Two years ago, I decided to give myself a challenge as I was starting out this blog. I decided to blog my way through the longest, and what I assumed to be the most boring psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119. Boy was I surprised at what I found there! It’s basically a love song about God’s law. I thought it was nothing more than a giant sycophantic gesture. But it was my time of reading this psalm during my Monday fasts probably more than anything else when the Bible first began to breathe on me
in a mystical way. There were many verses that blew my mind but verse 113 was the one that I decided would be the title of a devotional book if I ever wrote one about Psalm 119.
Seaphim saneti v’torecha ahavti.. Four Hebrew words which I translate “I hate opinions but
I love your law.” I happen to think the NRSV and NIV completely miss the boat in their translation of the first word seaphim. According to the lexicon, its root is the word for branch or, as a verb, to cut or divide. When I discovered this, the image that came into my mind was the periodic table of the elements, a metaphor for knowledge in modernity where knowledge means division and categorization into either/or dichotomies.
If the contrast in this verse is between “dividedness” and Torah, the implication is that there is a pure Torah that transcends our clumsy either/or’s. Jacques Derrida talks about a pure justice that is beyond deconstruction. All of our attempts to establish justice through elaborate rules and consequences can never do justice to justice. Because crimes never happen in individualistic isolation. There are always mitigating circumstances that a perfectly just judge like God would not see as merely mitigating circumstances since God can view the whole infinitely complex web of human behavior and discern perfectly the mix of factors involved in situations like extramarital affairs, to give an example of something that is always seen as one person’s fault exclusively but is always at least partly the product of the betrayed partner’s behavior also.
Furthermore, the crimes that make it into the penal code tend to be the ones that poor people commit. It isn’t a crime to steal natural resources from the rainforest and put a patent on a medicinal plant that God created and then demand that indigenous people living in the rainforest pay your company a royalty for using the plant they have used for millennia. It isn’t a crime to buy an apartment complex where poor families live, raze it, replace it with high-end condos, and leave all those families homeless. It isn’t a crime to crash the stock market and destroy millions of peoples’ retirement funds so that you can get filthy rich and demand that taxpayers reimburse your stupidity. Our laws are seaphim that fall woefully short of the perfectly smooth and infinitely nuanced Torah with which God intends for the universe to run.
More generally, this verse describes the difference between our knowledge which is often organized in binary, either/or fashion and God’s wisdom which looks more like a fractal
curve of infinite complexity. It is like the difference between trigonometry and calculus. Our attempts to colonize and own God’s truth are like trying to measure the area under a parabola using rectangles of different sizes, whereas God’s truth is the calculus that can measure the area under a curve perfectly.
Like the psalmist, I hate the caricatures and oversimplifications that are made when we try to make God fit into our clumsy logical systems. Of course what we’re talking about here is no less than the curse of epistemology itself that Heidegger wrestled with. We can never access the purely ontic level of reality; we are always stuck in our ontological vantage point. It’s very much like John 1:5. Just as we cannot seize light in our fists, our seaphim can never contain God’s Torah.
Again, this is not to justify a sort of relativistic nihilism in which we throw up our hands and say since we can’t know God’s truth perfectly, it doesn’t exist. But it is to say that making simplistic, black and white assessments about the world is not somehow more virtuous than seeing complexity and nuance. I trust that God is not less capable of seeing complexity than I am even if self-assured fundamentalists have made Him in their image. Because I hate opinions, categories, factions, caricatures, oversimplifications, or whatever other forms of unjust divisiveness seaphim can be taken to mean, I consider it part of my duty to God to defend His name against the caricatures that make Him look ugly. And I believe that His Torah really is perfect and beautiful even though we are constantly twisting it around into a tool for our self-justification.