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Politics of Scripture

Good and Pleasant Unity

The unity embodied in this psalm is idealistic, imaginative, and radical, embodying fluidity. It disrupts the exclusivist notion of nationalism common in its contemporary literature and embraces unity, which is symbolized as inherently good and pleasant.

1 How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
    life forevermore.

Psalm 133 (NRSVue)

Often “unity” is wielded as a tool by fundamentalists to reject, exclude, or undermine those who do not conform to their beliefs and actions. Those who do not align with the dominant model of unity are excluded. Calls for “unity” often fail not only to embrace diversity but also serve to suppress differences. The fundamentalist ideologies of nationalism when intersected with uncritical interpretation of religious texts such as Psalm 133 embolden and reinforce a false sense of unity.

Since the last century, nationalism has often been associated with right-wing politics in various governments across the globe. These fundamentalist nationalist movements frequently invoke notions of unity, while also embracing religious fundamentalism, inciting violence, and redefining national identities that center dominant ideologies- often at the expense of marginal communities. This phenomenon is not unique to a single nation. India has witnessed a significant rise in nationalist fervor over the past decade. In India, over the past 9 years, politics have been characterized by the prominence of saffron (rigid Hindutva nationalist) identities. Hindutva is an extremist religious ideology that seeks to define Indian culture as an expression of Hindu values that received prominence under the rule of BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), with Hindu-aligned political parties working towards the creation of Hindu rashtra (nation) by casting India’s history through the lens of Hinduism. In a culturally, religiously, and politically diverse country like India, the rise of Hindutva-aligned political parties has framed their agenda as protecting nationalist interests and preserving unity.

Similarly political leaders across the globe have utilized religious rhetoric to advance their agenda. When Donald J. Trump delivered his presidential inaugural address in 2017, he cited Psalm 133, stating, “When you open your hearts to patriotism, there will be no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Inviting his supporters and attendees to envision a nation that prospers and prevails as “never before,” Mr. Trump declared, “we will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American…” He promised to “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries, making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

While nationalism in the recent past has often been associated with notions of unity, with political parties inviting their supporters to unite and fight for “common” good, its intersection with religious texts like Psalm 133 can lead to exclusionary interpretations that undermine true unity. The 2017 inaugural address, for instance, invoked Psalm 133 to promote a specific notion of unity that excludes individuals from marginalized communities, exposing how nationalistic ideologies can distort the meaning of religious texts. The concept of “unity” in such a circumstance is exclusionary. Americans must be patriotic, look out for their fellow Americans, and put their own interests first. There is no place for difference in this “unity.” As we explore Psalm 133 below, we will uncover layers of meanings that aid challenging nationalistic interpretations of the text.   

Nationalistic interpretations of this psalm are not limited to lay readers of the Bible. Since the late 19th century, biblical interpreters have often interpreted Psalm 133 as pointing to the unification of the Northern and Southern kingdoms with a nationalistic message. To some extent, it is reasonable to interpret Psalm 133 with a nationalistic interest, since Psalms of Ascent were put together during the post-exilic period, and post-exilic literature – such as Ezra, Nehemiah and Chronicles – demonstrate a nationalistic imagination embedded in notions of return to the homeland, prominence of Jerusalem, and opposition to “foreigners.” However, it is important to note that the unification of Northern and Southern kingdoms is not a desire predominant in the post-exilic literature. Ezra-Nehemiah records the return of only a few people. The post-exilic period under Persian rule is often portrayed as benevolent in the books of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Within the post-exilic literature, we notice several competing nationalisms. One involves the community drawing stringent boundaries around themselves, identifying as the “Holy Seed,” and requiring the separating of themselves from any non-exiled Judeans and foreigners. Ezra-Nehemiah often present an exclusivist nationalism without any desire for the re-establishment of the Davidic dynasty. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah, however, felt that the restoration of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem was central. Finally, in post-exilic material – such as Psalm 133 – the imagery of kindredness is open to all people, belying an explicit exclusivist nationalistic message.

Psalms 120-134, often referred to as Psalms of Ascent, Songs of Ascents or Pilgrim Songs, constitute a loose collection of psalms that share a common superscription and historical background. While biblical interpreters agree that this category of psalms share themes such as the centrality of Jerusalem, Zion theology, YHWH’s blessing from Zion, and reestablishment of the community, each individual psalm also holds a unique position. This collection of pilgrim songs developed in the post-exilic period, and consist of brief psalms or songs that were often memorized and repeated – not only as the pilgrims ascended the mountain, but also upon their return to their households, villages and towns. Psalm 133 is one such memorized psalm that recalls the unity experienced in Zion, and that is imagined for their towns, where people from different backgrounds coexisted. Within the Psalms of the Ascent, Psalm 133 stands out as a poignant expression of unity experienced in Zion, and envisioned for the communities they dwell with.

Psalm 133 is one of the briefest and most frequently cited passages affirming unity. The unity embodied in this psalm is idealistic, imaginative, and radical, embodying fluidity. It disrupts the exclusivist notion of nationalism common in its contemporary literature and embraces unity, which is symbolized as inherently good and pleasant. It is an active desire to envision unity as abundant and blessed by God. In this unity, all are welcome!

Psalm 133 prompts thought-provoking questions about unity, its imagery, and its meaning. The psalm begins by expressing a desire to live together in unity, describing it as not only desirable, but also good and pleasant. The combination of these two attributes occurs only 3 other times in the entire Hebrew Bible – Ps 135:3; 147:1; Job 36:11. Its occurrence in Psalms 135 and 147 signify praising God as both good and pleasant. The term “good” reflects God’s assessment of creation as depicted in Genesis 1. Then, the unity of the kindred is as good and pleasant as worshiping and praising God. 

To whom is this unity envisioned for? Psalm 133:1 calls them ‘brothers’ (’aḥîm). In Hebrew,’aḥîm – literally “brothers” – appears in four different contexts: it can refer to biological brotherhood, to a male relative, to friendship, and in a broader sense even to neighbors. Interpreting ’aḥîm as biological brotherhood, dwelling together in unity presents challenges, as the Hebrew Bible lacks instances of physical brothers living together in unity (e.g., Cain and Abel, Gen 4). However, biblical scholars often interpreted the “dwelling together” as alluding to a legal situation related to inheritance in a patrimonial house (see Deut. 5-10). However, in Psalm 133, “kindred living together” can also refer to non-kinship based political alliances

The psalmist relies on two similes to illustrate the characteristic of this unity envisioned in Ps.133:1.

Firstly, dwelling together is like good oil on Aaron’s head. While oil often signifies anointing, here, its usage extends to emphasize extravagance, abundance, and free flow. The oil flows from Aaron’s head to his beard and then to the edges of his garments, suggesting a dynamic and encompassing unity. Just as oil running down to the edges of the garments can cause discomfort, unity may also pose challenges; but it remains desirable, nonetheless.  

Secondly, the analogy of dwelling together is like the dew from Hermon falling on Mount Zion. The imagery seems impractical for two reasons: firstly, Hermon is situated more than 100 miles north of Zion, and secondly, Hermon is a snowy mountain – while Zion is dry. However, biblical interpreters like Simeon Chavel argue that it is possible for Hermon-like dew to fall on Mount Zion. Alternatively, the dew mentioned here could be figurative. By employing the simile of dew from Hermon coming down on Zion, the psalm underscores the difficulty of achieving the envisioned unity. Despite the challenges, this unity remains desirable, good, pleasant, and is a blessing.

The psalm concludes by asserting “for there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” Where does “there” (šām) refer to? It could denote Zion as a sacred place of worship, where kindred gather in unity, and where God’s name dwells. But it can also signify any place where kindred come together in a genuine and radical unity. The pilgrims who have experienced unity on their pilgrimage envision such unity for their own communities. By singing this memorized psalm in their communities, psalmists proclaim the unity of all people. For this unity is not just desirable, but is good and pleasant. Including non-kinship-based friendships, the vision of unity that embraces all equally invokes God’s blessing. By associating this unity with God’s blessing, the psalmist presents unity as God’s desire. 

In a world marked by divisive politics and exclusivist nationalism, where religious fervor is sometimes misused to sow discord, the psalmist’s message presents an alternative vision of nationalism in the post-exilic period where unity transcends barriers of background and belief, inviting all to dwell together in unity and experience God’s blessing.

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