This week I am studying Psalm 34, and the two instances (one noun, one verb) of a Hebrew word for “taste” (טעם) caught my attention. Since discussions of “taste” frequently accompany discussions of the topics addressed on this website, I thought that it might be useful to share a bit regarding the biblical usage of the term.
The noun (טַעַם) speaks of the “taste” of food in Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:8; Job 6:6; and metaphorically in Jeremiah 48:11. But as is typical for human language, since we are living souls (Gen 2:7), the noun builds off of this bodily sense to speak of “taste” in the sense of judgment, discernment, or discretion. In 1 Samuel 25:33, David blesses Abigail’s good judgment in keeping him from taking revenge on Nabal. In Job 12:20, Job responds to Zophar by pointing up God’s wisdom and might, and he says that the God “takes away the discernment of the elders.” Proverbs 11:22 gives the provocative picture, “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.” Proverbs 26:16 says that “the sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can (answer with) discernment” (ESV: “sensibly;” NIV: “discreetly”). And in its only other occurrence in the Psalms, Psalm 119:66 pleads with the Lord to “teach me good judgment (טוּב טַעַם) and knowledge (וָדַעַת), for I believe in your commandments.” “Taste” is the ability to make discriminating judgments. It speaks of the ability to come to know what something really is in comparison with what it ought to be, or to know what ought to be done given the reality of a situation.
In the superscription of Psalm 34 and in 1 Samuel 21:14, we read that David “changed his judgment” or perhaps “changed his sense” (NET note). “Changed his behavior,” as the ESV and KJV have it, may not be the best translation, simply because there is no lexical basis for rendering טַעַם as “behavior.” The focus is not on his behavior as such but on his judgment which does not produce fitting behavior. Rendering it as “pretended to be insane” (NIV, NET) gives the general gist of what happened, for an insane man can no longer make good judgments or exercise discernment. However, for the English reader, the connection with “taste” is obscured.
There is one other occurrence of the noun in Jonah 3:7 which lexicons and English versions render as “decree” based on its use as an Aramaic loanword (used 30 times in the Aramaic sections of Ezra and Daniel; cf. also Joyce Baldwin, “Jonah” in The Minor Prophets, ed. McComiskey, 579). Yet even here the sense of judgment is present. In light of Jonah’s warning, the king of Nineveh exercises his judgment and promulgates it for the people. Interestingly, this conforms very closely to Thomas Aquinas’ definition of law: “…it is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 90 A. 4). This verse also uses the verb form of “taste,” and to that we now turn.
The verb טָעַם occurs 11 times, always in the qal. It speaks of the action of tasting food (1 Sam 14:24, 29, 43; 2 Sam 3:35; 19:35; Job 12:11; 34:3; Jon 3:7). In Job 12:11 and 34:3 “tasting” illuminates the sense of the ear “testing” words. In Proverbs 31:18, the excellent wife “tastes” that her merchandise is good for gain from trading. These usages clearly indicate a function of reason, judgment, or discernment. In Psalm 34:8 [Heb 34:9], we are exhorted to “taste” and “see” (ראה) that the Lord is good. In other words, the text calls upon us to perceive and experience what is really the case, i.e. the Lord truly is good. Our judgment, our understanding of our experience, must conform to his character as it is expressed in his works of redemption. This is good taste.
It is clear from this brief treatment that the Hebrew Bible does not use “taste” in the contemporary sense of “personal preference” or “subjective opinion” (and these terms themselves are not used in the way they were centuries ago). This, in itself, does not prove that our contemporary usage is wrong. But it seems to me that the way the authors on this website conceive of “taste” is something very comparable to what we read in the Old Testament. We want the Lord to give us good taste. This tidbit certainly does not give us an entire philosophy of taste, but it should inform our understanding.