“Genre research in Psalms is nonnegotiable, not something one can execute or ignore according to preference. Rather it is the foundational work with which there can be no certainty in the remainder.
It is the firm ground from which everything else must ascend.”
- Hermann Gunkel
Perhaps no scholar has influenced the modern study of the book of Psalms as much as Hermann Gunkel. His pioneering form-critical work on the psalms sought to provide a new and meaningful context in which to interpret individual psalms — not by looking at their historical background or their literary context within the Psalter (which he didn’t see as significant), but by bringing together psalms of the same genre (Gattung) from throughout the Psalter. Even though Psalms scholarship has refined and critiqued his approach and have moved on to different approaches, Gunkel’s form-critical legacy remains firmly entrenched in modern scholarship and is the default starting point for most studies of the Psalter.
The Genres of the Psalms
According to Gunkel, for psalms to be considered as part of the same genre (Gattung) three conditions had to be met:
the psalms had to have a similar setting in life (Sitz im Leben), basis in worship, a common cultic setting, or at least originally derive from one;
they had to be characterized by common thoughts, feelings, and moods; and
they required a shared diction, style, and structure — a language related to form (Formensprache). This feature provides the signals of the particular genre.
Working with these criteria, Gunkel isolated a number of different genres or types of psalms. In his earlier work he highlighted four primary types of psalms (hymns, community laments, individual thanksgiving psalms, and individual laments), with various subcategories, as well as several mixed forms. In his later work, completed by Joachim Begrich, he identified six major types (hymns, enthronement psalms, communal complaints, royal psalms, individual complaints, and individual thanksgiving psalms) and a number of smaller genres and mixed types. I have tended to follow the later classification, with modifications as noted. Also note that some psalms are found in more than one category. This is especially the case with sub-genres since Gunkel wasn’t consistent in how he dealt with them.
For this summary I have relied primarily on these two works:
Hermann Gunkel (completed by Joachim Begrich), Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel (Mercer University Press, 1998; translation of Einleitung in die Psalmen: die Gattungen der religiösen Lyrik Israels [Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985, 1933]; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com).
Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction (Fortress Press, 1967; translation of his article in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart [2nd ed; J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1930]; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com)
I have also included this summary as a PDF document below (it is a handout I put together for my Psalms class). Feel free to download it and use it as long as you keep the ascription in the first footnote. (While I have double checked the references, please let me know if you find any errors or omissions.)
Introduction: A call to praise, sing, and rejoice to Yahweh in some form.
Body: The reasons why Yahweh should be praised (often introduced by כי, kî, “for”).
His qualities and attributes.
His regular or repeated actions, including his works in creation and conservation of cosmos and his works in history, especially for Israel.
Conclusion: renewed summons to praise.
Sitz im Leben
Hymns were sung as part of worship on diverse occasions, including sacred festivals as well at other times, perhaps by a choir or an individual singer.
B. Songs of Zion
Psalms 46; 48; 76; 84; 87; 122.
These psalms tend to lack a proper introduction. They praise Yahweh by praising Jerusalem, addressing the holy place, and calling down blessings upon it. They were sung at particular occasions that celebrated Jerusalem’s majesty and future eschatological significance.
C. Psalms of Yahweh’s Enthronement
Psalms 47; 93; 96:10-13; 97; 99.
Often begin with the words יהוה מלך, “Yahweh has become king.”
Contain many calls to rejoice.
Have brief references to Yahweh’s deeds, depicted as just now taking place.
Give descriptions of what his reign will mean to Israel and the world.
Present the idea that a new world kingdom is coming.
Sitz im Leben
These psalms were used as part of Israel’s worship, likely including an enthronement festival in which Yahweh is glorified as king. These psalms were given a prophetic, eschatological, reinterpretation in their final stages.
Calling upon Yahweh by name (usually in the vocative)
Lamenting complaints over the misfortune; almost always political in nature.
Supplications and petitions to Yahweh to transform the misfortunes.
Thoughts aimed to excite confidence in the suppliant or to move Yahweh to action, such as his honour or the sake of his name.
Often end with a certainty of hearing.
Sitz im Leben
The setting of these psalms are days of national fasting and/or complaint festivals brought on by various national calamities, such as war, exile, pestilence, drought, famine, and plagues.
Laments will typically include the following element, though not necessarily in the same order:
Summons to Yahweh.
Complaint/Lament proper, often preceded by a description of the prayer.
Considerations inducing Yahweh to intervene, whether by challenging Yahweh’s honour, exciting his anger by citing the enemies’ words, or by the nature of the complaint itself.
Petition/Entreaty. This is the most significant part of the complaint psalm. May be of a general nature or may be quite specific (confessional petitions, petitions of innocence, etc.).
Conviction of being heard (present only in some Psalms) and/or a vow.
Sitz im Leben
The setting in life is difficult to determine due to the formulaic character of the language in laments. Originally derives from the worship service and then later were used as spiritual songs of the individual. These psalms were occasioned by apparently life-threatening situations rather than everyday life; such situations may include illness, misfortune, persecution from enemies — though one needs to be careful about taking the images too literally.
2) Psalms Protesting Innocence
Psalms 5; 7; 17; 26. These psalms have an accentuated assurance of innocence, and even in some cases a qualified self-curse.
3) Psalms of Confession
Psalms 51; 130 (Psalms expressing national penitence include Psalms 78; 81; 106; cf. also Ezra 9:9-15; Neh 9:9-38; Dan 9:4-19). These psalms are characterized by a painful awareness of having sinned against Yahweh and deserving punishment. In this light they ask forgiveness and appeal for God’s grace.
4) Psalms of Cursing and Vengeance
Psalm 109, among others. These psalms strive for retaliation against enemies.
5) Psalms of Trust
Psalms 4; 11; 16; 23; 27:1-6; 62; 131 (Psalm 125 is a national song of trust). These psalms reformulate the lament psalms and shift their focus to an expression of trust and confidence, so much so that often the complaint, petition, and certainty of hearing are displaced. They often speak of Yahweh in the third person.
Formally Royal psalms are of different types, though in all cases they are “concerned entirely with kings.” Some of their distinguishing elements include:
Praises of the king.
Affirmations of Yahweh’s favour to the king.
Prayers for the king (or his own prayer) and royal oracles.
Portrayals of the king’s righteousness and piety.
Sitz im Leben
These psalms were performed at some sort of court festivity, where they were performed in the presence of the king and his dignitaries. Specific occasions may be enthronement/accession festivals and anniversaries, victory over an enemy, healing from an illness, among others.
An expanded Introduction, declaring the intention to thank God.
Narration of the trouble, usually to the guests of the celebration. The psalmist usually recounts:
his trouble (thus they are akin to Laments)
his calling upon God
Acknowledgment/proclamation of Yahweh’s deliverance; usually directed towards others.
In many cases, the psalm ends with an Announcement of the thank-offering.
Sitz im Leben
Since the word usually translated “thanksgiving” is the same word used for “thank offering” (תודה; todah; e.g., Ps 50:14, 23; Jonah 2:9), it is clear that these psalms were intended to be used in a cultic setting. It is thought that the individual, in the presence of the worshiping congregation (e.g., 22:22; 26:12), would testify personally to God’s saving deeds, accompanied with a ritual act and meal. Eventually, these psalms freed themselves from the actual sacrifice.
B. Thanksgivings of the Community
Psalms 66:8-12; 67; 124; 129.
These psalms are parallel in form to the individual thanksgiving psalms. The life setting for these psalms was likely a cultic celebration at the temple in remembrance of God’s help and intervention.
V. Wisdom Psalms
Psalms 1; 37; 49; 73; 91; 112; 127; 128; 133.
While there are wisdom elements found in psalms of a variety of genres, there are psalms which exhibit a concentration of wisdom themes to be considered a distinct type. As such, these psalms do not exhibit a single formal pattern, but share a number of characteristics, including:
Psalmist speaks of his words as wisdom, instruction, etc.
He describes the “fear of Yahweh.”
He addresses his hearers as “sons.”
He warns, teaches, and uses figures, question and answer techniques, beatitudes, descriptions of Yahweh’s ways.
VI. Smaller Genres and Mixed Types
A. Pilgrimage Psalms
Only one complete example remains, Psalm 122. These psalms were used at the beginning of a pilgrimage as well as once the pilgrim had reached his or her destination.
B. Psalms Using Ancient Stories (Legends) of Israel
Psalms 78; 105; 106. These psalms are subsumed under other literary types (e.g., Ps 105 is a hymn), but may be grouped together because they share a number of common characteristics:
The Narration of Yahweh’s deeds and/or the sins of Israel (of Heilsgeschichte)
The Exhortation (as in Deuteronomy)
C. Psalm Liturgies
Psalms 15; 20; 24; 14/53; 66; 81; 82; 85; 95; 107; 115; 118; 121; 126; 132; 134. These psalms are characterized by their antiphonal structure, particularly suited for corporate worship.
As I mentioned above, Gunkel’s classification is just a starting point. Much has changed since Gunkel did his seminal studies of the Psalms, though few studies have the Psalms have had as lasting of influence. Perhaps in future posts I will highlight some of the changes and trends since Gunkel.
Since then Bio Nascimento has translated the handout into Portuguese (with my permission). I don’t know how many readers I have that read Portuguese, but I figured I would make the translated handout available, so here it is:
As I mentioned in my previousposts on Psalm 151 in the Biblical Tradition, there is significant debate on the relationship between the Septuagint Psalm 151 and the version of the Psalm found in the Qumran Psalms scroll (11Q5 Psalm 151A and B).
The editor of 11Q5 Psalm 151A and B, James Sanders, argues that 11QPsa 151A and B, while related to, are not identical with the Vorlage of LXX Ps 151. He further argues that “there can be no hesitancy whatever in affirming that 11QPs 151 is the original psalm” (The Psalms Scroll of Qumrân Cave 11 (11QPsa); DJD 4 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965; buy from Amazon.com], 60), and that the LXX Psalm is a later translation of an “amalgam” of the Qumran originals (63). Most (but not all) scholars have followed Sanders in his reconstruction of the relationship between the Greek and Hebrew versions of Psalm 151. Peter Flint considers the Greek version a “transformation of two separate psalms into a single piece” (“Apocryphal Psalms,” Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls [2 volumes; Oxford University Press, 2000; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com. ], 2:708), while his Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperCollins, 1999; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com) also popularizes Sanders’s view:
The text found in 11QPs-a represents the original Hebrew with two originally separate Psalms, which the Greek translator has reworked and synthesized into a single Psalm (p. 585).
Beyond the question of the relationship between these psalms, Sanders has little good to say about LXX Psalm 151. He calls it “meaningless” (DJD, p. 60), and maintains that without the background provided in Psalm 151A, the LXX psalm “makes little or no sense at all” (p. 59). Furthermore, he argues that the individual who brought together the Vorlage of LXX Psalm 151 destroyed “the beauty and integrity of the original” and “sacrificed not only the artistry but also the sense of the one, and probably as well of the other” (p. 63). In his popular work, The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll (Cornell University Press, 1967; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), Sanders further refers to the Greek version of Psalm 151 as “nearly meaningless” (p. 94) and “comparatively ridiculous” (p. 95). Sanders is not alone in his low opinion of the Septuagint Psalm 151. For instance, Strugnell echoes Sanders when he describes it as “largely meaningless” (“Notes on the Text,” 259), while Meyer considered it a “dogmatic correction” of a rustic psalm (“Die Septuaginta-Fassung von Psalm 151:1-5,” 172).
While I agree that the Qumran psalms are related to the Vorlage of LXX Psalm 151, there are significant differences between the texts that indicate that their relationship is not so simple, and that the texts are more dissimilar than even Sanders admits. In fact, I think – in line with the works of Haran, Smith, Segal, and most recently Debel (in part) – that it is more plausible that the Qumran psalm(s) are a later reworking of the shorter Hebrew Vorlage of LXX Psalm 151. Furthermore, in contrast to Sanders, I will argue that LXX Psalm 151 is a coherent text in and of itself, and that it doesn’t need 151A/B to make sense of it. In this regard I argue that while LXX Psalm 151 is shorter, it is in fact a well-constructed midrash on 1 Samuel 16-17.
In fact, I would argue that reading LXX Psalm 151 in the light of the Qumran psalms actually hampers our understanding of it, since the later Qumran versions take the psalm in a slightly different direction. In a recent article, Segal (“Literary Development,” Textus 21, 143), has made the bold claim that
the bias towards the Hebrew version of the psalm has resulted in a skewed view of the meaning of the Greek edition, as all scholars have assumed that this shorter poem [i.e., the LXX] necessarily addresses the same topics as the longer version.
While Segal overstates the case, I concur with his evaluation. In my next post I will explore in more detail the relationship between the Greek and Hebrew versions of this psalm.
As mentioned in my previour post on Septuagint Psalm 151 (first installment in my series on Psalm 151 in the Biblical Tradition), the discovery of Hebrew psalms clearly related to the Septuagint Psalm 151 created quite a stir among biblical scholars. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Psalm 151 was only know to us from its Greek and Syriac versions. At the beginning of the last century Septuagint scholar Henry B. Swete noted that “there is no evidence that it [Ps 151] ever existed in Hebrew” (Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek [Hendrickson, 1989], p. 253; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), and in the 1930s Martin Noth “expressed doubts” about a Hebrew original to LXX Psalm 151 in his study of the five Apocryphal psalms and did not bother to provide a Hebrew retroversion of Psalm 151 in that study.
It was not until the discovery among the Dead Sea Scrolls of the so-called “Qumran Psalms Scroll” (11QPs-a or 11Q5; see my Scroll Introduction) that contained two Psalms (Ps 151A and B) that were clearly parallel with the LXX 151, that scholars universally recognized that LXX Psalm 151 had a Hebrew Vorlage (i.e., a Hebrew original), though the precise relationship between LXX Psalm 151 and 11Q5 Psalm 151 remained under debate.
Before we discuss the nature of the relationship between the Greek LXX Psalm 151 and the Hebrew 11Q5 Psalms 151A and 151B, it would do us well to carefully examine the psalms in question. I have already provided a translation of LXX Psalm 151 in my previous post; here I provide a translation of Psalm 151A and B as found in column 28 of 11Q5:
11Q5 Ps 151A-B
11Q5 Ps 151A & B
הללויה לדויד בן ישי
A Hallelujah of David son of Jesse.
קטן הייתי מןאחי
Smaller was I than my brothers
וצעיר מבני אבי
And the youngest of the sons of my father
וישימני רועה לצונו
And he made me shepherd of his flock
And ruler over his kids
ידי עשו עוגב
My hands made a (musical) instrument
And my fingers a lyre
ואשימה ליהוה כבוד
And I rendered glory to the Lord
אמרתי אני בנפשי
I said within myself
ההרים לוא יעדו לו
The mountains do not witness to him,
והגבעות לוא יגידו
Nor do the hills declare;
עלו֯ העצים את דברי֯
The trees have cherished my words
והצואן את מעשי֯
And the flock my works.
כי מי יגדי ומי ידבר
For who can declare and who can speak,
ומי יספר את מעשי֯ אדון
And who can recount the works of the Lord?
הכול ראה אלוה
Everything has God seen,
הכול הוא שמע
everything has he heard,
and he has heeded.
שלח נביאו למושחני
He sent his prophet to annoint me,
את שמואל לגדלני
Samuel, to make me great
יצאו אחי לקראתו
My brothers went out to meet him,
יפי התור ויפי המראה
Handsome of figure and handsome of appearance
They were tall of stature
Handsome by their hair,
לוא בחר יהוה אלוהים בם
The Lord God did not choose them.
וישלח ויקחני מאחר הצואן
But he sent and took me from behind the flock
וימשחני בשמן הקודש
And annointed me with holy oil,
וישימני נגיד לעמו
And made me leader to his people
ומושל בבני בריתו
And ruler over the sons of his covenant
תחלת גב[ו]רה ה[דו]יד
משמשחו נביא אלוהים
At the beginning of [Dav]id’s p[ow]er after the prophet of God had annointed him
אזי רא֯[י]תי פלשתי
Then I s[a]w a Philistine
מחרף ממ[ערכות האיוב]
Uttering defiances from the r[anks of the enemy].
אנוכי [ ] את
I […] ’t […]
I should note that while the translation is my own, the above reconstruction follows that by the scroll’s editor, James Sanders (which I do not entirely agree with, but I’ll discuss that in another post). The line numbers in the left-hand column are not precise; they reflect the line divisions of the editor. According to Sanders’s reconstruction, Psalm 151B begins in line 13.
In the actual scroll, the column is laid out as follows:
11Q5 Column 28
יהוה העומדים בבית יהוה בלילות שאו ידיכם קודש וברכו
את שמ יהוה יברככה יהוה מציו[ן] עושה שמים וארץ
הללויה לדויד בן ישי קטן הייתי מןאחי וצעיר מבני אבי וישימני
רועה לצונו ומושל בגדיותיו ידי עשו עוגב ואצבעותי כנור
ואשימה ליהוה כבוד אמרתי אני בנפשי ההרים לוא יעדו
לו והגבעות לוא יגידו עלו֯ העצים את דברי֯ והצואן את מעשי֯
כי מי יגדי ומי ידבר ומי יספר את מעשי֯ אדון הכול ראה אלוה
הכול הוא שמע והוא האזין שלח נביאו למושחני את שמואל
לגדלני יצאו אחי לקראתו יפי התור ויפי המראה הגבהים בקומתם
היפים בשערם לוא בחר יהוה אלוהים בם וישלח ויקחני
מאחר הצואן וימשחני בשמן הקודש וישימני נגיד לעמו ומושל בבני
תחלת גב[ו]רה ה[דו]יד משמשחו נביא אלוהים אזי רא֯[י]תי פלשתי
מחרף ממ[ערכות האיוב] אנוכי [ ] את
Here is an English translation:
11Q5 Ps 151A & B
of the Lord, who stand in the house of the Lord by night. Lift your hands in the holy place and bless
the name of the Lord May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.
A Hallelujah of David son of Jesse. Smaller was I than my brothers And the youngest of the sons of my father
And he made me shepherd of his flock And ruler over his kids My hands made a (musical) instrument And my fingers a lyre
And I rendered glory to the Lord I said within myself The mountains do not witness
to him, Nor do the hills declare; The trees have cherished my words And the flock my works.
For who can declare and who can speak, And who can recount the works of the Lord? Everything has God seen,
Everything he has heard, and he has heeded. He sent his prophet to annoint me, Samuel,
to make me great My brothers went out to meet him, Handsome of figure and handsome of appearance They were tall of stature
Handsome by their hair, The Lord God did not choose them. And he sent and took me
from behind the flock And annointed me with holy oil, And made me leader to his people And ruler over the sons of
At the beginning of [Dav]id’s p[ow]er after the prophet of God had annointed him Then I s[a]w a Philistine
Uttering defiances from the r[anks of the enemy]. I […] ’t […]
As you can see, the actual scroll does not divide the Hebrew psalm into poetic lines, but takes up the width of the column with as much text as possible. (By the way, the top of the column [lines 1 and 2] consists of all but the first part of Psalm 134 [LXX Ps 133]).
Comparing Sanders’s line divisions with that of the actual scroll raises an issue common with any analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls; the issue of editorial reconstruction. A number of aspects of Sanders’s reconstruction of Psalms 151A and B have been severely criticized by scholars — especially his reconstruction of lines 6-8. That being said, even a quick comparison of LXX Psalm 151 with this text from Qumran suggests some sort of literary relationship between the texts, though as I noted above, the precise nature of that relationship is debated.
This post is my first in a series on Psalm 151 in the Biblical Tradition. Now, some of my readers may be wondering what is this Psalm 151 that I am talking about? The biblical book of Psalms only contains 150 psalms! To you I reply, you are absolutely correct (but also a little incorrect!). The book of Psalms in the Hebrew Masoretic tradition — the tradition on which Protestants and Jews base their modern English translations — contains 150 psalms (actually this isn’t quite correct; there are Masoretic manuscripts that divide the psalms differently resulting in more or less than 150 psalms. For example, there are manuscripts that divide individual psalms differently and end up with 147, 148, 149 and even 170 psalms! Nonetheless, the Masoretic tradition is consistent in its content with modern Protestant and Jewish translations). If we turn to the Greek Septuagint (and the Syriac) tradition, however, we find an extra psalm right after Psalm 150, which has become known as “Psalm 151.” It appears that this psalm was not held with quite the same authority as the other 150 psalms, since an editorial note in the psalm title marks it as ἔξωθεν τοῦ ἀριθμοῦ (“outside the number”).
While this psalm was known for a long time from the Greek and Syriac traditions, the discovery of two Hebrew psalms clearly related to the Septuagint Psalm 151 among the Dead Sea Scrolls (dubbed “Psalm 151A and 151B” by the editor of 11Q5), has challenged our understanding of this psalm in a number of ways. It has raised significant questions surrounding the relationship between the Greek and Hebrew versions of this psalms, as well as the precise nature of the Hebrew original from which the Greek was translated. In much of this debate, the interest in the Qumran psalms has overshadowed interest in the LXX version of Psalm 151. In this series of posts I will explore these questions and any implications they may have to our understanding of the development of the book of Psalms. More specifically, I want to look at the relationship between LXX Ps 151 and 11Q5 Ps 151A and 151B and then provide an analysis of Psalm 151 as a psalm in its own right.
But first, let me provide the actual psalm itself as well as an English translation:
This Psalm is autobiographical. Regarding David and outside the number. [When he fought Goliath in single combat.]
Μικρὸς ἤμην ἐν τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς μου
I was small among my brothers,
καὶ νεώτερος ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ τοῦ πατρός μου,
and the youngest in my father’s house;
ἐποίμαινον τὰ πρόβατα τοῦ πατρός μου.
I would shepherd my father’s sheep.
αἱ χεῖρές μου ἐποίησαν ὄργανον,
My hands made an instrument;
οἱ δάκτυλοί μου ἥρμοσαν ψαλτήριον.
my fingers tuned a harp.
καὶ τίς ἀναγγελεῖ τῷ κυρίῳ μου;
But who will report to my lord?
αὐτὸς κύριος, αὐτὸς εἰσακούει.
The Lord himself, he listens.
αὐτὸς ἐξαπέστειλεν τὸν ἄγγελον αὐτοῦ
It was he who sent his messenger
καὶ ἦρέν με ἐκ τῶν προβάτων τοῦ πατρός μου
and took me from my father’s sheep
καὶ ἔχρισέν με ἐν τῷ ἐλαίῳ τῆς χρίσεως αὐτοῦ.
and anointed me with his anointing oil.
οἱ ἀδελφοί μου καλοὶ καὶ μεγάλοι,
My brothers were handsome and tall,
καὶ οὐκ εὐδόκησεν ἐν αὐτοῖς κύριος.
but the Lord took no delight in them.
ἐξῆλθον εἰς συνάντησιν τῷ ἀλλοφύλῳ,
I went out to meet the foreigner,
καὶ ἐπικατηράσατό με ἐν τοῖς εἰδώλοις αὐτοῦ,
and he cursed me by his idols.
ἐγὼ δὲ σπασάμενος τὴν παῤ αὐτοῦ μάχαιραν
But I, having drawn the sword from him,
I beheaded him,
καὶ ἦρα ὄνειδος ἐξ υἱῶν Ισραηλ.
and removed reproach from Israel’s sons.
This psalm has been aptly described as an autobiographical midrash on the early life of David as recorded in 1 Samuel 16–17. It weaves together incidents from David’s adolescence recorded in 1 Samuel 16-17: his anointing (16:1-13), his entry into Saul’s service as a musician (16:14-23), and his victory over Goliath (chap. 17). Significantly, these three episodes hang together uneasily in their context in Samuel, but are brought together in this poetic midrash connecting David’s anointing by Samuel with his victory over Goliath as an example of the Lord’s presence with David.
I will offer some more analysis of this psalm in a later post.
Slate has an interesting article by Robert Alter, entitled “Psalm Springs: How I translated the Bible’s most poetic book,” in which discusses his just-released translation of the Psalter:
The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
by Robert Alter
W. W. Norton, 2007
Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
The article is quite interesting — especially when Alter talks about his translation technique, which could be characterized as very formal (for a discussion of types of translation techniques, see here and here). That is, Alter not only wants his English translation to convey the meaning of the original Hebrew text, he also wants it to convey its structure and form. Thus, if the Hebrew line is composed of three words, then he would try to reproduce that compactness in his translation.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
… The sundry English translations, from Renaissance to contemporary, have in certain ways obscured key strengths of the Psalms. My dissatisfaction with them led me to attempt my own translation.
Two aspects of the Hebrew poems have especially suffered in translation: their powerfully compact rhythmsâ€”which, after all, constitute much of the music of the poetryâ€”and the terrific, physical concreteness of the language. The conciseness of biblical poetry derives from the structure of the ancient language: Pronouns are usually omitted because you can tell the pronoun subject from the way the verb is conjugated; possessive pronouns are simply suffixes attached to the nouns; and the verb to be is entirely dispensed with in the present tense. Sometimes, there is simply no way of reproducing this compression in English. In the Hebrew, “The Lord is my shepherd” is just two words, two accents (Yahweh ro’ i). But I, like the translators convened by King James, could see no other way of getting this into workable English.
In many lines, however, a little resourcefulness can produce rhythms resembling the Hebrew’s. The King James version of Psalm 30:9 reads: “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit?” (The 1611 translators used italics for words merely implied in the Hebrew.) From a rhythmic standpoint, this sounds more like prose than poetry. My version reads: “What profit in my blood,/ in my going down deathward?” This rhythm is virtually identical to the Hebrew, the second half of the line just one syllable more than the original. The alliteration of “down deathward” has no equivalent in the Hebrew, but it helps the rhythmic momentum and compensates for other places (including the first half of this line) where alliterations in the original could not be reproduced.
Let me offer one more example of an effort to emulate the music of the Hebrew. The opening line of Psalm 104, a paean to the grand panorama of creation, was translated in the King James version as “thou art clothed with honour and majesty.” This has a certain poised dignity, though there are too many words and syllables: The Hebrew original has three words, six syllables. And honour doesn’t capture the true significance of the Hebrew hod, which means either grandeur or glory. My version reads: “Glory and grandeur You don.” Here the strong alliteration mirrors a similar effect in the Hebrew (hod/hadar), and the syntactic inversion also follows the Hebrew, reproducing its emphasis on these two terms. Finally, I chose don as part of a general strategy to use single-syllabic words of Anglo-Saxon derivation, and to avoid the potential awkwardness and abstraction of Latinate terms (such as majesty or, elsewhere, transgression).
I have some issues with Alter’s translation technique — though perhaps not so much with his technique, but with his sense of superiority concerning it. I tend to view translation techniques as a tool which produces a variety of types of translations, each useful for different purposes. I have required Alter’s translation of Genesis for my course on the book of Genesis for the very purpose of getting students to read the text in a translation different than what they are used to — and I may use this new translation when I next have to teach the book of Psalms.
Although it may at first disconcert some pious readers, I have rigorously excluded the word soul from my version of Psalms. In the original biblical language, there is no split between body and soul and no notion of a soul surviving the body. Rather, nefesh means life-breath (one hears the breathing in the sound of the Hebrew word)â€”the God-given vital force that passes in through the nostrils and down into the lungs, animating the body. By extension, it means life. “My nefesh” is also an intensive way of saying “I” (which I sometimes translate as “my whole being” or “my being”). Because the throat is a passageway for the breath, this same word can also mean, by metonymy, throat or neck.
I think this is a wonderful idea considering the amount of confusion there is about the biblical teaching on the nature of the humanity. While there are a few passages in the Hebrew Bible that may give a glimpse of some sort of life after death, in the Hebrew Bible humanity is presented as a radical unity.
At any rate, I encourage you to take a look at the article in full and check out his translation for yourself, as well as his other translations of the Hebrew Bible:
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (Norton, 2004; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com)
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.
The verb most often occurs with an expressed personal object. Most frequently (21x) the object is marked by the preposition lamed: â€œA kissed ×œ-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: â€œA 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, â€œpeople kissing calvesâ€?; Prov 24:26, â€œhe 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:
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 â€œkissâ€?, it never takes the preposition ×‘ bet to mark the object of the kiss. This seems to rule out the common emendation â€œkiss 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).
The one weakness of this interpretation is that the meaning of ×‘×¨ bar as â€œfieldâ€? 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!).
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 Jimâ€™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 Getzâ€™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 enoughâ€¦ letâ€™s look at the text in question. Here is a formal translation of the Hebrew of Psalm 2:11-12:
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 ×‘×¨ can mean â€œfeetâ€? in Hebrew (in this regard Getzâ€™s post is inaccurate and Chris Heard is correct insofar as ×‘×¨ doesn’t mean â€œfeetâ€? ). This is a pretty substantial emendation, proposing that the first two letters of ×‘×¨×’×œ×™×• 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.
This leads many people (and most English translations) to opt for the admittedly problematic translation, â€œkiss the son.â€?
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., â€œYou are my son.â€? 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 ×‘×¨ in Prov 31:2, when the word is put into the mouth of King Lemuelâ€™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 ×‘×¨ as the Aramaic â€œson,â€? and try to understand it â€“ like the early Versions â€“ as one of the other Hebrew words with the same spelling. Possibilities include taking ×‘×¨ as â€œfieldâ€? (see Job 39:4 etc.), which would produce a fitting act of submission, â€œkiss the field,â€? i.e., bow prostrate to the ground in homage to Yahweh. It could also be taken as â€œpurityâ€? or â€œpureâ€? (in line with the early versions), and be rendered like the NJPS â€œpay homage in good faithâ€? or the NET â€œGive sincere homage.â€?
There are other possibilities for this verse, but when it comes right down to it, this verse is truly a crux interpretum â€“ 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 â€œSonâ€? (NIV, NASB, ESV, etc.) are clearly expressing a theological agenda, which arguably has no place in a translation.
Stephen Cook over at Biblische Ausbildung has posted on “books that provide ‘accessible interpretation’ of the psalms.” He notes four books in particular, two commentaries and two introductions by two authors:
McCann, J. Clinton. Psalms. New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Job, Psalms. Abingdon, 1996. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
Mays, James Luther. Preaching and Teaching the Psalms. W/JK, 2006. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
McCann, J. Clinton. A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms. Abingdon, 1993. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
These recommendations are excellent. McCann’s works are definitely accessible and chock full of valuable insights on the psalms that takes into consideration the latest of scholarly approaches to the psalms. Mays is a veteran psalms scholar and always has insightful comments and interpretations. The only criticism I have of Mays’s commentary is that it is too brief.
That being said, I would like to add a number of a number of other works to Steve’s recommendations. In regards to accessible commentaries on the book of Psalms from a Christian perspective I would include the following:
Broyles, Craig C. Psalms. New International Biblical Commentary: Old Testament. Hendrickson, 1999. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
Davidson, Robert. The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Eerdmans, 1998. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
Goldingay, John. Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41 . Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Baker Academic, 2006. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
Wilson, Gerald H. Psalms Volume 1. The NIV Application Commentary. Zondervan, 2002. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
In terms of a one volume commentary on the psalms that is historically and theologically sensitive, I really like Davidson. I would also recommend Broyles. I have been nothing but impressed with Goldingay’s commentary. It is accessible, yet scholarly; theologically deep, yet practical. I highly recommend his first volume and look forward to the others. The commentary by the late Gerald Wilson is also an excellent commentary that is both accessible and theologically rich.
In terms of introductions to the book of Psalms, I would also recommend the following:
W. H. Bellinger. Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1990. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
Nancy L. Declaisse-Walford. Introduction To The Psalms: A Song From Ancient Israel. Chalice Press, 2004. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
Denise Dombkowski Hopkins. Journey through the Psalms. Chalice Press, 2002. Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com
Bellinger’s work is an excellent (and brief) introduction to the book of Psalms that focuses on form-critical interpretation, while Declaisse-Walford’s is another good introduction that covers all the bases of psalm interpretation, especially the more recent interest in the shape and shaping of the book of Psalms.
Hopkins’s work is perhaps the most accessible of any that have been mentioned by either Stephen or myself. It is a Brueggemann-esque introduction that is personally engaging and spiritually sensitive. The book is filled with numerous illustrations of visual art, poetry, and personal stories, as well as many practical group exercises.
Here’s the blurb from Oxford: This volume brings together the Psalms in a quartet of versions that is certain to be an invaluable resource for students of this core book of the Bible. The texts featured in A Comparative Psalter represent a progression of the text through time. The ancient Masoretic Hebrew and Revised Standard Version Bible are displayed on one page, while the New English Translation of the Septuagint (by Pietersma) and Greek Septuagint are on the facing page. The same set of verses is displayed for all four texts, making it easy to compare to differences between the MT and LXX. The Modern English versions included in this volume are noteworthy for their fidelity to the ancient texts. The first major translation of the Christian Scriptures from the original languages to be undertaken since the King James Version, the RSV debuted in 1952 to critical acclaim. It dramatically shaped the course of English Bible translation work in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and remains the Bible of choice for many people. Meanwhile, the New English Translation of the Septuagint is the first work of its kind in a century and a half. This major project brings to the fore a wealth of textual discoveries that help illuminate the Book of Psalms for Twenty-first Century readers.