Psalm 133
Community in Times of Division

hands-together

Entering Psalm 133

As we enter this psalm, we will address three themes: Unity, Diversity and Relationship.

By Andrew R. Davis, PhD

Psalm 133 is an exquisite gem of biblical poetry. Its two central imagesfine oil running down Aaron’s beard and dew falling on Mount Hermonare 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

Psalm 133 Text

אשִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּֽעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טּ֖וֹב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד:בכַּשֶּׁ֚מֶן הַטּ֨וֹב |
עַל־הָרֹ֗אשׁ יֹרֵ֗ד עַל־הַזָּ֫קָ֥ן זְקַ֥ן אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן שֶׁ֜יֹּרֵ֗ד עַל־פִּ֥י מִדּוֹתָֽיו:גכְּטַ֥ל חֶרְמ֗וֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד֘ עַל־הַרְרֵ֪י צִ֫יּ֥וֹן כִּ֚י שָׁ֨ם | צִוָּ֣ה יְ֖הֹוָה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה חַ֜יִּ֗ים עַד־הָֽעוֹלָֽם:

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.

Cántico de los peregrinos. De David.

¡Cuán bueno y cuán agradable es
que los hermanos convivan en armonía!
Es como el buen aceite que, desde la cabeza,
va descendiendo por la barba,
por la barba de Aarón,
hasta el borde de sus vestiduras.
Es 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.

Line-by-Line Analysis
(New Revised Standard Edition)

1
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh offers us a powerful interpretation of this line: “Life is sweetest when we live together as one,” in peace1.

From Robert Alter: “This poem is a kind of idyll celebrating harmonious life together in a fruitful land. A sense of quiet rapture is conveyed at the outset through three words of emphasis —“look” (hineh), and then twice “how” (mah)2.”


1 ifyc.org/article/ps-133-no-justice-no-peace

2 Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms : A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

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.

“In the Israelite world, as in ancient Greece, rubbing the hair and body with aromatic olive oil was one of the palpable physical pleasures of the good life. This initially puzzling line makes good associative sense. The “coming down” of the oil from head to beard is picked up in the “coming down” of the beard itself—a beard of evidently proverbial amplitude, that of the first high priest—over the opening of the robe. The full beard is presumably an image of vigor and abundance.” 3

3 Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms : A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

3
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life forevermore.

“Now we have a third “coming down”—
the dew on this northern mountain. The dew is understood to be an agency of
fruitfulness, especially important in the long dry season when no rain falls.
on the parched mountains. The Masoretic text reads “on the mountains of
Zion,” which does not make much sense because Mount Hermon is
geographically removed from the Judean mountains around Jerusalem, and dew
certainly does not travel in this fashion. The translation adopts a small
emendation, reading tsiyah, “parched land,” for tsiyon, “Zion.”


Alter, Robert. The Book of Psalms : A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.


Andrew DavisReflection

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 (Pss 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.

Additional Commentary on Psalm 133

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

Psalm 133: Hesed
by Alondra Bobadilla, Boston Youth Poet Laureate

if community was a gold chain
it would be 24 carats laid gently upon elegant collar bones
grazing the skin as stallions graze fields. . .

Read more

Questions to consider

  • What does it mean to live in unity?
  • How can we “anoint” others in a way that creates community?
  • How do we absorb situations in which coming together is not possible?
  • In a period of intensified racial violence, how do you imagine unification?
  • How does the simile of anointing oil to unity fit within the midst of global crises and your own social location?

Activities

Unity

By Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

There is something dense, united, settled in the depths,
repeating its number, its identical sign.
How it is noted that stones have touched time,
in their refined matter there is an odor of age,
of water brought by the sea, from salt and sleep.

I’m encircled by a single thing, a single movement:
a mineral weight, a honeyed light
cling to the sound of the word “noche”:
the tint of wheat, of ivory, of tears,
things of leather, of wood, of wool,
archaic, faded, uniform,
collect around me like walls.

I work quietly, wheeling over myself,
a crow over death, a crow in mourning.
I mediate, isolated in the spread of seasons,
centric, encircled by a silent geometry:
a partial temperature drifts down from the sky,
a distant empire of confused unities
reunites encircling me.

Activity

Write down your own version of Psalm 133 as a poem, word cloud, or a few sentences.

moses-aaronMoses and Aaron by Jack Baumgarten

In this orange-hued painting, Moses is anointing his brother Aaron.

Analyze this painting. What strikes you in the image? How does it embody the imagery of the psalm? What is this artist trying to say?

 

 

Activity

  • Listen to some or all of these musical interpretations of unity
  • Contemplate or discuss: How does the music encapsulate coming together? What does dissonance sound like?
  • Sing or play a melody that, in your mind, creates unity

Hine Ma Tov performed by The Jewish Community of Abuduya

More musical resources

 

 


Copyright Hebrew College 2022. Lesson by Grace Harrington.