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?  

 

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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.