Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


One of the things that I was trying to communicate in my last post is that words have meaning according to the semantic field within which they exist. For example, white when contrasted with red, has a different metaphorical meaning and reader impact than white contrasted with black. These meanings themselves are not fixed but contextual.

White is purity and scarlet is sin. Or white may represent death and red happiness. Or white beauty and red blood. And so on. So, what is the colour being contrasted with, and what is the context? And if the context is lost can we keep the metaphor?

In Psalm 51, white may be contrasted with dirt or even blood. Blood is a hard stain to remove from clothes. So the context is clothing, and the contrast red or scarlet. (Is. 1:18) The stain, of course, is murder - blood. My guess is that some of this is lost in translation. We do what we can.

Now, for hyssop.

Hyssop was used in several cleansing ceremonies as well as in the Passover. It was used to sprinkle water or blood, and to clean from leprosy or touching a dead body. However, there is another tradition descended from the mention of hyssop.

Hyssop is contrasted with cedar.
    He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall 1 Kings 4:33
Cedar is the tallest and noblest of all living things. Hyssop is a lowly plant, the opposite of cedar, and is trampled underfoot or deliberated crushed as an herb. In this illustration, another plant is contrasted with cedar.
    But Jehoash king of Israel replied to Amaziah king of Judah: "A thistle in Lebanon sent a message to a cedar in Lebanon, 'Give your daughter to my son in marriage.' Then a wild beast in Lebanon came along and trampled the thistle underfoot. 19 You say to yourself that you have defeated Edom, and now you are arrogant and proud. But stay at home! Why ask for trouble and cause your own downfall and that of Judah also?" 2 Chron. 25:18
Rabbi Isaac bar Tavlai, ca. 280-320 CE, said:
    “What is the relation between the cedar and hyssop on one hand…, and leprosy on the other hand?” The reply was: “In general, we are proud like the cedar, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, makes us humble like the hyssop that we tread upon with our feet.” Midrash ha-Gadol, Metzora 14
Rashi's notes on Lev. 14:4 also indicate that cedar represents pride and hyssop humility,
    a cedar stick Because lesions of tzara’ath come because of haughtiness [symbolized by the tall cedar]. — [Arachin 16a]
    a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop What is the remedy that he may be healed [of his tzara’ath]? He must humble himself from his haughtiness, just as [symbolized by] the תּוֹלַעַת [lit., “a worm,” which infested the berries from which the crimson dye was extracted to color wool], and the [lowly] hyssop. — [Tanchuma 3]
From the Jewish Heritage Magazine Online,
    This symbolism of the hyssop versus the cedar also helps us to understand the entreaty of King David after the prophet Nathan rebukes him for his deeds with Bathsheba: “Cleanse me with hyssop that I may be pure; wash me that I may become whiter than snow.” By taking Bathsheba as he did, David arrogantly accorded himself the unjust privileges assumed by foreign kings, thus “he became proud above his people.” David’s prayer for forgiveness can be understood like the plea of the leper: I was proud and haughty like the cedar, and now I beseech you to make me humble like this hyssop with which I ask to be cleansed. 1
There is no reason to restrict a literary allusion to only one referent. It could well be that hyssop represents cleansing from leprosy as uncleanness by the sprinkling of blood, and, cleansing from the sin of pride.

From Zim's commentary on the English Metrical Psalms,
    Wyatt saw his poem as a kind of de remedia amoris, but within the the poem David's sin is presented as pride rather than lechery.
In a footnote the author refers to the view that David's sin is abuse of power rather than sexual aggression. A greater understanding of the commentary on hyssop supports this.

This post does not refer directly to a translation issue except to show the importance of knowing the allusion of a Biblical metaphor thoroughly, and weighing what will be lost if certain words are not translated. There are some translations which dispense with translating hyssop in this verse: NET Bible, NLT, The Message.

1. Hareuveni, Nogah. The lowly hyssop: mother of the za'tar spice. From Tree and Shrub in our Biblical Heritage by Nogah Hareuveni. Translated from Hebrew and adapted by Helen Frenkley. A publication of Neot Kedumim Ltd., The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel. (cited from the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.

2. Zim, Rivkah, English Metrical Psalms: Poetry as Praise and Prayer, 1535-1601 (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1987)


At Sun May 11, 05:58:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I have always been puzzled by commentators' focus on leprosy when it is the use of hyssop to cleanse from contact with a corpse that jumps out at me - even though as a matter of prosaic fact David murdered at "arm's length" he was surely made "unclean" by Uriah's corpse!

At Sun May 11, 06:55:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I think it is because leprosy represents sin of all kinds, or stands as the punishment, or visible effect of sin, and in particular the sin of pride. We all have the sin of pride, but not all of us have murdered.

As Zim writes,

"the individual required models for self-examination and standards for self-assessment." page 203

Psalms "help the individual to define the responsibilites of his position, to articulate his spiritual problems,"

well you get the drift - we all sin but we do all commit murder.

There were two tendencies, one -

"to increase the reader's sympathetic understanding of David's predicament without particularizing it"

that is, identify without thinking of David's particular sin,

and the other tendency -

to say, aha, now doesn't this look a little like Henry VIII and his way of carrying on.

There was both a fascination with the particular sin, but also for most, a diminishing of the particular events, and generalizing the psalm to everyone.

Women also wrote poems on this psalm with reference to contrition. I doubt that they were in remorse over the latest murder they had committed.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home