Muhammad in the OT?

A correspondent wrote in convinced that Muhammad is mentioned in Song 5:16:

His mouth [is] most sweet:
yea, he [is] altogether lovely.
This [is] my beloved,
and this [is] my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.

“Lovely” is a translation of Hebrew machamaddim, which many Muslims see as a prophecy of Muhammad, and my LDS correspondent has been convinced that this is the correct reading; it should say in the second line “yea, he is Muhammad.” I wrote back with a brief, off the cuff rejection of this idea, but he was not convinced, so I decided to explore it in more detail here.

Rendered over literally, the first two lines in Hebrew say: “His mouth (is) sweetnesses and the whole of him (is) desires.” But to make sense of that, there are two things we have to understand. First, the parallel terms sweetness//desire, although nouns in form, in this instance have adjectival force and must be rendered as adjectives. Hebrew is a very adjective-poor language, and this lack is made up in various ways by certain circumlocutions of nouns. One linguistic strategy is the construct state, “plates of brass” to mean “brass plates.” Another is to simply use a noun in the predicate position where another language would require an adjective. The example Gesenius gives in Sec. 104 of his Hebrew Grammar is Genesis 1:2: “The earth was emptiness and desolation.” We of course translate the predicate nouns into English as adjectives: “The earth was empty and desolate.” Similarly in our passage, we would render sweet//desirable. Check any translation you like and it’s a safe bet that some sort of an adjective is used in the English rendering rather than a noun.

The words sweetness and desire are both in the plural. We know this is not a literal plural, as the referents (his mouth//him) are singular. The NET footnote suggests that this is an intensive plural; thus, his mouth was very sweet and all of him was very desirable.

The key word in the passage is machmad “desire,” from the verbal root chamad “to desire.” (The initial m- is a common noun forming participial formation in the Semitic languages.) In the plural that word is machamaddim, and if you lop of the plural ending you get machamad, which sounds rather like Muhammad. (Of course, when you lop off the plural ending you don’t get to keep the second syllable, but rather go back to machmad.)

The name Muhammad derives from the passive participial formation from the root H-M-D, and means something like “Praiseworthy.” That both the Hebrew word and the Arabic name begin with an M- is simply a function of the participial formation that is common to both languages. I do not know whether the Hebrew and Arabic roots are cognate (I assume someone will tell us in the comments), but they have different connotations in the two languages (desire v. praise).

People who have pushed this identification have taken “altogether lovely” as the translation of machamaddim. That’s what you’ll deduce from a simple online source like the Blue Letter Bible, but that is not entirely accurate. The KJV “altogether” is in part an attempt to represent wecullo, which means “and all of him” or “and the whole of him.” So now you have the putative text saying something very awkward: “His mouth is most sweet, and all of him is Muhammad.”

The Hebrew word machmad occurs 12 other times in the OT, and if you understand all of those uses as being a reference to Muhammad, none of those passages will make any sense, and some become downright offensive.

When we understand the repetitive nature of Hebrew poetry, the meaning “sweet” in the first line is a check on how to take mahamaddim in the second. “Desirable” makes sense as a synonymous parallel term to “sweet”; Muhammad does not.

If we want to play this game, an even better fit would be to take “my beloved” in the next line as David, since the word “beloved” is indeed DWD (with the first person singular pronominal suffix Y) and is actually related to the name “David.” But of course, no one would make such an argument that the beloved of this poem is a man named “David.”

To me, this is just like persistent LDS confusion between the KJV words Cain and Canaanites. The Canaanites are not the descendants of Cain; those two words are completely unrelated. The name Cain would be better represented in English as Qayin and has to do with metal smithing, and the word Canaan would be better represented in English as Kena’an (accent on the second syllable), and means something like “Westland.” We should not jump to conclusions based on nothing more than a superficial similarity in sound in English transliteration.

So no, Song 5:16 does not mention Muhammad.

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Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    Interesting.

    And why would you have a prophecy re a future prophet in the middle of erotic poetry?

  2. Muhammad is a passive D-stem (pi’el for you Hebrew folks) participle. Hebrew chet is equivalent to Arabic ha and cha (Jouon section 5k), so the root here is cognate to the Arabic root of Muhammad, though with slightly different semantics. It’s fairly common in Hebrew, such as Gen 2:9 “out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is *pleasant* to the sight”

    As for Cain, the people bearing his name are the Kenites (qyn in Hebrew) like… Moses father-in-law.

    Yeah, no Muhammad here.

  3. (I talked about the Cain/Canaan/Kenite in one of my my podcasts, which I’m compelled to plug… ) Muhammad didn’ make the cut though.

  4. One last thing- on the equivalent of the two letters, chet in Hebrew and ha in Arabic, think of the cognates chag “a festival” (hgg) and the hajj, “pilgrimage to Mecca” (hgg).

  5. Ben S: I’ll be a stickler and insist that the Arabic letters you reference are Ha and “Kha”, not “cha”, a far too Hebrew-influenced rendering in my opinion. But that’s admittedly a silly diversionary point.

    Kevin: Yes, I think you effectively take this silly point down on the meaning and otherwise. Granted, if I were a Muslim, it’s ambiguous enough I could take it as one of God’s subtle little signs, not unlike how Mormons interpret Jesus New Testament reference to other sheep for example (not a perfect comparison admittedly). But as an outside observer, there’s really nothing for it to stand on as you rightly point out. Another minor little linguistic difference: the Muslim prophet’s name has a shadda (doubling) over the miim in the middle of his name. A literal transliteration I might use would be “muHammad” I don’t know that much about Hebrew, but I’m presuming from your rendering above that there is no such doubling of the miim in the Hebrew machamaddim?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Julie, that was sort of the tack I took in my initial response, that when you read the entire chapter in context as an erotic love poem, sticking a reference to Muhammad in v. 16 doesn’t make any sense.

    Thanks, Ben, I was hoping you’d come by and clarify whether it was the same root. I suspected that it was, but never having actually studied Arabic I wasn’t sure.

    Right, NAA, the m is not doubled (with a dagesh) in the Hebrew spelling. And I have no objection if someone wants to read it in a sort of kabbalistic way as a little sign God stuck into the scripture, as long as people don’t try to make that the primary contextual reading.

  7. Hello, everyone, I’m the one that asked Kevin this question. Thank you for this blog post, Kevin! I am now convinced.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Glad I could be of help, Lowell!

  9. Kevin Barney, I’m glad there are people in the world as smart and cool as you.

  10. I have learned more (or less?) about Song in the past week or so than in the rest of my life combined. Thanks for this, Kevin. (and Kurt/TT/Jupiterschild/etc…)

  11. Hello Kevin,

    I concur with your assessment of SofS 5:16; however, I am pretty much convinced that the Bible does predict the rise of Islam and Muhammad. One of many OT passages that suggests this is Is. 63:1-7—I elaborate a bit on this passage in THIS THREAD.

    Grace and peace,

    David

  12. On my mission we met a Muslim who started to Bible bash. He read us few different “prophecies of Muhammad.” Some of them were weird, based on some names of the places I have no idea where they are/what they mean. Some of them where kind of clever. Like:
    “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. ” (Deut. 18:18)
    This can’t be about Christ, because Christ wasn’t like Moses, he had no father (as I understand, that’s how it is in Islam). And notice “among their brethren”, arabs are the brothers of jews.
    Later we re-read all the scriptures he quoted, they were prophesies of Christ, some of them could be interpreted to be about Joseph Smith.

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