Monday, August 15, 2005

Sufjan Stevens and a Biblical Image

The remarkable Sufjan Stevens has a song on his record Seven Swans titled "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands," and a great song it is, too. Interestingly, the All Music Guide review (found here, among other places) implies, by referring to the song's "gorgeous title," that the name of the song is original with Stevens.

In fact, the title is a quotation from Isa. 55:12, "the hills shall break forth before you into singing; and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands." The Hebrew is yimcha'u kaph, literally, "they will strike palm." I've noted before here that trees are the most human of all flora, and it's easy to imagine them raising their branchy arms and smacking them together in applause.

But even this natural metaphor was too strong for the Septuagint translators, who translated as "all the trees will applaud with their branches." The Targum similarly renders "they will rejoice with their branches." (The Vulgate and the Peshitta render literally.)

Interestingly enough, there is another instance of the same metaphor, found in Ps. 98:8, "let the rivers clap their hands" (again, yimcha'u kaph). Here it is harder to imagine the metaphor translated into concrete reality; rivers, unlike trees, don't have anything like hands, although one can imagine the rushing sound of a river as a kind of applause. Possibly the locution "to strike palm" was already a dead metaphor, with no more literality to it (like to kick the bucket), with the simple sense "to acclaim loudly."

However, in this case the Septuagint, possibly stumped for a more natural metaphor, translates pretty literally "let the rivers applaud by hand." The literal translation is also chosen by the Targum, Peshitta, and Vulgate.

Is Sufjan Stevens aware of all this? I doubt it, but on the other hand it wouldn't surprise me. This is one multi-talented guy. There are some free MP3's here.

UPDATE (8/17): Thanks for all the comments (including this one). I should clarify that the "all this" that I doubted SS was aware of was not the biblical background of the phrase, but the textual-philological maunderings I added.


Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


I have often wondered if Tolken was influenced by this verse in Isaiah. I am of course thinking of my favorite creature in Middle Earth, the Ent. It seems to me that Ents are the logical outgrowth of someone dwelling on the Isaiah verse.


Targuman said...

Ed, I am impressed with your listening habits! Sufjan Stevens is great! Are you a 77s or Lost Dogs fan as well? What about The Choir? :-)

EMC said...

Joe: Could be, Doc, could be. Sounds possible.

Chris: Not familiar with those artists, but on your recommendation, I'll keep an eye out. SS is coming here next month, and I plan to go.

Targuman said...

The Lost Dogs
The 77s
And The Choir

I should also include Daniel Amos and my article about them all! :-)

Anonymous said...

I attended Hope College in Holland, MI, with Sufjan and I've been watching with interest his rising career. I don't recall being in classes with him or even talking much with him so I can't say for sure what his spiritual background is. But considering Hope made (makes?) religion classes part of the core requirement, I'm sure Sufjan has at least a passing knowledge of biblical language and imagery.

Daniel Foster