Sting Like a Bee: Waking the Sleeping God (Context of Scripture)
Against the assertion of Psa 121:4 that “the God of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” many of the psalms find that God does indeed sleep while the righteous undergo persecution. Fortunately, God can be awakened with a careful combination of slaps and strokes.
About a week ago in our continuing reading of COS in a year, we read “The Wrath of Telipinu” (1.57), one of the Hittite “disappearing god texts”: in these, the deity is imagined as having wandered off in pique and gone to sleep. In the god’s absence, everything goes badly, and so the god must be sought out, awakened, and convinced to return. In this text, the mother-goddess sends a bee to find and sting the god Telipinu; he awakens angry, of course, and the remainder of the text directs the offering of good foods, like beer-bread, to placate him and draw him back to the people.
The Bible frequently speaks of God as having gone to sleep and needing to be awakened. As God sleeps, God’s people are vulnerable, especially to their enemies. Taking the biblical texts (many of them the “complaint psalms”) at their word about the “sleeping God,” I am inclined to see the sharp rhetoric of the complaint psalm genre function like the bee and the beer-bread of the “Wrath of Telipinu.”
The texts I have in mind are Psa 7:7 (Eng 7:6); 35:23; 44:24 (Eng 44:23); 59:5. One might read Psa 121:4 as an absolute counter-claim (“the God of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” that is, ever) or as a timely reassurance (he won’t sleep right now when you need him). Of interest are 1 Kgs 18:27 (taunting the Baal priests) and Hab 2:19 (rousing wood and stone), and perhaps Psa 78:65; Isa 51:9; 52:1; Song 4:16; Zech 13:7.
Each of these four psalms attempts to rouse God from sleep.
Rise up, O YHWH…Awake, O my God! (Psa 7:7)
Wake up! Bestir yourself for my cause and my defense, my God and my Lord! (Psa 35:23)
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake! (Psa 44:24)
Rouse yourself! (Psa 59:5)
This imperative acts as a “stinger,” a jolt. So, too, do the sharp complaints themselves that define these psalms: as the wicked continue in victory and God’s righteous suffer loss, the natural order of God’s creation is upset and requires righting. This suggests another “stinger”: that God and God’s favored ones are losing face in the sight of God’s enemies, when it is the latter who should be shamed. Related to this is the formal element of the “statement of trust”: since God has established God’s reputation by saving the people Israel in the past, the trust of the people rests now in God’s hands…will it be in vain? The innocence of the psalmist or the community is another “stinger”: given the injustice of the psalmist’s plight, God is publicly culpable for letting the abominable situation continue.
Of course, the complaint psalms offer “beer-bread” as well. Just as several of the “stingers” revolve around the maintenance of God’s reputation, so too does the “beer-bread” that may positively induce God to awake and save. The “vow of thanksgiving” is the obvious example: after God wakes up and saves, the recipient of God’s largesse will recount God’s saving acts in public worship when he makes good his vows at the shrine or Temple. The “address to God” may include elements of praise that also, beer-bread-like, “sweeten the deal.”
Context of Scripture (William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds.; 3 vols; Brill, 1997) is available in many theological libraries, and Charles’ schedule is an easy one. Jump in any time, and blog about your findings.
[Sting Like a Bee: Waking the Sleeping God (Context of Scripture) was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/04/12. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]