Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Exodus Story and the Passover

                              The Exodus Story and the Passover

                                                      (Originally written in 2008 as a Special Note for Biblical Words; 
                                                                             moderately revised for this posting.)

The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for this part of Year A omit eight chapters from the Exodus story (Exodus 4-11).  These chapters include everything from the call of Moses to Passover night.  They include the central part of the struggle for the deliverance of the “Hebrew” slaves.  Dropping eight chapters of narrative from, say, the book of Numbers may be an acceptable choice to accommodate limits of the Lectionary cycles.  But dropping eight chapters from the very heart of the most critical narrative of Israel’s sacred story seems embarrassing. 

The reasons for this omission are likely two: 

(1) Because of its length, the Plague Narrative (chapters 7-11) could not be included in its entirety, and selecting only one or two plague episodes would give a fragmentary and ragged impression.  Besides, the Passover passage (the Lectionary reading for the 14th Sunday) does include a brief report of the tenth plague. 

(2) The Plague Narrative, in its most straightforward sense, is not edifying.  It does not present God in a favorable light.  It shows the Mighty One inflicting deliberate suffering on a people caught at the mercy of its dull-witted and stubborn potentate.  It even shows that Mighty One holding up the sagging Pharaoh with his left hand while he pops him again with his right.  Undignified, if not downright immoral!  Best leave it out of the Lectionary entirely! 

Well, here, outside the proper confines of the Lectionary, some points about this historically colossal narrative may be made.  This discussion may seem like presenting the Scrooge view of the Exodus, for though the Exodus is a liberation story, when read closely it does not fit liberation theologies of our time very comfortably. 

This is for two reasons:  (1) The Exodus is only part of a larger story, the completion of which is the conquest of a promised land by a triumphant chosen people.  Everywhere through the story, there are clear signs that that promised-land conclusion is the overarching meaning of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. 

(2) The Exodus narrative itself makes clear that the defeat of the enslaving power is exclusively God’s doing.  Human initiative (read “political action”) utterly fails to achieve liberation; that is what Exodus 5 demonstrates in the structure of the Exodus action.  The population who will be redeemed by God’s action is passive during the whole thing.  The contest is exclusively a power struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  This is certainly a major theological statement of the Israelite tradition.  The Exodus was God’s doing, an astonishing winning of the prize for which God and Pharaoh were competing. 

And the Plague Narrative makes indelibly clear that this is only a power struggle.  There is nothing about justice, rights, or morality in the struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  They share no common framework – no covenant – within which rights or justice could be appealed to.  The one and only issue is power.  Who is stronger?  Who can force the other to give up possession of the Hebrews. 

Issues of right and wrong cannot enter the sacred story until Israel has been to Sinai.  In Egypt, Israel is only being born, being forced with birth pangs from the womb that used to nourish it but now has become constricting and oppressive.  At Sinai Israel will experience his Bar Mitzvah, will become responsible for keeping the Law.  From then on matters of justice and morality will be of great importance.  The Exodus is a contest of power, not of justice.  The character of the narrative makes that clear. 

The Structure of the Plague Narrative.

First a couple of preliminaries about the larger narrative that includes the plague sequence. 

The final unity.  Exodus 1-13:16 is a composite narrative, an extended re-telling that interweaves earlier narrative strands.  Though the narrative is composite, the focus here is on the final composition.  We are listening to what the narrative has been made into, rather than what it was made out of.  We are looking at the structure of the final story, not its sources.  (At the end, there are also a few non-narrative passages, instructions for every Israelite to observe the Passover, keep the Unleavened Bread festival, and devote or redeem the firstborn of livestock and family – all the standard spring festival actions, 12:43-49; 13:3-16). 

Not the Red Sea.  The Masoretes, who gave us the present form of the Hebrew Bible, made a major break in the text at Exodus 13:16.  The departure from Egypt has been narrated, including the Israelites receiving the Egyptians’ jewelry, taking along their own livestock, and accompanied by a “mixed multitude” (12:33-39).  Their long stay in Egypt is then summarized: 

The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years.  At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.  That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations (Exodus 12:40-42, NRSV). 

This summary was before Israel had even started to the Red Sea. 

On the other hand, the Masoretes put no break at all after the Red Sea incident.  Exodus 15:22 simply follows Miriam’s song about the Sea, carrying on the wilderness story without heading or break.  The Red Sea episode is not the end of the Exodus; it is the beginning of the Wilderness.  At Exodus 13:17 a new set of circumstances begins, and topics and themes that will recur from there to Deuteronomy appear.  First, the way through the wilderness is introduced (13:17-18, the Israelites “prepared for battle”).  The pillar of fire and cloud leading the way is introduced (13:21-22).  Unlike the context in Exodus 7-12, the language and strategy here is of battle; here Yahweh will win a battle, not a court contest!  Finally, most characteristic of the Wilderness stories is Israel’s complaint about the exodus:  “Was it because there were not graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11).  This complaint (“murmuring”) will appear again and again in the wilderness, all the way to Numbers 21. 

The Red Sea episode is NOT a part of the Exodus Narrative; it is the beginning of the Wilderness theme, balanced at the end of the wilderness by the crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3-4.  (See Psalm 114:3-4! and Micah 6:4-5.)  (In post-Biblical times, of course, the Passover Seders could not resist including the “victory” of the Red Sea in the Passover story sung about at the Seder!) 

The Larger Narrative.  After Israel sank into deep oppression through slave labor and genocide (chapters 1-2), God in heaven made a first movement in response to Israelite laments (2:23-25).  That movement led to the call of Moses and Aaron with declaration of Yahweh’s overall plan and instructions for their particular roles (chapters 3-4).  They hasten to Egypt and let both the Israelite leaders and Pharaoh know what Yahweh demands.  That leads not to an exodus but a worsening of the oppression and reduces everyone, including Moses, to resignation and despair (chapter 5).  At that point, Moses complains, “O Lord, …since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people” (5:22-23, NRSV).  (So much for direct political action.)

This signals yet another Divine Turn.  A divine speech declares who Yahweh is (in the P strand the name Yahweh is first introduced here) and what he is going to do – take Israel from Egypt and give it the promised land (6:2-9).  Then there is a pause in the flow of action while the narrator recites some genealogical lore about the Levites, and Moses and Aaron in particular (6:14-27, which carries the Levite genealogy two generations past Moses, to Phinehas, a priest of destiny in Numbers 25:6-13). 

Finally we are ready for the court contest to begin. 

The action of the Plague Narrative is very formalized.  It is a courtly duel in which too powerful lords declare themselves and then demonstrate their prowess.  Typically Yahweh sends Moses (and Aaron) to negotiate with Pharaoh, announcing a “blow” if the Hebrews are not released.  The coming of the “blow” shows that Yahweh’s power is greater – that Pharaoh cannot prevent it.  Pharaoh tries a number of evasions, the details of which contribute to the steady crescendo in the plague sequence.  A subordinate theme is the efforts of the Egyptian magicians to keep pace with the miracles done by Moses and Aaron, and their increasing discomfiture is a touch of comic relief in the narrative progression. 

There are ten plagues in the final narrative.  The number of plagues, and the terminology for each one, could vary from recitation to recitation, as is seen in Psalm 78:42-52 (probably six plagues, varying terminology) and Psalm 105:27-36 (seven plagues, pretty much Exodus terminology but different order). 

The plague episodes are not uniform.  Three of them have no audience with Pharaoh at the beginning, but simply launch into instructions to Moses and Aaron to bring on the plagues:  these are the third, sixth, and ninth plagues.  It seems likely that the base of the present narrative was originally a seven-plague sequence, made up of what are now the first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and tenth plagues. 

Except in Psalm 105, the first plague always is turning the water of the Nile into blood (7:14-24).  There follow a number of nuisance plagues (frogs, gnats, flies, and belatedly, in the sixth plague, boils).  After that Yahweh begins direct assaults on the Egyptian economy:  the fifth plague kills livestock (9:1-7), then hail kills both livestock and crops (9:13-35), and then locusts finish off the crops (10:1-20). 

Standing in a unique role is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness.  This is no ordinary absence of sunlight; it is “a darkness that can be felt” (10:21).  First, this plague implies that the contest has gone cosmic, involving the heavenly powers, not just local conditions (though the Israelites somehow still had light that was lacking to the Egyptians, 10:23).  Secondly, this plague may be symbolic, since the chief god of Egyptian royalty was Ra, the sun god, giver of light. 

Finally, the last plague is always the death of the first-born.  This is the first direct assault on human life in the plague sequence.  While the Israelites are sheltered in their homes, protected from “the Destroyer” by the sacrificial blood on the doorposts, the first-born of all the Egyptians – and especially of Pharaoh – are killed by the numinous power passing through the land, house by house! The death of the crown prince and of the heir apparent in every family is the ultimate defeat of the enemies of Yahweh’s people.  This plague is the climactic event of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. 

In later Israelite religious practice, this sequence of events (which began on the tenth day of the month, Exodus 12:3) was the occasion of (1) the Passover observance, (2) the offerings of the first-born animals and sons by Israelites, and (3) the observance of the Unleavened Bread festival (the release of the new grain crop for human consumption).  All of these things were aspects of the spring festival in historic times, running over a nearly two-week period in March and April. 

Its Setting in Israelite Life.  

Assuming this overview of the Exodus narrative, we may speculate on its place and power in historic Israelite life.  When would reciting just this kind of narrative have been most cogent to the condition and needs of early Israelites? 

We assume that the Passover went back to pre-monarchic times as an Israelite custom.  In the later monarchic period, it was remembered as an observance of the age of the judges, an observance that had fallen into neglect in the time of the kings.  “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah” (II Kings 23:22).  (The passover was not congenial to kings!)

The instructions for the Passover in Exodus 12 require permanent houses, with doorposts and lintels, houses that were the numinous boundaries of danger during the critical night.  The next morning the Israelites went out of their houses to celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread, the eating of the new grain crop.  (On this see Joshua 5:10-12.) 

The setting is unquestionably well-settled agricultural-pastoral communities.  This setting corresponds to what we now know of the Iron Age I settlements of hill-country Israel (around 1200 to 1050 BCE).  (See, for example, Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt [Society of Biblical Literature, 2007], Part 3, “The Historical Origins of Collective Israel,” pp. 67-98.) This is the social-economic world in which the Passover narrative would have been important and in which its development and progressive elaboration would have had its early stages. 

We may recall that Egypt had been a major power over the Canaanite city-states periodically for more than three centuries before 1200 BCE.  Pharaoh had long been a mighty figure off to the south, either threatening or supporting the tranquility of every Canaanite community.  Around that date, Pharaoh Merneptah made a substantial raid into Canaan, destroying (he claimed) several cities as well as the people called “Israel” (his victory stele contains the first mention of “Israel” in history).  However, the pharaohs were beginning to lose their power in Canaan, and within fifty years after Merneptah they were only a memory, good or bad according to each local community’s past experience. 

Now we may project that for Israelites in this period and in this setting, the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative is every petty Canaanite city-state king writ large In such a context we can see the power that that narrative could have for a lesser developed people living out of the reach of city-state kingdoms that were mainly in the valleys and plains.  The Plague Narrative is a long, intricate enjoyment of the increasing embarrassment of the local city king who has pretended to power over the Israelite peasant settlements. 

The Passover observance was required of every Israelite head of household (see Exodus 10:8-11; 12:43-49, and Numbers 9:13).  The full instructions for the observance are given in Exodus 12:1-28. 

Section from "Blood of the Paschal Lamb Applied to Doorpost," Mosaic, 
Saint Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, Columbus, OH.  Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

At the first new moon in the spring (Nisan in the later calendar), each family began to prepare for the observance.  Ten days after the new moon, they selected a year-old lamb or kid for each house, and on the fourteenth day after the new moon (at full moon), sacrificed the animal, using its blood to protect the doorway of their house, and eating that animal in an atmosphere of danger and haste.  The bread eaten with that meal must be the first produce of the new grain crop, not yet mixed with the leavened dough of the past year’s crops.  At morning, they went out of the house (no doubt rejoicing), and began the ceremonies of the seven-day Unleavened Bread festival. 

Keeping this observance was every Israelite’s commitment to Yahweh, the mighty Lord who could keep them safe from the local city-king who coveted their servitude! 

The compelling power and purpose of the Exodus narrative, as we hear it, was to cement Israelite allegiance to the Lord of the tribal coalition that resisted the city-state kings surrounding  their highland regions.  On this understanding, the Exodus narrative, pretty literally, created and continually re-created Israel as a covenant people of Yahweh! 


Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Suffering Servant - Good Friday Readings

The Suffering Servant
Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Good Friday. 

            Isaiah 52:13-53:12;
            Psalm 22;
            Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9;
            The Passion according to John.
[The Good Friday readings in Biblical Words – the Lectionary studies blog– include commentaries on the complete Passion narratives for the Gospels of Matthew (2020), Mark (2021), and Luke (2022).  Those readings suggest the full force of Good Friday.]  
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
“Do you understand what you are reading?”  Acts 8:30. 

Background:  the First Three Servant Songs. 

Throughout the twentieth century scholars recognized that these four “Servant Songs” go together.  The “servant” is presented differently here than in the rest of Isaiah 40-55. 

The first three “Songs” are given here without commentary.  It is good to read them as background to the Fourth Song to catch the atmosphere of the whole Servant presentation.  The commentary on the Fourth Song given below has been used in the Lectionary studies for Good Friday for some years, and is only slightly revised here.

The First song:  God speaks.

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold, 
      my chosen, in whom my soul delights; 
I have put my spirit upon him; 
      he will bring forth justice to the nations. 
2He will not cry or lift up his voice, 
      or make it heard in the street; 
3a bruised reed he will not break, 
      and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; 
      he will faithfully bring forth justice. 
4He will not grow faint or be crushed 
      until he has established justice in the earth [land]; 
      and the coastlands wait for his teaching [torah]. 
5Thus says God, the Lord, 
      who created the heavens and stretched them out, 
      who spread out the earth and what comes from it, 
who gives breath to the people upon it 
      and spirit to those who walk in it:  
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, 
      I have taken you by the hand and kept you; 
I have given you as a covenant to the people, 
      a light to the nations, 
7     to open the eyes that are blind, 
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, 
      from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8I am the Lord, that is my name; 
      my glory I give to no other, 
      nor my praise to idols.  
9See, the former things have come to pass, 
      and new things I now declare; 
before they spring forth, 
      I tell you of them. 
            (Isaiah 42:1-9, NRSV.)
[This passage was commented on in the Lectionary Studies Blog for January 12, 2020.]

The Second song:  the Servant speaks. 

1Listen to me, O coastlands, 
      pay attention, you peoples from far away! 
The Lord called me before I was born, 
      while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 
2He made my mouth like a sharp sword, 
      in the shadow of his hand he hid me; 
he made me a polished arrow, 
      in his quiver he hid me away. 
3And he said to me, “You are my servant, 
      Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 
4But I said, “I have labored in vain, 
      I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; 
yet surely my cause is with the Lord, 
      and my reward with my God.” 
5And now the Lord says, 
      who formed me in the womb to be his servant, 
to bring Jacob back to him, 
      and that Israel might be gathered to him, 
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, 
      and my God has become my strength – 
6he says, 
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
      to raise up the tribes of Jacob
      and to restore the survivors of Israel
I will give you as a light to the nations, 
      that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” 
            (Isaiah 49:1-6, NRSV.)  
[This passage was commented on in the Lectionary Studies Blog for January 19, 2020.] 

Third song:  the Servant speaks. 

4The Lord God has given me 
      the tongue of a teacher [or “disciples”] 
that I may know how to sustain 
      the weary with a word. 
Morning by morning he wakens – 
      wakens my ear 
      to listen as those who are taught. 
5The Lord God has opened my ear, 
      and I was not rebellious, 
      I did not turn backward. 
6I gave my back to those who struck me, 
      and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; 
I did not hide my face 
      from insult and spitting. 
7The Lord God helps me; 
      therefore I have not been disgraced; 
therefore I have set my face like flint, 
      and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 
8     he who vindicates me is near. 
Who will contend with me? 
      Let us stand up together. 
Who are my adversaries? 
      Let them confront me. 
9It is the Lord God who helps me; 
      who will declare me guilty? 
All of them will wear out like a garment; 
      the moth will eat them up. 
            (Isaiah 50:4-9, NRSV.) 
The Fourth Servant Song. 
This song is the actual prophetic reading for Good Friday.  It is one of the most important passages in the entire Jewish scriptures for Christians. 
This is a complex text.  It involves different scenes and speakers, and we need a map to follow the full drama.  Here is a rather simplified one. 
  • The text makes clear that God is speaking in 52:13-15 and in at least 53:11b-12. 
  • It is equally clear that someone else is speaking – a plural, as in “we” and “for our…” – in 53:1-6 at least, and perhaps all the way to 53:11a.  
Thus we have the following structure: 
            God introduces the Servant as newly exalted , 52:13-15.  
                  A group proclaims that the Servant’s suffering was for their sins, 53:1-11a.  
            God announces the Servant’s reward for that suffering, 53:11b-12.  
What the “we” passages describe is the astonishing career of the Servant (whom God introduced).  A remarkable series of words and phrases describes the disfigurement, rejection, and general suffering of this figure.  
Let’s begin by focusing on the God speeches together, without being distracted by the details of the Servant’s labors. 
13See, my servant shall prosper; 
      he shall be exalted and lifted up, 
      and shall be very high. 
14Just as there were many who were astonished at him 
      – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
      and his form beyond that of mortals – 
15so he shall startle many nations; 
      kings shall shut their mouths because of him; 
for that which had not been told them they shall see, 
      and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.  
            (52:13-15, NRSV.)  
11Out of his anguish he shall see light; 
      he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. 
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, 
      and he shall bear their iniquities. 
12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, 
      and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;  
because he poured out himself to death, 
      and was numbered with the transgressors;  
yet he bore the sin of many, 
      and made intercession for the transgressors.  
            (53:11-12, NRSV.)  
In between these two God speeches, the “many” speak.  Many scholars think that in at least verses 1-6, if not throughout, it is the nations that speak.  Others think that in at least verses 7-10, if not the whole passage, Israel, or a saving remnant of Israel, speaks. 
1Who has believed what we have heard? 
      And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 
2For he grew up before him like a young plant, 
      and like a root out of dry ground; 
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, 
      nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 
3He was despised and rejected by others; 
      a man of suffering [sorrows] and acquainted with infirmity; 
and as one from whom others hide their faces 
      he was despised, and we held him of no account. 
4Surely he has borne our infirmities 
      and carried our diseases; 
yet we accounted him stricken, 
      struck down by God, and afflicted.  
5But he was wounded for our transgressions, 
      crushed for our iniquities; 
upon him was the punishment that made us whole, 
      and by his bruises we are healed.  
6All we like sheep have gone astray; 
      we have all turned to our own way, 
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 

7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, 
      yet he did not open his mouth; 
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, 
      and like a sheep [ewe] that before its shearers is silent, 
      so he did not open his mouth. 
8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. 
      Who could have imagined [or declared] his future [or generation]? 
For he was cut off from the land of the living, 
      stricken for the transgression of my people. 
9They [or He] made his grave with the wicked 
      and his tomb with the rich, 
although he had done no violence, 
      and there was no deceit in his mouth. 

10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. 
When you make his life an offering for sin [Hebrew unclear here], 
      he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; 
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 
            (Isaiah 53:1-10, NRSV.) 
This Servant was disfigured, despised, and generally hounded to death – a fate that he submitted to like a sacrificial animal taken to slaughter.  (There are approximately twenty different terms and expressions in 53:2-8 that express suffering of various kinds.  See the list in the Appendix on Terminology at the end of this article.  Some one had an amazing fund of rhetorical resources to portray this mysterious figure whose suffering determined the destiny of people far and wide!)  
Further, this suffering by the Servant was on somebody else’s account, or for their benefit.  “…[T]he Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6, NRSV).  The Servant suffers for someone else, and that someone else has finally come to realize the truth of all this, and is declaring that truth as a new revelation (“Who has believed what we have heard?”, 53:1). 
The whole passage spoken by the “we” or the “many” is designed to evoke great compassion at the suffering and disrespect endured by the Servant.  But even more, it evokes wonder because this suffering was not only undeserved but was endured on behalf of others, to spare them from guilt and punishment because of their transgressions. 
What is this really about?  What lies behind the imagery of the Suffering Servant?  
A fairly straightforward reading sees here an interpretation of Israel’s historic destiny.  
The Servant’s career is Israel’s historical decline, defeat, and apparent extinction – beyond any reasonable hope of recovery.  That is to say, it is the destruction and exile of first the old Northern Kingdom (eighth century) and then of the Kingdom of Judah (sixth century).  Ultimately, we are talking about political entities, that had previously been the objects of God’s favor.  As of the time of the composition of the Servant Songs, no Israelite political entity had existed for two generations. 
The divine announcement is that there was a secret purpose working through that defeat and disaster – a secret purpose that, when known, will be astonishing to both the other nations and kings as well as to the defeated and exiled offspring of Israel themselves.  
From the other parts of Isaiah 40-55 we learn the following:  The sinfulness of Israelites in running after other gods (who are really no-gods) has demonstrated to the nations its futility and falsehood.  This is because there is really only one Lord of history to whom unqualified loyalty is due.  It is through Israel that other nations will learn this.  Israel suffers vicariously so the other nations can learn from the error of its (Israel’s) ways.  It was through Israel’s sinfulness [apostasy from Yahweh], leading to punishment and death, that the greatest lesson of all was learned:  idolatry and multiple gods are a way of death. 
Israel has demonstrated this lesson to the world, suffered for its waywardness, but will be raised up again to live among the nations as Yahweh’s restored and honored Servant.  
The Servant as King. 
In the later twentieth century, scholars shied away from seeing royal features in the Servant.  The Servant songs never say clearly that the Servant is a king.  (They are addressed to people still subject to Babylonian and Persian emperors.)  
Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the collective-individual character of the Servant makes most sense as a royal figure.  He will stand honored among kings and he certainly plays a representative role:  his experience is Israel’s collective experience.  Most likely there were old rituals and ceremonial rhetoric about sacred kingship remembered by those exiled from the Jerusalem royal palace.  The language and sacred auras of such royal traditions were revived and given new power by interpreting Israel’s destiny as that of the king who, even in his humble and despised condition, would eventually receive a glorious and honored future.  
In any case, the Servant makes most sense to me as a royal figure, the figure seen also in several psalms (22 and 118, for example).  He stands as a personification of the Israel whose ritual suffering clears the people of their iniquities from the recent past.  
The chapter that immediately follows the fourth song (that is, Isaiah 54) presents the exuberant personification of the Mother City.  In the sacral realities and the prophetic rhetoric of that age, King and City were the makers – and the victims – of all major historical developments.  In our passage, God declares that such a major development is about to occur for the insignificant community of exiles that still responds to the name “Israel.”  Furthermore, that community will soon be led in prosperity by God’s Servant, to the astonishment of all the nations!  
Psalm 22. 
The Psalm for Good Friday has, with good reason, been read as a Suffering Servant liturgy.  

Opening lament.  

The first part of this psalm alternates between the miserable condition of the speaker and the goodness of God’s past actions:  
1a.  I am abandoned and unheard, verses 1-2; 
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 
      Why are you so far from helping me, 
      from the words of my groaning? 
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; 
      and by night, but find no rest. 

2a.  You heard and saved the Israelite ancestors, verses 3-5; 

Yet you are holy, 
      enthroned on the praises of Israel
In you our ancestors trusted; 
      they trusted, and you delivered them. 
To you they cried, and were saved; 
      in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. 

1b.  I am a worm, despised and mocked, verses 6-8; 

But I am a worm, and not human; 
      scorned by others, and despised by the people. 
All who see me mock at me; 
      they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 
“Commit your cause to the Lord;  let him deliver  --  
      let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” 

2b.  You have known and kept me since my birth, verses 9-10.  

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; 
      you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. 
On you I was cast from my birth, 
      and since my mother bore me you have been my God. 

Do not be far from me, 
      for trouble is near 
      and there is no one to help. 

The logic of this alternation creates a claim upon God by the speaker, expressed in the simple plea of verse 11:  “Do not be far from me … ”   

Liturgies of Death. 

The piteous descriptions of slaughter in the second part of the psalm (verses 12 to 18) are intended to evoke indignation at the cruelty suffered by the speaker.  Besides the opening line of the psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), this description of physical death has the closest ties with the Passion narratives in the Gospels.  (The mocking of verses 6-8 is also echoed in the Passion Narratives, where the mocking is emphasized more than the suffering.)   
This passage presents a single sustained metaphor – which is then repeated.  It is that of a hunted animal, probably the “Deer of the Dawn” referred to in the title prefixed to the psalm.  This beautiful wild animal is assaulted by enemies all around, bulls, lions, and dogs. 
The attention is directed steadily from a large ring surrounding the animal toward the center of its body, as that body is violated:  
Many bulls encircle me, 
      strong bulls of Bashan surround me;  
they open wide their mouths at me, 
      like a ravening and roaring lion.  
As these beasts pierce the skin of the victim, the inner organs are exposed and torn open:  
I am poured out like water, 
      and all my bones are out of joint; 
my heart is like wax; 
      it is melted within my breast.  
And the final drained and lifeless carcass is evidence of a ruthless slaughter:  
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, 
      and my tongue sticks to my jaws; 
      you lay me in the dust of death.   (Verses 12-15, NRSV.) 
Nothing in the book of Job exceeds this evocation of compassion.  
The imagery of the animal hunted and surrounded by beasts is repeated, more briefly.  
For dogs are all around me; 
      a company of evildoers encircles me. 
My hands and feet have shriveled [been “pierced” in KJV]; 
      I can count all my bones. 
They stare and gloat over me; 
      they divide my clothes among themselves, 
      and for my clothing they cast lots. (Verses 16-18, NRSV.) 
In this imagery, the “clothes” divided among the hunters are, of course, the victim’s skin, to become “garments” for the hunters.  
The agonizing and suffering part of the psalm concludes with the speaker’s final plea for deliverance. 
Deliver my soul from the sword, 
      my life from the power of the dog! 
      Save me from the mouth of the lion! (verses 20-21).  

The Reversal:  Good News to the Nations. 

The rest of the psalm proclaims a total reversal!  The prayer has been answered, and the delivered one thanks God for salvation.  God raised the suffering one from ignominy to glory.  
For he did not despise or abhor 
      the affliction of the afflicted; 
he did not hide his face from me, 
      but heard when I cried to him (verse 24). 
Furthermore, this deliverance has world-wide significance:  
All the ends of the earth shall remember 
      and turn to the Lord; 
and the families of the nations 
      shall worship before him (verse 27).  
The sufferer in this drama is not just a marginal resident; this is a figure of destiny (a royal figure) whose rescue from death is good news for others far and wide.  
The basic movement in the psalm is the same as in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  Great suffering to death by a faithful servant is finally rewarded with exaltation by God.  And all of that is recognized by the nations as an amazing work of God for their benefit!  
When the Passion stories report Jesus’ great cry of god-forsakenness on the cross (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46), the hearers know what’s in the rest of the psalm!  The suffering one was on his way to exaltation.  
Addendum:  The Triumphant King of Palm Sunday 
"Hallelujah," Mike Moyers, courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.

As a supplement to the Suffering Servant as king we may consider the royal figure in Psalm 118.  The use of this psalm in the drama of Palm Sunday focuses on the triumphant entry into the city and temple (verses 19 to 28).  The earlier part of the psalm, however, indicates that there has been some major action prior to the triumph.  
5Out of my distress I called on the Lord; 
      the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. 
6With the Lord on my side I do not fear. 
      What can mortals do to me? 
10All nations surrounded me; 
      in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 
11They surrounded me, 
      surrounded me on every side; 
      in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 
12They surrounded me like bees; 
      they blazed like a fire of thorns; 
      in the name of the Lord I cut them off! 
13I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, 
      but the Lord helped me. 
The king was surrounded by enemies, against whom he fought valiantly.  The details probably reflect ritual actions – burning thorns, fighting off bees, and the repeated symbolic action of “cutting off” enemies.  
The king’s successful defense is acclaimed by the desperate people whose fate depends on the king’s victory.  
15There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:  
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; 
16    the right hand of the Lord is exalted; 
      the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.” 

17I shall not die, but I will live, 
      and recount the deeds of the Lord. 
18The Lord has punished me severely, 
      but he did not give me over to death. 
This speaker (king) has fought a great symbolic battle against enemies (nations) and almost perished.  Many ritual actions have been performed, accompanied by the choral voices of many “righteous,” who await the outcome of the struggle with desperate hope.  There is at least one note that it is Yahweh (the Lord) who subjects the king to this dangerous ordeal (“the Lord has punished me severely”), but it is also Yahweh who has finally saved him – so he can go forward to the great triumphant entry into the city and temple!  
Half of this psalm is about the suffering of the king; half of it is about the triumphant celebration of the king’s victory.  
It should be noted that the ritual battle takes place east of the city and temple.  The triumphant entry comes from the Mount of Olives, down through the Kidron valley (“the valley of the shadow of death” where the powers of evil assault the king – in Gethsemane).  It then goes up to the temple altar where the king fulfills his vows to God because of the victory (Psalm 118:27-28).  
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9. 
(This is the alternate reading; the first reading is Hebrews 10:16-25.  The alternate, however, is closer to the human suffering Jesus.)  
Let’s just listen to this passion of the human Jesus.  

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin…. 
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death [thinking of Jesus reciting Psalm 22?], and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered [like the “Israel” who = the Servant]; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.  
                    (Hebrews 4:15 + 5:7-9, NRSV).  

Appendix on Terminology.

Terminology about the Servant’s suffering (Isaiah 53:2-8)

NRSV translation.  
  • grew up [like] young plant         53:2                        ya‘al kayyōnēq
  • no form or majesty                     53:2                        tō’ar … hādār
  • despised                                      53:3                       nibzéh
  • rejected                                       53:3                       adal ’îshîm
  • man of suffering                         53:3                      ’îsh mak’ōbōth
  • with infirmity                             53:3                       ḥōlyí
  • bore infirmities                           53:4                      nāśā’ ḥōlyím
  • carried diseases                          53:4                       mak’ōbîm sābāl
  • stricken                                      53:4                       nāgūa‘
  • struck down                               53:4                       mukkéh
  • afflicted                                     53:4                        me‘ūnéh 
  • wounded                                  53:5                         meḫōlāl 
  • crushed                                    53:5                         medukkā’ 
  • [received] punishment               53:5                       mūsar 
  • [received] bruises                     53:5                       aburāh 
  • oppressed                                53:7                        niggaś 
  • afflicted                                    53:7                       na’anéh
  • taken away                               53:8                       luqqāḥ
  • cut off from the living                 53:8           nigzar mē’eretz ḫayyîm
  • stricken [for them]                    53:8                     nega‘ lāmô 

Terminology about what the Servant removed or bore.  

  • infirmities                                53:4
  • diseases                                    53:4
  • transgressions                          53:5
  • iniquities                                  53:5, 11
  • sheep gone astray                     53:6
  • iniquity                                     53:6
  • transgression                            53:8
  • sin of many                              53:12
  • [interceded for] transgressors  53:12