The Ψαλμος and Aristotle: Ps. 33(34)
When I read Psalm 34 in the Greek (aka the Septuagint’s Psalm 33), I have lots of questions. For example, does the psalmist have a possibly-pregnant female soul? Aristotle would not have gone for that, even if Plato might have.
And does this particular Hellene translation of the Hebrew add any literary sparks and the interpretive spins?
There are at least four peculiar changes from the Semitic text to the Greek:
1. In the very first part, the prelude, where David’s relationship with Abimelech is mentioned, there’s an added emphasis on τὸ πρόσωπον, or “the face,” which the Hebrew does not have. This seems to stress how David acts like God, when he does not favor Abimelech with his face as God does not shame the faces of those who draw near to him (in Hebrew verse 5, which is Greek verse 6: τὰ πρόσωπα ὑμῶν). Likewise, David is turning his face against Abimelech the way the LORD turns his face away from evil and evil doers (in Hebrew verse 16, which in Greek 17 has this: πρόσωπον δὲ κυρίου ἐπὶ ποιοῦντας κακὰ).
2. There’s an odd pause, a διάψαλμα /dia-psalma/, a “strum through” line, usually indicating the Hebrew Selah. This comes after the Greek verse numbered 11, but it’s absent from the original Hebrew or at least the Masoretic Text.
3. What is Greek verse 10 (Hebrew v 9) seems to add a phrase that is gendered. Let me bold it and transliterate it:
φοβήθητε τὸν κύριον, οἱ ἅγιοι αὐτοῦ,
ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ὑστέρημα τοῖς φοβουμένοις αὐτόν.
It’s in English letters hysterma.
This makes us recall Aristotle’s explication of the uterus or the womb in his copious notes on animal copulation. He mentions the male penis as the present penetrating organ, and he suggests the female hysteria is the complement, the counterpart, the lack.
What is unusual is that the Hebrew verse 9 does not really require such a Greek construction. And the translator also had other Greek words to choose from. And, as we see in Greek verse 11 (Hebrew 10) there’s ἐλαττωθήσονται / elattothesontai/ which suggests lack and want.
4. Finally, Greek verse 11 removes the young hungry lions from the Hebrew (v 10) and replaces it with πλούσιοι ἐπτώχευσαν καὶ ἐπείνασαν, or “rich people who are poor and hungry.” We may recall that in Aristotle’s writings about lions, he makes this observation: “The lion, while he is eating, is most ferocious; but when he is not hungry and has had a good meal, he is quite gentle.” Is there some sort of motivation by the LXX translator to remove the explicit Hebrew reference to the hungry lions?
To compare the Hebrew and the Greek side by side, with the RSV and the Brenton English translations, you can visit Paul Ingram’s great website Kata Pi which produces this page here.
The only other interesting thing about this Greek translation called Psalm that I want to say is this: It seems to have had some reception in the reading and the writing and editing of Matthew’s gospel. At least, the Greek phrase τοὺς ταπεινοὺς τῷ πνεύματι “the lowly in spirit” seems to be part of Jesus’s beatitudes: οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι “the poor in spirit.”