Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Psalm 136 for hobby Biblical Hebrew nerds

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

I don’t know much Biblical Hebrew, but I know just enough to know I’d like to know more. So, in response to the reading of Psalm we had at Church on Sunday, I found myself looking up the Hebrew.

This Psalm has a call and answer structure. The caller calls “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good” (verse 1), “Give thanks to the God of gods” (verse 2) etc, and the repeated answer replies “for His lovingkindness is everlasting”. Its easy to imagine the lead guy doing the calling, and the assembled congregation doing the replying. 

Here is the Hebrew (remember to read from right to left);

הודו ליהוה כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו

A near literal translation is “Give thanks to the LORD for good for everlasting is His lovingkindness”, and it sounds something like “Hodu le-YHWH ki tov ki le-olam hasdo”.

Notice how much more condensed the Hebrew is than the English. The English translation above uses 20 syllables, but the Hebrew has only 13 (if I count them rightly). This is a characteristic of Biblical Hebrew – the authors were remarkably economical with their written words. It may be because, unlike today, words were not cheap. In fact it took considerable resources to write, preserve and copy written texts, so much so that the people who had the skills, the scribes, could make a handsome living out of it.

Notice also the almost perfect symmetry of the opening stanza, which looks to me like a mini-chiasm. A chiasm is a literary device in which the first idea corresponds with the last; the second with the penultimate; and so on until you reach the central idea on which the whole rests. It’s named after the Greek letter chi (Χ), which graphically illustrates how the two sides point to the centre. That’s how a chiasm works – the central idea is the most important because it supports everything either side.

Here’s my interpretation of the mini-chiasm in Psalm 136:1;

Give thanks*************************************His lovingkindness

******to the LORD******************everlasting*******************



This places “good” (tov/טוב) at the centre of the chiasm. 

Moving outward, the two “for”s (ki/כי) are mirrored.

“The LORD” (le-YHWH/ליהוה – here with the preposition "le" meaning "for" or "to") is mirrored with “everlasting” (le-olam/לעולם - again with the "le" preposition, which appears to me to yield something like the English compound construction "for ever"). There are strong associations between these words, particularly if you think of the LORD as the everlasting, or eternal one, in contrast to His creation.

Finally, the first and last words, "give thanks" (hodu/הודו) and "lovingkindness" (hasdo/וחסד) differ by only two letters, but they rhyme. 

Incidentally, we don’t have a simple word that adequately and succinctly encompasses the meaning of this last Hebrew word, so we use complex constructions like “lovingkindness”, or “merciful faithfulness” (hence the multiplication of syllables in the English). It’s the unwavering, active disposition of God to work for the good of His people.

Not only does this literary device make the opening stanza easy to remember, but it deliberately points to the goodness of the LORD at the centre, which supports and provides structure to everything that surrounds.

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