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The Final Word on Psalm 2:12

15th May 2007

The debate surrounding the translation and interpretation of Psalm 2:12 continues. For some context, you can see my previous post here, while John Hobbins has some further (good) reflections on why it is inappropriate to capitalize “Son” in this verse (assuming you understand the phrase as “kiss the son”), even if you understand further christological significance in the passage.

Turning our attention back to the actual text critical problem with this passage, Chris Heard has posted on the difficulty of translating  נשקו־בר (“kiss the sonâ€? or the like) in Psalm 2:12. He notes a recent article in German by Liudger Sabottka on this passage in question in Biblica 87 (2006), entitled, “Ps 2,12: ‘Küsst den Sohn!’?â€? [“Ps 2:12: ‘Kiss the son!’?â€?]. Sabottka suggests taking the verb נשק as an example of נשק II, “arm or equip” with a privative meaning, e.g., “disarm.” He further takes בר as “pure, sincere,” and offers the translation, “Rüstet ehrlich ab!â€? or as Chris translates it,  “Really/truly/honestly disarm [yourselves]!â€?

While this interpretation is possible (are not all things possible?!), I’m not convinced it is the best. While the privative use of the Piel stem is acknowledged by all Hebrew grammarians, it is not very common. According to GKC it is limited to denominative verbs (i.e., verbs that derive from nouns) and occurs only a handful of times (see 52 h).  Jenni similarly notes this usage in his Das Hebraische Pi‘el (p. 273), though he eschews the specialized privative function and understands it as a general factitive-resultative use (and Waltke and O’Connor follow Jenni in this regard, see 24.4f). While this understanding נשק in Ps 2:12 is certainly possible, I am not sure that such a rare usage is warranted. Furthermore, in all of the examples of the privative function noted, none of them are ever modified by an adverb, let alone an adjective. To say the least, I remain unconvinced by Sabottka’s proposal.

While many proposed interpretations of the phrase נשקו־בר focus on understanding בר bar, perhaps a better way forward is through an examination of the verb נשק nashaq. The verb itself occurs 35x in the Hebrew Bible (this includes supposed homonyms), including the passage under scrutiny.

Here is a breakdown of how the verb is used:

  • The verb most often occurs with an expressed personal object. Most frequently (21x) the object is marked by the preposition lamed: “A kissed ל-Bâ€? (Qal: Gen 27:26,27; 29:11; 48:10; 50:1; Exod 4:27; 18:7; 2Sam 14:33; 2Sam 15:5; 2Sam 19:40; 20:9; 1Kgs 19:18; 19:20; Job 31:27; Prov 7:13; Ruth 1:9, 14; Piel: Gen 29:13; 31:28; 32:1; 45:15).
  • Four times a pronominal suffix marks the personal object: “A kissed him/her/me/youâ€? (all Qal: Gen 33:4; 1Sam 10:1; Song 1:2; 8:1).
  • There are two instances where the verb takes an impersonal object; in both of these cases the object is not marked by the preposition lamed, but simply precedes the verb (Qal: Hos 13:2, “people kissing calvesâ€?; Prov 24:26, “he kisses the lipsâ€?).
  • The object of reciprocal kisses are not marked with a preposition lamed; in these two cases the object may either follow (Qal 1Sam 20:41) or precede the verb (Ps 85:11 [Eng v. 10]; many conjecture this form should be pointed as a Niphal).

The remaining five instances are more problematic:

  • Three times it appears in military contexts connected with קשת qeshet, “bowâ€?: Ps 78:9 “equipped with bowsâ€?; 1Chron 12:2 “equipped with bowâ€?; 2Chron 17:17 “armed/equipped with bow.â€? In these instances most lexicons hypothesize a different root, e.g., נשק II “handle, be equipped withâ€? (BDB), “to join one to another,â€? i.e., to “take one’s place in rankâ€? (HALOT). This homonym is understood to be a denominative from the noun nesheq, “equipment, weaponsâ€? and is perhaps related to the Arabic nasaqa, “to line up, to place in order.â€?
  • The remaining two instances are connected to נשק II by HALOT: Gen 41:40 (Qal) “Order themselvesâ€?? and Ezek 3:13 (Hifil) “the sound of the wings touching one another.â€? I personally would relate the occurrence in Ezek 3:13 to נשק I “kissâ€? and understand it as an idiom, lit., “and the sound of the wings of the living creatures kissing each to its sisterâ€? i.e., “brushing against one another.â€? This example is parallel to the construction found in 1Sam 20:41 “each his neighbourâ€?; we also use the English verb “kissâ€? in the same manner.

Based on this examination of the verb usage, some parameters on how best to understand this passage may be set:

  • When the verb clearly means “kissâ€?, it never takes the preposition ב bet to mark the object of the kiss. This seems to rule out the common emendation “kiss his feetâ€? with the bet. (BHS also notes the emendation with a lamed, though that emendation requires more exegetical gymnastics to explain where the lamed came from).
  • There are no instances where נשק nashaq is modified by an adverb, and it never occurs without an expressed object. This makes the proposed interpretations, “kiss sincerelyâ€? or “pay homage in good faithâ€? or the NET “Give sincere homageâ€? unlikely.

Thus, the understanding “kiss bar,� with בר bar being the object of the verbal action is the most plausible interpretation based on the clear cases of the usage of נשק nashaq in the Hebrew Bible. This still leaves at least two options: the more popular “kiss [the] son� and the more obscure “kiss [the] ground/land.�

I am still unconvinced that the first alternative is the best option. While you do find some contexts where you have an Aramaic word thrown in among Hebrew (the parade example cited is Prov 31:2-3); it is difficult to see it in this context when the Hebrew word for son (בן ben) is used a few verses earlier. Furthermore, while Aramaic would perhaps be an appropriate address to foreign powers, no other parts of the address are Aramaic. In addition – and this is the clincher in my opinion — when נשק nashaq takes a personal object (like “sonâ€?) it is always marked by the preposition lamed, and in Ps 2:12 it is not.

In working through the data, I have become more convinced that the second interpretation, “kiss the field/ground,â€? is the most plausible. First, it doesn’t resort to head spinning emendations (not that I have anything against emendations). Second, it doesn’t appeal to an odd usage of an Aramaic word in an otherwise entirely Hebrew passage. Third, it fits with the regular usage of the verb, since elsewhere when נשק nashaq is used with an impersonal object, it does not mark the object with a preposition lamed. Fourth — and this is something that Staffan Olofsson notes in his article — there are ANE parallels to this exact phrase as an act of reverence for a king or a god in the Akkadian expression nasaqu gaggara “kiss the ground/fieldâ€? (see his “The Crux Interpretum in Ps 2:12,â€? in SJOT; I would like to thank my friend Staffan for sending me a copy of this article since I don’t have easy access to SJOT). Finally, this interpretation fits the context of the passage.

The one weakness of this interpretation is that the meaning of בר bar as “field� is not very popular and only occurs in a few other places in the Old Testament (Job 39:4 and the Aramaic parts of Daniel, 2:38, 4:9, 12, 18, 20 (2x), 22, 29). That being said, it is a viable usage and makes good sense in this passage.

This, then, is my final word on Psalm 2:12 (at least for now!).

7 Responses to “The Final Word on Psalm 2:12”

  1. Ken Says:

    While I agree with you, Tyler, I don’t know that the absence of the lamed should be a clincher. This is poetry after all and the absence of a preposition is hardly unexpected or unusual in poetry.

  2. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    It’s not just the absence of a lamed; it is that the emendation reconstructs it with a bet. While the absence of any preposition would be just fine for poetry, I’m not sure that a different preposition would make sense — especially if it doesn’t help create assonance or something.

  3. Kevin P. Edgecomb Says:

    I agree with you both. The beth reconstruction is simply wrong (“kiss with his feet”?), while the absence of either prepositional lamed or direct object marker is not really an issue. “Kiss a/the son” is a perfectly viable reading, whatever on earth it is supposed to mean.

    Fight the disambiguation!

  4. Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » “The LXX says…” - Taking Septuagint Criticism Seriously Says:

    [...] The Final Word on Psalm 2:12 [...]

  5. Bob Macdonald Says:

    Another question – given the structure of the psalm, could there be a clue to the difficult words in the sound of the corresponding component in the beginning of the psalm?
    The hint is in the installation of the king on the holy hill of Zion.
    a Kings rising -
    b God laughing -
    c wrath -
    d installation -
    הַר-קָדְש×?Ö´×™ HaR-QADSHi
    [declaration of the king as son and invitation to rule] -
    naSHQU-baR נַשּ×?ְקוּ-בַר
    d’ – [unknown translation of BR]
    c’ – wrath
    b’ – a little
    a’ – blessing

    Can this structure be supported? Perhaps the poet wanted BR to rhyme with HR – it’s all very alliterative. (see longer post on my blog – my references to other blogs in typepad don’t seem to register).

  6. JohnFH Says:

    Thanks, Tyler, for chewing on this bone. A couple of comments.

    That’s nashaqu qaqqara in Akkadian, not nasaqu gaggara.

    The trouble, as I see it, is that qaqqaru(m) in Akkadian doesn’t mean “ground/field,” but “ground (as a surface)/earth (as opposed to sky)/plot or stretch of land (esp. for building(s)”: I’m quoting from CDA. Hebrew and Aramaic bar II, on the other hand, both mean “(open) field,” not “ground/field.” In other words, qaqqaru and bar are less than perfect interdialectal equivalents (to use Shalom Paul’s terminology). Rather, qaqqaru in Akkadian corresponds to eretz in Hebrew; bar II in Aramaic, to sadeh.

    Secondly, the verb nashaq in Hebrew occurs too infrequently in our corpus to draw any conclusions from the fact that it’s not otherwise found modified by an adverb or without an expressed object. More frequently occurring verbs in the D stem occur, albeit rarely, without an expressed object. The adverbial use of adjectives is also attested, albeit rarely, in ancient Hebrew. That’s all that matters. There are no strong arguments against the construal adopted by the NJPSV Ketuvim committee (i.e., Moshe Greenberg, Jonas Greenfield, and Nahum Sarna, each one of whom had more Hebrew in one pinky than most of us have in our whole bodies). It fits the context no less than Olofsson’s proposal, which is, despite the objections I raise, worthy of continued consideration.

  7. emc Says:

    Bar = field is just as much of a gratuitous Aramaism as bar = son.