I saw my friend Chuck at the coffeeshop today, and he asked me if I remembered Ps. 91:3. I knew it had to do with his last name “fowler” though I forgot the word “snare" in the verse. He seemed to be somewhat pleased with my forgetting, as well as my remembering. In any case, my conversation with him inspired me to take a break from Obadiah for a day at least and focus on some words in Ps. 91 as well as the word journeys that radiate out from there.
We get two terrific words in the first two words of the Psalm: yashab, “to sit down or dwell,” which we met briefly in a previous essay, and סֵתֶר (sether, a secret place/hiding place). We have already seen the next word: Almighty (alyon). In an early reference in Genesis (4:20) we have the description of Jabal (יָבָ֑ל) who is described as the father (ab/av) of those who dwell (yashab is verb) in tents (אֹהֶל, ohel) and have “livestock” (מִקְנֶה, miqneh). Miqneh is built off the verb קָנָה, qanah, which means to “acquire” or “buy.” God Most High (alyon) in Gen. 14:19 is the “possessor” (קֹנֵ֖ה, qanah) of “heaven” (שָׁמַיִם, shemayim) and, what we have already seen, the erets.
We can return to the concept of tent (ohel) for a minute. It is a rich word because of the abundance of its associations with dwellings, such as when Abraham was sitting at the door (פֶתַח, pethach) of his ohel in the “heat” (חֹם, chom) of the day. This was at the oak or terebinth (אֵלוֹן, elon) of Mamre (מַמְרֵ֖א). But tents are especially interesting in religious contexts in ancient Israel. In Ex. 29:42, we have reference to a “continual” (תָּמִיד֙, tamid) burnt offering (עֹלָה, olah) throughout their generations (a generation is דּוֹר, dor) at the door (pethach) of the “tent” (ohel) of “meeting” (מוֹעֵד, moed).
Wow. We already have about fifteen new words, driven primarily by the reality circling around tents and meetings and sacrifices and sacred trees. These have supplied us with a basic vocabulary that is now growing impressively. It increasingly allows us to identify the basic words in a passage of Scripture, even though we don’t yet know the forms of verbs or the ways that prepositions work. Yet, it is a great start, and one that is able to take away the strangeness of the language when once we are plunged deeply into it.
Returning to Psalm 91
Well, it’s time to return to Psalm 91, whose first word, and the words/ideas that flowed from it, (yashab) we have mentioned. Let’s illustrate that word “dwell” (yashab) through a sentence in Gen. 21:20 describing Ishmael’s youth. “God was with the boy (נַעַר, naar; we have seen naarah as a girl or maiden) and he grew up (גָּדַל, gadal; we have seen gadol, the adjective meaning “large”) and lived (yashab) in the midbar (“wilderness”) and became (hayah) an archer” (קַשָּׁת, qashshath). The latter word is related to קֶשֶׁת (qesheth, “bow”).
But then we advance to seter or cether, the “secret place” or “secrecy” which God provides. Psalm 18:11 connects the notion of ‘hiding place’ with other useful words. The English of Ps. 18:11 is: “He made darkness his secret place around him. His canopy was dark waters and thick clouds the skies.” The “he made” is not derived from asah, but rather from שִׁית (shith, “to put or place something”). We have seen “darkness” previously (choshek). The hiding place is our word here, but “around” him is new (סָבִיב, sabib). The divine canopy is easily remembered because it is derived from the Feast of Tabernacles—the sukkah (סֻכָּה)—“thicket/booth.” This canopy was dark (choshek again) and then there is a reference to “thick clouds” (עָב, ab is a “thick cloud”) with שַׁחַק, shachaq, as the rare word for “skies.” Perhaps the most famous reference to shachaq is in Ps. 36:5 where God’s amunah (“faithfulness”—we have already seen the masculine form of the word—amun) reaches to the skies (shachaq).
Let’s conclude this essay by looking at the rest of Ps. 91:1 and a few of the new words that it suggests. Those three words are “shall dwell/abide” (verb is לוּן, lun); “shadow” (צֵל, tsel); and “Almighty” (שַׁדַּי, shadday). lun is a richer word than simply “to dwell,” for it also includes the idea of lodging overnight. Perhaps the most famous person in the Bible for short stays is Jacob who, in Genesis 28:11, came upon a certain “place” (מָקוֹם, maqom) and lodged (lun) there (שָׁם, sham). Let’s close with a reference to a passage with “shadow” (tsel). All we need, really, is Ps. 63:7, “You have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” Help is עֶזְרָה (ezrah) or, in the masculine, עֵזֶר (ezer). We sing for joy (the verb, which we have already seen, is ranan) in the tsel of the divine wings (a wing is כָּנָף, kanaph).