Bible: the Dirge of David (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.

Audio recording of me reading the original in reconstructed Tiberian Hebrew pronunciation:


The Dirge of David 
(2 Samuel 1:19-27)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

So David keened this dirge for Saul and Jonathan. To teach hard things to Judah's sons, he said "look, it is written down in the Book of the Upright" 

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

Don't speak of it in Gath's squares
Don't spread the news in Ashkelon's streets
Or women in Philistia  will rejoice
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 enemy breast
Jonathan's bow never recoiled
And Saul's blade never returned undyed

Jonathan and Saul: beloved men.
Dearly beloved  in life they were.
Unseverable so  in death they are
Who outran eagles and outmatched lions

Daughters of Israel! Weep for Saul 
Who clothed you beautiful  with scarlet and beads
Studded your garments  with jewels in gold

How have the heroes fallen
 in the heart of battle!
Jonathan, thrown back
 and slaughtered on your back!

Oh I grieve you  Jonathan, brother:
Dear to me you were,  for me you had
A love more wondrous than love of women.

How have the heroes fallen, 
 and the gear of battle is 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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