Psalm 24

With this poem, it’s not the theme or the prosody (aka rhythm and lines) that got me to take the case. Its theme is everywhere in this town: Yahweh created the world by ruling the waters and bringing out land for people to live, he is supreme and sovereign, and he has a holy mountain. (I gave you my theory of “holy” in the Psalm 93 case.) There’s also something in the poem about Yahweh’s love of morality and of the people “Jacob” (aka Israel, Judah/Judea); also plenty familiar. In terms of the prosody, the piece is standard-issue, nice and regular all the way through. It has even lines, and they are all divided into two balanced parts, nice and symmetrical. Don’t get me wrong. I like praising a boss who’s worthy of it as much as the next guy. A boss like that is rare, some might say one of a kind. And I like a piece that’s got even lines and feels balanced. Just not for sleuthing, see? I mean, when everything is regular, what is there to get? It all explains itself. Why call in a sleuth?

I took the case on this poem because of this: If it were a painting, it looks like someone has gotten ahold of the original and added in some characters, giving it a new mood and a new meaning. You heard me. This poem has been changed, and not once but twice. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. Believe me, it’s not unheard of. But in poems it can be hard to spot let alone prove, and this time there are enough clues for me to have a solid theory about it, one that even covers motive.

Something else is in this poem caught my eye. It’s a case when the verse-division actually crosses up the poem’s lines. The outfit who made the verse-divisions and the whole reading apparatus, a Jewish outfit called the Massoretes, they lived in early Medieval times. (Different taste in outfit names then, I know.) Now they didn’t make it all up. Jews had traditions about how to read the text aloud, lots of them in fact. What the Massoretes did was, they tried to make a clear and consistent system out of them and fix them for all time. To do that, they learned from another outfit, the language-geniuses of early Muslim Arab culture. They scored the text (added cues for reading it aloud), and in the process created verse-lines. But they didn’t number anything. It’s like sheet music with lyrics only the opposite, lyrics with musical scoring. See for yourself here; magnifying glass provided. (Numbers for chapters and verses were added into Hebrew Bibles 1,000 years later, only because in the meantime Christian Bibles had started using them.) Now those Massoretes are a pretty reliable lot. But they’re still about 1,500 years after the material was composed, give or take, and they’re systematizing how to perform it with principles from a different culture. Occasionally, they slip up (that’s how it feels to someone like me), and that’s when we get to peek further back in time than usual. This is one of those times.

For a sleuth like me, where you can feel time, that’s why you do the job. Most of your working stiffs, they don’t actually want to feel time. What you have today is what always was and will always be. That’s what they like. They’re plugged in when they’re part of something unchanging, timeless. Me, I’m plugged in when I can feel how different now is from before. I don’t usually get so philosophical, you know. It’s a job hazard I try hard to avoid. Anyway, that’s another interesting thing about the case.

By the way, twice in this poem a Hebrew letter got miscopied, so that the sentence makes no sense. It’s an easy fix, and I fixed it. If you’ve ever seen a Dead Sea scroll, you know what I’m talking about. It sounds crazier than a religious heretic, but that’s what they did back then, make mistakes (lots of them), fix mistakes (sometimes making things worse), fix things that didn’t need fixing, improve the style how they wanted, move things around, and a whole bunch more. It was as regular to them as texting and dealing with auto-correct, let alone abbreviations, acronyms, emojis, and all that. If you haven’t seen this, do some digging here or here. As always, I got a bunch of my own takes on the case, new angles on translating. What kind of a sleuth would I be if I didn’t? But I’ll explain all that later.

PS. I divided the poem into four stanzas of three lines each (except for stanza 2, which is four lines). The rhythm and the topics make this real easy. I divided lines in half with slashes and separated them with double-slashes. I separated stanzas with horizontal marks. As with most poems, skip the heading. You can’t go with the first thing a suspect or a witness says about themselves. They’re always trying to prove something right off the bat, and it’s usually a false lead. Better to move on to the facts and let them speak for themselves.

Psalm 24

1         Of David, a psalm.


           Yahweh’s are the earth and its fill, / the land and its inhabitants; //

2         Because he — on waters he founded it / and on waterways has firmed it up. //

3         Who can ascend Yahweh’s mount / and who can stand in his holy place? //


4         The clean of hands / and clear of heart, //

           Who has not raised his throat vainly / and has not sworn falsely. //

5         He will bear blessing from Yahweh / and vindication from the god of his triumph. //

6         This is the people inquiring of him, / the seekers of his face, Jacob. // (Selah.)


7         Raise, O gates, your heads / and raise yourselves, O eternal entries, //

7–8     And let enter the glorious king! / Who is the glorious king? //

8         Yahweh is a relentless champion; / Yahweh is a champion of war. //


9         Raise, O gates, your heads / and raise, O eternal entries, (…) //

9–10   And let enter the glorious king! / Who is it, the glorious king? //

10       Yahweh of Legions — / he is the glorious king! // (Selah.)

תהילים כ״ד

א     לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר


       לַיהוָה הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ           תֵּבֵל וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ

ב     כִּי־הוּא עַל־יַמִּים יְסָדָהּ         וְעַל־נְהָרוֹת יְכוֹנְנֶהָ

ג      מִי־יַעֲלֶה בְהַר־יְהוָה             וּמִי־יָקוּם בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ


ד     נְקִי כַפַּיִם                            וּבַר־לֵבָב

       אֲשֶׁר לֹא־נָשָׂא לַשָּׁוְא נַפְשִׁי    וְלֹא נִשְׁבַּע לְמִרְמָה

ה     יִשָּׂא בְרָכָה מֵאֵת יְהוָה          וּצְדָקָה מֵאֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעוֹ

ו       זֶה דּוֹר דֹּרְשָׁיו                    מְבַקְשֵׁי פָנֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה


ז      שְׂאוּ שְׁעָרִים רָאשֵׁיכֶם          וְהִנָּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵי עוֹלָם

ז-ח  וְיָבוֹא מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד                מִי זֶה מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד

ח     יְהוָה עִזּוּז וְגִבּוֹר                  יְהוָה גִּבּוֹר מִלְחָמָה


ט     שְׂאוּ שְׁעָרִים רָאשֵׁיכֶם          וּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵי עוֹלָם

ט-י   וְיָבֹא מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד                מִי הוּא זֶה מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד

י      יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת                      הוּא מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד סֶלָה

The first stanza starts by saying that Yahweh is master of the earth and its creatures because he made them possible by founding the earth on the water. It sounds like Yahweh is being praised for doing the impossible, getting a land mass to float on water, like it’s a science project. (Psalm 19 praises him for the sky that doesn’t come crashing down. But that’s another case.) Next in the stanza comes a question: Who can ascend Yahweh’s mount? This is as ambiguous in Hebrew as it is in English. Is it a simple question, who may ascend his mount? Or is it a rhetorical question, Who is able to? (Or: Who would have the gall to?) Implied answer: No one (excepting Yahweh). Since the opening sentence is about Yahweh’s singular wisdom and power, it should be a rhetorical question. And because the opening sentence measures Yahweh by his control of cosmic forces, his control and no one else’s, the point is that there are no gods or divine beings who would dare to attempt to ascend. In other words, to do so would be to challenge him. 

But then stanza 2 comes along and answers the question like it’s a simple one, not a rhetorical one: People of integrity may ascend the mount. It gives examples. Someone who is clean of hands (no blood, no murder) and pure of plans (no swindling or machinating), and does not plead vainly or swear falsely. Swearing falsely was a big deal. When people took an oath or swore, they named their god as a guarantor, because they believed their god lived long enough to see, cared enough to watch, and was powerful enough to enforce. Calling upon a god as a guarantor and then violating the oath was insulting to the core. The poet doesn’t need to be a sleuth to know that in real life people do that kind of thing from time to time, mindlessly or maliciously. So the idea is that only those who really, truly respect Yahweh get to ascend his mount, and when they do they will return home with blessing and vindication, which means that their family and crops will do well (blessing), which will show that their integrity pays off (vindication).

Now this says a lot of about Yahweh caring about morality and all, but it’s a really different angle than the world and the people belonging to him. Sometimes to get my bearings I look at some other poems and compare what I find. Not because what some poets do means other poets can’t do something else. It’s just to check my response to it. Psalms 15; 104; and 115 all have the idea that Yahweh above cares about people’s doings below, and they play out the idea in some pretty different ways from each other, but none says that the world belongs to him. This strengthens that feeling in my gut that belonging goes way beyond caring about people’s day-to-day lives. It’s a different idea altogether.

So point number 1 of my case is that Stanza 1 ends with what should be a rhetorical question, but Stanza 2 treats it like a simple question and introduces a different kind of greatness of Yahweh than Stanza 1 was talking about. In other words, Stanza 2 doesn’t quite continue Stanza 1. It comes next, sure, but it does so by twisting things around to tell a different story. Stay with me for point 2.

The last line of Stanza 2 makes another sharp turn and you have to do your best tailing to keep up with it. It says that the person of integrity is actually an entire people, “Jacob,” because they’re always seeking out Yahweh. It’s strange because, if Yahweh has a mount people can ascend, it’s in Israel or Judea, and the point was made that only a select kind may ascend, people of integrity, not all of them. So the last line sounds like a correction of the previous idea: “Well, actually, that’s the entire people; they all have integrity.” Your nose should be itching. This statement is only disguising itself as a correction. Really, it’s making a different idea altogether, a political one, about which people (nation) Yahweh favors, not the kind of people (persons) he favors. 

So point number 2 of my case is that there is a second broken thread. Like the first broken thread (which answers a question that isn’t supposed to be answered and switches topics), it begins as if it continues the thought that came before it: “This (the person of integrity) is the people who seek you (etc.)”, but its content actually contradicts it. 

To sum up so far: twice, a piece of Stanza 2 hijacks the story of this poem and tries to give it a new spin. You with me? So get ready for point number 3.

When we get to Stanzas 3 & 4, the original storyline comes back, about how completely unique Yahweh is, and if someone is ascending his mountain, it could only be him. When Stanza 3 starts, someone is coming up the mountain and the poem’s voice calls upon the palace to ready itself. The voice states that a glorious king is coming, and asks, but who is it? Instead of answering, it describes Yahweh as a relentless champion. This is a typical poetic move, to imply an answer (Yahweh is the glorious king) but not state it (he’s a champion worthy of being king). This is how Stanza 1 worked, with its rhetorical question: Who could ascend Yahweh’s mount!? Implied answer: No one. The other side of that coin is: Yahweh alone. Stanza 3 gets one step closer from “No one” to “Yahweh alone.” Someone’s coming: Who? Yahweh is…worthy of it! Stanza 4 finally spells it out and finishes the story. Who is the glorious king coming? Yahweh is the glorious king. 

Let me say one more thing. Stanzas 3 & 4 talk about Yahweh as a unstoppable warrior leading legions. Whom would he have been fighting? My money is on other gods and divine beings. In fact, I’d say that it sheds some light on Stanza 1. Yahweh didn’t just found the earth by controlling the waters, like a science project. The waters are divine too, and that’s whom he’s conquered to create the world. (Like in Psalm 93 and other poems.)

So, when you add it all up, it looks like the original poem was Stanzas 1, 3, and 4. Yahweh created the world by defeating and controlling divine forces of chaos. Among divine beings he alone can and should rule the world from his palace. Then the beginning of Stanza 2 was added: People of integrity may go to his palace. Then the end of the Stanza was added: The people called Jacob may all go to his palace. Each addition was made by hooking itself to what is already in the poem and pulling it in a contrary direction. In the business it’s an old move we call bait and switch. 

Why were the additions made? There can be no proof for this, just speculating into the mind. But a sleuth does that by working backwards, comparing the added idea to the one already there. The poem originally said that no one but Yahweh can ascend his mountain, which expresses how unique he is. Some reader who knows about people visiting Yahweh’s mountain-top palace (a temple) to offer gifts (sacrifice), make requests (prayer), and seek guidance (get an oracle), might have thought that the poem is misleading. People do go up Yahweh’s mountain. So they took the rhetorical question and by adding an answer made it a simple one: People of integrity get to ascend his mountain. But this idea prompted another train of thought. Really, wherever the palace is, anyone in the region can go, and if it’s in Israel or Judea, then Yahweh chose that entire people to visit him. So someone added a line that says: People of integrity? Oh, that’s the entire people of Jacob. And they added an explanation: this people really does look to Yahweh, namely, they recognize his greatness.

To sum up the case for you. The poem originally said that the world belongs to Yahweh because he made it and that no gods can ascend his mount. It was changed twice, first to say that people of integrity can ascend, then to say the whole people “Jacob” can. In short, a mythological poem became an ethical one, then a political one.

P.S. Don’t trust me, right, just as you shouldn’t? Here are some of my notes for you.

בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ “in his holy place.” As so often in bound phrases (a noun in construct followed by another noun), the second noun is an attribute of the first noun (attributive genitive). It is not possessed by it. When this happens, a suffixed pronoun often refers to the first noun, not the attribute. “His holy place,” not “the place of his holiness.”

אֲשֶׁר לֹא־נָשָׂא לַשָּׁוְא נַפְשִׁי “Who has not raised his throat vainly.” נֶפֶש means “throat,” and נש”א נֶפֶשׁ “raising one’s throat” is an idiom meaning “to plead.” Either because one strains one’s throat to speak, especially when one is miserable and needs help, or because one’s extends one throat vulnerably as a sign of dependence. (In the Hebrew Bible נֶפֶשׁ never means “soul” as something  separable from the body. If anything, רוּחַ and אֱלֹהִים are used for that, but only in the sense of “spirit, ghost.” From throat, נֶפֶשׁ comes to mean appetite, will, one’s self, one’s body, one’s life.)

נַפְשִׁי “his throat.” “My throat” makes no sense in the context, so I emended to נַפְשׁוֹ. See? Easy fix, like I said.

זֶה דּוֹר דֹּרְשָׁיו “This is the people inquiring of him.” דּוֹר typically refers to a single “generation.” But it would be odd to say there is one specific generation that seeks out Yahweh, and anyway the poem next says it is the entire people Jacob. The difference is really not that great, because a people is just the long view of a bunch of generations together. (There are a few other places in the Hebrew Bible where דּוֹר = “people” not “generation,” but that’s another case.)

מְבַקְשֵׁי פָנֶיךָ “the seekers of his face.” פָנֶיךָ “Your face” is unlikely since Yahweh has not been addressed, only spoken about. The expression should match דֹּרְשָׁיו “those who inquire of him.” So I emended to פָנָיו “his face.” Another easy fix.

וְהִנָּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵי עוֹלָם “and raise yourselves, O eternal entries.” The Nifal is not the passive stem (binyan). It is a stem that most often conveys the passive. But it can convey the active (like נִלְחַם) and the reflexive (like here).

פִּתְחֵי עוֹלָם “eternal entries.” See the comment on בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ.

מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד “the glorious king.” See the comment on בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ.

יְהוָה עִזּוּז וְגִבּוֹר “Yahweh is a relentless champion.” עִזּוּז and גִבּוֹר are adjectives. Plenty of times גִבּוֹר is a substantive (an adjective used as a noun, like “elder”). עז refers to something hard and unyielding. I couldn’t find a good English noun for this to match “champion.” Often, when two nouns are joined by a conjunction (“and”), one is an attribute of the other. So “relentless champion.” 

וּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵי עוֹלָם “and raise, O eternal entries, (…).” The verb נש״א is transitive and the object is missing. Either וּשְׂאוּ should be emended to וְהִנָּשְׂאוּ, the formulation that is used a few lines earlier, or there was once an object and it got lost in a copying accident. Such things happen. Trust me.

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