AS MUCH AS IN ALL RICHES
by Hugh Farquhar
The Psalm placed in the Lectionary for next Sunday as an alternate Reading is Psalm 119:9-16.
I lock on verses 12-14: “I will delight in the way of your decrees as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes.”
Hebrew poetry – each line expressing an intention: “I will delight, I will meditate, I will delight.” In Hebrew the three nouns: decrees, precepts, and statutes rhyme in a way . . . they have similar sounding endings: edwoteka, piqqudaka, and huqqoteka. Hebrew poetry is different from English poetry, but that’s a topic for another time.
These three nouns all refer to the same thing: the Law, or Torah, as the Hebrews referred to it.
There is a perception, promulgated by some Christians, that the Torah was constricting and burdensome, to be obeyed with the same anxious attentiveness as an army recruit obeys his/her superior. Not so, at least not when this Psalm was written. The operative word in this Psalm is “delight.” Torah was regarded as bringing as much joy as an unexpected windfall of riches would do. In Psalm 19, Torah is extolled as more valuable than gold, the most valuable commodity in that culture, and sweeter than honey, the most sought-after delicacy in that culture.
The Hebrew word “Torah,” actually means “teaching.” It was accepted as the primary means of God’s self-disclosure, recording the origins of the unique covenant between God and a people. I think it helps us to understand why it was so cherished by the Psalmist if we think beyond the details that reflect ancient legalities and focus on the timeless principles of Torah.
Rachel Held Evans counsels us to do that in her book, “Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.” In her words, “The Law taught the Israelites how to rest on the Sabbath, treat immigrants with compassion, and celebrate their deliverance through rituals and holidays. It called them to worship one God, denouncing all forms of idolatry, and to honour that God with a community characterized by order and neighbourliness. In an ancient world that often celebrated violent indulgence, the Law offered a sense of stability and moral purpose.”
The reading of the Torah was, and is, the central act of Jewish worship. Since sometime between the 12th and 14thCentury, the five books have been read systematically in order each week during the assembly within one year. The day of the last reading, the conclusion of Deuteronomy, is called “Simchat Torah” or “Rejoicing in the Torah.” This reading is immediately followed by a reading from the first chapter of Genesis to symbolize that God’s Word has no end.
“Simchat Torah” is an occasion of great rejoicing. In synagogues, scrolls containing the Scriptures are removed from their sacred location and paraded. Not only do they process with them, but they dance, sing, and weave around the synagogue seven times. On this day of celebration, children are given gifts of candy and fruit, and fed slices of apples dipped in honey.
Jews continue to delight in and meditate on Torah as did the Psalmist long ago.
We have much to learn from this, our spiritual heritage As Christians we speak of “the Word of God” in a broader sense. One of the most important things we do every Sunday is to open this library of books and read from it. All the gold in the world and all the world’s sensate pleasures cannot compare with the good news of God’s love and grace contained within it. We do well to delight in it, to cherish it, and to understand how central it is to our faith and life.
Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paulk’s United Church, Riverview, NB and teaches Biblical Studies for Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.