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

Barry nebarry at verizon.net
Mon Feb 18 22:26:55 EST 2013

On 2/18/2013 9:26 PM, Ishnian wrote:
> 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.

Maybe, but your introductory paragraph seems to have little to do with 
the actual comments you make below.

> 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.

Exegesis or translation? You are really talking more about the latter 
than the former. As you point out below, this is also how the LXX 
translators and Jerome understood it. You are a bit confused here as to 
the order of your English Bibles -- Wycliffe preceded Coverdale by 
nearly 200 years. It was also a translation from the Vulgate, and not 
from the original Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek, so naturally it is going to 
follow *umbrae mortis* (shadow of death). I believe that all earlier 
English translations also are from the Latin.

> 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.


†צַלְמָ֫וֶת S6757 TWOT1921b GK7516 n.[m.] death-shadow, deep shadow, poet. 
(prob. = צֵל + מָוֶת, G (usually) σκιὰ θανάτου, cf. S B, so Thes 
SchwallyLeben n. d. Tode, 194, v. especially NöZAW xvii (1897), 183 ff.; 
Ew Br and most mod. (afterolder comm.) read צַלְמוּת darkness, deep 
darkness, cp. Arabic ظَلَمَ (ẓalama) IV, Assyrian [ṣalâmu], Ethiopic ጸልመ 
(ṣalma) be black, dark); cf. ظُلْمَةٌ (ẓulmatun) 6, often || חֹשֶׁךְ, לַיְלָה, 
etc., and opp. בֹּקֶר, אוֹר. 1. = deep shadow, darkness (cf. הַרְרֵי אֵל, אַרְזֵי 
אֵל): Am 5:8 Jb 3:5; 12:22; 24:17a; 28:3; 34:22; of eyes heavy with 
weeping 16:16; בַּלְהוֹת צ׳ 24:17b terrors of the darkness. 2. fig. a. of 
distress Je 13:16 ψ 107:10, 14; אֶרֶץ צ׳ Is 9:1. b. of extreme danger Je 
2:6 ψ 23:4; 44:20. 3. characterizing world of the dead, אֶרֶץ חֹשֶׁךְ וצ׳ Jb 
10:21, כְּמוֹ אֹפֶל צ׳ v 22 (text dub., v. Bu Du); וְשַׁעֲרֵי צ׳ 38:17 (G πυλωροὶ 
δὲ ᾅδου; || שַׁעֲרֵי־מָ֑וֶת).

Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (2000). Enhanced 
Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (electronic ed.) (853). 
Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems.

> 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/ tsalmavetha 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.

So you are essentially arguing that the traditional reading of the word 
is a folk etymology, and it's really from a different root meaning 
simply "darkness."

> 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.

You seem to be switching categories here. Is it a faulty etymology, or 
is it something to do with the rules of grammar? To me it appears to be 
a pretty transparent form, but I'll be the first admit that my Hebrew is 
not as strong as it should be. But let's say, despite your somewhat 
confusing argumentation, you are absolutely right, and we translate it 
"valley of darkness." What difference does it make? How should we 
interpret the Psalm differently?

On the OE word, see above -- they were following the Latin...

N.E. Barry Hofstetter
Semper melius Latine sonat
The American Academy
The North American Reformed Seminary
Bible Translation Magazine


More information about the b-hebrew mailing list