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My question is: In the original Hebrew of Psalm 127:2, what is the syntactial function of the word translated as "sleep"? Is sleep the time (or metaphorically the mode) of giving, or is it the gift itself?

It seems that all major bible translations in my native language (German) render the part referring to 'sleep' as more or less: "because he gives to his (chosen) in their sleep." AFAIK, these translations are supposed to be based on the original Hebrew, but they might be just following Luther in this.

The older Vulgata however renders it as (with my emphasis):

vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere surgere postquam sederitis qui manducatis panem doloris cum dederit dilectis suis somnum.

("... because he has given to his selected sleep").

The difference in meaning is that in the first case "sleep" is the time, or rather the mode of giving: 'his chosen' receive without doing anything; that which is given is that which is lacking if the builders work in vain or if the guard watches in vain.

In the second case, sleep itself is the gift. The meaning of 127:2 could then be paraphrased as: "It is vain for you to be busy and worry about success beyond what needs to be done and what is humanly possible. Sleep is a gift from god not to be cast away."

I find that this sense works better for the architecture of the poem. If it is "in their sleep", then it's not clear at all why the poem suddenly starts to talk about having children. However, if sleep is the gift, then the continuation to 127:3 works by means of a structural equation: "sleep : work :: having children : the future". Sleep is a gift (that we cannot control) that provides the rest necessary to continue work. Likewise, children are a gift (that we cannot control) that provides what's necessary to face the future.

In preparation for writing this question, I looked up the King James version. Except for the present tense of "to give" rather than perfect as in the Vulgata, the translation is as in latin, that is, "sleep" is the gift not the mode of giving:

It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.

Does this correspond to the Hebrew? Or is the King James bible based on the vulgata? What's the tense of "giving" in the original?

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OP asks:

What is the syntacti[c]al function of the word translated as "sleep"? Is sleep the time (or metaphorically the mode) of giving, or is it the gift itself?

I think this is an excellent question. Unfortunately (as expected given the variety of translations), I think there is ambiguity in the original which will preclude drawing a certain conclusion, but I can at least explain the problem. The text:

שָׁ֤וְא לָכֶ֨ם
It is vain for you
מַשְׁכִּ֪ימֵי ק֡וּם
to rise early
מְאַֽחֲרֵי־שֶׁ֗בֶת
to sit up late
אֹ֭כְלֵי לֶ֣חֶם הָעֲצָבִ֑ים
eating of the bread of sorrows
כֵּ֤ן יִתֵּ֖ן לִֽידִיד֣וֹ שֵׁנָֽא
for he gives (/will give) to his beloved sleep.

The problem with this literal translation is that in English, the word "sleep" unambiguously the object of the verb נתן = to give. In Hebrew, like in English, objects often follow verbs, and an English direct object may be the most straightforward translation. However, there is another possibility in the Hebrew that is not represented by this English.

The ambiguity arises due to the existence of the "adverbial accusative" in Hebrew. That is, a noun in the accusative (i.e. object) position can function as an adverb.1 Walke & O'Connor2 tell us that such constructions

detail features of the verbal action (and the like), including time, place, condition, manner, and specification.

"Sleep" then could mean "as they sleep" or "during sleep" or some such thing. So the (OP's English translation of the) German rendering

because he gives to his (chosen) in their sleep

is also plausible from the Hebrew.

Incidentally, another answer pointed out that the word "ὕπνον" ("sleep") is in the accusative in the Greek text. While this is true, Greek also does know of an adverbial accusative, more prevalent in older forms of Greek compared to Koine, but not infrequent in Septuagint Koine, as one might expect from the source language.3 The Greek Psalms also follow the Hebrew syntax rather slavishly, so I'm not sure how much we can draw from the Greek accusative.4

The OP also asked about the tense of "giving" in Hebrew -- this is "imperfective". Hebrew is largely an aspectual rather than a tense-based language, a topic which I am not competent to expound on further, but the basic idea is "incompleteness", whether past, present, or future; most often it is translated as present or future.

Notes

1. Such phrases generally seem to me (a native English speaker) to be missing a preposition. When there's no apparent alternative, my brain just fills these in. When there is a sensible alternative, as here, my brain favors the option that has all the needed words in place. But of course, my sense of what is "needed" is biased by English.

2. Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 169ff.

3. See, e.g., Conybeare's discussion of Gen 41:21 τὴν ἀρχήν, meaning "at the beginning".

4. See Pietersma, "To the reader", NETS Psalms: "the linguistic relationship of the Greek text to the Hebrew text is one of dependence and subservience."

  • Thank you! FWIW, I think it's safe to say that the translator of the Septuaginta understood sleep as the object of giving, i.e. the gift. I'm not familiar with Koine, but in classic Attic, an adverbial accussative would rather translate to something like "in respect to ..." , "considering ...", which isn't very plausible here. More importantly, after δίδωμι a reader would expect an accusative object; if the object is implicit, an author usually wouldn't introduce an such an obvious ambiguity, unless the ambiguity itself is intended. – Oliver Scholz Mar 3 '17 at 11:58
  • Being completly ignorant of Hebrew, I have no idea whether this reasoning pertains to the original. But based on my argument pertaining to the architecture of the poem that 127:2 serves as the axis between 127:1 and the rest, I'm going to go with sleep being the gift. -- Unless scholarly commentaries argue otherwise? -- I'm going to assume that Luther and the German translators after him regarded the sense of sleep being the gift as dark for some reason. – Oliver Scholz Mar 3 '17 at 12:06
  • Good point about δίδωμι, and I'm sure one could make a case that if the Greek stood on its own, it would necessarily be the object. (There are a couple accusatives like περισσὸν, δωρεὰν, etc. that are used in NT Greek essentially as adverbs "of manner", but it's rare.) In reality the Greek Psalms do all sorts of things that reflect Hebrew syntax more than Greek, though, and the Hebrew adverbial accusative is much more broadly used (see note 2 + link; cf. note 3 on LXX Greek). – Susan Mar 3 '17 at 14:51
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    As for the commentaries, they vary widely about whether the word even means "sleep" (it's essentially spelled as-if Aramaic -- the last letter should be ה in Hebrew), but those that take it as "sleep" go both ways on your question. For a succinct support of the adv. acc. view, see the NET translation + note 7. For this view in its grammatical context, see GKC §118i. For an (older) summary of various scholarly positions on this, see Emerton. – Susan Mar 3 '17 at 14:51
  • In order to support this hypothesis you need to cite other verses that use "adverbial accusative" and show how this verse is similar, or cite a specific commentary on this verse. I think that there is in fact no linguistic support. The MT is straightforward - "He will surely give his friends sleep" as the KJV translates. There is nothing in the MT that would indicate "in their sleep" or "while they sleep". The differences in translation apparently stem from other considerations. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Mar 5 '17 at 7:51
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The King James Version translates from the medieval Masoretic Hebrew Text, wherein the phrase is rendered For so he giveth his beloved sleep.

The Oxford Jewish Study Bible translates the phrase as He provides as much for His loved ones while they sleep, but a footnote implies that the Masoretic Text may be corrupt ("Meaning of Heb. uncertain").

The Greek Septuagint translation of this passage is:

It is vain for you to rise early: ye rise up after resting, ye that eat the bread of grief; while he gives sleep to his beloved [ὅταν δῷ τοῖς ἀγαπητοῖς αὐτοῦ ὕπνον].

The syntax of the Greek translation indicates that "sleep" is the direct object of "give" and that "his beloved" (ἀγαπητός - agaptos) is the indirect object (those who receive).

If the Masoretic Text is unclear, as the JPS editors seem to imply, then the Septuagint is probably the more reliable representation of what the original Hebrew said. If I am not mistaken, the Vulgate takes the Septuagint and not the Hebrew as the basis for the Psalms. In any case, it seems to agree with what is written in the Septuagint.

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    "Meaning of Heb. uncertain" is not the same as "corrupt". The JPS editor does not imply that the MT is corrupt in this instance. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Mar 2 '17 at 12:20
  • Agree with above, although notably the BHS editor does offer שֵׁ(י)נָה for שנא, which is basically an alternative (more normative) spelling that is apparently present in some manuscripts. – Susan Mar 2 '17 at 12:29
  • Changed "corrupt" to "ambiguous" – user33515 Mar 2 '17 at 13:46
  • Thank you! Thank you In particular for bringing the Septuagint into this discussion. – Oliver Scholz Mar 3 '17 at 12:07
  • The MT is not ambiguous in this verse, it is unclear, at least to us, because of it's brevity and unusual spelling. Ambiguity implies several possible possible meanings. The third clause of the verse, in which the unclarity appears, is counterpoint to the first two clauses of the verse, which are both clear and unambiguous. So it is unlikely that the MT text, or that from which the MT text was derived is ambiguous. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Mar 3 '17 at 12:23
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The correct translation should be: [in] sleep. As it relates to the words of Our Lord in Mark 4:26-27, "26.And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; 27.And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how."

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange wpj, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. You've presented an un-named English translation of a Greek text of another passage referring to the Hebrew source Oliver's asking about. Therefore you've not given an actual answer to Oliver's question, as you've avoided engaging with the "original Hebrew" term he is referring to. – Steve Taylor Sep 11 '17 at 12:22

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