How To Fully Appreciate the Old Testament

One of the ignored but undeniable features of biblical literature is its oral nature.  Harvey writes (Listening to the Text, 1), “The popular culture of the first century was, technically, a rhetorical culture. In a rhetorical culture, literacy is limited, and reading is vocal. Even the solitary reader reads aloud (Acts 8:30). The normal mode of writing is by dictation, and that which is written down is intended to be read aloud to a group rather than silently by the individual. Such a culture is familiar with writing, but is, in essence, oral. The predominantly oral nature of a rhetorical culture requires speakers to arrange their material in ways that can be followed easily by a listener. Clues to the organization of thought are, of necessity, based on sound rather than on sight.”

Jewish culture was no different. The Old Testament was written to be heard as well as seen. Oral patterning, therefore, can be seen throughout the Hebrew Bible and especially in poetry. This incontrovertible fact impacts the interpretation of Psalm 60:4 (Hebrew Bible 60:6, subsequent verse references follow the English Bible). Two interpretations are seen in the following representative translations:

“You have set up a banner for those who fear you, that they may flee to it from the bow” (English Standard Version, ESV).

 “You have given a banner to those who fear You, That it may be displayed because of the truth” (New American Standard Bible, NASB).

Three translation/interpretation variations appear in this verse: (1) The words bow and truth stem from the same three consonants (קשׁט or קשׁת). This rare Aramaic loan-word by form and sound means both “bow” and “truth.” Obviously, both the translator and reader must choose which meaning to use in interpreting the verse. Two choices exist. Either choose one of the meanings, as the representative translations have done, or conclude that a double entendre (double meaning) has been introduced into the text. Tate, Psalms 51-100, 102, claims this as possible here. However, if double entendre is rejected the conscientious interpreter must ask, “Why did the author use this rare term when unambiguous Hebrew words for ‘bow’ and ‘truth’ were readily at hand?”

(2) Another translation difference occurs in this verse being tied to a word-form found only here in the Old Testament. It could stem from either one of two verb roots. The word may stem from only one of these verbs or represent another double entendre requiring the hearer to ponder over the dissimilar senses of similar sounding words. The word form involved (הִתְנוֹסֵס) is translated both to “flee” (ESV) and to “be displayed” (NASB). The lexical meaning (Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 231 and 240 respectively) identifies the two possible roots for this verb form, either “to get to safety” (root נוס) or “to rally around [the banner]” (root נסס).

Interestingly, these different meanings resonate with “bow” and “truth.”  “Bow” functions as a metonymy for warfare and connects effortlessly with getting to “safety” (נוס) at the location of the banner (נסס). “Truth” represents a rallying cry for God’s people as the banner. In the first instance, the banner is taken literally; in the second, metaphorically. See Harris, Archer, Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 583, on these two aspects inherent in the word “banner” (נֵס).

(3) The prepositional phrases “from the bow” (ESV, source) and “because of the truth” (NASB, cause) syntactically and smoothly fit each translation (See Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 62-63, on the preposition options). The reader of either of these translations would have no reason to question the understanding or worse even becoming aware that different interpretive options exist. Again, a double entendre interpretation provides a reasonable explanation for the use of these prepositions.  But, as in all such cases, the context must validate the analysis. Psalm 60 must exhibit both ideas of source and cause if credence can be given to this suggestion.

War is the overriding issue facing the Psalmist and the nation. Clearly the word “bow” points to a military theme; warfare imagery pervades verses 1-5 as well as 9-12. However, whereas “bow” focuses the external concern, “truth” embodies the internal stimulus for the petitions of verse 5, provides historical and geographical background to verses 6-8, and explains the Psalmist’s confidence of deliverance and victory in verses 9-12.

To David the “truth” representing a standard and rallying point for the beleaguered nation may lie in the promises of God to him through Nathan the Prophet, “I will give you rest from all your enemies. . . . Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (NASB, 2 Samuel 7:11, 16). God committed Himself to the preservation of Israel’s kingdom and people.  Israel, on the verge of collapse, needed God to act in accordance with His promise. Believing the divine pledge, David petitions for deliverance (verse 5).

The locations and nations mentioned in verses 6-8 support this connection to the divine promises. They surround David’s kingdom. God will preserve the nation. The enemies will not destroy the kingdom. David confidently asks for and expects divine deliverance. Verses 9-12 give a decidedly upbeat conclusion to a psalm that began with anguish and confusion.

One direct application from Psalm 60 stems from the three-fold double entendre—When trouble comes flee to the promises of God found in the Word of God as the place of safety and encouragement.

Psalm 60 was written for the “ear” but only those readers who can “see” the Hebrew text will be able to “hear” what may well be imbedded in the forms and sounds of the words. This is especially important for teachers and preachers of the Word of God. And this oral focus, a highly significant aspect of the Bible, contributes immensely to the full appreciation and understanding of God’s Word!

See my blog, “A Proverb with an Invisible ‘Punch’ Line,” for further exploration of this orality theme.

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