Sunday, 10 November 2019

Meditating on Body Parts

Psalm 17 contains more references to body parts than it has verses. (The poem is in parts difficult to understand and translate which is why some will interpret some of the verses differently from how I read them here although this does not affect the references to parts of the body as such.)

The psalmist refers to his lips in verse 1, his heart and his mouth in verse 3, his feet in verse 5 and possibly his throat in verse 9 ("my deadly enemies" = "the enemies at my throat"; in verse 13 nefesh ["throat", "neck", "soul"] refers to the life of the psalmist).*

The preposition "from" with which verse 9 opens hints at the face of the wicked (plural) and in verse 13 God is literally asked to confront the face of the wicked (singular) who is forced to his knees. The callousness of the wicked is described in verse 10 as being "inclosed in their own fat" (KJV, modern translation usually speak more freely of "closing their hearts to pity") and their arrogance finds expression in their mouths. Their determination to harm the psalmist is seen in their eyes (verse 11). The share in life of these people is what goes into their belly (verse 14).

God is asked to give ear (verse 1), to incline his ear (verse 6) to the psalmist. The preposition with which verse 2 opens can be rendered more literally "from your face" (= "from your presence," cf. below on the final verse). The verse goes on to refer to God's eyes, later on the pupil of God's eye is specifically mentioned (verse 8). God's lips feature in verse 4, his right hand in verse 7. Verse 14 speaks more generally of his hand. While the danger from the wicked is described in leonine imagery (verse 12), the protection God offers is spoken of in ornithological imagery with reference to wings under which one can find refuge (verse 7).

The psalm concludes, "As for me, being in the right I will see your face; I will be satisfied when I awake [with seeing] your form."

These references allow for various connections and contrasts. The psalmist is caught between the presence of God and the presence of the wicked - both referenced in prominently placed prepositions which hint at the faces of friend and foe (verse 2 using the fuller form than verse 9). The wicked have their eyes on the psalmist for harm (verse 11) who therefore wants to be not only in the sight of his God but to be the very apple of his eye. The salvation must come from God facing up to and facing down the oppressor, bringing him to his knees (verse 13) before the psalmist is cast to the ground (verse 11).

The contrast between the psalmist and the wicked is marked by what comes out of their mouths (verse 3, verse 10). The good use of lips by the person praying is arguably also the result of paying heed to the word that comes from God's lips (verse 4), unlike the arrogant. From this comes confidence that God will incline his ear to what comes out of the psalmist's mouth rather than the mouth of the proud.

Only the feet of the psalmist are explicitly mentioned but the violent have their ways (verse 4), as God has his tracks (or ruts, usually translated "paths," verse 5). This assumes that the feet of the opposing parties have both left grooves between which the psalmist had to decide.(The wicked are now in turn trying to track down the palmist, verse 11.)

The references to the psalmist's heart and throat are unique within the psalm, highlighting his integrity and vulnerability.

The wicked are uniquely characterised by reference to fat and belly, fitting with a concern for the goods of this life without regard to the giver of life whose face the psalmist is keen to see.

The double reference to God's (right) hand stresses his power, the unique reference to wings his protection (cf. the unique reference to the apple of his eye).

What then does it mean to see the form or likeness of God (verse 15)? Does the psalmist expect to see the face of a large bird with hands? Hardly. The verse seems to allude to Numbers 12.
"When there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, will make myself known to him in a vision; in a dream I will speak with him. Not so my servant Moses...with him I will speak mouth to mouth, clearly and not in riddles; the form of the LORD he will see."
The psalmist expects communion with God which is unambiguous and in a state of being awake, not in a dream. He expects to enjoy the presence of God (seeing his face), as he perceives the presence (the form or likeness) of a protective bird rather than an attacking lion. The verse speaks about intimacy and to speak about intimacy the psalmist reaches for bodily language.

* I use "his" in keeping with the gender of the Hebrew terms and the superscription "A Plea of David" and because the use of the singular "their" (which I use in other contexts) seems less appropriate in a discussion of body parts. This should not prevent women from appropriating the language for their own prayers.