!
The poem's structure means that his phrase is the unspoken modifier of every verse. Some English translation move this phrase to the front but in Hebrew it  falls between "paths" and "even though" and it must be there to maintain the poetical structure.
4 even though I walk through a valley dark as death.
The turning point, the pivot of the Psalm. The structure would bear a translation as a mirrored phrase: "He guides me in right paths for his name's sake even though I walk through a valley dark as death. Even though I walk through a valley dark as death, He guides me right paths for His name's sake."
I fear no evil, for thou art with me,
thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.
The pivot from "He" to "Thou" is a turn toward the Shepherd and brings Him near. In v. 1, I want nothing; in verse 4b, I fear nothing. The Shepherd's tools for rescue and defense comfort the sheep. "Thou" also indicates the nearness of the Shepherd and the fact that the sheep knows the shepherd's voice and names him "My Shepherd."
5 Thou spreadest a table for me in the sight of my enemies; thou hast richly bathed my head with oil,  and my cup runs over.
Images echo those of v. 2 but have multiplied to abundant hospitality (a banquet feast and an anointed head) and so much wine that cups overflow.
How safe must one feel to sit at a table with enemies?
We might also see in the presence of "bread, oil, and wine" the liturgical presence of the Holy One of Israel. Christians might extend these images to the Eucharist, the Communion Table.
Goodness and love unfailing,
these will follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
A rabbi once told me that the attributes of God were names of God and proof of His Presence. 
He and I were both waiting for our cars to come from the valet parking at M.D. Anderson Hospital. It was the first night of Chanukah and, after answering my question about the pronunciation of a Hebrew phrase-- "May those in need of healing find refu'ah sh'leima"--the rabbi asked if I would like to hear his Shabbat teaching. Of course, I counted it an honor and a blessing. He reviewed the history of Chanukah and then said that always the greater miracle, greater even than the oil in the Temple lamps, is Shalom because it is one of the names of God.
"Goodness and love unfailing" the attributes of My Shepherd and a sure sign of his presence. 
"Love unfailing" in Hebrew is checed וָחֶ֣סֶד  "the steafast love of the LORD never ceases, His mercies never come to an end." The word is used 130 times in the Psalms. Interestingly it derives from a primitive root which means to bow one's head in courtesy to an equal, to be kind and merciful. Thus, God's checed originates in Creation: "Let us make man in our own image." Any instance of God's checed is an invitation to relationship, to conversation, to friendship with God as Abraham, Moses, and David experienced. It is Immanuel--God with Us!
I have previously taught and blogged on "the house of YHWH" in the Psalms. Here is a link to that blog: 

I was once privileged to sit at the feet of Rabbi Harold S. Kushner as he presented Psalm 23 and post my notes here so I can find them later.
most recognizable psalm,  America's funeral psalm
Rabbi Kushner, calls it a 3-act play depicting one man's story:
            first, peace & serenity; then darkness and grief; finally new relationship with God
            God, the source of strength at a time when all seemed lost.
For Kushner, "the 23rd offers lessons on
            gratitude ("my cup runneth over"),
            direction "he guides me in straight paths, for his name's sake),
            and inner peace (he makes me lie down in green pastures").
"God's promise is never that life would be fair; God's promise is that whenever we have to confront the unfairness, He will be with us."
"The most  important lesson is that in times of trouble God does not explain, God comforts."
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner