Imagine this scenario with me. You’re an engaged, informed citizen of one of the world’s great cities. You’re active in the city’s flourishing artistic, intellectual, and religious communities. Everything in town is looking up apart from one major social issue. The population has been growing steadily thanks to the influx of immigrants seeking a better life here, but some of them have been less than successful at finding a place. Sometimes this is due to unforeseen socioeconomic circumstances, and sometimes it’s the result of systemic and individual discrimination. After all, many of these people bring with them cultural assumptions radically opposed to your own. Can you picture it?
Here are some specifics to help set the scene. The year is 721 BC, the city is Jerusalem, and the outsiders are Israelite refugees – descendants of the ten tribes that broke away from your own country 200 years ago. They’ve spent the last 200 years developing unique cultural traditions, and – as the more powerful of the two kingdoms – they’ve disparaged yours every chance they got. Now, as an informed citizen of Judah, you would never make the mistake of confusing one of these Israelites for one of you. They speak a different (though related) language, they practice different customs, and even though they claim to worship the same God they do it in a radically different way. These are outsiders, and – up until they came to your city for help – they were your enemies. How would you respond?
We learn from the Bible that the scholars and musicians of Jerusalem set out on a remarkable quest to preserve the Israelite culture, which had become quite different from their own. This story is not narrated but rather demonstrated by the materials passed down to us. Even though the Bible was mostly written and compiled by the Judahites and their descendants, their collection of Israelite history, literature, and music essentially saved Israel from succumbing completely to the cultural genocide being perpetrated against them in 721. The people themselves may now be lost to history, and yet we still sing their songs today as part of the Old Testament psalter.
Even more significantly, the musicians of Jerusalem wrote new songs to invite the Israelites into their community as well as to reorient the attitudes of the Judahites who were probably reluctant to welcome them. Perhaps the best example of this is Psalm 133, which I translate below for your convenience.
A Song of Ascents, in the style of David
Lo, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity!
It is like precious oil on the head
flowing down on the beard,
On the beard of Aaron,
Flowing down over the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
Has flown down
On the mountains of Zion,
For there has Yahweh appointed the blessing – life eternal.
The fact that something more is going on beneath the surface of this psalm is apparent even from its first line. The oft quoted “how good and how pleasant” is actually a clever play on words. The word translated “good” – tov – is the standard Judahite word for good, while the word usually translated “pleasant” – na’im – is specifically the Israelite word for good. Keep in mind that these languages were closely related but still somewhat different, and an 8th century inhabitant of Jerusalem would hear this. Imagine saying “how good and que bueno” in a song for Latin American refugees today, or “how good and ma jayyid” in a song for refugees from Syria. When the psalmist says “how tov and how na’im it is for brothers to live in unity,” he isn’t just spouting a truism. He’s speaking into a specific situation. It is good for Judahites and Israelites to live together as one. It is good to welcome the outsider.
The appeal to Israelite culture doesn’t end with the use of the Israelite language, though. The psalmist also celebrates the arrival of Israelite cultural traditions in Jerusalem. When he speaks of oil flowing down on the beard of Aaron, he activates in the minds of the audience the image of Moses anointing Aaron as high priest (Leviticus 8:12). Close students of the Bible will of course remember that Aaron’s descendants made up the priesthood in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Moses’ descendants became priests in the Israelite city of Dan (Judges 18:29-30). Overlooking the Israelite temple at Dan is the sacred mountain of Hermon, which fulfilled a role similar to that of Zion in Judah. So when the psalmist says it as if the dew of Hermon were to fall on the mountains of Zion, he means that it is as if these two temples and two priesthoods had become one. The psalmist is rejoicing at the arrival of people as well as cultural and religious traditions from Israel into Judah. He may even be celebrating the preservation of Israelite music, such as Psalm 42 (the most well-known song from the temple at Dan, now preserved in the psalter from Jerusalem). The refugees are thus not only welcomed but enthusiastically celebrated.
Exposing the heart behind the psalm reveals that it is far more than an altruistic proverb. It is a song about caring for our brothers and sisters in the Lord even when they don’t look, speak, or worship like us. It is a song about inviting outsiders – believing and unbelieving – into our community and earnestly pointing them to God. It is a song about celebrating our unity in the midst of diversity. It is reminder that although “pure and undefiled religion” involves caring for the widow and the orphan (James 1:27), it also involves welcoming the foreigner, the immigrant, and the refugee (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). Psalm 133 is an invitation to keep singing the songs of Israel, and to continue making music for our brothers and sisters who find themselves in need of refuge.
The psalms are still giving voice to prayers for refugees today, as in this rendition of Psalm 51 chanted in Aramaic by families of Syrian and Iraqi descent in St. Simon bar Sabbae Chaldean Catholic Church in Tbilisi, Georgia. The occasion was a prayer service for the refugee crisis performed by Pope Francis during his visit to Georgia in 2016.
Timothy Hogue, PhD Candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures
University of California, Los Angeles
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