To the Editor:
Having read Milton Himmelfarb’s article, “Translating the Psalms,” in the February COMMENTARY I would like to tell you that I never have advocated that Yahweh was a “dying and rising god like Tammuz-Adonis.” As a matter of fact I have emphasized that Yahweh of Jerusalem did not die, thus opposing some Uppsala scholars! If you read the book Psalm 89 you will find this out.
I hope that you will correct your mistake.
G. W. Ahlstrom
The Divinity School
University of Chicago
To the Editor:
I share Milton Himmelfarb’s irritation with the Dahood Anchor Bible translation of Psalms 1-50 for the reasons he gives in his article and the additional reason that I do not think a Catholic priest (or Fundamentalist minister or Orthodox rabbi) should have been assigned the responsibility of preparing a scholarly translation of either Hebrew or Christian scripture. I think too that Psalm 2 was a particularly inapposite case for translation in the light of Ugaritic antecedents, but this for a reason other than that stated by Himmelfarb.
Notwithstanding Himmelfarb’s cavalier dismissal of the idea that any of the Psalms could be Maccabean in origin, it is as certain as anything can be in biblical criticism that Psalm 2 is in fact Maccabean. The Psalm is obviously an ode to a militarily victorious and expansionist king, composed for some festive occasion such as his marriage. While the addressee could have been a pre-exilic Judaean king, it is more probably a Maccabean prince, and most likely Alexander Jannaeus. In any event, whatever doubt might exist was removed by the composer’s considerateness in framing the ode in the form of an acrostic reading I’yanai v’ishto, “to Jannaeus and his wife” (Salome Alexandra). . . . The chance probability of this combination of initial letters turning up in a Psalm whose content so accurately describes the person whose name the letters spell is one in some number with some thirty digits.
I am less inclined to take exception to Dahood’s translation of b’nai elim in Psalm 29 as “gods” (which is as valid as the translation “prophet” for ben nabi in Amos 7:14). The Israelites adopted this Phoenician hymn long before the Exile, at a time when in the Hebrew faith Yahweh was at most the supreme god, but not the only god. As late as Qumran, the Essenes, at least, retained b’nai el in Deut. 32:8 (and probably b’nai elohim in 32:43) and even the Masoretes retained b’nai elohim in Gen. 6:2). . . .
Department of Political Science
Long Island University
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
Mr. Himmelfarb is unjustly critical of Mitchell Dahood’s work as a scholar and unfair to him personally. He also challenges the stated purpose of the Anchor Bible, which is to present—for the modern reader—an exact scholarly translation and to reflect the religious thoughts of the biblical story. The Anchor Bible translation is not intended to express subsequent rabbinical or christological doctrine. Mr. Himmelfarb is presumptuous in assuming that Jews have a chosen proprietary insight into the Book of Psalms.
The church-sponsored translations have a Christian bias and the Jewish translations contain the bias of the rabbinical exegetes. The Gentile King James version is so admirably moving that it probably has never been surpassed in any of the translations by Jews, in English or other languages.
In preparing his sublime translation and comments, Fr. Dahood studied not only the traditional sources in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and the Masoretic text, but for the first time in history also examined the Ugaritic hymns of the kindred Baal worshippers in Canaan. The result is a genuine pioneer effort. The Ugaritic Psalms obviously had a profound influence upon, and kinship with, the Hebrew Psalms. They represent the religious ritual of the Canaanites who lived in intimate proximity with the Hebrews and shared a common literary tradition. . . .
Mr. Himmelfarb objects to the references to deities in the translation, but celestial beings are indigenous not only in the Psalms but throughout the entire Old Testament. I read the Book of Psalms by Dahood with a great sense of intellectual exhilaration. . . .
[Dr.] Isaac Horowitz
To the Editor:
I would agree with Milton Himmelfarb’s comment . . . that it is a Jew’s business to know Hebrew, and similarly with his observation that the suggestion is utopian. . . . I doubt very much whether many students of the language, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, could ever so attune themselves to its nuances . . . as to avoid the translation difficulties he mentions. . . . No contemporary reader will ever understand everything about these texts, or understand them in the same way as our ancient forebears did, though naturally more intensive language study will lead to more understanding. But I hope Mr. Himmelfarb will not consider it a blasphemy if I suggest that, given the conditions and exigencies of our life in the U.S., the return would probably not warrant the investment in time and effort. Jews should be familiar with Hebrew, but much more important, they should have a thorough Jewish education, even if that doesn’t include much Hebrew; there’s plenty that can and should be done in English. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
Milton Himmelfarb’s article evoked a warm response in this reader. Not that I am an obscurantist, for I too teach Ugaritic, not to mention several other Semitic languages. But I find so much of Professor Dahood’s work simply incredible for a very basic reason, which Mr. Himmelfarb has not mentioned.
The Psalms, admittedly, were liturgical. Liturgy is often couched in old-fashioned, even unintelligible language. Poetry often preserves ancient words or modern words with ancient meanings. This much of Dahood we admit, gladly, and profit from it.
But liturgy is always spoken. We cannot possibly conceive of the Jewish people preserving the Psalms for generations as a basket of consonants without any intelligible sound. I willingly admit that I do not know exactly what the earliest worshippers understood when they saw the words nšqw br in Psalm 2, and I am sure that later generations had difficulty understanding them, for the versions offer several translations. But in any event, I am positive that the Jewish people pronounced them. And that means that there was a vocalic tradition along with the consonants. There is no conceivable way that the consonants could have been pronounced except in the form of words. The Masoretic vocalization, allowing for phonetic development, etc., must be the starting point for understanding the meaning.
With Ugaritic it is another matter. Only the consonants have been preserved, and while there must have been vocalization to fit the fixed tradition of their day, we haven’t the slightest idea of what it was. But Professor Dahood is following a false methodology when he attempts to treat the consonantal text of the Psalms—which never ceased to have a living, vocalized, liturgical tradition—in the same manner that he would treat the consonantal text of Ugaritic poetry.
William Sanford LaSor
Department of Biblical Studies
Fuller Theological Seminary
To the Editor:
Milton Himmelfarb’s judgment of Dahood’s Psalm commentary, particularly his feeling that “it is a kind of demonstration project,” is very apt. But it might be of interest to point out that, by way of Ugaritic poetry, Dahood has rediscovered truths about Psalm Hebrew that medieval Hebrew exegetes recognized as a matter of course: “double duty” words and particles (on 9:19, for example, Kimhi writes, “The preceding lo stands for two—that is the custom of Hebrew in many passages”); object suffixes for oblique relations (Kimhi on 5:5: “you” means “with you,” on 13:5: “him” means “over him”); the abstract mate of a concrete term is to be taken concretely (“faith” of 12:2, says Kimhi, means “faithful men”); prefixed l may mean the same as b (Kimhi at 9:5; and Ibn Janah treats the overlapping usage of the prepositions fully in his grammar, Rikma); the imperfect verb form yiqtol often signifies the past (Kimhi on 18:7, 19, 21, 41, etc.). Even more interesting is the agreement of Dahood and Kimhi in finding allusions to the soul’s dwelling with God after death all through the Psalms. . . .
It is no wonder that Father Dahood and Rabbi Kimhi so often agree in philology and theology. They share a concern to save the Hebrew text (though Dahood is willing, as Kimhi is not, to sacrifice the received vowels and even the vowel-letters in a pinch)—a concern that compels them to expand conventional or narrow conceptions of the scope of Hebrew usage. What hypersystematizing modern scholars could dismiss in traditional exegesis as ad hoc interpretation (e.g., the b/l interchange), can now be supported from comparative Semitic evidence. To be sure, the medievals had Arabic and Aramaic at their disposal, and they used them often and well. But the very familiarity of Arabic and Aramaic as well as their lateness in relation to biblical Hebrew render them less persuasive than newly-found and older Ugaritic as supports for “anomalies” in Hebrew usage. By appealing to Ugaritic, Dahood has sought to recover for the interpreter of Psalms the flexibility (apparently unknown to him) that was the hallmark of traditional Hebrew Psalm exegesis. In exercising his newly-found freedom Dahood has gone too far, as Himmelfarb justly complains. . . .
The theological agreement between Dahood and the Jewish medievals on the soul’s destiny after death can hardly be considered apart from traditional Jewish and Catholic teaching on the afterlife, in the light of which many passages in the Psalms have been interpreted. Dahood has not materially advanced scholarly understanding of these passages by invoking Ugaritic mythical material. The strikingly divergent pagan and Israelite views on the realm of the dead make simple comparisons wholly inadequate. Ugaritic cannot save the traditional interpretation (though a case might be made for it on other grounds).
From time to time a far-fetched rendering of Dahood’s actually turns up in medieval exegesis—pursuit of novelty at any cost being no monopoly of moderns. . . .
My single serious reservation concerning Himmelfarb’s review touches on his sanguine implication that by “knowing Hebrew” one can expect to understand Psalms. Without that one certainly cannot. But the tradition of the meaning of Psalms is so spotty (in contrast, say, to that of the Torah)—as a glance at the wide divergences among the medieval Hebrew exegetes is enough to show—that the conventional interpretations known to the average Hebraist are often hardly more secure than Dahood’s most far-fetched conjecture. This being the case, the professional scholar finds Dahood’s work genuinely helpful in shaking him out of the rut of convention. . . .
University of Pennsylvania
Mr. Himmelfarb Writes:
In “Translating the Psalms” I said that the Scandinavian school finds paganism everywhere in the Bible, and as an illustration I gave G. W. Ahlström’s Psalm 89: Eine Liturgie aus dem Ritual des leidenden Königs. I further described the book as considering YHWH to be a dying and rising god like Tammuz-Adonis. That description is not quite accurate.
Dr. Ahlström wrote (pp. 165 and 172):
. . . we must reckon with the existence of a god Dwd [David] in Israel. This deity was a “vegetation god” [i.e., fertility god], who may be compared with Baal and perhaps was identical with him. . . .
Though occasionally some would have it that Yahweh suffers death and rises again, that is not exactly so. There are indications that sometimes, in certain circles and certain places, Yahweh was conceived as a dying and rising deity, but in the Jerusalemite conception of Yahweh this was not a lasting characteristic. Instead, Yahweh redeems the young god, “his son” Dwd, from the realm of death. . . .
[A controversy between Father Dahood and Mr. Himmelfarb will be appearing in a forthcoming issue.]