Saturday, September 25, 2010

Psalm 145 - the missing nun

No this is not Midsomer Murders. Way back in 2006 I did a diagram on this psalm that supplied the missing nun according to Rabbinic tradition - it is Amos 5:2 and it reads this way in the Hebrew
נָֽפְלָה לֹֽא־תֹוסִיף קוּם
 בְּתוּלַת יִשְׂרָאֵל
 נִטְּשָׁה עַל־אַדְמָתָהּ
אֵין מְקִימָֽהּ
in Hebrew word order - line by line
fallen no more to rise
is the virgin Israel
cast off on her own ground
there is no one to raise her up

Why such a tradition? It is more than a nun verse. It fits a tragic situation and it fits the thought of psalm 145 in a way that anticipates two words in the next verse
סוֹמֵךְ יְהוָה לְכָל-הַנֹּפְלִים
וְזוֹקֵף לְכָל-הַכְּפוּפִים
14svomék yy lkal-hànoplym
vzvoqéph lkal-hàkpvupym
Sustains יְהוָה all the fallen
and he raises up all the distressed
It also easily fits the Nun in Hebrew and in English
No more to rise, fallen is the virgin Israel
cast off on her own ground, there is no one to raise her up
Notice also the poetic recurrence of rise/raise (קום) in the Amos verse.

There are 8 acrostics in the psalter. They are placed only in Books 1 and 5, forming a frame for the whole Psalter.  Several of the acrostics are incomplete. As explained here by Ronald Benun, the acrostics are incomplete except for psalms 111, 112, and 119. So it must be that the king of psalm 110 that is praised in the two following Hallels and the one who observes the testimony as celebrated in psalm 119 are complete. All others are in a struggle to be complete. Should psalm 145 have a missing letter or should it be complete? And if it is to be complete, what would the nature of the missing verse have to be to convince us that it belonged?

The above paper does not deal with Psalm 145 so it cannot enter into the discussion of completeness according to his method - a very complex method. If one was to read the people like Fokkelman whom I read in the early days before I could count syllables, then the missing verse would have to fit the poetic line at a syllable and word count. (Dr. C.J. Labuschagne has a remarkable detailed numeric reconstruction here.) To take a simple example, if one was adding a missing line to an English acrostic in iambic pentameter, one would expect the missing line to have 10 syllables. One would likely also expect that it would have some relation to the text and probably not a negative one in this psalm of praise.  It would be appropriate if the last book of the psalms had 4 perfect acrostics to balance the four imperfect ones in book 1.  It might suggest that the psalter is a road to perfection.

I would also expect some word patterns and content that fit and that was not just a copy of another verse beginning with nun. Well - all these questions and the verse has been around for a long time - but with MS support from the Septuagint and a few very late Hebrew manuscripts - but not the Masoretic text. And now it is also found in one of the Hebrew scrolls in Qumran (only 1 out of 37 - but maybe psalm 145 is only in one of the scrolls because they are all in fragments. A scroll is determined as distinct by different writing / medium and date. None of the psalms scrolls is complete.) The verse is in the RSV and the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the psalms from the second or third century BCE. So it has even been available by back-translation from the Greek.
נאמן יְהוָה בדבריו וחסיד בכול מעשיו
Transcribed - n)mn יְהוָה bdbryv vxsyd bkvl m`syv
I am really bad at how to put dots and stuff in the text - but maybe this is how it would sound
ne-eman adonai bedvarav vachasid bekol me-asav
In English this is
faithful is יְהוָה in his words and merciful in all his deeds
It is my impression that in this Davidic psalm in the Yahwist not the Elohist part of the Psalter, that the name of God should match what the LXX seems to imply: that the tetragrammeton was used here, not Elohim. There are a few notes on the web and the note we were given in the conference session has the following: נאמן אלוהים בדבריו וחסיד בכול מעשיו but no decision has been yet made for the Oxford Hebrew Bible. I am glad to see that Dr. C.J. Labuschagne also chose the name rather than the word for God.

As a note on signing and controlling translations - perhaps all acrostics should be marked with their letters so that the verses do not get lost. Just think if the Greeks had done a little letter-play the way the Countes of Pembroke did in the 16th century.


3 comments:

  1. If you look closely at Ps 145, the LXX reconstruction of a "nun" verse appears quite contrived. Just an effort to fill a gap that would have been obvious to any literate Hebrew reader in an otherwise perfect acrostic structure. A nearby verse (the צ verse) already ends וחסיד בכל מעשיו. Leaving aside the plene spelling of בכול (which is typical of much later hebrew writing like that of the dead sea sect), there is no reason to expect the "more complete" psalm to be the more correct one, let alone the one featuring this glaring redundancy in the verse's second half. The scribes who preserved acrostics were, if nothing else, aware of the alphabet. It is rather hard to "forget" or "lose in transmission" a verse from an acrostic. Without any other biases about the masoretic text, it is difficult to accept criticism of the masoretic forms of the acrostics on the premise that they're "missing letters" without coming to rather contradictory conclusions about what sort of scribe doesn't know the alphabet.

    For the record, Mr. Benun, whom you cite, believes the masoretic version of Ps 145 is wholly accurate, and indeed the forms of number symbolism he observes in the acrostics of book one can only confirm this impression of the psalm which, absent a "nun" verse, comprises the first thirteen letters, an intentional omission, and the final eight letters.

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  2. Hi Alex - thanks for the comment. The LXX appears to have translated a vorlage that the Masoretes did not have. The text of both LXX and Qumran is a difficult one. What does one make of the missing 'all' with respect to the faithfulness of the word of Hashem?


    I respect the amount of work that Benun and Labuschange and others do to establish numeric patterns. I simply do not have time for many of these patterns, and I think they are also somewhat too difficult for a poet to construct let alone a reader to read.


    On the other hand - the music of the te'amim - that is something else and it is not too difficult. In less than a year, I have learned to sight read it from the Hebrew text. You could of course add up all the frequencies of note-syllables and come up with a scheme - but I think that it is better to sing the song for the One who teaches us knowledge.


    I have the music for Psalm 145 here in pdf form. I have reconstructed the te'amim varying the common pattern to mark that it is a reconstruction. (All the other psalms there are in various stages of transcription but the XML reflects directly the syllable and music coding at tanach.us. It was all created automatically, Hebrew to music in one step to a draft transcription.)

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  3. Alex, I remember liking Benun's idea of evil in the earlier acrostics. Re completeness, I note that of the 13 acrostics in the Bible, the four in Book 1 of the Psalms are the only ones missing any letters - perhaps deliberately, three of the four in Lamentations have the פ and ע reversed, Proverbs is complete (I have not studied it - perhaps soon I will do its music) and the four in Book 5 of the Psalter are complete. (except for the nun). It is a curious result. I note also a grand chiasm in the construction of the Psalter formed by the four poems that precede the acrostics: 8 and 144 balance, and 36 and 110. The word connections are curious. 36 and 110 are the only two oracles in the Psalter, 8 and 144 have the only mention of 'fingers', shades of Shakespeare! and they have the two 'son of man' passages (differing words and differing aspects in the Hebrew of course, glory vs futility).

    Re the te'amim I neglected to post the link (also on the right panel) to my shared resource - all in one place: here. Click on a 'book' to see the various files. I have just completed the Song of Solomon, and I did Psalm 145 this morning with my new program changes to include the Hebrew. I am currently working on Exodus 3. To read the XML files you need something like Sibelius, Finale, or Musescore (free and my test environment). Noteflight is limiting and it will not handle Hebrew. I could encode any consistent scheme for cantillation. I have encoded that one that was done by induction by Suzanne Haik Vantoura in the 20th century. Ethnomusicology as you put it. For an independent assessment see Mitchell (book forthcoming).

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