Follow the bulls: part 1, the banishment of the bulls (Psalm 50)

Everyone always says follow the money, but sometimes you have to follow the bulls. For example, in Psalms 50–51.

Psalm 50 is a warning of judgment. It opens with an unusually extended/emphatic invocation of the name of God (El Elohim Adonai, אֵ֤ל אֱ‍ֽלֹהִ֡ים יְֽהוָ֗ה):

The Mighty One, God the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.

This summons is a call to judgment. At first it sounds like the whole earth will be on trial, but it turns out to be a judgment of God’s covenant people. God is the judge, and God is the prosecutor:

The Mighty One, God the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes; he does not keep silence;
before him is a devouring fire,
around him a mighty tempest.
He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge! Selah
Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.

God’s people—God’s “faithful ones”—are not rejected for lapsing in their religious rituals. They are right up to the minute with those! But God rejects them, and God derides them, at some length.

Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?

Here is the bull, an animal to be sacrificed, but God isn’t having it. Recent translations studiously avoid rendering verse 9 as “I will take no bull from your house,” because translators are afraid that everyone would read “bull” in the sense of “bullshit” and start giggling. But actually this is exactly what is going on here. God is denouncing the religiosity of God’s own covenant people as bullshit. God’s people have banished the sacrificial bulls and are now instead laying bullshit on the altar.

Some people are still offended, and some pretend to be offended, when this word is spoken. But this isn’t just a dirty word you say when you’re angry. It means something. It has a technical meaning. “Bullshit” is what you say or do in place of admitting the truth about yourself when the truth about yourself is ugly or shameful. Bullshit is the cheaper sacrifice you try to fob off on God when the sacrifice that God requires seems too costly.

In this psalm, the religion of God’s covenant people is bullshit.

We see why when God, in a quick reversal of the statement that he will reject sacrifices, calls on the people to offer sacrifices:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

The sacrifice that God wants, and that the people are not offering, is not their religious ritual (which they did not make up themselves, by the way, but were commanded  by God to offer!). Rather, it is this twofold offering for which the sacrificed bull is a symbol: (1) thanks and praise, which is both a disposition of the heart and an utterance of the voice; and (2) performance of vows—i.e., actions in line with the behavioral commitment made by people who enter into covenant with God and thereby undertake to live holy lives. People who maintain their standing in the covenant through fidelity to their vow to be thankful and obedient can count on God’s deliverance.


The psalm continues, now addressing “the wicked”:

But to the wicked God says. . . .

Has God now suddenly stopped talking to the covenant people started talking to someone else? No. God does not have ADD and is not a squirrel. God’s gaze is still fixed on the covenant people. It is precisely the covenant people who are being addressed now as the wicked. This is why “El Elohim Adonai” has come in judgment, not as a gentle shepherd but as a devouring fire, or rather as the shepherd who is also a fire.

And now comes the indictment, the reading of the list of charges:

What right have you to recite my statutes
or take my covenant on your lips?
For you hate discipline,
and you cast my words behind you.
If you see a thief, you are pleased with him,
and you keep company with adulterers.
You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your brother;
you slander your own mother’s son.

How can these things have happened? Do people who are in covenant with God ever say, “Look, there is a thief! How pleasing thievery is! Let’s fall in with this thief!” Do they (we?!) ever say: “Oh, good, an adulterer! Let’s hang out with the adulterer, because after all God loves adultery!” No, of course not. They (we?!) fall in with a person who is a thief by failing to perceive, and failing to admit, that this person is a thief. They (we?!) really think he is something else! They (we?!) see some kind of hero. They (we?!) see virtues that may or may not really be there, and they (we?!) fail, or refuse, to see that he is essentially, before anything else a thief. He is an adulterer, but they (we?!) do not see an adulterer. They (we?!) look at him and see something else. They are deceived. And so they become fans and companions (or dupes who think they are companions?) of thieves and adulterers. (Note that after “they” I have started slipping in “we?!” in parentheses. Though I have put it in parentheses, it is crucial. The willingness to experiment with saying “we” instead of “they” is the doorknob of the escape hatch from the locked room of self-deception.)

And then, having become fans and followers of thieves and adulterers, they (do I have to keep adding “we?!”) also become slanderers against their own family members, their own siblings within in God’s covenant people. Perhaps because these siblings of theirs are not deceived, perhaps because they call the thief a thief and shun the adulterer as an adulterer. So the deceived slander the undeceived.

This can happen. It has happened. It does happen. Otherwise, we would not have this psalm.

Where is wisdom? Maybe wisdom is here: If I think I am a faithful adherent of the covenant, if I am righteously offering my bulls, I must practice stopping periodically, perhaps every day, and saying to myself: Wait! Is God going to accept this bull from my house? Or has my bull become bullshit? What am I failing to see, refusing to see, about myself, and about the people I regard as companions? Who is the hero I am following? Who is he (or she, I guess) really?

This is difficult, because God does not always come crashing in as El Elohim Adonai, shouting accusations and threatening judgment. No. Sometimes—usually—God says nothing:

These things you have done, and I have been silent;
you thought that I was one like yourself.

This has to be one of the most chilling verses of scripture. The silence of God in the face of the self-deception of God’s people. This can happen. It is one of the worst things that can happen. But when we are in the throes of self-deception, we want it to happen. We want God to be silent. In fact we silence God. How do we silence God? In many ways. By stopping our ears to the warnings of God’s prophets. By refusing to question ourselves, examine ourselves. By declining to beg God to examine us. We prefer to think that God is one like ourselves, that God is one of us, that God is on our side. And this self-deception, this falling out of the covenant by falling in with thieves and adulterers who we say are not thieves and adulterers—is the worst thing that can happen, because it means falling away from God.

So it is not a disaster but a good thing, a welcome and salutary thing—a thing to be mostly devoutly wished and prayed for—when at last we hear the Voice saying:

But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.
Mark this, then, you who forget God,
lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;
to one who orders his way rightly
I will show the salvation of God!

My prayer for myself and for you: may we hear the rebuke! May we feel the fire! May we catch the scent of our own bullshit before it is too late.

Next time: part 2,  the return of the bulls.

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