Sunday, August 10, 2014

Eugene Peterson on Psalm 40: pastors are blockheads, God digs ears, Virgin Mary's surprising organ, we hear with eyes

I have been reading Eugene Peterson since...well, before you were born. (:

Due to a providential fluke (theologians call it a 'pruke'), I'm recently taking a  re-look at an early  (1987)   EP masterpiece (how many does he have?)  "Working The Angles: The Shape Of Pastoral Integrity."   It was only his fifth book (as of this year he has published  13,567,998...and they're all good).  As often with folks like this, he was prophetically  (and proleptically) ahead of his time..

He begins his "pull no punches" beginning as early as the first page:

"[Many American pastors] have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries” (page 1)

But the section I want to quote extensively below stands out for several reasons.
 (And since this  was written  long before Peterson became a Bible translator himself ..The Message Bible was 2002...,I would be fascinated to hear to ask him why his older self eventually chose to ignore his own  younger self's  advice re: translating Psalm 40:6 in a way that "is not to be countenanced"!

On with it:

Turning Eyes into Ears

A brilliantly conceived metaphor  in Psalm 40:6   provides a pivot on which to turn the corner; literally it reads: "ears thou hast dug for me" (azenayim karîtha lî). It is puzzling that  no translator renders the sentence into English just that way They all prefer to paraphrase at this point, presenting the meaning adequately but losing the metaphor: "thou hast given me an open ear" (RSV) . But to lose the metaphor in this instance is not to be countenanced; the Hebrew verb is "dug."

Imagine a human head with no ears. Where ears are usually found there is only a smooth, impenetrable surface, granitic bone. God speaks. No response. The metaphor occurs in the context of a bustling religious activity deaf to the  voice of God: "sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire . . . burnt offering and sin offering" (40:6). How did   these people know about these offerings and how to make them? They had read the prescriptions in Exodus and Leviticus and followed instructions.  They had become religious. Their eyes read the words on the Torah page and rituals were formed.
They had read the Scripture words accurately and gotten the ritual right. How did it happen that they had missed the message "not required"?  There must be something more involved than following directions for unblemished animals, a stone altar, and a sacrificial fire.  There is God speaking and must be listened to.But what good is a speaking God without listening human ears? So God gets a pick and shovel and digs through the cranial granite, opening a passage that will give access to the  interior depths, into the mind and heart.  Or–maybe we are not to imagine a smooth expanse of skull but something like wells that have been stopped up with refuse: culture noise, throw-away gossip, garbage chatter. Our ears are so clogged that we cannot hear God speak.  God, like Isaac who dug again the wells that the Philistines had filled, redigs the ears trashed with audio junk.

The result is a restoration of Scripture: eyes turn into ears. 
The Hebrew sacrificial system included reading from a book, but the reading had degenerated into something done and watched.  The business with the scroll was just part of the show, a verbal ingredient thrown into the ritual just because the recipe called for it.  Now with ears 
newly dug   in the head of this person, a voice  is heard calling, inviting.  The hearer responds, "Lo, I come, in the roll of the book it is written of me; I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart  (40:7-8).  The act of reading has become the act of listening.  The book is discovered to have a voice in it directed to the reader-become-listener: 'it is written of me.'  The words on the paper that were read with the eye are now heard with the ear and invade the heart:
'I delight to do thy will.. thy law is within my heart.'   God's word ("thy will"), which had been objectified in a written word ("thy law"), now is personalized in an answering and worshiping word ("my heart"). The act of reading becomes an act of listening.  What was written down is revoiced:'I have told the glad news..I have not restrained my lips ' (40:9) No longer is God's word  merely written, it is voiced.  The ear takes over from the eye and involves the heart..

....Listening is back.  The dynamic sequence has been restored.  The psalm began with God listening: "I waited patiently for the Lord.  He inclined and  
heard my cry."  Now the psalmist listens. God has  has dug through his thick skull and opened a passage for hearing. The living voice of God is attended by the human ear. The consequence, as always when God's word works, is gospel ("glad news of deliverance," "thy saving help"; 40:9, 10) It was a medieval commonplace that the organ of conception in the Virgin Mary was the ear. 

...Can any pastor in good conscience  be content to leave the written words of Scripture  on the page for the eye to read?   Our business is with ears: 'O learn to read what silent love hath writ/To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit. To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.' {Shakespeare}
-Eugene Peterson Working The Angles: The Shape Of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 70, 73


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