Snow Falling On Salem
I thought at first that I would continue with my study of Biblical Hebrew words suggested by Obadiah today, but when I awoke I realized there was snow on the ground. Snow in late February in Salem OR. So, “snow” had to be the basic concept or word that generated my interest.
But anyone steeped in the Bible and seeing “snow falling on Salem,” would immediately think of “snow falling on Zalmon” in Ps. 68:14. Interestingly enough, the snow in that verse is the verb for “to snow” (שָׁלַג, shalag), so a better translation is “it was snowing” on Zalmon. Well, the entire verse is, “When the Almighty (שַׁדַּי, Shaddai) scattered (פָרַשׂ, paras) kings (we have already seen melek) in it, snow fell (shalag) on Zalman (צַלְמוֹן). I would like to explore “scattered” and “snow.”
The word rendered “scattered” in Ps. 68:14 (paras) appears 67x in the Bible, but often is translated “spread out” in addition to “scatter.” Perhaps the most noteworthy mention of “spread out” in the Bible is in Is. 65:2. As I quote it here I will give the Hebrew letters when it is a new word for us, and give italics where we have already learned it. In that passage God laments that “I have stretched out (paras) my hands (yad) all (kol) day (yom) towards/to (אֶל, el) a people (עַם, am) rebellious (סָרַר is verb, to rebel, sarar) who walk (halak) in the way (דֶּרֶךְ, derek) that is not (לֹא, lo) good (tob) after (achar) their own thoughts (מַחֲשָׁבָה, machashabah).
Several words from that Is. 65:2 passage invite deeper consideration, especially the verb form of machashabah, which is חָשַׁב, chashab (to think/devise/plan), which occurs more than 100x in the Bible, but for now we will just confined ourselves to paras. Ex. 9:33 has Moses spreading out (paras) his hands (כַּף, kaph), while Ex. 25:20 talks about wings (kanaph) that are spread upward. But in the latter case these are wings of the “cherubim” (כְּרוּב, kerub) that are spread (paras) upwards or above (מַעַל, maal). One more little detour and then back to snow. The other little detour is the spreading of a covering over something. In II Sam. 17:19 a woman takes (laqach) and spreads (paras) a covering over the mouth (in this case it is panim, or the “face”) of the well (בְּאֵר, beer, two syllables). Though “well” is new, I wanted to focus for a second on the “covering” or “screen” (מָסָךְ, masak). We note that it is derived from the a verb we have already seen, “cover” (sakak), and when we briefly considered it previously, we gave a few illustrations of it in its 24x-appearing glory.
Returning to sheleg/shalag
At this point, though we are entranced by the journeys down the lanes and roads of paras or masak, we need to return to the idea that launched this study today: snow! As we have seen, the verb shalag is an OT hapax, but the noun form, שֶׁלֶג (sheleg) appears 19x. Interesting to me, however, is that its appearance sometimes doesn’t refer to snow itself but to things that have the appearance of snow, like a leprous hand. For example, in Num. 12:10, we have Miriam (מִרְיָ֖ם) becoming leprous (צָרַע, tsara means “to be struck with leprosy”) as “snow” (sheleg). Such a person became “unclean” (טָמֵא, tame—two syllables) in Israel.
Back to sheleg. It often is mentioned with other meteorological phenomena that are important to know. Yet, we begin with a theological use: “I shall become whiter than snow,” a statement from Ps. 51:7 relating to the idea of forgiveness, which uses the verb לָבַן (laban, to become white) to accompany sheleg. But if we go to meteorology, we have Ps. 148:8, “Fire (esh) and hail (barad), snow (sheleg) and clouds (qitor); storms (searah) fulfilling his word,” a verse we have already looked at, though we need to mention “fulfilling” (which really is “doing (עָשָׂה, asah)); the divine word is the familiar dabar. Another verse from a neighboring Psalm uses sheleg, where we have, “He gives sheleg like wool (צֶמֶר, tsemer); the frost/hoarfrost (כְּפוֹר, kephor) like ashes (אֵפֶר, epher) he scatters (פָזַר, pazar). The “hoarfrost” reference makes us reflect on the nature of language, since the word kephor appears 12x in the Bible, and in the majority of those appearances kephor is best rendered “bowl.” Kind of makes you wonder what is a Hebrew word, and when one decides that a spelling really represents two words rather than simply one word.
And, we close this essay with the observation that pazar and paras are synonyms; both of them refer to scattering or spreading out. Now that we know them, however, it would be salutary to “spread out” all the passages where they appear and try to come up with at least a Biblical distinction between the two, based on usage. That, in fact, is almost all we have to go on since the Biblical text is the most complete witness we have to the development of the ancient Hebrew language. So, we both have the joy of new discoveries and the pain of conflicting meanings for words. But that is an accurate statement or illustration of human experience, not just with languages, but with all things.
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