1) She prospered
their affairs through the holy prophet.
COMMENTARY: “She” would be Wisdom. “The holy prophet” in this case is
Moses. For those reading this after I
messed up the order and accidentally skipped chapter 11, we’re back in the
section where the writer gives historic examples of God’s Wisdom helping the
2) They journeyed through the uninhabited desert,
and in lonely places they
pitched their tents;
COMMENTARY: This refers to the Exodus
from Egypt to the promised land.
3) they withstood enemies and warded off their foes.
COMMENTARY: This refers to battles along
the way, with the Amalekites,
Canaanites, Amorites, and Midianites.
Although the Bible seems to describe annihilation of their enemies, the
archaeological record shows only the innermost circle of the cities in these
battles being burnt down. One must
remember that “citizens” only meant those with a say in policy, so wiping out “all”
of the male citizens would only actually target a small handful of oppressors. There’s some evidence that the Israelites
sided with slave revolts along the way, clearing their path. The God of Israel might even, according to
one theory, have been originally regarded by such slaves as the God of Freedom.
4) When they thirsted, they called upon you,
and water was given them
from the sheer rock,
a quenching of their
thirst from the hard stone.
COMMENTARY: This refers to Moses obeying
God to strike a rock, from which potable water flowed. This is what I would call miraculous
knowledge. It is scientifically possible
for such a blow to expose a subterranean spring following a hidden rock
fissure, but it would take God to point out to Moses precisely where to strike.
by the things through which their foes were punished
they in their need were
COMMENTARY: This refers to Pharaoh’s
charioteers washed away by the return of the Red Sea. Regardless of the various possible scientific
explanations for the parting of the Red Sea, it would still count as a miracle
of timing—that it happened precisely when the Israelites arrived with Pharaoh’s
army hot on their tails, and that it ended precisely when it would wash away
the Egyptians and not the Jews.
6) Instead of a river’s perennial source,
troubled with impure blood
COMMENTARY: That would be the Nile
turning to blood. Some have speculated
that this involved a plague of dying, hemorrhaging fish. The absence of fish would have prevented them
from eating the toad eggs that they normally would have dined on (the language
not actually distinguishing between toads and frogs) which would cause a toad
population explosion in unsustainable numbers, which would then die off quickly
and breed gnats and flies, which would spread abscess causing diseases in beast
and man, etc. An ecological cascade of
Blood, of course, is considered ritually unclean by the Jew, when it’s not in
its proper place inside the body. It is
also, however, considered the very stuff of life. When someone is sick, for instance, some Jews
will brew “beef tea” for them—basically a tea made of beef blood. (In all other foods they deliberately drain
the blood out of meat before eating it—prudent for a desert people, for blood
rots first of all, as any hunter will tell you.
That’s why hunters always immediately hang a slain deer up by the
hind-hoofs and slit the throat, to drain out as much blood as possible before
the long, unrefrigerated journey home.) This
belies the scruples of those who fear that transfusion might violate God’s law—a
notion perplexing to devout Jews. Blood
saving life is not the same as blood spilled.
a rebuke to the decree for the slaying of infants,
You gave them abundant
water beyond their hope,
COMMENTARY: This rebuke refers to
Egyptians trying to control the population of their Jewish slaves by, for a
time, culling out male babies at birth.
In defiance of this, God gives the Jews an abundance of pure water.
8) after you had shown by the thirst they experienced
how you punished their
For when they had been tried,
though only mildly chastised,
they recognized how the
wicked, condemned in anger, were being tormented.
COMMENTARY: The polluted water left
those in the wealthiest Egyptian communities desperate, while the Israelite
settlement, being farther from the Nile, didn’t suffer.
10) You tested your own people, admonishing them as a
but as a stern king you
probed and condemned the wicked.
COMMENTARY: This would be as a Jewish
father, who would never think of killing or doing lasting harm to his own
child, unlike the Greco-Roman norm, where killing one’s own child was a
patriarch’s prerogative. Kings, too,
could deal out harsh sentences forbidden to Jewish fathers.
near and far were equally afflicted:
a twofold grief*
took hold of them
and a groaning at the
remembrance of the ones who had departed.
when they heard that the cause of their own torments
was a benefit to these
others, they recognized the Lord.
COMMENTARY: Not only did the Egyptians
endure punishment for their mistreatment of their Israelite slaves, they also
had to deal with those slaves escaping when they were too stricken to prevent
14) For though they had mocked and rejected him who had
been cast out and abandoned long ago,
in the final outcome, they
marveled at him,
since their thirst proved
unlike that of the righteous.
COMMENTARY: The one who had been cast
out was Moses, set adrift in a pitch-sealed basket among the bulrushes to try
and escape the Egyptian midwives ordered to kill Israelite boys at birth.
15In return for their senseless, wicked thoughts,
which misled them into
worshiping dumb serpents and worthless insects,
You sent upon them swarms
of dumb creatures for vengeance;
COMMENTARY: Dumb here means without
speech, but it also carries the context of “irrational”. Mastering language was considered the sign of
16) that they might recognize that one is punished by the
very things through which one sins.
COMMENTARY: That is so often true! I look back on my life, and every time I let
somebody persuade me to go against my conscience, sooner or later that very
same person would be the one who would hurt me for it. And I’ve seen people sin for the sake of
their company or organization, only to have this same group throw them under
the bus for it later. One could also see
in this how our vices ultimately damage us, as well.
This theme also runs through the history of Israel and Judea. Whenever they imitated foul practices from
the surrounding cultures, God withheld protection and those they imitated
not without means was your almighty hand,
that had fashioned the
universe from formless matter,
to send upon them many
bears or fierce lions,
COMMENTARY: An interesting point, God’s
decision not to use the most obvious weapons to come to hand.
Regarding “formless matter”, that’s a Greek interpretation of what’s now
translated in Genesis as “chaos”. I have
recently learned that this word, however, didn’t mean formless matter, but
rather wild stuff, such as uncleared land or anything else not prepared for
human use. And what we translate as “In
the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth, is translated in Jewish
Bibles as, “While God was creating the Heavens and the Earth…”. “Creating” itself is normally used for things
like building houses or plowing fields, and could be better translated as “activating”
or “preparing” raw materials into a specific use—in this case paving the way
for humanity itself to become activated into God’s plan, becoming sentient.
newly created, wrathful, unknown beasts
breathing forth fiery
Or pouring out roaring
or flashing terrible sparks
from their eyes.
only could these attack and completely destroy them;
even their frightful
appearance itself could slay.
COMMENTARY: So envisioning
fire-breathing dragons goes back quite a ways!
And, of course, in the Deuterocanonical version of Daniel, a dragon does
come up, though with no mention of breathing fire. The Chinese association of dragons with lightning
could explain their idea of dragons breathing fire, since fire often results
where lightning strikes, and that story could have traveled with silk
merchants, but I would have to conclude that, on the whole, dragons don’t
actually breathe fire, any more than you or I might do.
without these, they could have been killed at a single blast,
pursued by justice
and winnowed by your
But you have disposed all
things by measure and number and weight.
COMMENTARY: As happened with Sodom and
Gomorrah. Geologists recently have found
evidence that a meteor-strike destroyed these cities and related villages—something
quite impressive to the eyes of a barely-historic people!
great strength is always present with you;
who can resist the might
of your arm?n
before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew
come down upon the earth.
23) But you have mercy on all, because you can do all
and you overlook sins for
the sake of repentance.
COMMENTARY: The truly strong can afford
mercy. Bullies (who often see themselves
as victims) are frightened creatures, trying to prove to themselves that they
have power, looking for others that they can make seem weaker than themselves,
any way they can. God has no need of
24) For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that
you have made;
for you would not fashion
what you hate.
How could a thing remain, unless
you willed it;
or be preserved, had it
not been called forth by you?r
But you spare all things, because
they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of
COMMENTARY: I once had a devout friend
who kept sending me “funny” memes and jokes that I found rather repulsive, with
a degrading element to them, often sexually expressed. I confronted her with how none of this seemed
to respect the dignity of being human. “Dignity?”
she retorted, “There is nothing dignified about being human!” I didn’t understand her attitude.
But then a different friend, raised in a strict religion similar to hers,
showed me a transcript, an example of the sort of sermon that he grew up
hearing. It compared humanity to a
disgusting spider that God had every reason to flick off into the flames. It just went on and on, each line worse than
the last, ranting about the vileness of humanity that seemed downright demonic
to me—for of course who hates humanity more than the devil?
And what is the fruit of such theology? The friend with the transcript had grown up
bullied by other kids who went to the same church. He had concluded, at least in his youth, that
the preacher was right, and humanity was vile.
Studies have shown that children brought up this way are more likely to
be cruel to their classmates than atheist children—what a scandal and a
disgrace! But if you believe in the
baseness of humanity, you will live down to expectations.
True theology teaches us that humanity is beloved of God. That to have a Creator is to be art. That we are not created by accident, but all
of us have a place in God’s plan. If we
are alive, then God wants us here. And
that He had not lost His mind when He made the astonishing decision to die for
12:1) for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
COMMENTARY: This is technically the
first verse of the next chapter, but translators decided to end this chapter with
it instead. Notice that it says, “all
things”, not just “all people”. Further
evidence of Biblical animism, in my opinion.
All things have spirit, and that spirit comes from God, and yearns for