Monday, July 04, 2005

There are five Benefits, no there are six.

Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities;
who healeth all thy diseases;
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction;
who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies;
Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things;
so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's.

I'm a crazy sort, at least some of my friends feel, because I'm not happy just hearing something, but I want to dig deeper. I'm convinced I would be happy writing dictionaries if I had been born in a pre-electronic age. Since I was blessed to be born now, I'll just use all that I have been given to try to understand all that I can. Sometimes that means building computer systems that crossreference and ontologise themselves, and sometimes it just means looking up the meanings of words and understanding the context in which they are spoken or the syntactic form of their expression.

Which brings us to the title of this post. Different cultures have different standards for good poetry. In English, because we have been gifted with a multitude of short words that can be arranged (at least for poetry's sake) into differing orders and still convey meaning, poetry is a matter of meter and rhyme.
For some people, the word-play of punning is almost poetic, where a double meaning attached to the same (or similar) phonemes is the foundation of a good pun.
I have a friend who excels in this type of wordplay, for which he only asks an
anguished groan in payment. Then there is the spoonerism type of poetry that depends on swapping initial sounds such as that suggesting the essence of a jazzy "rad song" is contained in a "sad wrong".

A little research before I wrote this article suggests that Arabic poetry was classically measured by standards that include the virtue of wisdom and good manners. The classic style followed the clearness of meaning and ruling out ambiguity were as essential as harmony and rhythm.

Hebrew poetry, as explained in a book that I have managed to misplace, included all of the components that we have discussed so far. The emphasis on rhyme was almost non-existent, but they had their own form of tying together verses. I don't recall the formal name, but the form is something like "there are n things, no there are n+1". And this form is visible in the scripture fragment with which I started this blog entry.

King David (historically credited) starts by saying we are not to forget the benefits of the LORD, and lists five of them, concluding that such benefits will renew our youth like the eagle's. Those of us who are getting a bit older recognize that this is an example of Hebrew poetry, as the renewing of our youth is also a benefit, thus fitting the poetic form as the "sixth" benefit.

This psalm also appeals to the completist in me. For the five benefits subdivide much of our life experiences and the (sixth benefit) result applies equally to all five.
Active (Qal-form) forgiving/pardoning of our shortcomings and guilty violations against God's norms starts off the benefits. Then
the second benefit is active (Qal) healing/bringing-life to us from our diseases/sicknesses/griefs. The third benefit is again active: the redemption of our life from destruction/the pit/decaying grave.

These three Qal-forms are used by the poet to group together three aspects and reformulations of the same meaning. He uses the same verb conjugation, expressing the simple, causal, active "present tense", as a poetic device to remind us that these three benefits are really the same thing. The forgiveness of Jehovah is the healing of YHVH is the redemption of God. Our sin is our sickness is our death.

So what of the last two (three) benefits?

The fourth benefit (crowning/surrounding) us with lovingkindness and tender mercy is in the Piel-form. While the Qal-form expresses active, present tense, the Piel-form adds the idea of intensity and intentional force. The mood of the Piel-form thus includes the "unstoppable" nature of the action, the effects lasting into time in unbroken continuity. Poetically, this intensity has an echoing effect: the unending God surrounding us with unending love and deeply compassionate mercy. And again the circular "unending" crown provides a picture of this to our minds eye. An interesting side-meaning of mercy (Racham) is that it also is used in Genesis 49:25 to speak of the womb. So the tender mercy of YHWH is like a womb, surrounding us and crowning us.

The fifth benefit (satisfying/filling/sating/enriching) our mouth with good things, stresses the physical aspects of our bodies. The soma/sarki distinction of Greek between the body and the flesh is not relevant in studying a Hebrew verse, but I expect that in context, that the somatic interpretation is the appropriate one here.
One could reasonably argue that the inclusion of "good taste" in these benefits of the LORD is supportive of a rejection of a mind/body distinction in favour of a mind/body duality. We are not a "clean" soul living in a "dirty" body, but rather our soul and our body are intermixed and dual in the same way that electricity and magnetism are dual. Light is composed of both, interacting in a wave/particle duality of its own. In the same way (to use Friends terminology) we as "Children of the Light" share a dual nature. We not only look forward to the salvation of our souls after death, but to our bodily resurrection, just as Christ himself was brought forth from the dead.

Back to the poetry here, the Hebrew word for mouth mentioned here is also used for trappings or ornaments. So the use of "good taste" above was its own double meaning. Just as you would fit the horse bit into its mouth, and then decorate it with jewels or fine embellishments, God satisfies our needs by filling our hearts, and sating our mouth/belly with wonderful things as one of his benefits. An accurate though alternate expression of this verse is that God richly festoons us with high quality decorations. Much as the Prodigal Son was given a feast with a fatted calf, God is so joyous that we are in safety that he gives us many blessings.
The double meaning tying this enriching satisfaction with the crowning verb of the previous benefit just reinforces the high quality of this poetry.

The Hiphil-form used for this "satisfying" verb, much like the Piel-form on "crowning" builds up on the unbroken continuance, yet as the "final" benefit also stresses the causative actions of the Qal-form used for the first three benefits.
This verb form reifies this action and condition, which makes sense as as the last of the benefits, the youthful-renewing conclusion semantically requires a "cause" so that it can be expressed as an "effect".

Our final poetic conclusion, the renewing/making-new/recreating of our youth as a result of the benefits of God, is expressed in the Hithpael-form of the verb.
The Hithpael-form is a relatively rare verb form. Only about 1.4% of the verbs parsed use the reflexive Hithpael as opposed to 66.7% for the Qal-form,
and 13.3% for the Hiphil-form. Some of the semantically reflexive nature of this word is shown by the "re-" prefix we use in English to convey a part of its meaning.
The Hithpael-form has a "broken" nature to it, an incompleteness that adds colour to the process by emphasizing a single iteration of an unending process.
Much as a picture of a man taking a single step conveys the motion and change of the process of walking, the Hithpael-form emphasizes one division of the continuing "present" action of the Qal-form and the Piel-form. In Cyc terms, this would be a single granule of the action. It is a single molting of the feather-renewing cycle of the eagle.

Much like the physical analogue, when an action is broken down below its granule size, it loses its identity and the logical imperatives lose their inferential integrity. A physical tub of water has certain physical properties, consistencies, and predictable behaviour. If you reduce the size of your water sample, the smaller portions will still react in the exact same ways. However, if you reduce the sample to the point that you take a single molecule of water and
break it down, all of the properties and water-behaviour change radically. Much as
water undergoes a phase-shift between its ice-form, its liquid-form and its steam-form, the step of reducing a molecule of water into atoms of hydrogen and oxygen will radically change its behaviour.

In the same way, the single step of renewing, reflexive as it is, reminds us that this is where certain behaviour begins. The benefits of our God start in the context of a relationship. The benefits of YHWH are tied to the Presence and the Power of God. We may want to become youthful. We may buy moisturizers, and dehydrating creams. We may work out in the gym, and jog in the evenings. We may listen to fresh young radicals commenting on society, or may stretch our minds to the sage wisdom of greybeards. But taken out of the context of God, we will still not get the renewing of our minds. Paul offers a suggestion to help us in Romans 12:2. "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."

We need to let go of the older ways, to turn away from the ideas that we can be good enough, strong enough, perfect enough. We need look ourself squarely in the eyes (reflectively and reflexively) and recognize that we can not do this on our own. Being conformed to the ways of the world won't do it. The Greek word "metanoia" reminds us of this transformation of our minds. Tying in the idea of "amartano", ie: missing the target, means that if we recognize that we are one of those who have missed the target, if we recognize that we need the renewing of ourselves, we need the transformation of God, then an alternate translation of "metanoia" and "amartano" yields that we recognize that we need to repent for we are sinners.

In a poetic, reflexive way, this brings us back to the first of our benefits. The forgiveness of our iniquities. And so the circle begins again.


Beverly Marshall Saling said...

What an interesting linguistic/literary analysis! Makes me think about all the poetry "explications" we did in English Lit and how much better they might have been if we also looked at the forms and etymologies of the words.

Thanks for another thought-provoking read!

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