Saturday, 3 March 2012

A question concerning Yhwh and his gates (Ps 24:7-10)

I posted the following question on Jim West's Biblical Studies discussion list and it has generated an interesting conversation. The question itself, however, remains unanswered so I post it here in case anyone else can help me further:
In Ps 24:7-10, the (personified?) gates of the temple are being calledupon to open up so that the King of Glory, i.e. Yhwh, may enter into thetemple. They are called the "pithhe 'olam" (פְּתְחֵי עוֹלָם)  i.e. "eternal gates" or "gatesof eternity." 'Olam (eternity) is generally interpreted to refer to God'sdimension of reality, "heaven" in a sense. The gates are "eternal" becausethey are the gates of the temple, that place where heaven is madeimmediately present. One could also interpret the construct form as "gatesof eternity," i.e. they are the gates which open up onto God's dimension(rather like "the gate of heaven" in Gen 28:17).
My problem is that the person who is supposed to enter through these gatesinto this reality is God himself. In other words, there is a heavenlyreality behind the gates which is currently devoid of his presence and intowhich he will now enter.
Some say that God's presence in the OT is dynamic, so that there is no
contradiction to seeing him as being "in" the temple and "outside" it at thesame time. But most interpreters believe that vv. 7-10 embody some kind ofritual in which Yhwh-perhaps symbolized by a physical object such as theArk-is being transported into the temple.
My question is this: How am I to conceptualize what is going on here? Whatdoes it mean for Yhwh to enter his own reality in the way portrayed here? Ifthe temple already contains "heaven", does it make no qualitative differenceif Yhwh is behind the gates or not? And if not, why bother make him enter atall? And if there is a qualitative difference, such that Yhwh's enteringconsummates something (in Kgs for example, the temple only becomes holyafter he has entered it), why are they called 'eternal' before he isentering? Are there ancient parallels in which the temple is treated asalready being a heavenly abode before its occupant enters? Or am I justmissing something?


Bob MacDonald said...

Nice question. Have you considered the relationship with verses 14-21 of Psalm 118? It seems to me that it could be that the elect represents Yhwh and enters the gates or commands that they be opened (Ps 118). The elect is the son, Israel, the king, or the poet, or the one who fears Yhwh, and of course, for the NT viewer, the one who authors and finishes the faith, recapitulating and forming Israel, creator and redeemer, the new Adam.

tim bulkeley said...

I wonder a bit about the translation of 'olam as "eternal" isn't it often more like "ancient"?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bob,

Thanks the reference. Kraus and Gerstenberger seem to think that these verses refer to the same kind of event found in Ps 24:7-10, but the text itself doesn’t seem to be part of the same liturgy. In v. 19b, for example, Yhwh is on the other side of the gates; the worshipper passes through them in order to see him. In Ps 24:7-10, however, Yhwh is outside the gate, presumably with the worshippers (who are a group in v. 6; Weiser, thinks Yhwh is descending straight from heaven). The gates are called “Yhwh’s”, however (v. 20), and Kraus reckons this is due to the liturgy found in vv. 7-10.

My problem with seeing vv. 3-6 as being part of the same ritual is that in these verses Yhwh is inside the temple and is the goal of the pilgrimage, in vv. 7-10 he is outside the temple and is himself about to enter the same destination (Wellhausen may have been the first to see this problem). How does one reconcile that?

Hello Tim,

Thanks for pointing this out. This question was also raised on Jim’s list and it is the interpretation that is found in two major dictionary articles on עולם (NIDOTTE and TWAT). It was also the consensus translation up until Kraus’ 1966 commentary. This commentary seems to mark a watershed in the translation of the term, however. Kraus mentions ANE parallels in which “the earthly and the heavenly sanctuary are always viewed together" and translates with "gates of heaven," `olam meaning "eternity." Since Kraus, every single commentator that I have looked, to the degree that they discuss the issue at all, has followed this reading. The most detailed development is perhaps in Spieckermann, Heilsgegenwart, p. 206, who also cites Jeremias, Königtum, p. 61, for the argument that "'olam is (the impartation of [Anteilgabe an]) a divine characteristic and thus a rejection of [Absage an] the dimension of time". Othmar Keel (Bildsymbolik, 151) also argues that "עולם [in this context] ought rather to be understood as the sphere of God. … The temple gates … participate in the immovability [Unterschütterlichkeit] of heaven" (see also Smith's article, "Like Deities," which talks of "ontological participation").

Two further details that point me in this direction: 1) It's not just the temporal aspect of the gates that is like God, it is the spatial. The gates must
lift up to be able to receive him. Bloch-Smith ("King of Glory") argues that colossal size was an important aspect of the symbolism of temple architecture. 2) The subject matter of vv. 1-2 is "mythic time" and many have seen vv. 7-10 as somehow a development of their content (cf. the Baal Cycle). This again transports vv. 7-10 into another dimension.

Bob MacDonald said...

I don't disagree that there is a difference in perspective. I am not quite sure what you are referring to re ritual or liturgy. You know I read the psalms as story - and we of course use them in the Church liturgy.

Psalm 24 continues the thrust of the question asked in Psalm 15 reflecting Psalm 1 and continued in Psalm 26 (same language also in Psalm 41:13H). Then skipping over the enormous middle (Books 2 to 4) with their national corporate failure and yet universal consolation (Psalms 90 and 102 paired as prayers), we are at Psalm 118 with the one who again 'enters' then adores (119) and then has the rest of the nation follow by ascent (pss 120-135). Ps 136 with its refrain reflects the opening and closing verses of 118, thus encircling the whole ascension and entry into the courts. So who is coming to whom and when? In 24 Yhwh is coming into the temple. In 118 he is there and the elect is entering with authority over 'the gates of righteousness' having had Yhwh become his salvation (vv 14, 21).

If there are typos, I apologize. The security is so hard to use on Blogger that even with max zoom I cannot see the letters - so preview is out of the question.

Ps 118 is the psalm for Easter this year. The application to Jesus is obvious from the NT references and the usage in the Mass of the Benedictus and Hosanna. The application to the worshiper of 500 years earlier is perhaps that the recounting of the deeds of Yhwh (v18 as in e.g. Ps 22:23,31, also Ps 26, and even the generic ps 107:22) is the job of the one who enters. (This is the central image of the ring structure in 118:14-21 and this recounting carries right through to Ps 145, 147).

Are these 'gates' different? And different again from the 'door' that is used as an image of Jesus in John 10? When is a gate just a gate or the gate?

I am reminded of the prayer from John Donne's sermon: Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence but one equal music; no fears nor hopes but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity; no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, in the habitations of thy Glory, world without end. Amen.

tim bulkeley said...

I guess (though in a more pedestrian way) I am pointing in similar directions to Bob. In both liturgy and poetry language often enjoys polysemy. So I am hesitant to tie a few verses in a (probably liturgical especially) psalm to a literal sort of understanding. Aren't the gates/doors at one and the same time the eternal gates of heaven and the ancient gates of the temple. Isn't YHWH at one and the same time always and yet also entering (with the worshippers?)...?

Phil Sumpter said...

Dear Bob,

In the first instance I’m less concerned about the issue of whether vv. 7-10 are liturgy or not and more considered with the question of the conceptuality that they contain. If we agree (at everyone here now seems to) that the gates open up onto the Lord’s dimension of reality (call it “heaven”), then I just want to understand what it means to talk of earthly gates being “heavenly” when their divine occupant is currently outside them. It may well be that I’m just nitpicking or being overly analytical. Perhaps the issue never occurred to those who wrote it. But I’m not sure and just want to get my head round the issue.

I would add, however, that the way we visualize the psalm’s prehistory shapes our reading of the text.

You mention Jesus. The Fathers had their own way of dealing with the issue. They read it as an ascension psalm in which Jesus is standing before the heavenly gates having just “harrowed” hell (hence the warrior motif), with the redeemed in his train (vv. 3-6). The “ontological” issue is resolved because God is both beyond the gates (i.e. God the Father) as well as in front of them (i.e. God the Son).

I find your interpretation of the Psalter interesting. This is something I plan to be looking into shortly. Are you saying that the final form is dominated by a kind of “ascension” motif with Zion being the final destination of a journey involving both Yhwh and Jacob? I would love that. It would also make the theology of the Psalter very similar to that of Isaiah.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Hi Tim,

I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here.

1) I agree that language is polysemitc, particularly poetry (and intentionally so). So I’m happy to look at how that happens in the psalm, both through its tradition-historical growth (to the degree it’s possible to plausibly hypothesize on the matter) as well as through its canonical shaping, setting, and the history of interpretation (the Targum’s translation, for example, is very interesting in this respect: “Gates of Eden” [תרעי גינתא דעדן]). So perhaps the answer to my question about the possibility of the gates being “heavenly” when Yhwh is outside them will change depending on the context. The early church Fathers provided one answer (see my response above):
2) I certainly think that the temple was envisioned as being both earthly and heavenly at the same time. I’m not sure, however, that the meaning of עולם in vv. 7 and 9 is both ancient and eternal. It could also refer to the future, of course (cf. Goulder’s article, “David and Yahweh in Psalms 23 and 24.” JSOT 30:3 [2006]: 463-473.). But I think the focus is on the “quality” of the time rather than on one particular temporal perspective.
3) I also agree that, within the context of the Bible as a whole, Yhwh is “always coming.” It has a typological quality to it that keeps reappearing at different stages of the narrative. Which makes Bob’s theory on the shape of the Psalter so interesting.

Thanks again for helping me with this!

Bob MacDonald said...

The fathers have much to say - it would seem that the gates are the gates to our own body and soul for some (idiomeia Neale and Littledale vol 1 p 324), Gerhohus perhaps taking them as the gates of Hell, giving rest even there. Read on for Basil, Cyril and Cyprian seeing the exclamation of the angels at the ascension, Augustine of the kings of this world accepting the Gospel, Jerome concerning the nativity. As Neale himself notes in the introduction and others - with allegory one can make anything out of anything.

As to 'dominant' motif of the psalms - there is no winner in my head at the moment. The ascension is definitely there prefiguring the entry in to the Holy of Holies by the Anointed and all with him. This is the completion of the offering of Abraham (Ps 47, 105).

Perhaps there are many overlapping musical scales and I cannot yet decide if there is a dominant fifth that rules over them. My current consideration is that the exile is never far from the poet's mind. The clue to this idea for me is the presence of four acrostics in both books 1 and 5, imperfect in book 1 and perfect in book 5. These allude in their form to the first four chapters of Lamentations. Ps 119 outdoes the triple acrostic of Lam 3. The importance of the idea for many could be that the return from exile is a consolation (book 4 of the psalms) available to all. It informs a possible analogic theory concerning sin after baptism. Israel has already received salvation and redemption, but sin is not overcome and exile results. Still salvation is not lost. The exile cannot be the final word - because the poor will eat and be satisfied (Ps 22+++). And all nations will worship. The preferential option for the poor is dominant, I expect ('NY and 'NV run through the psalms from 109 to 149). The ultimate worship of all (individual in Pss 5, 138, corporate 22, 86, 99, 132) is also a theme for the collection.

Thanks for the oportunity to talk about the Psalms.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks to you too for your thoughts.

Andy Witt said...

I know I'm leaving a few comments on older posts, but here I go ;)

Have you come to any kind of conclusion on this?

I'm struck by the structure of the psalm - vv1-2 speaking of God's creative presence on earth, at the beginning and in the present; vv3-6 asking and answering similar questions from Ps 15; and then vv7-10, which seem to be inviting God back into the Temple after having gone out to battle.

Could it simply be metaphorical language - the Lord coming back to Zion after going out to battle? I'm not sure this is the same as the dynamic presence view, and it doesn't imply the need for a physical object. Couldn't texts like Judges 5:3-5 and Habakkuk 3 be conceptual parallels? In these cases it doesn't seem like the ark is being thought of, but the Lord is seen to travel to particular places.

From a canonical view, how does a text like Hebrews 9:9 come into view too?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Andy,

Thanks for interacting with my post. It's been a while since I wrote it, but just responding spontaneously to this, "Could it simply be metaphorical language - the Lord coming back to Zion after going out to battle?", I would say the pattern is both: literal and metaphorical. The pattern of Ps 24, as I discern it, is recapitulated again and again at different levels within Israel's history and witness. As for parallels to the divine movement from and to the temple as a warrior, you don't need to look to Judges or Habakkuk, just look to Pss 18 and 20-21 within the so-called 'sub-collection' of Pss 15-24.

I have no spontaneous thoughts on Heb 9:9. What were you thinking of?