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סלה: a ritual or musical term?

July 11, 2007

Acting on a request by Rick Brannan, both Christopher Heard and John Hobbins have trolled into the deep and chaotic waters to ponder the meaning of the Hebrew term סלה. While not claiming by any measure the acumen of Christopher and John in regards to Hebrew poetry, a comment by Duane Smith on Christopher’s post got me thinking in my decidedly ritual way:

Has anyone suggested that the word might be related to Akkadian salā’u(m) (salû) which in some contexts means “to sprinkle” water, sometimes even as part of a purification ritual? I looked around a little and couldn’t find this suggestion. Weirdly, in some contexts the Akkadian word also means “to slander.” Lexicographers relate this Akkadian word to your second verb spelled סלה. I know that this is nothing more than throwing mud into a swamp. But I have occasionally wondered if the strange words in the Psalms were ritual rubrics rather than musical rubrics as some think them.

A little digging on my own part found that salā’u/salû is used in connection with a rite similar to but different than the bît rimki — the latter being a ritual of purification undergone by the (mostly) Neo-Assyrian kings as part of petionery prayers made to deities. Unfortunately, beyond the fact that salā’u/salû involves water and was associated with šuilla prayers, I can’t find much info.

However, on the other side of the equation, I also scoured my resources on musical terms and notations from the ancient world (i.e. musical historians rather than biblical scholars) and came up with zilch in regards to סלה being a musical notation. While the LXX “translates” the term as διάψαλμα “interlude on strings”(NET), there seems to be little consensus among musical historians that this is actually the case. While it is an argument from silence, the fact that Joachim Braun’s Music in Ancient Israel in particular doesn’t bring up סלה in his extensive discussion of musical terms seems quite telling — especially in light of his penchant for etymologies, both linguistic and anthropological.

So I find myself forced into a ritual understanding for סלה; one that might function as a space filler or bridge, similar to Christopher’s understanding based on close reading of the texts. That water could be used in a ritual context is apparent from the water ritual 1 Sam 7:6 (where the verb is admittedly שפך). In this ritual the water is poured out to analogically represent the petitionery mourning on the part of the people. A similar usage might also stand behind the water that David pours out as a libation before YHWH (יסך אתם ליהוה) in 2 Sam 23:16, though the specific analogical identification of the water with blood could be the rational in that rite. While I might also place Elijah’s use of water at Mt. Carmel in this ritual category as well, the argument here is much more strained given the obvious analogical overtones of YHWH pouring out rain upon Israel.

Both the rituals mentioned, as well as the poetry under discussion have some common traits. First, none of them have a Priestly background. The rites are not stipulated within any of the Priestly traditions (PT, HS, Ezek); nor are the hymnic materials in the psalter apparently under their jurisdiction (see Israel Knoll’s The Sanctuary of Silence). Second, they both address themes that I can only describe as šuilla-ish. The theme of petition runs deep in the usage of סלה as well as the rituals noted above.

As a final note, the use of music might also have been incorporated into this ritual activity as well. Depending on the quantity of water drawn and poured out, musical activity might have accompanied the activity as a way of adding focus to the event, or (more quotidian) as a way of keeping the people from becoming disinterested (one here thinks of the modern offertory music in many Protestant churches). This lasted bit is perhaps the most speculative of my admittedly speculative theory, but it does explain how a ritual term from the HB could have become fossilized into a musical rubric in the LXX.

One Comment
  1. July 11, 2007 2:39 pm


    It’s very nice to see that you took up my idea. Thanks. It’s hard to find a high (or even a mid) probability solution in all this. And as you noted, music and ritual are far from mutually exclusive.

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