42: Copy, Paste & Psalm 108


If the Bible is a mosaic, then the meaning is in the stitching. Nate and Tim look at how Psalm 108 is an example of clear editing and repurposing of texts within the Hebrew Bible, and how the Gospel of Luke is tracking with this literary mechanism at work.


Tim: Okay, Nate, we’re back. Why don’t you try to rehash some of your big takeaways from the first introduction conversation in the How the Bible Works series?

Nate: So it’s this quilt or a mosaic. That’s what the Bible is. It’s not so much that these are the actual books that are all so important they were included, but it’s about how they were crafted and put together. So if you picture it like the quilt, let’s say, it’s more so about how the pieces that are in the quilt were cut and then stitched together. That’s where the meaning and the message and the purpose of this thing. Not so much in the quilt square, but more so in how that quilt square was cut to be in this quilt and then how it was stitched into this quilt. And so that’s what the Bible is! And it kind of gets it out of this debate of like, “How much of the Old Testament, how much of the New Testament applies to us? And how much was just for Israel?” And all that kind of stuff. It changes it into this literary masterpiece that you can appreciate for completely other reasons.

Tim: Right. So I think a lot of actually how this conversation will be experienced for people is, it’s just going to be a constant complicating of the waters. Which I know the feeling of. Sometimes when an idea that was simple becomes more and more complicated, you know when you have people saying, “I know you thought it was that easy, but look, it’s way more complicated than this,” especially when we get into languages and translations.

Nate: It gets tiring after a while!

Tim: It does, yeah!

Nate: And unsettling, right, because this is like a foundational thing for you. It’s kind what we talked about in the introduction episode for the series. It’s not, we don’t take this lightly. This is a really big deal, and that’s why we’re doing it, because a book like the Bible is so important to so many people throughout history. So it’s why we would choose a book like this, but it also means that it is kind of shaking that foundation a bit.

Tim: Yeah, well I think there are a lot of theologians and pastors and everyday Christians out there who have studied the Bible; learned lots about it; seen lots of its complexities; learned the languages, Hebrew, Greek; and have essentially made a conscious decision that because most people won’t be able to actually handle the complexity of those ideas, most people won’t be able to deal in the original languages, that we should keep that stuff out and keep the simple view for everyday folk. The problem—I understand the sentiment—the problem is that simplification is inevitably a distortion. And so what we end up keeping for people is whatever we personally think is the version of the Bible they should keep. So ironically to me, there’s a sense of presenting the Bible in modern vernacular and doing good, accessible translation, that is giving the Bible to the people in a sense. In another sense, it’s actually giving the people your version of the Bible. And as we’ve talked about in many episodes, it’s been white American male theologians who have done that for the last couple hundred years, predominantly. And so there’s just going to be things, for instance when we look at—and we’ve poked at some of these before—problems in translation. Today we’re going to look at some of the stitching that we’re talking about, some of the literary design happening in the Bible. The problem is most of us will pick up our Bible and we won’t see any of that stuff. If you don’t know Greek, how do you know if a translation is good or bad? And honestly, I’m not fluent in either Hebrew or Greek. I can handle both of them, but there are lots of times where I have to do a lot of homework before I see these things. And a lot of times I’ll just read through something and I don’t notice them. But I would rather say, “Okay, this thing’s massively complex and it will take me the rest of my life and beyond to get a grasp on it,” then to say, “Hey, let’s turn this thing into a version of the Bible that I can get a grasp on and then hope that that has something to do with what the Bible actually is and how the Bible actually works.” So all that to say, this will feel like we’re making things more complicated. It might feel like it’s actually harder for you to go get alone with your Bible and read it well, but I think that’s just an inevitable part of truth and of the journey that we all have to go on.

Nate: There was a moment for me a couple years back, and I’ve heard other people echo this same sentiment, where they realized what the Bible most likely was that they’ve read their entire life and loved their entire life. And this realization didn’t make it so they didn’t love it anymore. It made it so they loved it more, but it made it feel almost nearly inaccessible to them. It was this stepping back and saying, if I’m going to approach this thing, which I knew in my head, I do want to do, then I couldn’t do that in the same way I had been. It was going to take a lot more work, a lot more study, a lot more leaning on people who understand and have spent their whole lives studying what this thing is, in order to engage with it again. So I’m all there with you. Okay, so the stitching. Let’s talk about the stitching.

Tim: Yeah, so one I think would be helpful is to look at not only examples. You know, we talked about, stitching is a metaphor that we’re using for this larger idea of redaction, it’s not a word we use often, but I think it’s the best word. Some person or people took a bunch of texts and arranged them, cut them, pasted them, edited them, added to them, and preserved them in an arrangement. An artistic literary arrangement. That whole project I believe happened, very obviously, the Old Testament is wanting us to see, happened after the exile, after the return from exile, and during the state of prolonged exile under Persian, Greek, and Roman oppression. So I think what’ll be helpful is seeing examples of that stitching, but also what’s kind of cool, is I’ve seen that there are books within the Bible and passages within those books that actually function as microcosms of the whole. So we referenced the Psalms and the Pentateuch in our last episode and talked about how these are actually functioning as narratives. Even though the Psalms is made of psalms, it’s telling a narrative story. Even though a good chunk of Pentateuch is made up of laws, it’s telling a story; it’s not prescribing those laws. So let’s talk about Psalm 108. Nate, you’ve got some color coordinated notes in front of you. There’s something really interesting about Psalm 108, which is that it’s actually a copy-paste of half of Psalm 57 and half of Psalm 60.

Nate: Yeah. Right, yeah because the first—let’s see 1, 2, 3, 4—5 verses of Psalm 108 are copied over from Psalm 57, and then the second half of Psalm 60 is also the second half of Psalm 108.

Tim: Yeah, so just visualize this. Nate’s got a visual in front of him. For those of you who are listening, you can take Psalm 108 and what I have is the first half of the psalm, the first five verses, are color coded as blue. The second half of the psalm, verses 6-13, are color coded as red. And you can look at Psalm 57 and it’s word for word; the last five verses of Psalm 57 have been cut to the beginning of Psalm 108. And then the last handful of verses from Psalm 60 have been cut onto those verses from Psalm 57 as the end of Psalm 108. So Psalm 108 is literally one psalm made up of two halves of two other psalms. They’re the two second halves, the beginnings of each of those psalms have been cut out.

Nate: Okay, so isn’t this just making a new song out of two other songs that they had? Is this just like ancient sampling, when you like, sample someone else’s song at the beginning of your song, or the chorus of your song? Maybe it’s just that!

Tim: Well, it’s interesting, if you read a lot of commentaries and scholarship, people say, “Oh, the psalms are really similar,” as if the idea is that someone sat down and wrote Psalm 108 and it just happened to be really, really close to these other psalms. It’s almost like there’s a fear in a lot of the Christian world to acknowledge something like copy-pasting happening. But here’s what I think is actually really interesting. So scholars have argued and wondered about something for a long time. And that is, you read through the book of Psalms and lots of them will say it’s a psalm of David in the superscript at the top, the heading.

Nate: Yeah. I just always pictured him sitting in a field somewhere with a bunch of sheep penning these poems.

Tim: [laughing] Right, with pen and paper he never had.

Nate: Oh shoot, yeah, that’s right.

Tim: That’s… we can get to that later. So Psalm 72:20. So is the last verse not only of the Psalm, but it’s the last verse of Book II of the Psalms. So a lot of your Bibles will have a heading just following it that says Book III. So these have been arranged into books, meaning they’re not just arbitrarily put here like, “Sing this one, and then you can sing that one next week, and then you can the week after that.” They’ve been somehow arranged into a literary book shaping, but there’s this really interesting line that says,

20 This concludes the prayers of David, son of Jesse.

Tim: The reason that’s befuddled people for a long time is, for instance this Psalm 108 that we’re looking at, is called a psalm of David. So how is it that, as you’re reading chronologically through the book of Psalms, that one of them is claiming that the David psalms are over and yet you have more David psalms after this?

Nate: Oh, you’re asking me? Uh…

Tim: No, I’m just pointing it out, leaving space for you to comment. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.

Nate: Oh. Let’s just leave a couple moments of silence here.

Tim: [laughing]

Nate: No, I don’t know, that is strange, it seems like we should, like I’ve said in other episodes, if there’s something weird going on that we see, don’t skip over it, focus on it because it’s probably… I don’t know what it means, but I mean there’s probably meaning there, right?!

[transitional music]

Nate: Hi friends, Nate here! Real quick, if you have any questions for this series or any other episodes that we’ve done, you can ask those at almostheretical.com. And then, we’re so thankful that a number of you help support our show, and if you want to do that as well, you can go to almostheretical.com and click on the Give button in the top right hand corner.

[transitional music]

Tim: Yeah, so some people say, “Oh, this was an error, whoever compiled this was an idiot, he didn’t even realize there were more David psalms after this one!” Some will basically make sort of apologetic defenses, like, “No, this isn’t an error!” Whatever. I think that’s all missing the point. I think what’s happening, and we’re seeing evidence of this in Psalm 108, is that the psalms in the beginning of the book of Psalms in the first two books, which are presented as psalms that David wrote from historical events in David’s life, right so you have one that’s attributed to his rape of Bathsheba and him confessing and repenting after that; you have some in conversation with wars that he was in with Saul and then wars that he was in as the king. So interestingly, what’s happening is that marker, “The prayers of David, son of Jesse are ended,” is a way of saying, the prayers going forward are not referring to the historical life of David who was historically the son of Jesse. Rather, any David psalms that we read from this point forward are not referring to David the son of Jesse, but David the archetypal messianic hero. In other words, you can have a David psalm after Psalm 72 in the book that is no longer functioning as a David psalm. It’s been repurposed and it’s functioning as a part of a kind of messianic narrative structure that points beyond David, beyond the history of David, towards some future David-like figure. So that’s actually happening, this kind of historical movement through Israel’s history and beyond the biblical history of Israel, within the book of Psalms. So what’s interesting is both Psalm 57 and Psalm 60 are basically taking place in the context of some sort of hostile battle that David was facing. So I think what’s happening is, when they’re placed as Psalm 57 and as Psalm 60, we’re told to read these in light of the historical life and plight of David and the monarchy of Israel. But look at what happens when you cut out the first half of each of those psalms and then you take the second half of each and you compile them into a new poem is basically all of the historical markers have been removed. So in the first half of Psalm 57 you have some references to David being in the midst of these lions and people attacking him with arrows; he’s in some kind of disaster. And in Psalm 60, you have this reference to him feeling like he and the people have been rejected and there’s some sort of war going on. So those pieces have been cut away, discarded, but then you basically have these much more generic, broad prayers that come in the end that sound like, “Save us! Who will help us?” They’re these broad theological poetics pieces. So I think what we’re seeing is, whoever did this, whoever compiled the book of Psalms, removed the historical markers from these two pieces but then preserved the hope that was presented in these psalms that God would save David from trouble and pasted them into a psalm that is now functioning as a prayer not of the historical David who’s long gone but of Israel living in a continued time of trouble, under Greece, under Alexander the Great, or potentially under Rome, and saying that those prayers David prayed for help back then, those are now needed again. We’re going to pray the same things in this chapter of the story. Does that make sense?

Nate: Yeah. So they’re being repurposed essentially with the parts that don’t make sense for the current story to say we also need help, we are leaning on that same steadfast love of God for our own time and place and our own situation, which we all understand and we don’t need to maybe even include in here.

Tim: Right! And not trying to hide this at all. It’s actually, I think, showing it off. I think the point is the author, editor, whatever you want to call him, actually thinks that we readers will get more meaning from Psalm 108 if we realized the way it’s been created from Psalm 57 and Psalm 60 and what has been cut out. I think that’s actually why that line, that the psalms of David, son of Jesse, are ended is in there. It’s to tell us how to read the rest of the David psalms, to not read them in light of historical David but in something else. And so interestingly, what you see is that this has been, like I said, an example or a microcosm of a copy-pasting repurposing that has actually cut away pieces of a psalm and made something new out of them. But I think what’s even more interesting when you the complexity of this all is, if you actually read through the first couple chapters of the book of Luke, the gospel of Luke, and you see throughout what’s called the infancy narrative. So you have Mary getting this vision from an angel, and then Jesus is brought to the temple, and then you have Zechariah and these others singing these songs and all that. Luke has this long, drawn-out story of the news that Jesus is going to be born. Some scholars have pointed out that Psalm 105 through Psalm 108, which kind of functions as this group of psalms together, this kind of four chapter vignette, is referenced repeatedly throughout the first few chapters of Luke. There are all sorts of illusions, shared words, echoes where it seems that what Luke is doing is giving us all these clues that somehow the news that Jesus is coming is supposed to be read through Psalms 105-108. Well, interestingly, if Psalms 105-108 are about the historical David, that wouldn’t add very much to the meaning of Jesus’ birth. But if Psalm 105-108 are actually about Israel’s experience of a long, ongoing, continued exile and their need for a new David-like figure—not the historic David, but a new archetypal David—then Luke has all sorts of reason to basically ask us readers to read his gospel in light of these psalms. In other words, Luke is seeing all of this. He’s not only seeing this complexity and the repurposing that’s happening in Psalm 108. He’s seeing that Psalms 105, 106, 107, and 108 all are literarily woven together, and then he is himself picking up this practice by weaving in little clues of shared lines and what are called echoes sometimes, or illusions, into all the poems and songs in the first few chapters of Luke in order to stitch the story of Jesus onto this part of the story in the book of Psalms.

Nate: Yeah, yeah, I see that. So he’s in a sense kind of doing what whoever did this in the psalms: chopped out a little bit, chopped out this bit, copy and pasted them in. He’s kind of taking an example from them and doing that same thing, stitching the continued story that he’s going to tell into, “Look at this, see what that meant, see what they were hoping for there? Here’s the realization of that hope. Let me tell you a story.” What I love about this is—you said this last episode, too, but it makes them, the writers, the crafters of the Bible much smarter, much more intelligent. Geniuses, really, which I don’t think we often give them credit for in a view that I would have said was a high view of the Bible that I used to have, I think I was actually diminishing the intelligence and the brilliance of these people because they were just primitive and they didn’t understand how to use texts and they didn’t understand how to make these connections. But yeah, this is actually a higher view.

Tim: Well, and here’s something that’s been really impactful for me in a way that I didn’t expect. It’s not just that the people who wrote and compiled were a whole lot smarter and capable of more than we gave them credit for. It’s that those authors think more highly of their audience and of us reading this book than we give ourselves credit for. I mean, think about just this tiny little example I pointed out: you see Psalm 108, you’re supposed to connect it to these other two psalms, see how the copy-pasting has changed the meaning and passed that meaning forward. Then as you read through Luke, you’re supposed to have seen all these little echoes, allusions, and in each one to be able draw in the literary meaning from the texts in the book where those were drawn. And then, and we’ll see this in future episodes, you realize that all of those connections make this incredibly complex and complicated picture where what it does is it doesn’t give the reader a clear answer or a clear list of doctrines. It actually provokes a bunch of questions, and when we see all these layers underneath things, it’s supposed to spark a conversation amongst us, to say, “Oh, which part of that story is this drawing in?” Or, “If I read this song of Mary in light of Hannah’s song or in light of Miriam’s song, how is that supposed to change the way I think about Jesus and the gospel?” We’re supposed to be doing that work, and the authors actually think that that intellectual grappling is the point of their text. So here’s where this has taken me: the Bible itself and how the Bible works is actually the greatest theological pushback to the version of total depravity and original sin that you and I grew up with, which is basically that you can’t trust your brain, you are so fallen that you basically cannot rely on your own intellectual capabilities, you have to go to the Bible. The way the Bible works is, it’s written in order to spark our intellectual capabilities, and it’s written in a way that expects that we can do a really good job thinking well about these texts. Meaning, the authors of the Bible wrote this book with an understanding of human dignity and human intellectual capacity that is far greater than what many have espoused based on this book about human dignity.

Nate: I know that I, when I was leading the church and planting churches, would often teach people to be cautious, I guess, of thinking too hard about it all, about getting too intellectual. I just wanted a simple reading of the Bible in whatever version we were holding at that time. I think we were really doing a disservice and an injustice to what the Bible actually was, and the Bible would have been screaming, the biblical authors that wrote all these things would’ve been screaming, like, “You’re missing the whole point of this thing!” Yeah, and I have that line, I think Rachel Held Evans says, the Bible is meant to start conversations and we often use it to end conversations. That’s just really ringing in my head right now.

[transitional music]

Tim: So this is another small glimpse into how the Bible works. Find out more about us and the series at almostheretical.com. Peace!