The amount of ink spilled over Psalm 22:17 is enormous. In this post, I prepare the way for a presentation of old "new" evidence in favor of understanding the text as did, on the Jewish side, the Old Greek translation of the Psalms and a tradition kept alive within the medieval Hebrew manuscript tradition; and, on the Christian side, many commentators and translations ab initio, as one would expect, given that the text came to be considered a prophecy of the passion of the Christ.
In what sense a verse like this is to be understood prophetically is a question that comes up in both Jewish and Christian tradition and will not be addressed here. For the Christian exegete, it remains important to distinguish between the text’s sense “as applied to David” and “its fulfillment in Christ” (Keil and Delitzsch). What is the sense Psalm 22:17 has “as applied to David”?
An excellent and very recent scholarly translation of the Psalms is that found in the International Standard Version (ISV). Go here for version 1.4.9. The Hebrew text on which ISV Psalm 22:17 (22:16 in ISV’s numbering) bases itself reads כארו ‘they cut through, mauled’ instead of the received text’s כארי ‘like a lion’. The translation ISV offers, which I think is essentially correct, reads as follows:
16 For dogs have surrounded me;
a gang of evil-doers has encircled me.
They pierced1 my hands and my2 feet.
1 22:16 Or gouged; so with LXX, Syr., DSS XHev/Se4; The MT reads Like a lion
2 22:16 So MT; the LXX lacks my
It is interesting that כארו is attested for this locus by the Masora at Num. 24:9 and by Jacob ben Hayyim in the Masora finalis as the ms Ketiv (so Keil and Delitzsch ad loc). Given the attested textual variation among the manuscripts and in the ancient versions, and even aside from it, it makes sense to explore other options besides MT כארי. ISV is within reason to translate as it does; it lists the most important witnesses that corroborate its preference.
However, based on an article by J. J. M. Roberts (“A New Root for an Old Crux: Ps 22:17c,” VT 23 (1973) 247-52), the interpretation of this passage represented most clearly by LXX and Syriac has suffered disrepute. A fellow blogger, Chris Heard, has summarized the article elsewhere (I have lightly abridged the contents):
Roberts surveys the various translations attempted (as of 1973) of כארי ידי ורגלי. Noting that (a) the majority of commentators agree that there is something amiss with the word כארי, (b) the ancient versions routinely try to read כארי as a verb, (c) intrusive alephs are relatively common, and (d) graphic confusion between ו and י is common, agrees with the tendency to read כארי as a slightly anomalous 3mp verb derived from a verbal root כרה. This is how translations like LXX and, following LXX, NIV get "they dug through /pierced my hands and my feet," by reading כרו (ignoring the intrusive א and "restoring" ו for MT י. LXX and, following its lead, NIV then read כרה as an instance of כרה I, "to dig." Roberts argues convincingly that כרה I semantically ill fits the usage here, and after surveying other possibilities, he suggests reading here a previously unrecognized Hebrew root כרה V "to be short, shrunken, shriveled." He demonstrates that such a root exists in both Syriac and Akkadian, and proposes that we read the same thing here. Roberts writes:
There is no particular merit in "discovering" vast numbers of "hitherto unrecognized" Hebrew roots, particularly when the passages being explicated make sense with the old established roots. Nevertheless, classical Hebrew undoubtedly possessed a much richer vocabulary than has been preserved in our limited corpus of texts, and where none of the old roots make sense in the context, as is certainly the case in Ps. xxii 17c, it is legitimate to suggest a new root. The only requirements are that the root be well-attested in a cognate language or languages, the difference in root consonants, if any, be explainable by the principles of Semitic phonology, and the meaning suggested for the new root be consistent with its attested meaning in the cognate languages and with the context in the other language where it is posited. A root kara(h) V, "to be short, shrunken, shriveled", which I would posit for Ps. xxii 17c, meets all these criteria. Hence one may accept the commonly adopted reading karu, interpret it as a verb form, and translate Ps. xxii 17c-18a as follows: My hands and my feed are shriveled up, / I can count all my bones.
In the 2004 Festschrift for Roberts (David and Zion, Eerdmans), Michael Barré's article "The Crux of Psalm 22:17c: Solved at Long Last?" refines and extends Roberts's suggestion by surveying the Akkadian diagnostic texts in which Akk. karu is used, to better define the semantic range of the Akkadian verb.
Roberts' reading is reflected in NRSV, "My hands and feet have shriveled."
So Chris Heard, and so far so good. But, in the light of “new” old evidence, a key plank in Roberts’ argument gives way. It is no longer possible to claim that כרה I ‘dig, dig through’ in ancient Hebrew cannot plausibly mean ‘cut through,’ ‘pierce,’ or the like. I will present the evidence in a forthcoming post.