Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What is Man?

Each month my family memorizes a scripture. Every other month I make them memorize a scripture in Hebrew because I am just geeky like that. This month we are memorizing one of my favorites, Psalm 8. I would like to share some thoughts on it along with my personal translation. When choosing these verses I told my family that there were astronomy themes, creation themes and exaltation themes.

Yahweh our master how majestic is thy name in all the earth!
That you will give your glory upon the skies.
From the mouths of babes and sucklings you begin strength
Because of your sufferings you still the enemy and the avenger
For I look upon thy heavens
The work of thy fingers
Moon and stars which you arranged
What is a mortal that you remember us?
Or a son of Adam that you regard us?
For thou hast made him lower a little than the Gods
And glory and splendor thou hast encircled him
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands
Everything you place beneath his feet
Flocks and cattle all
And also beasts of the field
Birds of the skies
And fish of the sea
The wanderer of the paths of the seas
Yahweh our master how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

The superscription begins with some fun problems. No one knows what a gittit is. General consensus is it is a musical instrument of some kind although it may be a place name. When your child is considering what instrument to take up in band please give some consideration to the gittit. The next line of the superscript shows just how hard prepositions are to translate. It could be rendered “a psalm of David” or “a psalm to David” or maybe “a psalm for David”. I have opted for the excellent suggestion of Robert Alter and used “A David Psalm”. It's wonderful in preserving all the ambiguity of the original.

The psalm then boldly begins with the Tetragrammaton, Yahweh. Out of traditions dating to the second temple period (much after this psalm was written) this word is substituted for the respectful term Adonai usually translated as “LORD”. The problem is the next word in the text is Adonai making the awkward KJV “O LORD our Lord”. Note the caps are used so those really in the know can tell this is the Tetragrammaton followed by Adonai. I decided overlaying this later tradition was too much so I used the actual name Yahweh as the author would have. I also rendered Adonai as “Master” which is also appropriate.

The idea expressed in the second line is that Yahweh's glory is so great on the earth that it spills over to the skies. The word here can be translated heavens and just as in English can mean the literal skies as well as the residence of God. Throughout this verse it seems clear the psalmist is referring to the visible skies as he raptures over creation.

The next verse seems like it may be out of place. It is hard to get an exact sense of it or how it fits with the larger theme. Perhaps “babes and sucklings” being weak reflect the wondering on the human race and its choice position.

“Sufferings” is rendered in many translations as “adversaries” which can be a possible meaning for the word. The word means to bind or restrict. In Jeremiah 48:41 and 49:22 it means labor pangs (hey wait we do that in English too calling them contractions). At any rate I did not feel the word had to refer to individuals but things in general that bind, restrict and cause to suffer. I could easily read atonement theology into this verse as it is these constrictions that silence the enemy and avenger.

Back to the main theme. I decided to go with “heavens” on this verse because consistency is overrated. In the next line I should note that the same word in Hebrew means fingers or toes. I thought fingers sounded better in this spot however.

We mention moon and stars but no sun making it clear this was a night sky being observed. Perhaps this was sung on the many evenings that the priests made observations of the stars to tell ritual times. Everything from planting crops, to new moon festivals, to special annual feasts like Passover or Succoth were determined by observing phases of the moon or rising times of the stars. As far as we know the ancients had no understanding of just how vast the cosmos really was, although LDS theology asserts such was revealed to Abraham and Moses and perhaps others. Yet even if the cosmos is reduced to a small scale of just this planet it is far more vast than humans can truly comprehend. How much more wonder should a modern man feel as he looks out and understands he is seeing a cosmos extending almost 14 billion light years. The celestial bodies are described here as being “fixed” or “arranged” not created.

“Mortal” the Hebrew is enosh a mostly poetical reference to mankind that tends to mean “weak” or “mortal” emphasizing his very fragile nature.

“Us” both verbs in these lines use a pronominal suffix for the direct object נו nu which can mean either 3rd person masculine “him” or 1st person plural “us”. Most translations render this as “him” because the verb is singular although I point out it is a collective noun in both cases. Also subsequent verses use the unambiguous הו hu to indicate 3rd pers masc. Still I think it was not lost on the writer that these verses talk about us and could be read that way so I choose to render it as “us” here.

“Son of Adam” a common term for a member of the human race. This phrase is also rendered “son of man” by KJV. It was a title Chirst chose for himself many times, perhaps to reference his mortal nature as one of us or perhaps with a special exegetical meaning indicating himself has the second Adam.

“Lower a little than the Gods” the word here is Elohim. KJV probably for theological reasons decided to follow the Septuagint and render this as “angels”. It does not mean angels. Many scholars would say it is probably a reference to the divine council of Gods of which El or his Son Yahweh was the head member. But that is a whole other blog entry.

It should be noted that Paul quotes this Psalm in Hebrews 2. He of course focuses on the Greek Septuagint version that would have been familiar to his audience.

“Glory and Splendor”. These words occasionally refer to actual ornaments and may be physical items or symbolic splendor placed on man in his position.

The various classes of animals from Genesis are recapped as subject to the son of Adam.

The psalm ends with a closing line identical to its opening. This envelope style reminds one of a chiastic structure and may indeed be related to it. It is extremely common in the psalms. It gives a sense of completion much like starting on and then returning to the tonic chord in a piece of music. We have come full circle and have arrived at the beginning again.


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