I’ve finally started Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time by Joseph Frank, very generously given me by Noetica back in 2010; part of the reason for my chronological progress through Russian literature has been to build up a background for reading Dostoevsky in Russian, and now that I’ve gotten up to the 1840s I’ve begun Frank’s magisterial bio. One of the things I’ve learned so far is that unlike every other major nineteenth-century Russian writer, Dostoevsky grew up with a traditional Orthodox religious education (most aristocrats by then “had long since ceased to be concerned about Orthodox Christianity, even though they continued to baptize their children in the state religion and to structure their lives in accordance with its rituals”), and along with the Gospels and lives of the saints, he particularly loved the book of Job (“Years later, when Dostoevsky was reading the book of Job once again, he wrote his wife that it put him into such a state of ‘unhealthy rapture’ that he almost cried. ‘It’s a strange thing, Anya, this book is one of the first in my life which made an impression on me; I was then still almost a child'”). Fortunately, the Church Slavonic Bible he would have known is online, so I’ve been reading Job (pdf) alongside my modern Russian Bible (since my Church Slavonic is rusty).
Job has always been one of my favorites, too, and it’s been a pleasure to reacquaint myself with it in its Slavonic guise. But when I got to one of the most famous lines in the Bible, “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7), I did a double take. The Slavonic has “но человѣкъ раждаетсѧ на троудъ, птенцы же соупѡвы высокѡ парѧтъ”: ‘but man is born to trouble; the vulture birds soar high’ (I don’t know how to render же here, so I’m going with a vague semicolon). Vulture birds?? I checked my modern version, which had the expected “но человек рождается на страдание, как искры, чтоб устремляться вверх,” with искры ‘sparks.’ How did those birds get there? The ancient but easily accessible Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (Job 5) says:
As the sparks fly upward – The Hebrew expression here is very beautiful – “as רשׁף בני benēy reshep – the sons of flame fly.” The word used (רשׁף reshep) means flame, lightning; the sons, or children of the flame, are that which it produces; that is, sparks. Gesenius strangely renders it, “sons of the lightning; that is, birds of prey which fly as swift as the lightning.” So Dr. Good, “As the bird-tribes are made to fly upwards.” So Umbreit renders it, Gleichwie die Brut des Raubgeflugels sich hoch in Fluge hebt – “as a flock of birds of prey elevate themselves on the wing.” Noyes adopts the construction of Gesenius; partly on the principle that man would be more likely to be compared to birds, living creatures, than to sparks. There is considerable variety in the interpretation of the passage. The Septuagint renders it, νεοσσοι δε γυπος neossoi de gupos – the young of the vulture. The Chaldee, מזיקי בני benēy mezēyqēy – the sons of demons. Syriac Sons of birds. Jerome, Man is born to labor, and the bird to flight – et avis ad volatum. Schultens renders it, “glittering javelins,” and Arius Montanus, “sons of the live coal.”
That’s considerable variety, all right; can we get a better explanation of what’s going on? The most detailed commentary I could find was in C. L. Seow’s Job 1 – 21: Interpretation and Commentary, which renders the phrase “the offspring of pestilence” (!) and explains:
Most of the Vrss take bĕnê rešep to be some sort of bird or just birds in general (so OG, Aq, Symm, Vulg, Pesh). The view that bĕnê rešep refers to birds may be due partly to the presence of ‘wp, “flying,” and partly to the expression yagbîah nāšer, “the eagle soars,” in 39:27. The association of rešep with birds may have arisen in Egypt, where the Semitic deity Resheph is identified with the gods Montu and Horus, who are portrayed in the form of the falcon (see Lipiński 1999, 255-59). [He casts detailed doubt on the ‘bird’ hypothesis.] The different variants of Targ offer an interesting variety of interpretations: (1) Targ1: gysyn dntkyn, “sparks that leap (from burning coals)”; (2) Targ2: bny mzyqy, “sons of demons”; and (3) Targ3: gwmryn dghyhnm, “burning coals of Gehenna.” The first and third interpretations assume that rešep means something burning, following later interpretations of Song 8:6[…]. Hence, bĕnê rešep is taken to mean “sparks” […] Targ2, however, relates rešep to pestilence, as in Deut 32:24 […]; Ps 78:48; and Hab 3:5, which echo the role of the god Resheph, a winged god of pestilence in ancient Near Eastern mythology […] Thus, bĕnê rešep may mean “offspring of Resheph,” that is, arrows or anything that is shot into the air. Since “arrows” may be a metaphor for one’s progeny (Ps 127:4-5), bĕnê rešep may refer to the deadly issues of pestilence, perhaps diseases in the air […] Given the context and the unabated development of the plant metaphor, one may take these airborne things to be pollen. At the same time, these things that are in the air may point to other forms of contagion — diseases that passed on from one person to another. soar.
I’m way out of my depth here, but I don’t care what modern scholarship says, in this case I’ll stick with my old mumpsimus: “as the sparks fly upward” is just too beautiful and too deeply ingrained to give up.
Another surprise in reading the modern version was the word скимн in 4:10: “Рев льва и голос рыкающего умолкает, и зубы скимнов сокрушаются” [The roar of the lion and the voice of the roaring one fall silent, and the teeth of the skimny are broken]. It turns out that скимн (or ски́мен) is a borrowing from Greek σκύμνος ‘lion cub’; it would be unsurprising to encounter it in Church Slavic (which in fact has something totally different), but what on earth is this terminally obscure word, which is in no Russian dictionary I can find and which I can’t believe any modern Russian could possibly understand without special instruction, doing in a version allegedly for modern Russians?