Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The function of the root נשא in Ps 24?

According to proponents of literary interpretations of the Psalms, one should be sensitive to the repetition of keywords, keeping an eye out for the way in which their repetition may contribute to the overall meaning of the Psalm.

One such proponent is Beat Weber. I should point out before I continue that his commentary (it's more of a practical work book), Werkbuch Psalmen I, is one of my favourite Psalms commentaries of all time. It is possibly the only commentary I have which sends me away feeling like I have stuck my nose in every nook and cranny the Psalm has to offer. I really get to know the psalm in an intimate way. This is the advantage of literary approaches: they literally trawl a text for every linguistic artifact that can be dug up, interpreted, and fed into our understanding of the poem (Fokkelmann is another example, see his defence of the approach here). This is also a weakness of the approach, however. At least in the sense that we can't always take everything that is suggested too seriously. Sometimes significance is seen where in fact we only have chance. The text can be overinterpreted.

One possible example is the significance of the root נשא, which occurs in relatively high concentration in Psalm 24 (vv. 4b, 5a, 7a, b, 9a, b). Does this root constitute a keyword, a consciously placed literary device designed to broker new meaning in places we wouldn't have first expected it?

Beat Weber thinks so. In fact, he ranks it alongside he question-answer schema found in the Psalm (vv. 3, 8, 10) as primary evidence for the fact that the psalmist has “carefully conjoined” what many scholars think are two separate blocks within the Psalm: Ps 24:3-6 and 7-10 ("sections 2 and 3" in my scheme).

What follows is my critique of his theory. I should reiterate that I love Weber's commentary! Please don't think this represents an rejection of his book or his method at all. And please do point out where I am missing the point. I love being corrected.

Here goes. In short, he sees the נשא of v. 4 as signifying the ethical behaviour of the pilgrim and the נשא of v. 5 as signifying the the blessing that accrues upon such behaviour. Weber understands these two verbs as together signifying the entrance of the pilgrim into the temple. The נשא of the second stanza refer to the entrance of God himself into the sanctuary. The effect of the repetition of the root is to conjoin these two different entrances, in some manner. What this means for Weber, however, is determined by his broader interpretation of the relation between the parts of the Psalm, and not the semantics of נשא per se. In other words, the repetition of the root simply further "hooks" together what he thinks is paralleled anyway. In short, he believes that both entrances, divine and human, mirror each other in that the entrance of God and the entrance of the pilgrim fulfil the holy requirements of the sanctuary. The function of נשא, then, is to “interlock” (verzahnen) these two entrances further. To quote:
The 'ascension' and 'standing' of the pilgrim (before YHWH) (v. 3) must be in inner accordance with the (antecedent) 'coming/entrance' of YHWH (v. 7c; 9c). [*]
In my opinion, this interpretation of the significance of נשא seems forced and Weber's interpretation of the broader relation between the stanzas themselves appears untenable.

First, the significance of נשא:

1. It is hard to imagine that נשא in v. 4b can adequately represent the ethical requirements of the pilgrim. It is only one for four stated requirements, inconspicuously hidden in the middle of a tricolon.

2. Seen from a different angle, the יִשָּׂא of v. 5a could (on the traditional reading of the syntax of these verses, cf. Waltke-O'Connor, §31.6.2) certainly refer to the future consequence of the actions and states represented in v. 4. It relates however, to the whole verse, and not just to 4b.

3. Can שְׂאוּ/וְֽהִנָּשְׂאוּ represent Yhwh's entrance to the sanctuary? It could do, perhaps, but even if it did, it does not parallel the use of נשא in vv. 4-5, as there they predicate the one entering the sanctuary, whereas here they predicate the sanctuary itself. This is particularly troublesome if the supposed function of the repetition of this root is to highlight the parallel conditions that both entrants must fulfil.

4. The verb seems to have such different meanings in each occurrence. In the first occurrence (v. 4) it is part of an idiom about either using God's name in vain (cf. Exod 20:7) or worshipping false idols; in the second (v. 5a) it refers to the reception of blessing, in the final usages (vv. 7 and 9) it refers to the lifting of the heads of gates.

In short, it would seem that any direct connections between the uses of this root in Ps 24 are non-existent. Even at the auditory level there is no connection: the different moods (subjunctive/indicative, imperative), stems (qal, Nifal), conjugations (3rd person singular; 2nd person plural), and voice (active, passive) all sound very different.

Secondly: the broader relations between the stanzas (i.e. the perceived parallel in qualities required of both pilgrim and the Lord, the former following on the heels of the latter). Apart from the (IMHO) untenable view that God enters the temple before the pilgrim, there seems to be little that connects the requirements for their entrance. On the contrary, the two are strongly contrasted with each other. Whereas the pilgrim must fulfil ritual and ethical requirements as found in the Torah, God mustn't do anything, he's the King. When pushed, he lists his military attributes, which are hardly ethical requirements found in Torah. In addition to this, these attributes are not required by anyone, they're just stated as self-evident signs of authority and power. In the end, it would seem that it is not the attributes that gets him in but his special title: the Lord of Hosts (v. 10b). Again, even the nature of the dialogue is very different: the former consists of serene (or is it yearning?) question and answer, the latter consists of self-confident demand and resistant response.

So, we are still left with the question: can we attribute significance to the repetition of נשא, one that accords with a basic semantic sense purposely placed in each instance?

[*] Mit dem (vorgängigen) “Kommen/Einziehen JHWHs (7c.9c.) muss das “Hinaufziehen” und “(vor ihm) Stehen” der Pilger (3) in innerer Übereinstimmung stehen.


Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks Phil - nice work. I risk falling into the morning category of stupid interpreter when I read anything about 'lift up'. For me it always raises the words of Jesus in John's Gospel. Not that there is a prefiguring here - but I would not find it difficult to read it into the psalm. Nor do I find it difficult to imagine a meditation on this psalm in the first century where the author is moved to ask - who is God that he enters his own temple? Perhaps we have here a motif for a new Escher where before and after, inside and outside are imaged in the whole.

Phil Sumpter said...

I hope you don't think Weber is being stupid in saying this. I think this kind of analysis is very important. I think we need to sound out every possibility we can find. I'm also still open to the possibility that there is some significance behind the use of nasa'. Today I'm going to look into the semantics of the word itself.

Interesting thought about Jesus being "lifted up." I'm guessing that this would only apply to vv. 7 and 9? Normally, Jesus is read as being the King of Glory and not the gates of the temple.

I also like your Escher analogy, I need to look into that. I think there is a fascinating metaphysic at work here, which I would like to get into later. I'm think along the lines of something R. Jensen said here.

Glen said...

Looking forward to the semantics. Nasa is my favourite Hebrew word - lifted up, raised, bearing the weight of, carrying and forgiving all in one word. What expectations then for the Nasi? e.g. Ezek 34:24

Bob MacDonald said...

Someone else stupid? No - not at all. I had just read a couple of posts by others that implied I might be 'stupid' - not a good word. Whereas Weber's thesis can be critiqued, I think he has good reason to do it. There is a high concentration of 'lift up' in this psalm therefore it must be significant. You have stimulated the idea of a study for me - I will see what I can do. As Glen notes, this is a very rich word.

Phil Sumpter said...

נָשִׂיא, how interesting! I hadn't thought of that before.

Phil Sumpter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Sumpter said...


you may be interested in a response to your comment which I received by e-mail (with which I heartily agree):

This is a very important idea in relation to the psalm ... . What Bob references here signifies (partly) the nature of the heavenly realm which is beyond time and space and fourth dimension (on the one hand) and if observed unprepared by humans, who think and function 3 or 4-dimensionally (if you calculate in the temporal) the picture becomes skewed. Hence the Escher idea. The analogy is that Escher is capturing (literally) the 3-dimensional onto the 2-dimensional.

Bob MacDonald said...

Phil - thanks for the note. Ever since I wrote a paper on Time and Space in Paradise Lost for an undergraduate class on Milton with a touch of Aquinas nearly 50 years ago and I was at the time studying Einstein's special relativity, I have thought there was more to dimension than the imaginary linearity of time. My introduction to Escher came many years later through Hofstader's one good book - Gödel, Escher, Bach.