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Interpretive Spins in the Ψαλμοὶ: the first twists

May 15, 2012

This post just may continue a series (on how the translators of the Hebrew Bible into Hellene, into what is called the Septuagint now, used literary sparks and interpretive spins on some rare occasions in the Psalms). Unfortunately, I may not be able to interact much in comments following for some time, even though it would be wonderful if you and others wanted to so talk. So what about Psalm 1? What about what the Greek translation in Alexandria, Egypt by the Jewish community there added? What about how they added meanings? Were these Hebrew ones and perhaps politically motivated Egyptian ones and rhetorically savvy Greek ones?

Today, Brian LePort posted “Psalm 1: comments and grammar chart – Psalm 1 introduces the Psalter as Torah. We are to read and meditate upon the Psalms. He gives his chart comparing the Hebrew and the Greek here. And he brings the whole thing forward to Christendom, saying:

The Septuagint has an interesting statement in v. 5a that makes me curious to how the early Christians would have read it. It says,οὐκ ἀναστήσονται ἀσεβεῖς ἐν κρίσει. This can be translated, “…the wicked will not arise in the judgement.” Interestingly enough ἀναστήσονται (ἀνίστημι) is the word uses for resurrection.

That took me back to a post by Suzanne McCarthy, one of my BLT co-bloggers, who (at another blog some time ago) said this:

We need to see that the Greek [Psalm 1] adds somewhat to the Hebrew in the preceding line, the wicked are “like dust that the wind flings from the face of the earth” and then these wicked people will not rise again. Whether the translator meant to communicate the meaning of “resurrect” is not something we can be sure of. Possibly not. But we do know that there was a growing belief in a resurrection at this time and anastasis was the word used to communicate this. So, later readers would see “resurrection” … in this text….

Suzanne is right that we cannot be sure of whether the Hellene translator(s) intended readers to read “resurrect” into this text. Brian is correct that reading “resurrect” into the Greek today is something that Christians, even early ones, might do.

Nonetheless, given how Brian is noticing the emphasis on Torah (and implicitly on HaShem), we might suspect other things. Genesis 9:9 is one of the first places in Torah where the LXX translators decided to use the Greek word that can also mean resurrection. In Hebrew, it goes like this:

ואני הנני מקים את־בריתי אתכם ואת־זרעכם אחריכם

In the Greek translation, that is this:

ἐγὼ ἰδοὺ ἀνίστημι τὴν διαθήκην μου ὑμῖν καὶ τῷ σπέρματι ὑμῶν μεθ᾽ ὑμᾶς

The added idea, if any, is “to stand right up (again)” the covenant between Noah and the LORD. In the RSV, for a quick English translation of the Hebrew Genesis 9:9, this goes, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you.”

Why this early Torah translation is so significant, to me anyways, is that to the first Psalm it adds the bit that the LXX translators decide to insert in that Psalm (with no Hebrew correspondent at all in this initial Psalm).

The LXX translators add:

ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς

Suzanne has translated this into English as:

from the face of the earth

If we read the LXX in Greek, that is, if we are reading “Genesis” in the “Rule” or “Law,” then we find something interesting. In the story of Noah, this Greek prepositional phrase appears thrice. It’s in Genesis 6:7 and Genesis 7:4 and Genesis 8:9. In the RSV, which I have handy here, that goes in English like this respectively:

So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”


“For in seven days I will send rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”


Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground;

In each instance, the Greek translation for the Hebrew is ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς (which is the Hebrew the RSV English renders as “from the face of the ground“). Then, in Genesis, comes God’s establishing of the covenant with Noah after the flood: ἀνίστημι τὴν διαθήκην μου ὑμῖν

The Greek Psalm adds not only the idea of resurrection, or at least of “standing up right” a covenant. But it also adds this key Genesis phrase, tying the first Greek Psalm back to this horrific act of God on the face of the earth, leading to a new life, a new covenant. The Greek adds a spin, doesn’t it? It may be more Hebraic than we first think? It may be grounds for early or late Christian readings. Your thoughts?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2012 8:42 pm

    Interesting Kurk. for myself, resurrection never occurred to me re Psalm 1. But it is there in an image in Psalm 3 right through to 139 – the sleep and awaken. Maybe sometimes rising and standing is just rising and standing. And sleeping and waking too, for that matter. 🙂

    It is to be noted that the wicked and the righteous are both raised from the dead according to the NT.

    I do think the LXX begins the process of bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. This was not an innovation with Paul, but a process begun many centuries earlier. Brian’s note about Psalms as Torah is one of the ways that is noted in Uriel Simon’s book. He explores 4 ways of reading the psalms in medieval Judaism – I forget which one suggested Psalms as a second Torah, but I like the idea. Israel and the turning of her captivity (14, 53, 78, 85, 106, 126, 137) is a theme in the Psalter, and one that I think each and all of us may recapitulate.

  2. May 16, 2012 12:03 am

    “I forget which one suggested Psalms as a second Torah, ” — the five books of Psalms corresponding to the 5 books of Moses– Is it in the Midrash Tehillim?– though I think the idea is older….

  3. May 16, 2012 11:47 am

    Thank you for sharing my post. Like you, I don’t know that the translators had the idea of resurrection in mind, but I do imagine early Christian exegetes “finding” resurrection in this passage and those mentioned by God about awakening. In the Book of Acts we get a bit of a Lukan glimpse at early Christian exegesis of the Psalms and resurrection does seem to be something they found. Whether Peter actually used the Psalms this way or not in his sermons is secondary to the reality that Luke did.

  4. May 18, 2012 4:16 pm

    Thanks for your comment, especially your thoughts about Psalms as midrash and/or Torah. I find this sentence very interesting: “I do think the LXX begins the process of bringing the gospel to the Gentiles.”

    Good question about “the Midrash Tehillim” or perhaps something older?!!

    What do you make of the first paragraph of the preface to the JPS 1917 edition of the Hebrew Bible in English translation? It goes:

    The sacred task of translating the Word of God, as revealed to Israel through lawgiver, prophet, psalmist, and sage, began at an early date. According to an ancient rabbinic interpretation, Joshua had the Torah engraved upon the stones of the altar (Joshua 8:32) not in the original Hebrew alone, but in all the languages of mankind, which were held to be seventy, in order that all men might become acquainted with the words of the Scriptures. This statement, with its universalistic tendency, is, of course, a reflex of later times, when the Hebrew Scriptures had become a subject of curiosity and perhaps also of anxiety to the pagan or semi-pagan world.

    I wonder if the Septuagint translators, as in-legend as they are, would have understood or held to this “ancient rabbinic interpretation [of] Joshua ha[ving] the Torah engraved upon the stones of the altar (Joshua 8:32) not in the original Hebrew alone, but in all the languages of mankind, which were held to be seventy, in order that all men might become acquainted with the words of the Scriptures”? Sounds familiar in a LXX fishy way, no?

    Thanks for clarifying that it is Luke’s Peter in Acts the offers “a bit of a Lukan glimpse at early Christian exegesis of the Psalms and resurrection.” Did this start post-resurrection of Jesus, these interpretations?

    As you see, my main interest is that the Psalm, translated into Greek in Alexandria, in a river delta coastal city of an Egyptian Kingdom, adds something: it adds ἀπὸ προσώπου τῆς γῆς to the Psalm what’s not in Hebrew. It adds this thrice used LXX Genesis line, signifying a link to the Torah and to the flood account of the judgment back in the days of Noah and to the Covenant made.

  5. May 18, 2012 5:17 pm

    Uriel Simon’s book is available in preview through Google Books here. From the Toc, the four approaches appear to be: Saadiah Gaon – The Book of Psalms as a Second Pentateuch, The Karaite approach – the Psalms as Mandatory Prophetic Prayers, Moses Ibn Giqatilah, The Psalms as non-Prophetic poems and prayers, and Ibn Ezra, the Psalms as prophetic and sacred poetry.

  6. May 20, 2012 11:48 am

    (Oh goody, another sparks & spins post!)

    I know that in some cases, passages that appeared to be added to the Septuagint have turned up in the Dead Sea Scrolls in Hebrew, thus implying that the passage may have actually been dropped by the Masoretic text rather than added to the Septuagint.

    In general, Kurk, when you see passages that are in the Greek but not in the Hebrew, are you checking for this?

  7. May 21, 2012 1:45 am

    Bob: Thank you for the link to google’s preview of Simon’s book. On page ix, the mention of the Saadiah approach of “the book of Psalms as a sort of second Pentateuch” seems most relevant to the discussion around this post.

    Victoria: Thanks for joining in with the excellent questions. Frankly, I’m letting NETS translator Al Pietersma form the initial hypothesis for my series of posts, and he seems to assume the Hebrew of the MT to be the convention, the canon, against which to measure the formal translation approach in general of the LXX (out of which one might see some “literary sparks” and “interpretive spins”). In your post “Psalm 1 and Poetic Forms,” you make the convincing case that “the briefer form of verse 4 in the [MT] Hebrew text [is indeed] more poetically compelling than the expanded form in the Greek [translation].”

    As mentioned earlier, the JPS Bible preface repeats “an ancient rabbinic interpretation [that] Joshua had the Torah engraved upon the stones of the altar (Joshua 8:32) not in the original Hebrew alone, but in all the languages of mankind, which were held to be seventy.” I think you’re right to get us looking to see whether the MT might be a preservation of the psalm, against the Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew variants; and I think we might also look to early early translations from Hebrew as we can find them. I understand that I might even check the various DSS translations into English in my exercise here; there are three listed here:

    And then there’s the Peshitta Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Psalm 1 (further rendered into English) here:

    Click to access Psalms.pdf

    From what I can see, the LXX adds the Greek phrase that we find in LXX Genesis repeated thrice in the Noah story. In Psalm 1, the Hebrew seems never to have had it.

  8. May 21, 2012 12:11 pm

    With respect to the scattering of the chaff ‘from the face of the earth’ the LXX adds nothing to the recursion structure in this agenda-setting poem. That could be OK – in adding nothing to the recurrence in the poem, it might be highlighting what it is adding. Would the flood then be a significant and central message of the Psalms as book? Initially, I doubt it. The central image of the Psalter is the Exile and the resulting hope of restoration. (E.g. consider the phrase, the captivity of Israel which stem (שׁבה) makes its first appearance in Psalm 14 and final in Psalm 137 – a nice bracket).

    We sang Psalm 39 last night (Maurice Greene’s setting of a bit of it). It is curious to me that Rashi interprets this psalm as corporate with the subject ‘I’ assuming the full weight of the trouble of Israel in exile. So if exile is the ‘main’ theme – then maybe the flood is a bit spurious in Psalm 1. It is true though that the tradition did change some psalms – I doubt that it was by accident that the missing nun verse in Psalm 145 was dropped. The dropping of that verse in itself – is a statement of faith from within the suffering of Diaspora. Now, by a funny reversal of thinking, we could include the flood in Psalm 1 if we get every nation to identify with this common experience of being dispersed!


  1. Annihilation and resurrection in Psalm 1 of the LXX. « Near Emmaus
  2. Psalm 1 and Poetic Forms « BLT
  3. spiritual authority and the forgotten essentials of christianity « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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