What is the translation of Ka’ari? Like a lion?

What is the correct translation?

Jewish and Christian renderings of Psalms 22:17 have different translations for the word Ka’ari. Why is it so? Let’s find out.

Why do the respective Jewish and Christian renderings of Psalms 22:17 (16 in some versions) differ in the translation of the Hebrew word ka-‘ari?

Answer: Christians see in this verse an opportunity to make the claim that the psalmist foretold the piercing of Jesus’ hands and feet as part of the crucifixion process. They maintain that the Hebrew word ka-‘ari in verse 17 (16 in some versions) should be translated as “pierce.” They render this verse as: “They pierced my hands and my feet.” This follows the Septuagint version, used by the early Christians, whose error is repeated by the Vulgate and the Syriac. However, it should be noted that the Septuagint underwent textual revisions by Christian copyists in the early centuries of the Common Era; it is not known if the rendering “pierced” is one of those revisions.

In any case, this rendering contains two fallacies. First, assuming that the root of this Hebrew word is  krh, “to dig,” then the function of the ‘aleph in the word ka-‘ari is inexplicable since it is not part of the root. Karah consists only of the Hebrew letters kaph, resh, and he, whereas the word in the Hebrew text,  ka-‘ari, consists of kaph, ‘aleph, resh, and yod. Second, the verb  krh, “to dig,” does not have the meaning “to pierce.” Karah generally refers to the digging of the soil, and is never applied in the Scriptures to the piercing of the flesh (cf. Genesis 26:25; Exodus 21:33; Numbers 21:18; Jeremiah 18:20, 22; Psalms 7:16, 57:7). There are a number of words that are used in Hebrew for piercing the body: rats’a, “to pierce,” “to bore with an awl” (Exodus 21:6); dakar, “to pierce” (Zechariah 12:10, Isaiah 13:15);  nakar, “to pierce,” “to bore,” “to perforate” (2 Kings 18:21). This last word is used in a very significant sense in the last verse cited: “It [the reed] will go into his hand and pierce it.” Any of these words would be far better suited for use in this passage than one that is generally used to denote digging the soil.

The correct interpretation of the verse must be based on the elliptical style of this particular psalm. The text should read, in effect: “Like a lion [they are gnawing at] my hands and my feet.” Ellipsis (the omission of words) is an apt rhetorical device for a composition in which suffering and agony is described. A person in agony does not usually express his feelings in complete round sentences. Such a person is capable of exclaiming only the most critical words of his thoughts and feelings. In this case: “Like a lion . . . my hands and my feet!” Similarly, in verse 1 we find broken phrases rather than whole sentences: “Far from helping me . . . the words of my roaring.”

Examining Psalm 22, we find that verses 17, 21, and 22 express parallel thoughts. In verse 17, the psalmist speaks of “dogs” and “a lion,” which are metaphoric representations of his enemies, and in verses 21 and 22 respectively, he beseeches the Almighty to save him “from a dog’s paw” and “from a lion’s mouth.” Thus, in verse 17, where he complains of the lion, the missing words are understood, and it is to be read: “Like a lion [they are gnawing at] my hands and my feet.” This is the most plausible interpretation of the text. Rashi’s interpretation of the verse–“As if crushed by the mouth of a lion are my hands and my feet“–is similar in thought to the one we have offered though differently stated. While these interpretations fit with the diction of the entire psalm, the Christian translation–“They pierced my hands and my feet“–does not.

Grammatical proof of the correctness of the Masoretic text is seen by the use of the qamatz under the kaph in ka-‘ari, which is the result of an assimilated definite article. Thus, the literal translation would be “Like the lion. . . .” While in English, a noun used in a general sense is recognized by having no article, either definite or indefinite, in Hebrew, as well as in many other languages, such nouns take the definite article. For example, “Work is good for man” in Hebrew would be “The work is good for man.” (Cf. Amos 5:19 with the English translation.)

The metaphorical terminology used by the psalmist to express in physical terms his mental anguish is comparable to similar usage found in Jeremiah 23:9. There the prophet exclaims: “My heart within me is broken, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine has overcome.”

As a result of a careful study of this verse, we see that the Christian claim that Psalms 22:17 (16 in some versions) foretells that Jesus’ hands and feet would be pierced has no truth to it.


© Gerald Sigal