Bible: Song of Heshbon (From Hebrew)

This may or may not be a very old text, but I think it is. As befits an old text, there are points of obscurity. Scholarly opinion is much divided as to what exactly it is: a taunt-song celebrating an Israelite victory over Sihon, an ancient Amorite victory-song celebrating Sihon's victory over Moab, an Israelite victory song celebrating the conquest of Moab, or a taunt-song referring to the defeat of Moab by some non-Israelite enemy. The great uncertainty is a function of the obscurity of several components of the last verse, where a text that ceased to be intelligible spawned multiple different attempts to make sense of it. As far as the redactor of the prose text is concerned, it celebrates an Amorite victory over Moab. Its purpose in the Book of Numbers does not seem mysterious. Heshbon was a great Amorite city, apparently famous in song for how its king wrested land from the Moabites. For the Israelites to be written into the story as a people that did to Sihon what he did to Moab magnifies their stature, and de-fangs the song of Sihon's accomplishments into mere prelude to his downfall. At some point before the close of the Masoretic period, this ceased to be understood, resulting in a revocalization of the key word ונירם as if it were a verb and messing up the rhythm.

If it is an adaptation into Judean Canaanite of a passage from what was once a well-known Amorite epic, it may be counted the first known instance of literary translation in Jewish history. Then again, I'm not quite sure the party that sutured this passage into the Book of Numbers even conceived of Amorite and Judean as entitely different languages from each other. It's tempting, but probably pointless, to ask how different might the "real" original have been. Perhaps enormously, and perhaps not very.

At verse 28 I emend בלעה for בעלי per the LXX and follow a version of Hanson's reconstruction in this and much else including the ending. At 17 the MT's parsing of the opening of the poetic passage is screwy. The Masoretic accents make perfectly good sense as is (something like "Come to Heshbon! Let the city of Sihon be built and stand firm.") But poetically it seems like it would work better to shift the ʔaṯnåḥ over to תבנה. (This would require making באו חשבון a level 2 conjunctive-disjunctive unit, and letting ותכונן stand as an unbound disjunctive.) So hypothetically, I think: בֹּ֥אוּ חֶשְׁבּ֖וֹן תִּבָּנֶ֑ה וְתִכּוֹנֵ֖ן עִ֥יר סִיחֽוֹן׃. This gives a neater syntactic balance, and the two clauses stand in chiastic relationship to each other. Perhaps the habit of joining תיבנה ותיכנה (as e.g. when mentioning Jerusalem among some Mizrahim, as a friend informs me) gave the Masoretes a sense — at a late date — that those two verbs had to stand as a single conjunctive-disjunctive phrase.

I have translated the text according to this hypothetical reconstruction of the original parsing, and with heavy emendation. But in my recording, I have allowed the Masoretic text to stand as is. This is because, when I do Tiberian readings to accompany my translations of Biblical verse, my principle is to let the MT stand in the audio reading without emendation of any kind— no matter how obviously garbled a given word or passage may be. The Tiberian reading is a descendant of, and liturgical heir to, the "proto-Masoretic" reading tradition cultivated in priestly circles of the Second Temple. Particular effort was expended to stabilize and preserve it in the Middle Ages (obviously, without success). Tiberian Hebrew being the most direct heir to the priestly reading of the temple, it seems proper for a reading in it to respect the Masoretic text with all its quirks and wrinkles.

I've translated the poetic passage into a slightly loose accentual alliterative meter of the kind known from early Germanic.

Audio recording of the original text read in Tiberian Hebrew:

The Song of Heshbon: The Amorites' Defeat of Moab
Numbers 21:26-30
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Heshbon is the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites. He had battled the first king of Moab and wrested all the land from him as far as the Arnon. So the tale-singers tell it:

Come to Heshbon  be it built high
 Let the city of Sihon  stand unshaken. 
A fire has burst  forth from Heshbon,
 A flame from the town  of towering Sihon.
It consumed all  of Ar in Moab,
 swallowed whole  the heights of Arnon.
Woe is you  wallowing Moab.
 People of Chemosh your kind is done. 
He has turned his sons  to sorry refugees
 surrendered his daughters  as slaves to a king
  to the Amorite sire,  to King Sihon.
Their yoke is done  from Heshbon to Dibon.
 Chemosh annulled  from Nofah to Medba.

The Original: (Masoretic Text)

כִּ֣י חֶשְׁבּ֔וֹן עִ֗יר סִיחֹ֛ן מֶ֥לֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִ֖י הִ֑וא וְה֣וּא נִלְחַ֗ם בְּמֶ֤לֶךְ מוֹאָב֙ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־כׇּל־אַרְצ֛וֹ מִיָּד֖וֹ עַד־אַרְנֹֽן׃ עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֹאמְר֥וּ הַמֹּשְׁלִ֖ים 

בֹּ֣אוּ חֶשְׁבּ֑וֹן תִּבָּנֶ֥ה וְתִכּוֹנֵ֖ן עִ֥יר סִיחֽוֹן׃ 
כִּי־אֵשׁ֙ יָֽצְאָ֣ה מֵֽחֶשְׁבּ֔וֹן לֶהָבָ֖ה מִקִּרְיַ֣ת סִיחֹ֑ן 
אָֽכְלָה֙ עָ֣ר מוֹאָ֔ב בַּעֲלֵ֖י בָּמ֥וֹת אַרְנֹֽן׃ 
אוֹי־לְךָ֣ מוֹאָ֔ב אָבַ֖דְתָּ עַם־כְּמ֑וֹשׁ 
נָתַ֨ן בָּנָ֤יו פְּלֵיטִם֙ וּבְנֹתָ֣יו בַּשְּׁבִ֔ית לְמֶ֥לֶךְ אֱמֹרִ֖י סִיחֽוֹן׃ 
וַנִּירָ֛ם אָבַ֥ד חֶשְׁבּ֖וֹן עַד־דִּיבֹ֑ן 
וַנַּשִּׁ֣ים עַד־נֹ֔פַח אֲשֶׁ֖רׄ עַד־מֵֽידְבָֽא׃


כי חשבון עיר סיחן מלך האמרי הוא והוא נלחם במלך מואב הראשון ויקח את כל ארצו מידו עד ארנן על כן יאמרו המשלים

באו חשבון תבנה     ותכונן עיר סיחון
אש יצאה מחשבון    להבה מקרית סיחן
אכלה ער מואב    בלעה במות ארנן
אוי לך מלך מואב   אבדת עם כמוש
נתן בניו פליטם      ובנתיו בשבית לסיחון
נירם אבד   חשבון עד דיבן
נשם כמוש   נפח עד מידבא

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