Our Own Silly Faces: C.S. Lewis on Psalms

by Stanley N. Rosenbaum

Dr. Rosenbaum is chairman of the religious department and director of Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 18, 1983, pp. 486-489. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If Christians, including C.S. Lewis, are to achieve any real insight into Psalms, several cautions must be observed. They must either know Hebrew or consult with someone who does; they should avoid invidious comparisons, explicit or implied; and they should hold their christological prejudices in abeyance.

A recent article in the C. S. Lewis Bulletin maintains that while Reflections on the Psalms (Harcourt, 1958) is "one of the lesser known works in the Lewis Canon," it "remains the one book on the Psalms that would satisfy the general reader in our time" (Carol Ann Brown, "Mirrors of Ourselves: Reflections from the Psalms," CSLB X:8, June 1979, pp. 1-5). This is true only if that general reader welcomes the negative contribution that Reflections makes to the Christian’s understanding of Judaism. The book’s tone reflects the same smug triumphalism that is found in Lewis’s better-known works.

Lewis professes shock at all the "hatred" he finds in Judaism; even in the Psalms "this evil is already at work" (p. 67). Elsewhere he refers to some Psalms as "vulgar," "petty," "self-righteous," "contemptible" and even "devilish" (pp. 21-25). I do not think these damaging labels can be made to stick, but I know what causes Lewis to affix them. Lewis did not read Hebrew, a fact with which he is honest enough to begin his book. He immediately goes on to propose that this very lack of scholarly training makes him better able to communicate the ideas in Psalms to others as amateur as himself. The pupil, he says, can often teach other pupils better than the master can. So Lewis’s lack of Hebrew is really a virtue! (Would he apply this maxim to all fields of knowledge or only to the Old Testament? If the former, one wonders why he chose teaching instead of some more useful employment.)

One always feels a bit uncharitable going after dead authors, but Lewis’s reputation inevitably lends his remarks on Psalms a weight they cannot bear. Reflections is not intended as a scholarly work, but to abandon scholarship before beginning is like throwing away your compass before you enter the woods. No amount of enchanting prose makes good this lack.

As a self-confessed lower critic myself, I have some problems with the so-called higher criticism, but not nearly as many as Lewis has. For example, his idea of Psalms parallelism is that it is only "the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words" (p. 3). For someone whose own field of study, medieval and Renaissance English, requires a keen appreciation of language, this misunderstanding of the dynamics of Hebrew poetry is lamentable. Elsewhere, commenting on Psalm 119:l64, he informs his readers that for the God of Israel "mere quantity of praise seemed to count" (p. 91). The referent in this case is the number seven ("Seven times a day do I praise Thee"). His literary companions, in particular Charles Williams, might have told him that this number, like so many in Scripture, is conventional; but of symbolic numbers, Lewis shows no inkling. Worse, the cavalier treatment of Hebrew Scriptures also characterizes his treatment of Jews.

Apparently, Lewis’s chief informant on Judaism is Joy Davidman, his formerly Jewish wife, whose attitude toward the religion she left could charitably be described as poisonous. (See her Smoke on the Mountain [Westminster, 1954]. Davidman uses obscure, haggadic midrashism, or perhaps her own imagination, to pillory Judaism. She does not footnote.) Although the idea for Reflections dates from about 1948, the book was written during their brief marriage. They shared the common misapprehension that Judaism is runaway "legalism." And that the Law, like sacrifice, can take on a "cancerous life of its own" (p. 57).

Lewis sees legalism as further corrupted by the presumed vested interest of the Jewish establishment (p. 49). He uses John 7:49 to produce the notion that the rabbis considered any uneducated person to be "accursed." For a Christian audience he does not need to add that Jesus’s earliest followers were simple folk and that Christianity subsequently put no emphasis on knowledge. John’s Gospel is sufficiently unsympathetic to Judaism without this kind of "help." I have less argument with Lewis’s Greek, however, than with his cheerful lack of Hebrew.

Would Lewis have any patience with a commentator on Shakespeare who could read only Arabic? Why then does he allow himself to make remarks about a text that he, in fact, cannot read? Here one suspects that Lewis is simply following the Christian tradition that preferred Greek to Hebrew and, later, anathematized those who insisted on Greek in preference to Latin. Lewis admits that he is "no Hebraist," but does not recognize what follows from this admission. Putting it bluntly, if one doesn’t know Hebrew Scripture in Hebrew, one does not know it. Why?

For one thing, the different character of Semitic and Indo-European languages makes translation from one to the other extremely hazardous. For another, even languages within the same family often show a sort of lexical hypertrophy in areas that are of special importance to their users. Thus the Arabic vocabulary concerning camels is a legend among graduate students, as is the Eskimo for "snow." An example from Hebrew would be the group of terms that together constitute the semantic field we call "law." Lewis shows some familiarity with this abundance of names in his discussion of Psalm 119, but, like many other commentators, he assumes that the eight (or more) key words on which the Psalm is built are "more or less synonymous" (p. 58). Even if one agrees that synonyms may exist in a natural language (and I don’t), this casual treatment of such a large number of terms is unfortunate.

Lewis would probably agree that Hebrews initiated a notion of justice (as opposed to the Greek-derived idea of moira or fate). If it is our highest human task to "establish justice in the gate," as the Torah prescribes and the prophets exhort, we also need a fairly sophisticated notion of what human justice is. We have the "knowledge of good and evil," but deciding between the two is more complicated than flipping a coin. A well-calibrated vocabulary will also be required.

Hebrew manifests a fundamental distinction between "foreign" and "domestic" enemies. In fact, the word most English translations render by "enemy" denotes foreign powers almost exclusively. Given Israel’s precarious geography, this is not surprising. By contrast, the word we translate as "wicked" refers to those within the Israelite community who consciously and deliberately flout the law. Psalms alone contains about two dozen words all of which denote some form of malefactor (compare the five or six words commonly used in English). One could say that the semantic field "antagonist" in Hebrew is really a sort of shorthand catalogue for the whole spectrum of misdemeanors and felonies, each of which has its own particular dimensions.

For example, the word we translate as "sinner" denotes an Israelite who, though trying to do as he ought, "misses the mark" (see Josh. 20:16). That is, his sin is without evil intention. Obviously the same is not true of the wicked. But neither "sinner" nor "wicked" is applied to Israel’s foreign enemies. Foreigners, since they are not under the covenant of Moses, are not expected to conduct themselves as though they were.

To carry the subject further would require a dissertation, e.g., "The Concept ‘Antagonist’ in Hebrew Psalmography" which I wrote at Brandeis (1974). It should be clear, however, that the "hatred" in Psalms is not some sort of undifferentiated Jewish misanthropy. Rather, it is part of the attempt to recognize and respond to human failures to establish justice.

Probably few Bible readers ask themselves why the verse says what it does instead of saying "Do mercy, love justice, etc." Even fewer know that Hebrew sentences automatically emphasize what comes first. In this case, then, Scripture tells us that justice takes priority over mercy. Putting mercy first would invite injustice toward the victim. Of course, miscarriages of justice can roll in either direction; capital punishment is irrevocable, even for those wrongly convicted.

The Talmud (Makkot 1:10) recognizes this when it says that a Sanhedrin that carried Out one judicial execution in seven years would be called a "bloody Sanhedrin." To which Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah replies, "No, even one in seventy years." The point here is that human justice, no matter how imperfect, is what most differentiates us from animals. Leviticus 24:20; the much-maligned "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" passage, actually has as its purpose the establishment of government by law, not of humans. Doing justice requires an exacting precision -- even the very legalism of which the Lewises complain.

Delight in the law (Ps. 1), far from being in any way comparable to a love of one’s favorite subject (p. 56), is a real joy that God has given us guidelines to maintain the order which he initially rescued from chaos. It is no accident that the rabbis who canonized Psalms in the first century put delight in the law first. Lewis comes close to recognizing this in his discussion of Psalm 19.

In the midst of this discussion, however, he informs us that the poets of Psalms were hardly better than Coventry Patmore, the minor English poet about whom someone once wrote that he sometimes "wrote better than he knew." Lewis uses almost the same language to characterize Jewish knowledge of God (p. 61). No Jew, apparently, knows God in the way Christians do. As Lewis writes, "All Christians know what the Jews did not know about what it ‘cost to redeem their souls’" (p. 52). His attitude precludes serious discussion between Jew and Christian.

It could hardly be otherwise. Lewis steadfastly ignores any developments in Judaism beyond the distorted picture of Pharisaism that he derives from the New Testament. Consider Matthew 5:43: "You have been taught to love your neighbor and hate your enemies." This curious utterance is claimed as a quote from Scripture, but it is not to be found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The closest one can come to it is the verse in Psalm 139, noted by Lewis with amused contempt (p. 66), in which the Psalmist avers that God’s enemies are his enemies, too. Hardly prescriptive. Even if there were such a prescription, knowing what the word "enemy" means in Hebrew would lend such a command some sense, especially in time of war.

It is depressing that humankind has not yet learned to beat swords into plowshares, but while the world remains in this fallen condition, it is just as well that our soldiers are not taught to love those against whom they must fight. One can hate evil without personal rancor; as Psalm 97:10 says, "Oh you who love the Lord, hate evil." It says nothing about hating evildoers.

Even the much-beloved Psalm 23 does not escape Lewis’s scorn. Lewis follows Moffatt’s translation of verse 5, "Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me while my enemies have to look on (Lewis’s italics). He continues, "The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid Joneses (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it" (p. 21). It is more likely that the Psalmist is praising God for protecting him even though he is beset by human adversaries. Lewis’s remarks tell us more about him than they do about Psalm 23.

I do not mean to suggest that Christians must disqualify themselves from serious study of Hebrew Scriptures. But if they are to achieve any real insight into Psalms, several cautions must be observed. They must either know Hebrew or consult with someone who does; they should avoid invidious comparisons, explicit or implied; and they should hold their christological prejudices in abeyance. Otherwise, as Lewis himself recognizes (p. 121), "What we see when we think we are looking into the depths of Scripture may be sometimes only the reflection of our own silly faces."