Thursday, January 24, 2008

Original Sin in Psalm 58.3?

I was posting with some people on an online board and noticed that several of them were arguing that Psalm 58.3 supports the notion that original sin is passed down genetically. I, however, am more in line with the Eastern Church on this subject: I do not believe that damnable sin is passed down genetically but instead that we are all born with a propensity to sin, which we will inevitably give in to because of our free will. So I thought that I would share and amended version of a post that I originally wrote for a different audience. (Also, the recent posts concerning exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology by Michael Bird, Ben Meyers, and Doug Chaplin had me thinking about the biblical support [or lack thereof] for original sin, at least as understood by Augustine.)

Here are my thought about Psalm 58.3:

First, here's the verse: "Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies."

Here's the larger context, Psalm 58.1-5:

1 Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among men? 2 No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. 3 Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies. 4 Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, 5 hat will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be.

The first question I have to ask myself is this: Who are the wicked who are in view in verse 3. The answer is found in verse 1 -- the "rulers." But who are these people? The Hebrew word here is elem, which means "muteness" or "silence," not "rulers." So how does the NIV get "rulers," the KJV "congregation," the HCSB "mighty ones," and the NASB and ESV "gods"? Well, most scholars and translators, including conservative ones (see the KJV, HCSB, and NASB for proof) don't believe that the Masoretes who put the vowels into the Hebrew text got it right. Most believe that it should read elim, which means "gods." This word can sometimes also refer to humans and when it does it means "rulers" or something close to that. It seems to me that there may be a double entendre or purposeful ambiguity here; it may be that these "gods" are in fact "mute" because they do not serve the cause of justice (see verse 2) (See "A note on elem in Psalm lviii 2" by John Kselman and Michael Barré in VT 54.3 [2004]). So if these are supernatural beings or if a double entendre is in play, then 58.3 does not support the theory that damnable sin is passed down through genetics, since "gods" and not people are in view.

However, "gods" here could refer to human rulers. If this is the case, then is there support in verse 3 for genetically transmitted damnable sin? From birth they go astray and from the womb they are wayward and speak lies. These words seem to support the case for genetics having something to do with damnable sin. However, it seems evident to me that this is a case of an exaggeration. How do I come to this conclusion? Well it is clear that the psalmist is trying hard to discredit these bad rulers or judges. So to do so he says that they've been bad from the beginning. However, Psalm 22.9 indicates that the psalmist believes that he trusted (the verb is a hiphil and means "to direct one's trust" a very conscious action) God from the time he was very small and Psalm 71.6 says that the psalmist relied on (this niphal verb means "to lean against" or "support oneself on," again, a very conscious action) God from birth. Is this possible? Is it possible for someone to make the conscious decisions to trust and rely on God from birth, before one is even able to talk or know right from wrong? The question is rigged; of course the answer is "no." Clearly then the psalmist is using his poetic license in Psalms 22 and 71 to say that God has been good to him and he has returned the favor for as long as he can remember. If this is true for these two Psalms, then it must be true of Psalm 58.3 as well. The psalmist is trying to paint a very negative picture of these "rulers" and "judges" and to do so he uses a bit of exaggeration. His point is that they are very, very bad guys.

So it is possible that Psalm 58.3 could support the theory of damnable sin being passed on to children through genetics, but two things must be dealt with first: 1) elim must not refer to "gods" but instead to some group of humans that have power; and 2) One must also accept that, in accordance with Psalms 22 and 71, that someone could trust in and rely on God from birth.

Number 1 could go either way and number 2 simply does not make sense (how can a new-born child trust or rely on God with before developing the appropriate level of cognition required?); therefore, I can't in good faith say that Psalm 58.3 supports the notion that damnable sin is passed down by birth.

But you may disagree with my opinions on numbers 1 and 2, and that's fine by me. However, building an entire doctrine on one obscure verse from the Bible is dangerous, especially when so much of the rest of the Bible seems to state that damnable sin is something that is consciously committed by a person (see James 1:13-15 for one example). Also, building doctrine out of poetry is dangerous as well, since a poet like the psalmist was not looking to convey things just exactly as they were but was instead trying to evoke emotion and get a point across. So even if Psalm 58.3 does say that some people were sinful from birth, considering that it is one verse in the Bible, and it is in a poem at that, makes me quite wary to build doctrine based only on it.

Am I on point here? Or am I way off in left field? And please be nice, this may be my first foray into writing about the Old Testament on my blog!


Anonymous said...

I'm guessing if you looked at most commentaries on this psalm, they would hopefully talk about how the psalmist is using exaggerated language in order to stress the wicked people's total, for lack of a better word, wickedness.

A comparable situation is found in Psalm 51, where the psalmist describes his own sinfulness in a comparable way--but the fact that the psalmist is praying to God is evidence that this is not literally true. On Psalm 51, I'm pretty sure that Gerstenberger (Forms of the Old Testament Literature) series talks about how it's hyperbole.

I'm a bit shocked that there's much discussion on this, but I suppose my ivory tower has so far protected me.

So, in general when the psalmist says they do something from birth, it likely means that this is their habitual behavior, for good or bad. He's not making some sort of grand theological point.

Just one more reason why I think it'd be amusing to be a systematic theology professor...Millard Erickson/Wayne Grudem/etc. says what?? Based on what?? :)

Hope you're doing well Matt...

J. Matthew Barnes said...

I could have sworn that I commented on your comment before. I guess I didn't. I tried to make a case for exaggeration in my post. The fact that people have to go to the Psalms for support for their theological propositions is a sign that their propositions are weak indeed!