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
- 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
- “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
- a cedar stick
- a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop
- 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
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.
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)