Friday, November 14, 2014

Acrostics in the Old Testament

One of the curiosities in our Standard works is found in Psalm 119. Open there in a current edition of Gospel Library on your phone or iPad or just go old school and turn there in a hard copy of the scriptures. You will notice the uniqueness immediately. The very long meandering psalm is divided into 22 segments of 8 verses each labeled with a Hebrew letter followed by a bad spelling of its name. If you know some Hebrew you will notice the letters are in alphabetical order and run through the entire length of the alphabet Aleph to Tav (or ALEPH to TAU sic.). What is this all about and why is it arranged this way. Continue reading for a bit more background.

The proper display of this chapter took special considerations for both print and electronic publishers as this Psalm requires consideration of printing using an entirely different font, and although there is only a single Hebrew letter involved in each header, in electronic editions it required some special considerations of right-left and left-right language mixing. I personally got to write up a bug on this while beta testing a major upgrade to the IOS Gospel Library. So I just want to point out that the Church takes seriously the need to have even fine details of the scriptures preserved correctly in its official versions.

Psalm 119 uses a Hebrew poetical device called an acrostic. In this form of Hebrew poetry each line of a poem starts with a specific letter of the alphabet and runs through the entire alphabet in 22 lines. In English this might look like:

  • Always getting into trouble
  • Boys have ever been
  • Caught being naughty
  • Dogs aren't much better

Ok so from the above we have established that I am no psalmist and I leave it to the imagination of the reader to determine what events in my home life were occurring that inspired the above. However it is enough to give you the idea that I could produce a full 26 lines of such amazing literature to follow through the entire alphabet. This is what an acrostic does in Hebrew. Psalm 119 is a special case as the largest and most complex acrostic in the scriptures. Each letter starts eight sequential lines (verses) before moving to the next letter. As you could imagine there is no way to preserve such a structure in translation. It would be difficult going from say German to English but perhaps a creative wordsmith might accomplish it. In this case however the two languages involved don't even share an alphabet and do not even have the same number of letters. Additionally people are less forgiving with creative translations with scripture and demand an adherence to a fairly literal rendering. The use of letter headers was introduced by translators to provide the reader some clue about the underlying structure.

So now that the reason for the Hebrew letters is explained you may be wondering how often this form is used and what all you have been missing. A very good and rather complete paper on the subject can be found at by John Brug. I see no reason to duplicate his work here, but I will say they are found in several psalms, Lamantations, and probably my favorite in Proverbs 31:10-31.

So what does the presence of acrostics signify? Well it reveals a great deal about the language underneath. Obviously it requires an alphabet, something most westerners take for granted but was far from universal in the ancient world. It also required that the alphabet had a specific order. The presence of this form reveals not only how ancient the concept of an alphabetical order was but also its importance. Indeed I am always amazed at how much of that order has been preserved to our modern English system. You see it starting off as a,b,g,d then later you see the early j,k,l,m,n and ending it off with p,ts,q,r,s,t. The purpose behind this form is not well understood. Mostly we have only guesses as to its intent with no compelling theories standing out. A common idea is that it was a pneumonic device, but was it intended to remember the teaching contained or the alphabet?

As with any definite structure it its a powerful help in preserving a text from corruption as it can act as a final check as each new hand copy is created. This can be disheartening as the flaws in the structure can also be detected and most examples we have have suffered some degree of corruption over the years. This can give us an idea of how our texts have changed from thier original state and give us pause to wonder how if such a clearly structured text can be damaged in transmission, how significantly have less detectable corruptions entered the text. Occasionally, the existence of this structure can help us identify oddities in the text such as Psalms 9 and 10 which we know were originally one psalm as there is an acrostic structure that spans both. As mentioned there are obvious corruptions detectable as letters/lines are dropped such as the otherwise perfect acrostic in Psalm 145 is missing a line for the letter נ nun which was restored when we discovered a copy of the psalm in cave 11 of Qumran as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other examples skip a letter or two and insert an additional line or half line in various places or in two cases present the letters ע aiyn and פ pay out of order possibly reflecting an ancient battle of alphabetizers from competing schools or maybe just somebody with dyslexia. There are other examples of acrostic structure appearing in several other books in the Bible but their form is so damaged that there is not full agreement as to their existence.

I think it would be remiss to discuss this complex structure without pointing to its cousin structure of Chiasmus. Chiasmus or inverted parallelism has been a popular topic in Book of Mormon studies for a while. Particularly famous is the complex example in Alma 36 first discovered by John Welch. Since that time many additional examples have been discovered and there is some lack of consensus as to whether they exist as an intentional feature or if they are a result of overly aggressive pattern discovery. John Welch did not originate the idea of chiasmus and its presence has been perceived in ancient Middle Eastern literature for some time. Some examples are tightly formed and essentially indisputable in their intentional construction, others could be argued as more speculative and subjective. Certainly there are plenty of over zealous discoveries that mostly exist in the imagination of the discoverer. However to those who would argue that the entire genre of chiasmus is invalid, acrostic structures stand as an indisputable example of similar intentional textual complexity in the ancient world.

In the Book of Mormon you can find examples of acrostic structures in Alma 5 as well as 2 Nephi 11. No just kidding... As discussed there is no reasonable way such a structure could survive translation. It is equally unclear if the Reformed Egyptian used in the Book of Mormon was alphabetic in nature. Any discovery of this form will likely need to wait until the original language is available for examination. But its presence in Biblical literature, especially in Lamentations which is attributed to a timeframe close to Lehi, indicates that such complex structures were in use at his time an increases the plausibility that they and similar organizational structures may have been used in the Book of Mormon composition.




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