A Discourse Analysis of the Use of Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:5-9(1)

By Guthrie, George H.; Quinn, Russell D. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2006 | Go to article overview

A Discourse Analysis of the Use of Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:5-9(1)


Guthrie, George H., Quinn, Russell D., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


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In the fall of 2001, at the annual meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, Stanley Porter presented a plenary address entitled "Developments in Greek Linguistics and New Testament Study." A subtext for the presentation might have read, "The Lack of Developments in the Use of Greek Linguistics in New Testament Study." In part, Porter decried the lack of incorporation of the practice of discourse analysis in the day-to-day task of most NT scholars, this in spite of recent advances in the field. What we need, Porter suggested, is more work demonstrating the practical fruit of discourse analysis when applied to specific conundrums of NT exegesis and interpretation.

In this article, we wish to address an issue of interpretation that begs for the incorporation of discourse analysis as a means to its answer. That interpretive question has to do with the use of Ps 8:4-6 in Heb 2:5-9. We chose this text in part for the practical implications of its interpretation in current translation work, recognizing that several translations have opted for a thoroughgoing anthropological rendering of the text.2 The question of how one translates the quotation of Psalm 8 at this point hits near what, for most of us, is the day-to-day task of interpreting, translating, and teaching portions of the NT. Therefore, we offer this brief study as a suggestion concerning the need for discourse analysis in addressing such passages.

I. PSALM 8 IN JUDAISM AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

In its OT context, our psalm follows several psalms of lament requesting deliverance (Psalms 3-7), and offers a beautiful, praise-filled counterpoint to these, a song that proclaims God's glory and the dignity of human beings. An inclusio frames the psalm, a refrain celebrating the majesty of the Lord's name: "O Yahweh, our Lord, how magnificent is your name in all the earth." Two primary movements make up the body of the psalm. Psalm 8:lb-2 (8:2b3 MT) is notoriously difficult to understand in the Hebrew, due to a grammatical puzzle,3 but the psalmist seems to proclaim that Yahweh has placed his glory on, or above, the heavens. The image of infants and toddlers, who are immensely vulnerable, rests in sharp relief with that of powerful enemies. The psalmist proclaims God as one who is able to build up a people of weakness as a force to oppose his enemies.

Verses 3-8 (w. 4-9 MT), from which our quotation is taken, is a passage expressing the author's wonder at God's dealings with humanity for whom God has ordained a special role in the created order. Thus, these verses concern humanity's astonishing dignity. In light of God's awesome creation of his heavens, the moon and stars that he has put in their place, the psalmist reflects on the relative insignificance of people in the vast scope of God's purposes (w. 3-4; w. 3-5 MT). In verse 4, a question is posed in synonymous parallelism, in essence asking, "Why do you even spare a thought for people?" The term for humanity here (...) is used most often to focus on "human frailty, weakness, and mortality,"4 the earthbound nature of the creature under God's heavens.5 Yet, mystery of mysteries, God thinks of and cares for people.

Verses 5-8 (vv. 6-9 MT) constitute a reflection on Gen 1:26-28 where God commissions human beings, created in the image of God, to rule over the fish of the sea, birds of the air, and over all living creatures. Humans have been made a little lower than ..., which could be translated as a reference to angels, gods, or God himself. The LXX translates the term with ..., and, on that reading, human beings have their place in the created order, just below those who serve around God's throne. This emphasizes the surprising dignity of people, in spite of them being dwarfed by the massive reaches of God's creation. Yet, the stewardship humanity has been given over other works of God's hands extends the emphasis on human dignity.

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