by Steven Bishop, PhD, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX
Students gaze at me in wide wonder when I tell them that unicorns are in the Bible, at least in certain translations of the Bible. To add to their wonder, I tell them that the 1928 Book of Common Prayer has unicorns in three Psalms (Ps. 22:21; 29:6; 92:9).
Psalm 92:9 But my horn shall be exalted like the horn of an unicorn; * for I am anointed with fresh oil.
Putting unicorns out to pasture was at least one of the goals of the 1979 revision of the Psalter and it succeeded. The unicorns have been replaced by ‘wild bulls’, which is a more fitting translation.
However, not all the excisions made to the Psalter of the 1979 Prayer Book are to be commended. This Ash Wednesday we recited Psalm 51 together as a penitential prayer. One of the most evocative lines is verse 7:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Hyssop, also known as marjoram, is a central element of this imagery. Hyssop is a plant used in the sprinkling of blood on the eve of the Exodus (Ex. 12) and in rituals of cleansing for leprosy and certain ritual purifications performed within the sacrifice of the Red Heifer (Num. 19). The poem has already mentioned washing, and this verse adds the imagery of sprinkling in a purification rite without using the word ‘sprinkle’.
In addition, the poem adds the evocative metaphor of snow. What does it mean to the psalmist to be washed so thoroughly, so completely that not one stain remains? Is it not the prayer of one deeply penitent individual who realizes that without God’s cleansing they are powerless to attain forgiveness? It seems to me it is.
It was therefore quite surprising to read this Ash Wednesday the same verse revised this way:
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
Where did the hyssop go? Has it been sent off to grow in the pasture of the unicorns? Without hyssop or snow the verse is pedestrian. It lacks the richness of the imagery present in the psalm and instrumental to appreciating the deep need of the psalmist who desires, no needs, this purification rite to be restored to God.
In a 1960 letter to a Mr. Beamer of Cleveland, Ohio, Rev. Charles Guilbert, the chair of the Drafting Committee at that time, agreed that ‘hyssop’ was obscure. He had offered the translating committee this revision:
Purge me, and I shall be cleaner than a gushing stream.
The committee did not accept that suggestion, to our great relief. But it did offer something less gushing, less poetic, and without imagination. This aspect of the revision is a failure.
Though talk of a revision of the Prayer Book seems to live perennially, talk of revising the Psalter is less prominent. The Psalter of the Prayer Book has its problems but it doesn’t need a complete revision. We only need to leave the unicorns out to pasture and allow the hyssop to bloom once again in Psalm 51.
Irene Jacob, s.v. “FLORA,” 2:812. Ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1992 by Yale University as assignee from Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 4.1