This limmud is part of the ongoing FHJC Psalm 27 Series. The rest of the content can be found here : https://www.sefaria.org/groups/FHJC-Psalm-27-Series .
There is a reason "The Bible" is a number 1 best-seller. Actually... thousands of reasons. One of those reasons - in my opinion - is because of the sheer beauty of the poetry it contains.
Here are just three examples:
- Those who hope in YHWH will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, will run and not tire, will walk and not fatigue. - [The Herald of Zion, found in Isaiah 40:31
- He has made everything beautiful in its time; And the world he has set in their heart; yet no one can fathom the works of Elohim, from beginning to end. - Qoheleth 3:11
- Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice! Let the sea roar, and ALL that fills it! Let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all of the trees of the forest sing for joy! - Psalms 96:11-12
Wow, how beautiful is that? I think you can spend your whole life reading The Bile and never run out of lines which continue to amaze and inspire.
But much as I love The Bible, you know what's even better? (And by a long shot!)... The TaNaKh!
(This was a playful way of saying that the original Hebrew is better than any English translation :- ) . )
The Judeans and Israelites who composed and crafted the works which would eventually be included in our TaNaKh were utter masters of their language, and even the most beautiful translations will fall way, way, way short of their brilliance.
Whatever your Hebrew ability, it is always worth it to do some close reading of the Hebrew, and there are many resources available these days to help make the Hebrew TaNaKh accessible to those of us who did not grow up in a Biblical-Hebrew-speaking home. (e-sword and biblehub are two great places to start.)
Below: I guess there are those with a difference of opinion.
Hebrew as a language is very broad. Combinations of three-letter roots can take on so many different nuances of meaning, and playing with roots and with puns was a favorite technique of all of the poets of all of the works of Ancient Israel and Juduh that we have.
Today I'm going to show you a really neat case-in-point.
Read through the following verse in the Hebrew and try to let your mind open up to the various associations that the roots in these words can have, even outside of the context of this passage. (And if you're not comfortable in Hebrew, take a look anyway and see if you recognize anything at all that looks or sounds familiar.)
What do you think... any puns?
Just in case you haven't thought of the same thing that came to mind for me, take a look at this verse from Genesis, keeping your eyes open for any words built from the same roots that make up anything in our verse above:
Are you seeing what I'm seeing?
Note that the root ר-ע-ה is associated with shepherding, and also grazing/feeding. In Genesis, it refers to the cows feeding in the grass. In our poem, we have a word also built from the same root letters - מרעים.
Could our poet be playing around with this? And could we just go ahead and plug in the meaning from Genesis into our word here in our poem?
I think yes to both of the above. But just in case there are a few skepics amongst us, here's one more interesting point, from a few lines from Psalm 92:
Notice how these two verses open up with ox-imagery, in which the poet says that YHWH has exalted, or lifted up the poet's horn. Without getting too side-tracked, suffice it to say that a raised horn, like a triumphant bull, is a very common victory-image throughout the TaNaKhic-literature.
Then in the second of the two verses above, the poet describes the moment in which he sees and hears his enemies setting upon him. Note the two terms in Hebrew for enemies: שור, and מרעים. While we're not completely sure as to the true etymology of שור, some have said that it means to look, or perhaps to lie in wait. But interesting that the very same word also means ox; and in that case, some have noticed a connection to other ANE languages in which shur means to become raised or exalted - and even more fascinating that ראם, a synonym for ox is related to רום, which also means raised! (You can see this in the Abarim Biblical Dictionary online: https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/si/si-w-r.html#.X0-qEshKhPY )
If the interpretation of מרעים above is possible, then look at what we have; two verses, both of them drawing on ox imagery - the first one in order to describe our poet's triumph, and the second one poetically using terms to describe enemies. The poet imagines his conflict as an epic confrontation between two bulls - one of the most revered, powerful and imposing beasts known to our Judean and Israelite forbears - in a fight to the death, after which only one will be able to triumphantly lift up his horns.
Personally, I'm convinced that our poet is really playing with sounds and images in this way, and I think this exhibits such incredible virtuosity of language.
Now then! Let's bring all of this back to our verse in Psalm 27. Once again, here it is:
And here is my proposed reading of it, informed by the above:
When the feeders approach me to consume my flesh...
Yikes! By way of a pun, the psalmist here opens up the whole prayer with an image that is utterly striking. While consumed can certainly be used in the figurative sense, as in totally annihilated, here we are invited to imagine the pray-er being surrounded by enemies who are literally trying to close in on him for lunch!!!
But in all Hebrew poetry, it pays to keep watching, like a hawk, for whenever a root word reappears. So watch what happens at the end of the whole first section, before the shift to the lament-section.
Do you see our root-word of interest making its way back? It sure does.
First we have the pray-er claiming that he knows YHWH will shelter him on the day of רעה. You'll see most translations render this as something along the lines of, on the day of trouble. But it is an echo of the second verse, so perhaps we could also think of it as the day of feeding; i.e., the day that the pray-er's enemies will encamp round about him, eyeing him hungrily.
And then we get:
(6) Now is my head raised high over my enemies roundabout! And I sacrifice in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy!
Look again at verse 2. Who are the feeders? They are איבי, my enemies.
The words themselves already invite us to imagine them as violent oxen, bent on causing damage. But even outside of this word-play, enemies as powerful and threatening oxen is a familiar image. Example:
Back to our psalm, note that in verse 6, the pray-er's head is raised high above them, and he declares that he will slaughter( sacrifice) in YHWH's tent sacrifices with shouts of joy.
But what is the root for shouts of joy? - ר-ו-ע, which looks very much like ר-ע-ה.
If we bring all of this together, I'd like to suggest the following interpretation; While the pray-er's enemies initially circled round-about him, presented as feeders or grazers intending to feast upon his flesh, ultimately the pray-er, with the help of the Almighty, will triumph, and will offer a thanksgiving and celebration sacrifice. And what sacrifices would be traditionally offered? Sheep and oxen! (Or, grazers!)
So could it be that our psalter is poetically entertaining a revenge fantasy, in which he imagines himself actually offering his fallen and defeated enemies as a celebratory sacrifice, accompanied by shouts of joy?
This would certainly be quite the dramatic flourish with which to end a prayer-poem; and at one point, that most likely was the ending of a thanksgiving-prayer, made up of the first 6 verses of Psalm 27 as we have it.
YHWH-willing, next week we'll continue on the ending of this poem as a whole as we do have it, and we'll see that this also finishes with style!