Saturday, November 4, 2017

Distilling Distilled Wisdom: The Book of Psalms

Next book: Proverbs

Reading distilled ancient wisdom is good. Even if it doesn't make sense or is offensive by more civilized moral standards, at the most superficial level the imagery and strength of the language is often enjoyable, and if the text in question contributed to the culture you're living in, you pick up those references more easily. Even better, you can read words from ages ago and see what experiences are universal to being human. Most importantly, maybe you can learn something to become a better person. For these reasons, for some time I've been wanting to read the Book of Psalms. (Wiki background here.) I know many people would recommend that for wisdom, Proverbs is better (summary here) but Psalms is also interesting. It turns out Psalms is basically a collection of Hebrew hymns, even including instructions to music directors, and the some of the text is even adapted from hymans to other gods. Below are my observations; I read a New International Version.

My choosing to do this might surprise atheists and Christians alike. Like many atheists, I used to avoid Christian texts - but then realized how silly this was. First of all, is it really all bad? (See vegetarian Hitler fallacy.) Will my hands and brain rot when I read it, as North Koreans are told will happen if they touch South Korean printed material that ends up on their side of the wall? Even sillier from an atheist standpoint - do we think it actually has magic powers and Jesus will get you if you read too much of the Bible?* Think about it this way - what would make an authoritarian Christian more nervous, an atheist ignoring the Bible ("well of course they are, they're immoral devil-spawn, I'm comfortable with that"), or atheists learning about the Bible on their own, forming their own ideas about it, without Christian guidance? If considering the Bible in secular settings weren't such anathema, it wouldn't seem so strange - or worrisomely offensive - or hilarious - when people like Umberto Eco analyze the Bible as literature written by humans, which it is.

You'll see why I included this in a second. From

I had expected the Book of Psalms to be basically a collection of Christian koans, but I didn't find that. The most intriguing parts are descriptions of psychological experiences in the face of suffering, something we all still struggle with today - but that's not the majority of the text. Where it does occur, it often occurs with puzzlement about how such things can happen if God is watching, which makes me really sad. With or without an intervening belief to confuse us, suffering exists, and these were written by people who certainly knew their share of suffering, made all the worse by the world not working the way they thought it would.

But about eighty percent of it can be summarized as "Don't worry.** God is in charge and will always be there, like a rock. Follow the correct god and he will help you. He will protect you against bad people. There will be consequences for people who ignore him and follow other gods," along with some "psych-up" psalms like you might play before a spinning class or football game. (When the Psalms were first written as hymns, this is probably the only time these people heard music in their lives.) There's a fair bit of inconsistency, e.g., asking God to smite others who are wicked ("in their hearts" - to do this, we have to make the evaluation based on some unobservable quality, not on actual behavior.) There are also requests to forget the sins of ancestors (chapters 79 and 85) but very specific appeals to remember when one's ancestors remained loyal (86).

There's not a lot of room for meditating on moral nuance here.*** But there are some gold nuggets to be separated from the gravel - which is actually what another writer whose name now escapes me once said about Plato, whose writing similarly contains some useful ideas surrounded in mythology, space-eating argument-formatting (the prose style of the time), the moral and cultural assumptions provincial to his time and place, and lots of superstition. (Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is similar.) I found Psalms very similar to both Plato and Confucius in this regard, and I often wonder if these works' impacts on culture today has to do with anything about them specifically - or just that they had the good future to be written down during this period around twenty-five centuries ago. That second alternative could be put more mundanely as: aren't these thoughts that many people have been walking around thinking all the time anyway, and this was the first period with cultures and technology that put enough people far enough off the Malthusian margin and had stable known trade routes, so these things could be written down and spread? My own guess is the latter. (This actually parallels a controversial and now discredited idea from Stephen Jay Gould about evolution.)****

Observations by Chapter:

Psalm 5:9 - "Their throats are open graves." I just like that line. Reminds me of Nezahualcoyotl.

7 - a shiggaion of David - the meaning is lost but is thought to be "a wild, mournful ode" (also sounds very metal.)

10, 12, 13, 22, 35, 44, 74, 79, 85, 89 - all about the problem of theodicy, i.e. "why are bad things happening to me, why aren't you helping me?" For atheists: think of this as bad things happening, despite doing the right thing, despite trying to plan for every contingency. Whoever you are, it's still hard to cope when the randomness of existence imposes itself on your awareness with pain. For the people writing this, it was not an abstract philosophical problem. These were people with terrible suffering and life-threatening problems who needed help right now, and couldn't understand why it wouldn't come.

Baal. One of the false gods they were constantly warning people about. Kind of reminds me of Ultraman. From wiki

12 - the writer is already complaining about moral downfall and passive-aggression leading to the demise of civilization twenty-five centuries ago. You can find boat-loads of the same thing in the Bhagavad Gita. And yet here we still are!

13 - this is a great description of ruminative depression: "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death..."

14 - 14:1 contains the passage that Christians love to quote that the fool says in his heart there is no God, but the next two verses make it pretty clear that no one else is any good: "The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one."

15 - fifth verse clearly states that charging interest on loans is not Godly.

17 - something to give comfort when near defeat and beset on all sides, and a plea for revenge that would make Genghis Khan blush. "Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked who are out to destroy me, from my mortal enemies who surround me. They close up their callous hearts, and their mouths speak with arrogance. They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground. They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a fierce lion crouching in cover. Rise up, LORD, confront them, bring them down; with your sword rescue me from the wicked. By your hand save me from such people, LORD, from those of this world whose reward is in this life. May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies; may their children gorge themselves on it, and may there be leftovers for their little ones."

18 - Very good war invocation. 37-50 says "I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. I crushed them so that they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me. You made my enemies turn their backs in flight, and I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them - to the LORD, but he did not answer. I beat them as fine as windblown dust; I trampled them like mud in the streets. You have delivered me from the attacks of the people; you have made me the head of nations. People I did not know now serve me, foreigners cower before me; as soon as they hear of me, they obey me. They all lose heart; they come trembling from their strongholds. The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior! He is the God who avenges me, who subdues nations under me, who saves me from my enemies. You exalted me above my foes; from a violent man you rescued me. Therefore I will praise you, LORD, among the nations; I will sing the praises of your name. He gives his king great victories; he shows unfailing love to his anointed, to David and to his descendants forever."

19 - A description of the regularity of natural law (the sun rising and setting) as an example of God's comforting constancy. (Although now, when the tide goes in, tide goes out, you can explain it.)

21 - Another great war invocation. 9-10 says, "When you appear for battle, you will burn them up as in a blazing furnace. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and his fire will consume them. You will destroy their descendants from the earth, their posterity from mankind."

22 - An excellent description of the underappreciated symptoms of depression and anxiety, e.g. the somatic sensations and even near-delusional ideas that one should be dead or is about to die. "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment." And of course in those times, much more likely that the reader or their loved ones had experienced these things in reality.

23 - The "lead me beside quiet waters/even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil" one. This one is quite good and it makes sense it's so well-known. As for the comfort provided by water - the Middle East wasn't quite as dry when this was written as it is today, but when traveling you still would've had to constantly worry about finding water; to reproduce this experience, try hiking in the desert and getting to an oasis. (That's why I included that picture above.) For this experience in North America anyway, you can't beat the palm oases in Anza-Borrego - and many people actually feel a physiological sense of relief when you reach the green shade of the grove. You'll then understand this choice of imagery a little more intuitively.

29 - This one was originally to Baal, from the period when Judaic religion was polytheistic and Yahweh was basically Zeus. (Amazing how easy it is to stumble across the other gods of the Hebrew religion when you the Old Testament without even looking for them!) Baal was the patron deity of Carthage and so even before Christianity the Romans went out of their way to paint him as a bloodthirsty monster (although Carthaginians probably did actually sacrifice their children to him.) Consequently this is the most metal Psalm so far, which I reproduce in whole:
1 Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic. 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning. 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever. 11 The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.

30 - I can't tell if this one is asking us to motivate ourselves in the face of fear by thinking of greater goals outside of ourselves, or asking God to think about sparing us because it makes more sense to let us go on praising Him. "What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?"

31:12-13 - More psychopathology - More brokenness and paranoia: "I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery. For I hear many whispering, 'Terror on every side!' They conspire against me and plot to take my life."

32:9 - The single best piece of wisdom so far. "Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you."

33:7 Just like even Shakespeare and Beethoven have their duds, not all the expressions of glory find their mark: "He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses." I can imagine a northern pagan responding "Oh yeah? Well Odin puts the mountains into sheds. What do you think about that?"

37:11 - "The meek will inherit the land." Very different from the sense given by the usual translation.

45 - Supposedly an erotic or romantic chapter. It was written for a wedding, and this seems to fit, but if this passes for erotic - it must have been written by an eighth-grader. "My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer. You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your side, you mighty one; clothe yourself with splendor and majesty. In your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice; let your right hand achieve awesome deeds." Tee hee!

50 - the Old Testament makes comments about a flesh-and-blood god occasionally (things like eating and drinking, living in a certain place, etc.) that don't make us wonder when the ancient Greeks do it, but do now seem strange since we've moved on to a more abstract God. It seems strange today to draw pictures of God but as recently as the Renaissance people were getting paid good money for physical representations. (Imagine the Pope telling Michelangelo: "This is the last picture of God in Western Christianity so make it good!")

53 - Verse 1 calls non-believers fools again, and again the very next two verses say that no one is any good.

58 - Pretty good one, especially the cobra bit, but has some confusing mixed metaphors. (Quoted in full below.) That said, people writing these were not terribly literate and were just figuring out literary tricks as they went, so they deserve our tolerance!
1 Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? 2 No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. 3 Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies. 4 Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, 5 that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be. 6 Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; LORD, tear out the fangs of those lions! 7 Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. 8 May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun. 9 Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns— whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away. 10 The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 Then people will say, "Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth."

69 - Not that similar to the Ministry song, but does have a very visceral theme of being overwhelmed, using water as a metaphor.

73 - An example of a theme found in other chapters about fortunate people being arrogant, addressing the resentment and bitterness that the less fortunate might feel. Summarized un-poetically: "They might be better off in health and wealth but they're morally inferior, and they'll get theirs." Of course people comfort themselves this way all the time, even without the Book of Psalms.

78 - The tale of God caring for his flock but then turning on them when they question Him - it strongly emphasizes how they rebelled against Him "in the wilderness", reminiscent of Salem, where being away from the central authority is a sure path to ruin. Several chapters describe this episode (105-107.) Of note, a similar theme exists in Chinese proverbs but as in many other domains it's about secular authority, e.g. "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away".

79 and 85 - The problem of theodicy is solved in these chapters in a "karma"-like way. That is, there's no mystery about why bad stuff is happening to you if you just assume there's evil you're somehow responsible for that you don't know about. Anyway, that's more satisfying than the solution in Job, where maybe you're caught in a rather impersonal bet between God and Satan. (Similar randomness-explaining mechanisms have been advanced in other religions, for example some Northern California people thought the weather was caused by gods gambling.)

84:10 - "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked." I wonder if this was the verse that Milton was reacting to when he wrote "Better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven."

89:46-48 - This one is another favorite. "How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity! Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave?" How long have we got? What is it all about? Where are we going?

Still no easy answers. From Psychology Today.

90:2-10 - A great one. In some ways it's quite comforting to feel insignificance and humility in the face of the universe. It ends with a reminder to value your time, because the clock is always ticking. (Said stoic Seneca: "We're tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers."
2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn people back to dust, saying, "Return to dust, you mortals." 4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. 5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: 6 In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered. 7 We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. 9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. 10 Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. 11 If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. 12 Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

106:28 - Mentions Baal by name. Is this the idol that Moses fought against?

110:6 - More vengeance. "He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth."

115:1-8 - Regarding whose god is real, this is a very clear "We're right, you're wrong, shut up." "Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Why do the nations say, "Where is their God?" Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. "

118:10-12 - "All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. They swarmed around me like bees, but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them down." The image of burning thorns is a great one - scary-looking and temporarily painful, then gone in a moment.

136 - The repetition of "your love endures forever" would probably be striking when performed musically. On the page it's not thrilling.

137:8-9 - A revenge fantasy about slavery in Babylon. "Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."

139:4 - Anticipating Libet's experiments about free will? (Probably not, but does immediately invoke the problem of free will in Christian morality.) "Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely."

141:6-7 - What can I say, I like the revenge ones. "Their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs, and the wicked will learn that my words were well spoken. They will say, 'As one plows and breaks up the earth, so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave.'"


*This is why the de-baptism fad a few years ago was pretty goofy. Unless you think that water on your head really did have magic in it - or we're just overgrown adolescents whose values are more about shocking our parents or rebelling against authority than doing something positive - who cares? I've found that quite often, religious people are more comfortable when atheists don't read their texts than when they do. This is an odd behavior most of us humans engage in frequently, when people from an out-group (with behavior and values we ostensibly want to help them improve) tell someone from the in-group, "actually, I don't always do X, or believe Y, that you disagree with", and the in-group responds "Yes you do! You do X and Y! Keep doing X and Y, which are bad!" This makes no sense at all, unless what they're really thinking on some level is "You're bad! We're good! Even though I abhor X and Y and say that people should stop it, I insist that you keep doing it, because otherwise you're blurring the moral in-group/out-group distinction!" (Start watching for people doing this, especially yourself. You may not have to wait long.) Letting Christians "have" the Bible - whether we like it or not, a major foundational contributor to Western culture - is as dangerous as liberals letting conservatives "have" patriotism. Read it on your own, outside of the church's authority. This is, after all, exactly why the Church of Rome resisted translating it into local languages and allowing independent study for so long. They weren't stupid - look what happened to their political power in Europe afterward.

**Or maybe, "Don't panic."

***There's not a lot of room for explicit moral ambiguity in a text that has aims at being a moral authority. The best moral discussions in the Bible come from inescapable implicit ambiguity, from the characters' moral choices like Job or Jeremiah, and these stories continue to be the subject of stories and debates and paintings to this day - from people outside the authority structure based on other parts of the Bible - "outside" meaning people who aren't benefiting from it. Some modern Biblical apologists, e.g. Albert Mohler, have pointed out (I think correctly) that without a supernatural framework, modern atheists tend to view religion in terms of moral and epistemological authority. In Christianity it's the Protestant Reformation which began that, complete with a false start in Wycliffe and the Hussites, suggesting it was just a matter of time - and this process has continued until today with modern post-Enlightenment atheism, the Meta-Reformation.

****Gould noted, as he looked back at the Cambrian explosion, that it produced whole phyla of new animals, rather than the measly new genera and a few families we've seen in the last few tens of millions of years. He therefore claimed (paraphrasing) "Evolution must have been fundamentally different in that period!" But the analogy is to look at a tree whose trunk divides into three thick subtrunks, but that at the ends the branches are producing mere twigs, and then say there was something fundamentally different about the tree's growth when it produced the three subtrunks compared to more recently. The obvious answer is that if you give the twigs the same amount of time as the subtrunks, they'll be as thick then as the subtrunks are now. And in another half a billion years, the descendants of mammals may be as varied as the descendants of primitive fish today. The cultural analog here is whether the Axial Age (the cultural Cambrian explosion) was special or just seems special because of our vantage point, and I argue the latter - with the additional complication that one of the innovations of Axial Age philosophies was to suppress other philosophies.

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