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I sometimes struggle to understand how some of the NT authors describe OT passages as messianic prophecies. One of these is from the 22nd Psalm.

Psalm 22:16 NASB (emphasis added)
For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet.

In an attempt to find some possible cultural context for this image, I looked for other uses of the (English) word "pierced," and I couldn't find many that were used in quite this way (i.e. "hands" and "feet"). Typically, the word signifies death (without a direct object) or grievous injury (sometimes emotional). Other times, it's used in a way to mean something like "punch a hole in (something)." It's used with "hand" once, when God tells the king that he who relies on the king of Egypt is like one who leans on a reed, and the reed pierces his hand.

I was unable to find anything I considered similar usage, and I cannot think of an occasion in the OT when someone is said to have been been "pierced" in quite this way.

Looking at the OT context (ignoring its application by NT writers), what is meant/intended by the image described here "they pierced my hands and feet"? Does it just mean death? (This seems unlikely.) Is this a depiction of something typical or common in warfare, vigilantism, or something?

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    See also: How should Psalm 22:16 read? And because they’re confusing and you may need all three to approach this, this is numbered differently in Hebrew (BHS): 22:17, and in the LXX (Rahlfs): 21:17. – Susan Mar 5 '15 at 8:14
  • @Susan I did look at that question, but it was essentially asking how the verse should be translated, and the options presented still didn't answer the question I had. I'm specifically looking for the meaning of the image. A lot of David's poetry recalls battle, court intrigue, or other scenes I can place David in. I don't know how to understand this particular image. – mojo Mar 5 '15 at 15:15
  • Mojo, I didn't mean to imply that there's a problem with this question. The link is just for reference (and hopefully to re-direct those who might try to answer that (different) question here). – Susan Mar 5 '15 at 16:16
  • I suggest you not overthink this one. There MAY be some unknown, unexplained cultural significance vis a vis the verse in question. Evidently there are ancient depictions of a lion pinning a man to the ground, so the lion metaphor isn't necessarily "out." If a band of thugs is surrounding me and tearing at me like a pack of dogs, I'll likely sustain AT LEAST defensive wounds on my hands, and if they kick me to the ground, I could wind up with defensive wounds on my feet from my attempt to kick/push my attackers away. The point is: we can get sidetracked in pinning down the meaning of the – rhetorician Mar 6 '15 at 5:36
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    If I can may make an observation based on practical experience: untrained dogs, especially in a group, attack your hands and feet because that is what you use to defend yourself. The same applies to an attack by a group of 'evil-doers'. They grab your arms and if you kick, your legs. The Masoretic text translates as 'lion' as in: "For dogs have encompassed me; a company of evildoers have inclosed me; like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet." The word 'lion' would then mean, 'too strong to break loose'. I think it is a very apt description that might only be appreciated by past victims. – gideon marx Mar 6 '15 at 10:32
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As others have pointed out, there is no unambiguous way to construct "they pierced" from the Masoretic Text, which seems to read something like "as a lion", with no verb. Schaff and others have claimed that the Masoretes deliberately distorted this particular text (and others) in order to veil any connection with Jesus' crucifixion (see, e.g., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, p.524).

The reading "they pierced" has its strongest support in the Septuagint (as others have also pointed out). Following Brenton's translation:

Psalm 21:17 (LXX)

ὅτι ἐκύκλωσάν με κύνες πολλοί,
For many dogs have compassed me,

συναγωγὴ πονηρευομένων περιέσχον με,
the assembly of the wicked doers has beset me round,

ὤρυξαν χεῖράς μου καὶ πόδας.
they pierced my hands and my feet.

The word translated here as "pierce" - ὀρύσσω - really seems to refer to digging rather than piercing, though, which the New and Old Testaments indicate by the word ἐκκεντέω. It appears in the following three verses in the New Testament:

Matthew 21:33 (KJV 1900) Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:

Matthew 25:18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

Mark 12:1 And he began to speak unto them by parables. A certain man planted a vineyard, and set an hedge about it, and digged a place for the winefat, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country.

The word appears in 33 other places than Psalm 21:17 in the Septuagint and in every single other place the word clearly refers to digging something: a well (e.g. Genesis 21:30), a grave (e.g. Genesis 50:5), a pit (e.g. Psalm 7:16), etc.

Its use here suggests that his hands were not just punctured but rather "dug into", as with a spade or some other sharp implement.

@DickHarfield explained how the root of the underlying Masoretic Hebrew is a word meaning "dig", which would be entirely consistent with the Septuagint. The fact that the Masoretic Text transformed this into "lion" suggests to me that perhaps there was some deliberate distortion, as some have proposed.

This is tangential to your question, but I believe the oldest known Christological exegesis of Psalm 21:17 LXX was by Justin Martyr (100-165 AD), in both his First Apology (ch. 35), and his Dialog with Trypho the Jew (ch. 97). Later Church Fathers who interpreted the Psalm as relating to Christ included Cyprian of Carthage (Second Book of Testimonies Against the Jews, Testimony 20), Augustine (e.g. City of God, 17.17.1), John Chrysostom (e.g. Homily XXXVI on Matthew), Athanasius (e.g. On the Incarnation, 35.4), Vincent of Lerins (Commonitory 15.40), and Leo the Great (Sermons 55.2). I bring these up because the Masoretes, even if not familiar with these particular works, probably would have known that Christians understood the Psalm to relate directly to Christ.

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    This seems very defensible. – mojo Sep 9 '16 at 13:20
  • I just noticed @DickHarfield's comment that the actual Hebrew root is a word meaning "dig", which I think is very interesting. – user15733 Sep 9 '16 at 13:25
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There has been much argument as to whether the relevant word is correctly translated as 'lion' or 'pierced', because the Hebrew words (transliterated as kaari and kaaru) are almost indistinguishable. Both Christian and Jewish scholars have concluded that translating the passage with 'lion' (kaari) is meaningless and kaari is not supported by the earliest manuscripts. This means that the original Hebrew word was probably kaaru, which is assumed to mean 'they pierced'.

See Psalm 22:16: A Prophecy of the Crucifixion?: The problem is that karu should be the Hebrew word to translate as 'they pierced', and the meaning of kaaru is unknown. Even karu is not the most natural word for 'they pierced', since the root of this word is 'to dig'. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, daqar (Zechariah 12:10), naqav (2 Kings 18:21, Isaiah 36:6) and ratsa (Exodus 21:6) have been used in the sense of 'to pierce'.

Although some say it could have been an alternative spelling for karu, other guesses include 'to bind' or 'to shrivel'. Until we know with certainty what the word kaaru meant to the biblical authors, it would be speculative to think what the passage meant.

  • The question is asking for a reasonable amount of speculation regarding imagery. The link is interesting, though I'm not sufficiently educated to validate or dispute the translational reasoning. Sadly, the author clearly has winning the argument more in mind than finding the truth. The thesis is essentially that the text is corrupt and unreliable. – mojo Mar 6 '15 at 3:36
  • I would speculate as to the image the author might have meant or intended if I could arrive at any reasonable hypothesis, either as 'pierce', 'bind' or 'shrive', but this clause seems so out of context with the rest of the psalm that absolutely nothing comes to mind. Probably why linguists can't even agree on a translation. – Dick Harfield Mar 6 '15 at 4:35
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    This seems more like an answer to another question. – Susan Mar 6 '15 at 12:06
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This is the only OT occurrence of the word כָּ֝אֲרִ֗י. Most translations render this word “pierced.” Some see it differently. For example:

Dogs surround me; a pack of evil people circle me like a lion— oh, my poor hands and feet! (CEB)

For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; (NRSV)

Dick Harfield outlines the uncertainty of the Hebrew and its root. Additional information is found in this answer to a related question: How should Psalm 22:16 read?

An obstacle to seeing the word as lion is the use of אַ֝רְיֵ֗ה within the Psalm:

They gape at Me with their mouths, Like a raging and roaring lion (אַ֝רְיֵ֗ה). (v13 NKJV)

Save Me from the lion’s (אַרְיֵ֑ה) mouth And from the horns of the wild oxen! (v21 NKJV)

As אַרְיֵ֑ה (lion) is used in both verses 13 and 21, it is unlikely that writer's use of a different word (כָּ֝אֲרִ֗י) is intended to convey the meaning of "lion,: and translations which render all three as “lion” obscure a difference present in the Hebrew text.

The Septuagint translates the Hebrew into Greek before the Christian and provides a translation unaffected by a Christian interpretation. As The NonTheologian notes in their answer, the LXX supports “pierced” not “lion;” it also correctly distinguishes כָּ֝אֲרִ֗י of verse 16 and אַרְיֵ֑ה of 13 and 21:

16: ὤρυξαν
13: λέων
21: λέοντος

The LXX scholar(s) who translated the original Hebrew into Greek recognized the difference in verse 16 and they rejected “lion” as the meaning. However, the word in the LXX does not mean “pierced.” It means dig or excavate: [3736 - orussó] So while "lion" may be rejected, it is reasonable to question, as noted in another answer: if the intended meaning of the Hebrew is pierce, why doesn’t the text more clearly convey that meaning?

The OT answer to that objection begins in the New Testament which indicates there were potentially three different types of wounds that could occur at the location of the crucifixion. One type, broken bones, did not occur; two types did happen.

And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him… (John 19-17-18 NKJV)

Crucifixion would inflict the same type of wound to both hands and both feet.1 The second type of wound which occurred was made by a different means and at a different place on the body:

For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced (ἐξεκέντησαν).” (John 19:36-37 NKJV)

The NT writer describes the wound on His side differently (ἐξεκέντησαν) from how the LXX translator described the wounds to the hands and feet (ὤρυξαν). The Scripture referenced in the Gospel is Zechariah 12:10:

“And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced (דָּקָ֑רוּ). Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn. (NKJV)

In addition to using a different word from Psalm 22:16, the NT writer’s use of ἐξεκέντησαν deviates from the LXX translation of Zechariah and the NT more accurately reflects the original Hebrew of Zechariah. 2

Comparing the two types of wounds which occurred:

Psalm 22:16          Zechariah 12:10
אַרְיֵ֑ה/ὤρυξαν (LXX)   דָּקָ֑רוּ/ἐξεκέντησαν (NT)
Hands and feet       Side
Nails                Spear
Made when alive      Made after death
Crowd surrounded     Crowd mourned

The significance of the Hebrew in the Psalm is that it describes a different type of wound and it preserves all of the differences between the prophetic statements of the Psalm and Zechariah. It is also noteworthy that both the state of the wounded (alive/dead) and the response of others to the wounded is different in the Psalm and Zechariah and these differences are also preserved in the Gospel. Jesus was reviled before He died and mourned for after His death.

In particular, the use of a word which means dug in the Psalm for those wounds to both the hands and the feet is extremely accurate in describing crucifixion. Not only do the hands and feet receive the same type of wound, the instrument which makes the wound remains in the body; unlike that in the side where the instrument which causes the wound is removed.

Conclusion First, lion is contrary to how the LXX scholars understood Psalm 22:16. Second, the use of a word which means dug accurately describes the nature of wounds inflicted by being nailed to a cross where the nails also remain in the body. In addition using a word which means dig or burrowed, accurately describes how the wounds would be inflicted on the hands as the person nailing would need to feel the body to position the nail between the bones (not breaking any) and not puncturing a vein or artery.

Finally, the Psalm locates the wounds in the hands and not the wrists (where they most likely were made). However, there is no OT use of the word wrist. The failure to distinguish between hands and wrist is consistent with how the word is found throughout the OT and cannot be a basis for the denying the accuracy of describing the wounds made by crucifying Jesus. While it would likely be criticized as blatant Christian eisegesis, the meaning of 22:16 is probably better conveyed as punctured or driven through rather than pierced. Obviously that reflects the Christian perspective that Psalm 22 is a prophetic statement of the crucifixion of Jesus. Nevertheless that is consistent with Greek translation in the LXX and the actual events.

The intended image of Psalm 22:16 is that of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross, alive, surrounded by others who despise, ridicule, shake their head, saying “he trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue him" and gaping at Him with their mouths; with His bones out of joint; strength dried up; His tongue clinging to His jaws; others staring at Him and dividing His clothes.


1. In addition to using a different word (from vv 13,21), there is no logical reason for including both hands and feet if the meaning is “lions.” This is especially true given the context which describes dogs and companions encircling me.

2. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/19-37.htm

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I find it difficult to understand why people would not read the Hebrew of the Bible at its face value:

  • כי סבבוני כלבים
    for they turn-around me like dogs
    for they circumvent me like dogs

  • עדת מרעים הקףוני
    gathering of companions they encircle me
    gathering of evil-doers they close-in on me

  • כארי ידי ורגלי
    as lions of my hands and my feet
    as lights of my hands and my feet

To assume a typo error is too far-fetched and less plausible than the following paths of lesser resistance to grammatical propriety.

  1. They move around me like dogs. Gathering of evil-doers clamp-in on my hands and feet like a lion.

  2. They circumvent(go around) me like dogs. Gathering of companions enclose upon me as light to my hands and my feet.

  3. They betray me like dogs, gathering of companions enclose upon me as light to my hands and my feet.

  4. They pretend to be enlightening friends of Israel, but they circumvent/betray us like dogs.

  • How do you get from "as lions" to "as lights"? That seems to be quite a jump to go unexplained. – ThaddeusB Aug 30 '15 at 18:46
  • By presuming the intensive imbuing [י] being left out: [אר] as [איר] (enlighten). – Cynthia Avishegnath Aug 30 '15 at 20:56
  • Which is of the point I made - that this possible jump of should first be presumed before even thinking about the excessive jump "pierce". Principle of paths of statistically least impedance. – Cynthia Avishegnath Aug 30 '15 at 20:58
  • I think the only reason that the subject of interpretation is open is because the Masoretic Text is not confirmed to represent the original Hebrew text, but is only supposed to do so by many. There is really no more ground for supposing that the 2nd century BC translators of the Septuagint misread the proto-Hebrew text or followed the wrong text than there is for supposing that the medieval Masoretes rendered it correctly. In fact, the Masoretes had a motive for obfuscating the word that the Alexandrian Jews would not have. – user15733 Sep 9 '16 at 19:24
  • "2nd century BC translators of the Septuagint" ??? It is a 3rd century before invention of Christ translation which perished in the Alexandria fire. The nearest recomposition was done in the 5th century after the invention of Christ, and even then we have no assurance of its originality to the Alexandria copy. – Cynthia Avishegnath Jul 24 '18 at 5:17
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I think the real question everyone in this debate is asking is this: Did God use Psalm 22 to predict the crucifixion of Jesus? It is not, ultimately, should v 16/17 read 'pierced'? Here's why I think we can be reasonably sure that this is not God predicting the crucifixion: 'Pierced' is the lynchpin of this passage. With it, I think we have a good argument for crucifixion. Without it--maybe it's a crucifixion, there are several aspects that pertain to crucifixion, but it could also be describing a captive who's imprisoned in an outdoor makeshift prison (think Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes.)

So imagine the same God that created the universe was the author of this passage. He's describing the crucifixion. He knows that if he's clear that v 16/17 should read 'pierced', he can 'spike the football', so to speak. But he doesn't. He makes his word choice so unclear, that it's debated ad nauseam for centuries. If he did intend 'karu', this is a word that in every other instance in the Hebrew bible, is translated as 'dug', and always when digging into the earth...which seems like an odd word choice for piercing through flesh. If God were predicting Jesus, he easily could have used a different word that usually refers to 'piercing', such as ratza. He could easily have resolved the conflict. There would be no legitimate argument about what this all important word should really mean.

That's why God didn't predict the crucifixion in Ps 22. Because an all powerful God could have easily communicated (and preserved) the clear meaning 'they have pierced my hands and feet.'

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    "Odd word choice" and "poetry" are often traveling companions. I don't find the "could have used a different word" argument very compelling (for either side of most issues), especially for poetic language. – mojo Sep 9 '16 at 13:26
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    The question specifically says, "Looking at the OT context (ignoring its application by NT writers)...." Also, "Answers should show sensitivity to other users of the site. This may include an extra explanation when later texts are applied to earlier texts (e.g. ones that read Jesus into the Hebrew Bible). Claims that could reasonably be seen as controversial or offensive must be relevant and supported from the text. "Supported" means an explicit link or citation of text, or clear logical reasoning starting from a cited text" (meta post). – Dan Sep 9 '16 at 14:19

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