Ibn Ezra, Like a Judicial Moderate!

In my reading today of Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms: From Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra, I started Uriel Simon’s discussion of medieval Jewish exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra.  Ibn Ezra’s position is perhaps the most nuanced of the four approaches, and so I had a hard time following it.  But, in writing this post, I hope to rectify that situation.  I will start by looking at how Simon characterizes Ibn Ezra’s position in the Preface, then I will look at Simon’s treatment of Ibn Ezra’s interaction with two issues: the identity of the people who wrote the Psalms, and the question of whether the Psalms are poems or prophecies.  For the second issue, my discussion will be incomplete, for I have not yet finished that particular section.

Moses ibn Giqatilah (whom, as yesterday, I will call “Rabbi Moses” for short) believed that many of the anonymous Psalms and those associated with Asaph and the sons of Korah dated to the Babylonian exile, for (unlike certain Karaites) he did not think that the Psalms were prophetic, plus he noticed that the Psalms in question appeared to describe the exile in the present tense, and, in his eyes, “non-prophetic prayer cannot use the present tense to describe a future situation” (page ix).  Consequently, Rabbi Moses believed that Psalms describing the exile were composed in the time of the exile.  But, as we saw yesterday, when a Psalm was associated with David and appeared to talk about exilic events, Rabbi Moses worked hard to demonstrate that the Psalm was actually referring to a situation in David’s time, not a future exile.

On page x, in the Preface, Simon summarizes Abraham Ibn Ezra’s view on the ideas of Rabbi Moses and others:

“Abraham Ibn Ezra did not invalidate [Rabbi Moses’] view on theological grounds and frequently cited it as a legitimate exegetical option in the body of his standard Psalms commentary.  At the same time, however, he himself tended to accept the opinion of the Sages and demurred from the late-dating of some psalms for exegetical rather than doctrinal reasons.  He infers from the prayers of Jonah and Habakkuk that prophetic prayer, like prophecy itself, is not necessarily anchored in the circumstances of the prophet’s life, but can refer to the distant future, and even speak on behalf of the members of that latter-day generation (such as the Levites of Psalm 137).  Midway between Saadiah and Ibn Giqatilah, he believes that the Psalms were composed by David and other prophetically inspired and for the most part contemporary poets; in this his stance is identical to that of the Karaite exegetes.  But in utter contrast to their marked tendency to find detailed descriptions of future events in the scriptural text, Ibn Ezra reduced the prophetic element of the psalms to an irreducible minimum, while giving maximum weight to their fundamentally liturgical nature.”

You can probably see why it’s not easy for me to get a firm handle on Ibn Ezra’s position.  The other three positions are quite neat, although, of course, they may have resorted to mental gymnastics in handling contrary evidence!  Saadiah regarded the Book of Psalms as God’s revelation to David (through an angel) of instructions and exhortations for humanity.  Karaites regarded the Psalms as prayers that were inspired by the Holy Spirit and spoke to and about future events.  Rabbi Moses held that the Psalms were written by spiritual men (which was probably why they were Scripture), and were neither prophetic nor inspired by the Holy Spirit.  But Ibn Ezra drew from all three positions, while also rejecting them, in areas.  He was open to the possibility that certain Psalms could have been composed during the exile, as Rabbi Moses maintained, but he also thought that the Psalms included prophetic prayers that could speak to future generations.  According to Simon, he did so for exegetical reasons, which may mean that he went with such an explanation when it fit the details of a Psalm in question.  And yet, Ibn Ezra also minimized the prophetic element of the Psalms and emphasized their liturgical aspect.  Ibn Ezra reminds me of the moderate judge whom Robert Picardo played in the West Wing episode, “The Supremes”: he did not have a firm ideology, but he judged things on a case-by-case basis, with attention to the eccentricities of the case.

I’ll turn now to Ibn Ezra’s treatment of the two issues, hoping that I don’t find myself on a winding road as I try to define his position!  The first issue is the identity of the authors of the Psalms.  Saadiah believed that all of the Psalms were by David, for the Hebrew Bible emphasizes David’s anointing and associates the Psalms with him (Nehemiah 12:24; II Chronicles 7:6; 8:14), plus Saadiah contends that David’s reign was just the right time for Israel to receive the Book of Psalms, for, by that time, Israel had attained a perfect number, breadth of knowledge, wealth, and heroes.  (What that has to do with the Psalms, I have no idea.)  The Karaites and Rabbi Moses, by contrast, thought that there were other writers of Psalms in addition to David.  Ibn Ezra judged whether a Psalm was Davidic by its content and (in many cases) its superscription.  There are a number of Psalms that have a lamed (meaning “to”) before a name (le-David, le-Moshe, le-Asaph, etc.).  Simon says on page 179 that “All agree that the lamed before a personal name in the header of a psalm can be interpreted in four ways, which lead to five or six different conclusions: the reference can be to an author, to a musician, to the descendants of an author or musician, to the subject of the psalm, or even to his descendants.”  Saadiah’s problem, for Ibn Ezra, was that he took the le-Davids as indications that David wrote Psalms, while he interpreted the le-other authors as something other than authorship, which is rather arbitrary.  Then there was Rabbi Moses, who thought that the anonymous Psalms were not Davidic.

Regarding the lamed, Ibn Ezra interpreted it as an indication of authorship, unless there was a reason to do otherwise.  If a Psalm associated with David spoke in the first person, then it was probably by David.  If it referred to David or the king in the third person, then it was perhaps not by David, but rather about him.  On the anonymous Psalms, Ibn Ezra believed that some of them could have been by David, for Psalm 72:20 says the “End of the prayers of David the son of Jesse”, and there were some anonymous Psalms before that verse.  Plus, Ibn Ezra notes that Psalms that are ascribed to David in other books (e.g., I Chronicles, particularly in 16:7-22) overlap with the contents of anonymous Psalms.  But, unlike Saadiah, he does not assert that all anonymous Psalms are by David, for that is unproveable.  Rather, he seeks to show that “cautious attempts can be made to identify the authors of other anonymous psalms” (page 180).  Again, Ibn Ezra proceeds on a case-by-case basis when it comes to the Psalms.

The second issue concerns whether the Psalms are prayers or prophecies.  Today, I read Part A: “The answer of the introduction: Prophetic prayers”.  Simon says that Ibn Ezra initially said that the Psalms were prophetic because of biblical passages portraying David, Heman, Asaph, and Jeduthun in prophetic terms, but that he omitted these proofs in his second introduction, showing that he was not convinced by them.  My impression is that, according to Simon, Ibn Ezra was not convinced by these proofs because the prophets could have composed personal or non-prophetic poetry: the fact that a Psalm was composed by a prophet, in short, does not prove that the Psalm itself is prophetic.  Ibn Ezra, therefore, feels a need to demonstrate that prophetic prayer is possible.  He does so by showing that Jonah predicted his own deliverance in his prayer to God, before he was spewed out of the sea-monster.  (Rabbi Moses, by contrast, held that Moses prayed his prayer after he had been spit out.)  Moreover, Ibn Ezra notes that Jonah uses the past tense to describe a future deliverance, which refutes Rabbi Moses’ literalistic treatment of the tenses (i.e., the present tense cannot be used to talk about the future).  Ibn Ezra also appeals to Habbakuk, whose prophecy is called a prayer in Habakkuk 3:1.  But, for Ibn Ezra, the possibility of prophetic prayer does not prove that every Psalm is prophetic.  After all, a Psalmist may be expressing his hopes about the future, rather than predicting it.  And so, again, Ibn Ezra proceeds on a case-by-case basis.  He believes that Psalms that talk about the exile are prophetic because they predicted the exile, which came to pass.  But he also thinks that there are Psalms that talk about a broader redemption, which he deems to be Messianic.

There were elements of this section that, quite frankly, I did not understand.  For example, Ibn Ezra distinguishes between inspiration by the Holy Spirit and prophetic inspiration.  And he distinguishes both of those from what Isaac had when he blessed Jacob, while thinking that he was blessing Esau.  Ibn Ezra does not think that Isaac was divinely-inspired in that case, for he did not even know the truth of whom he was blessing!  But Ibn Ezra does believe that God honored Isaac’s prayer, which was why it came to pass.

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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