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Psalm 98

“Let rivers clap hands; together, let mountains sing joyfully.” Psalm 98 presents a great cosmic orchestra of rejoicing. How are we to understand this description of nature?

Rabbi Elliot Dorff recently shared with me a remarkable story concerning how to read the Bible. Years ago, he presented on the ethics of embryonic-stem-cell use to an audience at Fuller Theological Seminary. The evangelical Christians were thought leaders, with some engaged in the field of biomedicine. They expressed their concern with stem-cell research by citing Biblical passages that indicated that human life already existed in the womb. They cited the prophet Jeremiah, who said on behalf of God (1:5), “…before you were born, I consecrated you.” And Psalm 139:16 declaring, “Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book….”

Rabbi Dorff responded, “Let me share some other Biblical verses. Psalm’s (19:2) say, ‘The Heavens declare the glory of God.’ And Nehemiah (9:6), states, ‘and the host of heaven prostrate themselves before You.’ Do the Heavens speak or the stars bow down? Rather these are metaphors. The Bible often uses metaphors, which are not to be taken literally.”

He then turned their attention to Exodus 21:22, “When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no ason (fatal injury) ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.” The missing piece in the verse is completing the phrase “no fatal injury” to whom? – the fetus or the mother. The rabbis decided that the focus is on the mother, who survives so that only with the next verse and her death is it a life for a life. In sum, as the rabbis read the verse, the fetus is not yet human life and is only compensated with monetary damages.

The thoughtful listeners had the evening to sleep on what Rabbi Dorff had taught. The next morning they said, “We have decided that we can work with fetal tissue. The New Testament is silent on the matter, which then leads us to the Old Testament for guidance. And the verse that you cited would allow for the medical use of fetal tissue.”

Rabbi Dorff concluded his recounting with expressing admiration for their openness to a new understanding, which emerged from reading the legal material closely and accepting the description in some cases of God’s relationship with people and nature as poetic metaphor.

Join when we will read of “rivers clapping hands and mountains singing.”

Our study is dedicated to Harris Shultz, marking sheloshim (the end of the mourning period) for his and Jan’s son, Noah Shultz.