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08 April 2015

Unity in God: Refreshing and Invigorating (Quasimodogeniti / Easter 2)

Psalm 133

The sufi masters say that there would have been no creation at all if the five elements had not come together in unity.  This is how they tell the story:

Earth, fire, water, air, and ether are natural enemies to one another, but God joined them together through the recitation of the kalimah: "There is no god except the one God, and Muhammad is His Messenger."

Before the five elements joined together as one, each proclaimed with great pride, "I! I! There is no one greater than I! I can do anything I want." Water said, "I can do anything I want." Air said, "I can do anything I want." Earth and fire and ether also said, "I can do anything I want." Each one boasted that it was invincible. But if we consider everything that was created out of these five energies, we will see that they all contain some imperfection or weakness and that they all are subject to change and destruction. Except for the All-knowing and Almighty Eternal God, everything is imperfect and will change.

To break the pride of the five elements, to destroy their arrogance, and to bring them together in unity, God showed them their many weaknesses.

To earth He said, "Do not think that you are great. Good and evil and all that is filthy and discarded exist within you. And everyone steps on you."

"I am indeed full of faults," the earth was forced to admit.

"Recite the kalimah in the name of the light of Nur Muhammad," God commanded. And earth recited the kalimah.

Then God told water, "You wash away dirt from others, but then you keep it all within yourself, and the millions of worms and insects and germs that grow within you make you smell terrible. What is more, you have no shape of your own; you are trapped by what surrounds you. Only when there is an opening can you flow out and escape. O water, how can you say that you are great, when you can be pushed about by winds and blocked by earth from going wherever you want?"

"I certainly have many faults," admitted water.

"Recite the kalimah in the name of the light of Nur Muhammad," God commanded. And water recited the kalimah.

Then God told fire, "You think you can do whatever you want, but air can blow you out and water can drown you. That should put an end to your arrogance. There is only One who is without fault. That One is Allah, the eternal One who has no beginning or end."

And fire also had to admit, "I am full of faults."

"Recite the kalimah in the name of the light of Nur Muhammad," commanded God. And fire recited the kalimah.

Next God told air, "You look at everyone's face, but no one looks at your face. You think you are great, but there are tall mountain ranges that can block you. And when houses, trees, or mountains stand in your way, what can you do? Nothing."

"I have many faults," admitted air.

"Then recite the kalimah and know that there is someone greater than you. That One is Allah." And air recited the kalimah.

Then God told ether, "You are maya, you are illusion. You are nothing but glitters. One storm pushes you this way, the next pushes you that way. As soon as daylight comes, your glitters disappear and the beauty of your own light fades. You are powerless in the daylight."

"I am full of faults," admitted ether.

"Recite the kalimah," God commanded. And ether recited the sacred words.

And so, when the five acknowledged their deficiencies and affirmed their faith, they became one, and Islam came into being. Only after they recited the kalimah did they join together in unity.

Unity is the theme of Psalm 133:

1  הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים line 1
 שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד. line 2
2 כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב  עַל-הָרֹאשׁ line 3
יֹרֵ֗ד עַֽל הַזָּקָ֥ן זְקַֽן־ אַהֲרֹ֑ן line 4
שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו. line 5
3  כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן-- שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן: line 6
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה, line 7
אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה-- חַיִּים, עַד-הָעוֹלָם line 8

Look! How good and how pleasant it is  / when brothers live together! 2 It is like fine oil poured on the head / which flows down the beard—Aaron’s beard, / and then flows down his garments. 3 It is like the dew of Hermon,  which flows down upon the hills of Zion. / Indeed, that is where the Lord has decreed / a blessing will be available --eternal life. (NET)

Wow! How good and how pleasant is /

The dwelling of brothers, all together—
2 Like fine oil on the head / Running down over the beard, /The beard of Aaron which is running down / Over the collar of his robes; 3 Like the dew of Hermon running down / Over the mountains of Zion—There Yahweh Commands the blessing—Life always! (Frederick William Dobbs-Allsopp)

Psalm 133 is the fourteenth in the collection of songs of ascents (Psalms 120–134). People who have encountered this very short psalm often only remember the first verse (line 1-2).  I learned to sing those two lines when, on one of my two trips to Israel, our group was taught this popular round:

Hine mah tov u mah-nayim 
Shevet achim gam yachad.
("Look! How good and how pleasant it is
/ when brothers live together!")

Hine Mah Tov is a song traditionally sung at Shabbat feasts and is the basis for several Israeli folk dances. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as Dalida, Meir Finkelstein, Ishtar, the Miami Boys Choir, and Harry Belafonte.

The Songs of Ascents were songs meant to be sung by "ascents" (pilgrims) while they were going up to a high place: the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. 

As Jerusalem crowns the hill and its Temple stood on a "mount", the pilgrims were literally "ascending". Such "going up" together created community; as James Luther Mays writes, "The festival transformed the pilgrims into a family that for a holy time ate and dwelt together."

Religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem became a significant aspect of the culture of the Jewish Diaspora. The story of the boy Jesus and his parents attending the Passover in Jerusalem exemplified its meaning in Jewish life. (Luke 2:41 - 52)

If our psalm were a musical composition, its form might be called "Theme and Variations".

The theme, Unity in God, stated in lines 1-2, unfolds in the remaining lines in two variations that look deceptively simple yet are quite intricate in their construction.

In the first variation (line 3-5) the blessing of unity is compared to fine oil ( כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב = kaš·še·men haṭ·ṭō·wḇ). The word טוֹב ("good" in its widest sense) describes the superior quality of this oil, and thus can be translated as fine, sweet or precious.

“Precious oil” is a measure of extravagance and well-being, and of blessing beyond expectation.  Writes Dobbs-Allsopp: "Since the climate in other parts of the Mediterranean world (e.g., Egypt, Me-sopotamia) was not suitable for growing olives (too consistently warm), olives and olive oil were among the Levant’s chief luxury items coveted by the social and political elites ... and commonly counted among other valuables (gold, silver, and the like)".

And there is more: in the Psalmist's mind the oil is imagined as being  "poured on the head / which flows down the beard—Aaron’s beard, / and then flows down his garments". According to Dahood, the Hebrew grammar suggests that the Psalmist recalls the scene of the consecration of Aaron himself, described in Leviticus Chapter 8.

The second variation (line 6-8), builds on the first and intensifies it, as it compares unity in God with dew from Mount Hermon ( כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן = kə·ṭal ḥer·mō·wn).

Mount Hermon, a "majestic, snow-capped mountain" (Dahood), is actually a cluster of mountains with three distinct summits, each about the same height. See the picture above. The Anti-Lebanon range extends for approximately 150 km (93 mi) in a northeast-southwest direction, running parallel to the Lebanon range on the west.

Because of its height the mountain captures a great deal of precipitation in that very dry area of the world.  Mount Hermon has seasonal winter and spring snow falls which cover all three of its peaks for most of the year. Melt water from the snow-covered mountain's western and southern bases seeps into the rock channels and pores, feeding springs at the base of the mountain, which form streams and rivers. These merge to become the Jordan River.

But there's more. The Psalmist imagines the dew flowing "down upon the hills of Zion". The author brings his comparison back home to the pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem: The life-producing effect of harmonious living is as though the most copious dew fell upon the arid mountains of Zion.

And there's more still: "Indeed, that is where the Lord has decreed / a blessing will be available -- eternal life."  Here we encounter the word ḥay·yîm (life) that I alluded to in a recent post.

The phrase חַיִּים עַד-הָעוֹלָם  describes the ultimate blessing, “life for evermore”; whether or not this is what we mean when we say "eternal life", there's some allusion here to immortality.

Oddly, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint replace the word ḥay·yîm with šā·lōm and thus omit the reference to eternal life; Dahood and Dobbs-Allsopp agree that the lectio difficilior (the more unusual or difficult version of the text, in this case that of the Masoretic Text) is more likely the original. Since it is hard to conceive that someone would add the word ḥay·yîm to the established MT, it is more likely that the omission is secondary.

How does all this fit together?

Mitchell Dahood writes, "Exegetes have long puzzled over the semantic connection between brotherly unity, the fragrant oil upon Aaron’s beard, and the dew on Hermon’s slopes. One cannot pinpoint the connection which the psalmist saw when drawing these comparisons, but the Ugaritic-Hebrew parallelism, ... “the dew of heaven, the oil of earth” ... may supply a literary clue."

F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp thinks that our psalm "engages, interrupts, breaks into the world" as "something more than a mathematical summing of its component words" by creating a sophisticated web of echoes and references.

One scholar is puzzled and uses a Ugaritic text to illuminate the use of the two metaphors; the other points to connections within the Old Testament.  Both are impressed with the intricate document this short psalm is.

But enough with all the scholarly stuff.

"How good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!"  The passage is lavish and appeals to our senses.

  • See in front of you the viscous sweet oil dripping down Aaron's beard and cascading down his robe ... that's how unity in God works.
  • Imagine the dew streaming down from majestic Mount Hermon and nourishing the parched ground everywhere ... that's how unity in God works.

Hine mah tov ... Wow! How beautiful!

The setting at the bottom of this post is from Claude Goudimel's Genevan Psalter.  If you'd like to get a feel for the old tune, check out this clip:

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