Silver Dross or Like a Glaze

silver covered earthenwareI was a little surprised to find that the TNIV and NIV 2011 have reverted to the Masoretic text (partially) of Proverbs 26:23 against the 1984 NIV which followed the critical rephrasing of this verse in light of Ugaritic and Hittite evidence (though it includes “silver dross” in the footnote). The updated NIV texts created a mixed text that attempts to blend the emended text of the Hebrew as well as maintaining the traditional (misunderstanding) of the Masoretes (adding “like” and maintaining “silver dross”).
Like a coating of silver dross on earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.” (NIV2011 – emphasis added)
Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.” (NET – emphasis added)
The issue pertains to the Hebrew כֶּ֣סֶף סִ֭יגִים  which is properly translated “silver dross”. Based upon the cognate Ugaritic word spsg “glaze” (and another cognate in Hittite zapzaga[y]a) a significant and clarifying emendation was made by numerous translations. The emendation involves several elements: the admission that vowel pointing and spaces between words were lacking in the original text of the Old Testament. Removing the vowel-pointing (as well as the matres lectionis yods) and spacing of the Masoretes was inaccurate and should be altered to read כסףסגם “like glaze”. The kaph has then been understood to be the comparative preposition “like”, the yods have been dropped as matres lectionis along with the vowel pointing and the mem regarded as an enclitic (ESV, NAB, NIV1984, NRSV, NLT and, of course, the NET have followed this emended reading).
While the LXX retains the Masoretic reading of “silver”, but it offers an expansion (apparently because the translator was equally confused by the sense of the Hebrew): ἀργύριον διδόμενον μετὰ δόλου ὥσπερ ὄστρακον ἡγητέον χείλη λεῖα καρδίαν καλύπτει λυπηράν, “Silver given deceitfully is considered as earthenware, a smooth tongue hides a troubled heart” (my translation).
Part of the reason for opting to prefer the emended text in light of the cognate terms of Ugaritic and Hittite is based upon the notion that “silver dross” would simply not be used for such a thing. Glaze would be applied to vessels (though obviously it should not be applied to earthenware unless it is being used to conceal). In both cases the point is simply that one is covering over something that will not endure (earthenware) with something that makes it look better than it truly is. The reality is concealed. It is a ridiculous covering of earthenware. It is, in fact, a waste and deceitful. Its apparent value is only that…appearance. It is a cheap object made to look like it is worth something far more.
K. L. Barker, “The Value of Ugaritic for Old Testament Studies,” BSac 133 (1976): 128-29.
כֶּ֣סֶף סִ֭יגִים

Lamenting Lamentations: A Literary-Theology

lamentationsIn teaching the book of Lamentations, I was (once again) struck by the structure of this little book in its Hebrew form. It seems by its very structure to shape the Hebrew reader/hearer. Of course, any reading of the text that simply notes structural issues and not the text proper would fall short, but I’m offering here only a brief look at these structural elements as one more move toward the theology of Lamentations which seems stated by the text proper (which I bring up to clarify the theological trajectory which cannot properly be stated apart from the text).
The first two chapters have triple bicolon strophes per verse (22 verses each) with each strophe beginning with the next letter of the acrostic acrostic. Chapter 3 (66 verses) has triple bicolons where each bicolon of that strophe begins with that letter of the acrostic and is signified by a new verse number. Chapter four (22 verses) is doubled bicolons per strophe each strophe beginning with the acrostic. And chapter five (22 verses) is a dissolution of any of these patterns: no acrostic, no continuity of bicolons, irregular strophes. It makes the crescendo of the lament at chapter three begin its decline into full breaking of any sense of control by chapter five. This is signified by the heightened use of the acrostic even though the count of bicolons is identical to the first two chapters. It is a move toward greater disorder of a judged people (a sort of return to Genesis 1.2’s tohu-wabohu or being “unfilled and unfruitful”). It functions as the pottery of Jeremiah 18 that is not to the intention of the potter and must be undone from its form.
The soul of the LORD’s people are laid bare. They are undone. Can anything be made of this or is this the end of all?
Taking up the text itself, this places them right where the LORD wanted them in order to bring life from death, hope from despair, and salvation from judgment. The earth might fall into disarray, all order into disorder, but the LORD’s kingdom is established, his reign is life, his rule: restoration.
19 You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
    renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lam.5.19-22 NIV 2011; bold for emphasis)
Acrostic in the Scriptures refers to the successive 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet beginning the first word and following in succession to the end of the alphabet.
Bicolon is a two line poetic unit.
Strophe refers to the larger thought unit of any number of smaller units (perhaps also called a “stanza”).
Tricolon is a three line poetic unit.

Hebraizing Students

MashalThe results of my Hebraic influence on students is beginning to show as seen in the following proverb from one of them written in ancient Near Eastern fashion to me:

“There are three things that trouble me,
four that disturb:
the teacher, joyously inflicting harm,
the paper, unrelenting in difficulty,
the class hour, extending past its due,
and the student, refusing to learn.”

A proverb of wisdom indeed! And this is one of the fun things about opening up the ancient forms of our Scriptures for others to enjoy. He did ask me if this could be counted as a contemporary cognate proverb. No.
But here are a few parallel passages from Wisdom/Instruction of Amenemope (an ancient Egyptian wisdom text) and the book of Proverbs (just for fun):

ANE Parallel

On Hebrew Poetics (A Brief Introduction and Refutation)

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Suffice it to say that one spends several years learning basic skills in reading and interpreting the Hebrew Bible, but then after all the “rules” one learns (whether those passed down from Medieval Masoretes or ancient scholastics schooled in Greek and Latin works), suddenly one enters the strange world of Hebrew “Poetry”.
This strange new world does not follow the “rules” one has just spent years memorizing and practicing. Now an altogether new adventure commences wherein such “rules” simply fail to guide the linguistic adventurer along her path to understanding and appreciation.
So what sort of journey is this and how does one find their way while avoiding the many pitfalls of previous generations of students of the ancient text form? What follows will be a multi-part, multi-layered map (of sorts…or so it is hoped).
To begin with one must come to the realization that Biblical Hebrew knows nothing of “poetry”, but practices the poetic with great fluidity. What is the difference? To begin with, there is no word or words in the Hebrew text which might be translated “poetry”. There are words for song (משכיל or שיר), proverbial sayings and riddles (משל), but none for “poetry” specifically. In fact, “poetry” is a construct one uses to try to categorize what is happening at the level of literary genre. As a construct (and one technically foreign to Hebrew) it creates its own issues.
English poetry is marked by such features as meter, rhythm, and rhyme, but Hebrew is not marked as such. The typical explanations of what makes a certain Hebrew text “poetic” are notions of “meter” and “parallelism” (both of which will be discussed in future posts — other features which bear discussion are “terseness” and “imagery”). But such constructs are difficult to follow through with once one begins to actually examine the Hebrew texts available. There are clearly non-literary texts (narrative, for instance, like Exodus 2:1-7) which have notable meter and parallelisms. There are also texts belonging to corpora clearly intended to be poetic which offer little in the way of meter or clear parallelisms throughout (such as the well-known Psalm 23). Highly problematic for discerning what is “poetry” and what is “prose” is the writings of the prophets. Their works offer something of a bizarre admixture of all varieties of such categorizations without fitting either very well. There is a fluidity of such strictures that points toward a need to reject formal constraints on what constitutes “poetry” and “prose” in the Hebrew texts.
To close, James Kugel has fittingly imaged this polarity and its demise:

…the categories of prose and poetry imply too sharp, and total, a polarity: to use only these terms is to describe sections of the skyline as consisting either of ‘building’ or ‘no building.’
Of course, there is a case to be made for the use of the term ‘poetry’ in regard to some parts of the Bible. It has, as noted, an approximate validity, and is sanctioned by a centuries-old tradition. But it is not a perfect fit; and since ancient Israel seems to have gotten along without any corresponding term, it might be better for modern critics to enclose the phrase ‘biblical poetry,’ at least mentally, in quotation marks. (The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1998] p.86)

So this is why I’ve labeled this series “On Hebrew Poetics”. It is to attempt to point toward poetic notions without the strictures of imposing ‘rules’ of ‘poetry’ on a text which resists all attempts to frame such constructs, yet at every turn offers poetic sensibilities.
You may also be interested in:

Cambria: The Hebrew Poet


חבקני אם (Mom hugs me)
שקני אם (Mom kisses me)
שקני אב (Dad kisses me)
חבקני אב (Dad hugs me)
כי בי אהבו רב מאד (And they love me very much)
Note the chiastic structure of the first four lines where the verb in line one matches line four,* and line two matches line three. And the subjects of line one and two are coordinate, like the lines of lines three and four. And the final line climaxes (though lying outside the chiasm) the whole poem with a lively summation of the whole as an epexegetical crescendo.
Okay, so Cambria (my eight year old daughter who is very intelligent — I’m obviously not biased) never wrote this poem in Hebrew, but the English is all hers. I added the Hebrew, because, well, it just seemed like fun (sick, I know). I thought it was fascinating how she chose to write these lines of hers with this sort of structure (and all without training as a scholar of Hebrew poetry…fascinating isn’t it??? 🙂 ). I may be spending a bit too much  time thinking about such things.
My wife’s rhetorical response to me about the poem was, “I wonder what her love language is?” I’ll give you one guess…
* A curiosity is the energic nun in the verbs of lines one and four. 🙂

On Hebrew Poetry

Psalm 1, Verse 1 and 2 in Biblia Hebraica Stut...
For those who have spent any time studying Biblical Hebrew (BH) it becomes readily apparent that while BH prose is fairly simple to translate (as far as translation of other languages go),  BH poetry is another matter altogether.  The often confusing short punctiliar lines (at least sometimes neatly laid out by the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia editors even if one disagrees at various points with their reconstructions and arrangements) offer the beginning student of BH many migraines on a good day.
As someone who works to translate BH poetry on a weekly basis I still find it fairly difficult.  At times though, the jarring nature of the Hebrew verse strikes my sensibilities like no English translation ever has…and I stumble to find adequate ways to express what I’m reading.  Maybe I’m still a neophyte of BH, but it still often remains enigmatic (just try translating the book of Job sometime).  BH poetry simply does not follow any perceivable set of rules (despite the over-simplifying system of Robert Lowth or the complex attempts at discerning syllabic concatenization by Michael O’Connor).  And yet, BH poetry maintains a certain terse spirit that reverberates with my own spirit.  It beckons to me, drawing me into its wild web of words and (at times) farcical phrase finagling.
You still don’t believe BH can be hazardous to one’s health?  There is a story told of the Arabist, Paul Kraus (c. 1944), who set out to demonstrate that “the entire Hebrew Bible, once properly accented, could be demonstrated to have been written in verse….When he discovered two-thirds of the way through his analysis that the texts no longer bore out his thesis, he took his own life.” (Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, p.2)  Now that’s an extreme reaction to Hebrew poetics!  Yet it speaks to the issues of allowing the text (form and function) to say what it says, how it says it.  To read against the text, is to fail to hear the text and to replace it with another (but that’s for another blog post).
So what’s my point?  My point is: Keep at it Don’t quit just because it is difficult or does not seem to make sense.  Part of the beauty of poetic verse is that it resonates at a deeper level than simply the intellectual.  It cannot easily be parsed (nor should it).  It was intended to impact the senses with joy, sadness, fear, anger, love, passion, despair.  It was not intended for analysis (and yields its gems only partially to those who mine it’s depths with such intent).  So keep at it!
And while you are at it, I’ve compiled the following brief list of books which may prove helpful in the study of BH poetry:

Brief Biblical Hebrew Poetry Bibliography

Alter, Robert.  The Art of Biblical Poetry. Revised and Updated; New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Berlin, Adele, and David Noel Freedman.  The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism.  Revised and Expanded.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.
Chisholm, Robert B. From Exegesis to Exposition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998.
Fokkelman, J. P.  Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Futato, Mark D., and David M. Howard.  Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007.
Kugel, James L.  The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History.  London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981, 1998.
Longman, Tremper, III.  How to Read the Psalms.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988.
Longman, Tremper, III, and Peter Enns , eds.  Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings. IVP Bible Dictionary series.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008.
Ryken, Leland.  Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible.  2nd ed.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992.
Schökel, Luis Alonso.  A Manual of Hebrew PoeticsSubsidia Biblica 11; Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2000.
Watson, Wilfred G.  Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques.  JSOTSup 26; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985.