Verse of the Month: Psalm 84:11a “For the LORD God is a sun and shield”

For the LORD God is a sun and shield;

   he bestows favour and honour.

(NRSV)

When I was an undergraduate, in order to get us all to think about the power of language, my philosophy lecturer (always one to deliver as much bang for your buck as possible) drew out a large rock from behind his lectern and proclaimed, “We are told in the Bible that God is a rock… cold, hard and lifeless.” In so doing, he encapsulated the problem with metaphor. They can be incredibly powerful, but they can also disastrously backfire. Metaphors must be handled very carefully. In this psalm we can see the real/perceived concerns of its users in Antiquity that continue to influence our reading of the text even today…

Psalm 84 (LXX – 83) is a beautiful song of longing for God and the temple. The psalm in its present form is probably post-exilic, but, as Dahood (1968: 275) observes, some elements within the song do appear to antedate the exile. Like its sister psalms (Pss 8 and 81), it is thought to have been used for the autumnal New Year celebration (for further discussion see particularly: Eaton, 2003: 80).

Painting swallow
A Swallow (Hirundo Rustica) in Flight. Painting by Malcolm Greensmith

This Song of Zion (see Johnston, 2005: 298) offers touching and sometimes unexpected portraits of the temple cult, picturing sparrows and swallows nesting within the walls (v. 3). As Schaefer (2011: 208) delightfully observes,

“[t]he psalmist’s longing, fainting and singing imitate the birds dipping, soaring, and nesting in the temple precincts.”

Although the word ‘altars’ is probably used poetically (see Perowne, 1989: 118), the presence of such birds is nevertheless rather surprising suggesting that either there were periods of human inactivity (long enough for the birds to establish their nesting sites), or that the psalmist, writing in exile, is imagining the despoiled temple back in Jerusalem.

The theme of longing for God is emphasised by seven occurrences of Elohim (rendered as ‘God’ in the NRSV) and seven of Yahweh (rendered as ‘LORD’). There are also four occurrences of the title ‘LORD of hosts’ including one at the beginning and one at the end of the psalm (Clifford, 2003: 71).

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SUN?

Verse 11 begins with a unique statement: ‘For the LORD God is a sun and a shield.’ Although there are a number of references in the Hebrew Scriptures to Yahweh and light, or the ascription of solar attributes, Schaefer (2011: 207 footnote 20) notes that nowhere else is God called ‘sun.’  Initially, in view of this uniqueness, it is therefore perhaps surprising that there appears to be such a wide variance in the way this verse is rendered in our English editions.

  • (NRSV) The LORD is a sun and shield
  • (DRB) For God loveth mercy and truth
  • (GNB) The LORD is our protector and glorious king
  • (CEV) O LORD our God you are like the sun and also like a shield
  • (NET) For the LORD God is our sovereign protector
  • (MSG) All sunshine and sovereign is God, generous in gifts and glory.

What could account for this wide variance in our English translations? One reason might present itself when we look back at the history of this text.

FROM HEBREW TO GREEK

When the Greek translation of this text was being made for the Septuagint (LXX), instead of the images of ‘sun’ and ‘shield,’ we read (83:12): ‘For the Lord God loves mercy and truth…’ which would seem to account for the reading of the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB). Indeed, one of our earliest manuscripts of this text is found in Codex Sinaiticus (circa 350 C.E.). As it too follows the Septuagint we read there:

CS Psalm 83:12
Codex Sinaiticus Psalm 83:12 (84:11) reading, ‘The Lord God loves mercy and truth, The Lord gives peace and glory.’

In fact, the translators of the Septuagint appeared to have some concerns with metaphors. For example, Psalm 18:31 in the Masoretic (Hebrew) text (numbered as 17 in the LXX) states:

“For who is God except the LORD?

And who is a rock besides our God?”

However, the Septuagint reads:

“Because who is god except the Lord [kyrios]?

And who is god besides our God?”

Later in verse 46, the Hebrew text reads:

“The LORD lives! Blessed be my rock,

And exalted be the God of my salvation,”

While the Septuagint renders this verse as:

“The Lord lives! And blessed be my God,

And let the God of my deliverance be exalted,”

A SUN GOD?

The development of a monotheistic theology meant that earlier strictures about worshipping foreign (wrong) gods were being replaced with injunctions against idolatry. The worship of other ‘gods’ was being described now as idolatry (alternative gods to YHWH simply did not exist) and it is possible that the writers of the Septuagint wanted to avoid any association with the associating the worship of Yahweh with material from which graven images were produced. In other words, they were very reluctant to use ‘rock’ or ‘stone’ as a metaphor for God in case they were read as literally representing Yahweh.

Ra sun god
Egyptian tomb painting depicting Ra (Egyptian Sun god) – circa 1200 B.C.E.

The Septuagint was produced for Ptolemy II Philadelphus’ (309 – 246 B.C.E.) library in Alexandria, Egypt. The sun was a very potent symbol of divinity in Egypt. If those involved in the translation were reticent about possible misreadings of ‘rock’ and ‘stone’, ‘sun’ might be even more of a headache! Therefore, could the fear of Yahweh being mistaken for THE sun or the sun-god of the Egyptians, be partly (at least) behind its replacement by the more abstract notion of ‘mercy’?

Glenny’s (2007) examination of the translation techniques and theology of the Septuagintal version of Amos appears to lend some weight to this supposition. Although not used metaphorically, Glenny (2007: 275-6) identifies an association of ideas between Yahweh and the sun in Amos 8:9.

‘On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.’

Glenny then notes that the Septuagint offers this reading instead:

“and the sun will set at midday, and the daylight will become dark upon the earth”

IS THE KING GOD?

By changing both verbs from first person (The LORD in MT) to the third person and translating them in ‘impersonally’, Glenny (2007:276) cites Satterthwaite’s suggestion that the translator seems to be:

“wary of any suggestion that God’s activity is in any way equivalent to, or co-terminus with, sunrise and sunset, as though God were no more than a sun-deity.”

Dahood (1968) also suggests a possible problematic connection in the wording of verse 11a, this time in reference to kingship; a connection from which the later translators of the Septuagint may have wished to distance themselves. Dahood (1968:282-3) notes that in the El Amarna correspondence, šamšu (sun) was sometimes used as a designation of the pharaoh. Moreover špš (šemeš – Hebrew) within the Ugaritic Letters could refer to either the pharaoh or the Hittite suzerain. He (1968: 283) goes on to suggest that the combination here of ‘sun’ and ‘shield’ “semantically equals, ‘the Sun, the Great King.’”

READING AND METAPHOR

If this is the case, variation in the rendering of 84:11a may be the result of concern about possible misreadings of the metaphor – either from reading it literally or misunderstanding what the metaphor denoted. Such fears appear to be also evident in some of our modern English translations.

The Contemporary English Version (CEV) emphasises the aspect of metaphor:

‘O LORD our God you are like the sun and also like a shield.’

Emphasis added – note also the rendering of Yahweh Elohim (LORD God)

The Message takes a different route and presents a particular reading of that metaphor, decoding it for the reader:

‘All sunshine and sovereign is God.’

Perhaps the translators of the Septuagint would have sympathetically looked on at the travails of our modern translators as they wrestle over how best to render this text!

References

Clifford, R.J. (2003) Psalms 73-150. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Dahood, M. (1968) Psalms II: 51-100. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday.

Eaton, J.H. (1976) Kingship and the Psalms. Studies in Biblical Theology: Second Series 32. London: SCM Press.

Glenny, W.E. (2007) Translation Technique and Theology in the Septuagint of Amos. PhD Dissertation University of Minnesota December 2007

Glenny, W.E. (2009) Finding Meaning in the Text: Translation Technique and Theology in the Septuagint of AmosSupplements to Vetus Testamentum 126. Leiden:Brill.

Johnston, P.S. (2005) Appendix of Form Critical Categorizations.’ in. Johnston, P.S. and Firth, D.G. (eds.) Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches. (2005) Leicester: Apollos. pp. 295-300.

Sattherthwaite, P.E. (1997) The Translators as Imperialists: And other aspects of the Septuagint translation of the Book of the Twelve.

 Schaefer, K. (2011) Psalms: Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry. Collegeville: Michael Glazer.

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