D is for Deuteronomistic History

Perhaps the choice of topic for the letter ‘D’ is a surprise. Many readers may not have heard of this theory. This idea seeks to explain the observation that the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings tell a coherent story. The coherency of the story is explained in a variety of ways all of which centre on the strong literary relationship of the book of Deuteronomy and what in the Hebrew Bible are termed the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). The earliest explanations of this literary relationship which were made well over one hundred years ago proposed that the Former Prophets were edited by someone who was committed to the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy. Later the German scholar Martin Noth (1902–1968) suggested that Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets had such strong similarities in terms of themes and literary style that they were at some level a single literary work. This work was dated to the exilic period (the exile will be our next topic). Like all intriguing theories it has been revised and refuted by other scholars.

It is likely that no overall theory will ever be recognised as the consensus but what is clear is the base data—anyone reading from Deuteronomy through the books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings and II Kings (the Hebrew Bible’s books of Samuel and Kings were each split in two for the Christian canon) will find they are carried forward in a compelling account spanning the Israelites poised to conquer the promised land to their exile from the land. The story is a complex ‘Game of Thrones’ history with strong theological claims and themes throughout. In the English-speaking world Joshua to Kings are seen as historical books whilst in Hebrew their theological freight is to the fore in their designation as Former Prophets. We would do well to note that history meets theology here in a complex and rich tapestry, for as we shall see the Hebrew Bible resists our modern categories that would separate the marriage of history and theology asunder.

By way of conclusion it is worth noting a central aspect of the book of Deuteronomy. The book displays many of the characteristics of an ancient near-eastern legal document. Read in this light it represents a legal covenant between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the nation of Israel. In keeping with such treaties it uses the language of blessings and curse. The former the result of keeping the agreement and the latter the consequences of breaking the terms of covenant. In short if Israel serves Yahweh faithfully then they will know the blessings of peace and prosperity in the Land that they have been given by God. If, on the other hand, they follow the other deities of the ancient near-east or are led astray by idols they will lose the land and the peace and prosperity granted by Yahweh. The Former Prophets unfold the story of the gaining of the Land and the complex journey which leads to its loss in the midst of war, calamity and exile.

C is for Creation

There is no escaping the centrality of the theme of Creation in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is it encountered on numerous occasions, both explicitly and implicitly, but it is also the point of departure of the book of Genesis and therefore the whole Hebrew Bible.

In the previous post we considered two polar opposite approaches to the Hebrew Bible and their respective presuppositions. These were scientific atheism and highly conservative Christianity. Both conservative Christian approaches and militant atheism share a tendency to translate the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1–2 into propositional truth. In this way the outcome is either:

  1. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that the biblical account is false, or
  2. The Bible’s account of creation is so at odds with astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology that these sciences are wrong.

Of course there are alternatives. These alternatives centre on considering what these texts are—i.e. they are not a series of straightforward propositional truths. This is not to question their potential for conveying truth but rather to recognise that there is something more complex at work in these texts and that their interpretation is richer than a series of true/false statements. I want to suggest that an initial reading of the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1–2 which recognises their cultural milieu indicates two useful starting points.

Firstly, there is a poetic dynamic to the accounts:

  • They are highly rhythmic and stylised—for example the six fold refrain of ‘. . . and there was evening, and there was morning . . .’ (see 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23 and 31).
  • There is word play—for example the use of ‘adamah as earth (as in topsoil) in 1:25 and 2:6 and the use of ‘adam as the first man (earth creature) in 2:7.

Some poetic features are lost in translation but the rhythm and form are readily apparent.

Secondly, the two creation accounts in Genesis and other elements of Genesis 1–11 are part of a number of Ancient Near-Eastern texts which deal with origins. They arose in a context which saw a number of accounts for the origin of the world and explanations of the way things are. For example, there are Akkadian, Egyptian and Babylonian creation stories. These Hebrew accounts provide their own unique answers to the questions being asked at that time.

Of course even when such considerations are handled sympathetically these texts can still be dismissed as wrongheaded, but the way we can dismiss or embrace them is richer than polarising modern science against ancient text as propositional statements which capture timeless truth. The possible ‘thicker’ readings lack the simplicity and closure of the ‘thinner’ alternatives. They raise questions as well as provide answers. The central claims of Genesis 1–2 provide the presuppositions underpinning the whole of the Hebrew Bible—that the Hebrew God, Yahweh, created the universe and that humankind are, at some level, special within this creation. There is no scientific proposal here which can be tested. Rather, this is elegant use of the possibilities of poetry to populate the imagination with rich theological images. This thicker possibility leads us to wonder and perhaps argue about how we interpret the account—how do Adam and Eve fit with the scientific consensus? As a Christian who is also a scientist I welcome the fact that neither scientific consensus nor the Bible trumps the other at the outset of a process of critical evaluation and consideration.

 

Further reading

For a stimulating scholarly exploration of the centrality of creation in the Hebrew Bible see Herman Spieckermann, ‘Creation: God and World’, pp. 271‒292 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016

B is for Bible

The word Bible derives from the Greek word biblion which originally meant scroll. Over time the word Bible came to mean a collection of books of religious significance. In modern English the word tends to have a wider meaning as a massive tome providing comprehensive coverage of a topic. The object considered in this series of posts defies any simple attempt at classification. A key background issue to this series of posts is the differences of opinion on just what the Hebrew Bible is.

When we read the Hebrew Bible we interpret what is says having already made a decision as to what it is. This is the classic conundrum of interpreting any text—interpretation requires a starting point or to put it formally, presuppositions. The challenge of good reading is to allow the object to challenge these presuppositions.

Two polar presuppositions are worth considering in order to illustrate this point. The most conservative Christian readings perceive the Bible as the final word on matters beyond those of religion or doctrine to include history and science. Such a stance does not invite the possibility of reading the Bible and expecting to have this view challenged, modified or refined. Any apparent tensions or contradictions with secular accounts of history, geology, physics, psychology, etc. are explained in terms of the failings of the alternatives not as either limitations of the Bible or the possibility that the Bible has been interpreted inappropriately. At the other end of the presuppositional spectrum, the convinced atheist will tend to read the Bible in a similar but opposite fashion—such a reading reveals numerous discrepancies within the Bible. Such ‘discrpencies’ are especially apparent if the Hebrew Bible is read as a mechanical propositional account of the universe. I am not suggesting that either atheists or conservative Christians are deliberately closed to critical thinking or changing their minds, rather I am suggesting that these polar positions mean that the Bible is understood in a rigid way that resists adaption to a new understanding.

Both approaches have a tendency to flatten the Bible into propositional truth and ignore the poetic devices, literary forms and the nuances invited by the different genres of literature which comprise the Hebrew Bible. To make matters worse, some who read in this manner describe their readings as ‘literal’ when in fact they have removed the Bible a priori from the realm of literature.

My view of the Bible (either the whole Christian Bible or the Hebrew Bible) is that it is neither (i)  the product of cultures who imagined a God and sought to collect writings to testify to this claim in a haphazard and unconvincing manner, nor (ii) handed down from heaven as the final word on faith, science and history. This series of posts starts with the premise that this is a thoroughly human book—written over centuries, subject to editing and selection, diverse in genre and resistant to definition. This premise does not preclude either of the views mentioned above being correct in their judgement of the Bible’s veracity. It is, however, a starting point for what could in principle a more open journey to either theism or atheism. I have spent more than thirty years reading the Bible and am still ‘happy’ with the messy human premise but equally convinced that God was at work in the events that inspired the biblical authors, and working providentially in the authorship, collecting and editing of the constituent parts of the Bible. Year-on-year I find myself revising the details of my understanding of the nature of scripture and want to remain open to finding out from the Bible itself, just what it actually is. Perhaps this latter point is still an act of faith—believing that the Bible can change readers, can teach, can transform. But it can also be seen as a working hypothesis which is constantly being tested.

 

A is for aleph to tav

The Hebrew alphabet seems an ideal way to start an A to Z series of posts on the Hebrew Bible. In this way we can celebrate the English language and the Hebrew Bible simultaneously. The Hebrew alphabet begins with aleph and ends with tav. We shall see that the Hebrew Bible invented the idea of an A to Z before the English alphabet even existed. The alphabet is a good place to start for other reasons too. It is a helpful reminder that when most of us read the Hebrew Bible we read it in translation. Even the act of picking up a copy of the Hebrew Bible is a choice—a choice of one rendering into English over another (I hope any Hebrew readers will forgive my presumption). Rather than seeing the need to read in translation as a problem however, its positive dimensions should be noted. The very necessity of translation makes us appreciate head-on the nature of the task of reading this profoundly important cultural object. As we read it we will find it is not just the language that we find alien.

If we read the Hebrew Bible out of interest and genuine enquiry we must address not only the linguistic challenge but also recognise that this is only the first rung on the ladder to understanding these texts. Whilst one alphabet and language can be rendered into another it is perhaps a more proscribed process than connecting the modern reader’s cultural perspective with those of the authors, editors and characters of the Hebrew Bible.

This blog aims to provide a starting point for the journey of both understanding and appreciation needed to bridge the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Despite some thinker’s scepticism about the possibility of bridging what has been termed an ‘ugly broad ditch’ [1], I am writing from a conviction that a ‘fusion of horizons’ [2] is a genuine possibility. More than that, that reading the Hebrew Bible is a fruitful and rewarding venture. At the outset, I must point out that I am writing from the vantage point of Christian faith. This stance is inevitably founded on presuppositions although of course there is no truly neutral viewing gallery alternative. I hope that anyone reading from a different perspective will see that my attempt is at least honest in its presuppositions and able to display critical judgement.

The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet turn out to be linguistically richer than the English alphabet—they are strictly speaking consonantal phonemes rather than letters. Each of them can have vowels appended to them. Despite this, these twenty-two consonantal phonemes often function in ways analogous to the English alphabet. This is especially true in terms of the A–Z motif so familiar to fellow April A–Z bloggers. In fact the Hebrew Bible takes the concepts of completeness and organisation that an A–Z motif implies and utilises it time and again. Some of the poetic parts of the Hebrew Bible, as we shall see, embrace aleph to tav as a profoundly meaningful literary device.

 

Notes

  1. Gotthold Lessing (1729–81) was a German Enlightenment philosopher. He famously (or infamously) used an image of “the ugly broad ditch” (der garstige breite Graben) to describe the problem of historical distance between the present and past historical events.
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) was a German philosopher. He was a proponent of a rich idea of “the fusion of horizons” (horizontverschmelzung). The concept involves a connection between a modern vantage point, or horizon, and an ancient one. When a proper connection or fusion, is established the contemporary observer understands from a new vantage point. This approach has had an impact on modern hermeneutics (theories of interpretation).

An A–Z of the Hebrew Bible: Part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge

April 2017 will see some frenetic activity on this blog. In the course of just one month there will be twenty-six posts. The aim is to introduce the Hebrew Bible in an approachable and engaging yet rigorous manner. The major goal is to provide an introduction the Hebrew Bible. The posts will aim to also provide something for those already familiar with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.

a2z-badge-100-2017

Twenty-six posts in a month is challenging enough, but there’s more. The posts will also be an A–Z, following the alphabet from A on the 1st April to Z on the 30th April. Each post will ‘work’ by itself and they will also develop one-after-the-other to provide a more than 15,000 word broad introduction to the Hebrew Bible. I hope you will want to join the journey and that you will consider adding comments and asking questions.

PsalterMark, 1st March 2017

A Review of ‘The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion’, Edited by John Barton

 

The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion

Edited by John Barton

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

632pp. hb. £34.95, ISBN 978-0-691-15471-8

Barton

Introduction

At the outset of this review I need to declare one presupposition and a potential source of bias—I read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture and I was supplied with a review copy of this book by the publisher.

John Barton’s The Hebrew Bible is a guide, or as its subtitle indicates, a companion to the Hebrew Bible. Like its namesake it has diverse contributors, with each chapter having a different function within the whole. It differs from the Hebrew Bible in an important way—the religious presuppositions of the authors are diverse. The diversity of the twenty-three authors was an editorial choice. Barton explains this choice of contributors in the very short Introduction: ‘some are Jews, some are Christians of various kinds, some have no religious commitment at all’ (p.x). Any reader wanting a consistent authorial stance should look elsewhere, but those wanting to be challenged and enriched would do well to choose this volume.

The book is divided into four major sections:

I. The Hebrew Bible and Its Historical and Social Context

II. Major Genres of Biblical Literature

III. Major Religious Themes

IV. The Study and Reception of the Hebrew Bible

I have used these four section headings below to facilitate navigation of this review.

I. The Hebrew Bible and Its Historical and Social Context

John Barton’s opening chapter, The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, covers some thorny and complex issues of definition in an engaging and even-handed manner. He not only covers the obvious challenge of what we should call the ‘Hebrew Bible’, but also explores the presence of Aramaic sections in the Hebrew Bible. The diverse textual traditions in Hebrew, Greek and Latin are outlined and finally Christianity’s understanding of the nature of the Hebrew Bible is considered.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s The Historical Framework: Biblical and Scholarly Portrayals of the Past which is the second chapter is an engaging and stimulating exploration of what can be established about the voracity, or otherwise, of the Hebrew Bible’s historical claims. As Stavrakopoulou points out the reader of the Hebrew Bible makes a choice about the relative privilege given to the text itself or extra-biblical data such as other texts and archaeology. Stavrakopoulou clearly privileges nonbiblical sources and provides a challenging analysis for readers who have greater confidence in the historicity of the Hebrew Bible’s account of the pre-monarchical period.

Katherine Southwood explores the use of social sciences in biblical studies in The Social and Cultural History of Ancient Israel. Her essay considers the potential gains and pitfalls of such approaches. The potential value of these methods is demonstrated by reviewing recent work on key themes such as ethnicity and kinship. Anthony J. Frendo’s Israel in the Context of the Ancient Near East lacks the narrative clarity of the other three contributions in this opening section. This essay is essentially an appeal for the need for both a diachronic and a synchronic analysis of ancient texts in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible, but this is far from obvious from the chapter’s title.

II. Major Genres of Biblical Literature

A reference work of this type will often be used by those wanting an up-to-date introduction to the specific types of literature in the Hebrew Bible. Part II divides the Hebrew Bible’s content into (i) narrative books, (ii) prophetic literature, (iii) legal texts, (iv) Wisdom Literature and (v) psalms and poems. Whilst other ways of classifying the Hebrew Bible could have been chosen this five-fold division works rather well, with a small but helpful degree of overlap in the contributions. Thomas Römer’s exploration of the narrative books provides an appropriate opening chapter. He helpfully, brings the idea of the ‘Enneateuch’ as a narrative unit to the fore—the Enneateuch comprising Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The clear narrative coherence of this large unit forms the basis for a diverse exploration of the implied editing processes that produced the Hebrew Bible. He concludes with a tantalizing glimpse at recent scholarship on the emergence of Jewish novellas.

G. Kratz’s The Prophetic Literature focuses on the question of how oral prophetic activity produced literary products such as the three major prophetic books and the twelve Minor Prophets. Kratz makes much of the complex editing process, or Fortschreibung, and concludes with what he labels a ‘costly business of interpretation’ in which a text is continually re-shaped and added to by later interpreters. I was surprised that Kratz did not make more of the textual journey which gave rise to The Book of the Twelve. Despite his conviction regarding the massive distance between historical prophet and biblical text, Kratz does not see this as a closed door to understanding the prophetic books as scripture.

Assnat Bartor’s exploration of Legal Texts was refreshing because of its breadth and scope. Throughout the essay, the role of legal texts, both within and beyond the Pentateuch, is made clear. The suggested inter-relationship between some of these texts and wisdom literature is shown to be fruitful in making sense of the final form and content of much of the legal material in the Hebrew Bible. Jennie Grillo’ article follows with chapter 8’s The Wisdom Literature with an opening statement that this category ‘has no currency in the Old Testament or, . . . any ancient Near Eastern literary culture’. This opening salvo and the chapter as a whole provide a refreshing reminder that scholarly categories (and indeed popular ones) can constrain understanding and hinder seeing an object of scrutiny on its own terms. Grillo goes on to look at Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes and then the trajectory of ‘wisdom literature’ elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in the later books of Ben Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon and finally Qumran.

In the final chapter of this section of the book, Susan Gillingham examines The Psalms and Poems of the Hebrew Bible. This contribution is something of a tour de force of the current scholarly consensus on the Psalms. In this sense the title of the chapter is a little misleading as little attention is given to ‘other poems’ and these are very much in the shadow of the psalms. What I found especially helpful was the clarity with which Gillingham explores what we do know about these ancient songs/poems and, just as importantly, what we do not know.

III. Major Religious Themes

Perhaps the most unconventional but welcome feature of this volume is its strong emphasis on the major themes found in the Hebrew Bible. Whether the Hebrew Bible is approached from a ‘descriptive perspective’ or with a religious commitment the weight given to these broad topics works equally well. Benjamin D. Sommer’s exploration of Monotheism (chapter 10) is the first of these seven thematic chapters. Sommer argues that this subject has often been oversimplified. He argues that while the Hebrew Bible exhorts Israelites to exclusive loyalty to Yahweh, it is less clear whether Yahweh is understood to be a unique god or one of many deities. His essay concludes that the terms monotheist and polytheist are only a starting point for discussing this theme in the Hebrew Bible.

Hermann Spieckermann’s task is to unfold what the Hebrew Bible says about Creation. In this contribution Spieckermann leads the reader through the full breadth of Hebrew texts which deal with creation with verve and passion. The two features that make this contribution especially helpful are the discussion of divine rest in Mesopotamian culture and the attention given to wisdom theology. This chapter is scholarly work at its best—the Hebrew text is freed so as to allow it to speak afresh. In this case providing an ample basis for an appropriate doctrine of creation, something to which Spieckermann provides a small pointer by way of conclusion.

Hilary Marlow considers what the Hebrew Bible implies about The Human Condition. In doing this she outlines the rich claims made about the nature of human beings and their relationships with each other and with God. As Marlow does this the reader can appreciate how this theme provides insight into the Hebrew Bible’s worldview. Marlow closes her contribution with a brief glimpse at how the values that emerge from this worldview can stimulate insight into the current impact of human beings on the world.

Dominik Markl’s God’s Covenants with Humanity and Israel is a helpful assessment of just how central covenants are in the Hebrew Bible. In some Protestant church traditions the series of covenants that God makes in the Hebrew Bible are used as a rigid interpretational matrix. Markl writes without this preconception but ably demonstrates the importance of the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, etc. The wider Ancient Near-Eastern cultural importance of covenants provides the point of departure and Markl shows that the concept is important not just at key junctures in the biblical narrative but throughout the writings of the Hebrew Bible.

C. L. Crouch examines Ethics in the Old Testament and starts by pointing out the distinction between the goals of understanding the biblical text, on the one hand, and informing contemporary ethics on the other. The role of genre is explored before the essay concludes with a brief explanation of the different answers to the question of where ethical thinking and prescribed praxis come from.

Stephen C. Russell considers the witness of the Hebrew Bible to the function of Religious Space and Structures in Ancient Israel and Judah. In this account archaeological evidence is used throughout to enrich what the biblical texts say about structures and religious observance. Russell argues that it is instructive to consider the scale of the structures in which religious practice occurred. He considers the household, and here the archaeological evidence is especially constructive, explaining how religious activities were permed there on an occasional basis. The role of larger scale structures, which are the result of larger social structures, such as clan and tribe, are shown to be more focused on religious activities at the city gates and altars. Temple worship is explored with surprising brevity before ‘space’ in the religious imagination is explored. This contribution is, however, an important one precisely because of its emphasis on religious praxis at the level of domicile and town—scales that can be so easily missed in the text as they often implied rather overtly considered.

Seth D. Kunin’s contribution on Ritual provides the concluding chapter of this section. Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist analysis is used to discern the overarching structural system that underpins the rituals portrayed in the ‘editorial present of the text’. The areas explored in some depth are food rules, purity rules and the ritual practice of the sacrificial cult. Whilst these contributions are shown to fit into a coherent whole, little attention is given to temple worship in terms of psalmody, apart from a brief section on pilgrimage. This is problematic for the stated goal of the essay—surely this is a major aspect of the ‘final’ text of the Hebrew Bible.

IV. The Study and Reception of the Hebrew Bible

Anyone reading this volume from cover to cover has been prepared for this section by the wealth of questions raised throughout the first three sections. Of course others might choose to start here depending on their purpose in reading this book. The first contribution, Alison Gray’s Reception of the Old Testament, is a timely piece in its own right as well as providing a useful opening essay for Part IV. As she explains, the ‘reception’ of the Hebrew Bible is very much at the centre of current biblical studies. She provides a welcome guide to the various approaches, clarifying key terminology along the way. The essay helpfully demonstrates how the Hebrew Bible owes its existence to the reception of texts and how this ongoing cycle of generative reception continued in later Jewish Midrash. In this way Gray crystallises a key challenge which has been continually in the background and oft times in the foreground of this book—the clearest conclusion of critical scholarship is that the Hebrew Bible owes its origin to a plethora of contributors through a complex process of authorship, selection and editing. This has profound consequences for some traditional conceptions of scripture.

Christoph Bultmann picks up on this in his contribution Historical-Critical Inquiry. Whilst this essay is informative, its focus on the origins of historical-critical enquiry in the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century does not fit well with the rest of the contributions. It feels rather like a follow-up to this chapter is missing. David Jasper’s Literary Approaches commences with the various mid-twentieth century impulses that led to a new wave of scholarship concerned with the Bible as literature. He uses some pithy insights from T. S. Eliot to frame developments such as cultural criticism, narrative criticism, ‘political’ readings and deconstruction so as to showcase the potential of literary approaches.

W. L. Moberly’s Theological Approaches to the Old Testament builds directly on the previous three chapters. He succinctly highlights the inevitable choice of making Old Testament Theology either primarily a descriptive or a prescriptive task. This contribution is a model of clarity and it sympathetically explores the divergence between the two approaches. The rich possibilities afforded by theological approaches are illustrated with the various proposals and insights of key figures such as Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs, David Clines, Jon Levenson and Karl Rahner.

Eryl W. Davies continues the ‘prescriptive agenda’ in the next chapter titled Political and Advocacy Approaches. He explains how advocacy approaches arose, at least in part, as an answer to the observation that traditional critical methods do little to disturb the status quo—a status quo which is blighted by the experiences and struggles of the marginalised. Feminist, Liberation, Postcolonial and Queer approaches are each briefly outlined. The book of Ruth is used to showcase some of these specific advocacy readings.

Carmel McCarthy’s Textual Criticism and Biblical Translation examines the complexity of the history of textual transmission by explaining the nature of the sources: the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint and other versions. In the short space available McCarthy ably communicates the challenge of deciding on which textual variants are to be preferred. The three current major projects, each producing critical editions of the Hebrew Bible, are explained along with the different presuppositions employed by each. The chapter concludes helpfully with a selection of challenging short textual units and a comparison of how these are handled in four English translations.

The volume is rounded off rather appropriately with Adrian Curtis’ To Map or Not to Map? This contribution considers whether supporting maps are an aid to biblical interpretation. Curtis concludes with a ‘yes’, although along the way he points to some potential pitfalls and challenges. This final chapter, like Chapter 1, highlights the difficulty of selecting appropriate terminology when terms like Palestine and Israel bring with them religious and political freight.

Conclusion

The twenty-three contributions that make up this volume do, on the whole, work well together. As with all multi-contributor works of this kind the reader experiences some inevitable unevenness, but in the spirit of this work this probably has as much to do with the reader as with the contributors. The contributions of Stavrakopoulou, Gillingham, Spiekermann and Moberly stand out, despite their very different presuppositions, as exemplars of both academic form and content.

I would have liked to have seen a longer introduction which put each of the contributions in the wider context of the project, but John Barton has presumably resisted this by way of respecting the diverse background of the chosen contributors. Two further chapters might have been helpful, one on the Hebrew language and another on historical-critical approaches in the period c.1850–1960 CE.

This volume sets a high bar for the suggested ‘non specialist reader’. It will work very well as a refresher for those who studied the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in the past, or for those in the later stages of a degree who have already encountered some material on the Hebrew Bible, historical-critical approaches and hermeneutics.

The Flow of the Psalms: A Book Review

Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg: R&R Publishing (2015).

At the outset Robertson explains that his aim is to explore the psalms as a book. He argues that the idea that the Psalter has a plot is one which is well worth exploring. He even goes so far as to propose that an Ezra-like scribe might have arranged and edited the Psalter—giving it both literary and theological coherence. In this way, Robertson is making a conservative tweak to a well-known scholarly hypothesis that the Psalter was shaped over a prolonged period by multiple hands.

Chapter 2 examines the basic structural elements that are evident in the Psalter. Robertson looks at the five books which comprise the Psalter, the grouping of psalms by title and the importance of both torah psalms and messianic psalms. There is much to commend here in the succinct clarity with which the reader is shown the evidence. What I found frustrating is that despite lots of footnotes Robertson’s indebtedness to others does not emerge with clarity. Readers familiar with the literature on the psalms will appreciate our, and Palmer’s, enormous indebtedness to the likes of Brevard Childs, Robert Cole, Nancy deClassié-Walford,  David M. Howard, J. Clinton McCann, Patrick Miller, Gerald Wilson and others. They did nothing less than overturn the decades-long consensus which had done little to enable the Church to utilise the Psalter.

In Chapter 3 Robertson argues that the Book of Psalms has a redemptive-historical framework. Robertson’s opening argument (p.23) that viewing the Psalter as Davidic is fruitful. This combined with the necessity of understanding the impact of the exile (p.24) makes enormous sense. This is not, however, followed through in the manner that this reader anticipated. Rather than any consideration at this point of the impact of post-Davidic developments, Robertson considers the various covenants that Yahweh made with Noah, Abraham, the Patriarchs, Moses and David. This marginalises the very clear failings and ultimate failure of the Davidic monarchy and does not, in my view, offer the richness of much recent scholarly literature. Robertson’s starting point, is of course a very natural point of departure for someone from the Reformed tradition. In this way Chapter 3 marks a shift from the self-evident nature of the Psalter, considered in Chapter 2, to a specific intentional hermeneutical approach.

Chapter 4 is very short—being only three pages in length. Despite its brevity the chapter is critical to Robertson’s approach. In the lengthy footnotes he somewhat tangentially engages with both Gerald Wilson and Nancy deClassié-Walford. Despite what these footnotes indicate, his proposal to trace a story-line through the Psalter is only a variation on the approach of these and other scholars who adopt a canonical approach.

Robertson proposes the following themes for the Psalter’s five books:

Book I: Confrontation (with enemies)

Book II: Communication (with the nations)

Book III: Devastation (by foreign powers)

Book IV: Maturation

Book V: Consummation

Chapter 5’s consideration of Book I of the Psalter under the heading Confrontation is largely convincing. Anyone familiar with the psalms in canonical order will agree that this one word goes a considerable way to capturing a core dynamic of the first 41 psalms. Again, in my view, Robertson does not fully acknowledge the large number of people who have grappled with Book I previously. This can be seen with his correct assertion about the foundational role of Psalms 1 and 2—after mentioning Jamie A. Grant’s excellent book on the shaping of the psalms he does not even mention the work of Cole,[i] Miller[ii] and others who worked so hard to challenge the unhelpful marginalisation of these two introductory psalms by Gunkel and Mowinckel. In this chapter the role of Psalm 19 and the acrostic psalms are helpfully explored. In fact the real novelty of Robertson’s work is the role he ascribes to acrostic psalms and what he terms quasi-acrostics (Psalms 33, 38 and 103, each with their 22 verses matching the 22 consonantal phonemes of the Hebrew alphabet). This aspect of his book has been published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament.[iii]

The idea that Book II is all about communication with the nations (Chapter 6) is less convincing. Clearly the nations play a central role, being essentially a character in the Psalter, but seeing Book II in this way seems to flatten a more complex role for the nations and is arguably a rose-tinted reading back into the Psalter from a post-Easter perspective.

Reading Book III, in Chapter 7, with the theme of Devastation fits well with the contents of Book III and coheres with Wilson’s original 1985 proposal. Yet even here there is a danger that Robertson’s schema over-simplifies the picture by laying the devastation solely at the hands of foreign nations. I suggest that a reading of this short series of psalms, pss.73–89, lays the blame with Yahweh and the nation of Israel’s failings.

Chapters 8 and 9 move on from the consequences of exile in Book III and examine Books IV and V respectively. Here Robertson helpfully unpacks both the literary structure and the theological narrative. Again I think that Robertson errs on the side of making his case to the extent of smoothing over the full complexity and richness of the content of these two books. His hypothesis of a single editor leads to an over confidence regarding the possibility of reliably recovering editorial intent—the evidence, i.e. the Psalter, reveals a much more complex challenge that resists a simplistic interpretative straight-jacket.

In Chapter 10, Robertson ends up where he started. This is my major concern with his book. I am broadly persuaded that the canonical approach he has articulated, following a large school of scholars from the 1980s onwards, is a fruitful way to read the Psalter. What I am not convinced of is that a Reformed redemptive-historical framework does justice to the rich tapestry of the Psalter. The proposal of a single Ezra-like scribe editing the Psalter fails to convince. Such a proposal might seem more palatable to some, but I find the idea of a more complex process where Yahweh has worked through multiple editors over a longer timescale to produce Scripture an exciting prospect.

Despite the reservations outlined above, I would heartily encourage preachers, small group leaders and church leaders to work through this book. Whether you agree entirely with Robertson or not the reader will have a firmer grasps of the remarkable Book of Psalms—which is so much more than a hotchpotch anthology of ancient songs. The Church today sorely needs the psalms and those who have spent time immersed in the Psalter.

 

[i] Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press (2013) and Robert L. Cole, ‘Psalms 1 and 2: The Psalter’s Introduction’ in The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

[ii] Patrick D, Miller, ‘The Beginning of the Psalter’, pp.83–92 in J. Clinton McCann (editor), Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.

[iii] ‘The Alphabetic Acrostic in Book I of the Psalms: An Overlooked Element of Psalter Structure’, 40 (2), 225–238, 2015.

Top 10 Posts

In 10th Place: T. S. Eliot and Reading the Psalms.

In 9th Place: The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture.

In 8th Place: Psalm 1 and 2 as an Introduction to the Psalter.

In 7th Place: Book Review—From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms.

In 6th Place: Psalms of Ascents: Psalms 120–134.

In 5th Place: Book Review—Psalms 1 and 2: Gateway to the Psalter by Robert Cole.

In 4th Place: Psalms for the New Year.

In 3rd Place: Acrostic Psalms.

In 2nd Place: Book Review—‘Psalms—New Cambridge Bible Commentary’, by Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr.

In First Place: The Psalter’s Structure: Macrostructure.

A Review of ‘A Short Dictionary of the Psalms’

Jean-Pierre Prévost, A Short Dictionary of the Psalms, translated by Mary Misrahi, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1997, i–xiv, 90 pages.

This short béook has much to commend it. Its sizes makes it a rather unusual dictionary and it cannot be seen as a comprehensive introduction to the psalms. As its title suggests, however, it is not striving for completeness but aims to facilitate prayerful appropriation of the Psalter. Its strength is that it takes the psalms as they are and provides a manageable amount of technical detail in order to bring them to life. In breathing life into these ancient texts it never loses sight of either their antiquity or cultural and religious distance. As Fr. Prévost notes at the outset: ‘For us as Christians, trying to pray the psalms two thousand years after they were written, a certain effort is necessary to make them ours, even at the cost of some discipline’ [p.xi].

The way these ancient texts are brought into the present, as our fresh prayers, is by the examination of forty Hebrew words. As the author explains others might have been chosen, but these forty are well-chosen—an ideal balance between substance and conciseness. The reader who explores these forty words/roots will find that every psalm now takes on some new depth and clarity. The five excursuses in the book answer some of the most pressing questions asked by those who want to use these poems as their own prayers. These include issues around the inherent violence of some of the psalms, the identity of the psalmist’s enemies, their patriarchal world-view and their relationship to New Testament faith. The book concludes helpfully with seven different ways in which the psalms can be prayed.

Despite being a dictionary this is a book that should be read from beginning to end. Used in this way, this book will be valuable to anyone who wants to simultaneously deepen their technical understanding of the language of the psalms and the richness of their experience in praying them.

Journeying through the Psalms

This weekend I planned some teaching on The Book of Psalms for a staff and postgraduate Christian fellowship lunchtime meeting at the University of Surrey—this is my place of work. I have realised that the handout I have prepared is self-contained enough to be useful for a wider audience and so have lightly adapted it below.

Getting Started
What role do the Psalms play in your church?

What role do the Psalms play in your life?

The Psalms and the Last One Hundred Years’ of Scholarship
Scholarship on the Psalms in the twentieth century was a complex journey through very different approaches. A German scholar, Hermann Gunkel, initiated a literary approach which still informs scholarship today. His approach was valuable in exploring the various types of psalm found in the Psalter. It was inadvertently unhelpful for the Church in that its focus on individual psalms undermined The Book of Psalms. A Norwegian scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, built on Gunkel’s work and sought to understand the use of the psalms in Ancient Israel. This sounds promising but the result was built on a historical hypothesis with scant support from the Old Testament.

More recently, scholars have recognised the limits of placing the psalms firmly in the past. Since around 1980 a large number of scholars have explored what many Christians have known for two millennia that the Psalter is a book (Judaism has recognised this for even longer of course). If the Psalter is a book, rather than a disordered anthology of songs and poems, then we might well expect (i) an introduction, (ii) evidence of structure, (iii) a conclusion. We will briefly consider these three things.

The Psalter’s Opening: Psalms 1 and 2
Scholars like Gunkel and Mowinckel largely ignored Psalm 1 because it is unusual and did not fit either a literary form or pattern of worship that interested them.[1] Psalm 1 is a call to study Yahweh’s torah, or instruction. We should ensure we do not make the mistake of seeing this as a call to legalism. Surprisingly, given their very different forms, there are links between Psalms 1 and 2. In Figure 1 their parallel usage of some Hebrew words is shown.

Psalms 1 and 2 comparison

Figure 1 Some of the more obvious literary links between Psalms 1 and 2.

Anyone unconvinced by the suggested literary links between these two psalms should note that there are two other reasons for seeing these two psalms as a pair. Firstly, they are unusual in that they both lack a heading. Secondly, there is a Jewish tradition that links these two verses as a single psalm.[2] If these two psalms are in some sense an intentional introduction to the Book of Psalms, this has some implications:

  • Perhaps the Psalms are meant to be a source of instruction.
  • The idea of ‘the way’, or a journey, might be a key concern.
  • The king/Yahweh’s anointed (= messiah) might be central to the book.

 

The Structure of the Psalms
There are many different features within the Psalter that can be viewed as evidence of structure. Many of them raise puzzling questions. Here we just scratch the surface. One obvious feature is the fivefold structure of the Psalter—the psalms are broken into five books:

Book I: Psalms 1–41

Book II: Psalms 42–72

Book III: Psalms 73–89

Book IV: Psalms 90–106

Book V: Psalms 107–150

It has been suggested that this fivefold structure deliberately echoes the Pentateuch (the five books of the torah). If this is the case Psalm 1’s call to meditation on the torah/law might point to the Book of Psalms as much as the Law of Moses.

Each of the five books in the Psalter ends in what is called a doxology or a call to praise:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting,

Amen and amen. (41:13)

 

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,

Who alone does wondrous deeds.

Blessed be his glorious name forever;

May his glory fill all the earth.

Amen and amen. (72:18-19)

 

Blessed be the Lord forever.

Amen and amen. (89:52)

 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,

From everlasting to everlasting.

And let all the people say, “Amen.”

Praise the Lord. (106:48)

 

Let every breathing thing praise the Lord!

Hallelujah! (150:6)

 

The attentive reader will also note that the psalms that close and open the five books tend to be especially important in terms of the wider theological issues they address and/or the role of the king.

Perhaps the Psalter’s structure encapsulates a journey that mirrors the journey of so many of the pilgrims and disciples who have found sustenance and encouragement there? Anyone who reads through the Psalter, psalm-by-psalm, will perceive a journey. There is a decisive development through the Book of Psalms. Some have described this as a journey from ‘Plea to Praise’ and others as a journey from ‘Duty to Delight’.

A journey through the Psalter reaches a puzzle when Psalm 53 is reached because it appears to be so close to Psalm 14 as to be the same. The main difference between these two psalms is the words they use to refer to God. This is part of a wider puzzle in the Psalter shown in Figure 2.

Elohistic

Figure 2 The number of occurrences of the words Yahweh and Elohim in two groups of psalms.

Psalm 119, which occupies such a massive place in Book V and within the Book as a whole, makes frequent reference to a journey motif as can be seen by the frequency of some related words in the Table below.

Table 1 Occurrence of words (NRSV) related to a journey motif in Psalm 119.

WORD VERSE/S

 

Way/s 1, 14, 15, 26, 29, 33, 37, 59, 104, 128, 168
Path 35, 105
Walk 1, 3, 45
Astray/stray 10, 67, 176
Wander 21
Steps 128, 133
Feet 59, 101, 105
(journey’s) End 33, 87, 112

The Psalter also has a number of psalms that are best understood as psalms of pilgrimage—most obviously Psalm 84 and the Psalms of Ascents (120-134). They, along with others, are likely to have been used during pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the various Jewish festivals.

In the time of the Jewish diaspora, when the Psalms were finally edited to make the Psalter, pilgrimage was no longer an option. The Psalter was edited to take on some aspects of the dynamic of pilgrimage. In the same way, for us today, the Psalter can be seen to take on a special place in the Life of Faith.

The Conclusion of the Psalms: Psalms 146–150
Psalms 146-150 have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah, i.e. ‘Praise the Lord’. They all end with this same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups and downs of individual and corporate experience. There is only cause for praise and its execution. Therefore, in this way they are all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the five parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter.

What better way to end a book of songs and poems than with a crescendo of praise? If we have prayed through the Psalms, the cycle of Hallelujahs is the only way it could close. If the Psalter is symbolic of the life of faith, how else should it end—but with an end echoed by David in Cohen’s Hallelujah: ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah’. For those that use the Psalter repeatedly in a cycle from beginning to end, there is a foretaste of closure, ahead of the start of a fresh journey of troughs and peaks.

Conclusion
Through its incorporation of pilgrimage psalms, the prominence of the Psalms of Ascents, the on-going language incorporating a journey motif and its carefully crafted journey from, obedience and petition, to the final crescendo of praise, we have a book to carry with us on the Life of Faith. Over two millennia Christians have used the Psalter ‘on the road’ in diverse ways. I would not want to be prescriptive about exactly how we use it. The general point is, however, clear, we must ensure that we are intentional about our use of this gift that God has given us for the Way.

More on the Psalms
If you have found some value in our journey through the Psalms you might like to read some short posts from my blog. Please see PsalterMark.com and in particular the post titled The Journey Motif in Life, Art and Scripture. You can also find me on Twitter as @PsalterMark in what is usually a daily attempt to promote The Book of Psalms.

If you want to know more about the recent rediscovery that the biblical psalms are a book see the following:

Nancy deClaissé-Walford (1997), Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macon: Mercer University Press.

Palmer Robertson (2015), The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.

[1] Gunkel went so far as to suggest its piety was deficient.

[2] The relationship between these two Psalms is explored in Mark J. Whiting (2013), Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246 and in Robert L. Cole (2013), ‘Psalms 1 and 2: The Psalter’s Introduction’ in The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers.