Can You HEAR the Bible?

One of the often 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 [see Deuteronomy 31:10-11; Colossians 4:16; 1 Timothy 4:13]. 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.” Consider also these quotations:

  • “The blandness of an ancient text’s appearance reflects the cultural reality that ancient texts were written primarily to be heard, not seen. . . . Signals were geared for the ear, not the eye, since visual markers would be of little value to a listening audience.” (David Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, 2004)
  • “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.” (Harvey, Listening to the Text, 1998, referring to the New Testament)

This article focuses on oral patterning in Psalm 60:4 (verse 6 in the Hebrew text). Two different interpretations appear in the following 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 translations/interpretations appear in this verse:

(1) The words bow and truth stem from the same three consonants (קשׁט or קשׁת, identical sounds). This rare Aramaic loan-word 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.

(2) A second translation difference occurs in a form of a word seen only here in the Old Testament. This word comes from one of two different verb roots having different meanings and may exhibit another double entendre requiring the translator to ponder over the dissimilar senses of similar sounding words. The word form involved (הִתְנוֹסֵס) translates both to “flee” (ESV) and to “be displayed” (NASB). The lexicon identifies two possible roots for this verb form as either “to get to safety” (root נוס) or “to rally around [the banner]” (root נסס). (Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 231 and 240 respectively)

  • 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 at the location of the banner. See Harris, Archer, Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 583, on these two aspects inherent in the word “banner” (נֵס). One of the names for God is Yahweh nissi, “Yahweh is my banner” (Exodus 17:15).

(3) The hebrew preposition [מפני] “from the bow” (ESV, as the source) and “because of the truth” (NASB, as the 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 of the verse but be unaware that different interpretive options exist. Again, a double entendre interpretation provides a reasonable explanation for the translation with different English prepositions (see Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 2nd ed., 62).

War was 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,” as a rallying point for the beleaguered nation, lies 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” (NASB2 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 promises. Believing the divine promises, David petitions for deliverance (verse 5).

The locations and nations mentioned in verses 6-8 support this connection to the divine promises. Though hostile nations surround David’s kingdom, God will preserve Israel. 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 application from Psalm 60 stems from the three-fold double entendreWhen 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 to be heard, but only those who examine the Hebrew text or compare different English translations will be able to “hear” what may well be imbedded in the forms and sounds of the words. And this oral focus, a highly significant aspect of both the Old and New Testaments, 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 Old Testament orality pattern.

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