Psalm 68 in ancient, medieval and modern interpretation
We base our interpretative study of Psalm 68 on the persuasion that the most objective point of departure for Old Testament exegesis is the body of traditional meanings handed down to us through the Hebrew-based ancient versions and through Judaica. Comparative Semitics may, and at times does, serve to supplement and to correct traditional interpretations; but the specific relationship of tradition with the psalm as opposed to the casual relationship of, say, Ugaritic or Arabic meanings with this particular piece of literature give tradition the fundamental role in establishing the meaning of the Hebrew. Accordingly, we devote the first five chapters to the ancient versions, viz., the Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin and Arabic, in an attempt to determine their value for the modem interpretation of the psalm. While none of the versions discloses an authentic interpretation of the psalm as a unified and coherent whole, for that sense seems to have been lost to them, each one does nevertheless contain various meanings which commend themselves to us as authentic. These are specifically noted. In Chapter Six the commentaries of the three giants of medieval Jewish biblical interpretation are examined: Rashi, Ibn Ezra and David Kimchi. It was during this era that Jewish scholars sought to organize and evaluate their traditionally-inherited body of knowledge of the Scriptures. In a search for credible understandings and beliefs they re-assessed the witness of their fathers with the result that they established an important milestone in the history of biblical exegesis. Neither the versions nor the rabbis provide us with complete or perfect knowledge of the psalm, but within their testimony we have the only solid foundation for objective interpretation. We review the high points of the modern study of Psalm 68 by turning to three landmark English versions in Chapters Seven through Nine, viz., the Authorized Version of 1611, the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and the New English Bible of 1970. Each one is examined in its relation to traditional and modern studies. The AV we find to be essentially a rabbinic interpretation of the psalm in English. The RSV, as a product of its times, searches for greater authenticity by going back beyond the rabbis to the ancient versions and comparative Semitic philology. As a result, there is a fullness to the RSV's rendering which commends itself well to our judgement. The NEB reflects a more skeptical view of the value of tradition for authentic understanding. The aim of this version seems to be to re-create the linguistic situation in which the psalm originated, leaping over the centuries of an accumulated tangle of tradition which defaces and obscures the authentic psalm lying in remains within the Hebrew text. The NEB translators approach the psalm as if it were a recently-discovered document without intervening traditions and seek to establish its meanings through the use of what would have been the relevant linguistic sources in the ancient world. Presumably, the subjectivity of such an approach is outweighed in their minds by the extremely low value of traditional interpretations and by their confidence in their own ability to draw accurate comparative philological relations with the Hebrew text. Their rendering of Psalm 68, however, does not vindicate that confidence. Our own interpretative comments on the psalm are dispersed to some extent throughout the paper. Judgements on the meaning of the Hebrew cannot be avoided, nor should they be, in connection with the versions and rabbis. But the bulk of my particular exegetical opinions are subsumed under the chapters on the AV, RSV and NEB. Where I believe from my own study that the English translators have interpreted a point correctly, I indicate this by offering my own defense and exposition of their rendering. The RSV chapter contains a majority of these discussions. Finally, in the Conclusion, I offer my own interpretation of the structure of the psalm and of the course of the poet's thought, adding remarks there which I had not been able to include conveniently within previous chapters. In my opinion Psalm 68 is a hymn of descriptive praise to God for his power and goodness revealed to Israel in her early history up to his establishment on Zion and of confident expectation that the purposes of God will be brought to complete fulfillment with his eventual conquest and rule of the whole world from his sanctuary at Jerusalem. The psalm is designed to encourage Israel's faith in God as her only lord and source of life and to lead her to deeper commitment to and participation in his purposes for history.