An Intimidating Psalm

Psalm 119 is kind of infamous, isn’t it? It’s by far and away the longest of them all, yet by reusing its Law/Torah vocabulary systematically in each new stanza, it gives us that feeling we get where a public speaker turns a five-minute point into a thirty-minute talk. (Those of you who were at the same public function as me last night, any resemblances to the speaker there are purely coincidental.)

In my latest biblical quest, that of reading our canonical books in the Greek Old Testament (OT) or Septuagint (LXX), I have been making heavy weather of reading the Psalms, proving unable to keep up with the teaching schedule in my Psalms subject just completed at Melbourne School of Theology. I’ve been lodged just in Psalm 119 for two weeks, just finishing this morning.

It still is not an easy psalm. Just how deliriously joyful can the study of the Law be? For one thing, we probably need to broaden our understanding of ‘law’ and the similar terms used so often in the psalm. Another of this often reused set of words is, well, ‘word’, and perhaps that isn’t a bad one to focus on. The thing prized here is not just the set of prescriptions contained in our Pentateuch between Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is really “every word that comes from the mouth of God,” that is, every indication of his nature, his will, and his attitude toward us. It assumes that God has taken the trouble to let us know what he thinks of us and what he wants from us. And that’s inherently precious, and naturally to be celebrated. It’s a claim that God reaches out to us across the vast ontological gulf that naturally separates us. That’s a source of hope.

Beyond that important principle, which can help us understand a potentially inscrutable psalm, I have found a few things that help me appreciate it more:

  1. This I knew already, but half the fun of this psalm on a literary level is its acrostic acrobatics. Each stanza has eight lines, and in Hebrew, each of those eight lines begins with the Hebrew letter designated in the heading. This involves some linguistic tricks that, I’m sorry to say, only Hebrew readers really get to enjoy.
  2. Along with the parallelism that is so obvious within each verse, I notice that pairs of neighbouring verses often closely parallel one another, needless to say with plenty of Hebrew word fun along the way. Here are verses 169 & 170:
    • Let my cry come before you, O Lord;
    • Give me understanding according to you word!
    • Let my plea come before you;
    • Deliver me according to your word.
  3. The psalm is a microcosm of every other psalm genre. There is praise, of course, but there is lament over suffering, pleading for intervention, expressions of confidence, ‘imprecations’ or cursing of evil people, thanksgiving for God’s intervention and help, in a word all the different kinds of discourse we find elsewhere in the psalms. I won’t list examples, being under time pressure (as always), but read a few lines and you’ll see what I mean.
  4. On a similar note, the psalm is very personal. V. 149 pleads, “Hear my voice, Lord, according to your mercy, and in keeping with your judgment, let me live” (from the Greek). It’s all like that: intimate, raw and real, notwithstanding the device of mentioning God’s ‘law’ by some synonym in every verse.
  5. As a curiosity, I don’t actually know how we got our English numbering system; I have a vague sense that the number shapes are thanks to Arabic somehow. But I noticed that the LXX used what looks like a final-form sigma for six, then a zeta for seven, then an eta for eight. That can’t be coincidental, can it? But I’m revealing a gap in my education there. Someone better informed can add a comment telling us all where our numbers come from.
  6. Finally, the Greek of the psalm keeps using the term ‘melete‘ (with a long last ‘e’), which means something like study or close scrutiny. “Your commandments are my melete,” says v. 143. For me, one of the best ways to relate to God is through Bible study and reading, but I worry that that might be some poor egghead substitute for real, spiritual interaction with God, which leads me to a final comment.

I think that one reason that we struggle to appreciate this psalm might be, aside from a much lower tolerance of repetition than an ancient Jew, that we read the ‘law’ references in Pharisaic terms. “The letter kills,” we feel, “but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). This expresses a tension inherent to the spiritual life of the Christian, and the pendulum of church practice has swung between these two extremes. But Psalm 119 reassures us that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The letter is capable of serving the spirit as well as resisting the spirit.

Studying your Bible can be a spiritual act, a devotional thing to do, a window on the will of God. It need not be a dead letter.

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Digital Septuagint, One Last Time

Better success lately finding help for reading the Septuagint (as per usual, for free) online. Let me put it in terms of good, better and best. And this is still in terms of how it works when logged on with my Android tablet. The first two work on the basis of double-tapping the mystery Greek term in the Septuagint and doing the suggested Google web search on it.

  1. Good is a new one, a book that comes up reasonably often in the search results provided by Google Books: an Analytical Lexicon of the Septuagint by one Bernard Adwin Taylor. I hadn’t heard of it before, I don’t know why, but it’s handy that a Google search can find your desired form in it pretty regularly.
  2. Better is the solution I mentioned last post: most such searches bring a result on the front page from the Perseus Greek study tool at www.perseus.tufts.edu.  (Tufts offers a lot of good digital tools, like the versatile VUE – Visual Understanding Environment.) This sort of result comes fully parsed and, when you click ‘word frequency statistics’, will tell you where it turns up in classical Greek writings and how often. You could do worse.
  3. Best is a website that I just hadn’t found before: www.greekdoc.com/lxx, seemingly created by one John Barach. There is it, the whole thing, every word linked to its corresponding entry in an analytical dictionary. Tap the form you don’t recognise, see its analysis, and you’re back to reading the text in about two seconds. Which to my mind is the critical thing when we’re going for fluency in reading the Bible in the original languages. That, finally, is the morning reading solution for me. When I’m doing serious study, BibleWorks it is.

Okay, I think I have Septuagint posts out of my system. (Could be wrong…) Back to digital repositories for primary document study really soon.

A Second Interlude: Back to Digital Bibles

The test case for online Bible tools that I floated in my last post was, which freely available tool caters well for the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) reader? I’m imagining the reader (easy, because it’s me) who can read the Greek reasonably well but has a knowledge of Greek birthed in the New Testament and will often not recognize LXX-only Greek terminology, or words familiar in classical Greek but missing from the New Testament. The pricey tools, Logos, Accordance and BibleWorks (best value, in my biased opinion), provide such helps in spades, but what’s there for the ordinary punter not yet ready to splash out to the extent of many hundreds of dollars in order to read the Bible on his/her tablet in the original languages?

I can reaffirm from further looking what I said in my last post. It looks as though you cannot get a free tool that offers definitions and parsing for all of the words in the LXX for just a click or hover. Tools like Step Bible and MySword offer ready access to roots available in the old Strongs dictionary for NT Greek words. But a fully tagged Septuagint in a cheap or free Android or Windows app or online, I can’t find.

But here are a couple of handy workarounds.

  • I remembered that Tyndale’s http://www.2letterlookup.com/ is really quite a quick and handy way to look up biblical roots in original languages, hooking in to all the old-but-good lexica such as Liddell, Scott and Jones. Works very well indeed for the triliteral roots of Hebrew. Greek, however, is not so simple, since so many Greek roots incorporate common prefixes like ‘epi’, ‘pros’ and such like and so open with the same pair of letters, leaving you to look through hopelessly long lists of words. This is helped by a graphical bar diagram that appears once you click a lexicon link under a word listing. It looks like this (below, for the lexicon known as ‘Middle Liddell’)…but for common prefixes, it’s still just too cumbersome.

lexicon-graphic-in-2letter-lookup

  • Better is a solution that was staring me in the face from my Android tablet the whole time. Open up the Bible app of your choice; I’d recommend one that has really attractive Greek typeface in the LXX. I found Blue Letter Bible and Academic Bible really good this way, and in the latter case, you’re getting the text of a recent, critical edition. Just double-click on the mystery word/form and your tablet offers you a Google search on the term. I was thinking that with the language barrier involved it would never yield meaningful results, but I was wrong. We live in Unicode World now, where you can move digitally from one language to another with ease. Every search on a Greek term brings up meaningful search results. Admittedly, some of them are modern Greek web pages that still use the term in question. But nearly every search I did brought up the form, fully parsed and defined, in the Perseus Greek word study tool, which is absolutely the best online tool since sliced virtual bread for this kind of thing, and an old favourite of mine. (It’s not working as smoothly on my Windows PC as I write this, but it’s the tablet where I was looking for a good solution in any case.) And it’s quick, quick enough not to lose momentum while reading.

I should mention that I’ve been corresponding with David Instone-Brewer, the head sherang at Step Bible, who tells me that a fully tagged Septuagint is well into preparation by the Tyndale crew (see the Tyndale Tech blog), so I encourage you to keep checking the Step Bible tool regularly. It keeps getting better, and will no doubt have this cracked before long.

Digital Document Detective, Interlude: Online Bibles and Their Limits

My new task for this and subsequent years is to read the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament that forms the basis of so much New Testament teaching and gospel proclamation. But I have wanted to get my technology right first. My question has been:

Can I find an online bible, or better, a downloadable app, that would provide parsing of difficult Greek terms in the Septuagint, with root definitions?

Out of the ‘big three’ Bible software universes, Logos, Accordance and BibleWorks, I made my choice a long time ago, more or less in ignorance, of going with BibleWorks. I don’t regret it, either, primarily in value-for-money terms, where I think BibleWorks really excels. Logos does many, many things well, but is chiefly for the building of a large, digital library of secondary sources. I feel a little intimidated by how much it seems to cost, and continues to cost, and feel as if it’s the Hotel California of Bible software. You can check out any time you like, but you’ll receive promotional emails practically forever. Accordance would tempt me more now, but I have always been a Windoze user and it was once a Mac thing, so the die was cast. Oh, and my devices now are Android, and I move in Google and Microsoft online spaces.

So what is out there that might let me, rather than booting up my PC proper to read the Septuagint of a morning, just boot up my tablet and browse the Septuagint, but get help with those rarer or forgotten Greek words I need definitions for, and occasionally, parsing?

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A Last Christmas Question?

I hope to resist temptation after this and return to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

But my last nativity story question is, do we know that they had ‘inns’ as such in Jesus’ time in Bethlehem?  The Greek word traditionally translated ‘inn’ in Luke 2:7 is ‘katalyma‘, and only occurs otherwise in reference to the room Jesus expected to be prepared for the last supper (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11).  I can find 11 uses in the Septuagint (LXX), where the term can be used of places of residence that are impermanent, and might refer to God’s dwelling, i.e. the tabernacle as a non-permanent residence (2 Sam 7:6), a human lodging (Exod 4:24; Jer 40:12) or an animal lair (Jer 25:28 (Eng.)/32:38 (LXX)).  This doesn’t really help decide between ‘inn’ and ‘guest/spare room’ in Luke 2:7, but I am still wondering whether it is the guest accommodation in someone’s house in Bethlehem that was full, forcing Joseph and Mary into the final overflow accommodation, i.e. the animals’ area at the lower end of the house (see previous post on this).

Theological dictionaries have very limited information: Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich 4th ed. (1952) has a few lines, listing ‘inn’ for this reference alone.  Kittel’s Theological Dictionary 4:338 seems to settle rather meekly for this meaning too.  Brown, Dictionary of N.T. Theology, 3:189, says the word…

means generally lodging, but more particularly a guest room or dining room (Mk. 15:14; Lk. 2:7; 22:11).

Is this another case of the ‘traditional translation’, like ‘hallowed’ in the Lord’s Prayer, that has become too enshrined to touch or update?

Your comments are welcome.