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Thoughts on the Psalms

Edward T. Babinski
December 20, 2004
Subject: other people's comments on our debate and the psalms


Dave,
Some comments from my friends, below, pertinent to the discussion we've been having. One friend graded us with an "A" for amicability, while another friend thought your responses appeared "mean." (No doubt some of your friends thought I was being "mean" or "irrational" as well.) Bruce Wildish's comments, below, about certain broad differences in theological viewpoint in different books of the Hebrew Bible, are the most interesting of all.


PHIL: Well, if we're grading, I would give both of you "A's" for "amiability, " impassioned and thought provoking discussions. I would give an "F" to the guy who sent you (Ed) the "burn in hell" hate mail posted on your site. Thanks for the update!


THOMAS: Ed, Armstrong and his gang are just too mean! Talk origins is propaganda? Why isn't the stuff they write considered propaganda? I thought none of the Christians treated you with kindness. Every response was belittling to you. Perhaps Steve could also take them on? Is he still debating with Turkel? Are you going to continue to reply to Armsrong?


ED (TO THOMAS): I thought it was interesting that in his first reply to me, Dave began with this line: "Ed's skeptical take on this is clear already: God's promises are null and void, and obviously vacant: just look at this poor woman; she was a Christian, and trusted God, but did that help her? No! Quite the contrary. God didn't do a darned thing to save her . . . Etc." Dave begins by picturing me as questioning "God," when I never said that I believed "God" wrote the psalms. I was contrasting what Psalm 91 said and promised (whether the psalms and their promises were inspired by "God" or not is another question), with what actually happened to Becca. Dave's response seems to have demonstrated Christianity's built-in defense system at work, namely that if you question the meaning, propriety, overblown pomposity/hyperbole, interpretation, or intent of a Biblical work or writer, then you are directly questioning "God" Himself.


A long-time friend of mine, Bruce Wildish, who has studied theology (though he is not a theologian), had a discussion with me years ago about certain broad differences between the theological views found in different parts of the Hebrew Bible, differences that Dave might disagree exist, or attempt to harmonize away, but which seem plain to a lot of religion professors whom Bruce has read. Whether or not you believe in "God" is not the point. The point is that the Bible remains a book whose origin and interpretations remain contested even by the world's greatest living religion professors.


Here's what Bruce wrote recently, recapping what he and I discussed years ago;.you can see how it applies to the discussion Dave and I have been having about the psalms:


BRUCE WILDISH: Ed, I believe you are talking about Deuteronomistic or retribution theology, which we see in Deuteronomy, the historical narrative that goes from Joshua--2Kings (excepting Ruth, which is an apology for accepting non-Jews into the fold), Jeremiah, the 12 minor prophets, and many of the Psalms. In a nutshell this theology affirms that righteous life, piety and religious purity result in a happy, long life, whereas unfaithfulness and religious infidelity lead to misery, suffering and perhaps even death. This theology was offered to "explain" the tragic history of the Israelites/Judahites, namely their ongoing sufferings at the hands of foreign powers and of course the Babylonian exile itself (the Eden story, though it borrows extensively from much older traditions, introduces this very same theology from the start: it is a metaphor for the Exile). The theology does not focus specifically on long life verses short life, it focuses on the more general categories of happiness/good life verses suffering/bad life; but the idea that righteousness results in a long life and unrighteousness a short life is fully consistent with the theology and sometimes there are claims that long life or death are the result of a person's religious behavior (good and bad respectively). The theology affirms the supremacy of Yahweh over all other gods and demands a very strict worship of Him alone; in this respect the "sins" to which it so often refers when citing the causes of Israel's history of tragedy essentially equate to religious infidelity toward Yahweh, i.e. the worshiping of the Baals and Asherahs (these are pluralized because there were all sorts of relgional incarnations of these deities; just as in ancient times there were many Yahwehs and Els).


One is tempted to think that was the dominant or normative (i.e. mainstream) theology of the people of Israel/Judah/Judea simply because it so significantly stamps the historical and prophetic works of the Bible (i.e. the Hebrew Bible). But this is only because the community of scholars, priests etc. who subscribed to this theology were the ones who produced and helped secure the dominance of this literature There were lots of other works that made the same claims about other gods and that affirmed different views (e.g. that defended religious pluralism and the righteousness of honoring different deities and different cults), but these were surpressed, destroyed, lost, etc. The Bible is the work of the winners in the debate, so it's no surprise that it affirms their point of view over all others. [ED'S COMMENT: I recall reading that all of the religious literature of the Northern Jewish nation was destroyed when that nation was wiped out, leaving only the religious literature of the Southern Israelite nation that makes up our present Bible.]


Job and Ecclesiastes are two examples of works from writers who did not subscribe to the simplisitic views of the retribution/Deuteronomistic theology. Each challenges its basic assumptions by pointing out an obvious flaw in the theory: good, righeous, pious people do suffer in life and in the end the good and the bad alike die. You'd literally have to go through life with your eyes closed to believe that righteousness and piety toward Yahweh guarantees a good long life. Unfortunately in the case of Job a Deuteronomistic editor has tried to conceal the original purpose of the story by tacking on a prologue/epilogue that makes a divine agent (that many today mistakenly think is satan the devil [ED'S COMMENT: The NIV Application Commentary on Genesis, copyright 2002 by a professor Wheaton College makes the same point about the "satan" in Job not being understood in ancient Israel as the "devil" of the N.T. In fact, the "angel of the Lord" who stopped Balaam the prophet on the road is also called a "satan" in Genesis, and neither is the "satan" mentioned in Job is not necessarily the same "satan" mentioned in Zechariah; that is what the professor admited who wrote the NIV Application Commentary on Genesis.] responsible for Job's sufferings (as part of a test), so as to explain away the naturalness of his sufferings (in the original work suffering is fobbed off as a mystery comprehensible only to God, as God himself ewxplains to Job; Ecclesiastes basically says the same thing, but seems less satisfied with having to settle for that answer).


All of this of course to the subject that modern theologians call theodicy: why do good people suffer and die young, while others who are not good enjoy long life and prosperity? The ancient Israelites/Judahites/Judeans confronted the same mystery. Deuteronomist theology was one proposed solution and thought that strict piety and devotion to Yahweh was the key to a good, long life. Others, like the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes, disagreed (they of course believed in the value of piety, they just rejected the notion that this guaranteed a good long life). And no doubt others had less than kind things to say about strict Yahwism and its religious teachings. There were prophets and priests of other gods and cults who taught that the neglect of these gods due to the influence of the kind of strict Yahwishm we see in the Bible was the cause of suffering and that the way to improve things was to embrace religious pluralism.


On a final note: the Psalms is a hodge-podge of material that reflects a variety of historical backgrounds and views, but the collection as a whole has been filtered through the Deuteronomist school, so many of them show signs of either Deuteronomistic origins or editing. Psalm 91, like many other Psalms, is a wisdom psalm from the Deuteronomist school, which is why it so strongly affirms Deuteronomist theology.


Later today I'll check out your links and see if this inspires any additional thoughts.


Bruce


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