Sunday, October 03, 2010

I was assigned Psalm 8. From the public library I picked up Alter's book. I didn't look at any other book, except the NAB notes. I overheard someone mention the Jewish Study Bible and kicked myself for not even glancing at it!

I decided to work from Alter's translation because his verse numbers follow those in the NAB, i.e., according to the Hebrew. I prepared a handout that reproduced the psalm. The worksheet came in the text of an email, not as a document. So I pasted the text into a Pages document and replicated the formatting as best as possible. In fact, the font size is larger than the original which seemed necessary.

The first question on the worksheet asked for a short sentence relating the central idea of the psalm. So I studied the passage and noticed that the middle of the psalm seems to carry the punchline:
What is man that You should note him, and the human creature, that You pay him heed?
The psalmist is astonished that the LORD regards him. Someone in the study group bristled at the word "astonished," as if the word had a negative connotation, expressing doubt. I thought of the idea in terms of "blown away" or "bowled over."

The next question requested two or three verses to back up my identification of the central idea. The heart of the psalm, verse 4-6, carry that. I didn't neglect the refrain repeated at the beginning and the end, forming an envelope or inclusio, but it was secondary.

The question that tripped everyone up asked to provide an illustration. I dreamed up a sketch about an out-of-our-league suitor who calls upon little-old-us. Then we were to connect this passage to the rest of Scripture. Obviously the original readers would "hear in all this a beautiful poetic reprise of Genesis 1"1 and the New Testament authors associate Christ with the one made a little lower than the angels, with all things subjected to him [Heb. 2:6-9; 1 Cor. 15:27].

I delivered my presentation fairly late in the program, by which time the tone was already more or less set by the previous presenters. We got into this horrible habit of interrupting each other quite freely, to the point that one woman was cut off with one full page to go! The thing is that, when people aren't confident, it's too easy to jump in, even out of empathy.

The curious thing is that I was (1) challenged on my selection of the central idea: someone thought the opening and closing refrain ought to serve. And (2) asked about the meaning of verse 2. Alter said that no satisfactory interpretation had been found so I took his word for that. But someone's Bible cross-referenced Matthew 21:16 and I was astonished that I missed that!

The study leader said that when the New Testament interprets the old, we're on very sure ground. Yes, but, of course, Jesus quotes the LXX which has emended the unintelligible Hebrew! And it's amazing to me that a translation like the NIV imposes Jesus' words from Matthew 21:16 - itself a quotation from the LXX - upon their English translation of Ps. 8:2, merely footnoting the Hebrew!

I sensed that both my view of man and Alter's view of man were just a little too esteemed for this group. However, to my surprise, just about everyone copied down the ISBN to Alter's book!

1 Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007) p. 24.

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