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The Protest Hidden in the Psalms

Weekly Vid Recap of Below the Bible Belt

Protests matter.  Do they always achieve their goals? In many cases - yes. Not only to demand and create change and justice but also to give voice to the people. To us. To remember that our voice matters. All voices matter. We matter. And protest goes back all the way to the beginning of civilization - even in the bible. That’s where our focus is on this week’s Below the Bible Belt weekly video - the power of political protest - hidden in the psalms. 

Yes, those pious poems about soul and god are actually not just lofty prayers but very often protests - against a deity who’s cruel or absent, and against the king or priests who have become corrupt. Most importantly - many of the psalms contain veiled violent criticism of the human condition - with suggestions for how to improve and be better people - for our own sakes and for everybody else’s. 

This past week on our Below the Bible Belt Journey - One fifth through our reading of the Book of Psalms we encountered a curious dedication to some of the chapters -- hymns composed by The Sons of Korach - one of the families from the tribe of Levi. Likely part of the musical team that worked at the Jerusalem temple. What’s so interesting about them? Why do they get their own psalms? 

Well. The original Korach is mentioned in the Torah -- he was a cousin of Moses, but a lesser Levite who was not chosen to be among the people’s religious top elite. He and his family benefited from Levitical privileges, but it’s like they were in business class - and he wanted first class. Top tier. So he and his families and some followers famously rebelled against Moses and Aaron, and staged a protest that is detailed in the Book of the Wilderness - Ba’midbar. You can call their protest an early case for equal rights and democratic values, anti nepotism and in favor of more opportunity for diverse leadership. But that’s not how Moses and the administration saw it -- the threat was terminated by God’s help with the killing of every single one of the protesters - swallowed alive by the earth. Including women and children. An act of God. Or whatever.  Very problematic stuff. 

But here comes the protest - embedded in the Bible by some authors who had an agenda and something to say to us about the power of protest and its enduring value and critical role in talking back to power. 

A strange cryptic verse later in the book says that actually the sons of Korach did not die. 

How were they spared and why? 

That’s where the psalms we just read offer a wild secret. 

According to various traditions, a few of Korach’s sons did not die because they either changed their mind and repented protesting with their father - or else, they were somewhere spared and stayed forever in the liminal space between earth and whatever is below.. And what have they been doing this whole time as zombies? 

Sing songs. Reciting these psalms! Some of them sing songs of protest and some of them hymns of pious hope and yearning for life.  There are a few wild legends about them. 

So what’s this about? It’s possibly a not so hidden but still subtle statement -- protests linger, they should persist, they will rise above the din of death and the repressed attempts to silence valid criticism - and will sing on, whether tyrants like it or not.  This MAY be the secret hidden in these psalms. 

Prof. Jacob Wright wrote a great book about the origins of the bible and he has this to say about it: 

“The legacy of the Psalms is as consequential for its cries of protests as for its more familiar words of comfort and praise. Without such models of complaint and challenge, many would be reticent to take on the deity, especially using such brazen words and in such an unabashed manner. These prayers embolden protest of not only heavenly authority, but of political powers on earth as well. Indeed, a religious tradition that prohibits protest vis-à-vis the deity will hardly foster courageous resistance to lesser powers.”

Jacob Wright's Why the Bible Began

There will be more protests in NYC this wknd, and in Israel and elsewhere, to stop this war, to take the deal, to bring them home, to stop the killing, to demand dignity and justice for all. And it’s pride month! What began as a riot continues as a fight for our rights. Sing on, House of Korach! We are proud and loud and there is so much to still fight for.

Our journey continues with the psalms next week.

Thank you for joining me below the bible belt. Shabbat Shalom.