Commentary Magazine

The Psalms in Translation

The following exchange was occasioned by Milton Himmelfarb's article, “Translating the Psalms,” which appeared in the February COMMENTARY. Mitchell Dahood, S. J. is professor of Ugaritic Language and Literature at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and author of a number of works of biblical scholarship. Mr. Himmelfarb is one of our contributing editors. (For technical reasons, it has been necessary to omit diacritical markings from the transliterations which appear in this exchange.)


Mitchell Dahood

The peoples will praise you, O God. . . .

—Psalm 67:3

A former colleague, while a student at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, attended a seminar on comparative Semitic philology. One day when a Jewish student was holding forth in the seminar, my former colleague questioned his explanation of an Akkadian usage, and later during the same hour he challenged his parsing of a construction in Hebrew. This was too much. With a look and a gesture of utter exasperation, the Jewish student sighed: “First you questioned my knowledge of Akkadian, and now you're trying to tell me I don't know any Hebrew!”

That Milton Himmelfarb should put a similar interpretation on my Psalms I (Volume 16 of the Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1966) does not surprise me because, after all, it does challenge, verse after verse, the traditional Jewish—and Christian—translation and interpretation of the Hebrew Psalter. What does amaze me is that the cudgels were taken up, and on a largely philological basis, by one who is innocent of Ugaritic and Phoenician and is unfamiliar with the scientific literature and trends in the field of Northwest Semitic (Hebrew, Ugaritic, Phoenician). Especially since the second paragraph of the Introduction to Psalms I contains the following programmatic statement: “But the translation offered here differs from earlier efforts in that it is not the fruit of a confrontation of the Hebrew text from which the least objectionable reading is plucked. . . . What is attempted here is a fresh translation, accompanied by a philological commentary, that lays heavy stress on the Ras Shamra-Ugarit texts and other epigraphic discoveries made along the Phoenician littoral.” In seeking fairly to appraise Psalms I according to its aims and its methodology, the reviewer should be conversant with the cognate dialects appealed to in order to solve syntactic and lexical difficulties that swarm in the Hebrew Psalter. Lacking this conversance, he is apt to distort the book under review and to mislead the reader. For an illustration of this danger, one need but compare Himmelfarb's article “Translating the Psalms” with the lengthy review of Psalms I in the Israeli newspaper Ha-Aretz (August 12, 1966) by Professor M. Goshen-Gottstein of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the director of the Hebrew Bible project, and a professional Semitist with an enviable command of Northwest Semitic philology. But let that pass. In his article Himmelfarb has raised several valid questions which should be met.


What new discoveries permit, nay, oblige a biblical scholar to say to tradition that it has not done full justice to the syntactic, lexical, and theological treasures of the Psalms? Over the past forty years biblical research has been affected by numerous archaeological and epigraphic discoveries, but pride of place belongs to those made at the mound of Ras Shamra, the ancient city of Ugarit, seven miles north of Latakia on the coast of Northern Syria. Since 1929 thirty archaeological campaigns under the direction of Monsieur C. F. A. Schaeffer have uncovered hundreds of baked clay tablets that were written or copied between circa 1375-1185 B.C.E. (the Israelites entered Palestine, it might be noted, circa 1250-1225 B.C.E.). Many of these tablets are written in a dialect closely akin to biblical Hebrew. They preserve some long mythological poems of the Canaanites, the perennial adversaries of the Israelites, economic and juridical texts, royal letters, and the correspondence of private individuals.

What emerges from forty years' study of these tablets with their various poetic and prose genres is the sharp difference between the syntax of poetry and the syntax of prose (also observable in many modern languages, such as French). Classic Hebrew grammars have generally slighted this distinction, with the unfortunate result that biblical poetry has been translated and parsed according to canons of biblical prose, and if a poetic verse proved refractory, its obstinacy was chastised by emendation or expulsion from the text. Thus Moses Buttenwieser, The Psalms (Chicago, 1938), writes: “It should be emphasized that there neither is nor can be any exception to the rule that the genitive cannot be separated from the nomen regens by a pronominal suffix.” This apodictic statement has been dynamited sky-high by numerous Northwest Semitic examples of pronominal suffixes, enclitic particles, even verbs, interposed between the construct noun and the genitive. Classic and rabbinic Hebrew grammars teach that the qtl or perfect form expresses past time, while the yqtl or imperfect verb states present or future activity. But much to the surprise of comparative Semitic philologists, the Ugaritic texts regularly employ the yqtl or imperfect verb to describe past happenings, while the qtl forms serve mainly as stylistic variants to the yqtl, or are usually limited to intransitive verbs. When translating biblical poetry (roughly one third of the Old Testament), should we continue to follow the teaching of the pre-Ugaritic grammarians, or should we cut free and study Hebrew poetry within the wider context of Northwest Semitic poetry where yqtl ordinarily expresses the narrative past? The well-documented use of the optative or precative perfect in Ugaritic and Phoenician (as well as in Arabic) reveals that very many perfect verbs in the Psalter, especially when paired with imperatives or jussive verbs, are precative forms expressing a wish or a prayer and not stating a past event. Of course, this insight will affect the literary classification of some poems. Some Psalms that were thought to be hymns of thanksgiving now turn out to be prayers for rain! For example, Psalms 65b, 67, 85.

These and many other points of Hebrew poetic syntax and style have been put into a clear light by the Ugaritic tablets, but Mr. Himmelfarb, with no credentials in Northwest Semitic philology, cannot be expected to know these things and so must continue in his stodginess (his term), emending the text (see his treatment of Psalms 2:11-12) or falling back on its interpretation in the Jewish liturgy.

Unfortunately for him, progress in Northwest Semitic philology renders emendation ever more doubtful as a text-critical procedure. Dramatic illustration of this is offered by the recently published Hebraisches und Aramaisches Lexikon zum Alten Testament by W. Baumgartner, with the collaboration of B. Hartmann and E. Y. Kutscher. Exploiting more fully the Ugaritic lexical and syntactic thesaurus, these lexicographers have reduced by roughly sixty per cent the emendations which vitiated the first edition of 1953 and the partial revision of 1958.


Advances in Ugaritic research also result in the devaluation of the ancient versions. For example, the simple letter l can symbolize four different particles: the negative “not, no,” the emphasizing lamedh “surely,” vocative “O,” and finally the preposition “to” but also “from.” The observation that the ancient versions, generally speaking, lumped all four particles together and translated them as though they all signified “to,” does not speak well for their knowledge of Hebrew. And one must exercise caution when handling the Qumran or Dead Sea Scrolls. In the large Isaiah Scroll alone the monks of Qumran edited five enclitic mems out of the text, evidently because they did not appreciate their function. Consult, for instance, Isaiah 30:20 mym lhs, to be pointed mey-m lahas, “waters of affliction,” which appears in Qumran Isaiah as my lhs, without the enclitic mem interposed in the construct chain. Thanks to the numerous examples of this enclitic mem in Ugaritic, biblical scholars have been able to identify it in some two hundred passages in the Old Testament. Before the Ras Shamra discoveries its presence in the Hebrew text went unrecognized.

To be sure, the sudden irruption onto the page of Hebrew poetry of so many new particles, words, verb forms, and syntactic phenomena will doubtless bewilder one not schooled in Ugaritic grammar and style. A long and thorough familiarity with Ugaritic poetic usage will, however, supply the Bible translator with the criteria to decide when, say, a simple l should be interpreted as vocative “O” and not prepositional “to.” With practice the translator's hand acquires a sureness that hardly seemed possible when first he learned that a simple l was susceptible to four or five interpretations. I frankly conceded in the Introduction to Psalms I (p. XX) that “not all the proposals submitted here will stand the test of present criticism or future discoveries,” and “to claim that the present application of this new information to the biblical text is judicious in every instance would be patently absurd” (p. XLII). But the growing acceptance of this new methodology on the part of Hebrew philologists has speeded up the tempo of research along Northwest Semitic lines, providing the translator with more data on which to base his choices. That the consensus (pardon the word) is growing can be gathered from the above mentioned Hebraisches und Aramaisches Lexikon zum Alten Testament, which differs most strikingly from its predecessors in its fuller exploitation of the Ugaritic tablets and of studies on Ugar-itic-Hebrew relationships. “It is equally significant,” one scholar has observed, “that neither Baumgartner nor any of his collaborators and consultors, who include the leading Semitists, can be accused of pan-Canaanite tendencies in the past.”

But what effect has this philological onrush had on Mr. Himmelfarb? Basically one of irritation and frustration, even though he is, as he assures us, an equable sort. But this may be taken as a hopeful sign, because the process of education often causes irritation and frustration in the learner, but the supple mind will not permit this aggravation to blind it to the basic question: “Is this educational process valid?”

About a year ago, I received a letter from a Biblical scholar, who concerning the method employed by Psalms I, wrote: “Scholars just don't believe it, and several of my colleagues just dismiss it as farfetched. I hope you will not be discouraged by this. . . . The proof of the pudding for me is that it clarifies things elsewhere—that's real control. For example: I simply did not buy your claim that 'amaru, ‘to see' [this is its meaning in Ugaritic; in Hebrew it signifies ‘to say'] existed in Hebrew, until I came upon a place where ‘said’ didn't make sense but ‘see’ did! I was converted. We've just got to allow time for the stuff to sink in.” For all his high dudgeon, Himmelfarb does give some evidence (of. his remarks on Psalm 22:26) that he too, after further research, will be converted, will begin amaru, “to see.”


He launches, though, the discussion with an unfelicitous comparison of Psalms I with E. A. Speiser's Genesis (Vol. 1 of Anchor Bible) that obscures the fact that Psalms and Genesis present two different sets of problems. The avowed method of the Anchor Bible is “to arrive at the meaning of biblical literature through exact translation and extended exposition. . . . The Anchor Bible is an effort to make available all the significant historical and linguistic [my italics] knowledge which bears on the biblical record” (see the page opposite the title page of Genesis and Psalms I). Now the Book of Genesis is essentially a prose narrative whose well-preserved text presents the translator with relatively few text-critical problems; the translator and commentator can thus concentrate on extended exposition and historical background. This Speiser has done magisterially, so that his Genesis makes pleasurable reading. Psalms, on the contrary, are poems with no identifiable historical background, whose text bristles with rare poetic words and textual problems, problems which have often been compounded by the Masoretes. Before the commentator on Psalms can begin to discuss the Sitz im Leben of a Psalm, he must first determine the literal meaning of each verse, determining what is the subject, what is the predicate, what is the object. Banalities, one might retort, but none the less necessary if progress is to be made in Psalms research.

The shortcomings of the Masoretes, it has been noted, have compounded in many passages the task of the critic. For example, the MT reads at Psalm 49:16 (15), 'ak elohim yipdeh napsi miyyad se'ol //ki yiqqaheni, faithfully reproduced by the Jewish Publication Society Version: “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the nether-world; For He shall receive me.” Both MT and JPSV divide an eight-word line into a six-word first colon (with twelve syllables) and a two-word (with five syllables) second colon. Where did they go wrong? In failing to recognize that the seventh word, ki, is not the conjunction “for” but rather the emphatic particle ki, “surely,” that often causes the verb (here yiqqaheni) to be thrown to the end of the colon. This usage was first illustrated by the Ugaritic texts where six examples have been identified. Thus the eight-word line should be scanned into two four-word cola with an 8:9 syllable count. The parallel elements now stand out clearly: 'ak//ki; ‘elohim // miyyad še'ol; yipdeh napši//yiqqaheni. Hence translate, “But God will ransom my soul// From the hand of Sheol will he surely snatch me.” In fulfilling his primary function, the commentator on Psalms must employ discourse that becomes irritatingly philological, but on that account no less necessary. The interested reader has a right to the evidence behind a new version.

When reading Himmelfarb's presentation of my views, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. He ascribes to me, for instance, this credo: “The day of the Bible scholar not expert in Ugaritic is past, particularly if he specializes in such books as Psalms and Job. Only [my italics] Ugaritic can help with those books, because even the Septuagint, the most ancient version, no longer understands their Canaanite archaisms—of vocabularly, grammar, style, imagery, and the rest. Of course, the Masoretes don't understand either since they're later still. . . .” But then the suspicion crossed my mind that he is jesting. This suspicion proved correct, because in the very next paragraph he faults me for occasionally recurring to the Septuagint and the Vulgate (Himmelfarb's remark about my Catholic priesthood and its bearing on my attitude toward the Vulgate is beneath comment). The jest becomes full-blown in the subsequent paragraph where he upbraids me for appealing to the existence in Hebrew of the third-person singular suffix i, which is characteristic of Phoenician morphology. Himmelfarb is much too intelligent not to know the difference between Ugaritic and Phoenician, so that when he chides my appeal to a Phoenician phenomenon to explain some ninety passages in the Psalter, he cannot seriously ascribe to me the view that only Ugaritic can help with Psalms and Job. It would be interesting to have his views on M. Pope's Job in the Anchor Bible.


When he asks why we should insist that thunder basšamayim, “in the sky,” should be “from the sky,” since to him there isn't much perceptible difference, the answer must be that the Psalmists sensed a difference, and the serious philologist must respect this difference. Thus Psalm 18:14 states that the LORD thundered basšamayim, whereas the later recension of this verse in II Samuel 22:14 reads min šamayim “from heaven.” Textual critics today agree that bassamayim is the original reading, and that its meaning is “from heaven.” Or, again, the Psalmist (119:87) confesses that “They virtually exterminated me from the earth, but I did not abandon your precepts.” The Hebrew texts reads ambivalent ba'ares, “upon/from the earth,” but some monk of Qumran, intuiting that the context desiderated “from the earth,” but not knowing that ba also denoted “from,” changed b'rs to m'rs (11QPs). The revolution in the understanding of prepositions brought on by Ugaritic liberates the modern Hebraist from the need for such gratuitous emendations, and upsets the a priori position of Himmelfarb: “I find it hard to believe that so many prepositions have to mean ‘from’ quite so often—not only the one we always knew meant ‘from,’ but also those we thought meant ‘to’ and ‘in’ and ‘on’.” It would be cruel but educative to refer Himmelfarb, who takes a restrictive view of min, to Speiser's Genesis, p. 16, where the note to Genesis 2:8, miqqedem, reads: “in the east. Not ‘from’; the preposition (Heb. min) is not only partitive but also locative.” Among the new entries in the above-mentioned Hebraisches Lexikon is b, described as “often denoting ‘from’” (p. 101a).

The difference in methodology is equally apparent at the famous crux in Psalm 2:11-12, nassequ bar, traditionally rendered “Kiss the son!” What I propose in Psalms I is an original text employing Phoenician or defective spelling, hence the consonants nšqbr, which I vocalize as neše qeber, mortal men,” literally “men of the grave.” Himmelfarb wants to know what happened to the waw of MT nšqw; the simple reply is that it was never there in the purely consonantal text. And then he proceeds to unfold his total unfamiliarity with Phoenician orthography by assuming that “mortal men” should be written nšy qbr. Not at all. The final syllable -e of nese is graphically zero in Phoenician spelling. Unwilling to accept the new proposal, Himmelfarb falls back upon the emendation, suggested by A. Bertholet at the beginning of the century, which involves “a minimum of rearrangement and the loss of only one w,” and leads to the version “with trembling kiss His [sc. the Lord's] feet.” This solution he finds “neat, economical, and satisfactory.” But is it correct? That remains the vital question, and progress in Northwest Semitic philology casts ever greater doubts on textual emendation (namely a change of consonants) as a valid procedure, even when the result is “neat, economical, and satisfactory.” Since our knowledge of Hebrew vocabulary and syntax is daily increasing through new epi-graphic discoveries, the destruction of the evidence by emendation and rearrangement can rarely be countenanced.

Somewhat amusing is Himmelfarb's flat statement “Dahood is wrong,” as regards nazkir, “we are strong,” in Psalm 20:8(7), “Some through chariots, and others through horses, but we through the Name of our God are strong.” His etymological reasoning namely that zakar has only a biological sense “male,” appears unfaultable, but modern lexicographers do not base their definitions on etymology alone; usage is equally important. He emphatically states that “in the whole Bible no form of hizkir suggests the meaning ‘to be male’,” but he fails to mention Nahum 2:5-6 (cited in Psalms I, p. 129), “The chariots rage in the streets, they rush to and fro through the squares. They gleam like torches, they dart like lightning. The officers yzkr, they hurtle in their march, they hasten to the wall, the mantelet is set up.” In this context of careening chariots and charging soldiers, yzkr makes no sense as “remember,” but “are strong” fits. Hence vocalize yazkiru. The new edition of the Hebraisches Lexikon deems hizkir, “to be strong,” worthy of entry (p. LII), and also explains hit'ošasu, “show yourselves men,” in Isaiah 46:8 as a denominative verb (p. 97b) from 'is, “man, male,” which like zakar emphasizes the anatomical rather than qualities of courage or strength.


One can sympathize with Himmelfarb's puzzlement in the presence of the new verbal theory forced upon the Hebraist by the use of the verb forms in Ugaritic. When should the yqtl or imperfect verb be rendered as future, and when should it be understood as narrating past events? Is this qtl or perfect form in the indicative mode, or is it precative to be translated as a prayer? Is this yaqtulu verb third person plural or is it an archaic singular form whose final syllable has been preserved to bring the syllable count of the respective cola into equilibrium? An answer to these questions is not possible in the abstract. But no matter. As Himmelfarb rightly observes, “We don't normally read isolated words, we read sentences or words in a context. Without a sentence or a context, vowels don't always help: taken by itself, what exactly does sound mean?” One conversant with the older Canaanite poetry, with the biblically contemporary Phoenician inscriptions, and with Hebrew poetry itself normally need not rack his brain deciding whether a qtl or perfect verb is indicative or precative. Consider, for instance, Psalm 4:2, beqor'i ‘aneni ‘elohe sidqi bassar hirhabta li honneni usema’ tepillati, “When I call, answer me, O God of my vindacation; in my distress, set me at large; have pity on me and hear my prayer.” How must one translate the perfect verb hirhabta, here rendered “set me at large?” JPSV reads “Thou who didst set me free.” Most commentators emend it to the imperative harhibah, “set me at large,” because of the three parallel imperatives in the verse. But why emend the text when perfect hirhabta can be explained as precative, employed by the Psalmist as a stylistic variant to the imperative in order to eschew monotony? After all, four successive imperatives would be a bit much. The precative mode, well known from Arabic, and now sufficiently documented in Ugaritic and Phoenician, must still find its rightful place in standard Hebrew grammars. What emerges from the study of biblical poetry within the larger ambience of Northwest Semitic is that Hebrew grammars in the future must describe the linguistic phenomena actually present in the text of the Old Testament, and not the converse, namely that the text be emended into line (as in Psalm 4:2) with superseded grammatical notions enshrined in grammars composed a century ago and mindlessly recopied today.

Or again, how does one distinguish between the first person singular suffix -i and the third person singular suffix, also written -i? Theoretically very confusing, to be sure, but contextually not an unmanageable problem. Who doubts that Psalm 24:4 means “The clean of hands and pure of heart, who has not raised his mind (napši) to an idol”? The third person singular verb nasa', “raised,” calls for a corresponding third person suffix in MT napši, which according to the grammars is furnished with the first person singular suffix. What to do? The accepted procedure hitherto has been to alter napši to napšo, “his mind.” Few would-question the occasional orthographic confusion between w and y (cf. Qumran Scrolls), but when this emendatory procedure must be applied to more than two hundred Biblical forms, it becomes self-defeating. Why not admit a new morpheme into Hebrew, given that -y was the normal third person singular suffix in the cognate Phoenician dialect, a morpheme also present in Ugaritic (see below)? In Hebrew the normal third singular suffix remains -o, with -i an optional surrogate to meet the needs of variety imposed by the parallelistic structure of biblical poetry.

The objections to my translation of Psalm 29:1, bene ‘elim, “gods,” should not be addressed to me but to the Psalmist. Had he wished to write “angels” or “heavenly beings,” he would have done so; he had at least three words at his command to express such ideas: mal'akim, qedošim, and seba'ot. Instead he cruelly saddles us with “gods” and there is nothing a scientific translator can do about it. And what is so dreadful about admitting “gods” into the Psalter? What about the divine title 'el ‘elohim, “God of gods”? Compare Psalm 138:1, faithfully reproduced by RSV, “I give thee thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods ('elohim) I sing thy praise,” but tendentiously turned in JPSV, “I will give Thee thanks with my whole heart, in the presence of the mighty will I sing praises unto Thee.” Had the Psalmist wished to say “the mighty,” he probably would have used gibborim, ‘addirim or something similar, not 'elohim, “gods.”


As stated above, the Ugaritic clay tablets date to the period circa 1375-1185 B.C E. Some of the mythological poems preserved on the tablets were, however, composed several centuries earlier. Several reviewers of Psalms I have ex pressed their uneasiness vis à vis the chronological gap subsisting between the Canaanite poems and biblical verse. The oldest poems in the Bible, it will be recalled, belong to the 13th-12th centuries B.C E. (the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5). One reviewer puts the problem this way: “Moreover, ancient Ugarit was destroyed in the 13th century B.C., and the epic texts which Dahood uses were probably composed at least by the 15th century. No direct dependence is thinkable.” As I try to explain in the Introduction to Psalms II (Vol. 17 of the Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1968), it is not so much a relationship of dependence as of mutual elucidation, so that in a certain sense chronological considerations assume a secondary importance. The Ugaritic texts, in particular the poetry, contain grammatical, lexical, or stylistic phenomena always present in the Hebrew Bible but for one reason or another unrecognized or unappreciated. The poetic use of the double-duty suffix may serve as illustration. In 1948 Professor G. R. Driver of Oxford published an article showing that the Canaanite poets of Ugarit employed, for metrical or other reasons, but one suffix where sense and syntax require two. Thus the poet writes, spsg ysk Iriš hrs lzr qdqdy, “Glaze will be poured on his head, plaster upon his pate,” where the third person suffix of qdqdy, “his pate,” also modifies suffixless riš, which should be rendered “his head.” Driver transferred this information to the biblical text and identified some dozen examples of this practice. In the interim the number of dual-purpose suffixes has risen well above three hundred. This poetic usage has been always materially present in the Old Testament, but the appearance of the phenomenon in the Ugaritic poems was needed to trigger its recognition in the Bible. In Hermann Gunkel's justly famous commentary on the Psalms (1926), one often encounters statements similar to his annotation on Psalm 89:3, where suffix-less hesed balances 'emunateka, “your fidelity.” Gunkel writes: “The text is corrupt: it is impossible that hesed without the suffix stand parallel to 'emunateka; one should read hasdeka, ‘your kindness‘.” Today only a commentator innocent of Ugaritic poetic usage and a respectable bibliography on the subject would pen a similar annotation.

Himmelfarb tells us that “it's a Jew's business to know Hebrew.” Of course a Jew should know Hebrew; more power to him. But we must be clear what is meant by Hebrew, because the definition and description of biblical Hebrew is precisely the quaestio disputata. What is described in standard Hebrew grammars or in rabbinic tradition no longer accounts for all the elements in biblical Hebrew. A knowledge of Ugaritic and Phoenician has become indispensable; not for nothing has Ugaritic been taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the past twenty years.

An able Egyptologist, disturbed by the claims made on behalf of Ugaritic and its relevance for the Old Testament, has shaped his doubts in these terms: “I find it difficult to believe that God would have made us wait until the Ras Shamra discoveries to reveal to us the true meaning of so many passages in the Bible.” One could perhaps meet his difficulty with the consideration that it is not for us to set a priori limits as to the time or the place or the manner that God might choose to disclose to us the meaning of the sacred text. “Speak, Lord, for your servant listens.”


Milton Himmelfarb

When I speak peace, they are for war.

—Psalm 120:7

First Let's clear this Jew-v.-Christian thing out of the way. Whether the wars Father Dahood has been fighting in are real or imaginary I don't know, but they aren't mine. He thinks he hears me declare the superiority of Jews over Christians in Bible and Hebrew. He is wrong.

Any notion of Jewish superiority in these matters is so foolish that I wouldn't be surprised if that student he mentions, the one in the seminar, were apocryphal. The grammars and lexicons, the very Bible edition I use, are by Christians. The Christian Hebraist Delitzsch thought that rabbinics—not Bible—would probably remain something of a Jewish monopoly, since to master it you have to start young; but the Protestant George Foot Moore did all right though a late starter. A Columbia historian, ordained an Episcopalian priest, has written a dissertation in Hebrew. (I wish I could speak Hebrew as well as an Austrian Catholic scholar I once heard.) The Dane Jespersen was an authority on the English language, the Frenchmen Cazamian and Legouis were authorities on the history of English literature, and since the Renaissance most of the great Greek scholars haven't been Greeks. When I said that it's a Jew's business to know Hebrew, clearly I didn't mean that no one else could know it. That would be too silly.

Father Dahood thinks he detects a holy-war echo in my asking whether there was a link between his Catholic priesthood and his references to the Vulgate. Not at all. That I am a Jew affects how I look at things, above all at things like the Bible. That he is a Catholic priest must affect him. How could it not? His references to the Vulgate were striking, anomalous, only because he had insisted that even the Septuagint didn't know the Ugaritic vocabulary, syntax, and imagery, and therefore couldn't understand Psalms properly. All the more must that hold for less ancient versions; but the Vulgate is hundreds of years later than the Septuagint (which he also appeals to, against his declared principle, when that suits him). I add that three times he refers to Luke and once to St. Ignatius of Antioch. None of which would have been at all noteworthy if not for Dahood's own self-denying ordinance.

And how could a Jew not be struck by this translation of an Ugaritic text (in Dahood's note to Ps. 21:2): “In your life eternal, O father of ours, we rejoice; in your immortality we exult”? “O father of ours” is for Ugaritic abn (=Hebrew 'abhinu). Why so fancy? It's simply “our father.” If Dahood was uneasy about translating an invocation to a pagan god by Pater noster, “our Father,” he needn't have been. “Our Father who art in heaven” is a Jewish formula, 'abhinu shebbashshamayim.


It is true: I am innocent of Ugaritic specifically and Northwest Semitic generally. Reviewing a performance by the Yiddish Art Theater, Brooks Atkinson said he had only enough Yiddish for getting around the Harvard Yard. I have barely more Ugaritic. The Targum was to explain the Hebrew Bible to Aramaic-speaking Jews, but now we use the Hebrew original to understand the Aramaic of the translation. Just so, it's Hebrew that explains Dahood's Ugaritic for me, and not the other way around.

But Dahood's Psalms is being offered to the public, to what used to be known as the common reader. That's me—though, I hope, in the 18th-century sense. I have said that Dahood is good for the specialists, if only by shaking them up. He is less good for the public. The public needs a most probable rendering, in suitable English; and it needs better annotation and comments than Ugaritic alone can furnish. (I'm sorry Father Dahood couldn't resist the temptation to make a debater's point, with that show of indignation over my perverse confusion of Ugaritic with Phoenician. The old chestnut has it that by the rhetorical figure of a part for the whole, “man” embraces “woman.” Where appropriate, understand my “Ugaritic” to mean “Ugaritic and/or Phoenician.”) I blamed Dahood's editors, or publisher; and he has taken on their defense, or taken personally a criticism meant for them more than him. It's the editors' or publisher's fault that Dahood's Psalms is in the same series with Speiser's Genesis.

As Adam Smith and Bernard Shaw have warned us, a profession can be a conspiracy against the public. What I did was to write a kind of consumers' guide, from a consumer's point of view. Innocence of Ugaritic doesn't nec-cessarily imply innocence of logic. And if Dahood can quote his specialists, I can quote mine. Of the Semitists—Northwest Semitists—and Bible scholars I know, none would translate Psalms as Dahood does. Some have been kind enough to tell me they liked my review; though one has also scolded me for approving Dahood's reading in Ps. 22:26 me'ittekha, “from you is/ comes,” as *me'itikha, “I will repeat to you a hundred times.”

To illustrate the distinction between what may be useful for the specialist and what is desirable for the public, let's take a simple example, essentially favorable to Dahood and having nothing to do with Ugaritic, or prepositions, or new vowels to go with old consonants. The Revised Standard Version for 4:7(6) is: “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good[tobh]! . . .’” Dahood: “Many keep saying, ‘Who will show us rain? . . . ’” In a note he tells us: “The ‘good’ par excellence in Palestine is the rain, so that in a number of texts tob without further modification concretely signifies ‘rain.’” Where do I disagree? If I were he, I would translate tobh as “good,” and in my note I would say that there is a moist quality to that good. Can we imagine that when the psalmist said tobh he meant rain exclusively and no other form of good? His good extended beyond rain, though rain may have been at its center.

In our Nishmat prayer, before Barekhu on Sabbath and festival mornings, the many millions (“thousand thousands of thousands and myriads of myriads”) of boons (or bounties: pe'amim hat-tobhot) for which we regret our inability to give due thanks are certainly, in the first instance, raindrops: so the Mishnah tells us. (The Mishnah also tells us that the blessing for rain is “Blessed art Thou . . . hattobh wehammetibh”—“who art good and bountiful”, or, “who art good and dost good.”) On the one hand, this strengthens the likelihood that Dahood is right in understanding the psalmist's tobh as rain; on the other, it suggests that “rain” should not be the actual word used in translation. Even the Rabbis, though in Nishmat they had rain mostly in mind, are unlikely to have had it exclusively in mind. The rain belongs in the notes—in the prayer book and especially in Psalms, where the evidence is somewhat less clear. That is, in a Psalms for the public. For specialists, who have tobh before them and know what it is, “rain” may be better.


In the Introduction to Psalms I Dahood writes (p. XX, more fully than he quotes himself in the rebuttal): “Not all the proposals submitted here will stand the test of present criticism or future discoveries, but if the present effort succeeds in showing what possibilities are open to the modern student of the Bible, the effort will have proved worth while.” Then, he realized he was addressing himself to “the modern student of the Bible” rather than the public, or the common reader. Now, in the rebuttal, he resents my having said—for no matter what reason, and obviously Psalms is harder than Genesis—that his Psalms is less useful to the common reader or the public than Speiser's Genesis.

If Dahood really believed that not everything he has proposed will stand the test of criticism and time, he wouldn't be so unyielding now. In Psalms I he translates 48:15 as “Our eternal and everlasting God—he will guide us eternally.” His “eternally” is for 'olamot (consonantally 'lmwt), rather than our received text's 'al mut (consonantally lmwt), literally “on death.” Dahood explains himself in this manner: “meant for them more than him 'ad 'olam (‘forever’) (vs. 9), so the poet closes the second stanza and the poem with the synonym 'olamot. This stylistic observation makes serious inroads into my earlier [1954] proposal, ‘He will lead us from death’ . . .” (with received 'al “Ugaritically” meaning “from,” not “on”).

For our purpose now it isn't important which of these two translations, or whether either of them, is correct. (Biblia Hebraica would assign l mwt at the end of 48 to the immediately following superscription of 49.) What is important is that Dahood could reverse himself. All of us have had second and better thoughts, but not all of us can admit it. In Psalms I Dahood was able to tell us he had changed his mind about something as uncomplicated as l mwt/'lmwt. In his letter he can't do it about his much more complicated and contorted *neshe qebher for nashshequ bhar in 2:12. Yet on his own showing—and Ugaritically—the contortion was unnecessary from the beginning. He himself quoted Cazelles as translating bar by “the Shining One,” from Ugaritic brr. The difference between Dahood and Cazelles, therefore, is not a difference over accepting or rejecting Ugaritic. The difference is that Cazelles respects the law of parsimony, which is basic to all science and scholarship, while Dahood violates it: Cazelles is as simple as the phenomena allow him to be, Dahood elaborates and complicates far beyond what they require. In Dahood's introduction (p. XXIII), he says: “In the temple and later in the synagogue, there must have been a strong tradition of prayer and singing which secured the pronunciation of the psalms even when the grammatical parsing of forms was not immediately evident.” Dahood's introduction is an argument against his 2:12.

When he comes to dispute with me, he suggests I misrepresented him. Not so. I consciously took John Stuart Mill's advice: when you present someone's reasoning to disagree with it, don't take a debater's advantage; if he hasn't made his argument as strong as it can be, do that for him yourself. With *neshe qebher Dahood didn't even mention the w after q (in consonantal nšqw br) that needs to be explained away; I did the explaining. Then, to forestall objections, I also explained why the absence of y in consonantal neshe (i.e., instead of nšy) need cause no difficulty, and I gave his reason why the word needn't be 'anshe.


Dahood claims the “sureness” that “the translator's hand acquires” with “practice” and “long and thorough familiarity with Ugaritic poetic usage.” Here, chosen from many, are a few examples of that sureness of hand. The emphases are mine.

  • Heniadys: in 25:10 Dahood, noting that berito we'edotaw is “an example of hendiadys,” translates it as—ughl—“his covenant stipulations”; but in the same verse hesed we'emet—which in Speiser's Genesis 24:49 and 47:29 is “true loyalty” and “steadfast loyalty”—as “kindness and truth”; and in 25:6 rahamekha . . . wahasadekha as “your compassion and your kindness.”
  • Alleged homonym: 'am: 47:2, kol ha'ammim tiqe'u khaph, “All you strong ones, clap your hands”; 47:4, yadber 'ammim tahtenu, “He made nations prostrate beneath us”; 47:10,nedibhe 'ammim ne'esaphu, 'am 'elohe 'abhraham, “O nobles of the peoples gather round! The God of Abraham is the strong one. . . .” (Dahood has missed a chance to bring in the 'am that means “paternal kinsman.”) In a public, liturgical text, meant to be—as the Book of Common Prayer puts it—understanded of the people, he seriously thinks to find recherché puns.
  • Another alleged homonym: 'al: 13:3,'ad 'anah yarum 'oyebhi 'alay, “how long must my Foe rejoice over me?” 13:6,'ashirah l YHWH ki gamal 'alay, “then shall I sing to Yahweh, since the Most High is a benefactor.” (In Psalms gamal [YHWH] 'al is a fixed expression, as in 116:7, 12, ki YHWH gamal 'alaykhi . . . mah 'ashibh l YHWH kol tagmulohi 'alay.)
  • Literal/figurative: 4:3, . . . 'ad meh . . . tebhaqshu khazabh, “How long will you . . . consult idols?“5:7, te'abbed dobhere khazabh, “destroy those who tell lies”; 5:7, 'ish . . . mirmah yeta'ebh YHWH, “the man of . . . figurines Yahweh detests”; 24:4, welo’ nishba' lemirmah, “nor sworn by a fraud” (following 'asher lo’ nasa' lashshaw’ naphshi, “who has not raised his mind [?!] to an idol” ! Dahood is proud of this, and repeats it in his letter. In 12:3 and 41:7 he gives “falsehood” and “lies” for shaw'.) In 5:6b-7 there are only twelve words. Four of them—'awen, kazabh, damim, and mirmah—are immoralities or crimes, literally; and synonyms for idolatry, figuratively. Yet of these four closely-bunched words, Dahood translates the first two literally and the last two figuratively. With damim, above all, Dahood reveals a major weakness: his tendency, despite his lip service to context, to fix on words in isolation. The following is from his note to 5:7: “One should distinguish, it would seem, between 'is damim, ‘a man of blood’, and 'is damim (vocalization doubtful), ‘a man of idols.’ The root of the latter would be damah, ‘to be like’ . . . , while Latin similis, ‘similar,’ and simulacrum, ‘image,’ illustrate the semantic nexus between the root and the substantive.” But here damim is in the closest juxtaposition with three other words like it. Each of these has two meanings, the literal and the figurative. If it isn't necessary, or possible, to treat each of the others as two distinct words, with two distinct etymons, why the razzle-dazzle of two damim's? Dahood doesn't like to use Ockham's razor.

In my review I didn't give these examples, because I thought they might make sense in what I called a demonstration project for experts. The inconsistencies and arbitrarinesses I took to be deliberate, crediting Dahood with trying to show his colleagues the greatest number of possibilities in the smallest compass.


Dahood says: “Before the commentator on Psalms can begin to discuss the Sitz im Leben of a Psalm, he must first determine the literal meaning of each verse. . . .” Agreed. But (as in 13:3) 'oyebhi, “my foe,” is for him “my Foe”—“i.e., Death”; or rather Mot, the Canaanite “god of death and sterility.” For Dahood hayyim, “life,” is “life eternal” (as in 16:11), and haqis (17:15), “awaken (ing),” is “resurrection.” Literal meaning didn't lead Dahood to conclude that such psalms are prayers for eternal life; rather, it was his ideas about psalm types and functions that made him translate those words in that way. I'm not saying he's wrong—or right. I'm saying he can't, or shouldn't, do two contradictory things at the same time: insist he's acting as a linguist with an eye to the literal before all else, and casually make judgments—or prejudgments—that are literary, historical, and theological.

“There is nothing,” he says, “a scientific translator can do” but to translate bene 'elim (29:1) as “gods.” Yet it was the same scientific translator who volunteered the information, in his introduction (p. XXXV), that “Leviathan, Tehom, Mot, Resheph, and other figures of pagan religion were not for the biblical poets religious verities as they were for the Babylonians and Canaanites, but merely mythological references to set off, as the case may be, the omnipotence and majesty of Yahweh.” It was he who made a point of telling us, in his note to 29:1, that “in the Old Testament the term [bene 'elim] was demythologized and came to refer to the angels or spiritual beings who are members of Yahweh's court and do his bidding.” “Demythologized,” “angels,” and “spiritual beings” are his language, not mine. All I asked was why he didn't match his translation to his note.


Let's use Dahood's 20:8 as a case study. He translates: “Some through chariots, and others through horses,/But we through the Name of our God are strong.” I prefer: “Some invoke chariots, and others horses;/but we the name of the LORD our God.” The disagreement is about nazkir, which for him = “are strong” and for me = “invoke.” (His ommission of “the LORD” [YHWH] doesn't affect the issue. He emends rarely, but here he has decided on metrical grounds that it is a later addition.)

Mine is the conventional version. If I saw Dahood's version and mine for the first time, and in English, I might prefer his: being strong / strengthened / supported makes at least as much sense in this verse as invoking/appealing/ trusting. If he said he was impressed by the Septuagint's rendering and thought it pointed to a superior Hebrew reading, nagbir in place of nazkir, I could see the merit in that: the Septuagint has megalynthesometha, “we shall be made great.” (The editions record that a most important codex, the Sinaiticus, reads agalliasometha, “we shall exult/rejoice.” That doesn't really suggest still another Hebrew possibility. It's a scribal error. Both Greek texts have -gal- and the endings are identical.) A scribe seeing nagbir, “we are strong,” could have mistaken it for nazkir, whether he was copying a Hebrew scroll written in the old, Phoenician or in the new, “Assyrian” script; so our Masoretic Text may have an inferior reading to the one reflected in the Septuagint.

But that isn't what Dahood says. He says that in fact nazkir is right, only here it means “we are strong.” Without emending, he wants to enjoy the fruits of emendation; and he gets himself into deeper and deeper trouble.

[Note:] . . . nazkir . . . a denominative verb from zakar, “male,” just as Ps xii 5, nagbir, “we are powerful,” is a denominative verb from geber, “man.”

That is the assertion. As I have explained, I think it wrong for two reasons: zakhar is only “biologically male,” not at all synonymous with gebher, “powerful, important man”; and Dahood is again ignoring context, concentrating on the word and forgetting the expression. By reference I gave some instances of the expression. (A dozen more could have been given.) Dahood has ignored them, so I shall quote them here: Exodus 23:13: weshem 'elohim ‘aherim lo’ tazkiru, lo’ yishshama’ 'al pikha, “do not mention the name of other gods; let it not be heard from your mouth”; Joshua 23:7: ubheshem ‘elohehem lo’ tazkiru welo’ tashbi'u [or tishshabhe'u?], “do not utter the name of their gods and do not swear by them”; Isaiah 48:1: hannishba'im beshem YHWH ubhe'lohe yisra'el yazkiru, “who swear by the name of YHWH and invoke the God of Israel.”

Compare with these the verse we're arguing about, Ps. 20:8: wa'anahnu beshem YHWH 'elohenu nazkir. Aren't they all of a piece? “We invoke the name of YHWH our God” fits; “we through the name of our God are strong” doesn't fit.

[Note, cont'd:] Ugar. da-ka-rum, “man,” occurs in the still (December 1964) unpublished quadi-lingual vocabulary discovered at Ras Shamra in 1958.

The function of this busyness is to conceal emptiness. In what way does Dahood advance his argument here? The Bible itself has zahkar, “man, male person,” in abundance. What would help Dahood is evidence of Ugaritic zakar =“strong man,” and of a verb from zkr= “to be strong.” That, he does not give—because, one assumes, it has not been found.

[Note, cont'd:] The Vulgate and Syriac understood nazkir in this manner.

As Pharaoh's cupbearer said, “I must make mention [mazkir] today of my offenses.” I didn't pay close enough attention to this little sentence in Dahood's note to the psalm.


From the first I should have been struck by his not mentioning the Septuagint. Why Vulgate and Syriac, but not Septuagint? After all, it is the Septuagint which earliest gave “we shall be made great.” Perhaps the answer, from Dahood's point of view, is that the scholars think the Greek translators worked from a Hebrew text reading nagbir.

Biblia Hebraica refers to the Septuagint and Syriac as rendering “we are strong,” but doesn't refer to the Vulgate. Could it be that Dahood had come across something which had escaped the notice of former generations of scholars, though they thought highly of the versions and he doesn't? This time I checked the Vulgate.

The Vulgate reads invocabimus, “we shall invoke.”

To repeat: Dahood rejects “invoke”; he appeals to the evidence of the Vulgate; the Vulgate has “invoke.” I'm baffled.

(There is a Latin version with fortes sumus, “we are strong”—the one produced in the 1940's by the Pontifical Biblical Institute. The Institute's translators preferred the Septuagint's reading.)

I haven't checked the Syriac version, because I can't read Syriac scripts. I take Biblia Hebraica's word for it that the Syriac is indeed “we are strong.” That proves exactly nothing: the Syriac translators may have worked from the Greek rather than the Hebrew.

What makes the whole thing almost comical is that Dahood has no right to appeal to versions in the first place. In his introduction (p. XXIV) he tells us: “A significant corollary of Ugaritic studies will be the devaluation of the ancient versions. My constant experience in studying Psalms (as well as Job and Proverbs) has been that Ugaritic embarrassingly exposes—at least in the poetic books—the shortcomings of the versions and seriously undermines their authority as witnesses to the original text.” In his letter he argues that even the Qumran monks no longer understood usages explicable by Ugaritic. Yet those monks were Northwest-Semitically bilingual—in Hebrew and Aramaic. If they didn't understand, no one else could have understood. Dahood citing versions is like that lawyer arguing for the defense: We never borrowed it; anyway, we returned it; besides, it was broken to begin with.

[Note, concluded:] Cf. Exod xxxiv 19 and Nah ii 6, yizkeru (Mfasoretic]T[ext] yizkor) 'addirayw yikkaselu bahalikotam, “His captains are strong, they hurtle in their march” (courtesy W. Beuken).

To this must be joined what Dahood says in his letter:

. . . [Himmelfarb] fails to mention Nahum 2:5-6 (cited in Psalms I, p. 129), “The chariots rage in the streets, they rush to and fro through the squares. They gleam like torches, they dart like lightning. The officers yzkr, they hurtle in their march, they hasten to the wall, the mantelet is set up.” In this context of careening chariots and charging soldiers, yzkr makes no sense as “remember,” but “are strong” fits. Hence vocalize yazkiru [against his earlier yizkeru—MH],


In this Morass, where to start?

Observe that between publishing his book and writing his letter Dahood has silently, and wisely, dropped Exodus 34:19 as evidence for hizkir=“to be strong.” So we move on to Nahum 2:6. First of all, Dahood's trying to clarify Psalms by Nahum is an exercise in obscurum per obscurius, the illumination of darkness by greater darkness. Nahum is not lacking in textual difficulties. The entire book consists of only forty-seven verses; the Revised Standard Version feels free to depart from the vowels of the Masoretic Hebrew text without comment; yet even so, fourteen times RSV notes that it finds the Hebrew consonants enigmatic or unacceptable, and therefore either translates conjecturally or adopts the Septuagint's reading.

This having been said, Nahum 2:5-6 still doesn't help Dahood's case. As he reminds us, we are dealing with a “context of careening chariots and charging soldiers”: Nineveh, besieged, is falling. Every verb but one in Dahood's own translation conveys feverish, agitated motion. That verb, the only one whose meaning is disputed, he then tells us is stative. In the midst of all that raging, rushing, gleaming, darting, hurtling, hastening, and rigging, yzkr is supposed to mean “are strong.” At least RSV's “the officers are summoned” suggests action.

I like Biblia Hebraica's suggestion: emend yzkr to ykrkr (w), i.e., yekharkeru—which yields “his nobles/officers prance/whirl.” Or emend yzkr 'dyryw to ydhr (w) 'byryw, i.e., yidharu 'abbiraw, “his war horses gallop.” Cf. Nahum 3:2, only a few verses later: sus doher, “galloping horse.”


Now the Greatest bafflement of all—Dahood's letter, continued, about nazkir:

The new edition of the Heb-räisches Lexikon deems hizkir, “to be strong,” worthy of entry (p. LII). . . .

Dahood rightly praises the Baumgartner lexicon; its reputation is high. He tells us the latest edition pays much attention to Ugaritic. How could it not? Suppose the archeologists uncovered a body of previously unknown writing in Oscan or Umbrian. Would the lexicographers of Latin fail to make use of it? No one denies that Ugaritic is pertinent to an understanding of biblical Hebrew. What I deny is that Dahood makes a well-founded appeal to Ugaritic in this case.

Turn to p. LII of the 1967 edition of Baumgartner, in the introductory section. You are referred to zkr I (of which the basic meaning is “remember”). There you read that nazkir in Ps. 20:8 should be emended to nagbirl The addition on p. LII—translated from German to English, and from symbols to words—is as follows: “In our emendation of Ps. 20:8 we differ from Dahood (Biblica, Vol. 45, p. 466), who, interpreting nazkir as deriving from zkr II, translates ‘to be strong.’“(Zkr II, “male,” appears in Baumgartner only as adjective and noun, without any verb form.)

So Dahood's reference to Baumgartner is in fact a reference to Baumgartner's negative reference to Dahood. “Worthy of entry?” That depends on what you mean by entry.

Dahood's sentence continues:

. . . [Baumgartner] explains hit'osasu, “show yourselves men,” in Isaiah 46:8 as a denominative verb (p. 97b) from 'iš, “man, male.”

Consider the forensic beauty of that “(p. 97b).” It's usual to refer by page number to the introductory matter of a dictionary, not to the dictionary proper. The page and column here are to impress us, extrinsically, with the meticulous exactness of it all—so that we will lose sight of its intrinsic nullity: the hand is quicker than the eye. But farce keeps breaking in. The showy exactness is inexact. The entry is on p. 96b, not 97b.

As to the substance. Baumgartner explicitly acknowledges that hit'oshashu as “denominative from 'ish” is Gesenius'; and Gesenius—a Christian, and the greatest Hebraist of modern times—died in 1842, nearly a century before the discovery of Ugaritic.

Dahood's sentence concludes:

. . . 'iš, “man, male,” . . . like zakar emphasizes the anatomical aspect rather than qualities of courage or strength.

Pure ipsedixitism. Dahood says this, not Baumgartner. For his part, Gesenius considers that the root of 'ish is 'yš, “to be strong”—as in the theophorous name Jeho ash //Jo ash, which he interprets as “YHWH is strong.

Now it is certain that 'ish also means “biologically male.” For instance, in Genesis 7:2 Noah is commanded: “Of every clean animal you shall take seven pairs, the male and his mate, and of every animal which is not clean, two, the male and his mate”—“the male and his mate” twice rendering 'ish we'ishto. But Dahood himself doesn't really believe that the primary meaning of 'ish is biological. Rightly he translates bene 'ish (Ps. 4:3) as “men of rank” and gam bene 'adam gam bene 'ish (49:3) as “of lowly birth or high degree.” As Dahood doesn't need to be told, 'ish (or its plural, 'anashim) is the word for the angelic or divine personages in the epiphanies to Abraham, Jacob, Joshua, and Manoah and his wife, to whom Samson will be born. (When the young Joseph, sent on an errand to his brothers by Jacob, asks an 'ish for directions—the word occurs three times in Genesis 37:15, 17—the Rabbis assume an angel is meant, or alternatively, the three angels who appeared to Abraham. Some Rabbis know exactly who that angel is: Gabriel—“as it is said [Daniel 9:21], weha 'ish gabhri'el,” where “man”=“angel.” Note that gbr is a constituent of “Gabriel.”)

We are back where we started. Dahood has not shown that zakhar, “male,” also means “strong, dominant.” He has not shown that hizkir means “to be zakhar.” And he has not shown us an Ugaritic or a plausible Hebrew parallel to what he thinks he has discovered in Ps. 20:8.


Father Dahood regards me as some kind of fundamentalist—probably about belief, certainly about learning. Let's take belief first. I'm not altogether sure how it is with the fundamentalists of other traditions, but Jewish funda-mentalists don't propose emendations of the Bible text. Dahood has no need to reassure me that it shouldn't be “difficult to believe that God . . . made us wait until the Ras Shamra discoveries to reveal to us the true meaning of so many passages in the Bible.” That isn't one of my more serious difficulties about belief. If he had attended to what I wrote, he wouldn't have felt it necessary to give me the reassurance. “With the help of the late E. A. Speiser's translation and notes, in the Anchor Bible,” I wrote, “we could understand Genesis better than the men of an earlier day. Above all, Speiser was a linguist.”

As to learning, Dahood apparently thinks me not only fundamentalist, but also—or perhaps it's the same thing—hot for certainties, intolerant of ambiguities. Gently he takes me by the hand; compassionately he agrees that of course it's unsettling to be suddenly confronted with all those prepositions (and tenses, and so on) that have been violently sundered from their ancient moorings, or meanings; but it will hurt only a little while, he says; my distress will soon pass; and I will realize how much better off I am, and everyone is, now that liberty has been proclaimed throughout the land to all its inhabitants.

I thank Father Dahood for the kind thought, which is not less kind for being misdirected. What I wrote was this: “Not that such things may not exist, but that he [sc, Dahood] makes entirely too free with them.” It's up to him to show not that they exist, but that he isn't making too free with them. Bothering to convince me of their existence is forcing an open door. In Psalms I Dahood cites an article in the 1959 Journal of Biblical Literature on interchangeable b- and min. I read it, at the time, because I know the author, Nahum Sarna; and I learned from it.

Does anyone have to be told that prepositions can be tricky, especially when you're translating? Paris est en France is “Paris is in France,” but le Louvre est à Paris is not “the Louvre is at/to Paris.” Latin in with ablative can be “in, on,” etc.; with accusative, “into, towards, against, for,” etc. There is no one right way to translate Greek meta, or para.

I have quoted Exodus 23:13, which includes 'al pikha: RSV, “out of your mouth”; Jewish Publication Society, 1962, “on your lips.” With RSV, I prefer to “change” the preposition and keep the noun unchanged. Do I think RSV gives the right translation and JPS a wrong one? Of course not; English idiom doesn't allow “on your mouth.” We are not to infer that English-speaking people think words come from the mouth but remain on the lips.

Dahood cites bashshamayim (Ps. 18:14) and min shamayim (II Samuel 22:14). Must they signify the same thing? Is it absurd to imagine that the editor of the Psalms text thought of the thundering as being in the sky while the editor of Samuel thought of it as from the sky? I can think in both ways about thunder. Why couldn't they?

I particularly admire that neat touch of Dahood's: “the later recension of this verse [Ps. 18:14] in II Samuel 22:14. . . .” Again, ipsedixitism. Dahood doesn't mean that the psalm that appears in II Samuel is a later recension of the psalm that appears in Psalms. He says nothing about that in his Psalms I; and one doesn't choose late texts over early ones, yet he uses II Sam. 22 for emending Ps. 18. (In Ps. 18:5 for hebhle mawet, “the cords/pangs of death,” he reads II Sam. 22:5, mishbere mawet, “the breakers of Death.”) Quite simply, Dahood is embarrassed by the min of II Sam. 22:14, so by fiat he makes it a later recension than the ba- of Ps. 18:14.

A final illustration of how Father Dahood overdoes things: Ps. 2:4: yoshebh bashshamayim yišhaq, 'adonay yil'ag lamo. RSV: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.” Jerusalem Bible (Catholic) : “The One whose throne is in heaven sits laughing, Yahweh ['adonay emended to YWHW] derides them.” But Dahood: “The Enthroned laughs down from heaven, the Lord makes sport of them.”

By attaching bashshamayim to “laughs,” Dahood arbitrarily leaves yoshebh, “he who sits/is enthroned,” without a modifier. That God is yoshebh bashshamayim, “enthroned in heaven,” is paralleled by the frequent yoshebh (hak) kerubhim, “enthroned on (the) cherubim”; by Ps. 123:1, hayyoshebhi bashshamayim, “Thou who art enthroned in heaven”; and by Ps. 113:5, 'elohenu hammagbihi lashabhet “our God, enthroned on high.”

To repeat: not that b- can't mean “from,” but that for Dahood plenty isn't enough.

I end this by calling Dahood to witness against Dahood:

(a) [Note to 9:3:] . . . min in UT. [sc, C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook], 1015:10-11, w um tšmh mab, “And may my mother draw her happiness from my father.”

(The m- in mab is min. We haven't the right diacritical mark for that Ugaritic h.)

(b) [Note to 10: 1:] In Ugaritic poetry, in fact, there is no preposition min, “from”. . . .

Six pages separate Dahood's statements of the existence and nonexistence of Ugaritic min.

All that freewheeling may not prevent Dahood from being helpful to scholars, but we common readers need someone a little less dashing.


There remains only to make a final observation, on the letters in response to my article published in the May issue.

I don't think it's reasonable to expect every Jew to be a Bible expert, or that even a (desirable) knowledge of Hebrew will make people Bible experts. Once I met a Viennese girl, two years after her graduation from a Gymnasium, who read Thomas Mann in English because in German he was too hard. English doesn't necessarily open the Faerie Queene to us.

In a “Utopian” sort of way, I said it would be nice if we knew enough Hebrew “to be able to weigh one translation of Psalms against another.” I grant that that may be simple-minded.

“The LORD protects the simple . . .” (Ps. 116:6).

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