Psalm 15:1: Lord, who may be a guest in your home?
Who may live on your holy hill?
Psalm 24:3 Who is allowed to ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may go up to his holy dwelling place?
From the NET Bible.
Nahum Sarna, in On the Book of Psalms, treated Psalm 15 and Psalm 24 together. because they both ask who is worthy to enter the Temple, the presence of God. Modern scholars often term them liturgies of entrance. The idea is that these psalms were sung on feast days when people entered the Temple to make sacrifices. Both psalms answer the question “who?” with the answer that the one who is acceptable to God lives an ethical life.
Psalm 15 speaks of the one who “walks blamelessly.” Psalm 24 speaks of the one who has “clean hands and a pure heart.” Although they use purity language it is clear that both Psalms are talking entirely about ethical purity, not ritual purity.
Sarna compared the two psalms to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. That book, which we have because the Egyptians often deposited a copy when they interred a mummy, responded to the question of what one had to do to achieve life after death. Sarna pointed to chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead where the dead have to declare that they have not committed a list of misdeeds.
Some of these remind us of the ethics of the Hebrew Bible. The dead person declares that he has not robbed the poor, killed, committed adultery, added to the balance of weights, taken milk from the mouths of children, and so on. This was also a kind of liturgy of entrance.
Sarna also pointed to a Summerian hymn about the holy city of Nippur. The hymn declares that the holy city does not tolerate envy, arrogance, libelous speech, breach of contract and such.
These may serve to put the ethics of these psalms in cultural context. But Sarna did not necessarily agree that there was a formal liturgy of entrance at the Temple. At least he did not think it was an exclusionary liturgy. Since one reason people came to the Temple was to atone for their sins, what would be the point of excluding sinners from the Temple?
However, I think some Israelites might have interpreted these psalms as exclusionary.
Many years ago I wrote a paper arguing that the Dead Sea sect found much of its critique of the Jerusalem priesthood in the violation of the 15th Psalm. In other words, the Qumran sect found the Jerusalem priests unworthy to serve in the Temple based on violation of the ethics expressed in Psalm 15. I remember that I particularly focused on the requirement in verse 4 (as I interpreted it) to “hate the rejected one.”
I remember saying that, for the Dead Sea sect, this justified their hostility toward others. Hatred was an ethical requirement. (I once served a church that had an internet filter for hate speech. It would not let my into some translations of the DSS.)
The verse also fit with their idea of predestination. Unethical people, from the point of view of the sect, were just showing the fact that God had given them a fate of destruction from birth. At Qumran, they were Jewish Calvinists or something.
Since I wrote that, a lot of new scrolls have been translated and there is much controversy about who the folks at Qumran were. So I do not know if I would still agree with my old paper.
But Psalm 15 may have been of some influence at Qumran.
I was especially interested in how Sarna would treat verse 4. He translated the first half of v. 4 (the verses are different in the Hebrew Bible, so for Sarna it was v. 3):
for whom a contemptible man is abhorrent,
but who honors those who fear the Lord.
His take on it was that the virtue commended was that of being able to read and evaluate the character of others. The point is not to hate unethical people. On the other hand, to respect or honor them as though they were good is messed up.
The spiritual point of Psalm 15 is to back up the prophets in holding ethics and worship together. If you are a decent person you treat others well and do not slander or cheat them. You do not participate in corrupt government. Unless you are trying to be a decent person, your approach to God is empty.
Sarna treated Psalm 15 and 24 in one chapter, but I will save another post for more details about Psalm 24.