Thijs Booij, «Psalms 120–136: Songs for a Great Festival.», Vol. 91 (2010) 241-255
Psalms 120–134, the 'Songs of Ascents', are a functional unity. In early rabbinical tradition concerning the Great Hallel, they seem to be linked with Psalms 135 and 136; in the texts themselves this connection is quite clear. The Songs, as a collection, and the two psalms of praise apparently stem from the later post-exilic period, when they were used during the festival of Sukkoth. The Songs were recited in processions to the sanctuary; the psalms of praise were part of the liturgy proper.
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244 TH. BOOIJ
First, there are interpretations based on hl[m as â€œstepâ€, in
plural â€œstepsâ€ as leading up to, e.g., an altar (Ezek 43,17), a
throne (1 Kgs 10,19), or a gate (Ezek 40,26) 15. In both the
Mishnah and the Tosephta tractate Sukkah tells about nocturnal
festivities that took place in the temple court during Sukkoth, the
Feast of Booths 16. There were torch dances then, and the Levites
used to play on all sorts of instruments of music and to sing,
standing on the half-circular steps which lead down from the court
of the men to that of the women. The number of these steps,
fifteen, is said to have corresponded to the number of the twl[m
songs 17. Some take this to imply that these songs themselves are
texts which the Levites used to sing on the steps (twl[m) 18.
However, the tractate does not say so, nor does it claim that the
name twl[mh ryv derives from the steps. In fact, because of their
plaintive or pleading tone (Pss 120; 123; 130), or modest nature
(Ps 131), some of the twl[m songs would be scarcely suitable for
an exuberant celebration as took place, according to the rabbinical
account, in the temple court. The local situation may also be taken
into account. The common heading of the texts, considered in
connection with their special nature, is likely to be of early date,
if not original. The situation dealt with in Sukkah, however, is that
of the Herodian temple. It is questionable whether the Jerusalem
temple had the fifteen steps when the twl[m songs were given their
name. It is not even certain that fifteen songs were counted at that
time, as in the separate psalms the common title may be
secondary and the present Psalm 127 seems to unite two different
texts (vv. 1-2.3-5).
Wilhelm Gesenius takes twl[m as â€œstepsâ€ in a figurative sense.
In his view, the title originates from a figure of speech
Cf. LXX: wdh twn anabaumwn, â€œsong of the stepsâ€; Jerome: canticum
âˆžÃ¹ Ëœ ÃŸ Ëœ
graduum ; Targum: amwhtd â€“yyqwsm l[ rmatad aryv, â€œsong that was said on the
steps of the depthâ€.
M i s h n a h Sukkah 5,1-4; Tosephta Sukkah 4,1-9. See further H.
BORNHÃ„USER, Sukka (LaubhÃ¼ttenfest) (Die Mischna II.6; Berlin 1935)
Mishnah Sukkah 5,4; see also Middot 2,5.
Thus H. GRAETZ, â€œDie Halleluja- und Hallel-Psalmenâ€, MGWJ 28
(1879) 251; E. KÃ–NIG, Die Psalmen. Eingeleitet, Ã¼bersetzt und erklÃ¤rt
(GÃ¼tersloh 1927) 18-19; H. HERKENNE, Das Buch der Psalmen. Ãœbersetzt und
erklÃ¤rt (HS V/2; Bonn 1936) 14.