Prayers eating bread made from tears

4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us an object of contention for our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh among themselves.

Psalm 80:4-6, ESV

There’s a crazy little mind-bender in this translation involving pronominal reference. In verse 4, the active participant is “prayers.” It is the object of the verb “be angry with.” Then when you move on to verse 5, you hit a pronoun, “them.” In English a pronoun refers back to the most logical referent in a previous phrase. So, the word, “you,” obviously is referring to “O Lord God of hosts” since it is the only noun referred to in the second person. But “them” points back to “prayers” instead of “your people.” Many English translations have a tough time keeping all the pronouns straight in this passage. One strategy is to harmonize them all: “us” instead of “them.” REB, NRSV, and NIV also get the pronouns fumbled up here.

Another funny sounding thing here is the “bread of tears.” Any suggestions on what that means or how you might translate it?

Forgive me for doing a little copy-editing here. I’m going to try to clean up the passage above. See if my version is an improvement.

4 O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry when your people pray?
5 You have fed them with tears instead of bread
and given them tears in abundance to drink as well.
6 You make us a source of quarrelling for our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh at us among themselves.

Psalm 80:4-6 ESV, edited

To be honest, I’m not sure what “You make us an object of contention for our neighbors” is supposed to mean. Our neighbors argue about us? We cause fights with our neighbors? I would have to study the original language to try to understand this. There’s no footnote on the text so it must have been deemed comprehensible by the translators.

I quite like the TEV translation of this passage. It’s clear without being pretentious or unimaginative:

4 How much longer, LORD God Almighty,
will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have given us sorrow to eat,
a large cup of tears to drink.
6 You let the surrounding nations fight over our land;
our enemies insult us.

That seems quite gracefully translated. The pronominal stuff has been straightened out. And the parallelism of tears has been handled nicely without being awkward. The translators interpreted verse six to mean that “surrounding nations fight over our land.” I can at least understand that. Whether that’s a good translation or not I’ll leave for interpreters of the Hebrew text.

Well, those are just some of my own jumbly thoughts about this jumbled passage. Had I been reading a natural language translation I might not have noticed these interesting bits of the translation. So maybe Biblish is helpful if it makes you slow down and think through a complex passage that you otherwise would have just sailed through.

By the way, our family is in Durban, South Africa for the next few days. Tonight we went to Spur and they fed me with the bread of steak. It was delicious. They also gave me water to drink in full measure because I was quite thirsty after a long drive through the hot Transkaai. Who got to sit where in the car on the way home was an object of contention for our children. My wife and I just had to laugh among ourselves.

21 thoughts on “Prayers eating bread made from tears

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    This is what I wrote – rough – but good input to a creative poet like you

    יְהוָה God of hosts
    how long are you angered with the prayer of your people
    you make them eat the bread of tears
    and you make them drink a bucket of tears
    You set us judged among our neighbours
    and our enemies ridicule us

  2. CharlesPDog says:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with this psalm as written, other than its the ESV, RSV and KJV (if you catch my drift). Its poetic imagery………that works for me.
    I can see the tears running down the face into the bread as it is being kneaded, and as it is being eaten, the sadness and emptiness the occurs after being eaten. Maybe even some oblique “saltiness” added to the bread in the Biblical sense.

    “Any suggestions on what that means”?

    I would assume it is the food, sustenance, for the body, mind and soul(even though the Jews really didn’t have the concept of soul), but it is a food of sadness, sorrow.

    FWIW Robert Alter also translated it bread of tears.

    “You make us an object of contention…” WE are the object of contention, discord, strife(Alter’s word) with our neighbors.
    Although I too, as with Mr. MacDonald, feel a sense of derision from the English translation since I don’t read Hebrew

  3. Dru says:

    This is a bit free because it has to fit the metre as well, but how about:-

    5 How long will you, Lord God of Hosts
    rage at your people’s prayers?
    6 You dole them weeping for their bread
    and slake their thirst with tears

    7 To our neighbours you have made us
    contention, strife, forsworn.
    They mock us, do our enemies
    they laugh at us with scorn.

  4. Jeremy Davis says:

    I am relatively new to this site, so I have what might be a silly question. When spoken, would the word “Biblish” be pronounced like “Bibb-lish” or “Bibe-lish?”

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Dru said:

    Interesting. I’d say Bibblish.

    That’s how I’ve always said it, Dru, but I can’t recall if I’ve ever heard anyone else pronounce the word, so I can’t be considered any authority on this–or a multitude of other things, for that matter. 🙂

  6. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    and given them tears to drink in full measure.

    “Full measure” seems off here. According to the NET notes, the Hebrew refers to a “third part of a measure”, which I interpret akin to “1/3 cup” and which seems backed up by the other occurrence of this word/phrase in Isaiah 40:12, where deliberate or careful measuring is mentioned. So rather than conveying “full measure” or “in abundance” or “a large cup”, I wonder if there should be more precision:

    5 You have fed them with the bread of sorrow
    and carefully poured their tears to drink.

    Maybe that’s a bit heavy handed, but it also carries an implication that something measured will also come to an end, an echo of the hope of “how long, O Lord?” in verse 4.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Wayne, I think you coined the term (if not, who did?) so I guess you have the right to decide how it should be pronounced. Anyway, I’m with you on this one, though people can pronounce it differently in southern Africa if they like.

  8. Bob MacDonald says:

    This is a poem on presence – face and facing till we have faces. Notice this is uniquely titled as a testimony – as well as a psalm. It is nice to see the sorrow as carefully measured.

    I can’t see bread of tears as Biblish – it is an ancient image that makes perfect sense in my language. It may lose its impact through familiarity. God forbid he himself should succumb to the same aspect of our attentions.

  9. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    I can’t see bread of tears as Biblish – it is an ancient image that makes perfect sense in my language.

    I agree, Bob – I understand the naturalists’ desire to have familiarity, but treasure the intensity of image that language is capable of.

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