Titles of Psalms (Postscript 2)

The use of על in Psalm titles

This post is a more ‘technical’ note and readers without a working knowledge of biblical Hebrew may choose to gloss over it.

As על occurs in several psalm titles it needs to be considered in further detail.[1] Herbert May argues that על is a rubric which should be given a relatively uniform interpretation referring to “the title of the ancient melodies to which the psalm was sung, indicated by the first words or word of the ancient hymn from which they were taken”. He further argues in relation to the occurrence of על in the Psalm titles that “It is not impossible that as a result of outside influences on the temple cult, especially on the music – for it is with the music that this rubric [על] is probably to be associated – changes in the temple cult made this rubric obsolete, so that its significance was forgotten, although it was still inscribed in the superscriptions.”[2] Others have also argued that the same may be true of other terms in the Psalm titles whose meanings have been lost. Thirtle, on the other hand, objects to על being interpreted as relating to a tune, arguing that it means on, concerning, or related to but cannot mean set to. A similar term, אֶל, also occurs in some psalm titles: for example, the Psalm 79 postscript (Ps 80:1) has אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת which here could mean to or possibly in connection with. It should be noted that the interchange of על and אל is a well known phenomenon in biblical texts.[3] However, Thirtle argues that they should be distinguished in the Psalm titles and given different meanings, so he may not have been aware of this phenomenon or he was overly optimistic about the MT’s preservation of linguistic details. [4] In the אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת psalms (56, 57, 58, 74 [postscripts]) the particle עַל gives way to אַל although here, according to several translations, it is used as a negative particle, namely do not destroy.[5] All occurrences of על or אל are in Books I to III, mostly in the Davidic and Elohistic collections. According to Thirtle’s thesis they all occur in postscripts to the preceding psalm, with the exception of על־דברי־כוש בן־ימיני concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite. This is found in the superscript of Psalm 7 and appears to be a historical title.[6] The difficulty here is that this would be the only use of על in the Psalm titles as an historical referent. Childs argues that the preposition rather indicates that Psalm 7 “is to be sung ‘according to the words of Cush’ … and belongs to a liturgical setting.” If he is right then this is actually not an historical title.[7] It would still, however, be the only occurrence of the על rubric in a superscript rather than a postscript.

___________________

[1] See Table below

[2] May, “‘AL….’ in the Superscriptions of the Psalms,” 71-72.

[3] Ian Young, et al., Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), Vol 1, 40.

[4] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 126.

[5] It should be noted that in these superscriptions the MT has אַל (rather than אֶל).

[6] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), drawing on Talmudic sources (BT Mo’ed Qatan 16b and Midrash Tehillim), regards the term “Cush” to be a reference to Saul and the historical context to be David’s cutting of Saul’s garment in 1 Samuel 24:6. Mayer I. Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms 1-89 (Books I-III): With English Translation, Introduction and Notes (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 69, 71.

[7] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

Table: The אל/על rubric

Title אל Psalm (postscript except where indicated) Collection
אל־הנחילות אל 4 Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַשְּׁמִינִית 5, 11 Book I Davidic
עַל־דִּבְרֵי־כוּשׁ בֶּן־יְמִינִֽי

(Possibly an historical title: “Concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite”)

7 (superscript) Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַגִּתִּית 7

80

84

Book I Davidic

Book III Asaph

Book III Elohistic

עַל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים 44

68

Book II Korahite/Elohistic

Book II Davidic

עַֽל־עֲלָמֹות 45 Book II Korahite/Elohistic
עַֽל־מָחֲלַת 52 Book II Davidic
עַל־יֹונַת אֵלֶם רְחֹקִים 55 Book II Davidic
אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת אל 56, 57, 58

74

Book II Davidic

Book II Asaph

עַל־שׁוּשַׁן עֵדוּת 59 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־נְגִינַת 60 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־יְדוּתוּן 38

61

76

Book I Davidic

Book II Davidic

Book III Asaph

אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת אל 79 Book III Asaph
עַל־מָחֲלַת לְעַנֹּות 87 Book III Elohistic

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