Same Psalms, Different Dimensions

A comparison of Psalms 2 and 8 in Robert Alter’s translated Book of Psalms with the same Psalms from the Bay Psalm Book shows many differences in the rhetoric.

In Alter’s interpretation of Psalm 2 is a far more modernized psalm, the meanings actually differ from the Bay Psalm Book. Alter’s version begins with ‘Why are the nations aroused,’ which was derived from ‘a specific historical situation… what one can make out  is an alliance of nations intending to attack Judea, or perhaps rebel against their condition of subjugation to it’. The Bay Book of Psalms starts off similarly: ‘WHy rage the  Heathen furioussly,’. It is difficult to decipher why Alter’s interpretation is in fact so different. ‘Heathen’ and ‘nation’ suggest similar themes however ‘Heathen’ is a far more powerful word. The main difference is most likely to be that modern audiences would be able to relate to ‘nations’ whereas ‘Heathen’ is a seldom used term in the modern era.

The Bay Book seems to use far more passionate language: ‘I will give-the Heathen for thy lot:-and of the earth shalt thou possesse- the utmost coasts abroad’ as opposed to Alter’s ‘and I shall give nations as your estate,- and your holdings, the ends of the earth.’ The difference here is that Alter once again seems to go for the modern technical side ‘the earth as your estate’ as opposed to possessing the entire earth.

Psalm 8 resonated with me as I found that it seemed to be less violent than the others. It delves into how wonderful the world is and how perfectly it was created, opposed to ‘God’s wrath upon the Heathen!’ per say. One of my favorite intricacies of the Bay Book in this psalm is the fact it ends in a question (line 9), which in turn seems to evoke more feeling and power than Alter’s (line 10). ‘How wonderously magnificent-is thy name through the world?’ seems to really nail how profound the statement is, it implies that there is more wonderful things to come from God. Alter’s finale reads: ‘Lord, our Master,-how majestic Your name in all the earth!’ does evoke similar feelings with the use of the exclamation mark, however it does not hold the passion. Is it that the Bay Psalm Book was used by the Puritanical pilgrims who originally settled in Massachusetts were far more passionate about religion and the psalms to make them sound more ‘epic.’ Or does Alter feel as if that passion is arbitrary if modern people cannot understand them?

In conclusion it seems that both play toward the audience. With Alter the message is there albeit with slightly different meanings to the Bay Psalm Book, but over time these changes are necessary to connect with different audiences.


About mikecrusoe

I am an international student at Lawrence University. I grew up in London, England and I rather enjoy tea and crumpets but that is for another forum.
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