Philippe Guillaume & Noga Blockman
By my God, I bull leap (Psalm 18:30 // 2 Samuel 22:30)
Bull Leaping in the Bible?
However, the meaning “wall” for rw# is rare; besides Psalm 18:30 and its parallel in 2 Samuel 22:30, it occurs in two other obscure passages (Genesis 49:22; Psalm 92:12) that have nothing to do with walls. However, Thijs Booij translates Psalm 92:12 without referring to any wall: ‘And my horn is exalted like that of the wild ox, I shine with fresh oil’. As for Joseph’s blessing, it takes a lot of ingenuity to avoid the bovine metaphor of a mounting bull. A literal translation of the unpointed text reads: ‘Joseph is a cow’s son, on me the source of daughters advanced, on me a bull’. Therefore rw# (80 times) is always a “bull” or “mature bovine”. It remains unclear whether dwdg needs to be changed into rwdg “enclosed place”, the arena where the leaping is practiced, or whether it makes sense as it is, deriving it from dyg “sinew” (Genesis 32:33) or dwg “attack” (Genesis 49:19). rwdg would be a kind of anatomic designation of part of the bull.In any case, Psalm 18:30 reads:
yhl)bw dwdg Cr) Kb-yk
Because by you I run (in) the enclosure and by my god I leap a bull.
The translation of rw# by wall is only substantiated by the LXX which renders it with tei=xoj “wall”. Obviously, the Alexandrian translators never had a chance marvel in front of the breath-taking frescos in Knossos (Illustration 1) and Tell el-Dab‘a since the buildings that they adorned had been ruined for a millennium when the Psalm was translated into Greek.
A reference to bull-leaping in Hebrew literature is not as exotic
as it seems since it is well-attested across the Bronze-Age Orient, from
the Aegean, Hittite, Syrian and Egyptian worlds. Wolfgang Decker has conveniently gathered
all the evidence; we will only mention a few examples to illustrate Psalm
Illustration 1: Fresco from the palace of Knossos, Late Minoic time, about 1500 BCE
In Syria, a cylinder seal impression from Alalakh (ca. 1700 bce) bears
a bull-leaping scene (Illustration 2), reproduced almost identically on a seal (Illustration 3):
Illustration 2: Fragmentary ancient impression of a cylinder seal on a clay envelope found in the archive room of a palace in Alalakh in northern Syria, about 1700 BCE
Illustration 3: Haematite cylinder seal, former Erlenmeyer collection Basle, about 1700 BCE
Another seal depicts a bull raising its head with a person between its horns (Illustration 4). If it is a bull leaping scene, then the acrobat is being raised by the bull, ready to leap on its back. However, the seal may also depict the killing of the heavenly bull by Gilgamesh and Enkidu, since a human figure stands above the bull, spearing it. The leaper would thus be Enkidu who ‘leaped and seized the bull of heaven by its horns’ to master the animal.
Illustration 4 (with detail): Haematite cylinder seal, Paris Bibliothèque National, about 1700 BCE
Bull Leaping, Sacrifice and Fertility
The ambiguity of the scene that makes it hard to decide between leaping and killing the bull, sport or sacrifice, may actually reflect the overall setting of the ritual. The leaping may have been the prelude to a ritual that culminated in the sacrifice of the bull as suggested by Younger. Leaping over a sacrificed lamb or more rarely a cow is still practiced in the Lebanese Beqa‘ by women affected with sterility. This jumping is said to “blow up the blood” (tafjyr al-dam). The ritual is also performed by persons affected by the evil eye or during the inauguration of a new home or a new shop.
The same ambiguity is also found in Psalm 18. The bull leaping at verse 30 occurs within a violent contest that ends up with the massacre of the opponents (verses 38.42).
The scene from Kahun (Illustration 5) also suggests that leaping over the bull was only a part of a wider ritual. The figure on the back of the bull is lying almost flat on the bull’s back rather than leaping, probably for reasons of space. But note the other figure under the bull. Unless it is meant to represent a missed leap, we may see there another component of the ritual involving the passing under the bull. Not only the bull was leaped over, but the bull could also leaped over the participant, as was still the case during a ritual that was still practiced in the first half of the 20th century ce in the Lebanese Beqa‘. The Thursday preceding the Greek Orthodox Easter was called the Thursday-of-the-Jumping; horse races were organized ‘wherein women lie prone on the ground, the horses jumping over them, thereby enhancing female fertility’. This seems to be the part of the ritual that is referred to in Joseph’s blessing (Genesis 49:22, see above).
Illustration 5: Engraving on a wooden box from Kahun/Licht, Egypt, 18th dynasty
Leaping over Charging Bulls?
The dangers involved are often referred to cast doubt on the likeliness of bull-leaping and bringing bulls in a confined area in a temple or palace court. However, the size of the animal does not necessarily indicate an equivalent level of wildness and fierceness. Among modern domestic breeds, the biggest sizes are the tamest and quietest, as much among equid than bovid, and even when not castrated, males are often calmer than females. Moreover, the ancient artists represented the bulls as standing with both their hind legs widely stretched backwards, which has the important effect of curving the back of the animal. This posture immobilizes the animal and thus allows dealing with it safely, only allowing it to move its head and propel the leaper in the air. Decker is right to emphasize the fact that compared to the Tanagra scenes and the Hittite vase (Illustration 6) the bulls on the Aegean pictures seems to behave wildly (compare Illustrations 1 and 6).
Illustration 6: Bull leaping scene on a vase from Huseyindede Tepesi, 1565-1540 BCE
However, the difference is due to stylistic variations. The Aegean artists exaggerated the overall curve of the bull’s body and the position of the legs, rendering a bull that is almost flying. The reality behind all the scenes remains nevertheless the same: dancers leaping over a bull standing still with its four hooves flat on the ground, contrarily to the schematic figures elaborated by Evans, Younger and Popplow who have the bull’s hind legs either standing on points like a ballet dancer or kicking backwards like a horse (Illustration 7). However, bulls are morphologically unable to perform these figures; bovines only kick sideways, with one foot at the time while the other one rests on the floor, and they certainly cannot run when both their legs are extended backwards. This means that bull leaping was not performed on charging bulls.
Illustration 7: Impossible positions: bull kicking backwards or standing on points
We have thus discovered another instance of bull-leaping, a Biblical one from the Iron Age. It is consistent with the bovine imagery in verse 16, where Yhwh is bellowing (r(g) and breathing deeply (M#n). Reading Psalm 18 in the context of bull leaping may help clarify a few more of obscure words. The perfect way Krd Mymt (verses 31.33) can be perfect acrobatic figures rather than ethical conducts, thanks to feet that are made swift as those of the deer (verse 34). Yhwh’s obscure trm) (verse 31), his promise according to the RSV, could be his horns if they refer to Naphtali’s antlers in Genesis 49:21. Admittedly, this is very conjectural, but it would fit better with hpwrc at the end of the cola, ‘Yhwh’s horn is smelted’. Is this a reference to some kind of bronze horns of consecration as those found at the entrance of Minoan sanctuaries? In any case, the twmb rendered as ‘heights’ rather than the usual high-places could be the back of the bull or more likely the place where the performance is taking place.
Riddled with theological scruples, the translators shy away from the obvious: the Psalmist wants to somersault on the back of the sacred bull to celebrate Yhwh in the court-yard of the Bethel temple.
Noga Blockman works at the Archaeology department of the University of Tel Aviv.
© Philippe Guillaume & Noga Blockman, 2004, email@example.com, ISSN 1661-3317