God will Hunt You Down: Psalm 23, 90s Rap and Children’s Stories
Episode 9 – April 22, 2018
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Colleen Costello – “Didn’t God Just Die”
Postmodern Jukebox feat. Robyn Adele Anderson – “Gangsta’s Paradise”
Reading No. 1
Love for the World
***a brief break from Love for the World this week.
Today we’re looking at a section of scripture we haven’t really delved into yet on this podcast: the Psalms. The Psalms are the first book in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, Ketuvim (כְּתוּבִים), or, “Writings”. They are a collection of poems, meant to be set to music, and are traditionally attributed to King David. Which leads to a really important question – who the heck is King David?
In the Hebrew Scriptures, David is described as the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. This places his life approximately 1000 BCE, or just over 3000 years ago. He’s pretty much a poster child for upward social mobility – as a young boy he was a shepherd who possessed some musical talent. But then he kills a giant man and his whole life changes. Fast forward and he becomes King over Israel. He was not a perfect man – in fact, in July we’ll be talking about how his supposed “adultery” with a woman named Bathsheba should really be characterized as a terrible sexual assault – but he is very important in the history of both Judaism and Christianity, and it’s traditionally held that Jesus is a direct descendant of David. So, he’s a pretty important guy to know about.
All that being said though…David probably didn’t write this Psalm. More likely, the poet who wrote this was paying tribute to or simply just inspired by David’s leadership. But regardless as to who wrote it, there are few pieces of scripture found in the Christian canon that are as widely recognized as this…especially when it is read in the King James Version, which was released in the early 17th century and, for a very long time, was the main English translation used in worship services. A friend of mine has a great story about going to visit an elderly woman at the hospital, who asked for him to read her the 23rd Psalm. He read it – from the same translation you just heard Morgan read, but the woman was not happy. Not happy at all. “That’s not right. Read the real version.” What she wanted was the version found in the King James Bible, in 17th century English.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…
Those of you who listening who are around my age will likely tweak, at least a little bit, to the “Valley of the Shadow of death phrase”…
That was Coolio and Gangsta’s Paradise from the 1995 film “Dangerous Minds”…the video features a hilarious attempt at badassery on Michelle Pfeiffer’s part. If you haven’t watched the music video for Gangsta’s Paradise since 1995, or perhaps you weren’t even alive in 1995, it will be posted in the show notes for your viewing pleasure.
The image of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” features prominently in rap and hip hop from the mid-90s to the early 2000s. 2Pac, Kanye West, Biggie Smalls – all use imagery from the Psalm 23 in their music. And as a side note, I felt compelled to text my brother today and let him know I got to name drop his favourite artists in this reflection. In these contexts, it’s always used in reference to life on the street, in urban centres of violence and neglect. Places with few options. They’re using the imagery of darkness and despair from Psalm 23, but not buying into any of the hope and comfort. There’s none of that in the scenarios explored in their music.
But with men I write with on Death Row, the image of God being present even in the darkest places, never abandoning them…not even to the end moments…for many it is very, very comforting. I’ve been told that Psalm 23 is the most requested passage of the chaplains on the day of execution. I’ve been to the Polunsky Unit, which is where the Death Row unit is housed Texas. It is a dark place. It is a gritty place. I can imagine the men hanging on every word of this passage:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley…the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
There are so many interpretations of this Psalm. I read a Jewish commentary that suggested the Psalm is actually a dream, and the scene is from the perspective of a lamb about to be offered as a sacrifice. The lamb is about to die, but why should it be sad because God has allowed it to sit and hang out in such a beautiful pasture? I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around that one.
I’ve read reflections by preachers in South Africa, who saw it as a call to be poked and prodded by that rod and staff – a shepherds tools to get the herd moving. That it is GOD who is the shepherd – the greatest authority for their sheep – not the governments of oppression and colonialism.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
This is the part in the Psalm where our English just doesn’t do a very good job of conveying what the original Hebrew was trying to get across. The image here is that as we move through our lives, God will quite pleasantly follow with goodness and mercy — all very sweet and gentle like. The Hebrew word in question here, the one that has been translated as “to follow” is radaph (רָדַף). Radaph means “to chase” or “to hunt”…”to pursue”. So, this Psalm could also read “God is going to hunt you down with their goodness and mercy…there is no escaping it.” It’s kind of a strange image, right? “Just you wait…Imma gonna get you with all this goodness! You don’t have a choice but to be confronted by this mercy.”
I wonder what Coolio would think about this. I wonder what those in black communities throughout the United States – and Canada – would say to this. I wonder what some people in Indigenous communities might think of the idea that a Judeo-Christian God could impose their kindness and mercy upon them. I wonder a lot of things…
And since we’re all geeking out on ancient Hebrew here…”The Lord is my Shepherd…”
The word for God at the beginning of this Psalm is Adonai. Adonai is a word for God that emphasizes the dominant or authoritative nature of the Divine…as opposed to Elohim, which emphasizes the creative aspect of God’s nature. That’s why when the world is created in Genesis we hear Elohim and in other areas we have Adonai…among other names for the Divine that clumsily get translated as “God” or “Lord” into English. And P.S. Elohim is plural – and plural as in more than two. Yup, Gods created the world according to Genesis – a story for another day…
But back to the pursuit and chase of goodness and mercy – it’s really the crux of the whole thing. So it makes me wonder if the author of this Psalm is making an intentional choice about trusting in God’s love, goodness and mercy, or rather just surrendering to the inevitable…just giving in to the fact that God will keep pursuing, regardless of what we do or say or think or believe, and says, “Fine! You win! And I suppose we’re stuck with one another in this crazy soup or life – the dark valleys and the green pastures. Thy will be done…”
I was reading a story to my kids tonight. I’m still in Winnipeg and they are in East Gwillimbury. But every night we get on the Facetime and I read them their stories. Tonight, I read them a story by Margaret Wise Brown called “The Runaway Bunny”. In the book, the little bunny is upset with its mother, so the bunny decides to run away. The bunny describes all the ways he will run away, and the mother describes all the ways she will find him. I’d like to end the section with that story because I think it nicely sums up this Psalm: the chase and pursuit of a lovingly steadfast parent, devoted to their child.
The Living Presence Ministry is a community ministry of the United Church of Canada