Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — The Art and Force of Psalm 119:1-8: Part 2
In the previous blog post, I noted the clauses in Ps 119:1-2. This blog will again look at vv. 1-2a, focusing on the meanings of the Genitives. The next blog will look at the rest of the stanza with respect to speakers, key words, and conjunctions.
A Formal Translation of Ps 119:1-2
Here is a recap of the translation I suggested for vv. 1-2:
The first three lines are exclamations and not really verbless or verbal clauses. The traditional translations do not bring out the exclamatory force. Further, the force of the Genitives is lost. The translation above is deliberately formal using the colorless word of to render the construct relationships. But when explaining a text, any time one sees the word of, one must ask what it means. Functional translations will tend to express clearly the relationship, but the traditional translations here get rid of some of the Genitives.
The Construct Relationship
For some readers, it might be helpful to review the construct state in Hebrew. So, here it is.
Hebrew does not have a word for of (for that matter, neither does Greek, and much of what is said here also applies to the Greek Genitive case). Instead it uses the construct relationship to mark a noun in what modern grammarians call Genitive. In a two-word construct chain, the first (head) noun can have any case function in a clause. The second (tail) noun is always in the “Genitive” case function, roughly corresponding to the English object of the preposition of. Here is a description of the construction (see Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 121).
Qualities of Nouns in Construct State
When there are three elements in the chain, there are two Genitive relations, one between the head and the medial nouns, and a second between the medial and the tail nouns. Each Genitive should be examined, no matter how many elements there are. Usually the Genitives relate two adjacent nouns. When the tail noun is a Pronoun, as in “the holiness of the mountain of him,” the Pronoun might be considered as referring to the first element: “his holy mountain” rather than “the mountain of his holiness.”
Unfortunately, grammarians are not consistent from one to the next in labeling the functions of Genitives. I suggest the following guidelines. (1) For greater consistency, all the descriptions (function labels) should be from the perspective of the tail noun, i.e., describing how the tail noun relates to the head noun. (2) It is helpful to categorize Genitive relationships as either dynamic or static (i.e., characterized by movement or position). (3) It is also helpful to distinguish whether the direction or position is with the head noun or the tail noun, for almost any type of relation may have either direction. For example, a Genitive might indicate possession, a static quality. But either the head or the tail noun might be the possessor. For example, in “the child of the woman,” the tail noun, the woman, is the Genitive of Possessor, however, in “the owner of the pit,” the tail noun, the pit, is a Genitive of thing Possessed.
As we look at vv. 1-2, one person might understand things differently than another person does. You may prefer interpretations other than the ones I give. But that is the fun of it!
Verse 1a: Oh, [the] joys of [the] perfect of way
(By the way, I placed the in brackets to show that the Hebrew is not marked as having determination.) There are three words and two constructs. The first, “the joys of [the] perfect,” might be either static or dynamic. If the former, the tail noun is a Genitive of Possessor. We might render more functionally,
“Oh, the joys that belong to the perfect.”
If the latter, the tail noun is a Genitive indicating direction and [the] perfect might be called a Genitive of Destination and rendered,
“Oh, the joys that come to the perfect.”
The second construct is “[the] perfect of way.” In this case the tail noun is a metonymy for manner of living (path substitution for journeying). We might call this a Genitive of Location, a static idea and figurative. It might also be called a Genitive of Respect/Reference and rendered,
“those perfect in their journey,” or
“the perfect with respect to their way.”
Verse 1b: Of those who walk in the instruction of the Lord!
As we pointed out in the previous blog, הַהֹלְכִים is in apposition to תְמִימֵי־. Since the latter is Genitive, so is the former. This is why I added the preposition of at the beginning of the line. It therefore stands in construct relation to אַשְׁרֵי, and relates the same way. So we understand the implicit אַשְׁרֵי,
“Oh, the joys belonging to those who walk”
The Participle is followed by a prepositional phrase. The object of a preposition may be conceived of as in the Genitive, but the function is determined by the force of the preposition. But how doesתוֹרַת relate to יהוה? If we think Possessor, then the static idea would be that the instruction belongs to the Lord. This is true, of course, but is that the main notion? I think it is better to view the instruction as coming from the Lord. The idea is not so much that the Lord has instruction, but that he gives it. We may label it as a Genitive of Source and render more functionally,
“in the instruction that comes from the Lord.”
Verse 2a: Oh, the joys of the keepers of his testimonies!
(Note that keepers is determined, of course, because it is in construct with testimonies, which is determined by the presence of the Pronominal Suffix.) The first construct is parallel to 1a and 1b: the joy belongs to “the keepers.” The second Genitive is Objective. When the head noun is a noun implying action, the tail noun is either a Subjective Genitive (the subject or agent of the implied action) or an Objective Genitive (the direct object, or patient, of the implied action).
There is a third construct relationship. The Pronoun his equals “of him,” and is another Genitive. It is parallel to “the instruction of the Lord” and should be taken as Genitive of Source.
Oh, the joys belonging/coming to
those who keep the testimonies
that come from the Lord.
Happiness in the Lord
Paying attention to the Genitives in the Hebrew causes us to pause and consider the relationships between the Lord, his teachings, and our response.
Remember the lines from the old hymn: “For there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey”? Growing up we used to sing it as a hymn of invitation. The lyrics actually explain how to be a “happy” Christian. The message is echoed in these verses of Ps 119. The road to a happy life is obedience to the teachings that the Lord gives. We walk completely and we keep his commands. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Pet 1:3, NIV).
Lee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.
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