Psalm 2:11-12 – A Text Critical Crux Interpretum

Jim Getz over at Ketuvim has an interesting post on choosing a Bible translation for classroom use. In the end Jim chooses the NRSV, for a variety of reasons which you can read for yourself (For the record, I use the NRSV in the classroom as well, for some of the same reasons). What got my attention about Jim’s post was his discussion of Psalm 2:11-12. To my chagrin, after I had pretty much finished this post I noticed that Chris Heard has also responded to Getz’s post, though luckily (for me at least) Chris did not have all of his resources available to him, so this post actually answers some of the issues that his raised. (UPDATE: Jim has posted a follow-up post on this topic at Ketuvim).

Enough is enough… let’s look at the text in question. Here is a formal translation of the Hebrew of Psalm 2:11-12:

עבדו ×?ת־יהוה ביר×?×”
וגילו ברעדה
נש×?קו־בר פן־י×?× ×£
ות×?בדו דרך
כי־יבער כמעט ×?פו

Serve Yahweh with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss [the] son/field/purity(!), lest he be angry
and you perish [on the] way
for his anger burns quickly.

The two major difficulties in this passage revolve around the understanding of the phrase “Rejoice with trembling� (וגילו ברעדה) and “kiss the son� (נשקו־בר). The former is said to be difficult to understand (how does one “rejoice with trembling�?), while the latter includes meaning of the word בר (br), which will be the focus of this post. Most translations follow the pointing of the MT and understand בר as the Aramaic word for son (e.g., KJV, NIV, TNIV, NLT, ASV, etc.). The problem with this understanding of the passage revolves around the question of why would the psalmist employ the Aramaic word for son in this verse rather than the Hebrew word for son (בן) – especially when the Hebrew term is found just a few verses earlier in v. 7?

If we turn to the Versions, like the Greek Septuagint (LXX) or the Aramaic Targums, we don’t get much additional help. The LXX reads as follows:

δουλεÏ?σατε Ï„á¿· κυÏ?ίῳ á¼?ν φόβῳ
καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε αá½?Ï„á¿· á¼?ν Ï„Ï?όμῳ.
δÏ?άξασθε παιδείας, μήποτε á½€Ï?γισθῇ κÏ?Ï?ιος
καὶ ἀπολεῖσθε �ξ �δοῦ δικαίας.
ὅταν �κκαυθῇ �ν τάχει � θυμὸς α�τοῦ

Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice in him with trembling,
Seize instruction, lest the Lord be angry,
and you will perish from the righteous way,
when his wrath is quickly kindled.

The translator evidently didn’t know exactly what to make of the Hebrew (נשקו בר), if indeed that was his Hebrew Vorlage (which we’ll assume). He evidently knew the meaning of the two words, since he translated נשק by καταφιλέω “kissâ€? in Ps 85:11 (LXX 84:11) and rendered the Hebrew בר, “cleannessâ€? (noun) and “pureâ€? (adjective) elsewhere with καθαÏ?ιότης “purityâ€? (Ps 18:21,25 [LXX 17:21, 25]) and καθαÏ?ός “pureâ€? (Ps 24:4 [LXX 23:4]). That being said, he didn’t translate it as “to kiss purityâ€? or the like. In his commentary on LXX Psalm 2, Al Pietersma argues that the translator provided more of an interpretation of the passage, taking “to kiss purityâ€? as “a metaphor for adopting improved behaviour,â€? thus the rendering, “seize instruction.â€?

What is significant is that the LXX did not understand בר as the Aramaic word for “son� (nor did Aquila or Symmachus). The Aramaic Targum seems to take a similar approach as the LXX.

What the Versions teach us is that there are other ways to understand the Hebrew consonants בר than just the Aramaic word for son – but we’ll return to other suggestions in a bit.

BHS (and many scholars) suggest emending the verse to read as follows:

עבדו ×?ת־יהוה ביר×?×”
ברעדה נשקו ברגליו
ות×?בדו דרך פן־י×?× ×£
כי־יבער כמעט ×?פו

Serve Yahweh with fear,
With trembling, kiss his feet.
lest he be angry and you perish [on the] way,
for his anger burns quickly.

It is this emendation, first suggested by Alfred Bertholet in the early 1900s, which is behind the translation found in the NRSV (among others), and not any sense that בר can mean “feetâ€? in Hebrew (in this regard Getz’s post is inaccurate and Chris Heard is correct insofar as בר doesn’t mean “feetâ€? ). This is a pretty substantial emendation, proposing that the first two letters of ברגליו became separated from the last half and ended up with two words between them, among other things. While this emendation results in two nicely balanced lines of poetry, the gymnastics it requires make me wonder how plausible it really is.

The NEB’s “tremble, and kiss [i.e., pay homage to] the king� follows a less radical conjecture by reworking the Hebrew to read: נשקו לגבור ברעדה. Again, while this may be possible, how plausible it may be is another question. (There are quite a number of other suggested emendations; but these will have to do for this post)

This leads many people (and most English translations) to opt for the admittedly problematic translation, “kiss the son.�

Those opting for this rendering muster a number of arguments in its favour. First, while it is odd to have the Aramaic term for son when the Hebrew term is used just a few verses earlier, this can be explained in terms of who is being addressed. In v. 7 the king is speaking and reporting what Yahweh had declared to him, i.e., “You are my son.� In v. 12, however, the statement is being directed to the foreign kings. Thus it is fitting that they be addressed in the official language of their day, Aramaic. This is similar to the usage of the Aramaic בר in Prov 31:2, when the word is put into the mouth of King Lemuel’s mother. Second, while the above emendation makes good sense (almost too much sense), it is next to impossible to understand how a scribe could have made the mistake. Third, all things being equal (which they rarely if ever are!), the MT is the more difficult reading.

I wonder if a better approach would be to dispense of the problematic understanding of בר as the Aramaic “son,� and try to understand it – like the early Versions – as one of the other Hebrew words with the same spelling. Possibilities include taking בר as “field� (see Job 39:4 etc.), which would produce a fitting act of submission, “kiss the field,� i.e., bow prostrate to the ground in homage to Yahweh. It could also be taken as “purity� or “pure� (in line with the early versions), and be rendered like the NJPS “pay homage in good faith� or the NET “Give sincere homage.�

There are other possibilities for this verse, but when it comes right down to it, this verse is truly a crux interpretum – and as such, it is not the best passage to base your selection of a translation on! That being said, it does reveal some tendencies in the different translations. The NRSV is more likely on the whole to adopt critical interpretations of problematic verses, while the NIV/TNIV/NJPS will tend to stick to the MT as much as possible. Finally, translations that capitalize “Son� (NIV, NASB, ESV, etc.) are clearly expressing a theological agenda, which arguably has no place in a translation.

If this post has piqued your interest in textual criticism, see my series of posts on Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.

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7 Responses to Psalm 2:11-12 – A Text Critical Crux Interpretum

  1. Pingback: Ketuvim: the Writings of James R. Getz Jr. On Translation and Teaching Part II «

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  7. Anne Garber Kompaore says:

    I have an alternative analysis based on the analysis of the word BAR, and semantically related verbs BRR and BXR, as well as on a structural analysis of the poem. I presented a paper of this a week ago, and am doing further research in order to test my hypothesis, that the translation should be “kiss the chosen one”.

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