Ps. 114: With Sound, Sight, and Heart

Reverend Doctor Shively T. J. Smith serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University School of Theology. Teacher, speaker, and scholar, Smith is dedicated to extending academic theological studies and interfaith and ecumenical conversations into the public square. She has appeared on the History Channel Documentary, “Jesus, His Life” and presented at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smith is also the author of Strangers to Family: Diaspora and 1 Peter’s Invention of God’s Household. Currently, she is a 2020-21 Teacher-Scholar of the Calvin Institute. An ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she proudly serves as member and resident scholar at the historic Metropolitan AME Church (Washington, DC).

When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judah became His holy one, Israel, His dominion... ~ JPS Tanakh, Psalm 114:1-2

When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion. ~ KJV, Psalm 114:1-2

When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion. ~ NIV, Psalm 114:1-2

When Israel came out of Egypt—when the house of Jacob came out from a people who spoke a different language—Judah was God’s sanctuary; Israel was God’s territory. 

~ CEB, Psalm 114:1-2

Every time I read the opening stanza of Psalm 114—no matter the translation—

I hear something, 

I see something, 

and I feel many, many things.

I Hear…

…the stirring melodic sounds of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing the Negro spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” 

Fisk Jubilee Singers Perform “Go Down Moses”

 

The history, ethos and space of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee formed me as a college student coming into her adulthood in mind, spirit, and body. I remember the impact of sitting in Fisk Memorial Chapel listening to the opening lyrics of “Go Down Moses.” It felt like I was inhaling the breath of new life. It reminded me of how vast and present God is with even the most overlooked, exploited, abandoned, and erased of us. God sees us—I would hear it in the song…

When Israel was in Egypt’s land;

Let my people go.

Oppressed so hard they could not stand,

Let my people go…

The meaning of the verses from the spiritual and the psalm were never far from me. I embraced them as directives. We are being called to the work of freedom and life and we are in the company of our ancestors—biblical and cultural—as we go forth. When we read Psalm 114 and we listen to the spiritual, we are being given our task to “Go…”

Every time I read the opening stanza of Psalm 114—no matter the translation—

I hear something, 

I see something, 

and I feel many, many things.

I See…

…the silhouette images and commemorative portrayals of my African American heritage in Aaron Douglas’ visual art, especially his work called “Let My People Go.” Douglas used color, shadows, and historic moments and places in African American experience to capture the majesty and challenges of African diaspora life and culture, especially in the US. Douglas was known as the Dean of African American painters during the Harlem Renaissance period and he eventually became the Chair of the Art Department at Fisk University, retiring in the 1960s. 

 

Douglas’ art was another influence in my intellectual and spiritual formation at Fisk that provides meaning to Psalm 114. Using silhouette images and shades of lavender, green, and brown, Douglas depicted Moses in shadow, kneeling on the ground looking heavenward as the armies of Pharaoh barreled forward. Douglas expressed the hope and faith of African Americans in the face of tyranny, terror, and discrimination by visually reimagining the Jewish story of God calling Moses to serve as a divine agent of Israel’s deliverance from captivity. God’s presence, human malevolence, communal resilience, and the beauty and healing salve of the natural world speak from Douglas’ canvas. It overlays Psalm 114 with a challenging interpretative valence and warning---humans can be barriers to or actors in the divine aim for the liberation and flourishing of all creation.

I Feel Many, Many Things…

…when I read Psalm 114. I am both inspired and frustrated by the histories of faith and struggle, liberation and captivity, dignity and inhumanity that the psalm responds to and exhibits. Psalm 114 is one of the “Egyptian Hallel” psalms. This one is sung at the Jewish Passover Seder. It commemorates the power of God to deliver oppressed humanity and creation from the throes of captivity, harm, and exploitation. This is a tale and experience of Judaism, of African Americans, of Muslims, of women, of immigrants, of Asian communities in the US, and on and on.

When I read Psalm 114, I am also aware of the danger of portraying Egypt simply as the “eternal other,” as the "villain” from whom God must deliver innocent people. The flattened portrayal of civilizations—both ancient or modern—can lead to dehumanization and to the diminishment of the cultural and spiritual significance of a people. That process of othering and villainizing was used throughout history to erase the cultures, languages, lands, and identities of people of African descent and to deny their humanity for centuries. So, here is a psalm that reminds me of the conundrum of African American identity and spirituality in the Western world.

Yet, when I read Psalm 114 while listening to the sound of “Go Down Moses,” and taking in the sight of Douglas’ visual work “Let My People Go,” I discover the heart of my interpretative cipher. I am reminded of my African American history of resilience, strategic defiance, artistic expression, truth-telling, and uplift that continues to inspire all of us even now…

…To go

To sing: “Let My People Go”

To proclaim: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord” (Psalm 114:7)

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.