Psalm 80

You plucked up a vine from Egypt; You expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (80:9-10)

The theology of this verse reminds me of the comment on the first verse of Genesis by the medieval French commentator Rashi, in which he explains that the purpose of beginning Torah with creation, rather than with the first mitzvah given to Israel in Exodus 12, is to remind us that the world belongs to God. In this Psalm, God is a gardener and the world is God’s garden.

I know some transplanted species do very well in a new location, taking over the land and crowding out the native species. Typically, we call those kinds of plants “invasive.” This does not seem to be the image that the Psalmist is drawing. Rather, he is describing a Gardener who very carefully prepares the soil by clearing away the plants currently growing in the new location as if they were weeds. Only when the area is empty and ready for a new planting does the gardener take the vine that had been growing in Egypt and transplant it to its new location.

The vine takes to the new location as its native habitat, flourishing, sending its roots deep into the ground and spreading out to fill the land. The vine doesn’t own the land any more than the plants who preceded it owned the land. The vine lives off the land, depending on the owner of the land to sustain it. This Gardener is not typical of those who take care of small farms and landscapes. This Gardener not only fertilizes the soil and trims the vine, but also controls the water and the sunshine that nourish the vine.

Although the Psalmist speaks as if the vine is the only thing growing, we know that a healthy ecosystem supports a variety of plants. To conclude on a messianic note: just as the vine shares the land with a different kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, grains and and flowering plants, so too may the people Israel someday share the land in peace with a diversity of other peoples.

Psalm 77

Has God forgotten how to pity? Has God in anger stifled God’s compassion? (77:10)

We commonly speak about God with human characteristics and emotions. We talk about God’s fingers, hands, arms, eyes, ears, and even nose, even though God has none of the above. We also commonly speak of God’s happiness, enjoyment, desire for obedience, sadness, regret, and compassion and other such human emotions. The 12th century philosopher Maimonides believed that we should not use such language for God, because to do so places limits on a God who is by definition infinite. However, Biblical literature is rich with anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language for God because it is the only way we have to to communicate our our sense of the Divine.

The Talmud (Sota 14a) suggests what we might learn from language attributing human behavior to God:

What is the meaning of the verse, “Follow none but Adonai your God” (Deuteronomy 13:15)?  Is it possible for a human being literally to follow God?  Rather, we should imitate the attributes of God.

Just as God clothed the naked, as it is written, “And Adonai God made Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21)–so too should you clothe the naked.

Just as God visited the sick –as it is written, “Adonai appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre” [following his circumcision] (Genesis 18:1)–so too should you visit the sick.

Just as God comforted the mourners –as it is written, “After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac” (Genesis 25:11)–so too should you comfort the mourners.

Just as God buried the dead –as it is written, “God buried him [Moses] in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6)–so too should you bury the dead.

The Psalmist hopes that God’s hen, graciousness or pity, and rahamim, compassion, have not disappeared. Because such traits are the central part of what it means to “Love your fellow as yourself,” it is also a reminder to ourselves not to let our anger overwhelm our compassion.

Psalm 76

God curbs the spirit of princes, inspires awe in the kings of the earth. (76:13)

Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Powerful leaders need constant reminders that their power does not entitle them to do and take anything they want. This is the basis for a philosophical argument for a monotheistic God. Were there more than one creator/power in the universe; or if there were no power above human power, there would be no basis for asserting universal, non-relative, moral authority.

In a polytheistic system, the gods are in conflict. There is no absolute authority, and therefore no absolute right or wrong. Any position that I might take, appealing to the voice of a specific god, can be contradicted by the voice of an opposing god. The sun god dries up the water god, but the storm god blows clouds to cover up the sun god and produce more water. The sea god has no power inland, where the goddess of crop fertility reigns. And so on.

In a non-theistic system, we have to trust the human system to create systems of morality. The problem, though, is that every human created system can be modified or suspended by a person with sufficient power. The Constitution of the United States provides protection for its citizens, but Congress has passed laws abridging our rights when it feels that it is necessary.

A monotheistic system has a God at the top of the system whose authority (in theory, and usually in practice) cannot be altered by human beings. It’s answer to Lord Acton is that since human power is limited by God, then a human leader who is curbed by a belief in God and held in awe of God will never be corrupted, and certainly never be corrupted absolutely.

Psalm 74

It was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters. (74:13)

In the first Genesis creation story, the universe at the first moment of creation was tohu vavohu, unformed chaos. The enterprise of creation consists of taming or beating back or organizing the chaos. Anything that behaves in unpredictable or dangerous ways, such as a large body of water or a wild sea creature, is a remnant of the unrestrained chaos.

We know from our attempts to clean a house with children or organize our workflow at our job that factors beyond our control (children messing up as we’re cleaning, for example) constantly introduce chaos back into the system. In physics, this is known as entropy, the natural tendency of things to decline into disorder.

No matter how carefully we might plan our day, a customer whose order gets lost by the delivery service, a coworker who doesn’t do his part of the presentation, a supervisor who scheduled a meeting and forgot to send us the notice, reintroduces chaos into a system that we thought had been thoroughly organized.

It is worth remembering that although God drove back the chaos, or perhaps more properly stated organized the chaos, to create the universe, that there is still chaos left in our world. So when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering or disorder, we might remember that it is our opportunity to join with God in driving back the sea of chaos and smashing the monsters of suffering.

Psalm 73

God is truly good to Israel, to those whose heart is pure. (73:1)

I am completely uncomfortable with the notion that God acts better towards Israel than other peoples or religions. Therefore, I read the second half of this verse as an important qualification of the first half of the verse.

In good Biblical poetic form, the second strophe restates the first, but adds something. We can see this more clearly if we write out the verse fully:

“God is truly good to Israel. God is truly good to those whose heart is pure.”

There are two ways of reading this verse. Either the poet is defining Israel as those whose hearts are pure, or God is good only to those among Israel who have pure hearts.

It is impossible, in my opinion, to define any ethnic, religious, social, or national group as a whole as all sharing a single characteristic. Human free will being what it is, it is not possible for a group of people to be united in an attribute (such as being pure of heart) unless a violation of that standards means automatic disqualification from the group. Since “Israel” is a designation that transcends disobedience to God, it cannot be that all members of the group “Israel” are pure of heart.

Therefore, it must be the case that the quality of pureness of heart is a limiting factor. God is not automatically good to all of Israel. Rather, God is only good to those whose heart – actions, thoughts, intentions – are pure.

I suggest that those whose actions, thoughts, and intentions are directed solely to good and noble deeds and purposes will be likely to accept and overcome with equanimity the obstacles that life places in their path. The ability to find good and blessing within evil was an admirable quality of Job. It need not be a naive Pollyannaish outlook, but rather both a sincere acknowledgment of difficulty and a desire to find some good coming from or associated with the bad.