Selah Once Again

October 27, 2011

Jim Hamilton has taken issue with my commendation of the NIV-11 in regard to Selah (see my previous post). Since he devoted quite a bit more space to his response than my original post (which wasn’t intended to be controversial–naive me!), I’ve responded on his blog at greater length. Since my readers are not necessarily his readers, I’ll also post it here.

Sorry to be slow in responding, Jim, but I do want to chat a bit about your post. I certainly agree with your concern that Scripture be translated and presented accurately. How that is best done is, of course, the rub. So let me comment on some of your proposals, roughly in the order of your post. Had I the time, an independent essay would argue my position more adequately, but I’ll have to settle for responding to some of your specifics. So there’s no misunderstanding, let me point out up front that I have no connection to the CBT which is responsible for the NIV. I have published a review article on the ESV and my review of the NIV11 is forthcoming in the next (Nov) issue of Themelios. Links and/or early drafts of both are on my website.

You refer to the “canonical form of the Psalter,” but you never identify just what that is. It is apparently not the text as given in BHS since you distinguish this canonical form from Masoretic additions. So just how much of BHS is canonical? If we delete all the Masoretic materials we’re left with an unpointed text, but one which is still likely not identical with the original text—one written in paleo-Hebrew. Unfortunately we don’t have access to such texts. Yes, I know, that’s the whole issue of OT textual criticism, and it’s beyond the scope of this discussion. (The issue of ketiv/qere might be relevant as well, and maybe even some of the oldest notations such as petuha which might be pre-Masoretic, but that’s getting too technical for our purposes here.) And also outside the scope of my expertise. But I do note that you’ve assumed some major matters in appealing to such. It’s not so simple—as you well know.

As to Selah, I will stand by my statement that it’s “a bit mysterious,” but that need not be contradictory to the conclusion that it’s a musical term, likely a rest, since we don’t know exactly how a rest of that sort functioned in the text or the community of OT singers. Yes, HALOT lists 4 possibilities (including “rest”), but all of them are musical terms that relate to how the psalm is to be sung, not to the meaning of the psalm itself. To press beyond that and insist that it is a semantic structural marker cannot be based, IMHO, on the word itself. Nor is usage determinative since, as you note, it appears in some “odd” places that don’t make good sense in terms of structure.

You suggest that I “pillory” other translations that keep it. I said nothing of the sort. I said nothing regarding any other translations. My comment related to the oral reading of the Psalms that include Selah, suggesting that as a musical term (which I take to be a rest, but any of the other 3 suggestions in HALOT would result in the same conclusion) giving instructions as to how the psalm was to have been sung in the original setting should not be read orally. It would not have been read in Hebrew—it would have been “obeyed”; i.e., the readers/singers would have followed the instructions to rest at that point (or to use a stringed instrument, or change the pitch, etc.). At that point I think the analogy from the Hallelujah Chorus is spot on. Now if someone wants to mount an argument against viewing Selah as some sort of musical term, have at it, but I think I’m assuming the normal view at this point.

Then you say that the NIV has “removed” Selah from the text. But that isn’t the case at all. Every instance is clearly marked, both in the Psalter and in Hab 3. It is not presented in the notes as a textual variant, suggesting that it isn’t original. I don’t have any access to the mind of the CBT as to why they’ve done this. Perhaps they’ve discussed it somewhere. My assumption, however, is that they have acted consistently with the normal view that it is a musical notation—one that was relevant when originally sung, but which serves no equivalent function in English translation. Rather than simply delete it, however, they have been careful to maintain it since it is part of the text. They certainly do not “remove it from consideration.” By putting it in the note they encourage what I would consider a proper practice: not reading ancient musical notation when reading the Psalter! You obviously disagree, but let’s not make accusations about tampering with the text when that’s not the case at all.

Some may object that we have no right to move things like this. Your comments under “cultural” say as much. But I think you’ve mixed two different things in that paragraph. Should modern culture determine how the Bible is understood? Absolutely not. And I’d be quite confident that the entire CBT would agree. But then you reframe the question as how translations are “presented.” That’s a very different subject. All English translations, without exception, present the biblical text in a very different form from the original—a form that is unavoidably determined by the modern culture. Not only have we translated it into a modern language (a very cultural matter!), we printed it on a printing press (or digitized it…) using modern typography. We’ve added all sorts of typographical niceties which were not part of the original text—all of which are hermeneutical in one way or another. All English Bibles have chapter and paragraph divisions; most have verse divisions, most are printed in 2-column format, and most have notes of various sorts (various sorts of footnotes and some such as HCSB have bullet notes in an appendix). Some texts are indented, some are italicized, HCSB even boxes some text. All of those are cultural conventions and all of them affect the presentation and understanding of the text. If it’s legitimate to use these various devices to arrange and format the text, then formatting a musical notation as a note is similar formatting. In modern printed music we print the musical notation separately from the words. If Selah is treated in a similar fashion, then the inspired notation is still retained, only formatted differently. To single out one such feature and on that basis question whether the NIV “faithfully presents the text of Psalms as it has come down to us” seems very inconsistent since all translations make such additions/changes. Would it be fair to accuse the ESV or HCSB of not faithfully presenting the text as it has come down to us since they both use very different typography from the canonical form of the text? Of course not.

As to the “foreignness” of the text, I agree that there should be a distanciation between the modern reader and the ancient text. But that should be one of history and cultural “situatedness,” not one of language or communication. The original text was not obscure to its original readers in terms of the language used or of the conventions of textual presentation. That does not mean that it was simple to understand, but such difficulty is a conceptual one, not a linguistic or typographical one. Peter acknowledges that Paul wrote some difficult material, but Peter could easily read every word Paul wrote. The difficulty was grasping the meaning of Paul’s relatively simple prose. Paul reminds the Corinthians that he had written them nothing that they could not read and understand, but they had not done so well at understanding the significance of those words else the apostle would not have need to write another letter! My point is that yes, we will have to grapple with the text of Scripture—we’re trying to understand things that are far greater than ourselves—but we ought not have unnecessary stumbling blocks in accessing the text. Some people might not find Selah printed in the body of a psalm objectionable, but we don’t translate for people with a PhD in biblical studies. We translate for all of God’s people—and some who are not yet his people. I think in that context the decision of the CBT regarding Selah is defensible. I’d be curious to know their explanation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ran along similar lines as I’ve laid out here.

At the least let’s agree to leave the satirical comments aside. We do not need to imply that the NIV has made culture determinative of the meaning of Scripture. And let’s tone down the rhetoric a bit. Making extreme statements and implying that such minor details denies inerrancy, or results in the NIV no longer being the Word of God, etc. is really unhelpful. There are far more important matters to deal with and far more that we agree on. Selah. 😉

4 responses to Selah Once Again

  1. Thanks for this Rod,

    On the Hebrew text we have, I’m convinced by Peter Gentry and others that the MT reliably preserves the text, and I think we ought to attribute inspiration of the Spirit and inerrancy to the final canonical form of the OT, which in my view was most likely stabilized in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. As you note, there are many issues here that are beyond the scope of this interaction.

    Forgive me for saying that you pillory “translations.” I honestly didn’t meant to refer to translations but to those who would read Selah aloud or factor it into their interpretation. My bad. I apologize. I’ve adjusted this line of the post in a way that I hope is satisfactory.

    As for the meaning of Selah, BDB indicates that it’s an imperative form of a verb that means “exalt” or “lift up.” This might be taken musically, but it would seem that it could just as well be a verbal indication for someone to lift up their thoughts and reflect on what has just been said. I think this is what’s behind the “think of that” interpretations you’ve heard.

    Again, I think the conclusion that this is an irrelevant musical notation is being assumed when it is removed from the text to the footnotes. This also applies to the comments you make about modern printing and typography. None of the matters you mention are analogous because none of them involve the removal of a word from the text to the footnotes. Your case only works if what we are dealing with is beyond dispute a musical notation that serves no other purpose–and I’m suggesting that at least in some instances it seems also to serve as a structuring device, while in the Habakkuk 3 instance it helps us identify the genre of the text.

    I maintain that on this point the NIV 2011 does not faithfully present the text of Psalms as we have received it.

    I am very sympathetic with Robert Alter’s arguments that translations ought to bring over something of the thought patterns used in other languages. Readers of the Bible will intuitively learn to follow these ways of thinking, and the Bible will be a shaping influence on the target language, as it as been historically.

    I wonder if your suggestion that “The original text was not obscure to its original readers in terms of the language used” will stand when held up to the Hebrew of Job or Isaiah. And then there are the issues with John’s Greek in Revelation, and on this I would agree that John has adopted a style that evokes the Old Testament (against the idea that his grammar is simply poor).

    Neither the Greek translators of the OT nor the translators of the KJV were focused on rendering the text for those with PhD’s in biblical studies, and they had no qualms about keeping Selah in the text (diapsalma in Greek). Lots and lots of people with very little education have done pretty well on the KJV over the years.

    I’m not convinced that cultural determination isn’t influencing the NIV. In some prefaces to NIV’s I think you’ll find explicit statements that certain aspects of ancient Hebrew culture needs to be muted (I think the NIVI was explicit about this). Maybe they’ve toned down what they come right out and say, but it seems to me that they are still speaking and acting as though what is acceptable in our culture is exercising a controlling influence rather than attempting to present a translation that communicates the contours of the culture in which the biblical authors operated.

    There is a lot on which we agree.

    I don’t think it’s extreme to conclude that a translation that removes a word from the text to the footnotes has failed to present the text faithfully.

    I think the CBT should reverse itself and put Selah back where it belongs. If they won’t, it would seem to me that a discussion about Article 10 of the Chicago Statement is warranted.



  2. Thanks both Rod and Jim for the interaction. I can see positives from both sides of this discussion. On the one hand I appreciate Rod’s desire not to put a word in the text to be read that was very likely not intended to be read (whether a musical notation or an indicator to give thought to something or something else). On the other hand I would agree that the Selahs are inspired Scripture, and so moving them wholescale to the footnotes in my mind possibly communicates (probably unintentionally) that they are not inspired. [Another side note is chapter headings that translators put in translations (not the inspired Psalm titles). IMHO this often confuses readers who think that these are inspired when in fact they are not] So, my tentative suggestion would be to replace the Selahs with a special symbol, maybe an ornate S or something and also put a footnote on it with something to the effect of, “Heb: Selah, probably a musical notation.” This symbol wouldn’t be in danger of being read, and yet by being included in the text body itself should communicate that they are inspired. Anyway, just a thought! Thanks for the interaction.

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