Tuesday, November 06, 2007

More Adventures in Translation

I often find it helpful to read an Old Testament passage in the Tanakh translation, prepared by the Jewish Publication Society. Translators always bring their presuppositions to the task, and so to read a translation from a Jewish point of view often illuminates a passage that Christian tradition may have rendered opaque through habit.

So we came to this wonderful phrase in the Psalms last night:

"My vows to the Lord I will fulfill
Before all his people.
O, precious in the eyes of the Lord
Is the death of his faithful."

I have been giving the community a series of Chapter conferences on the links between our monastic vows and baptism, which is baptism into the death of Christ. How wonderful suddenly to see vows and death connected, and to see God's pleasure in it.

Nevertheless, this question of why the death of the Lord's faithful should be pleasing has not escaped Christian meditation. As a foreshadowing of Christ's sacrifice, we have no problem with this; Augustine gives a classic explanation of the death being precious because it is Christ's, linking this with an earlier verse aboiut 'raising the cup of salvation', understood as the chalice containing the Precious Blood. How, I wondered, was this passage meant to be understood in its original context, when it would seem that god would prefer the continuation of life of His faithful ones?

So I turned to the Tanakh rendering (rather than immediately to the Hebrew: more anon):

"The death of his faithful ones
is grievous in the LORD's sight."

Hmmm. Unfortunately, there is no footnote explaining this choice, which would seem to require some emendation of the text. Let's look at it in Hebrew:

yaqar b;einei YWHW hammawtah lahsidaiw
(I apologize for the seat-of-the-pants transliteration; we are limited in Blogger)

If this clause appeared on a Hebrew exam, I would render it thus:
"Precious in the eyes of YHWH is the death of his faithful ones."

The BHS gives us a footnote on this passage indicating that yakar is missing from a manuscript from a Cairo Geniza. This merely removes the offending word, but does not replace it with 'grievous'.

After some investigation, fruitless perhaps because my Hebrew isn't all that good, I concluded that there was no emendation; that the translators stretched the meaning of the term like this: precious--costly--difficult--grievous. My intuitions was given confirmation from an odd corner, the New American Bible, which reads, "Too costly in the eyes of the LORD."

Here are a few more renderings to ponder for fun.
RSV: "Precious in the sight of the LORD"
LXX: ""Precious in the sight of the Lord"
Vulgate (from the Hebrew): "Glorious in the sight of the Lord" (Leave it to Jerome to push the sense even further!)
La Bible de Jerusalem (my trans. from the French): "Costly in the eyes of YHWH"

--This last has the virtue of giving cross-references in support of this interpretation, making it sound a bit more plausible to me. The editors connect it to the oft-expressed complaint of the Psalmist that God loses out if he dies, because the dead cannot praise God or make His greatness known.

I'm happy sticking with the precious/glorious death of the faithful one. Any other thoughts?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think among things it is wise to look at the different places this text appears in the Liturgy of the Hours.

For example: It appeared the on Sunday, Evening Prayer I. It appears in Evening Prayer II of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It appears in the Common of Apostles, also Evening Prayer II. It appears in the Common of Martyrs. It appears in the Liturgy of the Hours for Corpus Christi. This same Psalm is the Responsorial Psalm for the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. It is also one of the Psalms on Good Friday.

To add my own two cents here, I think the whole Psalm speaks of death in it's most paradoxical meaning for Christ and Christians. On one hand it acknowledges the terror all human hearts experience when they think of death. On the other, I think it talks about the death of the faithful sharing in Christ's passion and victory over death.

I have often thought the meaning of "I will fullfill my vows before your people." As meaning the call to be faithful to the call of Christ to be persistent of God's will in the most difficult circumstances.

One of the most influencial Martyrs to me is St. Maximilian Kolbe, who was not afraid to die for the Mother of God. Infact, he longed to shed his blood for His Lady. He placed himself at the service of God in his fellow man, regardless of the cost. At one point, he was arrested by the Gestapo (pardon the spelling) for printing anti Nazi literature in his magazine. Later on he was arrested again, transported to Auschwitz until he offered his life in place of another man contemned to die by starvation. Even in the starvation bunker, St. Maximilian encouraged everyone to embrace the final victory in the midst of a chamber of suffering and death. Yet, he brought the message of the Gospel regardless of the fact that He was dying.

Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful, I think means, that God delights in a soul that will give unceasingly to God and His people without counting the cost, without wondering what's in it for him. He just knows, because he gives of himself as freely as possible. God welcomes one so faithful to Himself, and honors those who give of themselves without limits, and total trust in God's Mercy. To do this, follows the example of Christ's death and victory on the Cross. Those who die faithfully, follow that example without reservation and full of love for God and His people.

This is what I think it means.

Philip (PhilipLoweJ@aol.com)


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