Why alphabetical order varies slightly in Hebrew (and why this matters)

The Hebrew alphabet in the conventional order. Read right to left, top to bottom. ‘Ayin and pe are at the far right and second from right, respectively, in the fourth row.

The Hebrew alphabet developed out of the Phoenician alphabet and it generally follows the same order for the letters.  However, there is evidence in the Hebrew Bible of a slight variation in which the order of the sixteenth and seventeenth letters, ‘ayin and pe, is reversed.  This is significant, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

We know about these different orders because about a dozen compositions in the Bible are acrostics, in which consecutive lines (or half-lines, or pairs of lines, etc.) begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

In Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145, in the first poem in Lamentations, and in the poem about a noble wife at the end of Proverbs, ‘ayin precedes pe.

But in Psalm 9-10, in the second, third, and fourth poems in Lamentations, and in the Septuagint text of the poem about a noble wife, the pe line precedes the ‘ayin line.

So why the occasional variation in alphabetical order in the case of these two letters, as attested by these few compositions?  Many different theories have been advanced; I’m most convinced by the one that Julius Boehmer proposed over a hundred years ago.  He suggested that alphabetically consecutive pairs of letters that formed two-letter words—these are relatively rare in Hebrew—were used in magical texts:  ‘ab (father), gad (good fortune), hu’ (him), etc.  No two-letter words could be formed from samek + ‘ayin, the fifteenth and sixteenth letters in the conventional order. But transposing ‘ayin and pe yielded sap (basin, goblet) and ‘ets (wood).

If the order of ‘ayin and pe was reversed for these purposes, this could have led to a second alphabetical order coming into limited circulation.  This alternative order is seemingly reflected in a few biblical acrostics. But of course the biblical authors were using it without any magical intent.  And that is where we see the significance of this other order.

If Boehmer’s theory is true,* this would be one more example of how the biblical authors made use of the cultural goods they found around them to tell the story of God’s dealings with their own community, appropriating and redeploying those goods without prejudice as to their origins or previous uses.  Psalm 29, for example, depicts Yahweh as a storm god, using language that might previously have been applied to Baal—the imagery certainly was.  Canaanite temples had three parts: an outer court, an inner sanctuary, and a most holy place at their core; Israel’s tabernacle and temple followed this same pattern.

Clearly God and the people of God, according to the way their story is told in the Bible, were not bothered by the idea that certain forms or images might have been somehow “tainted” by associations with idolatry.  Psalm 24 proclaims that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and in the case of the alphabet, that might even include an order that originally arose from a desire to create magical incantations.  These possible origins don’t taint the letters; as an alphabet, they’re simply a neutral tool that can be used to tell the story of God, even as part of the inspired Scriptures.

So we today are free to use cultural forms, images, stories, and designs from a variety of sources in order to communicate the message about God’s work in our world in ways that our listeners will find accessible and meaningful.  So long as we do not duplicate any previous message that is contrary to God’s purposes, the forms are freely available for our use.  “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

*While Boehmer’s proposal is now over a hundred years old, I do not feel that any more plausible explanation has been advanced.  For a survey of the issue, see Homer Heater, “Structure and Meaning in Lamentations,” Vital Old Testament Issues (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), pp. 157-159, available online at this link.

Should Psalms 19, 40, and 66 be divided?

Q.  Since The Books of the Bible combines Psalms 9-10 and 42-43, why doesn’t it divide Psalms 19, 40, and 66?  I’ve heard that each of those were originally two separate psalms that were later placed together.

One essential goal of The Books of the Bible is to help people read the Scriptures with greater understanding and enjoyment by presenting whole literary compositions as the Bible’s fundamental units of meaning and authority.  That’s why the edition removes chapter and verse numbers and section headings–they send the wrong message about what those units are.  That’s also why it recombines individual compositions such as Psalms 9-10 and 42-43, as well as longer, more complex compositions such as Luke-Acts.

There’s clear internal evidence that those psalms should be recombined:
–  An acrostic pattern runs all the way through Psalm 9-10, in which pairs of lines begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  (This pattern has become corrupted in the Masoretic Text, but it can be restored by reference to other Hebrew manuscripts and ancient versions.  The NIV translation reflects a restored acrostic pattern.)
– A three-fold repetition of the same refrain ties together Psalm 42-43. (“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”)  This is like the threefold refrain in other psalms, for example, Psalm 80 (“Restore us, O God make your face shine on us, that we may be saved”).

There’s also external evidence, in the manuscript tradition, that Psalms 9-10 and 42-43 are originally unified compositions.  Psalm 9-10 is a single psalm in the Septuagint and Psalm 42-43 is a single psalm in many Hebrew manuscripts.  So they should indeed be recombined.

But it is not similarly the case that Psalms 19, 40, and 66 should be divided.  The argument for dividing them is based what is known as form criticism, the idea that the history of a composition can be determined by identifying the literary genres of its constituent parts.  (There is no manuscript evidence that Psalms 19, 40, or 66 ever circulated in separate parts.)

The case that some scholars make for dividing these psalms is based on the distinctive conventions of the different psalm genres:  supplication (or lament), thanksgiving, and praise.  (I introduce and explore these genres in my study guide to Psalms.)  Some scholars feel that they can discern two different types of psalms living together uneasily under a single number in these cases, and they want to pull them apart.

For example, Psalm 40 appears to contain a fully articulated psalm of thanksgiving, acknowledging God’s deliverance, and then a fully developed psalm of supplication, asking God not to “withhold his mercy.”  These seem to be two separate occasions of composition, and so it appears that two different psalms have been put together here.

However, in his book The Message of the Psalms, Walter Bruggemann demonstrates (quite convincingly, to my mind) that Psalm 40 is not simply a psalm of thanksgiving to which a separate psalm of supplication has become attached.  Rather, the psalm of supplication has been crafted expressly to be added onto the (likely pre-existing) psalm of thanksgiving, resulting in a new integral composition.  The supplication intentionally echoes the specific language of the thanksgiving in several places, for example:

At the end of the thanksgiving it says, “I did not conceal your love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emeth)”;
At the start of the supplication it says, “May your love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emeth) always protect me.”

In the thanksgiving: “I speak of your . . . saving help (teshua‘)”;
In the supplication:  “may those who long for your saving help (teshua‘) . . .”

In the thanksgiving: God’s deeds are “too many to declare” (they are “beyond numbering”);
In the supplication: “troubles without number [“beyond numbering”] surround me”

These deliberate echoes of the language of the thanksgiving in the supplication show that the psalmist has used the occasion of celebrating one deliverance as an opportunity to pray for rescue from a further trouble.  So Psalm 40, as we know it, is an intentional, integral composition.

Similarly, Psalm 66 is not, as some have argued, a psalm of praise for God’s historical deliverance of the nation at the time of the exodus, to which a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of the psalmist personally has somehow become attached.  Rather, the whole psalm is a thanksgiving that begins with a “song of victory” that harkens back to the exodus as the archetypal event of deliverance.  (Compare the ending of Psalm 77, a psalm of supplication that similarly invokes the exodus.)  Claus Westermann discusses the role of the “song of victory” found in many psalms of thanksgiving in his book The Psalms: Structure, Content, and Message.

Finally, some scholars consider Psalm 19 to be two psalms of different genres that have been combined, the first a psalm of praise for God’s glories in creation (like Psalm 8) and the second a “poem of the law” that extols the value of meditating on God’s word (like Psalm 1).  It’s possible that the first part of this psalm did once circulate independently.  But as we know it today, it has been intentionally paired with the second part to create a meditation on the “two books” that reveal God: creation and the Scriptures.  It is an integral composition, even if it may incorporate an earlier song, and it would not be proper to pull it apart.

We can witness a similar process of composition at work in our own day as songwriters have take traditional hymns and add their own original material to make new integral compositions, for example, Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” from “Amazing Grace” or David Crowder’s expansion of “All Creatures of our God and King.”  We would not want to pull these songs apart, nor should we pull apart the psalms that have been created by a very similar process.

The initial page of the Leiden St. Louis Psalter, an illuminated manuscript of the book of Psalms. The “B” is the initial letter of Psalm 1 in Latin, “beatus” (blessed).