Monday, September 4, 2017

Nabal's Psalm

The Audible Edition of Vacuum County is soon to be released.

One of the last major items to be recorded by Kelly Clear is what I like to refer to as the Nabal Psalm.

When we hear complaints against our fellow man, that they are not doing right, we often stand in judgment of the person complaining. Doesn't he have anything  better to do with his time, besides criticizing other people? Is he so  blameless himself? By what right does he judge others? And how could something so filled with rancor possibly get labeled a psalm? "That's a psalm?" you are probably thinking to yourself, "How is that a psalm?" It's so sad and hopeless, so angry and petty. No wonder nobody would sing that in Church! No wonder I've never even heard of this psalm.

But yes, it's a psalm, and it's in there, and it would be hard to understand why, unless you also read Samuel 1:25, the story of Nabal the Carmelite, who refused to pay protection money to David, when he was running from Saul.

What are the original words of this Psalm and what do they mean?

From my personal copy of the Old Textament, Psalm 14

The original psalm is very short. It has only seven verses. Here is a rough translation of each verse

  1. To the conductor, to David: Nabal said in his heart, there are no gods; they have cheated and abominated. There is none who does good.
  2. Jehovah looked down from the sky to see is there anyone who is skilled in seeking the gods.
  3. All strayed together, went bad, there is none who does good, not even one.
  4. Why, all the evil doers know the eaters of my people ate bread, did not call on Jehovah.
  5. There they feared fear because in a just generation there are gods.
  6. The counsel of the poor you will shame, because Jehovah is his shelter.
  7. Who will give from Zion the salvation of Israel, on the return of Jehovah to dwell with his people? Jacob will be joyful and Israel happy.
This is not exactly the translation most English speaking people have read.  In most translations, the word נבל is translated as fool, the word אלהים -- which is a plural form of a word for a  god -- is translated as God, and the name Jehovah is not rendered as Jehovah, but as "the Lord". The result is that many of the distinctions being made in the original text become opaque.

Here is King James' version:

14 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord.There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous.Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the Lord is his refuge.Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! when the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.

The key to understanding the poetic works in the Bible is parallelism. These poems like to say the same thing at least twice, each time in a different way. The contrast helps us get a new perspective on a familiar problem.

The first verse in  Psalm 14 is parallel to the second in the following way: The first is the judgment of a particular man (Nabal) upon God or the gods. The second is the lamentation of a particular god (Jehovah) on being forsaken by the people -- or rather, his people. (Every god has a people, and the people assigned to Jehovah are called Israel.)

 The contrast between the lament of  a man about the absence of his god, and the lament of a god, against his people who have strayed, is what makes this poem intriguing. Have you ever heard women complain there are no good men to be had, and men complain that there aren't any women? It's kind of like that. Gods need men to worship them, and men need gods to help them do right. But sometimes they have trouble finding each other. This isn't a psalm about atheism. It is about how the people of Israel and their local god should turn to one another in their mutual hour of need. It's about how true love leads to happiness.

 What makes it difficult to see this parallel between gods and men and their mutual dependence in the King James translation is that certain words are substituted for other words.

Nabal  (naval נבל), as a word, does not mean "fool". Knave maybe, or rogue or rotter, or villain,  but not fool. The triliteral  root of the word has the meaning of  "to rot or to wilt." When Abigail says against Nabal that he is like his name, "a villain he is and villainy is what he does", she is referring to the name and the meaning at the same time. Now some question whether he actually existed, since who in his right mind would give such an unflattering name to a child? But it's possible that he was named for a lute (nevel  spelled נבל), and that this play on words was a pun.

Was there an actual Nabal?  The account in Samuel: I 25 describes him as a Calebite,  a descendant of Caleb the spy, son of Jephunneh, (כלב בן יפונה),  and thus a Kennizite (קניזי), actually having origins in the land of Canaan long before Exodus. In other words, Nabal had deep roots in the land, and he remembered the old ways. His claim to the land is as good as anyone's, and yet he does not ask for much, except to be left alone. To him, both Saul and David seem like upstarts, and he wants no part in their quarrel.

When Nabal refused to pay David protection money, there was no claim on his part to the throne. He merely remarked that there were many breaking away from their masters nowadays. And he was not going to give the victuals that he had prepared to feed the men working for him to those who came from out of nowhere, demanding payment.

Is Nabal the Carmelite the same Nabal as in Psalms 14? I'm not the only one who thinks so. Look what I found here:

The difference between the usual outlook on Nabal and mine is this: I'm a libertarian, so I believe that we shouldn't hurt people or take their stuff.  I don't blame people for refusing to  pay protection money, and I don't praise the women who betray them.

Did David write Psalm 14? I don't think he did. But there is internal evidence that the  Psalm is oddly edited, and I like to ascribe at least that part to David.

To learn more about Nabal and Nabal's Psalm, read or listen to Vacuum County on Audible.


  1. I like the supposition that the historical "Nabal" may actually have been named something different that fell into the "homonym" category. I have a feeling that making fun of people's names is a tale as old as time.

    1. Yes, making fun of names is an ancient practice. In Semitic cultures, names are native words, so it is easy for everyone to understand their original meaning, as well as to play with unintended implications.

  2. The Jehovah's Witnesses do use the name Jehovah through out their versions of the Old and New Testaments, but I am not on board with their interpretation of other events in the Bible. It is interesting to hear about the history behind Psalms.

    1. Yes, the Jehovah's witnesses do make a point of distinguishing the names for god actually used, but their interpretations are not always as deep as they claim, because they ignore the context. They do have some scholars at their headquarters who know languages, but the people they send out into the field are largely ignorant and just repeat what they are told. That's why you can't really have an interesting conversation with them as individuals about the very things that are written in their pamphlets.