Monday, June 4, 2012

Psalm 119: Deliverance from sinners or sin?

Psalm 119 is as long as it is ornate. In no less than twenty-four of its one hundred seventy-six verses its author describes being hunted and chased by assailants. But is he being chased by wicked people or wicked-ness? Consider verse 61:

Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. (NIV)

This is a fairly typical translation of this verse. Some translations nuance "ropes" as "groups" while others take it as "snares", but this slight difference aside, all seem to be agreed that "wicked people" are doing this. But what does being tied up by bandits have to do with remembering God's law? The New Living Translation is novel in this respect, "Evil people try to drag me into sin, but I am firmly anchored to your instructions" which makes the binding a little more metaphoric.

All of this interpretation has been based on translating the Hebrew plural participle (typically a -ing type word) as a personal substantive adjective: "ones who...." Thus sinning becomes sinning ones. This usage is common and straight forward for anyone who has spent any time translating Biblical Hebrew.

But Hebrew plurals are many spendored things. There is another use of the plural that beginning students of Hebrew are not typically exposed too, called the abstract plural. One way Biblical Hebrew can express the abstract concept of something (typically English words that end with -tion and -ity) is to use the plural. This can be used to express qualities such as integrity, perversity, compassion, or states such as adolescence, virginity, childlessness, or actions, fornication, atonement, consecration, consolation. In other words, a plural Hebrew word that looks like a concrete noun such as בַּטֻּחוֹת "sure circumstances" can actually intend to convey the idea of "security".

What if the assailants of Psalm 119 are not wicked people at all. What if these plurals are intended to mean "wickedness" is pursuing the author, but that he struggles to resist, survive, and remain pure despite temptation. It certainly fits the topic of the Psalm. The trouble is that there are so many verses which so vividly describe this pursuit in such tangible terms that its hard to establish a proper context without second guessing and re-translating many many verses.

And so I put this to the community of the discerning. Is this Psalm allegorizing sinfulness as gangs of muggers looking to taint a saint with sin? Or is it about a holy individual fending off physical persecution of his purity? Or somewhere in between? Grammatically and literarily and contextually both are equally possible (even in its Greek translation!). Since virtually all English translation pre-dispose the interpretation to one side, any comments will need to look for evidence beyond the English wording in this case.

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