Discordant Hebrew Poetry, Psalm 10:3

One of the joys of poetry is that it often forces the reader to come to terms with jarring, discordant meanings. In Meaning, Michael Polanyi cites Max Black on metaphor: “In the end Black seems to think that ‘the secret and mystery of metaphor’ reside in the connection that the reader is forced to make between the two ideas in a metaphor, but how this works remains unexplained.” (Meaning, 76) He provides an example, “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously . . . It is easy to see that ‘green ideas sleep furiously’ may mean simply that ‘immature ideas foster violent dreams’” (77). The point for Polanyi is that in addition to the subject matter, the metaphor itself has a significance. Both the metaphor and the subject matter work in reciprocity to convey the meaning of what is written. Both the metaphor and the subject matter have intrinsic interest for the reader.

I sometimes think–though I’m not an Old Testament scholar–that Hebrew poetry especially from the Psalms is so horribly mutilated by English translations that the metaphors have almost wholly lost the jarring discordant quality, which is present in the original (Perhaps this is done in the name of the perspicuity of Scripture?). And this loss, due to bad translation, is a loss of a good portion of the meaning of the metaphors. I present an example from this morning’s reading from Psalm 10:3:

Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the LORD.

For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD.

For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire,
and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth.

The Hebrew reads:
2013-05-25 07.40.33 am

Structually, the poetic line looks like this (read right to left):
(noun) (verb) (verb) (subj, participle)-(conj) (noun) (noun)-(prep) (subj, noun) (verb)-(conj)
(the LORD) (despise) (bless) (and the greedy) (of his soul) (over the desire) (the wicked) (for, praise)

Admittedly, it’s difficult to discern what is happening here. But clearly the conjunctions signal the division of the couplet pair. Further, the two subjects, which are parallel, are “the wicked” and “the greedy.” What’s jarring and fascinating about this particular line, however, is that the wicked are said to “praise” and the greedy are said to “bless.” Seemingly, the poet means that these wicked men are praising and blessing the LORD. Yet, he avoids giving an object to these transitive verbs, instead providing the illicit reason for praising in the first couplet, “over the desire of his soul” and jamming an antonym between the verb and its object in the second couplet. It might literally read, “and the greedy bless (that is to!) despise the LORD.”

In other words, the wicked may even be thanking God for the bounty they receive, but even this thanksgiving is an act of despising God because their gains have taken advantage of the poor (vs. 2) for the end of their own desires.

2 thoughts on “Discordant Hebrew Poetry, Psalm 10:3”

  1. I think you may be reading too much into the Hebrew word for bless (“brk”). If you have HALOT, look up the semantic possibilities for “brk.” I don’t have HALOT, but I do have BDB which under the Piel stem for “brk” definition #5 reads as follows: “bless, with the antithetical meaning curse from the greeting in departing, saying adieu to, taking leave of; but rather a blessing over done and so really a curse as in vulgar English as well as in the Shemitic cognates.” BDB lists Psalm 10:3 an example of this usage along with Job 1:11 and 2:9. In Job 1:11 ha’satan tells YHWH that if Job loses all his possessions Job will “barak” YHWH to his face. Also in Job 2:9, Job’s wife tells Job to “barak” Elohim and die.

  2. Caleb, I did notice that in HALOT. But I guess I think I’m actually the one who is reading less into the word. I guess I’m a bit hesitant to add figurative or rhetorical meanings of words as dictionary glosses. I think the instances of “barak” of Job 1:11 and 2:9 kind of beg for explanation why we should translate them *there* as curse. And it doesn’t work to say that Psalm 10:3 is an instance where it is used as “curse,” since we’re explaining that one on the basis of the Job instances. Within the last few years teenagers have used the word “bad” to mean “good” (‘that’s so bad!’). But this doesn’t mean that we should add the meaning to the lexicon. In fact, the point is that it is being used figuratively. It does *mean* “bad”, but it’s a colorful way of saying it, a bit discordant and suggestive.

    Though in this instance the Job 1:11 text gives me more trouble (does ha’satan speak with figurative language?).

    I saw this in BDB: “but rather a blessing overdone and so really a curse as in vulgar English as well as in the Shemitic cognates.” Also HALOT says something really interesting. It reads as follows:
    6. בֵּרַךְ :: קִלֵּל Ps 625 10928 Pr 3011; euphemistic for → ארר, קִלֵּל (supplementary Geiger Urschrift 267f; Nöldeke Neue Beitr. 98; Fschr. Hempel 97f :: Yaron VT 9:90) 1K 2110.13 Ps 103 בֵּ׳ together with נִאֵץ Jb 15.11 25.9; —Gn 4820 rd. יִבָּרֵךְ, nif. or assimilated hitp. (BL 198g).

    Just wondering out loud here, but perhaps there is a bit of a play on words between קִלֵּל (“curse”) and הִלֵּ֣ל (“praise”), which is used in this verse.

    Thanks for the comment.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: