Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"The Song of the Sword," anonymous ancient Hebrew poem

The Song of the Sword [Genesis 4:23-24]

[Original text in Hebrew]

[English translation by JPS]:

[And Lamech said to his wives,]

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech.
I have slain a man for wounding me,
And a lad for bruising me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.

Notes: (i) The author of this ancient poem or poem-fragment is unknown.  Linguistic evidence suggests an approximate date of composition of the 12th century BCE. 
(ii)  "sevenfold" - After Cain kills his brother Abel, he is cursed by God.  Cain comments that he will be killed for his actions.  God declares sevenfold vengeance upon anyone who takes Cain's life.  God then places a mark upon Cain.  This narrative is taken to be an etiology, explaining the peculiar 'mark' [perhaps a tattoo] worn by members of a tribe claiming descent from Cain.  The tribe likely attempted to deter violence against its members by threatening the sevenfold violence. 

Source of the text (the Hebrew and the English translation) -  Sarna, Nahum M., Genesis = Be-reshit : the traditional Hebrew text with new JPS translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989, pp.38-39.

TJB: 3 deeply parallel couplets marry form to content; the poem’s nature as tribal boast is brutally magnified by its austere parallelisms.

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