In my ongoing project of reading through the Hebrew Bible in the original, I’m currently in the Psalms (Psalm 43 at the moment). The repetition, almost monotony, of their vocabulary strikes me a lot more when I read them in Hebrew than when I read them in English. Over and over again the Psalmist complains about his enemies and his troubles in almost exactly the same language, begs God for help in the same stock phrases, and promises praise and thanksgiving in return, again using the same words in Psalm after Psalm. Eventually, as I get used to the stock vocabulary, I start to see the ways in which individual Psalms vary the formulas or use them in particularly creative ways. (Psalm 22 is, unsurprisingly, a particularly remarkable masterpiece, but even the more “straightforward” ones often have at least one passage that stands out.)
The many bones of the Psalms
One of the words that has jumped out at me on this read-through is עַצְמ֥וֹת, “bones.” I hadn’t realized how many bones there are in the Psalms. Just in the ones I’ve got to so far, the Psalmist’s bones are “troubled” in Psalm 6:2 (or, in Ellen Davis’ vivid translation, “rattled”), disjointed in 22:14 and counted in 22:17, wasted away in 31: 10 and worn out in 32:3, and deprived of health or peace (“shalom”) in 38:3. In 42: 10, the bones are threatened with “crushing” or “slaughter” (depending on how one translates the word רֶצַח).
But it’s not all bad news for bones in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they aren’t just passive victims. In 35:10, the bones talk, saying to YHWH, “Who is like you?” In 51:8 they are called on to rejoice, even after YHWH has broken them (in punishment for sin). Elsewhere in ancient Hebrew poetry bones fare a bit better than they usually do in the Psalms, though they can be rotten or broken there too. In Proverbs they are “fat” (15:30) and “refreshed” (3:8) and “healed” (16:24). Similarly, in Isaiah they are strengthened (58:11) and flourish (66:14).
Bones broken and unbroken
Psalm 34:19-20 has particular significance for Christians:
Many are the afflictions of the righteous;
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken. (NRSVCE)
“Breaking” bones seems to describe a permanent destruction from which God saves the righteous. The bones of the righteous may be rattled and disjointed and worn out, but they won’t be broken. In 42:10 the wicked taunt the Psalmist with the “slaughter” or “crushing” of his bones, but the one passage where, in common English translation, the Psalmist’s bones have already clearly been broken is 51: 8. There the breaking is the work of God, in punishment for sin, and the Psalmist asks God to make him “hear joy and gladness again” so that these broken bones may rejoice. The word used in 51: 8 is דָּכָה, “crush,” while the word in 34:20 is שָׁבַר, “break in pieces.” I think that the second word is a more complete and final kind of destruction, but I don’t know the nuances of the vocabulary well and it’s possible I’m reading too much into it. At any rate, I think it’s significant that the “breaking” in 51:8 happens to someone who has failed to be righteous, and that the restoration of joy is the result of God’s forgiveness.
For Christians, of course, 34:20 is traditionally read as referring to Jesus. John’s crucifixion narrative (19:31-37) claims that while the Roman soldiers broke the legs of the other two victims crucified with Jesus, they didn’t break Jesus’ legs because he was already dead. John sees this as a fulfilment of Psalm 34:20. John is also implicitly evoking Exodus 12:46, which says that no bone of the Passover lamb was to be broken. For John, Jesus is the Passover lamb. Exodus 12:46 and Psalm 34:20 inform each other and both elucidate the true significance of Jesus’ death and his unbroken bones.
This kind of use of Old Testament passages that don’t seem obviously to have anything “messianic” about them (Psalm 34:20 just speaks generically of “the righteous person”) is of course pretty common in the Gospels. (Matthew is especially free with it, and I confess that when I went looking just now for the precise passage about Jesus’ bones not being broken I first looked at Matthew assuming it would be there, which in fact it isn’t.) In any modern exegesis class, this would not be seen as “good” exegesis. Christians (at least conservative ones) tend to give the Gospel writers a free pass because they were divinely inspired. I think a better approach is to question our assumptions about what “good exegesis” looks like.
I don’t think we should throw out careful considerations of historical context and what can reasonably be inferred about the “original” meaning of a passage. But the New Testament writers’ free and imaginative use of Old Testament Scripture can provoke us to look at the rich patterns of allusion and echo that run throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and often it turns out that even in terms of a plausible “original context” interpretation there are continuities we might not have expected between the imagery of the ancient Hebrew poets and the theological structures later Christians have built.
Bone of my bones, self of my self
In this case, it turns out that Hebrew “bones” are more than just physical scaffolding. The word עצם can also be used to mean something like “self” or “substance.” In fact one of the most common uses of the word in the Hebrew Scriptures is as a construct (essentially functioning as an adjective) meaning “the same.” For the ancient Hebrews, someone’s “bones” were such a fundamental part of their being that you could say something like “in the bone of the day” (בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיֹּ֣ום, Gen. 17:23) meaning “that very day.”
Abstract and concrete: a false dichotomy?
This is a vivid example of the phenomenon Owen Barfield wrote about–that in ancient literature generally the line between what we would think of as a physical meaning and an abstract or spiritual meaning is thin or non-existent. The Hebrew Scriptures furnish a lot of examples of this, with the most commonly cited being רוח , “wind/breath/spirit.” So when the author of Genesis 1 describes God’s רוח hovering over the watery abyss, it’s likely that early readers would have thought indistinguishably of a great wind blowing, of God breathing, and of something like what we would think of as a “theological” meaning–i.e., that God’s creative presence was at work in the chaos to bring forth the order of creation.
People often contrast “Hebrew” and “Greek” ways of thinking by arguing that Hebrew thought was more concrete whereas Greek thought was more abstract. But as Barfield points out, the Greeks had the same kind of usage–it’s just that they did develop a form of abstract thought which got further away from this “ancient unity” quicker, perhaps, than authors who wrote in Hebrew did. Emphasis on “perhaps” because of course lots of modern linguists would scoff at this whole way of thinking about language, but also because it seems to me that the “earthy” and “concrete” language of the Hebrew Scriptures is also often used in “abstract” and genuinely metaphorical ways.
Clearly in a phrase like “בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיֹּ֣ום” the author doesn’t literally think of the day as a thing with bones. The word meaning “bone” has acquired a highly abstract sense.
Jesus’ unbroken bones–and ours
How does all of this relate to the Christological interpretation? If the “bone” is the “self” or “substance” of a person in the Hebrew idiom, then to affirm that Jesus’ bones were unbroken is to affirm that something fundamental about Jesus’ identity remained “unbroken” even in death, something that in us is, in fact, broken.
The dramatic situation presented in Psalm after Psalm is that of a person undergoing great suffering but pleading to be saved from final and utter destruction. The destruction is expressed through a metaphor of broken or damaged bones, and this is connected in several Psalms to sin. In light of this, Jesus’ unbroken bones can be seen as a way of pointing toward what Christians mean when we say both that Jesus was sinless and that Jesus had a divine nature as well as a human nature. In Jesus the unbroken “bones” or nature of God came into contact with the brokenness of our humanity. And this fulfilled the desires and prayers of the ancient poets who longed for God to heal and preserve their bones and, in Ezekiel, to bring unity and life to the dried and scattered bones of the people.
I fudged a little when I spoke both of Jesus’ sinlessness and Jesus’ divinity. We believe that only through the Incarnation can human “bones” be restored to wholeness. But we also believe that to be human is not by definition to be sinful. Last Thursday, we Catholics proclaimed our belief that Jesus retroactively preserved the “bones” of his mother from being broken. This is one of our most disputed beliefs and I am not going to try to defend it here. But it’s an example of the continuity between our faith in Jesus’ salvific restoration of humanity to a health we could never attain on our own and the Psalmist’s confidence that God preserves the bones of the just from being broken. In other words, it’s not just that Jesus remains unbroken by our sin but that, in the traditional formula, we become by grace what he is by nature.