🔼The name Miktam: Summary
- Thing That Covers
- From the verb כתם (katam), to cover or hide.
🔼The name Miktam in the Bible
The term Miktam occurs six times in the Bible, namely in the titles of Psalm 16:1, 56:1, 57:1, 58:1, 59:1 and 60:1, and always in combination with לדוד (le dawid), or "onto David". This term Miktam is therefore in no way an obscure term, yet anywhere one looks it is asserted that the meaning of it was lost. This obviously says more about the breathtaking innocence of early Christian scholars who were unable to comprehend this word, than the Jewish scholars who at some point appear to have given up trying to explain it.
Instead of treating our word Miktam as a name or technical term and transliterating it, the authors of the Septuagint translated it as στηλογραφια (stelographia), which comprises the familiar noun στηλη (stele), a monument or gravestone, and the verb γραφω (grapho), to write. The noun στηλη (stele) isn't used in the New Testament, and instead we find μνημα (mnema), tomb or memorial, from the verb μναομαι (mnaomai), to remember, to recollect or to be mindful (hence our English adjective "mnemonic").
Jerome took considerable liberties in his composition of the Vulgate — before the modern era, fidelity to texts was expressed by one's enthused redactions rather than bland facsimiles — and omitted our term Miktam in Psalms 16 and 60 and translated the headers of Psalms 56 to 59 as In finem ne disperdas David in tituli inscriptione, meaning "in the end, don't destroy; David in an inscribed title". This of course tapped neatly into the Titulus Crucis, the tri-lingual sign declaring "Jesus de Nazarene, King of the Jews," which Pilate put up over the head of the crucified Christ and which he refused to remove with the words, "What I have written I have written" (John 19:22).
In his commentary on the Psalms, Jerome confirmed that, indeed, Psalms 56 and 57 spoke of Jesus and Pilate and particularly the Titulus Crucis, and of course that the Jews had been spreading falsehoods. Around the same time Augustine of Hippo ascertained that the two Psalms could not have been about king David because Saul had never put a titulus over David, and so they had to be about Jesus, which made Jerome right and the Jews wrong. And as these views were picked up and elaborated by later luminaries, the word Miktam drifted ever further into the shadows. When it was rediscovered during the Reformation and failed to ring any immediate bells, it was labeled "obscure" and shelved.
🔼Etymology of the name Miktam
The word Miktam consists without further mystery of the common prefix מ (m), which demonstrates agency (place of, time of, instrument of, and so on), plus the verb כתם (katam):
The verb כתם (katam) may mean to stain but it also may mean to cover (it's used only once in the Bible and similar verbs exist in cognate languages with both these meanings).
Probably not technically related but probably nevertheless associated with the previous in the poetic mind, the noun כתם (ketem) means gold. This word was probably imported from foreign languages, and since in the Bible gold is a metaphor for wisdom, this word may somewhat refer to foreign wisdom.
This verb כתם (katam) is used only once in the Bible, namely in Jeremiah 2:22, where it serves to describe either a stain or a covering of Israel's guilt. But despite its sparse Biblical usage, this verb occurs all over the Semitic language spectrum, and it consistently describes the covering of an unseemly thing with a seemly thing, with the joint effect of the unseemly thing now being out of sight but the seemly thing now testifying to an obvious cover-up.
Our verb describes what you get when you cover a moldy spot with a lick of white paint: the wall now has an obvious white streak, which is obviously covering something that needs to be invisible. It's this same principle that YHWH evokes when discussing false prophets through the words of Ezekiel: "I will tear down the wall which you plastered over with whitewash" (Ezekiel 13:14). Jesus refers to the same procedure when he rebukes the scribes and Pharisees, "For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside appear beautiful but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:37). This reference to bones links convincingly to the Septuagint's στηλογραφια (stelographia), gravestone, but explains that our word Miktam does not relate to the writing on the headstone that marks the grave but rather to the horizontal slab that covers the grave. The confusion, perhaps, stems from the fact that a Miktam is a text, but a Miktam is not a text like a headstone but rather a text like a cover stone.
Our verb כתם (katam) was certainly familiar to the Hebrews, but the more common Hebrew verb for to cover is כפר (kapar), which indeed means to cover but has a secondary meaning of to atone (rather than to merely whitewash). It's the source of the familiar name Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and also of the term that describes the Mercy Seat, the solid gold lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17). Gold, of course, was praised in the old world because nothing reacted with it chemically. This meant that anything written in gold would last forever and information carved in gold would never see decay.
The regular Hebrew word for gold is זהב (zahab), and the root כתם (katam) appears to deliberately point toward foreignness. Contrary to popular belief, the Jews had no problem with accepting the findings of foreign scientists or the technology of foreign technicians, as long as these findings were correct and this technology didn't blow up. Hence Nimrod was called a mighty hunter before YHWH (Genesis 10:9), Israel was organized according to Midianite (that's Arabic) insights (Exodus 18:13-27), Nebuchadnezzar was called the servant of YHWH (Jeremiah 27:6, Daniel 2:47), the first temple of YHWH was made with Sidonian (that's Phoenician) skill (1 Kings 5:6) and the second one was ordered, designed and funded by the Persian emperor Cyrus (Ezra 6:3).
By the time of Jesus, the Jewish world was divided between traditional Jews who aimed to stick to their traditions and Hellenized Jews who wanted to blend with Greek wisdom. Jesus' contribution to this debate was to point out that Elijah was sent to Zarephath of Sidon and Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-27). The people to whom Jesus pointed this out were obviously traditionalists and decided to kill Jesus by throwing him off a mountain. This was, ironically, a typically Greek form of execution, wholly alien to Jewish tradition, and this story seems to insist that the infusion of foreign material is not only beneficial but also inevitable. Or as Isaiah had said: "He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue" (Isaiah 28:11).
The word Miktam celebrates the wisdom of foreigners; a foreign gold that had come to these extra-covenantal foreigners from the same one and only Creator and dispenser of wisdom.
🔼The Miktam as musical instrument
In his seminal article Babylonian and Hebrew Musical Terms (1921), Stephen Herbert Langdon discusses the header of Psalm 60 and particularly the term על־שושן עדות מכתם לדוד ('al susan edut miktam le david) and decides that "since susan probably denotes a pipe, it seems necessary to see in miktam a similar wind instrument." Landon further discusses a series of "licentious" Babylonian verses which review the love of women and which heavily depend on a word that describes the male breast. These "songs of the [male] breast" are closely associated with a word kitmu, which Langdon admits to mean sheet or coverlet since it so obviously derives from our verb כתם (katam), to cover. But in the Babylonian compilation called 17 iratu sa ki-it-me, or "seventeen songs of the breast for the kitmu," Langdon resolutely declares the kitmu to be a musical instrument, predominantly since this word also occurs in other contexts in combination with words that are, likewise, assumed to be instruments.
But if Landon is right, and the Miktam is a musical instrument, its kinship to the verb כתם (katam), to cover, suggests instead of a wind instrument rather a drum of sorts, to be beaten along with the song. A Hebrew idiom speaks of "beating one's breast" as a sign of mourning or distress (Nahum 2:7, Luke 18:13), and a song accompanied by a Miktam might be a song that declares such distress. In a footnote, Langdon further declares that "philologically miktam corresponds to the Babylonian naktamu, lid, metal cover for a vessel, and the Hebrew word may denote an instrument of percussion like the tambourine of cymbal"
This argumentation is rather weak, however. And it falls apart rather rapidly under closer scrutiny.
🔼The world beyond the flute
The ancients seated emotions and instincts in the belly, and spirituality and reason in the chest. The Hebrew word for torso is חיק (heq), which comes from a verb that means to embrace or to draw near, and which also means to engrave or decree (hence, again, the Septuagint's gravestone). The idiom "to carry someone in one's bosom" is not, as is often supposed, about carrying someone in the fold of one's garment but rather to embrace someone with one's arms, or to hold someone's identity and needs in one's heart, one's reason and conscious mind.
We moderns often think that our warmest feelings toward someone is our greatest gift, but warm feelings you can't eat and in warm feelings you can't shelter. When a righteous shepherd holds his weakest lambs "in his bosom" (Isaiah 40:11), he's not physically carrying them around but thinks very carefully how he can build them a proper shelter and how he can give them proper food. And the Babylonian set of "17 songs about he [male] breast" are not licentious but about the yearning of women (peoples) to be the subject of a man's (a king's) calm but focused regard. Or in the words of Isaiah: "For seven women will take hold of one man in that day, saying, "We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach!" (Isaiah 4:1).
In his footnote, Langdon mentions that the Babylonian word katimtu may also mean treasure, and the term nisirtu katimtu, which occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh, speaks of the treasure of secret wisdom.
The Greek word for chest is στηθος (stethos), from the verb ιστημι (histemi), to stand, from which also comes the noun σταυρος (stauros), which describes the object upon which Jesus was crucified. The noun στηθος (stethos) literally means "part that stands upright" and applies to all parts that do so, which helps to explain how circumcision applies both to one's penis and one's heart (Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 2:29). When a man holds others to his own experiences, he basically assesses how much alike he and these others are, and he is in fact not considering others but himself. With his "upright" parts, a man considers the utterly other (whether woman or the deity), namely those he cannot experience and can only approach on a path of extrapolation and pure theory.
Langdon shows that many of the unexplained Babylonian musical terms relate to numerals (in Hebrew we have the sheminith, or the "eight"), but while indeed the word susan derives from the Semitic word for six, not everything called "eight" or "six" is automatically a musical instrument with presumably eight or six (or three) holes or strings. And a word that follows another word is not "necessarily" related in meaning or function. More crucially, however, is that a song's text has no relation to the song's melody or any instruments with which to accompany it, and the assumption that any hard-to-explain words in a poem refer to musical instruments has as much reason as assuming that these words have to do with colors or building supplies or pancake batter.
🔼Light sabers and Star Wars
The civilizations that produced these "songs" were locked in an alphabet race that was comparable to the arms race in the 20th century. Whichever nation was able to devise an information technology that was superior to the others would see its literary legacy and thus its national identity and thus its national soul preserved (Psalm 16:10), whereas the other nations were left with the choice to convert to the ways of the victors or perish. The ultimate winners of the alphabet race were of course the Jews and Arabs, and subsequently the Greeks and hence the Latins, which is why their stories are still read and studied the world over, and its famous losers are the Egyptians, whose hieroglyphic system slipped into obscurity and would have stayed there if it hadn't been for the Rosetta Stone.
Our modern world is permeated with text but it's not often enough realized what a baffling miracle the alphabet is. Prior to the alphabet, wisdom was pursued and traded solely by an elite class of priests but when the alphabet was developed and made available to the common masses, everybody could learn to read and write and so everybody could ascend to priestly heights and help propel humanity on its journey to God (Exodus 19:6). More crucially even is that the development of speech itself allowed humans to harness their most primitive instincts and build upon the waters of their emotions an urbanized dry land of reason.
The world of spoken languages is very much the same as the world of cities, and the trade of information that goes on between centers of learning is really quite the same as the trade in goods that goes on between centers of production. Mankind's celebrated faculty of reason is based entirely on the exchange of words; even our most intimate thoughts are completely different from the most intimate thoughts of our wordless forbears, simply because we have names for things (Genesis 2:18-20), so we can visualize our own mind like a world with cities and traffic between them (for more on thinking in words, see our article on the noun ονομα, onoma, name).
Domesticated words cover a multitude of feral emotions in the same way that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Emotions are deeply private and thus selfish things but language is a social phenomenon, and thus deeply spiritual. Language, quite literally, provides a social cover like a tent, in which the emotional hearts of men may unify (John 17:21-23) and take shelter and meet with the Creator (Exodus 25:8). The Creator meets man in language (Genesis 15:1), and the Glory of Christ is he image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4) who is the Word of God and is thus in essence language (John 1:1). Our English words "text" and "textile" come from the same ancient Sanskrit verb that means to weave together. It's also the root of the profession of Jesus, which was not that of carpenter but of τεκτων, tekton, assembler.
🔼Locks and keys, graves and tombstones
The oral tradition that preceded the written books of the Bible was obviously very comfortable with narrative elements such as metaphor, allegory and parable (probably since these, like DNA, speech and writing, are essentially natural: Psalm 78:2), but the alphabet gave rise to a whole new form of information technology, namely that of code, or a pattern that is entirely synthetic and has no natural parallel. The most familiar of such codes is the acrostic verse form — in which letters at specific intervals spell out a word, phrase, or in the case of Psalm 119, the entire alphabet — but there are many more.
Jesus accused the experts in the law to have "taken away the key of knowledge," and since these lawyers were surely able to read the narrative of the Bible, Jesus demonstrated that the Bible also contains data that is accessible only via a certain key. The Bible speaks of the "key of David" (Revelation 3:7, Isaiah 22:22), and even the plural "keys of the kingdom of heaven," which suggests that there are multiple keys that give access to separate depositories of data. On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend recalled, "Were not our hearts burning within us while [Jesus] talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32), and a little later Jesus appeared to the eleven and, "opened their minds to understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). This was after Jesus had preached to them for three years.
John wrote that "there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25), and likewise several Jewish sages stated that the Torah contains the entire cosmos. That may have seemed like a tall order at the time but in the modern era we've learned that creation is indeed data based, and the DNA of one seed can indeed contain an entire forest. From nature we learn that an entire forest can be compressed into the data of one seed, and from blockchain technology we learn that the data of one seed may contain every transaction in the seed's entire past.
Jesus compared his generation to children who cried: 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance!" (Matthew 11:17). Perhaps our present generation of Bible readers can be compared to a twelve year old who finds a DVD in her parents' garage, and thinks it's a mirror used for a hippy ritual that involved facing the hole in one's self. But a Miktam is not a flute, and the Bible is not a circular mirror with a hole in the center. A text looks like a collection of tiny worms to someone who doesn't speak the language of the text, but to someone who does, the text is a door to the mind of a whole other person. To someone who cannot read in any language, this concept is too far removed from observable realty to make any sense, or even to appear believable, and a demonstration will resemble witchcraft and telepathy, just like playing a DVD would be to someone who is entirely unfamiliar with any kind of digital technology.
Anybody who can read can read a translated version of the Hebrew and Greek Bible and become familiar with the heroes of its stories. A working familiarity with the symbolic superstructure of the Biblical narrative — when, say, the adventures of Moses begin to explain the adventures of David — takes many years of emersion. A study of the Hebrew and Greek in which the Bible was written yields an insight in the symbolic superstructure of the very language of which the Bible is a part (that's when the usage of certain words begin to explain the usage of other words). That takes decades. A study of the nature of the cosmos of which humanity is a part, of which language is a part, of which the Bible is a part, yields treasures that exceed all words that might describe them. That takes many centuries to achieve, and requires the dedication of generations upon generations.
The word Miktam means Thing That Covers, and is simultaneously a key that unlocks data stored in Psalm 16 and 56 to 60. It's part of a technology that is utterly alien to most people, and means as much to them as the term "planetary gear" does to a buffalo.