Seeking Torah, Seeking God: Psalm 119
Psalm 119 is a “must read” for any Jew devoted to study as a religious value. In its 176 verses, eight for each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters, the psalm implores God with a profound love of God’s Torah and a deep desire for its knowledge. While not quite striving for the rabbinic ideal of torah lishmah, Psalm 119 definitely anticipates rabbinic Judaism’s commitment to Talmud Torah as a mode of divine service and a path to God. My purpose here is to consider Psalm 119’s theology in light of some of the modern scholarly evidence for the Psalm’s relatively late date. The Psalm thus reflects the development of the idea of Torah study in the late biblical, pre-rabbinic period.
Dating Psalm 119
Modern scholarship dates Psalm 119 to the Second Temple Period. The best evidence for this conclusion is linguistic: Psalm 119 uses Late Biblical Hebrew as opposed to the Classical form of the language. Language, that is the very wording of the Psalms, is the only effective means of establishing any Psalm’s date, because the Psalms, in general, only rarely refer to easily identifiable historic events. Psalm 137 (“By the Rivers of Babylon”) which some traditional commentators recognized as late (or, in their terms, not composed by King David) because of its mention of the Babylonian exile, is more the exception than the rule.
Avi Hurvitz of the Hebrew University has made the case for Psalm 119’s late date in his book entitled בין לשון ללשון (literally, “between [one] language and [another] language”), which establishes firm criteria for identifying Late Biblical Hebrew (the post-exilic phase of Hebrew within the biblical corpus) and distinguishing it from the classical language.
On the one hand, Hurvitz observes similarities between Psalm 119’s terminology and that found in biblical books unquestionably from the Second Temple Period, such as Ezra and Chronicles (דברי הימים). On the other hand, he points out differences between these same terms and those that occur in books composed in Classical Biblical Hebrew, such as the narrative prophetic books. To these two strands of inner-biblical evidence, Hurvitz joins the evidence from post-biblical Hebrew, such as the language of rabbinic texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The language of Psalm 119 is closer to the language of these later texts, as well.
Hurvitz points to verses like the following:
מה וְאֶתְהַלְּכָה בָרְחָבָה כִּי פִקֻּדֶיךָ דָרָשְׁתִּי
45 I will walk about at ease, for I have turned to Your precepts.
צד לְךָ-אֲנִי הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ דָרָשְׁתִּי
94 I am Yours; save me! For I have turned to Your precepts.
קנה רָחוֹק מֵרְשָׁעִים יְשׁוּעָה כִּי חֻקֶּיךָ לֹא דָרָשׁוּ
155 Deliverance is far from the wicked, for they have not turned to Your laws
Based on context, the word piqqudekha (“Your precepts”) in verses 45 and 94 is a synonym for commandments. Unlike other, more common words (such as tora or mitsva), however, this word occurs only in the Book of Psalms. In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the root p-q-d (source of the word piqqudekha) refers to counting or appointing, rather than to commanding. The use of the root in the semantic sphere of commanding occurs in post-biblical Hebrew literature, probably under the influence of Aramaic, where p-q-d typically refers to commands. The word piqqudekha in Psalm 119 shows this same Aramaic influence, which most likely occurred during the exile, so Hurvitz considers this word to be a linguistic marker of the psalm’s post-exilic date.
Similarly, the semantics of the root d-r-sh (translated here “to turn to”) in these verses also exemplify Late Biblical Hebrew. In the rest of the Hebrew Bible, when the root refers to some aspect of the religious experience, the object of the verb often refers to God (or another god) or God’s word. Biblical verses in which the object of the verb refers to God’s commandments, rather than God or God’s word, occur only in Psalm 119 and in the Books of Ezra (7:10) and I Chronicles (28:8). This usage is familiar to any student of rabbinic literature, where the object of midrash— itself a Late Biblical Hebrew word (occuring only in 2 Chronicles 13:22 and 24:27)– is the biblical text. Thus, Hurvitz adds the collocation of d-r-sh and some reference to God’s commandments to the list of linguistic features that marks Psalm 119 as Second Temple literature.
Seeking Torah as a Substitute for Seeking God
The pairing of d-r-sh with piqqudim and other words that refer to God’s laws has theological significance beyond its value as an indicator of Psalm 119’s late date; in fact their use reflects a most unusual feature of the psalm as a whole, where language that in earlier literature refers to God here refer to God’s Torah. Remarkably, Psalm 119 substitutes God’s law for God. Like speakers in many other psalms, the speaker in Psalm 119 feels persecuted. These other speakers find salvation in God (for examples, see Psalms 3, 13, and 54); the speaker in Psalm 119 finds salvation in God’s commandments– “Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies” (v. 98; compare also verses 45, 51-54, 61, 150, 157).
Whereas books like Deuteronomy speak of loving God (6:5, 11:1, 13), Psalm 119 speaks of loving God’s Torah and commandments (for example, in verses 97, 113, and 119), and even “cleaving” (d-b-q) to them (31; compare “cleaving to God” in, for example, Deuteronomy 11:22, 30:20). Elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible speaks of a religious gesture of praying by “raising one’s hands” towards God (Lamentations 2:19). In Psalm 119:48 the speaker says “I will raise my hands towards Your commandments.” So, if elsewhere in the Bible one “turns to” (d-r-sh) God, it makes sense that in Psalm 119 the speaker “turns to” (d-r-sh) God’s precepts.
Two theologically significant conclusions emerge from Psalm 119’s replacement of God with God’s Torah as the object of the verb d-r-sh. The first conclusion pertains to the place of Torah within this Psalm’s religious world. In most of the Hebrew Bible, “turning to (d-r-sh) God” or “seeking God’s word” is the phrase that describes how humans relate to God. At times, this involves consulting a prophet, as the people do when they come to Moses “to inquire of (lidrosh) God” (Exodus 18:15). From the post-exilic perspective of Psalm 119, prophecy is not the main channel of communication between humans and God. Instead, Psalm 119 makes Torah the object of the divine-human encounter; individuals can achieve the same quasi-prophetic religious experience through God’s Torah.
The second theological conclusion emerges not so much from Psalm 119’s “updated” theology of Torah, but, instead, from what it retains from the earlier biblical tradition. Consider the meaning of the verb d-r-sh. The New Jewish Publication Society translation (which we’ve followed here) renders the verb as “to turn to,” which makes good sense of the Hebrew collocation of the verb with God’s Torah. But the root really refers to seeking, or the effort to find something. The root d-r-sh often parallels the root b-q-sh, meaning “to seek,” which shows that both are synonyms.
The prophet Zephaniah, for example, announces punishment against those “who have not sought (b-q-sh) the Lord and have not turned to (d-r-sh) Him” (1:6). In this verse, as in most of the Hebrew Bible, when it comes to that aspect of life that we now call “religion” (remarkably, the Bible contains no single word that might be translated as religion), God is the object of the “seeking.” Throughout Tanakh, especially in prophetic literature, “knowledge of God” is an ultimate religious goal (for example, Hosea 4:1, 6:6; Proverbs 2:5), and “seeking God” is a fitting way to describe how the individual might get there.
In the Bible, however, “seeking” is more than just a means to an end. It is integral to how one ought to approach God.
Thus, Amos declares on God’s behalf, “Seek Me (dirshuni) and live” (5:4), which one interpreter in the Babylonian Talmud sees as the sum-total of all commandments (Makkot21a). Psalm 119 retains this idea of “seeking” (d-r-sh, b-q-sh) as religious expression. In fact, in at least one verse (10), the psalm refers to “seeking” (d-r-sh) God, just as earlier biblical texts do. Yet, the psalm also gives expression to a new religious idea: “seeking God’s commandments,” and it is likely in context that v. 10 really means seeking God through seeking God’s commandments. This novel religious quest even has a goal of “knowledge,” analogous to the “knowledge of God,” elsewhere: in verse 125 the speaker prays “Give me understanding, that I may know your laws.”
The speaker’s prayer in verse 125 is just one of Psalm 119’s numerous, persistent demands for Torah from God (for other examples, see verses 27, 33-35, 64, 66). Demands like these motivate the entire prayer; they are the very reason that the speaker addresses God.
By its very existence, then, Psalm 119 models how the quest for God’s Torah can itself be religiously meaningful.
Simply wanting to know more, even without ever finding the satisfactory answer, can be religiously meaningful. With Psalm 119 as a paradigm, the desire for further knowledge of Torah– whether or not it is fulfilled– is itself an occasion for prayer, an opportunity for an encounter with God.
References for further reading:
- אבי הורביץ, בין לשון ללשון: לתולדות לשון המקרא בימי בית שני, ירושלים, 1972.
- Avi Hurvitz, “Continuity and Innovation in Biblical Hebrew– The Case of ‘Semantic Change’ in Post Exilic Writings,” in Studies in Ancient Hebrew Semantics (ed. T. Muraoka; Abr Nahrain Supplement Series 4: 1995): 1-10.
- The commentary on Psalm 119 in The Jewish Study Bible (ed. A. Berlin and M. Z. Brettler; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) provides additional examples of the Psalm’s unique religious expressions, especially its substitution of God’s Torah for God.
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July 28, 2013
November 22, 2020
Dr. Shalom E. Holtz is associate professor of Bible at Yeshiva University. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Neo-Babylonian Court Procedure (Cuneiform Monographs 38; Leiden: Brill, 2009) and Neo-Babylonian Trial Records (Society of Biblical Literature, 2014).
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