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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, July 08, 2011

An Ironic Reading of Psalm 8: Is Humanity All That Much?

Psalm 8

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
  you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
  the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
  mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
  and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
  you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
  and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
  whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!

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I recently attended Emmaus Way community's Sunday worship gathering.  The preaching at Emmaus Way usually takes the form of a conversation, or at least a dialogical sermon.  Pastor Tim Conder led the conversation on Psalm 8, calling on persons in the congregation to read the Psalm aloud, then launching some open-ended questions for the gathered community to ponder and discuss.  If you are not familiar with Emmaus Way and Conder, then you may be interested to check out a book written by Conder and fellow pastor Dan Rhodes, Free for All:  Rediscovering the Bible in Community.  Dan and Tim and their congregation have developed a way of reading in community that seeks to embody what numerous theologians and church trendspotters have been describing in theory.  Now that I've given Emmaus Way and Free for All a plug, I'm going to shift away from that event and do some of my own reflections.

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I have been thinking about the reading and misreading of this Psalm for many years.  At the heart of it is the phrase that the Authorized Version (KJV) translates "a little lower than the angels."  "Angels" translates the Hebrew plural of the generic term for God:  Elohim.  Thus most recent translations have changed the sense of the text to say that humans are a little less than God.

Perhaps it is in part the reference to the angels that leads to the problem I have with common readings of the text.  I am not a person who rejects the notion of hierarchy in all of its possibilities, although I do reject the idea that systems of domination are a necessary part of human existence.  So theories of hierarchy always evoke a sharper scrutiny when I find them imposed upon or derived from biblical texts.  In conversations about this text, I usually hear the construction of a vast hierarchy of being.  This assumption rightly understands that God is that than which no greater can be conceived.  Then the ranks get assigned from higher to lower:  angels, humans, various land, air, and sea animals.  The heritage of dominion theology finds its way into Christian theology, to a great extent, from this passage linked to other biblical texts.

But is this Psalm an effort to assert the rank of humanity within the great chain of being?  Certainly we know that has been a common reading of it through many different eras and in many different places.  Perhaps that ought to be enough to convince me to just "leave it alone."  I can't do that.  The concept of dominion as domination has too great a corrupting influence for me to leave it alone.  

Churches teaching dominion as domination, combined with Americanized pre-millenialism, is what led former U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt to claim that industries should be allowed to rapidly use up the earth's resources without regard to pollution or damage to ecological systems.  For Watt and his fellow-travelers, God gave humans the earth to use, and since the world would end soon humans must get to work and use it up fast.  Dominion as domination is what led European Christian leaders, theologians, bishops, popes, kings, and speculators to theorize an Imperial World Order under domination of the white races, in which all other peoples of the world find their value and meaning in serving the good of the superior white Europeans.

If dominion as domination corrupts Christian theology and practice so horribly, then it seems incumbent on readers to think again about constructing an extensive hierarchical metaphysics behind, around, and in front of this Psalm.  There are other possibilities here.  Issues of empire, of environmental degradation, and of the potential for human damage to one another all may help the reader raise questions about received interpretations of this text.

One thing a reader has to remember about reading the Psalms is that they are the outcries of God's people in lament, praise, thanksgiving, fear, and longing.  They are not necessarily statements of divine ordering, even if they often do give insight into the divine order.  They are written as the words of Israel to God, not as divine decrees.  This characteristic of the Psalms helps to explain statements such as the one in Psalm 137 which proclaims a blessing upon those who "take your little ones and dash them against the rocks."  Infanticide, although it may serve to display an exaggerated or distorted anger toward enemies, will not bring a blessing from God.  The prayer of Psalm 137 expresses the vengeful orientation of some of the Jewish exiles.  It is not any kind of divine decree.  Elsewhere, the Psalms call on God to destroy enemies and other self-centered acts.  Just because someone, even someone as prestigious as King David, prayed such a prayer does not mean that the prayer expresses the will of God.

With that caveat in mind, Psalm 8 offers a vision of humanity's place in the grand scheme of things without necessarily revealing a divinely decreed ranking of species.  It says that humanity has been made a little less than divine, made to be the dominant force among species on earth.  It need not be interpreted to say that God made everything to be under humans, or made humans to dominate everything else.  Any of us could observe, without the need of a theory of hierarchical status, that in the grand scheme of this planet's existence, human beings are capable of great and fearful acts.  Our species, just short of the divine power of God, can burn down a forest, pollute a lake, wear out fertile land, poison waters, and more. 

I have heard some people say this Psalm can't be about environmental degradation because that is a modern concept that ancient peoples would not understand.  I disagree.  Archaeologists tell a history of the Greek islands which hosted prosperous communities only to have their soil eroded by deforestation, overpopulation, and overcultivation, leaving only bare rocky crags jutting out of the sea.  The ancient cities of Babylon were eventually abandoned and buried in sand, in part from the deforestation and overcultivation of land which became barren and underwent desertification.  In the wealthy city-states of the Maya, in fertile and productive regions, silting of rivers from deforestation and overpopulation led to the decline of highly civilized communities.  Ancient farmers of China, India, and Peru developed sophisticated methods of combating soil erosion, recognizing how it occurs and what its results would be.  So environmental degradation caused by human activity is not anew idea.  People of ancient times, before and after the Israel of the Psalmists, knew of this human possibility.  Human beings are capable of building up and destroying great life on vast tracts of land, across great empires.  Why else would we find existing in ancient Israelite law a plan for letting land lie fallow?  They knew that human activity can destroy productive farmland.

It is not uncommon in biblical interpretation to identify a statement as ironic, as representative of a view to be upheld for ridicule.  With that in mind, it is worth considering whether some of the latter portion of Psalm 8 might be rhetorically ironic.  Are there any textual clues that might make us alert to potential ironic language?  I think there may be more than one.

Clearly the Psalm displays a primary theme of the majesty and sovereignty of God over all creation.  The opening and closing lines bracket all else with this affirmation.  After the initial affirmations of God's greatness, the Psalm takes a surprising turn (in a text that scholars say is very difficult to translate) by saying that the cries of infants and babes protect the people from the enemies of God.  Hmmm... That is not an image of human might.  It is not elevating human cleverness to near divinity.  As we move beyond this difficult verse, the next part reverts to the majesty of God as the context to offer an inquiry of perplexity.  God's works are so great, who are we scrawny human beings?  Why would God even notice us?  Here we find an acknowledgment of the incapacity of humanity to approach the greatness of God's works.

Then comes the passage that many use to justify a divinely sanctioned hierarchy of beings.  "You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor."  It is not hard to imagine such words coming from the mouth of the emperor, or from the official mouthpiece charged with praising the emperor.  We know that this sort of praise of imperial power was widespread in the era of biblical writings, lasting even into the era of Eusebius's praise of Constantine in the post-canonical era.  Could it be that the Psalmist, who has been belittling human capacity in order to evoke humility before the majesty of God has now put these ironic words into the mouths of arrogant humanity?  We are just a little less than divine (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).  We can run this world (into the ground).  King Soandso is the head man in charge of this world and day by day everything is getting better and better (oh, yeah, right!).

To say that all creation is "under their feet" is to acknowledge that it is far too easy to crush and stomp God's good creation to death.  It is to acknowledge that walking softly, leaving a light footprint, is necessary in this world.  Other species can disappear and be destroyed because of the power of humanity.  It is not to say that ever living thing and every non-living thing is our underling.  It is to say that we are capable of sustaining the good of all, or of destroying all of it, including ourselves.  The cattle and sheep, the wild creatures, birds, fish and sea creatures, are all also God's good creation.  An overestimate of human importance is another attempt to do what the first humans in the Garden did--an attempt to become like God.  Thus, the final line returns to the first.  It is God, not arrogant humanity, who is great.

I recognize that I am swimming upstream with this proposed interpretation.  Many doctrinal questions arise concerning the imago Dei, human uniqueness, visions of creation, and probably more.  Of course, this literary interpretation faces many possible objections from other literary readings, along with other types of textual analysis.  But I've chewed on it long enough and lived with it long enough to think that it at least deserves some conversational scrutiny.  I have, as always, plenty more to say.   But for now, have at it.

2 comments:

Michelle said...

Are there any textual clues that might make us alert to potential ironic language?

Yes, the language is ironic. God created the heavens and the earth and gave man dominion over the earth. However, God expected the human to use good judgement. God requests that we look out for our fellow man. God request that we leave food for the poor in the fields. God request that we care for the widow and children. If we are to care for the poor, the hungry, the widow then it would say that we are to protect the earth. If we are to protect the earth, then we are not at liberty to use the earth.

Also, we are to love one another as Christ loved the church. Demeaning people and treating people as "lower than oneself" is not Godly. God says pick up your mat and walk. He did not want people suppressed due to the dominant group's oppression and depression.

Roosevelt Ethridge said...

Our dominance in the world should not be for selfish or self-centered exploits. We were given place in the earth to live with a cognitive awareness of the other creations made by God. Humans total existence is not for the earth, however it is a temporary stay and we still have a responsibility to maintain the garden despite Adam and Eve's failure to do so. It is not our duty to freely use up the Ozone based on a theological precept that suggests that the earth will diminish anyway. The responsibility of humans is to live Christ like on minimumal resources, being literated in our mind and conservative in our operation.

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