Psalm 139: A Study in Ambiguity


The interpretation of Ps 139 remains a deeply contested matter. In particular, the psalm’s genre and integrity continue to be debated, with the key issues related to the place of vv. 19-22. Do these verses constitute the key to interpretation, or are they a later interpolation? If they are an interpolation, can we trace the psalm’s development back through the material in vv. 1-18 (possibly with some minor expansions), so that vv. 23-24 are seen as a unit displaced from the introduction? Conversely, if vv. 19-22 are original, how do we account for marked change of tone present so that instead of the seemingly bucolic reflections found in vv. 1-18 the text then shifts to an imprecation against the wicked? This paper proposes a unified reading of the psalm which uses ambiguity as a central technique for developing different experiences for those who pray this psalm within the subgroup of the prayers of the accused. It will be argued that ambiguity is an intentional compositional strategy within the psalm, with the effect of the ambiguity different for those who read the poem from the perspective of innocence as opposed to the experience of those who read from the perspective of guilt.



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