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THE CHIASTIC STRUCTURE OF PSALM 151
J. BJORNAR STORFJELL
The psalms scroll which later was to become known as 11 QPsa
was discovered in a cave a short distance to the north of Khirbet
and ended up in the
November of 1961.1 The early reports about this discovery also
indicated the content of the scroll. Among the several psalms which
were represented was the one numbered 151 in the LXX.
J. A. Sanders provides us with an insight into the prior knowl-
edge of this psalm in Syriac, where it was one of five non-canonical
psalms which were part of a Book of Discipline dated to the tenth
century A.D. They were noted in a manuscript in
in the middle of the eighteenth century and published by W.
Wright in 1887.2 The most interesting work relating to the text of
these psalms appeared in 1930, when Martin Noth not only pub-
lished a collated text of the psalms but also proceeded to translate
three of the five back into Hebrew, which he considered to have been
the original language. The first psalm—the 151st of the LXX and
the topic of this brief study—was not one of the three translated.3
The 151st psalm of the LXX is essentially the same as the first
of the five Syriac psalms, but there are significant differences between
these and the 11QPsa 151st psalm that seem to indicate a different
textual tradition. Since Noth thought that the Vorlagen of the five
Syriac psalms were Hebrew and since the Syriac and the LXX are
in basic agreement, it is only appropriate to ask a question about
1 The complete story of the discovery and unrolling of the scroll can be found in
de Vaux, "Fouilles de Khirbet
Sanders, "The Scroll of Psalms (11QPss) from Cave 11: A Preliminary Report,"
BASOR, no. 165 (1962), pp. 11-15.
2 The earliest description by J. A. Sanders appears in "Ps. 151 in 11QPss," ZAW
75 (1963): 73-86. An almost identical account is found in J. A. Sanders, The Psalms
3 M. Noth, "Die funf syrisch uberlieferten apokryphen Psalmen," ZAW 48
98 J. BJORNAR, STORFJELL
the relationship between the LXX and the 11QPsa. Sanders has
pointed out that in the cases where the
the MT they also differ from the LXX. It is therefore quite clear
that the LXX cannot be considered a translation of the 11 QPsa
There are a number of possibilities for exploring the poetic
structure of this poem. Sanders chose to use only bicola, fourteen
in all, in his ordering of the psalm.5 He also saw possibilities, of
influences of Orphism in the poem. The introduction of the trees
and the animals enjoying the music of David, but unable to express
their appreciation, appear to have some similarities with the myth
of Orpheus; and David's phrase, "I said in my soul," is seen to be
especially intelligible to the Hellenistic ear.6
Isaac Rabinowitz early in the debate opposed this position,
which was most strongly defended by Andre Dupont-Sommer.
Rabinowitz does not see the phrase, "I said in my heart," to be a
particularly Hellenistic construction. Instead, he draws a parallel
with similar introductory formulas used in Eccl 2:1 and 3:17, where
no Hellenistic influence is suggested. Frank Moore Cross has also
dismissed any links to Orphism. He sees in the poem some funda-
mental biblical modes of expression and points out that in Ps 148
nature indeed praises the Lord and that this poem does not step
outside the biblical tradition.7
Jean Magne has argued for influences of Orphism in the psalm
but he cannot support the views of Dupont-Sommer regarding
Pythagorean doctrines in, and an Essene origin of, the psalm.8
Magne also notes a chiastic structure of the psalm, 2 2 3 3 2 3-
3 2 3 3 2 2, where 2 stands for a bicolon
and 3 for a tricolon.
Auffret has questioned this chiasmus because of a lack of corre-
spondence in the thematic order of the psalm.9 It is in light of this
4 Sanders, "Ps. 151," pp. 78-80. C
5 Sanders, The Psalms Scroll, pp. 55-56.
6 Sanders, "Ps. 151," p. 82.
7 See Andre Dupont-Sommer, "Le Psaume CLI dans 11 QPsa et le probleme de
son origine essenienne," Sem 14 (1964): 25-62; Isaac Rabinowitz, "The Alleged
Orphism of 11Q Pss 28:3-12," ZAW 76 (1964): 193-200; and Frank Moore Cross,
"David, Orpheus, and Psalm 151:3-4," BASOR, no. 231 (1978), pp. 69-71.
8 Jean Magne, "Orphisme, pythagorisme, essenisme dans le texte hebreu du
Psaume 151?" RevQ 32 (1975): 545.
9 Ibid., p. 520; and Pierre Auffret, "Structure litteraire et interpretation du
Psaume 151 de la grotte 11
CHIASTIC STRUCTURE OF PSALM 151 99
disagreement concerning the chiastic structure of the psalm that I
have completed the present brief study.
1. The Text and Its Translation
The Hebrew text of 11 QPsa consists of ten lines, with no
attempt to divide the lines according to any kind of poetic or other
structure. In the translation that follows (on the next page), the
numbers on the left indicate my division of the psalm into cola, a
division which is in basic agreement with the work of Magne. The
three columns on the right indicate organization of content, number
of syllables, and number of stress accents. The introductory line of
the psalm, "A Hallelujah of David, the Son of Jesse," is only a
lengthened form of the introductions found in Pss 146-150. As an
introductory phrase, it is omitted from the poetic reconstruction of
2. Poetic Analysis
The first two bicola, verse 1, make a clear conceptual unit. In
both cola repetitive parallelism is used, yet the second bicolon is a
progression of thought from the first. The relationship between the
two bicola can best be described as synthetic parallelism.
The next unit, verse 2, is a tricolon. Sanders used only bicola
in his arrangement. Rabinowitz, J. Carmignac, Magne, and P. W.
Skehan all have a tricolon in this place.10 The verb w'symh, an
imperfect with a waw consecutive, seems to tie the sentence to the
preceding text rather than to begin a new bicolon. When given a
past-tense translation, it also agrees with the verbs in the two first
cola in this tricolon. On the other hand, if the last line of tricolon 2
together with the first line of tricolon 3 were to make up a bicolon,
a future-tense translation would make the most sense. As a tricolon
a thematic whole is allowed to exist: with flute and lyre the psalmist
Tricolon 3 starts with the phrase, "I said in my soul." This
line introduces what follows, rather than concluding what has
10 A number of poetic reconstructions of Ps 151 have appeared. For comparative
purposes the following can be consulted: Sanders, "Ps. 151," p. 77; Rabinowitz,
p. 196; Jean Carmignac, "Precisions sur la forme poetique du Psaurne 151," RevQ
18 (1965): 250; Magne, p. 544; and Patrick Wm. Skehan, "The Apocryphal Psalm
151," Bib 25 (1963): 408-409.
100 J. BJORNAR STORFJELL
PSALM 151 11QPsa
First Strophe Cont Syll Acc
1. Smaller was I than my brothers abc 8 3
And younger than the sons of my father ac 8 2
Yet he appointed me shepherd for his sheep abc 10 3
And ruler over his kids. bc 8 2
2. My hands have made a flute abc 6 3
And my fingers a lyre, ac 7 2
And I have given glory to Yahweh. xyz 8 3
3. I said in my soul, xyz 8 3
0 that the mountains would bear witness for me abc 8 3
And 0 that the hills would tell. ab 8 3
4. The trees have taken away my words abc 8 3
And the sheep my works. bc 7 2
5. For who can tell, ab 4 3
And who can speak, ab 5 2
And who can recount my works? abc 9 3
6. The Lord of all saw, abc 6 2
God of all, He heard, abc 8 3
And He has heeded. ac 5 2
7. He sent His prophet to anoint me; abc 6 2
Samuel to make me great. bc 8 2
8. My brothers went out to meet him; xyz 8 3
Handsome of form, ab 4 1
And handsome of appearance. ab 6 1
9. Tall in their height; ab 8 2
Handsome with their hair. ab 7 2
Them did Yahweh God not choose. xyz 9 4
10. But He sent and took me from behind the sheep, abc 13 4
And anointed me with holy oil. def 10 3
And He appointed me leader for His people, abc 10 3
And ruler over the sons of His covenant. bc 8 2
CHIASTIC STRUCTURE OF PSALM 151 101
preceded. In the reading of lw' I have followed Cross and taken this
as an exclamatory particle rather than as a negative.11 The alterna-
tive reading—"The mountains do not bear witness for me, And the
hills do not tell"—does not, however, change the overall intent of
this portion of the psalm. An argument could be made for retain-
ing that reading since it leads naturally into bicolon 4. There I
have taken the disputed word ‘lw and read it as the verb "to take
away."12 Bicolon 4 is then parallel in thought to tricolon 3. The
first strophe ends with tricolon 5, which forms a conceptual unit.
The second half of the psalm is by structure a mirror image of
the first half, the whole being a structural chiasmus. As I have
already mentioned, Magne has seen this chiasmus, but his main
concern was an investigation of the Hellenistic influences in the
psalm. The whole second half of the psalm is a continuous narra-
tive in poetic style with an internal chiasmus.
Tricolon 6 is a conceptual unit which flows into bicolon 7,
constructed in synonymous parallelism. My reading of verse 6
differs considerably from the reading of Sanders, who combines
verses 5 and 6 as follows:
For who can proclaim and who can bespeak
and who can recount the deed of the Lord?
Everything has God seen,
everything has he heard and he has heeded.13
Rabinowitz has a syntax which seems easier to support. He
reads, "The Master of the universe was; the God of the uni-
verse. . . . "14 In Sanders's sentence the direct object is definite,
hkwl. The word occupies the same place in the bicolon and both
times without the sign of the definite direct object. The particle ‘t
occurs four times in this psalm and one would expect it preceding
a definite direct object.
It is true that in verse 7 the word nby'w seems to be the direct
object of the verb slh, and since it is definite it should have the sign
of the definite direct object preceding it. If the second half of
11 Cross, p. 70.
12 Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti
13 Sanders, The Psalms Scroll, p. 56.
14 Rabinowitz, p. 196.
102 J. BJORNAR STORFJELL
bicolon 7 were not there, one could easily make the word "prophet"
the subject in the sentence and read: "His prophet stretched out to
anoint me." But the next half of the bicolon will not allow this
because here Samuel is seen as the direct object of some previous
verb, and the context most easily makes that verb slh. The structure
of this verse is different from the structure of verse 6. The difference
is that in the second colon of verse 7 the sign of the definite direct
object is present. There is no main verb in this colon, but this
second colon is strongly connected with the first half of the verse.
The definite direct object of the whole sentence consisting of the
bicolon is the second colon, and it is accompanied by the sign of
the definite direct object.
Tricola 8 and 9 form an internal chiasmus. By emphasizing
the chiastic structure, I can avoid calling the first line of tricolon 8
and the last line of tricolon 9 a split bicolon.
The last two bicola of the psalm show no technical difficulties.
They are quite regular in their synthetic and repetitive parallelism,
The tabulation of the syllable count and the stress accents does
not add significantly to a poetic analysis of the psalm. At least in
this case, such means were not considered important in terms of the
poetic outcome. It appears to have been more important to follow
the classical poetic style of Hebrew literature, where parallelism in
its varied applications predominates.
This psalm is a concrete narrative-type poem in classical
Hebrew poetic style. It sings about the election of David to the
account found in 1 Sam 16:1-13.
Date of the Psalm
The question of interpretation is complicated by the difficulty
of arriving at a certain date for the writing of the psalm. Robert
Polzin has pointed out that the lack of agreement regarding the
reading of the psalm should make us cautious when "using lin-
guistic arguments based on controverted interpretations to estab-
lish a date for this composition."15
15 Robert Polzin, "Notes on the Dating of the Non-Massoretic Psalms of
11QPsa," HTR 60 (1967): 475.
CHIASTIC STRUCTURE OF PSALM 151 103
The questions of date and interpretation are closely connected
in the case of this psalm. If one accepts the validity of Orphic
influences in the psalm, it becomes difficult to accept the date
suggested by W. F. Albright, the seventh-sixth century B.C.16 The
does not truly reflect the typical poetic style of
Since the classical poetic style probably went out of use in the post-
exilic period, the poem could be dated to the sixth century B.C. or
earlier on stylistic grounds.17 The argument of poetic style should
be allowed its proper weight in the determination of a date for the
psalm. Cross argues for a date in the Persian period, based on
orthographic survivals," and strong reasons for a later date have
been advanced by Sanders.19
Sanders has pointed out "that at Qumran David was con-
sidered the author of the psalter."20 But it must also be pointed out
that in spite of Polzin's caution, there are some phrases which
make an early date difficult. These are 'dwn hkwl and bny bryt.
The first phrase has been demonstrated to be post-biblical. It is
found in Syriac, Palmyrene, the Babylonian Talmud, the LXX
(Job 5:8), and Ben Sira (36:1). The second phrase is one of the best
known from the
ture, the Odes of Solomon (17:15), and the NT (Acts 3:25).21 The
expressions would make it difficult to hold to an early date unless
one sees such expressions as an attempt to establish legitimacy for
have to mean that Hellenistic influences are operative. The lan-
guage used is biblical, both in content and in expression, even
though some idioms used are of post-biblical origin. I would allow
poetic style to be the weightier argument in establishing a date for
the psalm. A linguistic stratigraphy with a terminus post quem in
the Hellenistic period would be very difficult to establish. The
document in its present form dates to this period, but its date of
authorship is probably sixth century.
16 W. F. Albright in correspondence cited in Sanders, The Psalms Scroll, p. 54.
17 For a thorough discussion of Hebrew poetic style, see Wilfred G. E. Watson,
Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques, JSOT Supplement Series,
no. 26 (Sheffield, Eng., 1984).
18 Cross, p. 70.
19 Sanders, The Psalms Scroll, pp. 62-63.
20 Ibid., p. 64.
21 See the discussion in Polzin, p. 475, n. 33.
104 J. BJORNAR STORFJELL
Analysis of Thematic Chiasmus
In a psalm which has a chiastic structure one would expect
also to find a thematic chiasmus. As has been mentioned above,
Auffret argued against a structural chiasmus because of a lack of a
thematic correspondence. On the other hand, when a structural
chiasmus can be detected as in this psalm, that structure should be
allowed to assist and shape the understanding of the thematic
content of the poem. Thus, it is quite proper to look for the
thematic correspondents which may not be evident at first. The
chiastic structure becomes the mandate for understanding the corre-
sponding components in the poem.
First an overview of the psalm: The narrative of the first
strophe poses all of the questions which are then answered or
contrasted in the second strophe. Verse 1 speaks about the size and
age of David in comparison to his brothers and about his appoint-
ment to the work of shepherd. The counterpart is found in verse 10,
which contrasts the facts that size and age are not criteria for being
appointed to the position of leader over
verse 1, the first one corresponds with the last one in verse 10. One
could therefore argue for separating these verses into two verses
each, thus giving the psalm a total of twelve verses.22 But there is
an inner cohesiveness in these two verses which ties them together
into units. The second bicolon of verse 10 makes use of the same
verb and nearly all the nouns of the second bicolon in verse 1.
Verse 2 continues the narrative of verse 1. It speaks about what
David has done, and the continuation from the shepherd scene of
verse 1 indicates that it is while doing the work of a shepherd that
he has made the instruments which he used to give glory to
Yahweh. It seems quite natural that one who works as a shepherd
should find his joy in giving glory to someone other than himself.
Contrasted with verse 2 is verse 9. The focus has changed. to the
brothers of David who, relying on their natural stature and hand-
some appearance, were not chosen by God. The fact that they were
not chosen implies that they really expected to be. The other-
centeredness of David is contrasted with the self-centeredness of his
The genius of the chiastic narrative poem is that it makes
sense as a continuous account, while at the same time also making
22 Magne, p. 544, has divided the psalm in this way.
CHIASTIC STRUCTURE OF PSALM 151 105
sense in its chiastic structure—unit with corresponding unit. Thus
verse 3 continues the story of the first two verses. David is the
shepherd whose virtues remain unknown, yet they have been
observable; but in the mountains and the hills there was none who
could testify in his behalf. The corresponding verse 8 continues the
contrast of David with his brothers. While David longs for some-
one to testify on his account, his brothers rely on their physical
appearance. Internal and external virtues are contrasted.
In verse 4 the wilderness isolation theme is continued and an
element of despair is introduced. All of David's work has been in
the presence of the trees or nature and the sheep that have taken
away his words and his work. And at the same time that despair
becomes evident in verse 4, the corresponding verse in the chiastic
structure, verse 7, introduces hope. Again contrasting themes are
used to intensify the answer to the problem posed in verse 4.
The climax of the psalm is reached in verses 5 and 6 and was
already anticipated in the previous verse. The despair introduced in
verse 4 is heightened in verse 5 with a series of three questions of
"who." These three questions are answered in verse 6 with "The
Lord, ... God of all, . . . He.... " This is at the same time both
the conclusion and the center of the poem.
Within the second strophe there is a smaller chiasmus in verses
8 and 9, where the first line in verse 8 corresponds to the last line in
verse 9. It is not only a thematic chiasmus but also a structural one.
Respectively, the two tricola have the first and the last lines as
variants, as shown by the content indicators xyz,ab,ab : ab,ab,xyz.
The whole poem can be seen as a chiastic envelope which
reads as five sets of corresponding verses. It can also be read as a
continuous complete narrative.
Psalm 151 from 11QPsa is basically the same as Ps 151 in the
LXX, but there are distinct differences which preclude the latter's
being a direct translation of 11 QPsa 151. Several possibilities have
been explored in terms of structure and origin of the psalm. Orphic
influences have been seen as possibilities by Sanders, and as direct
influences by Dupont-Sommer, Magne, and others. Rabinowitz and
Cross, to mention only two scholars with a different view, have
argued against Orphic influences and for biblical modes of expres-
sion and thinking.
106 J. BJORNAR STORFJELL
The question of date and authorship is not easily answered.
Strong arguments can be found for a late date in the Hellenistic
period, for a little earlier in the Persian period, or for as early a
date as that of Albright in the seventh-sixth century B.C. I have
chosen a date in the sixth century because of the poetic style used.
This essay has dealt with the chiastic structure of the psalm, a
structure noted by Magne and disputed by Auffret. The chiasmus is
not limited to the structural composition of the psalm, but includes
the thematic elements also. The corresponding units in the psalm
follow mostly a contrasting-of-ideas approach, but the climax of
the poem is found in making God the answer to three desperate
questions of "who." By using a chiastic structure which relies on
stark contrasts, this narrative is in fact able to discuss and provide
answers to some abstract philosophical questions. Those questions
dealing with ideas and concepts are not removed from the concrete
situation of personal experience, even the experience of herding
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