The theme of this article is “The Law-Court Pattern of Prayer.” This pattern is used by the poets in accounts about Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, and is present in about fifty Psalms, in Jeremiah and in Job. In all of these texts the poets wrestle with the experience of innocent suffering. We will look at despair in Psalm 88, which is a lament of the individual – a bitter outcry against God out of the depths of obscene agony.
The Law-Court Pattern of Prayer, including the concept of innocent suffering, is a theme in the Tanakh which is not usually accessible to Christians. [“Tanakh” isan acronym for the Hebrew Scriptures, T(orah, “Teaching”), N(ebi’im = Prophets)and K(etubim = Writings).]
Among the reasons for this phenomenon are the following:
- The Christian re-definition of basically the same literature as the “Old Testament.” It is now understood, not for its own sake, but as only a preparation for the “New Testament” as the foundational literature of the “New Israel,” which now supersedes and replaces the “OldIsrael.” Without this teaching of supersession the Christian persecution of theJews, the pogroms and, finally, the Nazi Shoah (perpetrated by nominal and active Christians) would not have been possible.
- That the Torah no longer means “teaching, guidance, revelation,” as for Jews,but “law,” in a negative and legalistic sense, among Christians. Jews use Tora has a life-giving source of wisdom and joy from God.
- That according to the Tanakh, Genesis 3 is a myth about disobedience and the loss of immortality and not a myth of “the Fall” as among Christians.
- That the Christian doctrine of original sin,which took on its basic form only in the fifth century of the Common Era,claims that all humans, beginning with conception, are sinful and unclean and cannot be innocent, and therefore any kind of innocent suffering is not possible.
There are many other reasons that the concept of innocent suffering is not accessible to many Christians – among them the fact that even educated Christians do not know Hebrew and therefore have little or no empathy for the Hebraic spirit of the Tanakh.
Remember how Abraham argued with God about the destruction of Sodom when he said, “Farbe it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well ast he guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:25).
As reported in the Tanakh, the deity in this literature offered a berith, i.e., something like a covenant, treaty, promise, to a medley of people and run-away slaves from Egypt, and formed them into his people. At something like a covenant signing ceremony at Mt. Sinai, the deity and the peoples committed themselves to each other. The deity promised protection and the people promised worship, i.e., to live according to the vision which God has (imago dei) forhis people. The berith was not offeredt o all humans, but God’s vision for all humans is clearly expressed in the Tanakh. In Genesis 1 God is portrayed as an emperor and all humans as vassals.The royal task of humans is expressed in five verbs in Genesis 1:28. All express the image, the vision, which God has concerning the responsibility humans have as royalty, as vassals in their relationship to God.
- prh, “be fruitful, bear fruit,” i.e., have children and educate the next generation so they too may live according to the vision which God has for humans. Not to do so is a crime, a sin.
- rbh, “multiply, be many,” i.e., have enough children for the human task of responsible management of the earth. Not to do so is a crime, a sin.
- ml, “fill,” i.e., be present on the earth everywhere (cf. the disobedience inGen 11) as God’s royal representatives and cultivators. Of course, this is nota commandment for overpopulation or for having children who are not loved and educated properly. To conceive children without love and responsibility is a crime, a sin.
- kbs, “control, discipline, subdue,” i.e., like a good regent, queen, king, or government, humans are to defeat anything hostile and destructive to the wellbeing of animals and of the earth. What a task! Of course, humans are always responsible to God. Not to control or eliminate hostile forces is a crime, a sin. Note that control over humans is not included here.
- rdh, “govern, manage, drive, lead, direct, guide, have dominion, “ i.e., like a good regent, queen, king, parent, or government, humans are to exercise responsible leadership, of course, always in God’s stead, for God’s purposes and not for human ambition and objectives! Not to lead responsibly is a sin, a crime against God.
This then is the image, the vision, which God has of humans and their task (male and female, in equal partnership), according to Genesis 1, namely, to behave like good royalty, vice-regents, agents, ambassadors of God (cf. e.g., Ps 72:12-14) and not like bad, vicious, authoritarian, tyrannical royalty, vice-regents, governments (cf. e.g. Ezekiel 34:2-4).
The people, covenanted at Mt Sinai, came to be known as the Hebrews and, later, asthe Jews. The name of the deity is known as YaHWeH (‘eL), which can mean “(‘el)is Present” (Qal), or “(‘el) Causes to Be” (Hiph’il). The deity has also many other names. I will refer to this deity simply as “God,” as distinct from the many other gods.
The idea of the covenant made the Law-Court Pattern of Prayer possible. When a covenanted individual or a group of the people or all of the people of God experienced innocent suffering they could address God and demand justice. They could accuse God of breaking the covenant, file a complaint, a lawsuit, and petition God to change his mind or to repent.
Some people in the Tanakh express the deep shock that God at times contemplates and is actually engaged in breaking the covenant. The covenanted people feel that it is their duty to call God back to remember the covenant – to change his mind, repent, and to pay restitution. As an introduction to the theme I recommend a thorough reading and study of Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NewJersey and London: Jason Aronson, 1990). Some Christians, especially educatedChristians, may have an initial aversion or even hostility to the content of this book, but the facts discussed in it are irrefutable.
On page xviii Laytner presents the basic components or the structure of theLaw-Court Pattern of Prayer:
- An address to God the judge.
- A presentation of the facts of the case; the complaint and petition brought against God and to God.
- A concluding petition or request made by the individual (or Israel). In certain cases, an additional component may follow.
- A divine response to the petition.
Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, many Psalmists, and the authors of Lamentations and of Job, challenge God and rail against an unjust and even abusive covenanted God. For God to behave like an abusive father is untenable and totally indefensible.
The best, and probably the most disturbing book for Christians, which deals with the experience of the deity as an abusive parent, is the following: David R.Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. (Louisville,Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). This book deserves concentrated, deep and long study, especially by Christians who are not used to the spirituality of the Tanakh and the spirituality of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.
No other deity, among the thousands of gods, offered a covenant to a select group of people whose task it was and is to invite the rest of the human community to worship this God. No other deity can be served a lawsuit, neither the god of the Christians, the Trinity, nor the god of Islam, Allah (which means “The God”). Neither Christianity nor Islam can deal with the experience of innocent suffering by billions of people.
In six passages Jeremiah screams at God (See Laytner, p. l8f).
In Jeremiah 20:7ab we read:
7a pttnyyhwh You have seduced me, O
w ‘pt and I let myself be seduced
7b hzqtny You have raped me
wtwcl and You have overpowered me.
(We must appreciate the fact that in Hebrew only a few consonants are needed to express complicated thoughts.)
Just imagine! You have given in to your seducer and then you begin even to willingly participate in the seduction and the joy of erotic play, and then the seducer rapes you. What? Why? For a few more details on this verse, see Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York:Harper & Row, 1969, 1962, p. 113f.).
Today, whether we are religious or not, we do not have to turn to Jeremiah to express our anger and fury with the chaos of our lives. Too many of us experience intolerable, innocent suffering in our relationships with strangers and even with those we love intensely. How does one deal with blatant injustice, lies, humiliation, rejection, abandonment? For many Christians there is no problem because all of this is due to original sin and the lack of faith in Christ. According to the doctrine of original sin, the most horrendous suffering is simply deserved – none is innocent; all have been guilty since conception.
A recent, sensitive and studious book addresses the possibility of reclaiming the lament form in Christian prayer and worship: Kathleen D. Billman and Daniel L.Migliore, Rachel’s Cry: The Prayer of Lament and Rebirth of Hope (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1999). From a Hebrew perspective, the reclaiming of lament for deserved suffering is possible, but the Law-Court Pattern of Prayer (a lawsuit against God for undeserved, innocent suffering) is impossible for Christians as long as the claim of the doctrine of original sin is not abrogated.
An impressive and very convenient introduction to the Psalms, which I have used regularly since its publication, provides an excellent study of the various forms and types of the Psalms: Sabourin, Leopold, S.J., The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning. New, Enlarged, Updated Edition. New York: Alba House, 1974 (Society of St.Paul, 2187 Victory Blvd., Staten Island, New York 10314. The book is out of print but may be available in libraries or on the Internet.)
Of course, not all scholars agree on which psalms belong to which category, but a serious misjudgment leads to a hopeless misunderstanding of the psalm. Sabourin provides a very useful list and a basic discussion of the laments.
Because Christian scholars are unable to admit the possibility of innocent suffering it is often difficult to recognize the distinction between complaints about so-called deserved punishment and inappropriate, abusive behavior from God in Christian treatments of the Psalms.
Here is Sabourin’s list:
LAMENTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL: Psalm 5, 6, 7,13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 31, 35, 36, 38, 39, 42, 43, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61,63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, 140, 141, 142, 143.
LAMENTS OF THE NATION / COMMUNITY: Psalm 12, 44, 58, 60, 70, 77, 79, 80, 82,83, 85, 90, 94, 106, 108, 123, 126, 137.
I also recommend the section on “Psalms of Petition and the Book of Lamentations” in Laytner, Arguing with God, pp. 22-32.
We will now consider despair in Psalm 88, which is a lament of the individual.This Psalm is one of the best examples of a bitter outcry against God out ofthe depths of obscene agony.
The translation is my own and it follows closely the one given by Mitchell Dahoodin Psalms II: 51-100 (Anchor Bible Series Vol. 17. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968. Please refer to Dahood for the philological notes.) My translation also tries to indicate the structure of the Law-Court Pattern ofPrayer.
Please, read slowly, very slowly to appreciate the staccato form of translation and savor each thought before you move on. Do you hear the sobs and taste the salty tears of the sufferer? Do you feel the painful silence between cries? I have left out all punctuation except the period, as in Hebrew. The words in capital letters refer to God and to his divine officers.
After you have studied the psalm, and read my translation carefully, you may then proceed to “translate” my translation into beautiful English poetry without losing the Hebraic spirit. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. I do not trust any translation, not even my own.
Psalm 88:1-19 (18)
A psalm of – the sons of Korach
For the director
accordingto – Mahalath Leannoth
A maskil of Heman – the native-born.
2-3 Appeal to God
2 Oh YHWH/LORD – my ELOHIM – my LIBERATOR
by day – I cry out – at night – to / against YOU.
3 may it come – before YOUR FACE / PRESENCE –
incline – YOUR EAR – to my complaint.
4-10 Troubles and Complaints
4 (3) Because- saturated – with evils / troubles – is –
my whole being
and -my life – to SHEOL – has reached down /
it has touched SHEOL.
5 (4) I am reckoned – among those who have gone down
– to the PIT
(note:SHEOL // PIT)
I have become – like a strong one – (but) there is no power.
6 (5) among the dead / in DEATH – is – my mat/ cot
like – the slaughtered
my bed – is – (in) the GRAVE
Where – YOU remember them – no more
and they – from YOUR HAND – they are cut off.
7 (6) YOU have plunged me – into the PIT – the LOWEST
into the DARKNESS / CHOSHEKH – into the DEPTH.
(note: PIT// DARKNESS / DEPTH, maj. pls.)
8 (7) against me – weighs heavily – YOUR RAGE
and with all of – YOUR OUTBURSTS – YOU afflict me.
9 (8) YOU have estranged – those who know me – from me
YOU have made me – an abomination – to them
imprisoned / shut in – and I am unable to walk out.
10 (9) my eyes – grow dim / hurt – because of – my affliction
I cried out to YOU – Oh YHWH – at all times
I spread out – to YOU – my palms.
11-13 Questions Addressed to God
11 (10) DoYOU – for the dead – make / work – marvels
do the REPHA*IM / SHADES – get up – to praise YOU.
12 (11) IsYOUR CHESED – recounted – in the GRAVE
(chesed, “covenant loyalty” there is no good translation)
YOUR FIDELITY – in ABADDON (SHEOL).
(note:chasdekha II emunatkha. chsd II ‘mnh
13 (12) Are YOUR MARVELS – made known –
in the DARKNESS
YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS – in the LAND
14-19 Accusations Against the Abusive God
14 (13) But I – to YOU – Oh YHWH / LORD –
I am crying for help
and in the morning – my prayer –
let it come before YOU.
15 (14) Why- Oh YHWH / LORD – do you
rebuff- my whole being
why- do YOU turn YOUR FACE – from me.
(rd infixed -/- form from swr, “turn,” not str,“hide”)
16 (15) Afflicted – I am – and expiring – and groaning – I croak
I suffer – the TERRORS of YOUR WHEEL.
(i.e.,torture. Cf. Prov 20:26)
17 (16) over me – have swept – YOUR FURIES
YOUR DREAD-ASSAULTS – they have annihilated me.
18 (17) They have surrounded me – like WATER / FLOOD
all the day long
(i.e., Iam drowning in terrible misery)
they close in – against me – united.
(i.e.,in a united attack)
19 (18) YOUhave removed far – from me
my lover – yes, my friend
the one who knows me / my chief companion
The divine response is missing. Why? Why is the divine response missing? What a horrendous insult to the devastated person who trusted God and turned desperately to the covenanted God for acquittal and for God to act as LIBERATOR(cf. v. 2). God is adding insult to injury by His silence. What does a drowning person (see. v. 18) expect? Why do people (and even God) who could help walkaway from a drowning person?
Note the first word of the psalm. It is YHWH /LORD. The expectation is (according to Hebrew Poetry) that the psalm would close with a response from God. But what is the last word of the psalm? It is machshakh, which is another form of choshekh, “Darkness,” an epithet of the land of the dead, the underworld, Sheol.
This is a poetic device and is called an envelope structure. There are dozens ofpoetic devices which are used in more than one third of the Tanakh. These devices must be known and recognized in order to begin to appreciate what the poet wanted to say. All translations are inadequate and feel like kissing your bride through the veil.
The poet could not have been more obvious. He wants us as readers to respect the agony and misery of the innocent sufferer. The psalmist expected protection,healing, acquittal and justice from the covenanted God … but there is only abandonment and death. Machshakh = choshekh is, therefore, a very appropriate way to close a lawsuit against God who adds insult to injury and does not respond with the deserved acquittal and liberation.
As an introduction to Biblical Hebrew poetry and to a lifetime of surprising insights which are not available in any other way, I recommend the study of W. G. E.Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques. (Sheffield:JSOT, 1984), and the work of M. Dahood on the Psalms (The Anchor Bible,Vols. 16,17, 17a. Doubleday, 1966, 1968 and 1970), which includes the highly useful section “The Grammar of the Psalter.”
Now turn to “Beth’s Psalm” in Blumenthal, pp. 227-232 (see below). When I used this reading several times in my courses, there was not a dry eye in the room. Do yourself a great favor and get Blumenthal’s Facing the Abusing God and study the book very carefully.
How will you and I respond to Jeremiah, to the author of Ps. 88 and to Beth? Will it be in a manner which is offensive to them and which makes their suffering even worse?