April 1, 2008

Psalm 58

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
Do not destroy.
By David.

Do you, mighty ones, really speak righteousness?
Do you judge uprightly, sons of Adam?
No, in heart you practice injustices;
On the earth, the violence of your hands you weigh out.

Estranged are the wicked from the womb;
They go astray from the belly, the ones speaking lies.
Their poison is like the poison of a serpent,
Like a deaf cobra that stops up his ear,
Who will not listen to the voice of a whisperer,
Of one charming charms, a most wise one.

God, break their teeth in their mouth;
The fangs of the young lions smash, Yahweh!
Let them vanish like waters which go away of themselves;
Let him ready his arrows as if they are circumcised.
Like a snail that melts, let him go;
Like a woman’s miscarriage, they have not beheld the sun.

Before your pots feel a thorn,
Whether raw or cooked, he will storm him away.

The righteous will rejoice because he beholds vengeance;
His feet he will bathe in the blood of the wicked.
And man will say, “Surely there is fruit for the righteous!
Surely there is a God who judges on the earth.”

Wow, this is a tough psalm to translate!  A few comments:

(1) The opening lines of this psalm are particularly difficult to translate.  The word I’ve translated “mighty ones” (elem) may be an condensed form of the regular word for “gods” (elim) which would refer here to rulers who are called “gods” because they rule for and represent God (see Ps. 82:1, where the rulers are identified as elohim, the term usually used for God).  They are the “mighty ones,” the “powers that be.”

But it’s possible that this word means “silence,” and either refers to these judges as “silent ones” (NKJV: “you silent ones”) or asks if they are silent when they ought to speak righteousness (Alexander: “Are you really silent when you should speak righteousness?”).  If we take the word to mean “silence” or even “muteness,” which is a possibility, it’s harder to know what to make of the flow of the verse.

(2) The next line may be translated as it is above, or it may be that “sons of Adam” are the people being judged: “Do you judge sons of Adam uprightly?”

(3) In line 13, “go away of themselves” is actually “go for themselves.”  This line may refer to the waters, which simply flow away and vanish.  But it is possible that this phrase is another wish of the psalmists and refers to the wicked: “Let them go their way,” that is, the direction their behavior is taking them.

(4) Line 14 is complex.  It is actually “Let him tread his arrows,” which compresses together a whole series of actions: treading on the bow to bend it so you can fit the arrow to it in order to shoot.  “As if they are circumcised”: the points of the arrows are cut off so they do no damage. Some translations have “cut off” here, which gets the sense but this word normally does mean “circumcised.” It is possible, though, that this is a different verb that is spelled the same so that the prayer is that God will wither the enemy’s arrows so they do no harm, though that image (withered arrows?) is harder to understand.

(5) The word translated “snail” in line 15 is somewhat doubtful.  “Snail” or “slug” is the traditional translation, but this is the only place the word appears.  It is possible that the word refers to a miscarried fetus, as in the parallel line that follows.  Kidner says that this word may mean “miscarriage” and that this meaning is “attested in the Talmud.”

It’s possible that both lines 15 and 16 should be translated with “let them be” supplied in the front: “Let them be like a snail that melts as it goes, a woman’s miscarriage that does not behold the sun.”  As well, I wonder why the word translated “woman” is in construct form here (esheth instead of ishah).

(6) Before line 17 makes sense to us, we have to understand that the thorn here is the fuel for the fire.  The cooking pots “feel a thorn” when they start to get hot from the fire of thorns under them.

(7) The next expression is really strange.  It looks as if it says, “Like living, like burning-anger,” and the word for “burning anger” is used elsewhere only for God’s anger.

But “living” is used for raw meat elsewhere in the Bible, and it is possible that “heat” here is an idiom for cooked meat, so the expression means “whether raw or cooked.”  The image appears to mean that, before the cook is even done his work, God will blow him (or possibly “it,” that is, the thorn under the pot?) away with his storm.

(8) The participle in the last line (“who judge”) appears to be plural, which is a little strange if it refers to God.  I don’t buy the idea that this is an expression in the mouth of pagans (“There are gods who judge on the earth!”). It might refer to human rulers, who are called gods (Ps. 82:1), in which case it would be a declaration that, in contrast to the wicked judges, God has executed judgment through human judges who are truly “gods judging on the earth,” because they are carrying out God’s judgment faithfully.  That’s possible.  It’s also possible that this is one way participles sometimes appear in connection with Elohim, God.  I’m open to more suggestions, though.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:56 pm | Discuss (0)

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