Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My El! My El! Why have You spared me?

Matthew 27:46

Perhaps no Scripture evokes more emotion than the cry from the stake in Matthew 27:46. How is it possible that these powerful words have been misunderstood for nearly two millennia? For many, Y’hoshua’s last utterance was either understood as a cry of desperation or a declaration of his Messiahship from Psalm 22:1 “My El, My El, why have you forsaken me.” Greek versions attempt to translate the Psalm as Eli, Eli lama sabacthani. However the Aramaic Peshitta NT reads: “Eli, Eli lemana shbakthani,” while Hebrew Psalm reads: “Eli, Eli lama azbatani.” Greek transliteration reflects the Aramaic word as does the Peshitta. However, there is a key difference between azbatani, which only means “to forsake” and its Aramaic counterpart Shbakthani which has multiple meanings but also includes the same concept.

Even so, does this mean Y’hoshua is quoting Psalm 22? To answer that question, consider these verses: “And from that time onwards, Y’hoshua began to make known to his disciples that he must go to Yerushalayim and suffer much from the elders and from the chief priests, and scribes. And he would be killed, and on the third day would rise up” (Matthew 16:21). “Behold, we are going up to Yerushalayim, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and to the scribes. And they will condemn him to death. And they will deliver him to the Gentiles, and they will mock him, and they will beat him, and they will execute him on a stake. And he will rise on the third day” (Matthew 20:18-19). When Peter prepared to fight Y’hoshua replied, “…don’t you think that I am able to ask my Father to raise up twelve legions of Messengers? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled. Thus say that it must be” (Matthew 26:53-54).

Y’hoshua informed his disciples that his death was inevitable, and that it would be fulfilled according to Scripture. Anyone who tried to prevent his death, even a loyal disciple like Peter, was referred to as being of haSatan! Y’hoshua knows that he is laying down his life as a voluntary offering according to John 10:11-18, but he can also take it back. He is referred to as the “lamb of Elohim” because the lamb submits his life unto death; a key requirement of Mashiyach according to Isaiah 53:7. Therefore, when Y’hoshua is suffering on the stake, he is fulfilling the very reason he came into the world – the suffering he could end in the blink of an eye, according to John 10. In this context then, with full power in him, the blessings of the Father, and YHWH’s Messengers with him, he could not have, even for an instant, been forsaken.

When Y’hoshua was praying in the garden just before being betrayed, his prayer was immediately answered by YHWH sending a Messenger, in Luke 22:43, “…a Messenger appeared to him from Heaven to strengthen him.” This being the case, we must look at the final words that come out of Y’hoshua’s mouth; let’s examine the Aramaic word shbakthani. As mentioned above, it shares the “forsake” meaning with the Hebrew word used in Psalm 22. However, the root of the word shbak has several other meanings including: 1) reserve 2) keep 3) spare 4) forgive. In Luke 23:34, Y’hoshua uses the exact same word to say, “Father shbak (forgive) them for they know not what they do.” This multiplicity of meaning in Aramaic, naturally groups related concepts under the umbrella of the same word. In this case, reserve, keep and spare all are variations from the same concept of setting aside. The same can be said idiomatically of forgive, where offenses are metaphorically also “set aside.” Conversely, the rabbis throughout the centuries have always translated the Hebrew azbatani in Psalm 22 exclusively as “forsaken.” That is not to say the other meanings of shbak do not exist also in its Hebrew equivalent, because they do in other verses of Scripture. In the end only one solution reveals itself, which is that another meaning of shbakthani is intended. The context safely eliminates forgive as a possibility as it makes no sense; therefore, the highly similar concept of reserve, keep or spare are left to investigate.

Some scholars have suggested that lemana could be interpreted as a statement and that would allow the first two definitions as possibilities with readings like, “My El, My El, for this you have reserved/kept me.” However, traditional understanding of this verse has always affirmed lemana only as a question. Therefore, what remains as the most viable reading is: “My El, My El, why have you reserved/kept/spared me.” While all these possibilities will clearly work, the choice of Paul Younan (a foremost Aramaic scholar) is the wording, “why have you spared me” because reserve or kept has a continuation of a wider question that Y’hoshua is clearly not asking. Furthermore and in concordance with the other Scriptures mentioned, Y’hoshua is clearly aware of the reasons for his death, and therefore to use the other options would allow for inadequate options like, “why have you kept me around” or “why have you reserved me for this purpose”. Since he fully knows the reasons for his suffering, the preferred choice is “why have you spared me” or, “I’ve been here for six hours and will die for this cause, but how much more time will this take?” in response to this question Scripture tells us that Y’hoshua dies shortly thereafter, thus validating the context.

Finally, there is very good reason why tradition has been so strong on linking this utterance to Psalm 22. While Y’hoshua himself may or may not be quoting the Psalm, the rest of the narrative is clearly referencing it. This section of Matthew is a Midrash, or dramatic story rendering of Psalm 22. the very rebukes found in the Psalm are on the lips of the Pharisees as they taunt Mashiyach (Psalm 22:6-8; Matthew 27:39-40). The Psalm references his “hands and feet pierced” and having “enemies gamble for his clothing” (Psalm 22:16, 18; Matthew 27:34). Even the probable condition of Y’hoshua hanging on a stake is described with phrases like, “I am poured out like water and all my joints are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax and has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You lay me in the dust of death.” With all this Psalmic imagery, it’s no wonder many have concluded with apparent logic that Y’hoshua is quoting Psalm 22:1! But we must also consider other factors; for instance: Y’hoshua was also experiencing brutal physical trauma, which is know to cause impairment of speech. Secondly, we do not have concise evidence to know whether Y’hoshua was speaking Hebrew or Aramaic at that moment, so even in the best of circumstances those who stood by listening may not have clearly heard what he was saying. In this matter, Hebrew speaking witnesses at the site of the execution thought he was calling on “Eliyah” as opposed to “My El.” Perhaps it was only an exhalation of pain (Eli-ah). Altogether these criteria presents a compelling case for determining how two similar phrases were transposed. In the end what we have here is another section of Matthew which “represents” rather than “quotes” from Scripture.

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