[b-hebrew] Psalm 23.4 --- The Biblical expression _Shadow of Death_

Ishnian ishinan at comcast.net
Mon Feb 18 21:26:57 EST 2013

The use of the Old Testament in the New is an intriguing area of study including detailed research on scores of explicit citations as well as allusions in an attempt to understand how the NT writers understood and used the Old Testament. The result might astound you. 

A typically exegesis is of David's famous Psalm 23 in Biblical Studies. 

I am precisely referring here to the Biblical expression _Shadow of Death_  found in Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; ...."

This Biblical expression has prevailed from the Anglo-Saxon period in the works of Cynewulf (900 AD ) to Chaucer (1386 AD) on to Coverdale (1535 AD) and finally to Wycliffe's Bible. 

The history of this translation has always been highly controversial.  In fact, the expression is no where to be found in the original Hebrew/Aramaic text.  Instead, what we have is the term: _calamaveth_ (slmwt) in Hebrew/Aramaic (Cf. As. salamw,_zulumat_ in Arabic, Ugaritic _Zlmt (*1)_, plural form of _zlm_.) [ See BDB # 853]. All of which mean literally "darkness", and are often used to describe a state of "ignorance" in the so-called Semitic languages. 

The various translations in Greek, vulgar Latin and eventually English have the Hebrew/Aramaic term as if it were two words _Cel_, (Arabic Z.ill) meaning "shadow" + _ ma'veth _ (cf. Arabic mawt) meaning "death", this instead of the original one word term _calamaveth/ tsalmaveth  a form  of "Z.ulumat" meaning darkness. The result is a linguistic blend (or Portmanteau word)  broadly to mean a blend of two words and their meanings into one. Unfortunately this misnomer has become part of the lexicon.

This SNAFU points to a weak translation by someone who happened to know some Hebrew/Aramaic but who was oblivious to the rules of grammar.  In this case a little knowledge proved to be very dangerous.  The translator badly misinterpreted and botched the verse and in the process changed the entire meaning of the verse.  I cannot help but think of the millions of prayers that have been (and still are) uttered at burials.  

There is a final twist to the story which is equally baffling. The Old English language had the term "dwolema and or dwolma" meaning " The chaos of darkness " * (2) ,  the translator missed it and went for his shadow of death instead.


* (1) In Ugaritic  ( see KTU 1.2: 1.14, 20)  in an incatation mentioning the night-demon [II] in front  the assembly of gods on the mountain, the helpers of Lelu and Motu are called the son of deep darkness (bn Z.lmt)

*  (2) dwolema, dwolma, darkness, chaos, Bt. Met. Fox 5, 86 ; Met. 5, 43. v. "dwolma" here is a loan word for the Semitic "Z.ulmah" darkness.


Ishinan Ishibashi
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