Sunday, August 14, 2011

To See Is to Hear

One of the undeniable features of biblical literature is its oral nature.  Harvey writes (Listening to the Text, 1):
The popular culture of the first century was, technically, a rhetorical culture. In a rhetorical culture, literacy is limited, and reading is vocal. Even the solitary reader reads aloud (Acts 8:30). The normal mode of writing is by dictation, and that which is written down is intended to be read aloud to a group rather than silently by the individual. Such a culture is familiar with writing, but is, in essence, oral. The predominantly oral nature of a rhetorical culture requires speakers to arrange their material in ways that can be followed easily by a listener. Clues to the organization of thought are, of necessity, based on sound rather than on sight. 

The pre-first century Jewish culture was no different. The Old Testament was written to be heard as well as seen. Oral patterning, therefore, can be seen throughout the Hebrew Bible and especially in poetry. This incontrovertible fact impacts the interpretation of Psalm 60:4 (Hebrew Bible 60:6, subsequent verse references follow the English Bible). Two interpretations are seen in the following representative translations:
“You have set up a banner for those who fear you, that they may flee to it from the bow” (English Standard Version, ESV).
 “You have given a banner to those who fear You, That it may be displayed because of the truth” (New American Standard Bible, NASB).
Three translation variations appear in this verse. The first relates to bow and truth. The Hebrew word in question occurs only here in the Old Testament. Two words develop from three consonants (fvq): “bow” considered to be an Aramaic form of the often-used word for “bow” (fv#q) =  tv#q#), The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 905), and “truth” (f=v=q) occurring only at Proverbs 22:21 instead of the very frequent Hebrew word for “truth” (tm#a$). This second word is considered rather harsh sounding so that a helping vowel frequently occurs between the last two consonants in these kinds of verbs (Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 88 and 93-94). With this helping vowel, the rare word “truth” parallels the rare word “bow” both in form and sound (fv#q)). 

The hearer of this verse must (1) choose between the two words with vastly different senses, as the representative translations have done, or (2) understand that a double entendre has been introduced into the text. Tate (Psalms 51-100, 102) writes, “Possibly a pun was intended between tvq (‘bow’) and fvq (‘truth’).” If a double entendre is rejected, however, the interpreter must ask: Why did the author use this rare term when unambiguous words for “bow” or “truth” were readily at hand?

A second translation difference occurs in this verse tied to a word-form found only here in the Old Testament. It could stem from either one of two verbs. The word may (1) stem from only one of these verbs or (2) represent another double entendre requiring the hearer to muse over the dissimilar senses of the word.  The word involved (ss@ont=h!) is translated to “flee” (ESV) and to “be displayed” (NASB). The lexical meaning (Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 231 and 240 respectively) is either “to get to safety” (from the root swn) or “to rally around [the banner]” (from the root ssn).

Interestingly, these different meanings resonate with “bow” and “truth.”  “Bow” functions as a metonymy for warfare and connects effortlessly with getting to “safety” at the location of the banner. “Truth” represents a rallying cry for God’s people as the banner. In the first instance, the banner is taken literally; in the second, metaphorically. See Harris, Archer, Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 583, on the two aspects inherent in the word “banner” (sn}).

A third translation difference follows in this verse. The prepositional phrases “from the bow” (ESV) and “because of the truth” (NASB) syntactically and smoothly fit each meaning (Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 62-63). The reader of the English Bible would have no reason to question the translation.

double entendre interpretation provides a reasonable explanation for the use of these words.  But, as in all such cases, the context must validate the analysis. Psalm 60 must convey both ideas if credence can be given to this suggestion.

War is the overriding issue facing the Psalmist and the nation. Clearly the word “bow” represents a military theme; warfare imagery pervades verses 1-5 as well as 9-12 of Psalm 60. However, whereas “bow” focuses the external concern, “truth” embodies the internal stimulus for the petitions of verse 5, provides historical and geographical background to verses 6-8, and explains the intensification of the Psalmist’s confidence of deliverance and victory in verses 9-12.

To David the “truth” representing a standard and rallying point for the beleaguered nation may lie in the promises of God to him through Nathan the Prophet, “I will give you rest from all your enemies. . . . Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (NASB, 2 Samuel 7:11, 16). God committed Himself to the preservation of Israel’s kingdom and people.  Israel, on the verge of collapse, needed God to act in accordance with His promise. Believing the divine pledge, David petitions for deliverance (verse 5).

The locations mentioned in verses 6-8 support this connection to the divine promises. They encompass the expanse of David’s kingdom north, east, south, and west. God will preserve the nation. The enemies will not destroy the kingdom. David confidently asks for and expects divine deliverance. Verses 9-12 give a decidedly upbeat conclusion to a psalm that began with anguish and confusion.

For one application from Psalm 60 that stems from the two-fold double entendre, when trouble comes flee to the truth of God found in the Word of God as the place of safety and encouragement.

Psalm 60 was written for the “ear” but only those who can “see” the Hebrew text will be able to “hear” what may well be imbedded in the sounds of the words. May this oral dimension to the Word of God encourage more Christians to enthusiastically desire to read the Bible in the original languages.