Sicut cervum

An article of mine has just been advance-published in the journal Vetus Testamentum. You can read it for yourself here, but here is a summary of what I argued.

Everyone knows the beginning of Psalm 42:

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.

Palestrina wrote a very famous setting of it:

And Hertford college, Oxford, has it as its motto. (Hertford is pronounced hart-ford: hence a deer.)

Unfortunately, no one really knows what the verse means. “As a deer panteth” does not rest on anything certain. In Hebrew we read:

כְּאַיָּל תַּעֲרֹג עַל־אֲפִיקֵי־מָיִם כֵּן נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרֹג אֵלֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים׃

The difficulty is the word תַּעֲרֹג, which poses two problems. First, its basic meaning is unknown. The early Greek translations all rendered it as something like “longs”, and the medieval Rabbis thought it meant “cries”. Both of these are contextual guesses, and do not have any philological support.

The second problem is that it does not seem to fit grammatically with its subject. אַיָּל, ‘deer’, is masculine: and yet תַּעֲרֹג is a feminine form.

The word appears one other time in the Bible, at Joel 1.20:

גַּם־בַּהֲמוֹת שָׂדֶה תַּעֲרוֹג אֵלֶיךָ כִּי יָבְשׁוּ אֲפִיקֵי מָיִם וְאֵשׁ אָכְלָה נְאוֹת הַמִּדְבָּר׃

In the KJV:

The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

This verse presents a very similar problem. The noun-phrase בַּהֲמוֹת שָׂדֶה, ‘beasts of the field’, is plural, but תַּעֲרוֹג is a singular noun. What is going on?

Here is my proposal. The Hebrew prefix -ת is used to construct two forms of a conjugated imperfect verb: either the feminine third-person singular, or the masculine second-person singular. These forms are identical. For example, תָּבוֹא can mean either “she comes” or “you [masculine] come”. The meaning can only be decided by the context, but it is almost always unambiguous which one is intended.

In both of our verses, I think that the context demands that תַּעֲרֹג be treated as a masculine, second person verb, with its subject as God. That solves all of the grammatical difficulties in one swoop. Thus כְּאַיָּל תַּעֲרֹג must be read as “as you X the deer”, not “as the deer X-s”. Meanwhile, בַּהֲמוֹת שָׂדֶה תַּעֲרוֹג must be read “as you X the beasts of the field”, not “as the beasts of the field X”.

As for the meaning of ערג: in my article I’ve given a full catalogue of the historical attempts to relate it to other Semitic roots, but all in all there are very good grounds, on the basis of an Arabic cognate, for thinking that it means something like ‘to bend’ or ‘to turn’.

Therefore I think that we should read the beginning of Psalm 42 as:

As thou turnest a deer unto the water brooks, so dost thou turn my soul unto thee, O God.

…and Joel 1:20 as:

Thou turnest beasts of the field unto thee, because the water-beds are dry, etc.

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