“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1–2): The Artful Hebrew Bible
Being able to read Hebrew or even to use Bible study tools allows a person to observe patterns in the Hebrew Bible that cannot be replicated in translations. In this blog, we will look at some features of poetry. Then we will note some poetic features present in Hebrew from Ps 22. These types of observations will increase the reader’s appreciation of the beauty of the psalm as well as some of the things the author wants to draw to the reader’s (or rather, the hearer’s!) attention.
Some Basics of Hebrew Poetry
Three main features are poetic lines, parallelism, and rhythm. You might find helpful the discussion of these in Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 21. We’ll treat these briefly in turn.
- First, poetic lines. Whereas prose runs on, poetry uses abbreviated language and shorter lines. The ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible do not arrange poetry into lines; these must have been recognizable to audiences by means of proper reading. Older versions, like the KJV, follow this practice. More recent English Bibles mark poetry by printing shorter lines and employing some system of indentation. This makes it easy for readers to see poetry. Most commonly these lines are in pairs (think of most of the aphorisms in Proverbs 10–31); a pair is called a bi-colon. One variation on this is two longer lines broken into four shorter lines, a tetra-colon. Deviations from these can be tri-cola or mono-cola. These variations serve to highlight, summarize, mark endings or beginnings, or simply to add artistic variation.
- Second, parallelism is where the poetic lines have elements that correspond. These are often based on grammatical or lexical features. Observing word order is valuable here.
- Third, rhythm, can be observed a little simplistically by counting the number of stressed syllables, or beats, in the lines. The Masoretes, the preservers of the Hebrew text, included accent marks. Virtually every word in the Hebrew Bible has an accent (some more than one). These serve as punctuation, musical series, and marks of word stress. Sometimes words are joined together by the Maqqef, a mark similar to a hyphen. In such cases, the word-group counts as one stressed syllable. Using this information, we can count the “beats” or major stresses of each line.
Analyzing Psalm 22:1–2
Let’s look at the first two verses of Psalm 22. In the chart below is the Masoretic Text (MT) and the same in transliteration. Where there is a Maqqef in Hebrew I have added a hyphen in the transliteration. In the final column is the “beat count” (Ct), in which I count the number of stressed syllables.
Notice that Hebrew vv. 2–3 = English vv. 1–2, and I have given letters to each line. Below the chart is a very wooden translation. Hyphens (-) join multiple English words when they represent a single Hebrew word. An equals sign (=) marks the Maqqef.
|אֵלִי אֵלִי לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי||2a||ʾēlî ʾēlî lāmâ ʿăzabtānî||4|
|רָחֹוק מִישׁוּעָתִי דִּבְרֵי שַׁאֲגָתִי׃||2b||rāḥôq mîšûʿātî dibrê šaʾăgātî||4|
|אֱלֹהַי אֶקְרָא יֹומָם וְלֹא תַעֲנֶה||3a||ʾĕlōhay ʾeqrāʾ yômām wəlōʾ taʿăne||5|
|וְלַיְלָה וְלֹא־דוּמִיָּה לִי׃||3b||wəlaylâ wəlōʾ-dûmiyyâ lî||3|
1 My-God, my-God, why have-You-forsaken-me?
Far from-my-deliverance (are) the-words-of my-groaning
2 O-my-God, (A) I-cry-out daily, (B) but-not do-You-answer,
(A′) And-nightly, (B′) but-no=rest (is) to-me.
Observations and Inferences
2(E1) There are two lines in this verse, a bicolon. The last word of the first line is “have-You-forsaken-me.” This word is used for separation, a leaving behind. The first word of 2b is “far.” This arrangement forms a figure of speech known as a hysteron-proteron (“last-first”) referring to the last word of line a and the first word of line b. The juxtaposition of these two words heightens the emotion of the separation that the psalmist feels.
3(E2) Both vv. 2 and 3 begin with a vocative referring to God. But whereas the vocative in v. 2 is the short form for God, אֵלִי (ʾēlî), repeated twice, v. 3 begins with a single occurrence of the lengthened and more commonly used form אֱלֹהַי (ʾĕlōhay), “my God.”
English versions count this as a bicolon. Each line has two clauses, to which I have assigned letters in the translation for easy reference. Not counting the vocative “O-my-God,” clauses (A) and (B) have two words each. (A) consists of a verb and a time element, “daily.” (B) is “but-not” plus a verb, “do-You-answer.”
(A′) contains only one word, a time element, “nightly,” which parallels the time element in clause (A). Its verb is assumed from (A), “I-cry-out,” making it a third verbal clause, but it looks like a noun clause (see the next paragraph).
Clause (B′) is the most intricate. It has three words, but the first two are joined by Maqqef and count as one beat. It is a noun clause (or verbless clause), meaning that a form of the verb to be is assumed (see Hebrew for the Rest of Us, ch. 6). This structure of to be plus the preposition ל (l), “to,” is a normal way for Hebrew to say “X has Y,” where X is the object of the preposition.
The parallel to the noun “rest” in (B′) is the verb “answer” in (B).
Furthermore, the word translated “rest” is a wordplay. BDB identifies three similar roots with similar meanings: (1) דום, a theoretical root of the noun דוּמִיָּה, “rest”; (2) דמה II, “to cease” which can refer to the ceasing of activity (such as weeping in Lam 3:49) or to ceasing of existence in the sense of destroying (Jer 6:2); and (3) דמם I, “to grow dumb, silent, still.” The interplay of the sounds and meanings carries a foreboding sense of “doom” in this final line.
The temporal parallel in (A) and (B) heightens the constancy of the psalmist’s crying to the Lord. In the (B)::(B′) parallel, the “answer” in (B) is the (unfulfilled) cause and the “rest” in (B′) is the (unfulfilled) result. The wordplay of the word roots forms an opposition between the “answer” and the “rest/silence/ceasing.” The irony and contrast of the wordplay enhances the psalmist’s sense of discouragement coupled with the aloneness due to the separation in v. 2.
Humans often use music to express how they feel. When we feel sad, we usually don’t want to hear a light-hearted song; we want to hear a song that helps us express our sadness. In these two verses, the poetic elements help us to “hear” the disconsolation in the psalmist’s heart.
Have you ever felt that God was distant and silent? On an intellectual level, we know that God is ever near and that he hears his people. He tells us so (Acts 17:27–28; Pss 50:14–15; 145:18). We must remember these truths even when we don’t feel like he’s near and listening. But even in those times, it is important to be honest with the Lord.
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