Friday, May 08, 2015

The Curious Case of Psalm 37:3, Part 2

First, a note on the translation of the Septuagint. The last word in the verse, translated as “faithfulness” in many translations, is ‘emunah. It is possible that the Septuagint translator was reading a text that read hamonah, which would be translated as “wealth” or “riches.” The two Hebrew words would sound very much alike. Hence, if a scribe was copying a text being read to him, he might write hamonah instead of ‘emunah. That is simply a guess, as we have no Hebrew manuscripts that read hamonah in this place. But that would explain the unusual translation.

As for the English versions, a number of possibilities exist. Most translations take the final word as the object of the verb, hence the translations “cultivate faithfulness,” “feed on faithfulness,” etc. Other translations take the final noun as functioning as an adverb, hence the translations “live securely” or the KJV “verily thou shalt be fed.”

The adverbial view, while possible, strikes me as unlikely for two main reasons. First, the noun itself is only used adverbially in one case: Psalm 119:75, which says, “in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (ESV) or “you have afflicted me fairly” (CSB). In all other cases, it functions as an ordinary noun. Thus it seems to me to be stretching a point to render the noun as an adverb here in Psalm 37:3.
The other reason for rejecting the adverbial use is the structure of the verse itself. In the verse, there are four imperatives, each followed by a noun. In the first three cases, the noun is clearly the object of the verb: “trust in the Lord,” “and do good,” “dwell in the land.” As a result, it seems most likely that the final clause is also an imperative followed by a direct object: “shepherd/graze/befriend faithfulness.”

The question then becomes, what does that final clause mean? My sense is that it closely parallels the clause “and do good.” The command concerns our action. As we are to make goodness our aim, so we are also to make faithfulness our aim. The verse begins and ends with trust/faithfulness. Trust in the Lord … shepherd faithfulness. It is not a general faithfulness that we are to shepherd/cultivate/befriend, that is, faithfulness to our fellow man (though that is certainly not out of the picture), but rather faithfulness to God. If we look at the next verse, we read “take delight in the Lord.” This helps to clarify the sense of the last clause of verse 3. As difficult as a comparison of English versions may make the verse appear, it is really not too difficult, once the interpreter looks more closely at the context.

As I frequently tell my Hebrew students: Pay attention to the context. The meaning comes not from single words considered in isolation, but in their larger connections in the context.

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