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Thoughts on Psalm 136

August 31, 2008
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In reading Psalm 136 earlier I thought that it seems as though there has been an interpolation within this liturgy. The basic unit seems to my eyes to be thematically creational with an interpolation of Israel’s history from the exodus up to the settlement (with the Sinai tradition noticeably missing).

So the basic unit (vv. 1-9, 26):

[1] Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
[2] Give thanks to the God of gods.
[3] Give thanks to the Lord of lords.
[4] Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles.
[5] Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.
[6] Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters.
[7] Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights
the sun to rule the day,
and the moon and stars to rule the night.
[8] Give thanks to the God of heaven.

Interpolation (vv. 10-24):

Give thanks to him who killed the firstborn of Egypt.
His faithful love endures forever.
He brought Israel out of Egypt.
His faithful love endures forever.
He acted with a strong hand and powerful arm.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who parted the Red Sea.
His faithful love endures forever.
He led Israel safely through,
His faithful love endures forever.
but he hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who led his people through the wilderness.
His faithful love endures forever.
Give thanks to him who struck down mighty kings.
His faithful love endures forever.
He killed powerful kings—
His faithful love endures forever.
Sihon king of the Amorites,
His faithful love endures forever.
and Og king of Bashan.
His faithful love endures forever.
God gave the land of these kings as an inheritance—
His faithful love endures forever.
a special possession to his servant Israel.
His faithful love endures forever.
He remembered us in our weakness.
His faithful love endures forever.
He saved us from our enemies.
His faithful love endures forever.

Notes
1. I have removed “His faithful love endures forever” from the basic unit as it presupposes a covenantal relationship which does not fit the context of creation*. I would posit that it belonged properly to the section that was inserted and for the sake of consistency it was added to the basic unit.

2. Owing to the structure of verse 1 (“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good”) with 1a being the call to praise and 1b being the reason I would posit that the original Psalm upon which the basic unit is based looked something like what follows:

[1a] Give thanks to the Lord,
[1b] for he is good!
[2a] Give thanks to the God of gods,
[2b] for he is good!
[3a] Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for he is good!
[4a] Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles,
[4b] for he is good!
[5a] Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully,
[5b] for he is good!
[6a] Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters,
[6b] for he is good!
[7a] Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights
[7b] the sun to rule the day,
[7c] and the moon and stars to rule the night.
[7d] for he is good!
[8a] Give thanks to the God of heaven.
[8b] for he is good!

Though I am open to the idea that verse 7 could have had “for he is good!” after 7a, 7b and 7c.

3. I am unsure where verse 25 (“He gives food to every living thing”) would belong as it does not seem to fit either the basic unit or the interpolation very well but out of the two I would favour it being part of the basic unit. Perhaps it was part of the original psalm (Note 2 above) which should have been deleted by the redactor who failed to do so.

[* EDIT: I would suggest a read of Gerhard von Rad’s essay, “The Theological Problem of the Old Testament Doctrine of Creation”]

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2008 4:10 pm

    Can you elaborate more on the reason for your suggestion? Where does the ci-tov gome from in your thinking? Why is chesed l’olam not appropriate from the beginning?

  2. August 31, 2008 6:09 pm

    Hi Bob,

    I would preface my comments by saying that they are no more than thoughts and once we try to dig deeper into how the final form of the Psalms (individual) came about we are entering speculative territory. Hence the thoughts are offered as an hypothesis.

    Where does the ci-tov [c]ome from in your thinking?

    The first cola of verse 1 of Psalm 136 runs “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!” Hence I would see ki-tov as being original to the psalm upon which the basic unit is based. This I take as providing an indication of how the original psalm was structured i.e. a. imperative, b. reason. This could also explain why it was chosen to be the basic unit of Psalm 136 which has the same structure.

    Why is chesed l’olam not appropriate from the beginning?

    Have you read Gerhard von Rad’s “The Theological Problem of the Old Testament Doctrine of Creation”? It makes for interesting reading.

    hesed implies the existence of a covenantal relationship and I am doubtful that in the minds of early Israel creation was related to covenant. This consciousness did develop but it was a more recent development. Hence I would argue that the original psalm did not include “His faithful love endures forever” but when the interpolation was added ki-tov was removed and replaced by “His hesed endures forever”.

  3. August 31, 2008 8:04 pm

    Thanks, Richard. If I see von Rad in the library I will have a look at it. I have not read it. I will ponder these things further as well – still at the beginning of my thoughts – and not sure if I want to give a diachronic reading preference…

  4. August 31, 2008 8:12 pm

    Bob,

    The essay is found in From Genesis to Chronicles by Gerhard Von Rad but it’s not worth buying the whole book just for that essay.

  5. September 4, 2008 6:16 am

    I found the book in the UVIC library – my first impression of that particular essay which I read first is that von Rad uses too many adjectives. I am always resistant to those who tell me that such and such a conclusion is ‘obvious’.

    Thank you for the pointer – even if I read a little of his work in translation, it is better than nothing. He cannot do my work for me – though he has more training than I have. I can see also that he laboured under severe governance problems that I am grateful I have not had to deal with.

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