Ps. 133: Entering Psalm 133

Andrew R. Davis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and an MTS from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Psalm 133 is an exquisite gem of biblical poetry. Its two central images—fine oil running down Aaron’s beard and dew falling on Mount Hermon—are sensuous and even hyperbolic, when we consider that the dew running from Hermon to Zion must travel hundreds of kilometers. The sensuousness of the psalm is highlighted by the language it shares with another biblical book, The Song of Songs. In both poetic works we find the words hinnēh (“look”), ṭôb (“good”), nā‘îm (“pleasant”), ṭal (“dew”), šemen (“oil”), and Hermon.

In addition to these striking images, the poetic quality of Psalm 133 is apparent in its tightly constructed word chains and phonetic echoes. The adjective ṭôb (“good”) describes both the tranquil dwelling of siblings or neighbors and the oil running down the beard of Aaron (brother of Moses), and the verb yōrēd (“running down…comes down…falls upon”) occurs three times within verses 2-3a. Each instance of the latter occurs as a non-finite participle in the middle of a couplet, effectively creating within the poem the very flow they describe. The repetition also unifies the images of oil and dew. Other lexical and phonetic repetitions include the prepositions (“like”) with oil and dew and ‘al (“on”) with head, collar, and mountains. Finally, we note the ôn ending of Aaron, Hermon, and Zion, which links the psalm’s three proper names.

As one of the songs of ascent (Psalms 120-134), Psalm 133 may have once been recited by pilgrims on the way to the Jerusalem Temple (considered a journey of spiritual “ascent” wherever one was traveling from) or upon arrival to this holy site. Although the Temple is not mentioned in the psalm, it is implied in the mention of Zion (a synonym for Jerusalem) and the reference to Aaron, the legendary founder of the priesthood whose consecration involved Moses pouring oil on his head (Leviticus 8:12)—an expensive and luxurious item in the ancient world. Psalm 133 reveals a correspondence between its imagery and its ancient singers. Like the dew that runs from the Israel’s northern limit to Zion, so also did families stream from across the region to God’s house in Jerusalem.

While much of this psalm’s excellence lies in its aesthetic beauty, we should not overlook the ethical thrust that frames it. The first line emphasizes the importance of solidarity among brothers and sisters, even (or especially) in times of division. The references to Hermon in the north and Zion in the south may be subtle reminders of Israel’s divided kingdoms and God’s desire for the people to recognize their kinship and shared religious heritage. This solidarity and its accompanying abundance are none other than blessing proclaimed in the last line of the psalm. The blessings that await in Zion are anticipated in the kinship and bounty we enjoy along the way.

 

1. א שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּֽעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טּ֖וֹב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד

2. ב כַּשֶּׁ֚מֶן הַטּ֨וֹב | עַל־הָרֹ֗אשׁ יֹרֵ֗ד עַל־הַזָּ֫קָ֥ן זְקַ֥ן אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן שֶׁ֜יֹּרֵ֗ד עַל־פִּ֥י מִדּוֹתָֽיו

3. ג כְּטַ֥ל חֶרְמ֗וֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד֘ עַל־הַרְרֵ֪י צִ֫יּ֥וֹן כִּ֚י שָׁ֨ם | צִוָּ֣ה יְ֖הֹוָה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה חַ֜יִּ֗ים עַד־הָֽעוֹלָֽם

JPS Translation

1. A song of ascents. Of David. How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together. 

2. It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down over the collar of his robe; 

3. It is like the dew of Hermon that falls upon the mountains of Zion. There the LORD ordained blessing, everlasting life.

 

New International Reader’s Version

A song for those who go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. A psalm of David.

1. How good and pleasant it is

when God’s people live together in peace!

2. It’s like the special olive oil

that was poured on Aaron’s head.

It ran down on his beard

and on the collar of his robe.

3. Its as if the dew of Mount Hermon

were falling on Mount Zion.

There the Lord gives his blessing.

He gives life that never ends.

 

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Are there particular words, images, or phrases in this psalm that call to you?
  2. Have you experienced something of the joy of community described by the psalmist? When, where, with whom?
  3. How do you hear the call for solidarity today in the midst of so much human suffering?
  4. What is one thing you can do now—small or large—to help bring this beautiful vision of tranquility and unity closer to reality?  

 

Read more about PsalmSeason here and subscribe for email updates.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

A new book, “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas,” by Omar Mouallem, may meet the needs of a new generation of Muslims.
For Christians, Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas and beyond. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese writes that perhaps fasting during Advent can be the Christian response to the consumerism of the season.
Interfaith holiday events can be a great way to show respect for others and make everyone feel included. Need some tips? Our IFYC colleagues have you covered.
Studies show that American religious diversity will only continue to grow and that Thanksgiving dinners of the future will continue to reflect this “potluck nation.” We all bring something special to the table.
IFYC staff members share what they're listening to, watching and reading that inspires an attitude for gratitude this season.
How can you support Native Americans and understand important issues and terminology? This Baylor University sophomore is here to help.
Aided by an international team of artists, author Salma Hasan Ali turned her viral blog about Ramadan into a new handmade book.
A symposium hosted by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago focused on the intersection of Indian boarding schools and theological education as well as efforts to uncover truth and bring healing.
This week's top 10 includes stories on faith and meatpacking in the Midwest, religion in the metaverse and an interfaith call for peace in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The two lawmakers appeared at "Race, Religion and the Assault on Voting Rights," the inaugural event at Georgetown University's Center on Faith and Justice.
Religion & Politics journal interviews the author of a new book on the impact of growing religious diversity in the American Midwest.
Five interfaith leaders share readings and resources that inspire them, give them hope and offer solace in turbulent times.
“There is a huge gap between the religiosity of clinicians and the religiosity of the clients,” mental health counselor Shivam Gosai says. “This gap has always been there. Mental health professionals are not always reflective of the people we are serving.”
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
The author, a Hindu and a Sikh, notes that faith plays a subtle yet powerful role in the show -- and creates space for more dialogue.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary.
The average congregation these days is small — about 70 people — but the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.
The metaverse has dramatic implications that should make all of us sit up, lean in, and claim our role in shaping the worlds within the world that is being created.  
Decades of silence, stigma, and structural barriers to treatment and testing have allowed the epidemic to spread, claiming the lives of far too many of our Black friends and families.   
Mawiyah Bomani, a Tarot reader in Louisiana, used to make her own Tarot cards until she found a deck celebrating spiritual practices throughout the African Diaspora. "I hoped and wished to find a deck with me in it," she says.
In this week's round up, a Buddha gets a paint job, a Black interfaith social media account goes viral, and Indigenous activists speak out.

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.