The latest section of Psalming Christ is up over on Patreon. I’m demonstrating what a close reading of the text looks like, informed by the methods assumed by Benedict and taught by Cassiodorus. It starts like this…
Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the anonymous Master are introducing their monks to a kind of reflective, ruminative reading of a text that occurs at the speed of memorization. That is, it is extremely slow and focuses on details of the text. Reading at this speed and level of attention is not something that modern people are used to—especially not those of us who have to take in large amounts of information every day. As a result, we have to relearn the skill of close reading: reading that pays attention to the grammatical and rhetorical features of a text and that pauses at points to ask questions and double-check our assumptions.
Let’s try a close reading of a psalm—one we know well—and start asking it some questions. Here is the beginning of Psalm 23, perhaps the best-known and best loved of them all:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. (Ps 23:1-4, NRSV)
Let’s notice a few things up front: first, this translation (like most of them) breaks the psalm into poetic lines. As we discussed before, lines are important sense-units in the psalms specifically because of parallelism; where the line begins and ends is an important part of the thought-structure because it helps us see which words and phrases and ideas are being put into parallel with one another. In the oldest surviving Hebrew manuscript of the psalms, the Great Psalms Scroll from Qumran, each verse is written out on its own line. While the scribe could have fit more words on each page if the words had been written continuously, the line breaks are deliberately retained precisely because they have meaning.
Second, this translation includes a gap between verses 3 and 4. Recognize this for what it is—an interpretive editorial insertion meant to tell us something about the text. That is, this silent decision on the part of the editors suggests that verses 1-3 and verse 4 belong together in a way that verses 3 and 4 don’t. An interpretive recommendation is being suggested by means of the white space. Is worth noting at this point how much leeway editors have in arranging a text. Most of the punctuation that we see in the Psalms is an editorial decision—it’s not in the original Hebrew.
Right up front, the first verse raises two basic questions. . . .