Continued from Chapter 37a

“Like a lion”

Although the psalm gives no indication that it is describing this mode of death, Psalm 22 has become, for Christianity, a major source for defining the agony of the crucifixion process.1

In particular, verse 17b [16b in some versions] as found in most Christian Bible translations, is most frequently cited as a prooftext. This despite the fact that there never is any direct citation of this verse in the New Testament. Christians render verse 17b as “they pierced my hands and my feet.” But, who says this is the meaning of the psalmist’s words? The Christian rendering is neither in any Hebrew manuscript nor is it to be found in the Septuagint as it is often alleged.

The controversy surrounding verse 17b begins with the question: Is the disputed word read as in the Masoretic text, ka-’ari (“as a lion”), with the Hebrew letters kaph/’aleph/resh/ yod or is to be read as in the Greek Septuagint as if presumably derived from the verb, karah, “to dig,” with the Hebrew letters kaph/resh/heh, but omitting the ’aleph (and translated as “pierced” in Christian Bibles)? Hebrew manuscript support for rendering the word in question as derived from the Hebrew verb root kaph/resh/heh is thought by some scholars to be found in a manuscript fragment of Psalm 22 from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QPsf).2 This fragment does not contain an ’aleph but contains the reading kr with the remaining letter or letters missing and which some scholars reconstruct by adding a vav. It is the oldest known, but not the best Hebrew manuscript of Psalm 22.3

1 The graphic language of suffering found in Psalm 22 has been used to describe the suffering of Israel as expressed by messianic suffering and in a more universalistic sense exemplifying the distress of the righteous individual generally. The interpretation of select verses from Psalm 22 alluding to the sufferings of the Messiah are found in Pesikta Rabbati, Piska (“section”) 36.2 (verse 16) and Piska 37.1 (verses 8, 14-15, 16). Dated by some scholars to the second or third century and by others to the sixth or seventh century, they are the only instance in rabbinic literature of such an interpretation of the psalm. The following interpretations are given: “It was because of the ordeal of the son of David that David wept, saying My strength is dried up like a potsherd (Psalms 22:16)” (Piska 36.2); “Why does the verse speak twice of mercy: In mercy I will have mercy upon him [“Ephraim, our true Messiah”]? One mercy refers to the time when he will be shut up in prison, a time when the nations of the earth will gnash their teeth at him every day, wink their eyes at one another in derision of him, nod their heads at him in contempt, open wide their lips to guffaw, as it is said All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head (Psalms 22:8); My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaves to my throat; and you lay me in the dust of death (Psalms 22:16). Moreover, they will roar over him like lions, as is said They open wide their mouth against me, as a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is become like wax; it is melted in my inmost parts (Psalms 22:14-15)” (Piska 37.1). The goal of the homiletic interpretation of biblical verses is to reveal a deeper meaning and a wider application of the words and spirit of the Jewish Scriptures. For example, Psalm 22 is about David and his tribulations. David faced many difficulties including a revolt led by one of his own sons. Reading the psalms one is struck by David’s expressions of emotion concerning these difficulties and his unwavering faith that God would always stand by him. Although the psalm addresses David’s hardships, the midrash finds a hint to Esther in the words of this psalm. To understand what relationship the midrash is pointing out, we must look at the psalm itself. In this psalm, David covers three subject areas: (1) That enemies surrounded him (for example, in verse 8, 13, and 14). (2) His depression in feeling abandoned (verses 2, 3). (3) His strong faith and calls to praise God (verses 5-6, 24-27). The midrash sees reflected here the same emotions that Esther must have felt when faced with the destruction of her people. Although she was queen, she felt surrounded by those who would kill her. She is fearful and depressed as she stands in the hall waiting to see if the king will extend his staff and accept her (and not kill her). By attributing these emotions to Esther, the midrash is showing that the psalm has a universal aspect that applies to many people in many situations. We see similarities between the life situation of a biblical character and another person. The verses that refer to this biblical personage can be applied metaphorically to the other person who is in the same situation. We see this with Esther, who was in a similar position to that of David in Psalm 22. Thus, verses are applied to other people because of the similarities of their situation but always as metaphor. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes: “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi quoted a verse from Psalm 22, the famous prayer of an individual in distress, forsaken and abandoned: ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” This psalm reflects the cry of total despair, the shriek of a frightened, lonely child who has suddenly discovered that his or her mother is gone. According to our tradition, Esther recited this psalm on her way to the inner court of Ahasuerus. In a word, it is the psalm of a person who has lost almost all hope and, out of the depths of despair, petitions the Almighty. From this psalm, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi inferred that one must read the Megillah at night as well as in the daytime, for the prayer of the lonely, forsaken person is without pause or stop. He cannot help himself but pray. In other words, the reading of the Megillah was equated by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi with the offering of a prayer to the Almighty from the straits of distress, addressing a petition to Him from the depths of agony and misery.” (Joseph Soloveitchik, Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah, edited by Eli D. Clark, Joel Wolowelsky, Reuven Ziegler, Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2007, p. 2).

2 4QPsf is written in a late Hasmonean semicursive script dating to about 50 B.C.E. This is the only Dead Sea Scroll that preserves text from Psalm 22 (verses 4-9, 14-21).

3 4QPsf is on plates 13 and 14 as published in E. Ulrich (ed.), Discoveries in the Judaean Desert: Psalms to Chronicles, Vol. 16, Oxford: Clarendon, 2000, pp. 85- Verse 17 is on line 25. The kaf is flaked at the top and the last letter or letters is missing.

© Gerald Sigal