Psalm 116:15 – My ‘Precioussss’

We learn a good lesson from Tolkien’s Gollum and the ring he calls “My Precioussss.” Indeed it is the things we consider most precious that have a way of sucking us into their power to control us and blind us to their dangers and to the value of other things.

Even our approach to the word of God can become that to us if we lose sight of the living God who speaks that word (see NT Wright’s recent lecture to a group of Anglican bishops concerning the theme of his book Scripture and the Authority of God ). We students and scholars of the Bible also come to the word of God with our interpretive “Preciouseses,” and we allow these perspectives–as well-intentioned as they may be–to control our reading and application of the text.

In light of these dangers, I appreciate the fellowship of community–including this biblioblogging community–and how we seek to fulfill what Edgar Krentz (The Historical-Critical Method, 53-54) has described as the virtue of the biblical historian:

The critical biblical scholar will not only question the texts, but himself–his methods, his conclusions, and his presuppositions–and the others who share in the same task. For he knows how often men are captive to their own prejudices and limitations…. On the one hand the historian remains critical of his own critical abilities…. But in a more profound sense he recognizes that in judging a text he also places himself under judgment of the text. And where the text deals with the profundities of man, that calls for a submission to the autonomy of the text that calls the historian forth for judgment and knowledge of himself. Then history performs its humane or (in the case of biblical texts) its theological function.

And thus, the recent interaction with Dr. Claude Mariottini between his blog here and mine here and here about the meaning of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 prompts me to re-examine my own approach to the text and translation. The discussion has centered around the legitimacy of some translations to interpret the word יקר (yāqār) in this context to mean ‘too precious’. And so instead of a more literal translation stating that the death of the faithful is precious to the LORD, they either say that the death of the faithful is somehow grievous to the LORD (NAB, Tanakh, TEV, CEV), or the verse focuses completely on the value of the life of his faithful followers (NET).

What is my translation philosophy for passages like this where the meaning is either ambiguous or perhaps evenly debated? (This questioning of allegiance to my own translation philosophy is how the discussion of the word יקר (yāqār) ‘precious’ in Psalm 116:15 relates to the image of Gollum and his ‘Precioussss’ and the lesson of being self-critical.)

Even though I have argued that the death of the faithful in Psalm 116:15 may be precious to the LORD precisely because he finds great value in their continued faithfulness in life, I feel quite uncomfortable losing the reference to the preciousness of death in a translation. Although I appreciate the NET Bible for getting at the potential underlying significance of the verse–the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers–it unfortunately removes any reference to death at all, and so the translation fails to show what this significance is in application to. In other words, the original expression of this verse is not a statement about life, but of death.

The value that God places on faithfulness in life may help us to understand why he considers the death of one of his children such a precious thing, but the statement about the preciousness of death should not be lost too easily. Something is precious when it is rare or when its value is high. We are willing to spend a large fortune on something that is most dear to us. And the great cost to the LORD of seeing the death of one of his faithful servants is that the person is no longer serving the LORD in the world. That is one way in which the death of the faithful may be understood to be a precious thing to the LORD. But to merely say that the LORD values the lives of his faithful followers says nothing of those lives coming to an end in death nor of the LORD’s view of such a death. Furthermore, such a translation precludes any other possible explanation for the LORD’s perspective on the preciousness of death among his faithful.

When a passage is debated like this, or when its meaning is truly ambiguous, it is a worthy goal of the translation team to express the meaning with an equivalent dose of ambiguity. However, inasmuch as the process of translation is an arduous and complicated process, the attempt at translating a double meaning or an ambiguous meaning is exponentially more difficult. It may be easiest to do if a highly literal translation reflects the same indeterminacy or multiplicity of senses as found in the original language text. But that is often unlikely.

I know it’s impossible to avoid interpretation in translation, and many times it’s necessary and important to choose the best understanding of a text to be reflected clearly in a translation. But we certainly don’t want our translations to over-interpret the text. When a translation comes down heavily on one side of an ambiguous, unclear, or debated text, that may be over-interpretation. If that interpretation is something that we hold dear–perhaps a “My Precioussss”–it’s more difficult to let it go. But even as we apply the tools of exegesis and communication to the processes of interpretation and translation, we must allow the Voice of the text to do his theological work in us.