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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Who May Sojourn in the Tent of God? - Some Thoughts on Psalm 15

Psalm 15 is one of the psalms attributed to David – though, as always, we should be careful with that “of David.” The preposition can mean “for David” or “about David” or even “in the style of David.”  Based on the similarities to verses Deuteronomy and Leviticus (and on a late date for those books) it is suggested that this psalm was written after the Babylonian exile and that the reference to the “tent/tabernacle” is purposefully archaic.

I like that Psalm 15 begins with the parallel questions, “LORD, who may sojourn in your tent?”  and
“who may dwell in your holy hill?”

It’s the word “sojourn” that gets me (and not just because it’s the name of one of my favorite people from history – Sojourner Truth –of one of my favorite magazines - Sojourners - and of one of my favorite robots...) A sojourner is a person who is a temporary resident of a place, a foreigner who has taken up residence in a place – someone who has “no familial or tribal affiliation with those among whom he or she is travelling or living.” (Spencer, 103)   [i] The Sojourner “is one who, having no inherited rights in a community, is permitted to enjoy as a permanent guest, the privileges of membership in the community. (Taylor and McCullough, 78)[ii]

This psalm does not begin in a place of privilege.  It is an act of humility to read this psalm and to hear it, and to accept it. I am the stranger, the foreigner.  In this tent I am immigrant – one of the wretched huddled among the masses, yearning to breathe free.

The question is asked ‘Who may sojourn in the tent of Yahweh?” [iii] And then an answer is given in the next several verses.  Some have suggested that this is a “didactic psalm” useful for teaching the people (Taylor and McCullough, 78).  Others propose that it was a liturgical psalm – perhaps sung call and response style between the priests and the people of Israel.  I like the idea of the Priestly Choirmaster standing at the gates of the tabernacle or temple as the worshipping crowd gathers and leading them in this psalm before they enter into the courtyard.   I don’t know that it happened that way, but I like that idea.

The answer given in response to the question takes the form of a new Decalogue,   a new Ten Commandments of sorts:

1 - Walk with integrity / practice justice.
2 - Speak truth.
3 - Do not slander. [iv]
4 - Do no wrong to friends / fellow members of the community.
5 - Cast no slur on a neighbor.
6 - Recognize and regard vile, despicable, reprobate persons for what they are.
7 - Honor those who fear the LORD.
8 - Keep the promises you’ve made, even if it causes you hurt or loss.
9 – Don’t lend with usurious interest (especially to the poor).
10 – Don’t take bribes against the innocent.

My wife described this as the “State Farm Insurance” guide to sojourning in God’s house – “like a good neighbor.”  These standards are all about how to get along in a community.  The sins that are attacked are anti-social sins, the actions and attitudes that destroy communities from within.  Things like slander and gossip have no place in a community of goodwill.   Despicable, vile individuals should not be celebrated or honored.  And loans made to the poor should not be charged interest; it does the community no good to make the poor poorer than they already are.

What is striking about this list of qualifications for sojourning in the tent of Yahweh is that they are all ethical instructions. There are no ceremonial qualifications, and – more astonishing – no creedal statements!  There is no required “statement of faith” that the sojourner is compelled to sign before being allowed entrance into this community. 

The psalm ends with the promise that the one who keep this code, who lives by these standards “will never be moved.” That is a powerful statement – especially for the sojourner, the stranger, the foreigner.  The sojourner in human societies lives with a constant threat of deportation and expulsion.  The stranger is always the stranger, no matter how long they’ve lived among us.  But the sojourner in God’s tent doesn’t need to have this worry.  The sojourner in God’s tent, who lives according to this code, is given a safe and secure place of refuge.   Going back to those parallel questions in verse one, “who may sojourn in the LORD’s tent?” is followed by “who may dwell on his holy hill?” The verb “dwell” is more permanent.  The sojourner moves from resident alien to naturalized citizen.

[i] Spencer, John R.  David Noel Freedman, Ed. “Sojourner” Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. VIDoubleday New York, NY, 1992.
[ii] Taylor, William R., W. Stewart McCullough, “The Book of Psalms: Exegesis,” in Psalms, Proverbs, vol. IV of The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952.
[iii] And this question is repeated  with slightly different answers in Psalm 24: 3 – 4 and in Isaiah 33: 14 –16.
[iv] A literal translation of the Hebrew here is a striking visual image: “he does not go footing about with his tongue” (Taylor & McCullough, 79).

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