Coat of Many Colors

A Geek and the Bible

Hebrew Alphabet and Psalm 119 – Aleph

U+2135I’m working this week in Israel and trying to use the immersion to pick up a few scraps of Hebrew– not very successfully. For the last several days, I have been learning a new Hebrew letter each day and while that will never teach me the language (or even let me sound out words) it does help to pass the time. One of these years, I’ll do it correctly.

The bible loves the alphabet. Christians know this most plainly in the book of Revelations which makes several references to God as the “Alpha and Omega” (Revelation 1:8, et. al.), referring to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet which the book is written in. In the Jewish Tanakh (the Old Testament), Hebrew is the language of choice and several books include word games invisible in translation. For example, a set of lines may each begin with the next letter of the alphabet. In the original Hebrew, writing key verses that way must have provided a sense of completeness, from A to Z. Psalm 119 takes this idea and blows it to epic proportions: each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is given EIGHT lines. It’s an amazing work. More after the break.

Here are the first lines of Psalm 119, all beginning with ‘A’ in the original:

Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.
Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.
They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways.
Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently.
O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!
Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.
I will praise thee with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments.
I will keep thy statutes: O forsake me not utterly.

Psalm 119:1-8

The wordplay is invisible in KJV and most English-language editions, but you can see it in the original Hebrew. (Just remember that the beginning of the line is on the right!) At the risk of profaning the bible, let me make a few adjustments:

Anointed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.
Anointed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart.
Also they do no iniquity: they walk in his ways.
Assiduously is how Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts.
Alas, if only my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!
Ashamed I shall not be, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.
Acclaimed Thou shall be with uprightness of my heart, when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments.
And I will keep thy statutes: O forsake me not utterly.

I’m not a poet, but that was pretty fun. The problem is that other letters would be much harder and don’t all have as clear a representation in English. Gimmel is the third letter– should those lines be written with a ‘C’ or ‘G’? This is a fun game, but the Psalm is worthy of additional study. Each set of lines connects to the idea that God’s law is the supreme law of the land and the only way in which a person may find a prosperous and blessed existence.

An update about this blog…

I’m still here! In the past months, despite my not posting anything, I have seen many new readers and to all of you I say “Hello!”. As we get into the spring, I hope that the post schedule will increase again. The last several months have been very difficult and time for researching and writing has been all too short. I would resolve to do better in the New Year, but I’ve been 29 days late for that as well.

Happy belated new year!

Up next: Where was I again? (And probably more on my recent trip to Israel.)

 

 

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