Textual Note on Psalm 2:12

Textual Note on Psalm 2:12

(This note is supplemental to the current study on Psalm 2)

The difficulties surrounding the last two words of verse 11 and the first two of verse 12 have led many commentators to believe that the Hebrew text as it has come down to us (i.e. the Masoretic Text [MT]) is corrupt in one or both places. Especially awkward is the expression “kiss the son”, the customary rendering of the MT rb-wqvn. While this might be appealing to Christians in terms of devotion to Jesus (the Son), for many, if not most, critical commentators today, the presence of the Aramaic word rB^ here seems quite out of place. Just once elsewhere in the entire Hebrew Bible (Prov 31:2) do we find the Aramaic rB^ used, instead of the Hebrew /B# (“son”); indeed, the normal Hebrew word was used earlier in this very Psalm (v. 7). That the text here proved difficult even in ancient times, is indicated by the various ways v. 12 was rendered by the early translations.

The Aramaic Targums, often highly interpretive and paraphrastic translations, here at verse 12 have an`p*l=Wa WlyB!q^ (“receive instruction”). Whether this reflects a different underlying Hebrew, or simply an interpretive rendering, is unclear; it may have been influenced by the use of the Hebrew adjective rB^ (cf. below) in Psalm 19:9. In any case, this line of translation/interpretation was followed by the Septuagint (dra/casqe paidei/a$), and entered into the Latin Vulgate (apprehendite disciplinam). Other early translators understood rB^ to be a different (Hebrew) word, derived from the root rrb (meaning to be bright, shining, often in the sense of “pure, clean”), either as a substantive adjective or an adverb. The latter results in the meaning of the expression being something like “worship purely”, which is reflected in the Greek versions of Aquila and Symmachus, and the Latin of Jerome (adorate pure, cf. the Vulgate “B” text). Unfortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide no help in this instance, since verse 12 is not preserved in either of the Psalms manuscripts (11QPsc and 3QPs) which contain Psalm 2. We are left to grapple with the Masoretic Text, comparing it with the ancient Versions.

There are a number of solutions to the apparent textual difficulty in verse 12, reflecting various degrees of confidence in the Masoretic Text (MT)—the consonantal text and/or the vocalization provided by the Masoretes. Let us consider each of them in turn.

1. Some traditional-conservative commentators are willing to take the MT as it stands, and would explain the peculiarity of the Aramaic (rB^ instead of /B#) as an accommodation to avoid the awkwardness and potential confusion (when reciting the text) of having two similar-sounding words in sequence: /P# /B# (ben pen). The viability of this solution is difficult to judge, since, as far as I am aware, this is the only instance in the Old Testament Scriptures where the two words would have occurred in close proximity. It does not resolve the awkwardness of the expression “kiss the son” in the overall context of verses 10-12, which otherwise appear to refer primarily to the nations’ response to YHWH (not the king).

2. Other commentators would follow Aquila, Jerome, etc, in understanding rB^ not as the Aramaic word, but as the Hebrew adjective (or adverb) derived from the root rr^B* (cf. above). It could be read either as a substantive adjective (i.e., “[the] pure [one]”) or adverb (“purely”), the former being much more likely. This would require no modification of the Masoretic Text, and would have much the same general sense as solution #1—i.e., as a reference to the king, presumably, as the “pure” (or “bring/shining”) one. There may be some basis for such an epithet for the king, based on earlier (cognate) use of the root rrb in Canaanite (Ugaritic).

3. A solution introduced in the early 20th century (by A. Bertholet) would view the MT here in vv. 11-12 as corrupt, the four words (last two of v. 11 and first two of v. 12) having become scrambled. The emendation would involve primarily the word order (and separation):

    • MT (vocalized txt): rB^-WqV=n~ hd*u*rB! WlyG]w+
    • MT (consonantal): rb wqvn hdurb wlygw
    • Emendation [CT]: wylgrb wqvn hdurb
    • Emendation [VT]: wyl*g+r^b= WqV=n~ hd*u*rB!

The Masoretic text (“…circle round with trembling. Kiss the son…”) has been modified to read “With trembling kiss his feet”. See how this would fit in the context of vv. 10-12:

10(So) at (this) time, you should act with intelligence, (you) kings,
(and) receive correction, (you) judges of the earth!
11Serve YHWH with fear,
and with trembling 12kiss His feet,
lest He flare (His) nostrils [i.e. become angry] and you perish (in your) path,
for his nostrils start burning in little (time) [i.e. quickly]!”

A number of distinguished commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld/Zenger) have adopted this emendation, and it is used in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation, among others.

4. Dahood [D], in his provocative Commentary, offers a different solution, one which preserves the consonantal text (and word order) of the MT; he simply parses the letters differently (ignoring matres lectiones, i.e. letters used for vowels):

    • MT: rb wqvn (rB^ WqV=n~, “kiss the son”)
    • [D]: rbq vn (rb#q* yv@n+, “men of the grave”)

where <yv!n` (“men”) is short for <yv!n`a&. He draws upon similar expressions such as “man of death”, “sons of death” (1 Kings 2:26; 1 Sam 26:16), and understands it in the sense of “mortal men”, i.e. men who are destined for the grave. To see how this alters the emphasis of vv. 10-12, I insert his rendering into my translation of vv. 10-12 above:

10(So) at (this) time, you should act with intelligence, (you) kings,
(and) receive correction, (you) judges of the earth!
11Serve YHWH with fear,
and go around with trembling,
12(you) men of the grave,
lest He flare (His) nostrils and you perish (in your) path,
for his nostrils start burning in little (time) [i.e. quickly]!”

The expression “men of the grave” would then be parallel with “kings” and “judges of the earth”, adding to the polemic of the passage as a warning to the surrounding rulers who might be planning revolt at the accession of the new/young Israelite king. Dahood’s proposed solution is most intriguing, if a bit too speculative to adopt outright.

How should honest and sincere students of Scripture deal with such complex textual questions? While the Masoretic Text must be respected, blind adherence to it is certainly no virtue, especially when this extends to the vocalization of the consonantal text. Is to be regretted that Ps 2:11-12 is not among the preserved Scripture manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls; if it were, we may well have a definitive solution to the question at hand. Perhaps the best approach is to bring together and integrate three different aspects, or points of emphasis, in the Psalm which are reflected in the main solutions outlined above:

    1. The (new) Israelite king as the “son” (in a symbolic sense) of YHWH. This is the point made, of course, in verse 7f, and it drives home the central tenet of the Israelite royal theology: the special status of Israel’s ruler in relation to God (YHWH), who provides Divine power and protection on his behalf. The Masoretic text of v. 12, as customarily rendered, reflects this theological emphasis—to “serve YHWH with fear” means that one also must do homage to the Israelite king (“kiss the son”).
    2. The proposed emendation (solution #3 above) enhances the exhortation (and warning) for the rulers of the surrounding nations to serve YHWH the God of Israel. While this includes showing proper homage to the Israelite king, the emphasis in vv. 10-12 is rather on what it means to rebel against the king—it is the same as rebelling against YHWH Himself! This is why vv. 10-12 focus on the need to treat YHWH with the respect He deserves; the danger for not doing so is grave indeed. Thus the emphatic parallelism of vv. 11-12a (according to the emended text): “Serve YHWH with fear, (and) with trembling kiss His feet”.
    3. Dahood’s alternate parsing/division of the first two words of v. 12 gives to the entirety of vv. 10-12 a three-fold parallelism which is most attractive, even though it creates a tension in the rhythm of the lines. It enhances, vividly and dramatically, the warning/exhortation to the rulers of the surrounding nations (and to the nations as a whole). Note the structure of the parallelism:
      • act with intelligence
        • you kings—i.e. the rulers of the surrounding nations
      • receive correction
        • you judges of the earth—i.e. what you think yourselves to be
      • serve YHWH with fear
        go around with trembling
        • you men of the grave—i.e. what you ultimately are, mortals in the face of God

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen 1-59 (English translation Fortress Press: 1993 [Continental Commentary]).
Those marked “Hossfeld/Zenger” are to F.-L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger, Die Psalmen: Psalm 1-50, Die Neue Echter Bibel: Kommentar zum Alten Testament mit der Einheitsübersetzung (Echter Verlag: 1993).