Bereshit, Chapter 4 and Tehilim, Chapter 39

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August 13 2009

Chapter 39 in Sefer Tehilim expresses profound anguish and pain, introspection and psychological tension. Moreover, it contains both complete verses and short phrases that, prima facie, contradict the ultimate optimism that is presumably characteristic of a believer in God. The JPS translation of the psalm is as follows:

  1. For the leader; for Jeduthun. A psalm of David.

  2. I resolved I would watch my step

      Lest I offend by my speech;

      I would keep my mouth muzzled

      While the wicked man was in my presence.

  1. I was dumb, silent;

      I was very still

      While my pain was intense.

  1. My mind was in a rage,

      My thoughts were all aflame;

      I spoke out:

  1. Tell me, O L-RD, what my term is,

      What is the measure of my days;

      I would know how fleeting my life is.

  1. You have made my life just handbreadths long;

      Its span is as nothing in Your sight;

      No man endures any longer than a breath. Selah.

  1. Man walks about as a mere shadow;

      Mere futility is his hustle and bustle,

      Amassing and not knowing who will gather in.

  1. What, then, can I count on, O  L-RD?

      In you my hope lies.

  1. Deliver me from all my transgressions;

      make me not the butt of the benighted.

  1. I am dumb; I do not speak up,

      for it is Your doing.

  1. Take away your plague from me;

      I perish from Your blows.

  1. You chastise a man in punishment for his sin,

      Consuming like a moth what he treasures.

      No man is more than a breath.     Selah. 

  1. Hear my prayer, O  L-RD;

            Give ear to my cry;

Do not disregard my tears;

For like all my forbears I am an alien, resident with You.

  1. Look away from me, that I may recover,

      Before I pass away and am gone

Several verses in particular merit close attention. First, what is meant by the phrase No man endures any longer than a breath, which appears, both verse 6 and reappears, albeit in a slightly different form (No man is more than a breath) in verse 12? Second, the last verse (14) is particularly striking. What is meant by the plea to Look away from me? Religious people who are in pain want God to davka look at them, to save them from distress!

An Israeli Bible scholar, Rabbi Professor Meir Weiss (1909-1998), analyzed this psalm at length. His conclusions, published as a Hebrew article simply titled “Psalm 39,” were published in the Hebrew book The Bible in the Light of its Interpreters (Sarah Kamin Memorial Volume), ed. by Sara Japhet  (Jerusalem, 1994), pp. 629-46, and reprinted in the Hebrew collection of Professor Weiss’ essays,  Ideas and Beliefs in the Book of Psalms (Jerusalem, 2001), pp. 71-91. (For those who are not familiar with Professor Weiss or his work, it might be of interest to note that he was a close friend and colleague of the late Prof. Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997), and they even collaborated on a book together.)

Professor Weiss cites (but ultimately rejects)the astounding and astonishing interpretation of a Spanish biblical scholar, Luis Alonso Schokel (1920-1998), as presented in his article “Todo Adan es Abel: Salmo 39,” Estudios Biblicos, Vol. 46 (Madrid, 1988), pp. 269-82.  This scholar, remarkably, connected Psalm 39 with the Cain and Abel narrative in Bereshit, chapter 4, verses 1-8. How so? The Torah there states as follows (JPS translation):

    Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the L-RD. (2) She then bore his brother Abel. (3) In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the L-RD from the fruit of the soil; (4) and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The L-RD Look away from me, (5) but to Cain and his offering he paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (6) And the L-RD said to Cain,

    “Why are you distressed,

    And why is your face fallen?

    (7) Surely, if you do right,

    There is uplift.

    But if you do not do right

    Sin is the demon at the door,

    Whose urge is toward you,

    Yet you can be his master.”

    (8) And Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

Now the Hebrew name of Abel, of course, is Hevel. But this is also the key Hebrew word in the aforementioned phrases in Psalm 39, verse 6 and 12 (No man endures any longer than a breath =Akh [kol] hevel kol adam)! Prof. Alonso-Schokel suggested that this verse in Tehilim is utilizing the word hevel as a double entendre. The verse is stating much more than the fact the even the strongest of men will eventually wither away and die, a theme found, for example, in the biblical book of Qohelet (1:2) as well as elsewhere in Tehilim (e.g., Psalms 62:10, 94:11, 124:4). It is expressing, in a tone of despair, that the fate of the original Hevel (=Abel), who was innocent but nonetheless was murdered, can be the fate of anyone is this cruel world.

Alonso-Schokel also points to the final verse of Psalm 39(Look away from me). The Hebrew term that begins this verse is hosha’ mimeni. One finds this term in the Cain and Abel story as well, when God paid heed to Abel and his offering (Va-yisha’ Hashem el Hevel ve-el minhato-Genesis 4:4). In this sense, the converse is meant. God turned towards Abel by accepting his sacrifice. Now, ironically, that involvement by God, His recognition of Abel, is what led to Cain’s jealously, and the eventual murder of his younger brother. Can it be possible that the last verse of the Psalm had the Cain and Abel narrative in mind and was expressing the idea that in this world that is “nasty, brutish and short,” this “vale of tears,” recognition by God may sometimes not be for the good, for it can lead to one’s death, in the manner that God’s recognition of Abel led to his death at the hand of his elder brother Cain? And hence, the Psalmist is praying that God not intervene in his life in order that he not meet an unnatural end but instead “die in his bed?”

Although this understanding of the Psalm is fascinating, Meir Weiss rejected it. First, as alluring as the interpretation of the word hevel is, ultimately, there is not enough evidence that this was the intent behind the utilization of the word. In short, besides the use of the word hevel and the verb of a form of hosha’ there is no reason to connect Psalm 39 and Genesis 4.

More fundamentally, the method of “Total Interpretation” that Prof. Weiss championed included the notion that focusing upon specific words and word associations, as important as they are, can be insufficient. One must be aware of the entire context (heqsher). And the ideological assumptions behind analyzing Psalm 39 in light of Genesis 4 raise insurmountable problems that force one to look elsewhere for a correct interpretation of that chapter of Tehilim.

To be sure, God intervened in this world by accepting the sacrifice of Hevel and not that of Cain (and making Cain aware of the fact). But, as Prof. Weiss rhetorically asks (at note 47 in his aforementioned article on the topic), does that mean that God’s goal was (rahmanah litzlan mei-hai da‘ata) that Hevel should be killed? Can it be that, in spite of the biblical citation of God’s admonition to Cain [Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin is the demon at the door, Whose urge is toward you, Yet you can be his master], the Psalmist thought that tragic conclusion of the story was the original intention? Surely not!

I would add that with these points, we are drawn into the antinomy between man’s free choice and God’s foreknowledge. According to the consensus of Jewish belief, as expressed by such figures as R. Sa‘adiah Gaon in Emunot ve-De‘ot, we believe that that God knew that Cain would fail the test and succumb to his murderous jealousy. But He did not desire it! God’s message to Cain was in order that he would exercise his behirah hofshit and desist from harming his brother! Had Cain done what he saw capable of doing, God’s original intervention on behalf of Abel would not have led to his unfortunate death.

In light of this, the last verse in Psalm 39 cannot be interpreted to mean a request for God to “stay out” and do not intervene as He did in the Cain and Abel narrative. But what does the verse mean?

Prof Weiss notes that what the Psalmist is asking from God is what Job, at various stages (7:19, 10:20-21, 14:6) asked for: respite from Divine intervention in the form of punishment. In other words, the simple meaning (peshuto shel miqra) of verses 13-14 of our Psalm is in direct relation to the peshuto shel miqra of the immediately preceding two verses (39:11-12). In those earlier two verses the notion is expressed that due to man’s sin, God reacts with punishment, and that punishment ultimately causes death. The Psalmist also knows that like all men, he too will eventually sin, and that he is also deserving of punishment. But he pleads with God that his punishment should not be one of death. He therefore pleads with God to be merciful, and to “turn away from me,” that is, to spare him the punishment of death for his sins, so that he can indeed die, as all men do, but “in his bed.” (I might add that at the end of the day, with this interpretation we return to an understanding quite close to the classic explanation of the end of this Psalm as interpreted by, e.g., R. David Kimhi [Radaq]: see his comments ad loc.)

In conclusion, in spite of all the anguish and pain entailed in Psalm 39, it does not contain any notion that is foreign to Jewish notions about Gold. Indeed, through its pain it actually expresses a profound belief in a Just God. Professor Meir Weiss concludes his article on this Psalm with a citation from the book of Job (16:13): In this too is my salvation: that no impious man can come into His presence. This verse expresses the same faith in Gold that is also encapsulated by a verse 8 in our Psalm: What, then, can I count on, O  L-RD?
In you my hope lies.


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