Tied Up in “Nots”

Comprehensive, accurate interpretation must precede Bible translation. This rings true because every translation conveys an interpretation. The translator’s procedures for analysis, therefore, must be thorough. The Principle of Correspondence to validate an interpretation is one of those necessary procedures. Correspondence means that the interpreter must account for all data relating to the text to establish a valid interpretation and subsequent translation (Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 236).

The Psalms represent Hebrew poetry and the psalmist’s poetic technique is one of these correspondence points in Psalm 121 that translators appear to have overlooked. This surfaces in verses 3 and 4 where two different negatives in biblical Hebrew appear but receive little attention. They are the catalyst for this article, “Tied Up in ‘Nots’.”

In the New International Version (NIV) the “nots” involved are illustrated here by UPPERCASE LETTERS followed by the Hebrew words in parentheses.

3 He will NOT (אל) let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will NOT (אל) slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will NEITHER (לא) slumber NOR (לא) sleep.

The NET Bible shown in similar fashion also illuminates the “nots” but only includes three of the original four. The fourth negative is hidden in the last line behind “or” (translated literally “and he will NOT sleep”).

3 May he NOT (אל) allow your foot to slip!
May your protector NOT (אל) sleep!
4 Look! Israel’s protector
does NOT (לא) sleep or slumber!

The general differences between these negatives are summarized by Waltke & O’Connor (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 567), “The construction with אל (al) tends to reflect urgency and that with לא (lo) legislation,” or in other terms (Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, GKC, 478-79), the difference is one of “subjective and conditional negation” with al (אל) and “objective, unconditional negation” with lo (לא). These different emphases are usually invisible to the readers of the English Bible.

Furthermore, the negative al (אל) occurs typically with a different verb form (jussive) than that used with lo (לא). Unlike the verb used with lo (לא), the jussive commonly expresses an urgent wish or prayer (Arnold, Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 130). Each of these two negative appears twice in Psalm 121:3-4, and the observant Bible interpreter has to wonder what distinction, if any, the psalmist was making.

The translators of the NIV along with numerous English translations tend to (1) ignore the differences in the negatives used by the psalmist, or (2) decline to express the differences in clear, readable English, or (3) reinterpret the differences in a way that negates the distinctions. The NET Bible presented above straddles a mid-course by reading the jussives as urgent prayers in verse 3 but then changes the interpretation in the following footnote:

The prefixed verbal forms following the negative particle אל appear to be jussives. As noted above, if they are taken as true jussives of prayer, then the speaker in v. 3 would appear to be distinct from both the speaker in vv. 1-2 and the speaker in vv. 4-8. However, according to GKC, 2nd edition, 322 §109.e), the jussives are used rhetorically “[sometimes] to express the conviction that something cannot or should not happen.” In this case one should probably translate, “he will not allow your foot to slip, your protector will not sleep,” and understand just one speaker in vv. 4-8.

This note raises questions about the editors’ disagreement with their own translation and about the complexity surrounding the various “speakers.” To put the issue succinctly, can the Psalm in general, and verses 3-4 in particular, be understood in a manner that reflects the different emphases in the negatives and not require multiple speakers?

Delitzsch, in his Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, Volume 5, page 273, gives a grammatically acceptable translation of the jussives in verse 3 not as prayers but as urgent statements. However, he also indicates a rationale for not accepting his translation: “He will, indeed, surely not abandon thy foot to the tottering . . , thy Keeper will surely not slumber;” and then confirms the assertion that this shall not come to pass by heightening the expression in accordance with the step-like character of the Psalm (italics mine).

As negative prayers the jussives connects better with the poetic technique of step-parallelism than as urgent statements. Following Delitzsch’s idea of “heightening the expression,” the speaker prays that Yahweh’s help will be evident in the everyday affairs of life (verse 3), and then he heightens the expression in verse 4. Consider the following literal interpretation:

May He NOT allow your foot to slip;
May He NOT slumber,
He who keeps you.

This prayer for help and protection is followed by an emphatic exclamation of confidence:

Look! He will NEVER slumber!
And He will NEVER fall asleep!
He who keeps Israel.

Verse 3 uses the subjective negative al (אל) as the Psalmist expresses his urgent prayer that Yahweh not slumber. Verse 4 activates the heightened character with the interjection “Look!” pointing dramatically to the following clauses. Then he introduces the objective negative lo (לא) to dramatically punctuate the fact that God will never slumber or fall asleep as He watches over His people.

Allen confirms Delitzsch’s poetic characterization regarding this psalm, “Step-parallelism occurs in all three strophies,” verses 1-2, 3-4, and 7-8 (Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary, 153). In his translation of verses 1-2 there is clearly a “heightening,” here represented by italics,

(1) I look to the mountains
to see where my help is to come from.
(2) The source of my help is Yahweh,
maker of heaven and earth.

In verses 7-8 a heightening likewise occurs and translated clearly,

(7) Yahweh will guard you from all danger.
he [sic] will guard your life.
(8) Yahweh will guard
your going and coming
henceforth for evermore

But Allen’s translation of verses 3-4 strangely seems to diminish rather than heighten its flow of thought,

(3) He will not let your foot stumble;
your guardian will not slumber.
(4) Of course, no slumber
no sleeping
marks Israel’s guardian.

Watson describes step or staircase parallelism: “[It] expands one line of poetry into two, and their functions overlap slightly” (Classical Hebrew Poetry, 208). The overlap is clear in all of the above-mentioned verses. A key but unspecified point in this description, however, is the closeness of the two lines both in form and content (Ibid, 358).

Since step-parallelism not only heightens the contents but also interrelates the subject matter, the issue of the “speaker” or “speakers” in Psalm 121 may not be as confused as the NET Bible editors suggested in their note. A single speaker may be identified as a member of Israel who addresses himself or a larger group in verse 3 and continues in verse 4 by identifying that group as “Israel” (see Delitzsch, Ibid, 273, who understands the psalmist to be addressing himself in verse 3). Such a correlation with the pronoun “you” is not unique. Psalm 122:6-9 similarly refers to Jerusalem as “you.” Allen writes, “The psalm is spoken by an individual . . . who functions as a member of a larger group . . . and at one point addresses that group” (Allen, Ibid., 156). The main difference in Psalm 121:3-4 is that the Psalmist addresses the group before identifying that group as Israel. According to Watson, however, this “inverted form” is part of the “poetic technique” (Ibid, 356-58). Following verse 4 “you” clearly refers to Israel and is used eight times. No need exists for imagining more than one speaker in the Psalm.

This study began by affirming that the Bible translator’s method of interpretation must take into account every aspect of the text. The clear poetic technique of “step parallelism” in Psalm 121 suggests a more refined interpretation of the “NOTS” than that offered by many English translations.

To evaluate, the NET Bible expresses the poetic technique of step parallelism but does not indicate any difference in the negatives. In fact, by hiding the fourth “not” behind the “or” of the last line and omitting the conjunctive vav (וְ), the overall poetic technique is weakened. The NIV, on the other hand, does not represent any clear heightening from verses 3 to 4. Of these two representative translations, the NET Bible, apart from its footnote, is preferred but could have been sharpened.

For those who could use a word of encouragement, the psalmist exclaims:

May He NOT allow your foot to slip;
May He NOT slumber,
He who keeps you.

Look! He will NEVER slumber!
And He will NEVER fall asleep!
He who keeps Israel.
Praise Yahweh!

For many readers this study may appear trifling. But for those unreservedly committed to the doctrine of verbal inspiration, no part of the biblical text is trifling, and every aspect of the text contributes to its interpretation, exposes its internal beauty, and should be reflected in its translation.

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