In the middle of this song is a hapax legomenon, a Hebrew word occurring only once in the known literature. These are always a source of great debate as their meaning is not known.
The word in question is כִּישׁוֹר kishor in verse 19. Here is the context.
- יָדֶיהָ, שִׁלְּחָה בַכִּישׁוֹר; וְכַפֶּיהָ, תָּמְכוּ פָלֶךְ.
כַּפָּהּ, פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי; וְיָדֶיהָ, שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן
Literally, this says,
- Her hands she stretches out to the kishor
And with her palms she grasps the spindle
Her palm she opens to the poor
And her hands she stretches out to the needy.
The meaning of כִּישׁוֹר is not known. I have to ask if the fact that it has a plene spelling with full letters for the vowels could mean that it is a loan word. Wolters can not find a source for it. Now let’s look at the different ways that this unknown word is translated, not simply to find out what instrument this woman held, but to discover what we can about the different translations.
Chronologically the translations for kisor are:
- fortia Vulgate
- strong things Wycliff
- distaff Bishop’s Bible (from Luther) and most translations to present
- spindle-whorl Koehler Baumgartner Lexicon
- spinning staff HCSB
- doubling spindle Wolters and Waltke’s commentary
According to Luther, it is a distaff. She holds one spinning implement in one hand and the other in the other. Of course, Wolters argues that the problem with that is that you don’t hold a distaff in your hand, you either hold it under your arm, or tuck it into your waist or belt. It is the rod which holds the clump of unspun material – the fluff.
Furthermore, you can’t put two hands on the distaff and two hands on the spindle. And, of course, you would never use a distaff without the spindle. To top it all off, Wolters claims that there was no record or evidence of the distaff being used in spinning in the Near East. They used it in Greece but not further east.
The spindle-whorl is part of the spindle, a disc which sits at the bottom of the spindle to create momentum and stabilize the spin. It’s not going to work either as a likely translation.
How about the “spinning staff” of the HCSB? I know google and my own life experience are not the be all and end all, but I am going to treat them that way. I have never heard of a spinning staff used in spinning and google hasn’t either. But there is always the baton which you light at each end and twirl in the air at summer evening events. That is a spinning staff. Cool, eh? Can’t you just see the virtuous wife doing this?
So Wolters solution is that it must be the “plying spindle” or “doubling spindle”, which was larger and grasped by two hands. It is best made today with a dowel and two CD’s. It is a slightly different instrument from the spindle, and is used to combine two or three fine threads into heavier twisted yarn. The plying spindle either has one large whorl or two whorls in order to hold the thicker weight of the yarn.
The first is that I can’t find a modern translation which directly reflects recent scholarship on this word kishor. Wolters published his article on kishor in 1994* . Waltke quotes Wolters’ meaning “doubling spindle” in his Proverbs commentary, 2005, which he prepared for the revision of Proverbs in the TNIV, but the TNIV still has “distaff”.
Second, no one pays any attention to the entry in the Koehler Baumgartner which, in any case, appears to lack evidence.
Third, Jerome played it safe and went with the abstract.
Fourth, I am not sure how the HCSB decided on their innovation of “spinning staff”.
Fifth, the NET Bible passes over this word in silence. It is “distaff” and no note is appended implying that the meaning for this word is near certain, even though it is entirely unknown.
Sixth, I note that Luther’s translation, based on his vague impression that women use a distaff although they do not grasp it in their hands, has been overwhelmingly influential. Tradition preserves “distaff” in most current Bible translations. Much can be said for inertia!
On a final note, I’d like to congratulate the winner in this contest, the NLT,
- Her hands are busy spinning thread, her fingers twisting fiber.
Those translators must have read Wolters! I really identify with that translation, as I still have the memory of that feel of the fibres in my fingers from when I learned how to spin at some point in my “earth mother” past. Shhh. Don’t tell.
Update: In googling pictures of the distaff I can see that in some traditions the distaff is held in the hand, and is only a stick or rod. What if a distaff was used but we have no record of it? This is one of those cases where we may never know what the word means. But more pretty pictures.
Those of you who are interested in Waltke’s approach to authorship in the Hebrew scriptures, should take time to read this review. It fairly represents what Waltke is saying in class.
- The most obvious result of the book’s evangelical orientation is the identification of Solomon as the composer of the contents of Chapters 1-29. Chapter 30 was written by Agur son of Jakeh and all of Chapter 31, including the acrostic poem on “The Valiant Wife,” by Lemuel, who “[s]ince such a king is unattested in Israel’s history . . . is probably a proselyte to Israel’s faith” (2.503). Those who, like this reviewer, have fallen victim to the “endemic scholarly skepticism about the Bible’s own claims of its authorship” (1.27, 2.501) will need to bracket this aspect of the commentary in order to profit by its other aspects. But in fact Waltke’s approach is more nuanced than this statement makes it sound. He concludes, “The final editor, the real author of the book, not of its sayings, probably lived during the Persian period … or in the Hellenistic era” (1.37).
* Hebrew Union College Annual 65. (1994), 91-104.