Apostrophe to Zion: New Meaning for a Dead Sea Scroll?

I’m still enjoying Slacktacular August with a reduced blogging schedule, but I thought this was a fascinating little slice of the philology world that shows how scholars grapple with ancient languages and shifting meanings.

In this case, it’s the Hebrew root “taph-bet-ayin,” which has various modern meanings: “to demand,” “to investigate,” “to prosecute.”

The “Apostrophe to Zion,” found in the Psalms Scroll of Dead Sea Scrolls, contains the word “tit’ba’e’ch,” and none of those meanings work in context. (An “apostrophe” is one of the rhetorical figures, meaning an address to an abstract idea or personification.)

Here’s the entire psalm, which is quite beautiful, as translated by Vermes, with the problem lines highlighted.

Apostrophe to Zion

I will remember you, O Zion, for a blessing;
with all my might I love you;
your memory is to be blessed for ever.
Your hope is great, O Zion;
Peace and your awaited salvation will come.
Generation after generation shall dwell in you,
and generations of the pious shall be your ornament.
They who desire the day of your salvation
shall rejoice in the greatness of your glory.
They shall be suckled on the fullness of your glory,
and in your beautiful streets they shall make tinkling sounds.
You shall remember the pious deeds of your prophets,
and shall glorify yourself in the deeds of your pious ones.
Cleanse violence from your midst;
lying and iniquity, may they be cut off from you.
Your sons shall rejoice within you,
and your cherished ones shall be joined to you.
How much they have hoped in your salvation,
and how much your perfect ones have mourned for you?
Your hope, O Zion, shall not perish,
and your expectation will not be forgotten.
Is there a just man who has perished?
Is there a man who has escaped his iniquity?
Man is tried according to his way,
each is repaid according to his deeds.
Your oppressors shall be cut off from around you, O Zion,
and all who hate you shall be dispersed.
Your praise is pleasing, O Zion;
it rises up in all the world.
Many times I will remember you for a blessing;
I will bless you with all my heart.
You shall attain to eternal righteousness,
and shall receive blessings from the noble.
Take the vision which speaks of you,
and the dreams of the prophets requested for you.
Be exalted and increase O Zion;
Praise the Most High, your Redeemer!
May my soul rejoice in your glory!
Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Revised and extended 4th ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 241–242.

The phrase “the dreams of the prophets requested for you,” doesn’t really make any sense, but “requested for you” is about the only modern understanding of “tit’ba’e’ch” that fits. Essentially, it means “the dreams the prophets requested for you” or “investigated for you.”

Two doctoral students–Hanan Ariel and Alexey Yuditsky–suggest that the word also has a lost meaning, which is not usual. (For example, try to imagine future scholars puzzling over the social implications of the former usage of the word “gay” if only the modern meaning of the word was known to them. The lyrics of the theme song to The Flintstones take on a whole new meaning.)

[I]n Arabic, which is as close to Hebrew as say French is to English – the root taph-bet-ayin means “to go after,” “follow,” “overtake.”

Aha, thought the students: what if the mystery verb titbaech bore a rare meaning, not commonly known – not “seek” or “demand,” but “follow,” overtake”?

No modern references on Hebrew give that meaning to the root taph-bet-ayin. Yet not only Arabic but other similar Semitic languages as well ascribe to the root the meaning of “going forward” or “following after.”

And thus, Ariel and Yuditsky suggested that “the dreams of the prophets requested for you” actually means “The prophets’ vision will overtake you”.

In other words, ancient Israelites used taph-bet-ayin to mean follow, chase, overtake, not sue. That meaning fell into disuse over time, Ariel and Yuditsky surmise.

Actually, there is evidence of using taph-bet-ayin to mean “follow.” As Prof. Menahem Kistler helpfully pointed out to Ariel, the midrashic work Sifrei Devarim tells of scholars “who went abroad and traveled and arrived in Ptolemais” (that is, Acre). In this story, the word for “went” or “traveled” was based on the taph-bet-ayin root.

While about it, Ariel and Yuditsky also offered quirky new interpretations of two other mysterious phrases in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Scholars had been puzzled about the word “taamol” in the Raz Nihyeh (known as “The Secret of the Way Things Are,” or the “Sapiential Work Scroll”). The students decided that again unusually, here it means “to bear” or “to suffer.” That verse means, they say – “Do not rejoice when you should mourn, so that you will not suffer during your life.”

In another place in the work, the Hebrew words avad b’ruach — which could be translated as “worked for the wind/spirit” — appear. Based on verses in scripture, they suggest that the expression refers to a slave who receives no compensation for his work — in other words, one who toils for nothing.

The idea of being overtaken by the vision of the prophets is a much more satisfactory understanding that the idea of prophets requesting a vision for the People of God. It’s not a huge story, but it’s a microcosm of the good work possible with some elements of modern criticism, and the reason we can’t dispense with its techniques.