Sarna-Psalm 8

“There is no word for “Nature” in biblical Hebrew, and no conception of such an entity in biblical literature” (p. 68).

Nahum Sarna, in On the Book of Psalms, make this observation while discussing Psalm 8.  This is the psalm that contemplates the night sky full of stars and lit by the light of the moon (v. 4) and concludes,  “How majestic is your Name in all the earth!”

Sarna imagines a pagan looking at the same night sky.  The pagan would feel drawn to adore the stars and the moon themselves.  The pagan would personalize and divinize them.  But the Bible desacralizes nature.  It sees the stars and the moon as created objects.

Yet when Sarna comes to the tough-to-understand verse 2, he interprets the “foes” and “enemies” as drawn from mythological enemies in the pagan myths.  The world was created in Babylonian and Canaanite myth when a god defeated enemies like the god of the sea or the chaos monster, the mythological sea monster.  This motif occurs in the first two verses of Genesis where God creates the world over against the original chaos.  The eighth Psalm, like Genesis, uses this mythological background in a way that lifts up the sovereign freedom of the one God.

Israel uses this language because her enemies, like the surrounding waterless wilderness, the harsh climate, and actual enemy nations are subject to God just as the myths picture Ba’al exerting dominion over chaos.   But God’s foes are not divine beings.  When Psalm 8:6 talks about what God has subjected to humans, it is “the works of his hand”.  Even the things that God overcomes are his own creations.

Sarna wanted us to understand that when v. 6 says God has put all things under our feet, the phrase reflects the language often used of military conquest and subjugation (Joshua 10:24, 1 Kings 5:17).  Yet the victory that allows the works of God’s hands including the animals to be under the feet of humanity is God’s victory.  Thus, the subjugation of all things can never become an excuse for running roughshod over creation.  Ours is a tenancy granted by God.

So in this psalm the experience of the star-studded sky prompts the psalmist to think about the contrast between the greatness of God and the smallness of man.  Our smallness in contrast to God does not mean we are puny or “only human”.  It means that we have a derived greatness, a little less than the ‘elohim, the angels.  We derive this greatness from the greatness of God who has subjected and ordered all his own works.

Thus, in the presence of the vastness of space and the near infinity of the universe, men and women respond by crying out about how majestic is the name of God.  And they check their own tendency to pomposity.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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