Bible: David's Lament (From Hebrew)

The books of Samuel are beset with textual problems. The texts we have are in several places quite corrupt. To me it seems fairly likely that we do not have the "original" text of this poem, nor will we ever. In such circumstances, the translator of biblical literature is stuck between a Rock and a God Place, between having to choose among a dizzying array of possible emendations and paleographic possibilities, or trying to deal with the text as it now is.

I would have liked to be able to accept with confidence the radical emendations proposed by some. For example, those of Hollyday in Form and Word-Play in David's Lament over Saul and Jonathan if for no other reason than that some of his propositions make for interesting poetry. Hollyday and Gurvitz take the entire song to start one line earlier, and emend 2 Sam 1:18 with this in mind. Hollyday for example proposes יְלַל מַר בְּכֵי יְהוּדָה קְשַׁת נְהִי סְפֹד לְיָשָׁר ("A howling bitter weep, O Judah! Pangs of a wailing dirge for the upright man!")

Such proposals, though not by any means implausible, don't strike me as very convincing in their totality. The text I give is the Masoretic text. My translation, however, reflects some emendations (for example "the square" of Gath here.)

My reading of lines 1 and 23 here is quite at odds with the traditional reading (most translations begin with something more like "Glory O Israel likes slain on your heights.") At issue is the fraught and labyrinthine question of what במה actually means. My approach basically follows from the data given and conclusions drawn by W. Boyd Barrick in BMH as Body Language:  A Lexical and Iconographical Study of the Word BMH When Not a Reference to Cultic Phenomena in Biblical and Post-Biblical Hebrew. I take במה, when not referring to a cultic site, to have a primarily anatomical sense — as it does elsewhere in Semitic. This poem is actually used as the locus probans for reading the word as meaning "hill." But this seems untenable for reasons Barrick lays out.

David's Lament 
(From 2 Samuel 1:19-27)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Gazelle of Israel
 slain on your back! 
 How the heroes have fallen!

Don't speak of it in the squares of Gath
Don't spread the news in the streets of Ashkelon
Or the daughters of the Philistines  will rejoice 
Or the daughters of the ungodly  will gloat

  Mountains of Gilboa!
Be there no dew nor rain on you
And on your slopes  no fertile field!
For there was the shield  of heroes defiled
The shield of Saul no more anointed
From blood of the slain from the breast of the foe
The bow of Jonathan never recoiled
The blade of Saul never returned undyed

Jonathan and Saul beloved men
Dearly beloved  in life they were
Inseparable so  in death they are
Swifter than eagles stronger than lions

Now daughters of Israel weep for Saul 
Who clothed you in scarlet  who robed you in finery
Who adorned all the folds  of your garments with gold

How the heroes are fallen  in the thick of battle
Jonathan laid low slain on your back!

Oh I grieve for you  Jonathan, brother
Dear to me you were, and for me
More wonderful your love than the love of women

How the heroes have fallen 
How the arms of war are lost! 

The Original:



שיר הקשת

הַצְּבִי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל-בָּמוֹתֶיךָ חָלָל
אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבּוֹרִים

אַל-תַּגִּידוּ בְגַת
אַל-תְּבַשְּׂרוּ בְּחוּצֹת אַשְׁקְלוֹן
פֶּן-תִּשְׂמַחְנָה בְּנוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים
פֶּן-תַּעֲלֹזְנָה בְּנוֹת הָעֲרֵלִים

הָרֵי בַגִּלְבֹּעַ
אַל-טַל וְאַל-מָטָר עֲלֵיכֶם
וּשְׂדֵי תְרוּמֹת
כִּי שָׁם נִגְעַל מָגֵן גִּבּוֹרִים
מָגֵן שָׁאוּל בְּלִי מָשִׁיחַ בַּשָּׁמֶן
מִדַּם חֲלָלִים מֵחֵלֶב גִּבּוֹרִים
קֶשֶׁת יְהוֹנָתָן לֹא נָשׂוֹג אָחוֹר
וְחֶרֶב שָׁאוּל לֹא תָשׁוּב רֵיקָם

שָׁאוּל וִיהוֹנָתָן
הַנֶּאֱהָבִים וְהַנְּעִימִם בְּחַיֵּיהֶם
וּבְמוֹתָם לֹא נִפְרָדוּ
מִנְּשָׁרִים קַלּוּ
מֵאֲרָיוֹת גָּבֵרוּ

בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-שָׁאוּל בְּכֶינָה
הַמַּלְבִּשְׁכֶם שָׁנִי עִם-עֲדָנִים
הַמַּעֲלֶה עֲדִי זָהָב עַל לְבוּשְׁכֶן

אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבֹּרִים בְּתוֹךְ הַמִּלְחָמָה
יְהוֹנָתָן עַל-בָּמוֹתֶיךָ חָלָל

צַר-לִי עָלֶיךָ אָחִי יְהוֹנָתָן
נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד
נִפְלְאַתָה אַהֲבָתְךָ לִי
מֵאַהֲבַת נָשִׁים

אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבּוֹרִים
וַיֹּאבְדוּ כְּלֵי מִלְחָמָה

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