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A person describing being on a hill during a major earthquake told me he could see the surface of the earth moving like ocean waves. This seems to fit the description in Psalm 114.

When Israel went forth from Egypt,... mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep. (Psalm 114:1,4, JPS1985)

The description in Exodus is:

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (Exodus 19:18, JPS1985)

Undoubtably the language in Psalm 114:4 is poetic, but what is it expressing? It isn't expressing joy.

     Tremble, O earth, 
        at the presence of the LORD, 
        at the presence of the God of Jacob, 
     who turned the rock into a pool of water, 
     the flinty rock into a fountain. 
     (Psalm 114:7–8, JPS1985)

Psalm 114 apparently expresses more than the parting of the sea. It even mentions the Jordan in v3. Basically Psalm 114 can point to evens from the parting of the sea leaving Egypt until Israel crossed the Jordan river. Water from the rocks also occurred at that time. Thus, reference to mountains would seem to point to Sinai.

Appendix חוּל/חיל

חוּל S2342, 2343 TWOT623, 624 GK2565, 2566 [חִיל S2342, 2427 TWOT623, 623b GK2655, 2656, 2659] vb. whirl, dance, writhe (NH, Aramaic id., dance; Arabic حَاَل (ḥaʾal) change, turn; Assyrian ḫîlu, writhe in fear Dl 191 (on ḫ = ح (ḥ) v. DHM i. 357); on form of Heb. vb. v. Nö, 1883, 536) -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). In Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 296). Clarendon Press.

Figure 1. Senses of חיל/חוּל as used in the Tanakh (generated by Logos Bible Software)

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I חיל and → חול: MHb. except אחילו shivering fit only חיל to be in labour 1QH 3, 8; Ug. ḫl, Ph. DISO 87, Akk. ḫiʾālu Arm. lw. vSoden Orient. 35:11, → Scharbert 21ff. -- Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). In The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 310). E.J. Brill.

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  • @Abu -- doesn't this verse reference two events: The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward, (v3, JPS1985) And this another: who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flinty rock into a fountain. (v8, JPS1985).
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Dec 18, 2022 at 12:48
  • 1
    It is not at all clear that the root of חולי is ח-י-ל rather than ח-ו-ל. Because of the use of מלפני and the prior references to ריקוד there is a very strong argument to say that the root is ח-ו-ל and that חולי is used as a synonym in OT parallelistic style to the previous use of רוקדים. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 6:32
  • @Abu It is interesting that BDB does not make a distinction. However, my BDB is the 1977 edition.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 10:17

2 Answers 2

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The suggestion that Psalm 114 refers to an earthquake rests on shaky ground.

Despite the nearly universal English translation choice of "tremble" for חולי in verse 7, this translation choice is far from solid.

Hebrew has two similar nouns from the root ח-ו-ל/ח-י-ל, namely:

  1. מחול - dance, related to
  2. חיל - trembling or convulsion, possibly related to חלי, sickness

In addition, the root ח-ו-ל has the noun form מחולל, meaning to bring into being, to create, to generate.

The RASHI commentary states that in verse 7, חולי is a noun form from מחולל, "creator", and the verse should be read as a noun phrase rather than as a verb phrase, "Before the Lord Creator of the Land, before the Divine of Jacob".

The ibn Ezra commentary states that חולי is an imperative kal verb form from ח-י-ל/ח-ו-ל meaning "dance!", similar to "sing!", רני in Isaiah 54:1, so the meaning is "Dance before the lord, earth, before the Divine of Jacob".

Reading חולי as "Dance!" solves the problem of what מלפני, "in front of" or "before" is doing in this verse, since this isn't used together with חיל, trembling, but is used with ריקוד and מחול, and other synonyms for dancing as in 2 Samuel 6:16.

The Aramaic Targum Onkelos uses the אִתְחַלְחַלִי, "tremble" (but not "shake"), as in the common English translations.

Having read this Psalm in Hebrew on new moons for most of my life before only recently seeing an English translation, it never occurred to me that חולי meant anything other than "dance!". It was only after attempting to answer the OP post, seeing the English translations and reviewing the commentary history did I realize that there are in fact three different interpretations of the simple meaning of verse 7, although IMHO the intent is as the ibn Ezra says, "Dance before the Lord".

Furthermore, the usual word for earthquake in the OT is רעש, as in:

  1. Judges 5:4 (NIV): When you, LORD, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water.
  2. II Samuel 22:8 (NIV): The earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook; they trembled because he was angry
  3. I Kings 19:11 (NIV): The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
  4. Jeremiah 4:24 (NIV): I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying.

These events are awesome, vengeful events, not in keeping with the tone of Psalm 114 which is joyful and celebratory.

So, in the end, there really is an interpretation and translation problem in verse 7, and the word in question is not the usual word for earthquake, and the tone of the Psalm is joyful, not vengeful. To go from this to suggesting an allusion to an earthquake is a stretch.

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  • +1 I appreciate your contribution to understanding Psalm 114.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 0:58
  • I noticed a modern Hebrew song using רָעַד for tremble, which is also a word in the Tanakh. Interesting because that seems to be a Aramaic shift.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 1:26
  • أبو תודה רבה, תשובה טובה @
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 22:08
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Yes. But, the Psalm is focusing on the miracles God performed in bringing the people out of Egypt.

Excerpt from Clarke's Commentary at Psa. 114:

"David in this Psalm chants forth the wonderful works and miracles that God wrought, when he brought forth Israel out of Egypt.

This Psalm has two parts: -

I. A narration of Israel's deliverance, amplified by the state they were in, Psalms 114:1; the state to which they were brought, Psalms 114:2; the miracles then done, Psalms 114:3; and the law given, Psalms 114:4.

II. A prosopopoeia set down by way of dialogue: 1. The prophet asks the sea and Jordan why they fled, Psalms 114:5-6. 2. To which the answer is, that "the earth trembled," c., Psalms 114:7-8." (Source: Clarke's

The Psalm remembers and reminds them of their condition as strangers in a foreign land, and the wonders God showed them in making the Israelite tribes a people for Him. Those miracles, while startling and probably scary, were for building their faith in Him.

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