Understanding the Bible 09: Interpreting the Psalms

Illuminated_PsaltarGreat poetry generally makes for difficult reading.  The words and phrases may be simple enough,  even simplistic. But the very nature of poetry is to pick up where language fails – to articulate the ineffable.  And thus readers of poetry face the dual challenge of interpretation and introspection. We must simultaneously examine words and ourselves to find the points of intersection.

This work is hard enough when the verse is in our native tongue and generation, but multiplies exponentially as the distance increases.  The sonnets of Shakespeare are works of incredible genius, but not the sort of thing one internalizes easily.  We may possess a few couplets we can rattle off from memory, but to resonate with the soul of these poems requires sustained effort.

In that same way, many of us can call to mind a few verses from the Hebrew psalms:  “The Lord is my shepherd…”  But for many of us, myself very much included!, the psalms are a slowly-acquired taste.  The linguistic and cultural distance (they were, after all, written in Hebrew, on the other side of the planet, nearly 3,000 years ago) is immense, and renders many of the elements of poetry (rhythm, rhyme, homily, idiom…) impotent (at least at first).

But within these poems lies the finest guide to actual contact with God in print.  The pslams contatin expression of every dimension of the life of fatih:  love, despair, fear, plantiff cry and shouts of elation.  Whatever we yearn to say to God or long to hear, it is present in the psalms.  What is required is a guide to understanding the process of interpretation.

In this episode, I do my best to trace my journey from psalm-loather to prayer-life-enjoyer.   And in the process I hope to shed a little light on the process of interpretation and internalization.  And I hope to inspire you to take another look into an anthology of poetry richer, wiser and more honest than any other.Altercover

Wanna do more reading?  I can’t recommend Robert Alter’s translation of the psalms highly enough.  His translational notes are far and away the best I’ve found in a single volume.  He renders the Hebrew very faithfully (and beautifully!) while also explaining (by means of wonderful footnotes) what the original audience would have understood in and between the lines.  At $9.99 for the Kindle edition, it’s a must buy.  🙂





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