Exploring the Depths of Scripture’s Richness

waterfall in mountain stream
Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

Three years ago, when we were last traversing Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle, I was assigned to write on the texts for Proper 15 (Ordinary 20). In that essay I encouraged you, Working Preacher, to engage in a little “pointless” reading of the Bible: to enjoy the Joseph novella in Genesis 37-50 for its own sake, rather than rushing to make a sermon out of it. I still stand by that summons!

Now we are arriving again at Year A, Proper 15, and the lot has fallen to me to write on this same set of texts. This time I will steer you toward Psalm 133, which invites a somewhat different practice of reading, albeit one that can still proceed without utility or urgency.

Whereas the Joseph story is quite lengthy and less suited for comprehension in lectionary-sized snippets, Psalm 133 is one of the shortest readings in the entire Psalter. You can read it many, many times in a row. You can read it in multiple translations, or even brush off your Hebrew skills and work on your own version. It is well-suited for the practice of lectio divina. Read these three brief verses a hundred times, and you will notice a hundred different things about them. If the Joseph novella needs to be read in its full breadth, reading Psalm 133 over and over is an exercise in exploring the depth of Scripture’s richness.

As a poem, this psalm, like any psalm, deals in imagery as much as it does ideas. The psalmist searches for metaphors that could aptly describe, in more familiar terms, a situation or feeling that cannot be fully communicated in literal, declarative prose. The act of reading a psalm, then, can be more akin to seeing or feeling than it is to solving or deducing or moralizing.

How does one convey the beauty of a community living in togetherness? When I think of the fractured state of our communal relationships, the polarization of our national discourse, and the ways animosity always seems to take precedence over forbearance, “unity” seems like a downright utopian dream.

The psalmist chooses two different metaphors to try to convey the delights of unity. The first is “precious oil on the head” (verse 2). As the verse goes on, it becomes more and more specific: not just oil on the head, but oil that runs down the beard and the robes. Not just anyone’s head and beard and robes, but those belonging to Aaron, the original high priest, whose name operates as a metonym for the temple priesthood.

The shape of the poem also draws the mind’s eye downward, from hair to beard to collar to robes, as if we are watching the oil on its journey. I think about the times I’ve watched rain drops roll down a car window, or a droplet of milk run down the side of a glass. I am also reminded of the less appealing image of green slime dropping from the ceiling on the 1990s Nickelodeon television show, “You Can’t Do That on Television”—covering the heads and dripping down the clothes of its stars. I think further about the woman—named Mary in John, unnamed in the other Gospels—who uses precious oil to anoint Jesus’s head in Matthew 26/Mark 14, or his feet in Luke 7/John 12. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus calls the woman’s action “a beautiful thing.” I ponder all the factors that distinguish acts of gross humor from acts of beauty, even when there are many similarities in form.

For ancient Israelite pilgrims who were making their way to the temple in Jerusalem, this metaphor of oil on the head of Aaron perhaps evoked excitement, longing, or hope: the culminating vision of a long, dusty journey. Reading it today in our own contexts, the appeal may feel a little more distant, much like when one lover in Song of Solomon compliments the other by saying, “Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved” (Song 4:2).

Still, even without cultural and historical distance, metaphors for a thing are never exactly the thing itself. Not every element of the image used in the metaphor will map to the original thing being described. Rather, a metaphor will highlight particular perspectives on that original thing, without attending to every possible element of it. Said differently, metaphors not only draw attention to the ways two things are alike, but, by the simple act of juxtaposition, will also draw our attention to the ways those two things are not alike.

As a person who does a lot of laundry, I’d say that unity to me is not like the mess and drudgery of having to wash the oil out of the priests’ robes. But the abundance implied by the running oil, and the pleasure of participating in worship as a community, and the gratitude for faith leaders who show up—all of these things come to my mind in that metaphor, and they are joyful ideas indeed.

The second metaphor the psalmist chooses is of the “dew of Mount Hermon,” which, in parallel to the oil metaphor, is running downward, this time down a mountain many miles away, Mount Zion. Because I have come to the end of my word limit, I will leave you, Working Preacher, to engage in your own “pointless” reading of that verse. (Although, if it is pointless by design, is it really pointless? You can meditate on that paradox when you are finished with Psalm 133!)

Whatever Scripture is front of you this week, read it and read it and read it again, and discover something new every time. In the words of the Mishnah, “Turn it over and over, for everything is in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).

Cameron Howard