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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Psalm 16:2: טוֹבָתִי בַּל עָלֶיךָ

This is a translation question from a student for Dr. Buth:

Dear Dr. Buth,

Last night i was reading Psalm 16 and struggled with some difficult
verses. I would like to seek your opinion on verse two:

אָמַרְתְּ לַיהוָה

אֲדֹנָי אָתָּה

טוֹבָתִי, בַּל-עָלֶיךָ

A straightforward reading seems strange and doesn't make sense: my welfare is not upon you.

BDB interprets this as a rhetorical question: is not my welfare dependent upon you? This sounds nice semantically, but i'm not sure if it is acceptable grammatically. According to my limited knowledge of BH, normally such a question would be preceded by an interrogative ה, or הלא Because my knowledge is so limited, I need to consult your expert opinion. Can this phrase be properly understood as "is not my welfare dependent upon you?"

According to HALOT, here the word בַּל may mean something else: Surely, indeed. However, such an interpretation seems dubious to me, because there is hardly another place in the Bible where בַּל has this other, opposite meaning. Indeed, the word appears several other times in the same Psalm 16, all with the normal
meaning of "not."

Even-Shoshan also defines this instance as אין in his concordance.

NJPS ignores the masoretic accents, redivides the verse as:

"You are my welfare/ benefactor

There is none above You."

To me, this makes perfect sense, though it is not according to the masoretic division.

The Aramaic targums and Septuagint probably have other ideas, as do the various English translations.

I was just wondering, if we follow the Masoretic text and accents as they are, and understand the word בַּל in its regular, accepted negative meaning, could it be that the preposition על here means something else? For example, could it mean something like "besides" or "apart from"?

Thank you.

Response from Dr. Buth:

You are asking the right questions. You should also start seeking some Hebrew-Hebrew resources. E.g. Amos Haxam, da`at miqra, tehilim 1, p 68, says (translating)

"I do not seek favor from any being besides you'."
and footnotes: "another version: you are the one good thing that I have, and I have nothing good except you."

In both cases Haxam has interpreted BAL-`ALEXA as 'none except for'. This is the only BAL-`AL in the Bible, so it is a kind of hapax.

Kaddari, milon ha-`ivrit ha-miqrait, p. 104 "perhaps: '(you are) my good thing, and there is none above you'." He then cites Cassuto and a Ugaritic text with an apparent parallel to an equivalent phrase אין אשר על. there is none that is above--.

I like this last interpretation. the word TOVATI 'my good thing' is a stand alone predicate, a second predicate after 'you are my Lord,'...my good thing, there is none over you. For verses 3-5, which are also very tricky, see Amos Haxam.

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