"They pierced my hands and my feet" or "Like a lion my hands and my feet" in Psalm 22:16?

A Messianic Psalm

Psalm 22:16 in the KJV says: “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.”

Christians believe that the 22nd Psalm portrays the crucified Messiah, Jesus Christ. Verse 16 in most Christian translations says “they pierced my hands and my feet”, which points to the crucifixion. The contention is that “they pierced” is based on a Christian textual corruption. There are two textual variants underlying the portion translated “they pierced”: “כארי” which means “like a lion”, and “כארו” which arguably means “digging”. The difference is whether the final letter is a Yod (י) or a Vav (ו). Christians prefer “כארו” because “digging” could convey the idea of “piercing”. If the "כארי" reading were followed, the verse would read:

"For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: like a lion my hands and my feet."

כארו or כארי?

The Hebrew Masoretic text underlying the KJV, the Second Rabbinic Bible, edited by Jacob Ben Chayyim and printed by Daniel Bomberg in 1525, has "like a lion" in the text of Psalm 22:16(17). However, Ben Chayyim in the Massorah Finalis of the fourth volume of the Second Rabbinical Bible states: "In some correct Codices I have found כארו as the Kethiv [= textual reading] and כארי as the Keri [= the official marginal reading];" (Christian D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible (1896), p. 969). There are also some early witnesses to the reading “כארו”. A manuscript of Psalm 22 found at Nachal Hever (5/6Hev ­ Col. XI, frag. 9) supposedly from the 1st century has “כארו” (Tim Hegg, Studies in the Biblical Text, "Psalm 22:16 - "like a lion" or "they pierced"?"). The NIV 2010 footnote says "pierced" is the reading found in the "Dead Sea Scrolls and some manuscripts of the Masoretic Text, Septuagint and Syriac". Clarke's Commentary on the Bible says “כארו” is the kethib, or marginal reading. So "כארו" is preserved as a minority reading in the Masoretic tradition. It has long been known that the LXX has “ὤρυξαν χεῖράς μου καὶ πόδας” (they dug my hands and feet). The Vulgate also has “dig” (foderunt).

Psalm 22:16(17) in Daniel Bomberg's Rabbinical Bible of 1525 has "כארי"

Critics argue that even if the text were to read "כארו", there is no such word in Hebrew. The trilateral root of the verb “dig” is “כּרה”. It has been argued that there is no basis for the Aleph in "כארו" if it were a form of "כּרה". The counterargument has been that the form with the Aleph is an alternate spelling. Then again, even if "כארו" could mean “digging”, critics argue that it is a stretch to translate it as “piercing” because the usual word for “pierce” (“נקב” (Kings 18:21, Isaiah 36:6), “דּקר” (Zechariah 12:10)) is not used here.

"Like a lion" = "They pierced"

It is possible that the original Hebrew word was “כארו” (digging) and some Masoretes corrupted the text. However, "like a lion" is not a completely out-of-context reading. The Psalm uses an animal motif to refer to the perpetrators, referring to them as bulls (verse 12), dogs (verses 16, 20), unicorns (verse 21) and even lions elsewhere (verses 13, 21). In light of this, ardent supporters of "כארי" (like a lion) may never be convinced otherwise. The translation, "they pierced", however, can be justified even if "כארי" (like a lion) were the original reading.

Jewish scholars recognize that some liberties with the syntax and grammar must be taken to make the text of Psalm 22:16 make sense. There is no subject and verb in “like a lion my hands and my feet.” Most scholars agree that the implied subject is “they”, which refers to the “assembly of the wicked”. Implied verbs that have been suggested are:

  • “they bite like a lion my hands and my feet” (Aramaic Targum);

  • “they disfigured my hands and feet” (Aquila I)

  • “they have bound my hands and feet” (Aquila II)

  • “like lions (they maul) my hands and my feet” (Rashi)

According to Christian D. Ginsburg, the Aramaic Targum rendered the phrase, "Like a lion they tore my hands and my feet" (Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible (1896) (p. 972)):

It is not right to charge the KJV of erroneously supplying "they" and a verb on the basis of “כארי” because Jewish translations do the same. The only basis for any criticism is the choice of the verb as “pierced” and the absence of the English equivalent of the words, “like a lion”.


The irregular use of "כארי" suggests that an idiom or figurative meaning is signified. With respect to why the verb should be “pierced,” one possible reason is that a lion's bite results in piercing the prey with the fangs. Hebrew scholar Allen P. Ross, author of Introducing Biblical Hebrew and Grammar, says regarding Psalm 22:16, "The image in the psalmist's mind was probably of dogs nipping at the hands and feet and puncturing them." (Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1(1-41) (Grand Rapids, MI : Kregel Publications), p. 524). Even the Aramaic Targum identifies the implied verb as "bite" so the logical extension may be "pierce". Numbers 23:24 further supports this interpretation that a lion's attack results in one being pierced. It says:

  • KJV: "Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain."

  • Hebrew: "הן־עם כלביא יקום וכארי יתנשׂא לא ישׁכב עד־יאכל טרף ודם־חללים ישׁתה׃"

  • YLT: "Lo, the people as a lioness riseth, And as a lion he lifteth himself up, He lieth not down till he eateth prey, And blood of pierced ones doth drink.'"

The word that is translated "the slain" in the KJV is the Hebrew word "חללים" which means, "slain, fatally wounded, pierced" (Brown–Driver–Briggs). Young's Literal Translation has preferred to translate "חללים" as "pierced ones" at Numbers 23:24. Several translations render חלל in its verb form as "pierced" in Isaiah 53:5, which is another Messianic prophecy:

  • NIV: "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."

  • NLT: "But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed."

  • ESV (2011): "But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed."

  • NASB: "But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed."

Going back to Numbers 23:24, the imagery is one of a lion piercing and eating its prey. Thus there is biblical precedent for interpreting being "like a lion" as to "pierce" a victim. "Pierced" is as good an interpretation of the verb as anything else that has been suggested. Interestingly, the length and shape of the fangs of a lion may closely resemble the nails of crucifixion.

"Like a lion" piercing its prey with fangs?1

"They pierced like a lion"

If the verb should be "pierce" and the phrase should be taken to mean "to pierce like a lion", the remaining question is whether it is acceptable not to carry over the words “like a lion” into English. In translating an idiom that involves animal imagery, it is sometimes sufficient to translate the meaning of the idiom without referring to the animal in the receptor tongue. For example, “Let us pig out!” can be translated into another language as “Let us eat excessively!” There may not be a need to render it “Let us eat excessively like a pig”. The person saying, “Let us pig out” is probably not even imagining a pig. “Pig out” is simply an idiom that means “eat excessively.” Also, “stop horsing around!” can be translated into another language as “Stop engaging in rough play!” Again, it is not necessary to translate it as “Stop engaging in rough play like a horse!” Including “like a horse” could be confusing if the culture of the receptor language has no notion that a horse is associated with rough play. Likewise, “like a lion” at Psalm 22:16 could have been understood idiomatically as "pierced".

Read more articles from: The King James Version is Demonstrably Inerrant

Also read: Masoretic Readings Defended

1 Image by Brocken Inaglory (2006): from Wikipedia entry on "Lion"