Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Wheel in the Wind

In Ps. 83:14, God is enjoined to make the wicked ‏kglgl, which the KJV translates as "like a wheel" (similarly LXX and Vulgate). Although the word glgl does mean "wheel," it makes little sense in context, and exegetes have generally seen in the Hebrew a reference to some other round thing that the wicked could intelligibly be compared to. Since in this verse glgl is compared to qash, straw, driven before the wind, and in Isa. 17:13 to motz , chaff, whipped up by the storm, many take glgl in these two verses to be a reference to a plant, Gundelia tournefortii, which, when dry, forms a kind of tumbleweed. (It is also an extraordinarily ugly plant.)

Although HALOT, in giving this information, refers us in the first instance to Gustav Dalman's Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina (1928-42), Dalman got his information from Immanuel Löw's Die Flora der Juden (1924; still a great reference tool). And where did Löw get it from? From the great 12th century commentator Rashi, who made the identification more than 900 years ago.

Most modern translations reflect this insight, such as NIV "make them like tumbleweed" and JPS "make them like thistledown." But it is surprising how many translate as "like the whirling dust" (ASV, NAS, NRSV), which is less apt. Possibly these translators were under the influence of the older lexicon BDB, which interprets this glgl as "whirl (of dust or chaff), sim. of foes put to flight by God."

I first noticed all this while reading through the 16th century Aramaic lexicon, Meturgeman, by Elias Levita. Levita, as expected, understands the word as does Rashi, glossing it as ‏פרח עשב שהוא מתגלגל, a plant growth that rolls. The citation he gives from the Psalms Targum is ‏היך גלגלא דמתגלגל ואזיל ניח במודרון, understood as "like a glgl, that keeps on rolling, coming to rest on a slope."

However, Levita's text differs from other Targum texts, which read ‏ולא ניח במודרון, "... and does not come to rest on a hillside." The second reading fits the context better, but the image as a whole is obscure to me. Does it mean the wind blows the weed without stopping, so that even when it comes to an obstacle it keeps on rolling? Or is it possible that the reference really is in this case to a wheel, so that we must understand it as "like a wheel that keeps on rolling and does not stop, down a slope"? The last translation is the one I gave in my Psalms Targum text; but now I am not sure. Anybody out there have any thoughts on the Aramaic?

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