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22 April 2015

"The Best Known, But Worst Translated Chapter of the Bible" (Jubilate / Easter 4)

Psalm 23

"The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest.
It makes me lie down only when exhausted.
It leads me into deep depression.
It hounds my soul.
It leads me in circles of frenzy, for activities sake.
Even though I run frantically from task to task,
I will never get it all done,
For my ideal is with me
Deadlines and my need for approval, they drive me.
They demand performance from me, beyond the limits of my schedule.
They anoint my head with migraines
My in-basket overflows.
Surely fatigue and time pressures shall follow me
All the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the bonds of frustration forever."

If this anonymous "antithesis" to Psalm 23, painting the picture of a person harangued and harassed by the all-powerful clock, disturbs you, you might be tempted to say, "Thank God for the real Psalm 23". Chances are that you think of the King James Version.

But now you are in for another surprise: modern psalm scholars think that Psalm 23 is the "best known but worst translated chapter of the Bible" (Clines). While the King James Bible is a piece of world literature in its own right, scholarship hasn't stopped advancing, and is able to point out where the famous translation is missing the mark.

Take a look, then, at the most accurate translation of Psalm 23 I have been able to find. As you read, remain aware of how you are feeling.

1 Yahweh is a shepherd to me; / 
therefore there is nothing I lack. 2 In grassy pastures he lets me lie, chewing the cud; / down to quiet waters he leads me; 3 he revives my life; / he leads me by the right paths— all to uphold his repute. 4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, / I fear no harm, / for you are with me;  / your crook and your staff are my reassurance. 5 You spread a banquet before me / even if enemies surround me; / you anoint my head with oil; / abundance is my lot. 6 Such goodness and constancy shall surely be my companions as long as I live, / and I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come. (translation: Professor David Clines)

No more green pastures! No valley of the shadow of death!  No more dwelling in the house of God forever! 

So how do you feel about this translation? Angry because it isn't "traditional" enough? Disturbed because it isn't sublime enough? Disconcerted because somehow it's not heavenly, holy, divine or happy enough to your taste?  

But perhaps you are on the opposite side and find yourself delighted because the words aren't as "traditional" as you feared. Perhaps you are glad because you realize that there is new life in the old psalm that you didn't know was there.  Perhaps you feel relief to be free of the constrictions of the old words.

Of course, while people have strong feelings, good or bad, about a text they grew up with, translating Scripture is not about feelings or nostalgia, or about someone's need to uphold or reject what always seemed such a comfort to many.

Translating the psalms is the art of transferring ancient hymns and prayers from Hebrew into English accurately but in such a way that that content remains useful for the meditation of God's people.  

I happen to think that the words above provide a fresh look at a text hardly anyone ever truly thinks about any more, a text that has become habit and ritual: something that's done because it's "always" been done, and about which nobody quite remembers whether there was a time when it wasn't done.

These words also represent a translation that clears up some of the inaccuracies of the traditional version. Here are some of the details:

V. 2
בִּנְא֣וֹת דֶּ֭שֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי
bin·’ō·wṯ de·še yar·bî·ṣê·nî;
In grassy pastures he lets me lie, chewing the cud.

The Hebrew noun דֶּ֫שֶׁא (deh'-sheh) simply means "grass" (not green) or "fresh shoots", and the verb רָבַץ (raw-bats') means to lie down or to stretch out.

But why add "chewing the cud"? Because people who know sheep know that a healthy sheep never lies down to graze -- for that the sheep remains standing -- but it is to chew the cud that a sheep will "lie down" and "stretch out".

Just like cows, sheep are ruminants. When they swallow food it goes to their first stomach (the rumen), where it ferments for a bit, and the chemical digestion starts.  It then goes back through the esophagus so they can munch on it some more, to further the mechanical digestion. That is, by the way, why we use the word "ruminate" to express the human activity of meditating and pondering.

V. 4
גַּ֤ם כִּֽי אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת
לֹא אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע
gam kî-’ê·lêḵ bə·ḡê ṣal·mā·weṯ
lō- ’î·rā  rā‘
Even when I walk through a dark valley,
I fear no harm ...

The noun צַלְמָ֫וֶת (sal-maw'-veth) means "deep darkness" or "thick darkness", and often describes extreme danger.

States one standard dictionary: "It describes the darkness of eyelids tired from weeping (Job 16:16), the thick darkness present in a mine shaft (Job 28:3), the darkness of the abode of the dead (Job 10:21ff; Job 38:17), and the darkness prior to creation (Amos 5:8)."

The noun רָע (rah) means "adversity", "distress, misery or calamity".  Since in modern English the word "evil" doesn't mean "disaster" or "misfortune" any more, the translation chosen is "harm".

V. 6b
וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְּבֵית יְ֝הוָ֗ה לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים׃
wə·šaḇ·tî bə·ḇêṯ- Yah·weh lə·’ō·reḵ yā·mîm.
I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come

The translation of וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י as "dwell" is common, but relies on an editorial change made by translators.  The word in the Hebrew text clearly suggests not dwelling but returning.

The last two words of the psalm, לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים, are often translated as "forever", perhaps in a "christianizing interpretation, in which the Lord's house is understood as heaven, and the psalmist begins to dwell there ... forever." (David Clines). But since the phrase, literally "the length of days", doesn't mean "forever" anywhere else, it seems smarter to stick to "for many days to come".

After these few examples for the reasoning behind the decisions made in the Clines translation it it clear to me that making this old psalm more accurate doesn't make it less suitable for private devotion and public worship.

As busy and industrious North Americans, we are inclined to view life as an achievement; think of the phrase “we make a living”. In contrast to that attitude, Psalm 23 affirms that life is essentially a gift. Not something you can achieve or buy or work hard for – God's gracious gift to each of us.

Saint Francis of Assisi lay on his deathbed. He was singing, and singing so loudly that the whole neighborhood was aware. Brother Elias, a pompous but prominent member of the Franciscan order, came close to Saint Francis and said, "Father, there are people standing in the street outside your window." Many had come. Fearing that the last moment of Francis' life had come, many who loved him had gathered together around the house.

Said this Brother Elias, "I am afraid nothing we might do could prevent them from hearing you singing. The lack of restraint at so grave an hour might embarrass the order, Father. It might lower the esteem in which you yourself are so justly held. Perhaps in your extremity you have lost sight of your obligation to the may who have come to regard you as a saint. Would it not be more edifying for them if you would, er, die with more Christian dignity?"

"Please excuse me, Brother," Saint Francis said, "but I feel so much joy in my heart that I really can't help myself. I must sing."

You see that Brother Elias is concerned with public opinion. He wants Francis to be serious and dignified; he can't stand the idea of Francis being ordinary. Laughing and singing and dancing in his mind are for ordinary people.

But Francis says he must sing; he has already melted into God. It's not even that Francis who is singing any more; he has become the song.

That's why he cannot help it; he has no control over it any more. The song of the universe is happening. The self, the ego, no longer exists. Saint Francis is no longer there as an individual; in him is absolute silence, and out of that silence the song has been born.

Francis died singing; he is the only Christian saint that died singing.

No matter what the lords of this world promise us, we know that all we need is this shepherd. We know that we are strangers here and that our home is elsewhere – thus we are critical of the lords of this world.

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