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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bright as Snow


Before leaving the question of "wash me whiter than snow" I would like to summarize my point. The Hebrew word kabas, strictly speaking, means to "launder" clothes and make them white. When kabas is translated as "wash" the reference to clothes is lost and the English translation now refers by default to the skin in the metaphor. It sounds as if the skin is being washed and made whiter than snow. However, the Hebrew does not say that.

To avoid mistranslating, alternate translations would be

"Launder me and make me whiter than snow."

"Wash me and make me purer than snow."

"Wash me and make me brighter than snow."


In Ps. 51:7
    Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
part of the imagery of washing is the simile “whiter than snow” וּמִשֶּׁלֶג אַלְבִּין. This occurs in Is. 1:18 in a similar phrase “be as white as snow” JPS כַּשֶּׁלֶג יַלְבִּינוּ. Snow is used a variety of ways, in association with leprosy, as an element in nature, and with reference to purity. It is also a mark of health in Lam. 4:7.
    Her princes were purer than snow,
    whiter than milk;
Snow is specifically described as “white.” For people who consider their skin to be white, this is unproblematic. However, this line “wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” may have some negative associations for people who describe their skin as black or in some other manner.

There are, however, different thoughts on the metaphorical meaning of black and white in diverse cultures. It would not necessarily be appropriate to suppose that using white in this simile is not the best choice in any particular culture but perhaps leave it open for discussion. Yet it is still possible to investigate the semantic field in search of alternative vocabulary to suggest as an option.

First, it does seem straightforward that “white” is the colour, rather than simply “cleanliness” or “brightness.” However, as discussed, the colour white does not always have a positive association: it is the distinctive colour of leprosy. Among those things which are white in colour, there is snow, wool, Is. 1:18, Dan. 7:9, Rev. 1:14; milk, teeth, Gen. 49:12; garments, Ecc. 9:8; hair, and horses, Zech. and the healthy skin of the princes in Lam. 4:7.

On the other hand, Mark 9:3 does give us reason to associate whiteness with brightness.
    and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.
Colours also do not have any fixed metaphorical value, but gain value in context. In Is. 1:18 clean whiteness is contrasted with scarlet sins. In Lam 4:7-8 white skin is healthy and black skin is not. In Song of Solomon black skin is beautiful, and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible white skin is a symptom of leprosy. Adam is red. Black, white and red are also the colours of horses.

It is quite possible then to communicate that the colour white is not invariably associated with a positive value, and black only rarely with a negative value. However, it is also fairly simple to find an acceptable alternative to “white” in this psalm.

In Lam. 4:7 the similes are “purer than snow, whiter than milk.” זכך, “clean” or “pure” is also found in Job 9:30, 15:15, 25:5. HALOT has “be clear, bright” for זכך. Considering the central role that this psalm plays in the liturgy it would be helpful to have a version without “white,” a version in which one could recite,
    wash me and I shall be brighter than snow
This is, in fact, how the line is translated in the inclusive translation of Zimmerman, Harmon. 1993.*

Since “wash” כּבס , “snow” שׁלג and “bright,” or “pure” זכך occur together in the associated passages in Lamentations and Job, this appears to be a suitable translation for this line. The related word זכה also occurs in verse 4 and in Job 15:14, 25:4, Ps. 73:13, 119:9, Prov. 20:9, Is. 1:16 and Micah 6:11.

*Zimmerman, Joyce and Ann Kathleen Harmon Delphine Kolker, Pray Without Ceasing: Prayer for Morning and Evening. Liturgical Press. 1995

I apologize for the dry as bones style here. It is called "homework." I thought it might be of interest to a few.


At Sun May 11, 06:35:00 AM, Blogger Nathan Stitt said...

I found the discussion very interesting. For one, I've never read this passage with the color of my skin in mind. I have white/tan skin. However when I read about being made white as snow I am thinking about my mind or heart being purified. Bright as snow also brings about the same pure idea I think.

Earlier when you asked for alternatives to the rendering 'wash me' I was unable to find any in my versions. However, reading your post and the comments I thought that 'scrub' works pretty well. It gives the idea of being actively worked on and cleansed from stain of sin, but not gently.

I suppose I see how skin is reflected on here, but I've always imagined it as a non-physical analogy to a more spiritual state of being. Thanks for sharing!

At Sun May 11, 09:47:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

The AV translation of Mark 9:3 is

"And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them."

Which fits nicely, Suzanne, with your previous blog on this psalm. The reference to fulling survived in the RSV but is modernised out in the NRSV.

As an extra, but irrelevant, factoid, there is a substance called fullers' earth which has historically been used in fulling. It is a sort of clay.

More relevantly, this is a classic example of a dilemma that it strikes me often arises in translation - which takes priority, fidelity to the original, readability or politeness?

Long familiarity in the English language with biblical idiom means that for most English speakers, 'wash me whiter than snow' conveys much the same resonance as it does in Hebrew. We associate it with cleanliness of body and of soul. Detergent is advertised as 'washing whiter than white'. Whatever colour our skin, we would all like our shirts or blouses (depending on sex) to sparkle with a preternatural whiteness.

It is possible that there may be another culture where this simile does not work. That is an issue for those translating scripture into that language. But it isn't for us.

On the other hand, because white is also associated with skin colour, does that mean that we should find another term so as not to upset those who might be antagonised by this use of language? That is a value judgement. I personally would say no, certainly in this context where the cross reference to clothes and detergents works so well, and fits the context.

I'd personally normally say no in most other contexts, as I think accuracy of translation is more important than not upsetting people. I don't approve of translating words that mean 'fornication' as 'immorality', which could just as well mean theft. Nor do I approve of translations that remove the reference to urine in the words of Rabshekah in 2 Kings 18 and Is 36.

This is not a question of literal v dynamic, because the motivation is not dynamic translation, but the intervention of an extra agenda or the removal of something in scripture that doesn't fit the interpretation we want to convey or a parallel opinion of our own.

I would agree, though, that for modern readers, the reference to fulling is arcane, and is best 'dynamised'.

Perhaps as it's Whitsun today, I should say that I'm using dynamic and dynamised in its translation sense, not its pentecostal one!


At Sun May 11, 09:55:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have only a few seconds, but, when we talk about "us" those who speak English, do we all self identify as "white." Not in my environment!

For some the metaphor of "white" will cross over but not for all. I wanted to do some exploration around this.

At Sun May 11, 10:31:00 AM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

Structuraly if your translation is to stand on its own without recourse to the original tongue and recognizing possible referrals to this text in subsequent texts of the Bible both TNK+NT, it is necessary to have a recognizable referrent. Bright, white and fuller might do it for the transfiguration - scrub might work but it would have to be good enough poetry to redefine some modern categories - like scrubbies...

well maybe the religious language and structure just has to go - too much variety to handle in this 6 billion world - do you think God knows about Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety?

At Sun May 11, 11:49:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

Suzanne, I agree that not everybody identifies as white, and there's no reason why we should. A lot of Christians don't identify with being either children of Israel or the New Israel. But I'd say we have to leave those references in the scriptures and not try and translate them into an equivalent that people feel they can identify with.

Going back to Psalm 51, perhaps it would be better if the translations did find some way of translating 'wash' so it carried the message 'launder'. Then at least those who were concerned about this could feel it was their clothes that were being washed as white as snow rather than their skin. However, I'm not sure the original writer was that concerned to make that distinction. It was the cleansing I suspect they were really interested in.

Bob, what is Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety? Is it something we're all supposed to know about?


At Sun May 11, 11:52:00 AM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

Since I only have Strong's and cannot read the original languages, I would assume the word is translated white. This is a translation blog so are the experts saying that this is a biased translation in favor of white people? So what was the skin color of the people that wrote these various references in the Bible, assuming that God didn't? When did people start referring to themselves as white people? If this occurred after the Bible was written I can't for the life of me see where this blog is coming from. If white people whoever they really are today would use this translation to some evil intent they would have to be morons since in wasn't written that way. I can't imagine changing the Bible to avoid playing into the hands of morons. If this is some sort of PC thought police thing I am simply astounded.
BTW was there enough snow in the areas where the Bible was written so that most people understood what the word meant?

At Sun May 11, 01:51:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

First, I agree that the translation is white. However, there are times when a word is part of a larger group of words which all refer to the same thing.

For example, the words for God's lovingkindness and grace to us, make up a group of Hebrew words including hesed, chanah, and racham. In English there is no set way to translate these words so as to distinguish between love, kindness, mercy and faithfulness. There is a movement perhaps more recently to settle these words in a one-to-one relationship, but this has not been the historical reality.

So also with white, it exists as one word within a group of words for bright, pure and clean. The simile is found elsewhere in the Bible, as bright as snow. And I believe that the experience of snow in ancient Israel would have been of a sparkling white on a mountain top in the distance, a shining reflection of the sun.

I undertook this research as part of a word study of these verses, not to be PC.

Just for fun, it is worth having a look at what the NET Bible did with this verse.

Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure;

wash me and I will be whiter than snow.

If the NET Bible can just drop "hyssop" so that the uneducated can read the Bible without stress, we should be able to discuss other changes openly.

I don't think that readers are aware that decisions like these are a part of every Bible translation.


I am actually having real difficulties thinking of including scrub or launder in a poetic translation of this Psalm. However, that is the meaning.

But the reference is not to laundered or scrubbed "clothes" but the interior soul.

Can we write

"launder me and I shall be whiter than snow."

"Scrub me and I shall be brighter than snow."

"scrub me with Brillo and I shall be bright." ;-)

I see few protests that the meaning of "scrub" for which we have a perfectly good word is not used in most translations. But, when I suggest "bright" instead of "white," there are many questions. And they are good ones.

Keep the questions coming, I have done more reading on this.

At Sun May 11, 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

To answer a few more comments,

1. The reference to laundered clothes is necessarily lost in English unless we actually translate kabas as "launder." Therefore, it does sound as if the skin is being washed, a false image, not true to the Hebrew.

I feel that "white" does go with the clothes but this allusion is never translated anyway, so the entire point of the word "white" laban is lost completely.

2. I believe "sexual immorality" is a better translation of porneia than "fornication."

3. I have not said that "whiter than snow is a biased translation in favour of white people."

4. I am saying that every Bible translation makes important decisions to follow or not follow the most concrete equivalent for any word. Clearly for kabas - launder - that was not done, and what about for laban, which meant to make bricks, in any case.

Are we betraying the Hebrew metaphor by saying "brighter than snow?" No, we are not.

At Sun May 11, 11:36:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

Sorry; just a very quick response.

I wasn't commenting on what is and is not porneia. I was objecting to the squeamishness of using 'immorality' on its own, without any reference to 'sexual immorality'. It gives the misleading impression either that the text is talking about any sort of immoral activity, theft, embezzlement, lying etc or that sexual sins are the only ones that a really immoral.


At Mon May 12, 12:28:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I guess I am not following you. I don't find fornication that helpful as a translation myself. Are there translations that just use "immorality?" I am not up on this. Is there a particular translation that you think doesn't represent the meaning well?

At Mon May 12, 05:14:00 AM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

I don't understand why we are "concerned" with skin here. The psalm starts out talking about sin/transgressions. I don't see how we end up focusing on how a person with black skin might have negative associations without sounding PC.

I take this as wash ME, my person, my being, my essence, clean of sin.

Why would we be petitioning God to make our skin whiter if we were full of sin and worrying about God's Holy Spirit being taken from us?

At Mon May 12, 06:38:00 AM, Blogger David Ker said...

Paul, this is really culture/language specific. Some races and ethnic groups might only associate the term "white" with "person of anglosaxon descent" and either find its use offensive or nonsensical.

In Nyungwe you can use the word -cena that means either "pure" or "bright." And they have a specific word for white people "azungus" but it can actually be used for any foreigner so there are azungu blacks from other countries.

And don't even get me started on snow! No one here has ever seen it so they don't know what color it is!

At Mon May 12, 07:42:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


If washing is a metaphor, the question is what is being washed in the metaphor? The body? No, it was clearly clothes. But this is lost in English, this is not communicated by the verb "wash." So, something is lost.

BTW, the natural healthy skin tone seems to have been "ruddy" in Hebrew, since David as a young and very handsome man, was "ruddy."

Instead of snow other comparisons are "wool" "milk" "teeth" and so on.

I think I have heard you on this before Dave, and I hear you, the words just don't cross lg/culture very well. We miss what is meant in Hebrew and more gets lost again going into another culture.

At Mon May 12, 01:11:00 PM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

Its was clothes!!!!!!!!!!!! Then why bring up people with black skin?

What about the first verse "blot out my transgressions".? That's clearly what this is about.

What does David having ruddy skin have to do with washing clothes?

Have I fallen down some rabbit hole here?

At Mon May 12, 02:30:00 PM, Blogger dru said...

To come back on 'immoral', there's quite a lot actually.

The original RSV several times in 1 Cor 5 , 6 and 7 and in Rev 2, for a start.

This is also followed by the NASB, as a bowdlerisation of the ASB and RV, which both stick to the AV fornication.

A lot of more recent translations go for 'sexual immorality'. I agree that is technically more accurate than 'fornication' which has a narrower meaning than the original word, but conveys better the strong resonance of distaste that one suspects is in the original texts. As for Heb 12: 16 even translations that are more specific elsewhere translate pornos as 'immoral'.

But I've wandered quite a long way from whether snow is white or bright, and ought to apologise for digressing.

I'm still wondering what Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety is. Am I the only reader so ignorant they don't know?


At Mon May 12, 02:43:00 PM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

I call it a rabbit hole you call it Ashby's Law, feels more like the variant principle of asymmetric transitions to me.

At Mon May 12, 03:13:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


The verbs "blot out" or "wash me whiter than snow" are metaphors. So, the question is, how do we communicate the metaphor accurately? You cannot just jump straight to "me" it washes "me" whiter than snow. In what sense, and by what comparison or simile are we "whiter than snow?"

Cut me open and I would be some mixture of red, pink and white, and I would prefer not to lose too much of the red stuff. I don't really want to be white inside, I am fairly white outside, but what does this mean. We need to understand the metaphor and try to make it carry over accurately into English or some other language.

At Tue May 13, 12:52:00 AM, Blogger dru said...

Suzanne, I think this may be the point where we would disagree, but the disagreement would be on where to stand on a continuum. And I have found you successive blogs on this psalm gripping.

I really like your statement,

" We need to understand the metaphor and try to make it carry over accurately into English or some other language".

I have a very strong preference for carrying a metaphor over into English if at all possible, rather than translating it away. Unless it really doesn't work in the target language, my preference is to keep it, even if it is necessary to fine tune it a bit.

It brings a person who doesn't know Hebrew or Greek closer to the original if they can experience something of the imagery and habits of thought as well as just the theological ideas.

And, if one is debating whether 'white' or 'bright' is the better word to use, and which is the better or more accurate word that means 'wash' that is looking for the best way to carry over the imagery of the original.

But it must be translated in a way that works in the receiving language. Too much precision does not always do this. One also needs to end up with a text that is readable and expressive, that has an overall punch, not something like the Amplified Bible or Young's Literal Translation. These both have a value, but not as a translation for general use. If it is possible to keep as much of the literary structure, so much the better.

As far as English is concerned, 'whiter than snow' works. Whether that's because English was originally spoken by people who lived on a cold wet island on the north west corner of Europe, or through familiarity with the Old Testament, I can't say. 'Hyssop' works less well, but I'd prefer to keep it, particularly having read your blog on it.

Even if 'whiter than snow' has less resonance for English speakers who do not in the outer reaches of the northern or southern hemispheres, I suspect most of them know what it means. Notwithstanding globalisation, the majority of English first language speakers still live in places where snow sometimes falls and have experienced its sparkling whiteness. So it would be unfair to most English speakers to say that out of tenderness to the concerns of a few English speakers, we would translate this in a way that conveyed less of the flavour of the original.

The position may be quite different with other languages spoken in other parts of the world.


At Tue May 13, 03:50:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I wonder if the verse should in fact be translated "wash my clothes whiter than snow". That would avoid any misleading connotations of skin colour. It would also pick up the link with Mark 9:3 etc. Of course in the psalm, as in Mark, the whiteness of clothes would be a symbol, rather than a sign or guarantee, of inner purity.

At Tue May 13, 05:42:00 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Here's an honest question from an occasional visitor: How do you guys generally decide when you've crossed the line between "carpeting the world" and "handing out shoes"?

In other words, "snow" seems to be just as important here as "launder/wash"; so to me, if your audience hasn't seen snow, you put in a note about what snow is. But I don't see how you can creatively replace half (or all of) the metaphor... at least, not while still calling it a translation.

I actually feel the same way about the racial/skin-tone issue. I can totally believe there have been some black folks who got put off by the word "white". But how sensitive can you be if your job is to actually *educate*?

If translation involves accuracy, surely that involves teaching people what the original connotation/cultural reference involved... not inventing a totally new phrase to replace the old one. Which brings me back to "carpet" and "shoes".

How do you guys decide when to quit translating and start adding footnotes? Or when to leave it for the commentators altogether?

To put it yet another way, sincerely: how do you guys avoid simply becomming the guy who only had a hammer, to whom every fix-it problem began to look like a nail?

FWIW, from my perspective, "snow" or "white" shouldn't need creative translations because they both exist purely in nature.

By the way, NO caucasian on Earth is "white" like snow is white. Not even pale, anemic, Sweedish albinos are THAT white! ;)

At Tue May 13, 07:09:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I like the other contexts to help out, such as the ones you point to, Suzanne. You mention Mark 9:3, "His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them." Here bleach gets at extreme white. But Matthew (28:2) for the same story brings back in snow, and lightening: "His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow."

Bill, I like what you're getting at, leaving these things in nature for the translator's readers to find (even if a fn is used to point them out). Carpet or shoes?! :) That's good.

Which reminds of another Psalm 147, in which the verse translated to English goes like this:

"He spreads the snow like wool
and scatters the frost like ashes."

Didn't Crayola stop making the color "flesh" (which wasn't white but it really wasn't black or brown either) to "peach" and "Indian red" (which wasn't referring to native Americans in the first place) to "chestnut"? And when I get a cut, I much prefer wearing the bright neon colored band-aids to any flesh colored ones of any flesh color.

At Tue May 13, 07:50:00 AM, Blogger Bill said...

thanks, jk. I heard the carpet/shoes line years ago.

I am honestly curious, though. I've read a bit about the literal vs. 'whole thought' challenge, etc. But do you guys ever discuss/debate the point at which the [potential] lack of clarity is no longer the translation team's responsibility?

I mean, the blog is called 'Better Bibles'. And I'm not here every day, but in the past 2 years of stopping by once in a while, it seems like it usually focuses on translation. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course! :)

But I'd like to see more discussion about "Better" ways to do other things. For example: formatting, footnotes, introductory passages, sidebars (or no sidebars), verse numbering (or not), text arrangement, contextual segues and cannonical vs. chronological ordering.

I've made my own experimental attempts in some of these areas. And I'll concede translation is still 90% of what goes into a publication.

But I dont' think these topics I list HAVE to remain PURELY publishers or editors issues.

I'm very curious...

What would happen if a bunch of translation minded folks focused their energy on these other issues.

Even "the use of white space" can be a helpful communication tool, for a literate person holding a book.

If we want "Better Bibles"

When do we talk about that?

At Tue May 13, 08:27:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...


I love these ideas you mention (and you can imagine there's a great diversity of similar and "not even close to that" discussion over here). You should come back here regularly, because it's that rewarding to talk.

I'm no Bible translator but have taken a shot at a "book" over at my blog, trying to do some of the things you suggest (while conscious of the theory debates). Translator (theorist) Anne Carson talks well about and works well with "white space" in a little different sense from what you mean, but still "white" and "space"--follow the link at "you’ll appreciate Joan of Arc’s influence on her and now you" on this post.

At Tue May 13, 08:57:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Really great comments. I don't have as much time as I would like to respond to them all, but will come back to them one at a time.

I think, maybe a footnote to the effect that the opposite of white in the context of this psalm is red, the red of blood found in verse 14,

"deliver me from blood guilt"

Because I do not think that perpetuating the "blackness" of sin is helpful to the metaphors.

For example,

"wash me and I shall be whiter than snow"

is turning the red sins into white

"purge me with hyssop and ..."

is sprinkling the red blood of a bird over the snow white skin of leprosy.

So the psalmist creates the image of white blotting out red and then red blotting out white.

In this case, we need to keep "white."

So, the search for Better Bibles, is about exploring as much as possible and having some dialogue.

It is interesting to note how The Message put the laundry image in but left out the hyssop.

In any case, we have to think of all images as having a concrete reference first, and then an abstract one as secondary. So, we really have to understand the images.

I think translators really have to get the metaphor and allusions in the original first before translating. Still something has got to give and I am not sure in this case what that would be.

I will pick up on other points later.

At Tue May 13, 09:37:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Bill, thanks for the questions. I know they have been discussed on this blog in the past, but not recently. Indeed "footnotes, introductory passages, sidebars (or no sidebars), verse numbering (or not), text arrangement, contextual segues and cannonical vs. chronological ordering" are matters for translators, not just for publishers and editors - although I have deliberately left out "formatting" here as translators cannot also be graphic designers.

Indeed I am currently working to a large extent on these kinds of matters as I put finishing touches to a translation whose text is essentially complete. If I get the chance I will post about this.

But I don't like Suzanne's suggestion of "a footnote to the effect that the opposite of white in the context of this psalm is red". Better to put something like this in the text. I would now suggest something like "wash the blood stains out of me and I will be whiter than snow". Note that "out of" implies that this is not just about the skin.

By the way, snow falls quite often in winter in the higher parts of the land of Israel, including the Jerusalem area. Falls are usually light and melt quickly, but occasionally heavy enough to cause disruption. This means that that majority of the Israelites who lived in the hill country would have been familiar with it, and not just from a distance.

I am aware that in many African languages "whiter than snow" has been replaced by "whiter than egrets' feathers". I read about this is an illustration of the general principle that it is OK to change the illustration part of a metaphor as long as this does not introduce an obvious anachronism.

At Tue May 13, 09:46:00 AM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

Three specific questions than don't seem to get answered.

1. Does the source translate as wash my me/ my soul/ my being clean of sin, or is about washing skin white color, or about washing clothes white?

2. Why can't we just say what it appears to say in the text?

3.If some white skinned people think this might be offensive to black skinned people, how do they know this and what gives them the right to re-translate on behalf of black skinned people?

At Tue May 13, 09:47:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


That is very helpful. My purpose is to open up debate and explore all the different avenues of meaning.

At Tue May 13, 10:03:00 AM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

Here another approach but it don't want it to interfer with my three specific questions above.

FWIW the Mark reference just muddies the waters. It clearly is about clothes. Just because it uses the word white doesn't mean that all words following white mean clothes. Also there are problems putting a "modern" spin on Old Testament verse as in young woman in Isaiah to virgin in the New Testment because that makes us feel good about the Nativity myth.

Anyway landering clothes and washing skin are acts of the material plain, acts that we can and do for ourselves. Washing one's soul is only something God could and would only occur if we surrender/allow/request that it happen and can't be done by us in the spiritual realm.

At Tue May 13, 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

1. Does the source translate as wash my me/ my soul/ my being clean of sin, or is about washing skin white color, or about washing clothes white?

I think Peter's suggestion is right on here. "wash the blood stains out of me and I will be whiter than snow"

It's a metaphor, so there is both the concrete reference and then the spiritual one. You can't have one without the other.

2. Why can't we just say what it appears to say in the text?

Because people like Spurgeon think it is about washing black out and not blood out. It has been misunderstood.

3.If some white skinned people think this might be offensive to black skinned people, how do they know this and what gives them the right to re-translate on behalf of black skinned people?

I would have no idea and no, no one "has the right." I am just exploring possibilities and trying to get at the psalmist's meaning.

At Tue May 13, 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


The Hebrew verb kabas translated here as "wash" means explicitly to "wash clothes." That is not up for debate.

Here are the three NT citations. They bear out the focus on clothes (and hair)

And his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. Matt. 28:3

His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. Rev. 1:14

At Tue May 13, 10:23:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

I am aware that in many African languages "whiter than snow" has been replaced by "whiter than egrets' feathers".

Peter, you made the comment above, and now, Paul, you seem to want some acknowledgment of the "source" and the translational "spin."

This is now a good point to stress the value of a diglot. If both the original text and the translated one are side by side, then there's a bit of education both ways. That is, there's a dialog, or as Mikhail Epstein puts it, a "stereotext" and an "interlation."

Can't there be "second meanings"? Of course there can, and not just to make someone "feel good" about their views not necessarily "in the original." C. S. Lewis does a fabulous job with his Reflections on the Psalms, which he enters into as a novice, an outsider, a Christian, a literary person, and not a Hebraist. Does he read meanings back and over the psalms? Of course. And he shows that Plato and Virgil both prophesy about Jesus--the former would say Yes I do, while the latter might say, No way I don't.

Back to Peter's example. Yes, white egret feathers. But also there could be ice brought to the African translators, shaved ice like snow, No? And photographs of ice capped mountains, and so forth. Couldn't they invent words for "snow."

(So I think now of the legendary fables of types of "snow" for some Eskimo languages. The question for these people is Egrets? What's that? And "white as snow"? Which kind exactly?)

Fun thoughts. But I'm generally with you on your questions, Paul. Seems people, however limited their language initially, can learn from the others. So, I'm making one more plug for the diglot. (and we'll Learn our Hebrew and Greek and Latin and Aramaic by it).

At Tue May 13, 10:26:00 AM, Blogger J. K. Gayle said...

great comments, Suzanne. I look up and you've published 2. Contexts are helpful (which is why egret feathers are a challenge, but lighting and old white hair are not, I think).

At Tue May 13, 10:30:00 AM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

Ok, I bite. What blood stains? and yes I know its metaphor.

Are you trying to say, because no one has, wash or to use your connotation lauder the blood stains out of my humanity that cause me to transgress or do you literally me blood stains.

At Tue May 13, 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Thanks, all. And Peter, I will try to get by more often from now on. I hope...

Btw, I like "egrets feathers" a lot. Truly.

Come to think of it, this could be really interesting... does anyone know how those Africans responded to being washed "white"? :)

At Tue May 13, 11:41:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Verse 14 has "bloodstains" or "bloodshed." Bloodguiltiness is an extrapolation - too verbose, it ruins the metaphor. It says "bloods" damim.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, NRSV is better.

I think some Africans use "whiter than snow" and some don't. No one fixed answer to that one. Nor am I in a situation to pursue this angle further. I am rather trying to open up options, not focus on any one particular preferred outcome.

I just found it interesting that "brighter than snow" is used as an option.

At Tue May 13, 12:13:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

3.If some white skinned people think this might be offensive to black skinned people, how do they know this and what gives them the right to re-translate on behalf of black skinned people?

Paul, thanks for asking this important question. We white people certainly shouldn't assume what people might find offensive without asking them. Here in the UK we are plagued by petty officials banning celebrations e.g. of Christmas to avoid offending Muslims etc, without actually asking the Muslims etc if they will be offended. Most Muslims are of course quite happy to celebrate the birth of their important prophet Jesus the Messiah (Isa al-Masih).

In this case, I don't know. But I do remember reading an article by an African who was offended by "black but beautiful" in Song of Songs 1:5, and considered this a tendentious translation because the word translated "but" is in fact the simple copula normally translated "and". I suspect that there would be similar issues with Psalm 51, but I don't know. Maybe David Ker does.

At Tue May 13, 12:16:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Of course snow is known in some parts of Africa, at least from a distance, as there are snow-covered mountains like Kilimanjaro. I guess for tribal groups on the Kenya-Tanzania border the translation would in effect be "I will be as white as the top of Kilimanjaro".

At Tue May 13, 01:54:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

We aren't going to solve this once and for all, but I do protest the suggestion of PCism. Afterall, I don't see men all clambering for an essentially literal translation of akrobustia. No, we are quite happy to keep that one under wraps.

So,if we use a euphemism for male parts, it is just good practice, but a euphemism for anyone else is PC, oh yeah.

Some of you folks make me chuckle.

At Tue May 13, 03:30:00 PM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

I don't really know what's so funny but:

I was taught one purpose for the Psalms was to use them as prayers when we are at a loss for words of our own. Hence, I thought that Psalm 51 was applicable for someone petitioning their God for forgiveness of sin. This use makes me feel at peace praying in an attitude of submission for something from God that I cannot do for myself. Praying, for laundering clothes or whitening my skin just doesn't render the same relief. If I am praying it this way in error of the "true" meaning of so be it.

What does being a man, and euphemisms for male parts have to do with this discussion?

Did someone just say `Take some more tea,' the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. ...

At Tue May 13, 04:56:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


You sounded very serious about my question of whether two English words can be interchanged - "white" and "bright."

Both the Hebrew laban meaning white or clean, and zakak meaning bright, clean or pure are used with a similar reference to forgiveness by God. I assume that since they both mean the same thing to you in terms of the prayer, that you do not protest the change from one to the other. I must have misunderstood you earlier.

I thought that you were implying that changing from one English word to another English word would be "changing the Bible" and it is, it is changing the English Bible.

But my point is that we do this all the time, every translation does this and that is why we do not usually have Bibles with "the foreskin" and the "cutaround" in it as labels for two ethnic groups - we have changed the Bible. The English Bible simply does not have the same impact as the Greek Bible. I think the toilet was also removed from one of the gospel narratives as well.

At Tue May 13, 06:14:00 PM, Blogger Paul Larson said...

No, that's not at all what I was talking about.

I object to changing the word me which I interpret as soul/being/non-physical, to clothes or skin.

Diddling around with euphemisms for white doesn't bother me, unless it
is for some agenda other than clarity of the author's meaning, which does bother me.

Egret's feathers certainly conveys the same meaning as snow to one who has seen both. I rather like the metaphor because I really like egrets, each time I see one I get a little God Gratitude, but I'm not so sure about how I like the metaphor of a wet bird. Do birds' feathers smell like dogs' hair when they are wet? A whole 'nother buncha difficulties, huh?. Maybe just white as an egret (no mention of it's feather) suffices.

I still like the King James version best, though I probably will not ever view an egret without thinking about God's Grace and being cleansed of my transgressions. Kind of a nice thing, thank you Peter. A nice way to end the day.

At Tue May 13, 07:34:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I object to changing the word me which I interpret as soul/being/non-physical, to clothes or skin.

I am completely unaware of where I suggested that. I did suggest "launder me." I will have to assume that there has been some misunderstanding on this one. I suggest that the meaning is best translated by "launder" and not "wash" and yes the object of the verb is "me" but there is a metaphor in this line. Where have we lost each other on this?

At Wed May 14, 01:44:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Paul and Suzanne, I think it was me who first suggested a translation "wash my clothes". And, Paul, I understand your objection to this, and partly agree with it. If someone read this and took it literally, they would get the wrong meaning. The problem is that the simple "wash me" also gives the wrong meaning because, in English, these words mean washing the skin.

I don't like "launder me" because this just sounds an error, a collocational clash. Perhaps better would be "cleanse me" or "purge me", except that these words are often used in the first line of the verse. Or else, similar to my other suggestion, "wash the stain out of me", which avoids the misunderstanding about skin only.

At Wed May 14, 07:59:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks to everyone,

I don't think there is really a better solution. Sometimes you just study something and turn over new ideas without proposing anything new. But I have learned a fair bit.


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