I was foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before you. Psalm 73:22 Hebrew World translation
Beast – In Hebrew Man is never classified with the animals. Let’s say that again. No place in Scripture can you find any reference at all that justifies calling Man one of the animals. Hebrew makes a clear distinction between ‘adam and behema. While they are both formed by God and under His authority, they do not share a common origin. Only when a man loses his status as Man is he classified with the beasts, the animals. Nebuchadnezzar learned this lesson the hard way. Asaph’s poem intends us to learn this lesson without spending seven years eating grass. Asaph doesn’t say that he is a behema before God. He says that he is like a behema. He is still Man. He hasn’t become like Nebuchadnezzar yet. But he can see it coming.
Why does Asaph think of himself like a beast, a non-human living creature? Because he has been “foolish and ignorant.” The two Hebrew words are from bara’ and yada’. Bara’ has a wide umbrella of meanings and no one is quite sure how they are related. In one form, it means “to burn,” with the implication of wasting away, consuming. Its most common usage is in connection with purging the land of idolatry, often removing by fire the sinful practices and places of pagan religions. In another form like the one in this verse, it simply means “brutish,” like an animal. But I suspect that Asaph has more in mind than a simple adjective. The translation “foolish” attempts to provide more meaning, although it is difficult to see why the translator picked “foolish.” If we substitute “brutish,” then we need to ask why Asaph chooses this word. Perhaps Asaph notices that bara’ is about things that do not last, even if they are alive. Animals die just like humans, but until Disney gave them human personalities, animals left no legacy, no memory, no marks that they were ever here. Furthermore, while they are part of God’s purposes, they are not voluntary partners in His plans. They do what He instructs by instinct. They are not in His image (tselem). They exercise no spiritual power (no totems) and they make no moral decisions. In one sense you could say that animals are robotic. They do what they are programmed to do. Perhaps we should translate Asaph’s verse as “I was without conscious intent – driven by instinct – wasting away toward extinction.”
If Asaph’s choice highlights action without decision, then his next word cements the idea. Yada’ is the quintessential Hebrew word for knowing. Here it is attached to the strong negative lo. “I was not knowing.” This is the equivalent of saying that I do not share in what is essential to being human for yada’ does not describe the mental processes of animals. yada’ only applies to Man, spiritual beings and God.
Now we understand why Asaph feels like a beast. He realizes that he has been operating by instinct. Envy has thrown him into the realm of the animals where basic drives rather than conscious decisions control behavior. He sees what the wicked have and he wants it. That is no different than the pack of lions who fight over which one gets the food. To be human is to determine to behave on the basis of conscious moral choice. To be human is to stand at the crossroads of yetzer ha’ra and yetzer ha’tov. Once I allow myself to be directed without choosing, I am acting like an animal. Oh, by the way, addictions fit that description. Asaph points out that envy is addictive. So are a lot of other psycho-physical phenomena. The beast within is a powerful creature. I wrote a book about that a long time ago. It remains unpublished because the end is still waiting somewhere.
You might ask yourself if you have behaviors that do not arise from conscious choices at the crossroads. You will know if you have to fight to stay on the path.
Topical Index: animal, behema, brute, bara’, yada’, addiction, Psalm 73:22