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Psalm 68 - notes

1) "Choir director" is an inference based on the contents of the rest of the verse

2) Most of the verbs in the next three verses can be taken either as future "they will XXX" or cohortative "let them XXX". Another repeated theme is that of the face/presence of Elohim - the wicked flee from it, the righteous delight in it, and so forth. As well as being used six times of the face of Elohim in the first 8 verses (not counting the title), it is used once of fire and once of Elohim's people. To emphasise this, "face" is used repeatedly in translation, though not strictly necessary in some cases.

This verse echoes very closely Numbers 10:35b, the invocation used when the ark and tribes of Israel set off on each of the wilderness stages:

Numbers 10Psalm 68
qûmâh YHVH veyâphutsû ’ôyebeykhâ
veyânuçû mesane’eykhâ mippâneykhâ
yâqûm ’elôhîym yaphûtsû ’ôwyebâyv
veyânûçû mesane’âyv mippânâyv

Arise, Yahweh! and your enemies will be scattered,
those that hate you will flee from your face.

Let Elohim arise, and his enemies will be scattered:
those who hate him will flee from his face.

The two are clearly parallel, the only differences (other than the trivial substitution of his for your in the psalm) are the use of the more generic term Elohim instead of the covenantal name Yahweh, and the invocation Arise! in Numbers instead of the more neutral cohortative of the psalm. Indeed, the verb form intensifies the regular imperative qûm with the emphatic ending -âh. Both of these points suggest that the Numbers snippet predates the psalm.

3) The presence of Elohim is likened to fire here, part of the deliberate allusion to Sinai imagery of the early parts of the psalm.

4) Three different words for rejoicing are used here in close succession, with another three in the following verse.

5) "Rider in the Plains" is an interesting and unusual appellation for God. A separate study considers this.

6) These traits were considered typical actions of "the good king" in the ancient near east - for example King Keret displays them in the Ugaritic song cycle KTU 1.14. It is, therefore, appropriate in an official, ceremonial psalm to ensure that they are rooted in the divine character.

7) It is implicit in this verse that "individual" or "isolated" is an unnatural state for a person, and that to be rooted in a household or wider community context is more appropriate - "it is not good for the human to be alone". The word yechîyd does not have a necessary connotation of being lonely, simply separated.

8) Literally in your going out ... in your marching. Note here the absence of the specific geographical terms Se'ir and Edom, as contrasted with the very similar passage in Deborah's Song, Judges 5 (see below). Çelah - used here and in verses 20 and 33 - is usually taken as an aside from the main thread of meaning, suggesting either a pause for contemplation or perhaps a musical intervention.

9) Compare the passages here and in Judges 5:4-5.

Judges 5Psalm 68
YHVH betsê’thekâ missê‘îyr
betsa‘dekâ missedêh ’edôm
’erets râ‘âshâh gam-shâmayim nâtâphû
gam-‘âbîym nâtephû mâyim
hârîym nâzelû mippenêy YHVH
zeh çîynay mippenêy YHVH ’elôhêy yisrâ’êl
elôhîym betsê’thekâ liphenêy ‘ammekhâ
betsa‘dekâ bîyshîymôwn çelâh
’erets râ‘âshâh ’aph-shâmayim nâtephû
mippenêy ’elôhîym
zeh çîynay mippenêy ’elôhîym ’elôhêy yisrâ’êl

Yahweh! At your setting out from Seir,
At your marching from the land of Edom,
the land quaked, the skies wept,
water dropped from the clouds,
the mountains melted before Yahweh -
even Sinai - before Yahweh, Elohim of Israel!

Elohim! At your setting out before your people,
At your marching in the wilderness - Çelah! -
the land quaked, the skies wept
before Elohim -
even Sinai - before Elohim, Elohim of Israel!

The explicit country names of Judges 5 have been dropped to more neutral descriptions of land in Psalm 68, and the covenantal name Yahweh has been replaced with the more generic term Elohim. This is the same as for the Numbers 10 parallel mentioned above. The divine name Yahweh (or the shortened form Yah) does appear sparingly in other parts of this psalm. Two phrases have been omitted in the psalm, water dropped from the clouds, the mountains melted, leaving the succeeding phrase - even Sinai - somewhat isolated.

10) geshem (rain here, alternatively shower) appears also in Ugaritic as a torrent of rain. nedâbôth (free-will gifts) and the underlying verb nâdab frequently though not always appear in a religious sense, for example in relation to the gifts used to construct the tent of meeting in the desert (Exodus 35) and later temples. The verb form, in the sense of people volunteering themselves, appears twice in Deborah's Song. The verb used, nûph, is used in a technical sense in the Torah to do with wave offerings, so an alternative would be Elohim, you dedicate a shower of freewill offerings.
In the second half of the verse, inheritance normally relates to the land (see for example Miriam's Song, Exodus 15:17), and the verb is reflexive, suggesting that the land had wearied herself with futile endeavours.

11) chayyâh here indicates living community rather than living being. The verb here translated you made strong is a different form of the verb rendered established in the previous verse.

12) Adonay speaks (yitten-’ômer - literally gives speaking) is in the imperfect, hence not a finished event but something ongoing. The second half can be seen in several different ways - a rhetorical question suggesting that there is not an army of news-bearers, a rhetorical question suggesting there is such an army, or a simple statement of fact. I have chosen the first of these, as the next verses suggest that the speaking of Adonay disrupts the natural human order. An earthly lord would have messengers, but here the kings and their armies flee, etc. In Ugaritic, also has the idea of news, typically good news.

13) nâdad indicates fleeing or retreating, but in Ugaritic n.d.d simply had the idea of hurrying or moving suddenly. In the second half, the construct form nevath can indicate either one who dwells (female), or one who adorns / is beautiful. Ugaritic has a related verb n.v.y, meaning to consider beautiful / to praise. Hence, pretty girls, to add to the contrast of them dividing plunder as the kings' armies flee.

14) Lying in encampments, a phrase found in similar forms only here, in Deborah's Song (Judges 5:16) and in Jacob's blessing of Issachar (Genesis 49:25) suggests wilful idleness rather than well-earned rest. In the second half, the combination silver and pale gold (keçeph ... yeraqeraq chârûts) appears in essentially the same form as a stock phrase in Ugaritic, for example in the Keret song cycle, UDB 1.14.IV.22 and 33 we find k.s.p w.y.r.q ch.r.ts being used as an indication of wealth. In later Hebrew, yâraq took on the idea of greenness and growing things such as herbs.

15) The name/title Shadday here is linked over the next few verses with mountains. Tsalmon is only elsewhere mentioned in Judges 9 in connection with Shechem - it is not clear if the same mountain is intended here. The Shechem area might be a suitable location for the pre-Jerusalem suggested origins of a religious celebration of this kind. shâlag for snow appears only here.

16) gabenunnîym, many-peaked / ridged, from gabenôn, a peak / rounded summit and ultimately from gâban, be curved, appears only here.

17) The verb tâtsad, here look askance, suggests watching stealthily or with hostility.

18) ’alephêy shine’ân, here thousand after thousand, has the literal idea of a thousand being repeated or counted over again. shine’ân only appears here.

19) The abiding-place of Yah Elohim is taken here to refer back to the mountain of Elohim, introduced several verses earlier.

20) bârûkh ’adônây opens a new phase in the psalm's development, which finally closes with bârûkh ’elôhîym. Conceivably these indicate the extent of another original source block, a praise hymn celebrating divine victory followed by human acclamation.

21) There is a sequence of intensification here. Deliverance (v20) moves to liberating deeds and finally an assertion that Yahweh Adonay owns and so controls the fringes of death. The word tôwtsâ’ôwth is often translated escape from, but its most frequent use is to describe the border edges of a defined territory (for example the tribal boundaries in Joshua). The imagery is a natural development, whether death is seen in terms of natural death, the unseen world of the dead, or the specific realm of the Canaanite god of death, Mot. This is the only use of môwshâ‘ôwth (liberating deeds).

22) Elohim's adversary is unidentified. Is this a representative enemy, or a specific one (perhaps Mot from the previous verse, or Yam in the next one)?

23) The subject of Adonay's bringing back is again unnamed. Should this be understood as Adonay bringing the enemy back from these places in order that his people could exact their own revenge, or as him rescuing and restoring fugitives and captives? The second of these has been chosen, as it follows the theme of liberation introduced in verse 20 (so you in the first line has been inserted to aid understanding, and is not native to the text). The deeps of the sea, metsulôwth yâm, echoes Miriam's Song, Exoodus 15:5, and might be understood either literally as sea, or figuratively as the domain of the god Yam.

24) The verb used, mâchats (smite/shatter), is a repeat of that used in connection with Elohim shattering his adversary's head in v22. Many commentators believe this is a scribal error, and that the verb râchats (wash/bathe) was intended here.

25) People here is an interpolation - the verb has no identified subject and just reads "they watch".

26) Young women (‘alâmôwth) suggests women who are mature and of marriageable age, whether in fact married or still single.

27) The second half of the verse is not transparent. The verb qûr indicates digging or boring a hole, from which mâqôr derives, indicating a spring, fountain, well, or other source of flow (literal or figurative). As it stands, the sentence could indicate either that Adonay comes from or is in himself the life-source of Israel - the latter chosen because of its inherently greater probability.

28) tsâ‘îyr rôdêm, here translated small but in the lead, admits several different interpretations. tsâ‘îyr can indicate young (harkening back to the family dynamic of his being the youngest son of Jacob) or insignificant. rôdêm, from râdâh, indicates having rule or dominion, but many commentators suggest that this is a scribal error for qiddêm, simply meaning preceding. In the lead, chosen here, avoids making the distinction.

29) Your God commands your strength has the air of a well-known proverb or stock phrase.

30) This verse contains the only explicit reference to the Temple. Elsewhere the more generic term holy place or sanctuary is used. In relation to Israelite places of worship, the word occasionally indicates the early religious centre at Shiloh, but more commonly the Solomonic or Second Temples. A Shiloh location would perhaps link with the Shechem region suggested by Tsalmon (v15): alternatively the use of Temple may indicate a later addition to the psalm.

31) those who live in sticks is a slightly obscure phrase, and translators differ very widely, from company of spearmen to dweller in the reeds (ie Egypt). I have chosen to see this as a derogatory contrast between Elohim dwelling in a temple and other nations (perhaps other gods) living in squalour and (as the analogy unfolds) ignorant and careless of wealth. The word rats, here translated piece, is dubious and only appears here.

32) chashemannîym, here translated representatives, is obscure and only appears here. Context suggests that a select group from Egypt is indicated: possible roots for the word are shâmân (fat/fertile/choice) or châshim (hastening).

33) kingdoms of the earth or kingdoms within the land (ie Canaan and its vicinity).

34) Again we return to the Rider image, this time explicitly in the skies of the skies of old (or, of the east).

35) His majesty (ga’avâthôw) could also indicate his pride, and derives from gâ’âh, rise up.

36) nôwrâ’, the Niph‘al participle of yârê’, could suggest any of fearful, astonishing, dreadful, marvellous etc. ‘ôz vetha‘atsumôwth, here ability and firmness, suggests two different forms of strength: the capacity to carry out deeds, and the internal rigidity (bone-like structure) to hold steady. The psalm ends with bârûkh ’elôhîym, recapitulating v20.