Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Of jackals and sea monsters

The psalm set for Morning Prayer today is Psalm 44. It comes around regularly, but this morning I was particularly struck by verses 17-19.

In the NRSVA, the translation used as standard by the Church of England, they read,

“All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way,
yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness.”

Robert Alter’s translation is truer to the Hebrew, rendering these verses,

“All this befell us, yet we did not forget You,
and we did not betray Your pact.
Our heart has not failed,
nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path,
though You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place
and with death’s darkness covered us over.”

There is something primeval here, and, at the same time a significant development of thought. Yes, this God defeats chaos and establishes order that is then maintained through fidelity (this claim is not new) ... but, the mutual fidelity of this God and his people reveals to the world that there is a strength — greater than chaos, greater than death — that can only be known through defeat.

That is a radical claim, and one worthy of attending to.

Yet, in domesticating the sea monster for a jackal, and obscuring the parallel to the valley of the shadow of death that runs through the Twenty-third Psalm, the Church of England displays a characteristically English discomfort with such a claim.

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