Entering the Psalm
By Andrew David, PhD
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 the Song of Songs. In both poems we find 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 cohabitation and the oil, and the verb yōrēd (“running down…comes down…falls upon”) occurs three times within vv 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 kĕ (“like”) on oil and dew and ‘al (“on”) on 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 (Ps 120-134), Psalm 133 was probably recited on the way to the Jerusalem Temple or upon arrival at it. Although the temple is not mentioned in the psalm, it is implied in the mention of Zion and the reference to Aaron, the founder of the Jerusalem priesthood whose consecration involved Moses pouring oil on his head (Lev 8:12). The genre of 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 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 are subtle reminders of Israel’s divided kingdoms and God’s desire for them to recognize their kinship and religious heritage. This solidarity and its accompanying abundance are none other than blessing proclaimed in the last line of the psalm. The blessing that awaits in Zion is anticipated in the kinship and bounty we enjoy along the way.