Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.
Category: Song of Songs
“Spend the Night”
My original thought, when I began this series of posts on Psalm 30, revolved around complexities of emotion as our nation responded to hate-driven, racist shootings in Louisville (10/24) and Pittsburgh (10/27), added to the host of other “situations and states of mind — griefs, or joys, that may be brand new, or three or 20 or 400 years old” — already present for individuals and communities. I wrote then, as I launched one of my annual “National Novel Writing Month-Rebel” projects, that I hoped focusing on the psalm’s “powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community.”
Two months out, I still have much to process, but I’ve learned a lot. I plan to continue working toward some sort of coherent collection of thoughts, resources, and questions on Psalm 30. Meanwhile, as I bring this series to a close, I am reminded of the teaching I shared earlier from Rabbi Diane Elliot:
When I take time to work with a word or a phrase — chanting it in my own time, rolling it around in my mouth, and letting it move through my whole body — then when I say the phrase quickly, all of that backstory is there for me. It can move me into a stream of consciousness.
— IN Making Prayer Real, p.74 (original post with citation)
I hope some of what I’ve shared has served a similar function for words and phrases of Psalm 30, and that the “backstory” has been, or will be, helpful to readers. We’ve spent time, for instance, with “glory” and “pit,” with “the House” and “dedication,” as well as with phrases, whole verses, the full psalm, and a “ring” of psalms. And, because it’s still on my mind, here are a few more thoughts on the most recent word-focus: “יָלִין [yalin],” in its various translations.
Overnighting, by any other name
The Evan-Shoshan Concordance (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1998) lists “לוּן,לין” (lun, lin) as one word with two meanings, 71 occurrences of the first which relates to overnighting, and 14 occurrences of the second, which is generally translated as something like “grumble” or “murmur”: “And the people murmured [וַיִּלֹּנוּ] against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?'” (Ex 15:24), e.g.
Strong’s Concordance, originally published in 1890, sorts and numbers 8674 root words in the Hebrew Bible. “לוּן” — which they transliterate as “luwn (loon)” — is #3885. Depending on the on-line source, Strong’s finds 83-87 occurrences, combining the two meanings: “to lodge, pass the night, abide” and “to be obstinate, grumble.” (See below on the discrepancy in the two sources and general information on the Strong’s source I prefer.)
Many instances of “לוּן” in Tanakh are pretty prosaic. But some notable, more poetic uses are
- Ruth 1:16, Ruth to Naomi: “…where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge…”
- Ruth 3:13, Boaz to Ruth: “Stay for the night,” or “Lodge here for the night,”*
- Prov 15:31, “He whose ear heeds the discipline of life Lodges among the wise”
- Song 1:13, “My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh Lodged between my breast” or “My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh, that lies between my breast” **
— JPS 1985, except:
*Brenton Septuagint, 1884
**World English, 1997
And it’s the JPS version of the last verse here which Robert Alter recently cited as the impetus for his decades-long project to translate the Tanakh himself.
Author Avi Steinberg asked Alter what was wrong with existing Bible translations, i.e, “what motivated him to undertake this massive project.” In response, Steinberg writes, Alter “offered an example, reciting for me the Song of Songs, Chapter 1, Verse 13, as it appears in the popular translation of the Jewish Publication Society.” The story continues:
“Lodged?” Alter said to me, his startling blue eyes widening. “Like a chicken bone?”
Alter’s own translation of the verse — “A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,/All night between my breasts” — is far more seductive, with its meowing alliteration of Ms, his triplicate myrrh-my-me, which echoes the rolling three Rs of the Hebrew, tsrorr hamor.
…By dropping the verb [יָלִין] entirely from the translation, the dramatic urgency and nocturnal mood of the verb is somehow deepened. If the old Hebrew word is now veiled in the English, it is also more present, under the covers.
— New York Times Sunday Magazine, 12/20/18
Steinberg goes on to use this particular verse to illustrate what he calls Alter’s “composite art,” harmonizing voices of the past — including the 1995 The Song of Songs: The World’s First Great Love Poem by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch — and present.
There is much more to say, at some point, about translation in general and of the Bible specifically, about Alter’s work and the functions of biblical translation. But I want to bring this idea of dropping the verb to intensify the mood back to Psalm 30.
Formerly Known as “Lodge”
Alter and Steinberg direct a lot of attention to the imagery and poetry of Song 1:13, and to the need to re-translate “lodged,” in specific. Both speak extensively, given the length of the feature, about the interplay of erotic and poetic there and Alter’s eagerness to restore “original colors and shadings” that may have “faded under the accumulations of theological and historical readings.”
Alter’s commentary in the (2015) Song of Songs calls 1:12 “an appropriately sexy beginning to this richly sensual poem,” and lauds the “combination of delightfulness and sensuality” in 1:13. Alter’s commentary (2007) calls Psalm 30 a “thanksgiving psalm,” de-emphasizing the half of the psalm which expresses non-gratitude, thus flattening feeling and removing nuance. Where inadequate translation of “יָלִין [yalin]” in Song of Songs apparently launched a 3000-page, multi-decade project for Alter, the same verb yields “beds down” in Psalm 30 and a comment about the poet’s “upbeat vision of life.” There is no musing about what it might mean to “bed down weeping,” or how it would be to do so and then find joy in the morning….
Other translations and commentaries for Psalm 30 have been modified to fit liturgical use or even specific musical settings; the psalm has also been adapted for personal devotional recitation. It seems clear Alter has different goals in mind. And the overall poetry and purpose of the Psalms differs from that of Song of Songs. But can we use some of our explorations of the verb formerly known as “lodge” in Song of Songs to restore some “original colors and shadings” to Psalm 30?
Night and Not
In 1967, the Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on the Ed Sullivan Show. But Sullivan thought the title line too racy for a family show, so the band agreed to remove “night” from the performance and substitute “time.” (Story here, along with an odd montage video; full 1/15/67 song below).
Still, we can hear spots where Mick Jagger lowers or muffles his voice and the audience loudly fills in the original “night.”
Just as some feelings around “abide” may be forever changed by a movie (see previous post), the phrase “spend the night” is forever colored for some of us by this weird blip in popular culture. Not sure what, if anything, this means for understanding Psalm 30. But I think it does illustrate that folks hear what they expect or want to hear…or they shout it out themselves if an adjustment doesn’t suit them.
In the case of personal and communal prayer, I think we have some latitude in terms of how we interpret a particular piece of liturgical poetry, maybe even an obligation to help our communities relate meaningfully, perhaps provocatively, to the prayers. What that means for proper translation of sacred text may be a different story.
30 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but here, finally, is the last installment of this series on Psalm 30.
The Evan-Shoshan Hebrew concordance lists “lanu” in Isaiah 10:29 as an instance related to overnighting. But Strong’s treats this “lanu” as the preposition. Both take v’lanu in Judges 19:13 as the overnight-related word (#3885 in the Strong listing). I am not sure how often such differences occur, but it’s something to keep in mind.
In addition, the Bible Hub version of Strong’s lists “grumblings/murmurings” as a separate word from “grumble/murmur.” Therefore, their count of #3885 (“grumble” as well as “lodge, abide,…”) differs from what is listed on other sites. Again, worth noting.
In addition, Bible Hub has some glitches due to coding or proofreading errors, including one relevant to root #3885: The verse pages for 1 Kings 19:9 include an instance of #3885 — וַיָּ֣לֶן [way·yā·len)], “and spent the night” — with appropriate links. One of the summary pages matches this information, while another does not (as of 12/27/18; I reported the mix-up, so it might be fixed in future.)
I don’t know if such glitches are rare or common, but this does suggest double-check before completely relying on any one page in any search of importance. I still highly recommend this Bible Hub, though.
Bible Hub is a Christian site, and it does not hide that; there is even a “statement of faith” for readers who want that and really search it out (scroll to the bottom menu, visit “About,” and then follow the link). “However,” they write, “we wish to encourage everybody, regardless of their belief system, to use this site to learn more about the Bible.”
I find the site very usable — more so than many others on the web — for Hebrew bible, without intrusive Christian content, as long as one sticks to Bible and translation, not commentary.
It is very powerful, quick and easy to use, and incorporates some handy resources, like Strong’s Concordance. Their parallel translations offer many versions of one verse on the same page — from various Christian denominations, with a few Jewish versions — plus key Hebrew words with links to concordances and dictionaries. It is also possible to read the full Hebrew text and transliteration with links to more on each word. Many other options — so many, in fact, that I sometimes find it hard sometimes to navigate to a specific format. But I don’t know any other site that offers as many options…for free.
TANSTAAFL, of course, but the ads are relatively small, not obtrusive, and not evangelical — unless I’m completely oblivious (which does happen with me and ads, I’m told).
Sefaria is a differently powerful tool, and Mechon-Mamre is useful as well. Bible.ort.org works very well for Torah and Haftarah, especially if leyning is a goal. But Bible Hub is one of my favorite on-line tools for Bible basics. (I don’t use the app, but that is an option for those who prefer.)
Chana Bloch: Her Memory For a Poetic Blessing
Chana Bloch, poet, translator, and teacher, died on May 19, 2017. Among her major translation projects are the Song of Songs with Ariel Bloch (then husband) and, with Chana Kronfeld, Yehuda Amichai’s Open Closed Open (NY: Harcourt, 2000). For several years, she edited Persimmon Tree, a publication of the arts by women over 60.
Bloch’s poem about beginnings, “Chez Pierre, 1961,” appeared in Poetry Magazine (1990) and in the more recent collection Far Out: Poems of the 60s. Her final literary work, The Moon Is Almost Full, is due out in September of this year.
“Questions of Faith” a substantial interview about Bloch’s experience of Judaism.
May her memory be for a blessing
Chayei Sarah: Something to Notice
And the young woman ran and told her mother’s household [l’beit imah]…
…And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah as wife. [–Genesis/Breishit 24:28, 24:67]
Continue reading Chayei Sarah: Something to Notice