Monday, September 05, 2016

Alphabetic biblical compositions

Preachers call them acrostics. So do Bible dictionaries.[i] They might be better described as abecedarian or alphabetic compositions. Most dictionaries define “acrostic” as “a series of lines or verses in which the first, last, or other particular letters when taken in order spell out a word, phrase, etc.” On the other hand, “abecedarian” means “arranged in alphabetical order” and “alphabetic” means “in the order of the letters of the alphabet.” (See These are better terminologies for these biblical poems that use a dramatic device related to the alphabet (rather than spelling words or phrases).

There are apparently a total of 15 alphabetic compositions in the Old Testament.
[ii] Five are complete in conventional alphabetical order – Psalms 111, 112, 119; Proverbs 31:10–31; and Lamentations 1. Lamentations 2, 3, and 4 are complete, but with two letters transposed. Seven show partial alphabetic construction (Psalm 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 145 and Nahum 1:2-8). I find this device and subject intriguing; I have tried to find out where they exist, according to those who know the Hebrew language. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, given thusly in Psalm 119 in the King James Bible: aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, he, vau, zain, cheth, teth, jod, caph, lamed, mem, nun, samech, ain, pe, tzaddi, koph, resh, schin, tau.[iii]

There are a total nine songs in the Book of Psalms that show alphabetic composition. Psalms 111, 112, and 119 have the complete series of the Hebrew alphabetic, from א‎ (aleph) through ת (tau)‎.
[iv] The King James Bible gives these alphabetic headings in Psalm 119 (see list above), which appear in clusters of eight verses. The Voice Bible gives an example of how this device might appear to an English reader in Psalm 25 (and also in Lamentations 1Lamentations 2Lamentations 3 and Lamentations 4).[v]

All the other alphabetical psalms are missing some letters. Psalms 9 and 10 are missing seven of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
[vi] Psalm 25 is missing two letters ו‎ (vau) and ק‎ (koph) and uses ר (resh) twice. Psalm 34 is missing ו‎ (vau). An extra (out of order) verse beginning with פ‎ (pe) is added to the end of Psalms 25 and 34. Psalm 37 is missing the letter ע (ain)‎. Psalm 145 is missing the letter נ‎ (nun). Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, and 37 are all missing certain letters of the alphabet.

Both Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations chapter 1 use the entire Hebrew alphabet in order. Other the other hand, Lamentations 2 and 4 reverse (or transpose) the order of ע (ain) and פ (pe). Lamentations chapter 3 has 66 verses – 3 verses for each letter of the alphabet and the ain and pe are reversed as in chapters 2 and 4. (Interestingly, Lamentations 5 also has 22 verses, but no alphabetic arrangement.)

Thomas Renz says “The poetic features of Nahum 1 have long been a bone of contention.” In the mid-1800s, Pastor Gottlieb Frohnmeyer posited that Nahum used the order of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet from ב (beth) to ט (teth) in Nahum 1. Perhaps this had been noticed but little mentioned before, but Franz Delitzsch gave impetus to the idea in his commentary on the Psalms.
[vii] This observation was taken up, studied, refined, etc., and it seems to that it is now generally agreed upon. S. J. de Vries writes, “Two things ought no longer be disputed: (1) Nahum 1 does indeed begin with an acrostic hymn...(2) this hymn reproduces only half the alphabet, ending with the letter ב, and it does this quite freely, without rigid conformance to the usual acrostic pattern.”[viii] Nevertheless, it is far from a settled issue that scholars agree that Nahum 1:2-8 is deliberately alphabetic. Renz calls Nahum 1:2-8 “a perfectly broken acrostic” – indicating a spiritual intent to not be fully alphabetic.

  • The biblical alphabetic compositions are restricted to the writings known to the Jews as the Hagiographa (Psalm 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Proverbs 31:10–31; Lamentations 1–4), with the exception of the passage in the Prophets (Nahum 1).[ix] This suggests something of a poetic device that was sparsely used through the whole Bible. (Makes me wonder about the constant alliteration in some folks’ sermons!) Their scarcity makes their existence all the more notable.
  • The purpose of the alphabetic compositions has been interpreted or explained in various ways – for example, poetic or artistic expression or a memory device. Since we believe in “God-breathed” scriptures, then we accept them as intentional and purposeful, even if we do not currently or fully comprehend the purpose.
  • A number of commentators consider the incomplete alphabetic compositions to be errors that entered in the transmission process – that is, they were completely or perfectly alphabetic in origin but got messed up as they were passed down. On the other hand Benun, for example, asserts “that these disruptions are an original feature of these psalms and are placed purposefully as part of a sophisticated literary structure.” I don’t agree with all the ideas held by Benun, but I agree that these “disruptions” in the alphabetic structure were part of the original feature of the sacred writings. This agrees with the spiritual concept of inspiration and preservation of God’s word, as well as the human concept of careful workmanship of biblical copyists. Again, Benun asserts “…we find it very unlikely that such glaring mistakes, which disrupt the simple alphabetic pattern for most of the acrostics, could possibly have slipped by the careful Biblical scribes.”
  • Translations like The Voice can illustrate what the alphabetic concept would have looked like to the Hebrew reader, but they struggle to translate accurately while keeping the alphabetic structure. Therefore, more literal translations have not tried to bring the device over into the receptor language. While accepting that the alphabetic device was inspired and useful in the original language, we can also understand that Bible students who read only in their native language can fully receive God’s word for them without seeing the alphabetic structure.
Accept at your own risk (in other words, check out what I say). I make no claim to Hebrew scholarship, and am depending on those I perceive to have it. The old Philadelphia Baptist preacher Morgan Edwards wrote, “The Greek and Hebrew are the two eyes of a minister.” If so, I see through a glass darkly in one eye and am blind in the other.

  • “Acrostics occur in Psalms 111 and 112, where each letter begins a line; in Psalms 25, 34, and 145, where each letter begins a half-verse; in Psalm 37, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Lamentations 1, 2, and 4, where each letter begins a whole verse; and in Lamentations 3, where each letter begins three verses. Psalm 119 is the most elaborate demonstration of the acrostic method where, in each section of eight verses, the same opening letter is used, and the twenty-two sections of the psalm move through the Hebrew alphabet, letter after letter.” – J. A. Motyer, “Acrostic,” in The New International Dictionary of the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987, p. 12.
  • “These anomalies have been the subject of much discussion among commentators, both ancient and modern, usually focusing on the question of the reliability of the text. Most scholars believe that these acrostics were once complete and that in their pristine form they contained the entire alphabetic sequence, but have since been badly damaged in the course of transmission. However, we find it very unlikely that such glaring mistakes, which disrupt the simple alphabetic pattern for most of the acrostics, could possibly have slipped by the careful Biblical scribes. This paper will attempt to show that the missing letters are in fact purposefully omitted, that their omission lies at the core of the psalms’ meanings and that no emendations are necessary.” – Ronald Benun in Evil and the Disruption of Order: a Structural Analysis of the Acrostics in the First Book of Psalms
  • “I have argued that the acrostic features in Nahum 1 are there by design, that the alphabetic sequence only covers half the alphabet, that the irregularities are not as haphazard as they seem at first, and that the poem is bigger than the acrostic.” – Thomas Renz in A Perfectly Broken Acrostic in Nahum 1?
See also

[i]  E.g.: “…a literary device by which sets of letters (such as the first letter of a line) are taken in order to form a word, phrase, or a regular sequence of letters of the alphabet.” – “Acrostic,” in Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary: New and Enhanced Edition, Ronald F. Youngblood, ‎Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999, p. 15. But, note also, “In Byzantine hymn-poetry the term acrostichiswith which our word ‘acrostic’ is connected was also used of alphabetical poems, that is poems the lines or groups of lines in which have their initials arranged in the order of the alphabet.” – “Acrostic,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, Harrington, DE: Delmarva Publications, 2014
[ii] Some count Psalm 9 and 10 as one song in the Hebrew and therefore give the number as 14.
[iii] Modern transcriptions of the alphabet often vary from this spelling. (See Judaism 101, for example.)
[iv] Compared to “A” to “Z” in English, or Alpha to Omega in Greek.
[v]  This is not an endorsement of The Voice, but given as an illustration that one can see rather than just read.
[vi] “The initials of 9:1,3,5 are respectively 'aleph, beth, gimel; of 9:9,11,13,15,17 waw, zayin, cheth, Teth and yodh. Psalms 10:1 begins with lamedh and 10:12,14,15,17 with qoph, resh, shin and taw. Four lines seem to have been allotted to each letter in the original form of the poem.” – International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
[vii]  A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Franz Delitzsch, New York, NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1883, p. 205 (originally published in German in 1867)
[viii]  S. J. de Vries, “The Acrostic of Nahum in the Jerusalem Liturgy,” VT 16 (1966), 476–81. “It is now generally agreed by the vast majority of commentators that the acrostic covers only half the alphabet, from aleph to kaph, and that it encompasses only 1:2-8.” – “The Chimerical Acrostic of Nahum 1:2-10,” Michael H. Floyd, in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 113, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 421-437
[ix]  Cf. Luke 24:44 for the divisions of the Old Testament: “And he said unto them, These are my words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me.”

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