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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From the Womb of the Dawn

Part two of a series that started here.

So what's this Psalm 110 all about? Darned if I know, but here goes nothing.
לְדָוִ֗ד מִ֫זְמ֥וֹר
A mizmor of David
So there are a few niggling things that we need to get through first. The first phrase of the chapter, as with many psalms, does not belong to the psalm proper. It tells to whom the song belongs. Does this mean it names the author? Not necessarily, though at times it does seem to do just that. At other times, it could be the name of the collection to which the psalm belongs. Furthermore, the Hebrew phrasing would allow meanings of "for David" as a form of dedication.

Most modern critical interpreters as well as several of the medieval Jewish commentators (Notably Rabbi David Kimchi [רד"ק] and Ibn Ezra) believe the poets of the court wrote this about the Davidic king. On the other hand the Rabbis, the church fathers, and the conservative Christian scholars today believe that the psalm was written by David about someone else.

Of course, in the case of this particular psalm, Jesus himself endorses the idea that it was spoken by David personally. Nonetheless some of the concepts therein are very old, strange, nearly pagan ideas that predate the Davidic kingship. We'll return to this as we examine the content more closely.

Mizmor, by the way, is apparently a musical form of the ancient Israelite court, a type of song, though unfortunately we don't know much more about it at this historical distance. This is a bit of an unusual title. The work looks a lot more like a prophecy than a song, Though it was, no doubt, eventually set to music.
נְאֻ֤ם יְהוָ֨ה לַֽאדֹנִ֗י
The oracle of Yhwh to my lord:
The phrase נאם ה', "the oracle of Yhwh" is used only here in the psalms, though it is found constantly in the prophetic books and is used elsewhere with reference to prophecy. It isn't difficult to envision a prophet standing before his king proclaiming this message on behalf of the deity.

Here commentators divide into three camps. Modern critical scholars, following Kimchi and Ibn Ezra, suggest "my lord" is the Davidic king. The Rabbis (according to Rashi) believed David was referring Abraham as "my lord." Jesus and the Christian tradition believe, obviously, that David is referring to the Messiah as "my lord." Apparently, this seemed plausible to many of the members of Jesus' audience, since, when he said it, nobody asked any questions about it (they didn't dare!).

All of these interpretations have something to be said for them, as we will see. I'll refer to "my lord" as "the king" realizing that this title is applicable both to David and the Messiah.
לַֽאדֹנִ֗י שֵׁ֥ב לִֽימִינִ֑י עַד־אָשִׁ֥ית אֹ֝יְבֶ֗יךָ הֲדֹ֣ם לְרַגְלֶֽיךָ
"Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a stool for your feet."
To us today (or at least to me), this sounds like an invitation take a load off and put your feet up while Yhwh cleans up the racket. Nothing could be farther from the intention of the prophet. The right hand is a place of action. In many ancient Near Eastern cultures, like medieval European cultures, the king was regarded as the agent of the deity on earth. The king was considered to be privy to the divine council, and often took titles like "Councilor of Asshur," for example. (and hey, remind me never to tell you about my Akkadian teacher's interpretation of "Wonderful, Councilor, Mighty God...")

Suffice it to say, when the king is invited to sit at the right hand of Yhwh, it means he is the primary executor carrying out God's judgment on his enemies. This "footstool" stuff is an image of the king's feet on the necks of his defeated foes, a metaphor for ultimate submission and vulnerability. I still imagine the Messiah sitting in a Lazy Boy next to God's throne with his feet on the ottoman when I read this, but there is actually nothing restful going on here, as we will see in the very next verse.
מַטֵּֽה־עֻזְּךָ֗ יִשְׁלַ֣ח יְ֭הוָה מִצִּיּ֑וֹן רְ֝דֵ֗ה בְּקֶ֣רֶב אֹיְבֶֽיךָ׃
Yhwh will send the rod of your power from Zion -- Rule among your enemies!
The NET effectively translates the first bit as "The Lord extends your dominion from Zion." This is what it means to sit at the right hand of the Yhwh. I feel a sermon coming on about extending the Kingdom of God from Zion to the ends of the Earth, but I guess I'll save it. Suffice it to say that these first two verses provide a lot of useful context for interpreting a whole lot of passages in the New Testament, not least Ephesians 1:20-24... just crazy stuff...
עַמְּךָ֣ נְדָבֹת֮ בְּי֪וֹם חֵ֫ילֶ֥ךָ בְּֽהַדְרֵי־קֹ֭דֶשׁ מֵרֶ֣חֶם מִשְׁחָ֑ר לְ֝ךָ֗ טַ֣ל יַלְדֻתֶֽיךָ׃
Your people will be freewill offerings on the day of your strength in the adornments of holiness from the womb of the dawn. You shall have the dew of your youth.
So now we have problems. Luckily, this is also where it starts to really get interesting. You will note that the English translation makes little sense. The Hebrew makes exactly as much sense. Most English translations here simply note, meaning of the Hebrew uncertain and a few are so bold as to add, "and is likely corrupt." Where to even start with this one?

Leaving aside how messed up this verse is when looking at the Hebrew alone and how many interpretations and explanations have been given over the years, I'm going to skip to the good stuff. If you know how I roll, you may realize that I can only be headed one place: The Septuagint! Woo!
But first, someone tell me what this says:
ילדתיך
If you are anything like every Hebrew speaker I've ever asked, you will immediately say "yalad'tikha." Almost the same thing as the translators of the Septuagint (the Jewish, pre-Christian translation of the Old Testament into Greek) said when they saw this word in the Hebrew text (yelid'tikha; same root, different stem, but functionally similar meaning). In modern Hebrew, in the absence of vowels, there is nothing else you could say. In Biblical Hebrew, you'd be batting nine out of ten with this reading. But no, the Mazorites have read something else here; "yaldutekha," which technically isn't even a word (but could, maybe, theoretically in a parallel universe, appear with such a vocalization since it has a pausal accent).

What's the difference? Well, the first one means "I have given birth to you." The second one means "Your youth" (in the abstract sense, not a synonym for "young people"). This becomes kind of important when adjacent verses are quoted by someone who claims to be the son of God. I mean, sure, we already have God saying he begat the king in Psalm 2:7, but that isn't the Psalm that's quoted over and over in the New Testament.

Anyway, with this word in place, what does the Septuagint have to say here?
Greek Text
μετα σου η αρχη εν ημερα της δυναμεως σου εν ταις λαμπροτησιν των αγιων εκ γαστρος προ εωσφορου εξεγεννησα σε

translation
Nobility is with you in the day of your power. In the brightness of the holy ones, from the womb of the dawn, I have begotten you.
Just to show that this is not wildly off base, here's what the same thing (more or less) might look like in Hebrew:
Reconstructed Hebrew Text
עִמְךָ נְדִבַת בְּיוֹם חֵילֶךָ בְּֽהַדְרֵי־קֹדֶשׁ מֵרֶחֶם מִשְׁחָר יְלִדְתִיךָ׃

translation
Dignity is with you in the day of your power in the adornments of holiness; from the womb of the dawn, I have begotten you.
If any other geeks out there want me to show my work for this reconstruction, I'd be more than happy to do so in the comments. Trying to keep it short for the muggles, but I realize this requires some justification. Let's just say my guiding principle here was to get to a meaning similar to what stands in the Septuagint with as little possible change to the extant Hebrew consonantal texts and ask in the comments if you want to know more. The important thing is, this is only two words shorter than the Hebrew text. Everything else is untouched.

Now, am I saying that this is the original text or pronunciation of the Hebrew? No! It could be, but it also could not be. There are plenty of arguments for either side. Heck, there are arguments for other readings altogether (can I get some love for the Vulgate and a minority of MT manuscripts up in the Holy Hills?). What we can say with one hundred percent certainty is that a lot of Jews were reading this verse this way in Jesus' time, and this is the passage Jesus' quotes twice with regard to his own identity which is picked up elsewhere all over the New Testament. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's the difference between simply saying that the Messiah is David's lord, and saying he is the Son of God.

Of course, having a deity proclaim that he has begotten an ancient Levantine king from the womb of the dawn is pretty much par for the course. In fact, as we'll see in the next post there are plenty of things this king might have in common with his contemporaries. Mechizedek comes to bat for our king, coming soon.

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P.S. Sorry this post took so long. I did a ton of research to prepare for it and then realized there was no way I could incorporate all of it into a blog post.

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