Baffling Dead Sea Scrolls Text Gets New Interpretation

A single phrase in the Psalms Scroll bewildered scholars for decades. Then two students had an epiphany.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

Modern Israelis ascribe several meanings of the Hebrew root taph-bet-ayin: “to demand,” “to investigate,” “to prosecute” and while about it, “to sue”. None of these meanings were useful in deciphering a mysterious line in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

For decades scholars struggled with a phrase sporting the Hebrew word “tit’ba’e’ch”. Their efforts to interpret the phrase to conform with the modern usage of the root resulted in contortions that the Cirque de Soleil could only envy.

Therein, contend two students, lies the mistake. The root in question had another use too.

The verse with the word titbaech appears in a poem called (in English at least) “Apostrophe to Zion” — which appears in the so-called “Psalms Scroll”, together with other poems very much like the biblical Psalms.

Most of the Psalms Scroll had been satisfactorily deciphered and published in distinguished scientific journals. But the mystery verse with titbaech remained obscure.

There were interpretations, to be sure. They just didn’t make much sense.

And then Hanan Ariel and Alexey Yuditsky, doctoral students working on a project at the Hebrew Language Academy, had an epiphany.

Dreaming of Zion? Maybe not

The obscure verse including titbaech has kept researchers puzzled since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Judean Desert caves in the 1940s and 1950s.

The psalm tells of love and longing for Zion, and the particular mystery verse is in a section describing the moral characteristics of Zion. As translated by Geza Vermes, 1924–2013, a prominent authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the verse reads: “Take the vision that speaks of you, the dreams of the prophets requested for you” (here titbaech is translated as “requested for you”).

Thusly Vermes (and other researchers) translated titbaech according to modern Hebrew use of the root, as demand or request, though the translation weakened the meaning of the verse to the point of incomprehensibility.

In any case, not all agreed. The American scholar James A. Sanders, the first editor of the Psalm Scroll, thought the verse meant “dreams that the prophets requested on your behalf.” That didn’t lead to clarity either.

Come Ariel and Yuditsky, who are re-deciphering the scroll in the course of work on the historic dictionary of the Hebrew Language Academy. Baffled like everyone else by that titbaech, the two students returned to the previous verse. This line reads:

“You shall attain to eternal righteousness and shall receive blessings from the noble” (as translated by Geza Vermes)

One is to understand that blessings have the power to “follow and overtake” the one who is blessed.

Meanwhile, Ariel and Yuditsky realized - in Arabic, which is as close to Hebrew as say French is to English – the root taph-bet-ayin means “to go after,” “follow,” “overtake.”

Aha, thought the students: what if the mystery verb titbaech bore a rare meaning, not commonly known – not “seek” or “demand,” but “follow,” overtake”?

No modern references on Hebrew give that meaning to the root taph-bet-ayin. Yet not only Arabic but other similar Semitic languages as well ascribe to the root the meaning of “going forward” or “following after.”

And thus, Ariel and Yuditsky suggested that “the dreams of the prophets requested for you” actually means “The prophets’ vision will overtake you”.

In other words, ancient Israelites used taph-bet-ayin to mean follow, chase, overtake, not sue. That meaning fell into disuse over time, Ariel and Yuditsky surmise.

Actually, there is evidence of using taph-bet-ayin to mean “follow.” As Prof. Menahem Kistler helpfully pointed out to Ariel, the midrashic work Sifrei Devarim tells of scholars “who went abroad and traveled and arrived in Ptolemais” (that is, Acre). In this story, the word for “went” or “traveled” was based on the taph-bet-ayin root.

While about it, Ariel and Yuditsky also offered quirky new interpretations of two other mysterious phrases in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Scholars had been puzzled about the word “taamol” in the Raz Nihyeh (known as “The Secret of the Way Things Are,” or the “Sapiential Work Scroll”). The students decided that again unusually, here it means “to bear” or “to suffer.” That verse means, they say - “Do not rejoice when you should mourn, so that you will not suffer during your life.”

In another place in the work, the Hebrew words avad b’ruach — which could be translated as “worked for the wind/spirit” — appear. Based on verses in scripture, they suggest that the expression refers to a slave who receives no compensation for his work — in other words, one who toils for nothing.

Even the closest scrutiny can fail to reach the proper interpretation of the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls text: Sometimes it takes a mental leap.Credit: Alex Levac
Ancient Israelite coins found in the caves of Kumran, which had housed the Dead Sea Scrolls for two millennia.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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