Our weekly bible study group met this afternoon to read and wrestle with Psalm
91. We may have come out of it with our
hips out of joint, but the wrestling itself is good spiritual exercise.
And this is a psalm to wrestle with (or to wrestle against). It is a strange one – and it gets stranger
the more closely we examine it. It is
very far removed from our modern / post-modern scientific rationalism. It was written in a time when demons and
creatures of the night ruled the darkness – when illness was an entity to be
feared. Psalm 91 seems to be a charm against these principalities, powers, and
rulers of darkness[i];
it is a “liturgy against disease produced by the attacks of evil spirits
(McCullough, 493).”[ii] This
psalm is described by the rabbinical writers as a “song against evil occurrences”
or “the song against plagues.”[iii]
And is still read in some Jewish traditions during the stops of funeral processions
as a way of warding off harmful spirits.
Though he isn’t mentioned specifically, it seems to be the Canaanite chthonic god,
Resheph, “lord of battle and
diseases, which he spreads through his bow and arrows" (Xella, 701)[iv]
that Psalm 91 has in mind. The faithful of God is promised protection against the
“terror of the night and the arrows that fly by day,” the poisoned pestilential
arrows of the demonic deity Resheph.
Resheph appears elsewhere in the
bible – though as a personification of those natural forces, as a diminished deity
now in forced subservience to Yahweh.
In Deuteronomy 32: 23 - 24 Yahweh says: I
will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them. They shall
be burnt with hunger, and devoured with burning heat, and with bitter
destruction: I will also send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the poison of
serpents of the dust. (KJV) Resheph (here
translated as “burning heat”) is one of the arrows of disaster fired by Yahweh.
In Psalm 78:48 - He gave up their cattle
also to the hail, and their flocks to hot thunderbolts. (KJV) Resheph here is the flaming “thunderbolts.”
In the bible Resheph is often seen company
with other demonic forces such as Qeteb “the
destroyer” (he is there in Deuteronomy 32 as “bitter destruction”) and Deber “the pestilence” (he is the “plague
that prowls in the dark” of Psalm 91: 6).
The prophet Habakkuk sees Yahweh going off to war with Deber going before him and Resheph following after - Before him went the pestilence, and
burning coals went forth at his feet. Habakkuk 3:5 (KJV)
Plague, pestilence, burning arrows of fever and death. These were the terrors of the night – the plague
prowling in the gloom and the scourge stalking at noon. These demonic forces caused a thousand to
fall on one side, and ten thousand at the other side of Yahweh’s faithful.
But the faithful himself would not need to worry. He would live to see the bloated rotting
bodies of his enemies (91: 8) but no plague would approach his tent because he
knew and acknowledged the name of God, and trusted Yahweh to be his stronghold.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo would be better called
by its French title – Notre-Dame de
Paris. While Quasimodo, the
hunchback, is an important character, he is not the central character. The cathedral stands at the center of the story; everything
happens in or around it. The characters
of the story live and die in its shadow.
I first read Notre-Dame de Paris for
an assignment in high school. My teacher
discouraged me from it saying that it was too large a book (500 pages) and too
complex. But I read it, and loved it
despite her. And I have read it several
times again since then. Yes, the
characters are drawn large. And yes, the
plot relies on some wildly implausible coincidences. But Hugo tells the story so well that we don’t
There is an almost
Manichaean emphasis on the contrast between dark and light in this book. The darkened soul of the priest, Claude
Frollo, seeks illumination in his alchemical texts. The bright and beautiful young man, Captain Phoebus
(whose name comes from the Greek god of the sun), is utterly unenlightened and
doesn’t care. Esmeralda is the embodiment of beauty and grace. Quasimodo is the incarnation of every grotesque
human deformity. And fate (another
important theme of the novel) brings them together in the eponymous
Notre-Dame de Paris isn’t as ‘political’
as his other famous work Les Miserable, but
the same pathos is evident here. Hugo
shows us a detailed portrait of the life and customs and of fifteenth-century
Paris. In fact, his research delayed the
publication of the book. Several of the
characters are based upon real people he discovered during his research
including, perhaps, Quasimodo.
If you’ve only ever
seen the movie versions of The Hunchback
of Notre Dame (particularly the Disney version…shudder…) you should forget what you’ve seen and read the