Take My Unicorns But Leave the Hyssop

by Steven Bishop, PhD, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX

Students gaze at me in wide wonder when I tell them that unicorns are in the Bible, at least in certain translations of the Bible.  To add to their wonder, I tell them that the 1928 Book of Common Prayer has unicorns in three Psalms (Ps. 22:21; 29:6; 92:9). 

Psalm 92:9 But my horn shall be exalted like the horn of an unicorn; * for I am anointed with fresh oil.

Putting unicorns out to pasture was at least one of the goals of the 1979 revision of the Psalter and it succeeded. The unicorns have been replaced by ‘wild bulls’, which is a more fitting translation.

However, not all the excisions made to the Psalter of the 1979 Prayer Book are to be commended.  This Ash Wednesday we recited Psalm 51 together as a penitential prayer. One of the most evocative lines is verse 7:

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

                       

Hyssop, also known as marjoram, is a central element of this imagery.  Hyssop is a plant used in the sprinkling of blood on the eve of the Exodus (Ex. 12) and in rituals of cleansing for leprosy and certain ritual purifications performed within the sacrifice of the Red Heifer (Num. 19).[1]  The poem has already mentioned washing, and this verse adds the imagery of sprinkling in a purification rite without using the word ‘sprinkle’.

In addition, the poem adds the evocative metaphor of snow. What does it mean to the psalmist to be washed so thoroughly, so completely that not one stain remains?  Is it not the prayer of one deeply penitent individual who realizes that without God’s cleansing they are powerless to attain forgiveness?  It seems to me it is.

It was therefore quite surprising to read this Ash Wednesday the same verse revised this way:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Where did the hyssop go? Has it been sent off to grow in the pasture of the unicorns?  Without hyssop or snow the verse is pedestrian. It lacks the richness of the imagery present in the psalm and instrumental to appreciating the deep need of the psalmist who desires, no needs, this purification rite to be restored to God.

In a 1960 letter to a Mr. Beamer of Cleveland, Ohio, Rev. Charles Guilbert, the chair of the Drafting Committee at that time, agreed that ‘hyssop’ was obscure. He had offered the translating committee this revision:

Purge me, and I shall be cleaner than a gushing stream.

The committee did not accept that suggestion, to our great relief.  But it did offer something less gushing, less poetic, and without imagination.  This aspect of the revision is a failure.

Though talk of a revision of the Prayer Book seems to live perennially, talk of revising the Psalter is less prominent.  The Psalter of the Prayer Book has its problems but it doesn’t need a complete revision.  We only need to leave the unicorns out to pasture and allow the hyssop to bloom once again in Psalm 51.


[1]Irene Jacob, s.v. “FLORA,” 2:812. Ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1992 by Yale University as assignee from Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 4.1

https://accordance.bible/link/read/Anchor#39636

Exploring the Markan Jesus’ “Sea” Crossings

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, for the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars

Like most AABS members, I relate to the Bible in a number of ways: as a New Testament scholar; as a retired professor from a state university (unusual among AABS members); as a lay member of a local Episcopal church (AABS also includes many priests within the Anglican communion). I’d like to share an example of my approach to the New Testament by means of an exploration of the Markan stories of Jesus’ voyages on and around the Sea of Galilee.

The Gospel of Mark is a story, a narrative, a narrative about “the beginning of the good news of Jesus (the) Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Thus, the questions we ask of narratives are appropriate to ask of Mark’s Gospel: What is the narrator trying to communicate to the audience (in the first century, the audience would have been listeners more than readers)? How do the actions of the characters in the settings depicted help the author and narrator communicate with the audience?

Monika Liu Ho-Peh, The Stilling of the Tempest (1950s)

As a scholar, it became clear to me (and not to me alone) that Jesus’ two feedings of multitudes with their settings on the west and east sides of the Sea of Galilee function as a “Jewish” feeding (6:31-44) and a “Gentile” (non-Jewish) feeding (8:1-9). Telling these two parallel stories in these two settings portrays Jesus acting in an inclusive way. In fact, chapters 4-8 make a point of showing Jesus’ outreach not only to Jews, his own people, but to Gentiles—in teaching, healing, and feeding. These chapters also show the difficulty Jesus’ disciples experience in following his lead. When the Markan Jesus sends his disciples “to the other [east] side, to Bethsaida” at 6:45, they do not go as sent. The storm on the sea, Jesus’ walking to them on the water, and Jesus’ leading them from Galilee to Gentile territories to the north while continuing his teaching and healing—what I have called the “Markan detour”—eventually bring them “to Bethsaida” at 8:22, where one who is blind is made to see. Are those in Mark’s audience who are blind to the inclusive outreach of Jesus also made to see?

The author of Mark seems to be the first one to apply the term “Sea of Galilee” to the inland, fresh-water body of water that Luke calls by its more usual name the “lake of Gennesaret” (5:1). But Mark’s use of the term “sea” is likely not accidental. By calling the lake Jesus crosses so meaningfully—with or without a boat—the “sea,” Mark taps into the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament echoes of the chaotic sea as the place where God’s people must rely on God’s protection and direction (e.g., Psalm 107). In addition, Mark alludes to the story of the prophet Jonah, who was sent by God to bring a message to the Ninevites, a Gentile nation, but, reluctant to do so, booked passage on a ship in the opposite direction, falling asleep in the boat during a storm on the “sea” (like Jesus). The sailors, like Jesus’s disciples, “feared with a great fear,” and Jonah ended up at the bottom of the sea (not walking on it like Jesus) before eventually reaching the Gentile territory and proclaiming his God-given message. Although the Markan Jesus does not need such a nudge to proclaim God’s message to Gentiles, the disciples in Mark seem to. But Jesus, like the God he follows, gives his followers a second chance. Does the Markan author also give his first-century audience a second chance to see God’s surprising message of inclusivity?

While Mark’s geographical knowledge has been questioned in 21st-century terms, I am convinced that he expected the audience to understand, in 1st-century terms, the ethnography indicated by the geographical references: this is a story about Jesus interacting with Jews and Gentiles. My latter-day audiences have needed some help with this, and I have used a variety of strategies in my multiple contexts. In a university classroom with a large table, we constructed a map of Galilee on the table, with a roll of blue crepe paper for water and signs for the place names, and traced the movement of the Markan Jesus through the narrative. Without the table, we constructed the map on the floor and had students take turns walking across the map to the next destination. Without a large table or room on the floor, I projected a map of Galilee on the white board and students took turns marking the journeys with colored markers. In a good-size church, I once envisioned the main aisle as the River Jordan and the chancel area as the Sea of Galilee and marked the journeys with my own movement in those spaces. In a fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday school classroom, I once used a child’s wading pool for the Sea of Galilee, and we made paper boats to blow across the sea. Have my audiences been enabled to see this expansive good news? That is the goal of AABS members.