Psalm 133: Entering the Psalm
The Gifts of Community
This brief psalm addresses the possibility harmonious communal life, based on shared power and responsibility. What roles do Moses and Aron play in the Torah (Pentateuch)? How does the ancient poet articulate the relationship between the people of Israel and their natural environment?
By Andrew R. Davis, PhD
Psalm 133 is an exquisite gem of biblical poetry. Its two central images—fine oil running down Aaron’s beard and dew falling on Mount Hermon—are sensuous and even hyperbolic, when we consider that the dew running from Hermon to Zion must travel hundreds of kilometers. The sensuousness of the psalm is highlighted by the language it shares with the Song of Songs. In both poems we find hinnēh (“look!”), ṭôb (“good”), nā‘îm (“pleasant”), ṭal (“dew”), šemen (“oil”), and Hermon. Read more
:שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּֽעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד
:הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טּ֖וֹב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד
כַּשֶּׁ֚מֶן הַטּ֨וֹב עַל־הָרֹ֗אשׁ יֹרֵ֗ד עַל־הַזָּ֫קָ֥ן
שֶׁ֜יֹּרֵ֗ד עַל־פִּ֥י מִדּוֹתָֽיו
כְּטַ֥ל חֶרְמ֗וֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד֘ עַל־הַרְרֵ֪י צִ֫יּ֥וֹן
כִּ֚י שָׁ֨ם צִוָּ֣ה יְ֖הֹוָה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה
1A song of ascents. Of David.
How good and how pleasant it is
that brothers dwell together.
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;
3like the dew of Hermon
that falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD ordained blessing,
1 A song of ascents. Of David.
How good and how pleasant it is,
when brothers dwell together as one!
2 Like fine oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,
upon the collar of his robe.
3 Like dew of Hermon coming down
upon the mountains of Zion.
There the Lord has decreed a blessing,
life for evermore!
1Cuán bueno y cuán agradable es que los hermanos convivan en armonía!
2Es como el buen aceite que, desde la cabeza,
va descendiendo por la barba, por la barba de Aarón, hasta el borde de sus vestiduras.
3Es como el rocío de Hermón
que va descendiendo sobre los montes de Sión.
Donde se da esta armonía
el Señor concede bendición y vida eterna.
Entering the Psalm
By Andrew David, PhD
Psalm 133 is an exquisite gem of biblical poetry. Its two central images—fine oil running down Aaron’s beard and dew falling on Mount Hermon—are sensuous and even hyperbolic, when we consider that the dew running from Hermon to Zion must travel hundreds of kilometers. The sensuousness of the psalm is highlighted by the language it shares with the Song of Songs. In both poems we find hinnēh (“look!”), ṭôb (“good”), nā‘îm (“pleasant”), ṭal (“dew”), šemen (“oil”), and Hermon.
In addition to these striking images, the poetic quality of Psalm 133 is apparent in its tightly constructed word chains and phonetic echoes. The adjective ṭôb (“good”) describes both the cohabitation and the oil, and the verb yōrēd (“running down…comes down…falls upon”) occurs three times within vv 2-3a. Each instance of the latter occurs as a non-finite participle in the middle of a couplet, effectively creating within the poem the very flow they describe. The repetition also unifies the images of oil and dew. Other lexical and phonetic repetitions include the prepositions kĕ (“like”) on oil and dew and ‘al (“on”) on head, collar, and mountains. Finally, we note the –ôn ending of Aaron, Hermon, and Zion, which links the psalm’s three proper names.
As one of the songs of ascent (Ps 120-134), Psalm 133 was probably recited on the way to the Jerusalem Temple or upon arrival at it. Although the temple is not mentioned in the psalm, it is implied in the mention of Zion and the reference to Aaron, the founder of the Jerusalem priesthood whose consecration involved Moses pouring oil on his head (Lev 8:12). The genre of Psalm 133 reveals a correspondence between its imagery and its ancient singers. Like the dew that runs from the Israel’s northern limit to Zion, so also families stream from across the region to God’s house in Jerusalem.
While much of this psalm’s excellence lies in its aesthetic beauty, we should not overlook the ethical thrust that frames it. The first line emphasizes the importance of solidarity among brothers and sisters, even (or especially) in times of division. The references to Hermon in the north and Zion in the south are subtle reminders of Israel’s divided kingdoms and God’s desire for them to recognize their kinship and religious heritage. This solidarity and its accompanying abundance are none other than blessing proclaimed in the last line of the psalm. The blessing that awaits in Zion is anticipated in the kinship and bounty we enjoy along the way.
- What does it mean to live in unity?
- How can we “anoint” others in a ways that help create community?
- How do you respond to the images of “goodness” and “pleasantness” in this psalm?
Psalm 133 & Ritual Practice
by Dr. Jennifer Howe Peace
I cannot read Psalm 133 without picturing the Benedictine Abbey I visited for years, first as a young doctoral student doing fieldwork and then as a new mother looking for a place for rest and renewal…Read more
More Multimedia Resources
Hine Ma Tov performed by The Jewish Community of Abuduya, introduced by Rabbi Jeffery Summit
As you view Rabbi Summit’s introductory remarks and the video of the Abuduya community, please consider the following questions:
- Recorded shortly after the murder of George Floyd and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rabbi Summit speaks of the importance of the expression “Behold.” Are there prayers or songs that move you to greater attention and/or sensitivity?
- Psalm 133 is popular in many Western Jewish and Christian contexts (See, for example, the links below). What strikes you about the images and sounds from this Ugandan Jewish community?
O how good
how sweet to see
a dwelling place
living without strife
like oil that anoints
like salve like balm
like morning dew
life fragrance rising
to perfume the air
like clouds that float
and bless the hills
Psalm 133 (NRSV)
1 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
- Compare Dr. Aranoff Bernstein’s contemporary rendering of Psalm 133 with the more literal NRSV translation (above). How do her changes affect the meaning of the psalm?
Copyright Hebrew College 2022. Lesson by Grace Harrington.
PDF of this lesson is coming soon.