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The Literary Star Puzzle: in the Ψαλμοὶ

June 24, 2014

Sometimes teams of translators make some very odd choices as they puzzle over the ambiguities and uncertainties of the biblical text. For example the English Standard Version team has this for what we call Psalm 110:3 –

ESV

And so, because of all the marks on the English text, we readers must peek at the footnotes in the ESV

ESV.footnotes

The English-standard-version versification may only just make the poetry garbled. Can’t we have an English translation that at least gives us readers a variant both that is somewhat lyrical and poetic and also that is a bit cohesive even within a stanza?

Yes, we can. And here’s Craig R. Smith’s translation in The Inclusive Bible –

smith

And here’s Ann Nyland’s translation

Nyland

And here’s Robert Alter’s translation

Alter

Alter gives these helpful notes on the meanings on the source texts –

alter.footnote

What is interesting here is the implied sex, the gender, the generative nature of things in the Psalm.

And there’s a literary spark and an interpretative spin in the Septuagint, in the Jewish-Greek translation –

μετὰ σοῦ ἡ ἀρχὴ
ἐν ἡμέρᾳ τῆς δυνάμεώς σου,
ἐν ταῖς λαμπρότησιν τῶν ἁγίων·
ἐκ γαστρὸς
πρὸ ἑωσφόρου
ἐξεγέννησά σε.

Lancelot Brenton renders this rather closely, and I’ve taken liberties both with the Greek above and Brenton’s English below to break the text into lines that show the play in the prepositional phrasing –

With thee is dominion
in the day of thy power,
in the splendours of thy saints:
I have begotten thee
from the womb
before the morning.

You’ll notice how I also put in bold font the puzzling Greek phrase, ἑωσφόρου

Albert Pietersma for the New English Translation of the Septuagint much more acknowledges the puzzle –

NETS

The footnote in the NETS is simply that the antecedent is unclear, but what Pietersma leaves as if unnoticed (or at least without a note) is the import of “Morning-star” for Ἓσπερος /Hesperos/ and all its puzzling meanings.

Very likely, in Alexandria, Egypt during the time of the translating, the translation team there probably had this sort of metaphorical puzzling picture in mind, and from their holy Hebrew scriptures they saw fit to give birth to Hebraic Hellene as some sort of comment on their own cosmology –

And today from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology we get it –

HE′SPERUS (Hesperos), the evening-star, is called by Hesiod a son of Astraeus and Eos, and was regarded, even by the ancients, as the same as the morning star, whence both Homer and Hesiod call him the bringer of light, heôsphoros (Il. xxii. 317, xxiii. 226; comp. Plin. H. N. ii. 8; Mart. Capell. viii. § 882, &c., ed. Kopp.) Diodorus (iii. 60) calls him a son of Atlas, who was fond of astronomy, and once, after having ascended Mount Atlas to observe the stars, he disappeared. He was worshipped with divine honours, and regarded as the fairest star in the heavens. (Eratosth. Catast.24.) Hyginus (de Sign. Coel. 2) says that some called him a son of Eos and Cephalus. The Romans designated him by the names Lucifer and Hesperus, to characterise him as the morning or evening star.

The interesting thing about this star is its literary ambiguity. In the Psalmoi, is this the Womb before the Morning-star? The Womb before the Evening-star? The Womb before Every-star that marks the onset of day and the night? Is it a Homeric, and Hesiodic allusion? Hesperus is the Morning-star or the Evening-star? Hesperus is Phosphorus? What is somewhat obvious is that there is puzzling, literary sparks in the new language text. New gendering, new engenderings. Have the goyim ever gotten this? Clearly the new empire of the Romans garbled the epic Hellene accounts of the star(s). The later writers of the gospels and the epistles of the Greek New Testament certainly like to point back to this particular Greek Psalm. Is the star in the birth narrative of Jesus a continued puzzle of some sort? Doesn’t Gottlob Frege get the philosophical implications with his much much later “Frege’s Puzzle“?

Some time ago in the bible blogging world, there was some due attention given to this particular verse and its translation in various ways. As our BLT co-blogger Suzanne gives attention to Greek Mythology in light of questions about sex difference and not-so-different sexual and heavenly and earthly bodies, especially in the context of N. T. Wright’s expresssions of what the Bible can and cannot say, why not now look at the Hebraic Hellene puzzle in the Psalms?

ἐκ Γαστρὸς
πρὸ Ἓωσφόρου
ἐξεγέννησά σε

out of My Womb
before that Star of Dawn (and Dusk)
I gave Birth to you.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. krwordgazer permalink
    June 24, 2014 10:06 pm

    If this is indeed a metaphor of God giving birth, it is certainly not the only one in the Scriptures– and there are also metaphors of God in labor, and God breastfeeding. God is spoken of as having a womb and breasts, even though He is “Father.” What I have never been able to find is any metaphor of God (or the “heavens,” for that matter) having a penis, or having sex with the creation or the earth in order to cause the earth or the creation to bring forth life. These metaphors are strangely missing as corroborating evidence for those who would insist that God is Male and the creation female, or that the heavens are male and the earth female.

  2. June 24, 2014 11:36 pm

    from the womb of morning, the dew…

    Am I the only one who reads that as an image of amniotic fluid, as labor begins?

    What other kind of “dew” would come from a womb?

  3. June 25, 2014 6:50 am

    Kristen,
    Interesting point on the lack of explicitness about male parts in the metaphors of God and Heaven.

    Victoria,
    Yes, dew and womb are metaphors that work together in this context.

    We can only conjecture that the LXX translators were thinking of the womb of the goddess Ἠώς, or Ἕως, Éōs, “Dawn.” She’s the very famous “rosey-fingered” one throughout the Homeric epics.

    http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Eos.html

    And there’s the same suggestion of dew with womb of Heaven in Haggai 1:10 –

    Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit.

    And the same set of generative images in Zechariah 8:12 –

    For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.

    And in the first three stanza of “Before I Knocked” by Dylan Thomas –

    Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
    With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
    I who was as shapeless as the water
    That shaped the Jordan near my home
    Was brother to Mnetha’s daughter
    And sister to the fathering worm.

    I who was deaf to spring and summer,
    Who knew not sun nor moon by name,
    Felt thud beneath my flesh’s armour,
    As yet was in a molten form
    The leaden stars, the rainy hammer
    Swung by my father from his dome.

    I knew the message of the winter,
    The darted hail, the childish snow,
    And the wind was my sister suitor;
    Wind in me leaped, the hellborn dew;
    My veins flowed with the Eastern weather;
    Ungotten I knew night and day.

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