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Babes In Arms

Date: July 7, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Illustration of a mother holding a baby

Scripture: Psalm 131

Scripture Reader: Shawn Quick

If you want to memorize a Psalm, other than the 23rd (which I would argue everyone should have memorized), this is a good one. It’s short—only three verses—but absolutely packed with theology and help for the spiritual life.

I memorized it many years ago, so I could pray it in the middle of the night. If you tend to wake up in the night and worry about things, there isn’t a much better antidote than a psalm of trust. (You could pray the 23rd in the same way when you’re anxious, but this one just feels like a lullaby—perfect for quelling the worries that loom much larger at 3 a.m. than they do in the daylight, so we can rest in the security of God’s care and embrace.)

If you know this Psalm from an older Bible translation, like the King James, Revised Standard, or even New International Version (which, to be fair, is only eight years older than the New Revised Standard Version we have in our pews here), you will notice a big difference in the NRSV’s rendering of the second verse. Here’s how the NIV translates that verse.

“But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

Translation, whether from one modern language, like Spanish or German, to another, or from the ancient languages in which the Bible was originally written—Hebrew, Koine Greek, and a little bit of Aramaic in the book of Daniel—into a modern language, always involves interpretation. Some things don’t translate exactly. Some words in one language or another can mean more than one thing—and sometimes there are multiple words in one language and there is only one word that works in the other. The three (or four, depending on who you ask) words in Greek that must all be translated into English using only one word, love, are an example.

So, too, is the Hebrew word ruach, which can mean “spirit,” or “wind,” or “breath.” It’s up to the translator which to choose in any given instance, and the choice is a matter of interpretation. We see this in the very second verse of the Bible. The New International Version (in keeping with the King James Version’s rendering) says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The NRSV puts it this way: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Whether you prefer that ruach (to be more accurate, ruche Elohim, the ruach of God) be translated as “the Spirit of God” or “a wind from God” depends on what you believe about God as Creator, and about the role of the Holy Spirit in the work of creation.

Personally I prefer, in this case, to translate ruach as “Spirit.” There are lots of other places in the Bible that speak of the presence of Jesus at creation, including the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being”[1] ; and what sounds like an echo in the first chapter of Colossians: “…for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him.”[2] And in Proverbs 8, Wisdom, which some Christian theologians have equated with the Holy Spirit,[3] speaks of being with God at creation, working beside and rejoicing with God as God set the boundaries of the sea and laid the earth’s foundation. [4]

So, in my opinion, “the Spirit of God” is a better rendering of ruche Elohim in Genesis 1:2. You may disagree, and you are welcome to do so.

But turning back to the 131st Psalm, the interpretation involved in translating the last part of verse 2 is a little more subtle. It involves, like in the superscriptions that attribute a Psalm to David or Solomon or Moses or Asaph or whoever is mentioned, the way the translator chooses to translate a preposition.

Biblical Hebrew had only a few prepositions, so each one had to wear a whole lot of different hats. Three of these are prefixes to other words, so they are basically one letter with a half-vowel (what in English we call a schwa): be, ke, and le. (The fourth, which we see in the name Immanuel, functions a bit differently.)

The preposition involved in the superscriptions is le, and it can mean “of,” as traditionally rendered; but it can also mean “for” or “about.” The preposition in Psalm 131, verse 2, is ke, which might mean “with,” or “within,” and again which one—along with its placement in the sentence—is a matter of interpretation.

The NRSV translators chose a different rendering than most of the older versions did, and it makes the psalm speak with a voice that we don’t often hear in the Bible. Here’s verse 2 from the NRSV:

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

Do you hear the difference? The NIV says, “My soul within me is like a weaned child.” NRSV says, “My soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”[5] Now we can hear a woman, a mother, speaking. How often does that happen in the Bible?

There are only a few other places where women speak like this, all of them songs: that of Miriam in Exodus 15:21; of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10; and of Mary in Luke 1:46-55.

This mother, in Psalm 131, compares her own soul before God to the weaned child she cares for: calm and quiet in her embrace where the child trusts he will always find love and safety.

But even without this translation difference, Psalm 131 contains some pretty astounding theology. It’s something else we don’t see too often in the Bible, only in a few places, like Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you”; and when Jesus laments over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

No matter how that last line of Psalm 131, verse 2, is rendered, the image of God in the psalm is maternal.

Years ago I used to do a Sunday afternoon service at a retirement facility not too far from my church. I had been asked to come in place of a retired pastor from our congregation. The folks at the retirement facility had taken offense when Robert told them it was high time we started calling God “Mother.”

Now it’s true that there is nowhere in the Bible where God is called “Mother,” and there are lots and lots and lots of places where God is called “Father”—it’s Jesus’ favorite way of talking to and about God (although he often used the child’s familiar Abba, which is like “Da-da” or “Papa”).
But with that said, there are these few texts that image God in a maternal way—God is like a mother. We can almost imagine the psalmist’s wee child—and her own soul—as becoming calm and quiet after having been something else.

A “weaned child” could be around the age that we stereotypically refer to as “the terrible twos.” The child is in his mother’s arms, still sobbing a little bit as he comes out of a tantrum—little kids throw tantrums, oftentimes, because they don’t have any other way to express frustration with the limits placed on them by their parents, by the world around them, and sometimes even by their own littleness. The tempest has blown itself out, and now the toddler seeks comfort in the one place he knows he can always find it, even after having tested his mother’s patience as kids sometimes do.

Perhaps the psalmist, too, has come out of a period of turmoil—frustrated because she can’t have, or do, or be, something she desperately wants. She may be experiencing grief because of a tragic loss, and has worn herself out asking “Why?” She finally lets go of what isn’t possible, or lets go of the need to have an answer to an unanswerable question, and then she, like her child, grows calm in the one place she knows she will always find comfort, compassion, and love: in the arms of her God, nurturing and strong like a father, compassionate and fierce like a mother.

[1] John 1:1, 3a

[2] Colossians 1:16

[3] …although orthodox Christian theology appears to rule this out, because Wisdom speaks of having been created before anything else, and the doctrine of the Trinity does not allow for one Person of the Godhead to have created another.

[4] Proverbs 8:22-31

[5] Emphasis added, of course.