Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking

By Michael Fishbane | Go to book overview

2 Combat Myths and Divine Actions: Prayers and Prophecies of Divine Might

A IN THE PSALMS

A situation of personal or national crisis characterizes the psalms and prophecies in which God's victory over primordial tt sea monsters is recalled or invoked. For although the precise historical situation involved cannot always be identified in our sources, they all palpably reflect (or refer to) some concrete occasion of suffering or distress when the lack of divine presence was keenly felt. Indeed, it is just the tangible pathos of a human outcry that gives these texts their tone of urgency, and marks the mythic acts adduced therein as real and significant events in illo tempore. To think that the speakers who recall to God His own past acts of power and salvation, in order to induce their repetition in the present, would cite mere metaphors or fables strains credulity and all literary sense. In the ensuing analyses, the standpoint of the speaker and the urgency of the appeal shall be deemed crucial for appreciating how each recitation of (or reference to) the combat myth renews its actuality and truth in the present.

Of related importance for our study of the mythologems and their function will be attention to matters of genre and form, as well as language and imagery. This focus will facilitate a comparative analysis of the different texts, after the inherent features of each of them have been separately considered. In this way we may hope to penetrate the religious consciousness that pervades these texts, and the mythic theology that is variously expressed thereby.

We begin with Psalm 74, since it sets forth most of the issues with paradigmatic completeness. This prayer has a tripartite structure: (1) an opening lament (vv. 1-11); (2) a central hymnic recitation (vv. 12-17); and (3) a concluding plea (vv. 18-23). The lament speaks directly to God on behalf of the community, expressing despair at the ongoing divine wrath through a series of queries and appeals. The opening cry, 'Why (lamah), O YHWH, do You reject (zanaḥta) Your flock?' establishes the emotional tone of despair, and is echoed by other questions throughout the first part—twice using the form 'how long' (͑ad mah; ͑ad matay; vv. 9-10), and the word lamah again at the end (v. 11). Each query raises a different issue. At the beginning the psalmist asks why God remains angry with His special flock, described as the nation He redeemed from Egypt and 'made' His own at Sinai 'long ago

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