Another short Psalm for the Lutheran Church Bible Study Group — Psalm 133
1 A song of ascents. Of David. How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together. (Hebrew: henai ma tov u’ma’naim shevet achim gam yachad).
2 It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down over the collar of his robe;
3 like the dew of Hermon that falls upon the mountains of Zion. There the LORD ordained blessing, everlasting life.
Verse one is the most important verse in this glorious tiny Psalm and may well be the most important verse in the Bible. So I will consider it last. Let us begin with verse 2 and its somewhat disconcerting image of an oily beard.
In the biblical period, clean running water for bathing or drinking was rare but sweat like now was abundant. With sweat comes the smell of sweat and that was, as it is now, both uncomfortable and off putting. The ancient world developed its own ways to combat body odor and Psalm 133 reminds us of one deodorizing technique. Oil mixed with fragrant spices was poured over the head of rich men who could afford to waste their olive oil. There were no razors, so the oil ran down their faces and into their beards. Wealthy women had their own ways of counteracting the bodily odors of a hot land without bathtubs. They would mix spices with honey and beeswax and tie up the fragrant mixture in a topknot in their hair. This honey cake would melt in the sun and send its sticky, gooey, but fragrant mixture down their faces. Actually, there were bathtubs that were cut out of the rocks and connected to water systems that collected rainwater in cisterns and brought the water into the cities and wealthy homes. King Hezekiah dug a tunnel into Jerusalem to bring rainwater into the city from the surrounding hills. You can still see today ruins of Roman aqueducts in cities like Caesarea. This ends my history of ancient personal hygiene for the week!
The other meaning of oil involves the rituals of installing a king. The kings of Israel were anointed with oil to symbolize God’s blessings flowing over them. The verb in Hebrew for anointing is mashach and from it we get the English word Messiah. The Messiah is the anointed one of God because the Messiah was (for Christians) and will be (for Jews) the king of Israel and ultimately the king of a united world worshiping the one God.
Mt. Hermon is the highest mountain in Zion and so the dew that condenses on the grasses and plants of Mt. Hermon looks to the psalmist like the oil dripping down the beards of recently deodorized or recently ordained folk.
Now on to the famous verse 1 which is one of most beloved songs in the Jewish liturgy. When we sing henai ma tov in synagogue we are lifting up for blessing the sacred gathering of our people in prayer in the synagogue. However, in the biblical period there were no synagogues, no rabbis, and no cantors, only Temples where animals were sacrificed by the priests — an inherited line of Jews from the tribe of Levi and the house of Aaron. Grain offerings were also brought along with the first fruits of the land and celebratory offerings on the birth of a child.
What the psalmist is visualizing is therefore not a synagogue service, it is a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which occurred three times a year during the holidays of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. Each of these holidays were called in Hebrew a hag. The haj which is the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca comes from the same root word.
So, imagine on one of these holiday pilgrimages thousands of pilgrims camped on the hillsides around the great Temple in Jerusalem. Thousands of campfires, and the sound of singing and dancing. All vengefulness forgotten. All tribal conflicts forgiven. Each family a part of a larger fire and a larger holiness. Such a gathering, such a vision is described by the psalmist as being both “good” (tov) and pleasing to the senses (naim). It is good because the highest being deserves the highest praise, and it is pleasing because just for a brief shining moment we are all one. We are not divided. We are not at war. We see in our neighbor the source of our fulfillments, not the source of our limitations. Such a dwelling together for God is both a memory and a dream.
Let us study:
When have you felt most connected to a large group of people? Can you feel connected over Zoom or do you need to sit close together and sing songs for God?
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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