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Psalms Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice

Getting Biblical in Daily Life

No one's going to chalk the sidewalk or march around the streets over Psalms. Unlike many other Biblical texts, Psalms has never been at the center of controversy. While the poetry certainly has an agenda, it isn't as explicit or damning as other books.

That said, there is one thing worth keeping in mind as you move through Psalms: translation.

Psalms is a collection of poems, which means that the meaning of any given line can be a little elusive and tough to move from one language to another. And, sometimes, one translation can seem overwhelmingly attractive to one group and repulsive to another. Check out the infamous Psalm 22:16:

King James Version: For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.

New Revised Standard Version: For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled.

The Complete Jewish Bible: Dogs are all around me, a pack of villains closes in on me, like a lion at my hands and feet.

Well...which is it? Are your hands and feet pierced, or shriveled, or being mauled by a lion? (And is there no fourth option, you poor soul?) And who cares? The guy's obviously not having a great day, so why analyze his pain?

Well, Christians notice right away when something in the Hebrew Bible sounds like the life of Jesus—in this case, the piercing of our narrator's hands and feet seems to echo the crucifixion of Jesus.

So, for a long time, Christian translators understood the text this way and wouldn't hear of any other way. The traditional King James Version reflects this translation style.

But, in this circumstance, the original Hebrew text doesn't exactly talk about any piercing (and a later Greek version is similarly ambiguous), or so maintain another school of translators. So, the NRSV reads "my hands and feet have shriveled," which tries to adjust the traditional Christian style so it's a little more in line with the Hebrew source-text.

And the Common Jewish Bible, which (we assume) isn't focused on unpacking potential Jesus-references, translates an ambiguous word to mean "lions," which is a whole 'nother disastrous scenario for our poor narrator.

None of these translations are mean-spirited or intentionally misleading the reader, but they do show how every translation is necessarily an interpretation, shaped by the mind and goals of the translator. If you're ever confused by a line or image from the Psalms, try it in a different translation—they can differ more than you think.

Check out some of the glosses on Psalm 2 for more trials of translation.

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