Von Rad and Levenson on Some Psalms

I finished Volume I of Gerhard Von Rad’s Old Testament Theology.  I want to comment on two issues: Psalm 50, and righteousness by works.  For both issues, I’ll also be bringing in Jon Levenson’s Sinai and Zion.

1.  One of the questions on my Bible comp was about Psalm 50.  I’m not sure if I’ll have to take that part over again, but I want to mention what Von Rad says about it, as well as a comment by Jon Levenson in Sinai and Zion.

Psalm 50 criticizes animal sacrifices, as it denies that God needs them for food.  In my essay for my comp, I wondered why priests would say this, and I speculated that perhaps there were some renegade priests or scribes who were lambasting animal sacrifices, but the mainstream (pro-sacrifice) priestly community used this Psalm in its services to prevent the sacrifices from becoming an empty ritual: it adopted the Psalm to teach a lesson, without agreeing with all of its contents.  On pages 368-369, Von Rad offers a viewpoint that is somewhat similar to what I was coming up with independently.  He says that there was rivalry between priests and temple singers, and that the temple singers wanted to “shake people out of the complacency which was a constant danger besetting the sacrificial cult.”  Cool, huh?

Before I go on to what Levenson says about Psalm 50, I want to mention what Von Rad says on pages 403-404 about the temple singers.  He identifies them as Levites, and he says that they were the source for the Psalms that affirm that the LORD is the Psalmist’s portion, or that contain the idea of a spiritual place of safety from the attacks of enemies.  Von Rad associates this with Torah passages that call the LORD the Levites’ portion (Numbers 18:20; Deuteronomy 10:9).  This was cool, because it reminded me of something that I read by Erhard Gerstenberger: he said that certain Levites composed the Psalms about the LORD delivering the poor from unjust oppressors, for, as Levites, they dealt with oppressed poor people on a fairly regular basis.  They knew about these poor people’s plight, and they composed Psalms for them.  And, according to Von Rad, they may have been the ones who composed Psalms about spiritual asylum and the LORD as the worshiper’s portion—for the benefit of Israelite worshipers.

Now to Levenson’s comments on Psalm 50—on pages 207-209 of Sinai and Zion.  Levenson notices similarities between Sinai and how Psalm 50 depicts Zion: God makes a flashy appearance and puts Israel on trial before witnesses, heaven and earth.  But Psalm 50 also summons all of the nations of the world as witnesses, and in the process, it makes God so big that he does not need to eat animal sacrifices, correcting the Sinai covenant’s notion that God needed them.  But, according to Levenson, Psalm 50’s correction of Sinai makes God too otherworldly, and Jeremiah’s temple sermon calls upon the principles of Sinai to undermine “the tendency in the Zion traditions to an otherworldliness evasive of responsibility” to God’s commandments.  Levenson concludes, “In Jeremiah 7, Sinai demolishes the hubris of Zion; in Psalm 50, Zion demolishes the hubris of Sinai.”

David Aaron, a professor of mine whose books I read not long ago, disagrees with Levenson that Sinai traditions were applied to Zion; rather, Dr. Aaron holds that Zion traditions were applied to Sinai (at least I think that this is his view).

2.  Von Rad spends a lot of time disputing the notion that the Psalms and Ezekiel 18 promote a system of righteousness by works—as opposed to grace.  He says that Ezekiel 18 has been criticized, and I believe him on this point, for, in my weekly quiet time, I have been reading old commentaries on the Book of Psalms (“old” as in the 1910’s-the 1950’s), which do not hesitate to criticize certain Psalms for being legalistic, or for being hyper-nationalistic, or for sanctioning hatred for enemies.  To be honest, I don’t particularly mind this, for I appreciate people who are honest about disagreeing with the Bible.  In evangelical and conservative Christian settings, I often heard that God was a God of grace, even as the Christians proclaimed a doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy.  But my problem was that I was not finding their notion of grace in every passage of Scripture—and they either ignored passages that did not conform to their “righteousness by grace through faith, apart from works” perspective, or they offered “solutions” that were inadequate and did violence to the text.  And so it’s refreshing when someone looks at parts of the Bible and says that they contradict God’s free grace, or God’s love for all of humanity.  It shows me that I’m not the only one noticing that!

Von Rad doesn’t go with the Protestant scholars and theologians who dismiss the Psalms and Ezekiel 18 as legalistic.  I’m not overly convinced by his arguments—which I may have to reread to understand (and, at the present, I don’t have the time).  He seems to argue that righteousness in the Psalms was saying “yes” within a covenant relationship with God, and accepting the terms of that covenant—God’s Torah, which was a gift of orderliness, not a burden.  To his credit, Von Rad doesn’t try to harmonize the Psalms with Paul, for Von Rad says on page 378 that “These commandments were regarded as perfectly capable of being fulfilled, and indeed as easy to fulfill”, and that “Hebrew psychology makes no distinction between willing and being able”.  How different that is from Paul’s claim in Romans 7 that he wants to keep the law, but cannot do so!

In Sinai and Zion, Levenson, too, interacts with the issue of the Psalms’ alleged legalism.  On pages 174-176, Levenson, a Jewish scholar, addresses a question that some Christian thinkers have asked about Psalms 15 and 24, which affirm that those with clean hands and a pure heart are the ones who can ascend the holy mountain: “Who can honestly claim to have ‘clean hands and a pure heart,’ to have lived ‘without blame,’ and never to have ‘wronged his fellow’?”  Levenson’s solution is that, “just as the cosmic mountain was an idealization of Zion, so was the worshipper fit for admittance there an idealization.”  Levenson continues:

“What Psalm 24 and 15 ask the worshipper to do at the foot of Mount Zion or at the gate to the Temple complex is to pledge allegiance to the ideal.  His own life may have veered from the moral prerequisites of the Temple as much as the earthly Jerusalem fell short of the heavenly.”

I’m glad that Levenson wrestles with a question that has perplexed me, along with some Protestants.  But what took me aback as I read Levenson was this: Levenson talks a lot about the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy, or between God’s standards and how humans fall short, but I found that these issues were not as much of a concern to me as they were years ago.  Nowadays, I just believe that God loves me, even though I’m far from perfect.  And, when God is just, his justice is a form of discipline for the sinner, which means that God still loves him or her.  Can I justify this viewpoint from the Bible?  In some points “yes,” and in some points “no.”  But I don’t worry about it as much these days.  Why should I put myself through the torment of continually wondering if my deeds are good enough (as a basis or as the fruit of salvation) for God to accept me?

I still do think occasionally about these issues, however.  In my weekly quiet time through the Book of Psalms, I notice that commentators point out that, when the Psalmist claims to be blameless, he’s not saying that he’s morally perfect, but rather that he’s innocent of the charges that enemies have leveled against him.  That makes sense to me, and it does not depict the Psalmist as self-righteous.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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