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Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I have been thinking about how clearly the imagery of blood was understood in Ps. 51. In fact, not once in the Bible is black associated with sin. And in the 16th century, Psalm 51 was particularly popular among the poets. I have been looking at this psalm through the ages, when I suddenly realized that the plot had been borrowed by no less than Shakespeare.

The story of David and Bathsheba becomes the background for Shakespeare's most famous play, Hamlet. King Claudius, however, does not feel that God will forgive him for the murder that he has committed,
    What if this cursed hand
    Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
    Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
    To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
    But to confront the visage of offence?
And Shakespeare makes it very clear that the hand is stained with blood. Here is Lady MacBeth,
    Out, damned spot! out, I say!

    Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

    Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh!
So, the vividness of blood as the colour of sin should be kept in mind when reading this psalm.
    Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD:
    though your sins be as scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
    though they be red like crimson,
    they shall be as wool. Is. 1:18.
Blood is mentioned explicitly in verse 14,
    Deliver me from bloodguiltiness,
    O God, thou God of my salvation:
    and my tongue shall sing aloud
    of thy righteousness. KJV
But I feel that this word, bloodguiltiness, comes across as an abstraction of what the Hebrew actually says, which is "bloods," דמימ . Much better than "bloodguiltiness," is the simple and effective "bloodshed" found in the NRSV and Alter's version.

    Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. NRSV
The concrete presence of blood is much better expressed using this word. What I have been writing about in the last few posts is not watering down the language in this psalm but making it more vivid. What is surprising is that Spurgeon seemed not to have a vivid image in his mind of sin as red and not black. He was not familiar with his Shakespeare.


At Wed May 14, 09:43:00 PM, Blogger ElShaddai Edwards said...

The REB also uses "bloodshed" in v.14 :

My God, God my deliverer, deliver me from bloodshed,
and I shall sing the praises of your saving power.

Similarly, the NJB:

Deliver me from bloodshed, God, God of my salvation,
and my tongue will acclaim your saving justice.

Interesting how the poetry has been rendered in both, as well as the NRSV. The REB focuses on the first part of the verse in almost a stream of consciousness manner, while the NJB pairs the phrase endings with salvation/saving. The NRSV creates an arch with Deliver/deliverance framing the entire verse.

At Wed May 14, 09:50:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yes, the rest of the verse is very puzzling. Back to the Hebrew.

At Thu May 15, 12:07:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

These are probably all obvious comments.

This psalm is classed as a penitential psalm. It was also designated for the Commination service.

People were very familiar with it in the C16. It is one of the psalms for which the Old Version of the metrical psalter provides two versions, one in CM by Hopkins and one in LM by initials which I think stand for Whittringham. This verse is:-

"O God that art God of my health
from blood deliver me,
That praises of thy righteousness
my tongue shall sing to thee".


"O God that of my health art Lord,
forgive me this my bloody vice;
My heart and tongue shall then accord
to sing thy mercy and justice."

The Bible Shakespeare would have been most familiar with would have been the Geneva version. The AV was not yet written.

But I think the link of blood and guilt would have permeated society to an extent that it would be difficult to attribute it to the influence of one psalm and some verses from Isaiah.


At Thu May 15, 12:39:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Isaiah 1:18 was just to show that overall in the Bible sins are red. That was a carry over from a comment yesterday.

The KJV was to show what I thought was too abstract. Here is the Geneva.

"Deliuer me from blood, O God, which art the God of my saluation, and my tongue shall sing ioyfully of thy righteousnes."

Most commentators of Hamlet would agree I think that the play draws on Ps. 51.

In any case, just a round about way of showing that "blood" of "bloodshed" is close to the Hebrew.

At Thu May 15, 12:41:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

But I think the link of blood and guilt would have permeated society to an extent that it would be difficult to attribute it to the influence of one psalm and some verses from Isaiah.

I agree with this thought. Therefore, people of this time, perhaps understood the psalm better.

At Thu May 15, 04:29:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

The problem with "Deliver me from bloodshed" is that it sounds to me like a plea to keep the psalmist safe from having his own blood shed by another. Now perhaps in some deeper sense that is what is meant, but it doesn't come across as referring to the consequences of his own murderous act. So I think TNIV does better here with "Deliver me from bloodguilt", even if to do so it has to more or less coin a word.

At Fri May 16, 10:35:00 PM, Blogger Henry said...

"Deliver me from bloods" - doesn't do much in English, although the Septuagint has just that. "Deliver me from the guilt of blood" might be better English.

We should also recall that the Psalm's title reminds us that sexual sin is involved as well as proxy murder. I suspect David had realized how the one had led to the other.


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