Crossposted from BLT
**What follows is a flight of theological imagination**
The original author of this psalm was a young woman, perhaps a Midianite, who was ravished away from her home by a pillaging army and forced to serve as one of the whores that traveled with the army to provide recreation for its soldiers. She was freed from sexual slavery by the Israelite forces that defeated her captors, and found refuge among the Israelite women. Psalm 84 is a song of praise to the God of the armies who freed her and of the women who welcomed her, a God who sees her as pure and innocent despite her enslavement as a whore. Although the text was later adapted for use as a pilgrim psalm during the Temple period, traces of its origin remain, as we shall see.
1 How sensual are your tents,
O LORD of armies!
2 My soul yearns, it faints
for the encampments of the LORD.
3 My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.
These verses mix imagery of the boudoir with that of the military camp. The erotic imagery is frequently interpreted as a poetic means of indicating intense passion for the LORD, while the remaining language is overlooked. In fact, the psalmist here deliberately uses the language and imagery of impassioned sexual desire — which she had been forced to simulate in her sexual slavery — to convey the depth of her authentic passionate response to the God who freed her from enslavement.
The incongruous juxtaposition of a boudoir response to the rough surroundings of a military encampment is clever and intentional, as can be seen by reading them together with verse 11. If the locations in these verses are interpreted as referring to the beautiful courts of the Temple, as they are often translated, the psalmist’s rhetoric is weakened.
4 Even the sparrow has found a home
and the swallow a nest for herself,
that places her fledglings by your altars,
LORD of armies, my king and my God!
5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house!
They never cease to praise you!
These verses are about the women of Israel, among whom the psalmist found a home. The words for “sparrow” and “swallow” are also the names of women,
Zipporah the Midianite wife of Moses, and Devorah the judge of Israel whose army drove Sisera to defeat at the hands of Jael, who later became the wife of Heber the Kenite. Devorah’s song of Jael’s victory notably includes a passage in which the mother of Sisera wonders what is keeping him, and concludes that he must be delayed by raping young women, as usual. Some scholars even speculate that Jael herself was the psalmist, but there is little evidence to support this view.
The psalmist may be referring to herself as the “fledgling” who has been taken in and given a home by the women of Israel, the descendants of Zipporah and Devorah. Or, perhaps she identifies with the swallow (thus the speculation that she herself was Midianite) and had recently been made pregnant by her captors (in which case, her plight would have been even more desperate), and she rejoices that she has found a place to settle her own child.
In verse 5, she invokes blessings on those who dwell in the encampment of the LORD, who have made a place for her. It is by their actions of welcome and charity for an oppressed alien that they “never cease to praise” the LORD.
6. Blessed the folk whose strength is in you,
in whose hearts are the ways of the pilgrims,
7. who, as they pass through the Valley of Tears,
transform it to a refreshing spring,
bringing early rain that cloaks it with blessings.
These verses continue the theme of blessing the people of Israel, who find their own strength in the LORD and whose actions, made powerful by that strength, have transformed the psalmist’s bitter tears to blessing psalms. The references to water here also allude to the ritual cleansing of impurities, looking ahead to verse twelve. A “soiled dove” might have expected that her past would be held against her; instead, the loving actions and generous spirits of the women of Israel recognize that as a victim, she was blameless, effectively washing away any impurity associated with sexual sin, in floods and springs and rains of blessing.
8 They walk from strength to strength:
the God of Zion is shown forth.
May they walk from strength to strength;
May they see God in Zion.
Verse 8 could be read either as a description of the faithful people of verse 6, who by their actions make present the God of Zion; or as a blessing upon those people, as they continue their pilgrimage towards Zion. In fact, both readings are intended.
9. LORD God of armies, hear my prayer;
listen, O God of Jacob [and Leah and Rachel].
The prayer of verse 9 is the blessing of the previous verses.
Although the surviving text invokes only the God of Jacob, it seems quite probable that the psalmist would also have associated that God with Leah and Rachel, considering her experience and the kindness she received from the Israelite women.
10. Regard our protection, O God;
look upon the face of your anointed.
This verse continues the prayer of the previous, asking God to look (favorably) upon those who rescued and now protect the psalmist (and perhaps her child, or other women who had also been rescued), and are demonstrably the anointed of God.
11. Better one day in your encampments
than a thousand “I have chosen.”
Better the threshold of the house of God
than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.
The quoted phrase may have been the ritual language used by the patron of a brothel to indicate his selection, and might therefore have been used by the women as shorthand for such a forced sexual encounter.
These verses return to the opening theme of the psalm. The brothel in which the psalmist was enslaved would have been relatively luxurious, devoted as it was to sensuality, and she would likely have had a private section allocated to her, at least while she was working. But even a place at the threshold of the camp of the LORD is a thousand times to be preferred to her former circumstances.
12. For a sun and a shield is the LORD,
God is acceptance and honor.
The LORD does not withhold, but bestows
blessings on those who are blameless.
Verse 12b is usually translated “grace and glory,” for the parallel with sun and shield in 12a and for the alliteration. But the semantic fields of the Hebrew words include acceptance and honor, which the psalmist — blameless for the sexual slavery into which she was forced — has received.
13. O LORD of armies,
happy is the woman who is secure in you!
As the psalmist, indeed, now rejoices that she is.
Thanks to my co-blogger Suzanne McCarthy, whose speculation about whether Psalm 84 was written by a woman, and whose association of sparrow and swallow with women’s names, gave wings to this flight of fancy. Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, particularly the footnotes that puzzled over certain phrases, provided additional inspiration. Special thanks to Thomas Bolin, who helped me fuss over possible readings of the verb forms in verse 8.
I must also acknowledge, with deep gratitude, the generation of women who developed the practice of reading with theological imagination as a means of accessing the lost, forgotten, and suppressed voices of women in scripture: a practice that I had previously held at arm’s length. Without their work, particularly that of Sr. Dr. Miriam Therese Winter, in whose writing I was primarily exposed to the technique, this piece would never have been written.
While I do not present this as an academically solid exegesis of psalm 84, it does offer a plausible reading of some otherwise puzzling images and phrases. I found that my imagination was quite thoroughly captured by the story of my “soiled dove” psalmist, and her experience with the generous and loving Jewish women who gave her refuge. They were a blessing, a mitzvah, to her, making present the blessing of the LORD upon her; and she blessed them and blessed the LORD in return.
Did it really happen?
Could it really have happened?
Does it matter?
I will never read this psalm in quite the same way again.
May the God of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham,
the God of Rebecca and Isaac,
the God of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob,
the God of Zipporah, Devorah, and Jael,
bless our reading and our imagination,
and inspire us through them
to grow in faithfulness, generosity, and praise.