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Goldingay on Psalms and Other Commentary Updates

1st February 2007

goldingay_psalms.jpgI’ve added a few new commentaries in the Wisdom & Psalms section of my OT Commentary Survey.

One commentary that I want to single out among the updates is John Goldingay’s superb volume on Psalms 1-41:

I have always liked John Goldingay’s scholarship and this volume on the Psalter is no exception. Goldingay interacts with the best scholarship on the Psalms and presents it in a warm and engaging style that is both academically sound and theologically relevant. As such his commentary is ideal for pastors and Christian scholars and laypeople will also find it extremely accessible. I highly recommend it!

Another new commentary on the Psalms is in the popular Believers Church Bible Commentary:

There is also a new commentary on Proverbs by biblical studies doyen Tremper Longman:

Hot off the press is a new commentary on Ecclesiastes that looks at the reception history of the book:

For more listings and evaluations of commentaries on other biblical books, see my Old Testament Commentary Survey.

Posted in Bible, Codex Updates, Commentary Survey, Ecclesiastes, Old Testament, Proverbs, Psalms | 1 Comment »

Form Critical Approaches to the Psalms Post Gunkel

13th January 2007

There have been many modifications and refinements of the form critical method since Gunkel (for a summary of Gunkel’s approach to the Psalms, see my previous post A Form-Critical Classification of the Psalms according to Hermann Gunkel).

Many problems still remain with the form critical approach to the psalms. Recent literature has definitely exhibited more caution about the specific social and cultic settings proposed for the psalms. While earlier form-critical work has continued to be useful — if not essential — to recent psalms scholarship, its usefulness is found in the literary and stylistic features that it highlights, as well as its broad suggestions about situations in life.

Wisdom in the Psalms?

The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.
The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip (Ps 37:30-31).

A persistent problem that has continually dogged the form-critical approach to the psalms is the lack of agreement on certain forms. No where is this disagreement felt more than with the wisdom psalms (although Royal psalms would be a close second). Norman Whybray has even refered to the task of identifying wisdom psalms as “making bricks without straw.” While Gunkel’s (Introduction to Psalms; Buy from or characterization of wisdom psalms as having a didactic intent and personal and individual expressions of experience has generally been accepted by scholars, as well as his identification of Psalms 1, 34, 37, 49, 78, 105, 106, 111, 112, and 127 as wisdom psalms, no two scholars are in agreement that these are the only criterion and even on what psalms are wisdom psalms! Other criterion include: learned authorship, specific stylistic features (such as “better than” sayings, numerical sayings, adress to sons, alphabetic compositions, extensive use of metaphors, etc.), common motifs, a mood of private devotion and piety, and a concern for order. This has led some scholars, such as Norman Whybray and Roland Murphy, to identify many more wisdom psalms in the Psalter. In contrast, James Crenshaw (The Psalms: An Introduction [Eerdmans, 2001], 87-95; Buy from or questions the very category of wisdom psalms. He notes:

I do not see any profit in attributing such psalms to the sages when we know so little about the authors and their social contexts. Perhaps we should limit ourselves to what can definitely be affirmed: some psalms resemble wisdom literature in stressing the importance of learning, struggling to ascertain life’s meaning, and employing proverbial lore. Their authorship and provenance matter less than the accuracy and profundity of what they say (p. 94).

Here is a listing of wisdom psalms according to some recent scholars:

Gunkel/Begrich: Psalms 1, 37, 49, 73, 91, 112, 127, 128, 133.
Murphy: Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128 (and wisdom influence in Psalms 25, 31, 39, 40, 62, 92, and 94).
Kuntz: Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128, 133.
Whybray: Psalms 8, 14, 25, 34, 39, 49, 73, 90, 112, 127, 131, 139.

Laments Post Gunkel

As noted above, there have been many refinements of Gunkel’s approach to the psalms and the laments — as the most popular type of psalm found in the book of Psalms — has received its fair share of attention. Some of the most significant changes in the interpretation of the individual laments since Gunkel have centred both on his description of their structure (Formensprache), as well as his reconstruction of their putative setting in life (Sitz im Leben).

By and large, Gunkel’s formal treatment of individual laments has been accepted by most scholars with only minor changes, most of which consisted of refinements or elaborations of the various components that make up the lament. For instance, Westermann, in his Praise and Lament in the Psalms, fleshed out the “lament proper� in lament psalms by identifying its three main constituents which varied in importance at different times:

  • the complaint against God,
  • the psalmist’s lament over personal suffering, and
  • the complaint against those who oppose him, i.e., the enemy.

A more extensive refinement on Gunkel’s classification has been offered by Craig Broyles in his Conflict of Faith and Experience in the Psalms. He has suggested a further division of the individual laments into complaints (psalms where Yahweh is accused of wrongdoing on behalf of the psalmist) and pleas (psalms where the Yahweh is not responsible but is appealed to for help). While this distinction is helpful, at times the distinction between the two categories is ambiguous. It does highlight, however, an important question about the primary nature of the lament and related issues of nomenclature (e.g., should the genre be labeled laments or complaints, etc.; see my post on Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?).

One component of the individual lament that has received a fair amount of attention is the “certainty of hearing� that often occurs near the end of lament psalms (though not necessarily). What has attracted the attention is the sudden change in mood from despair to confidence. For example, in the ending of Psalm 6, the psalmist declares (seemingly) out of nowhere that Yahweh has heard his supplication:

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame (Ps 6:8-10).

The most common explanation of this sudden shift is related to seeing a cultic setting behind the psalm in which a priest delivers an oracle of salvation that promises Yahweh’s response between the lament proper and the words of confidence. This view was advanced and solidified by Bergrich, who drew a number of parallel expressions between the lament psalms and the salvation oracles in Second Isaiah, and attempted to reconstruct what the oracle of salvation would of looked like. The biggest weakness with this view is that there are no extant salvation oracles in any lament psalms, and if this was the common practice, the reasons for omitting the oracle are not clear. Others have tried to explain the phenomenon by appealing to an inward psychological process whereby during his prayer the psalmist either recalls God’s past faithfulness or comes to grip with his situation and moves on, or recalls his faith in God the divine warrior. While there may be some vestiges of a cultic action behind the shift in tone, the notion of recollection of Yahweh’s past deeds or some similar faith-oriented explanation is just as if not more likely.

Since Gunkel’s time there is also a new appreciation for the individuality of each psalm (though it should be noted that as is often the case, it was Gunkel’s students, and not Gunkel himself who applied form-criticism too rigidly). Because form-critical descriptions tended to focus on what is generic and not what is specific, earlier form criticism often resulted in a psalm’s individuality to be glossed over. This new concern is due in part to the renewed interest in Hebrew poetry, and in part to dissatisfaction with the large collection of psalms that didn’t fit neatly into any one genre. What is clear, however, is that a psalm’s internal poetic structure needs to be determinative in breaking down a psalm into stanzas, etc., rather than a predetermined generic mold.

Most of the debate since Gunkel has focused on the Sitz im Leben of the lament psalms, and, on a more theoretical level, on the relationship of Sitz im Leben to form. To a large extent, the discussion of the setting revolved around the identity of the “I� and the enemy in the laments. The debate surrounding the identity of the “I� in the psalms has its roots before Gunkel with the work of Smend, who argued that the “I� in many psalms is not an individual but a personification of the community. Gunkel, and Balla in accord with him, argued that this may be the case when a connection is made explicit (e.g., Ps 129; though I understand the liturgical reference to Israel in the first verse as redactional), and appealed to “Jeremiah’s confessions� and the psalms that seem to make a distinction between the psalmist and other Israelites (e.g., Ps 35) to support the view that the “I� is an individual.

A modified version of Smend’s view has been resurrected in the last century with the work of Birkeland (a student of Mowinkel). He argued in two publications that since the enemies are clearly foreign nations in communal laments, and the enemies in individual laments are describe with similar terms, and are even at times explicitly identified as foreign nations (see Ps 9), then the only logical conclusion is to maintain that the enemies in individual laments are also foreign nations. This view presupposes that the “I� in virtually every individual lament (Birkeland has been rightly criticized for his unequivocal statements) is a representative of the nation, likely the king, which would make them royal psalms. Mowinckel, who had originally maintained (in his Psalmenstudien) that the Sitz im Leben of the individual laments was a healing ritual in which the psalmist would go before the priest in the temple and ask for healing (This view was based on Mowinckel’s understanding of the enemy as the “worker of evil�, i.e., a sorcerer who is responsible for the psalmist’s illness), was partially convinced by Birkeland. Mowinckel’s modified view, as found in his The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, distinguished between personal psalms of lamentation with sorcery and a healing ritual as their setting, and national psalms of lamentation in the “I-form.� The notion that the “I� is the king representative of the nation has also been argued recently by John Eaton (Kingship and the Psalms [SCM, 1975]; Buy from or and Steven Croft (The Identify of the Individual in the Psalms [Sheffield, 1987]; Buy from or, though neither of them are as dogmatic or extreme as Birkeland.

Other settings that have been proposed for the individual laments include a juridical setting in which the psalmist, who had been unjustly accused, would flee to the temple to undergo a trial in order to clear his name (e.g., Beyerlin). He would then pray the psalm to encourage Yahweh to adjudicate a fair judgment. Along a similar vein, Delekat proposed that the laments were originally inscriptions left in the temple by those seeking refuge. Attempts have also been made to understand the enemies in light of socio-economic conditions within Israelite society. Gerstenberger has argued that the context for the laments may be the postexilic family clan, rather than the temple, and that the enemies may often be from within the clan (see his Psalms: Part 1: With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry [Eerdmans, 1988; Buy from or The laments, then, would be used in a ritual to restore harmony to the clan and rehabilitate the individual. The late Gerald Sheppard takes a similar view, arguing that that laments were read aloud in the temple and were meant to be overheard by the enemies (members of the ruling class?), thereby exposing them to the community and perhaps leading them to repentance.

All these proposed settings for the individual laments have some merit, though it seems more likely that a multiplicity of situations lie behind the laments. There are a number of psalms in which the setting appears to be one of illness (though Mowinckel’s understanding of the “doer of evil� as a sorcerer was clearly overstated, as he himself eventually admitted). Ps 6 has already been mentioned, and there are many other psalms that make reference to the psalmist’s pain and wounds (e.g., Pss 13; 38). But there are also psalms in which there appears to be a juridical setting where the psalmist is pleading his innocence, e.g., Pss 4, 5 (what the specific setting is, however, can only be answered with speculation). There are also psalms in which the enemies do seem to be equated with foreign nations (though it is not clear to me that this means that the “I� in the psalms therefore needs to be a king or ruler), and others where the enemies appear to be from within the same group. And finally, there are also many laments (the majority?) in which the enemy appears to be a personal enemy of the psalmist who poses a real (or perceived; cf. Keel) threat to the poet.

The point that I’m making is that it is not necessary — or even desirable — to try to find “the� Sitz im Leben of the laments. And even if there was one original setting for them, I think that it is unlikely that we could determine it with any certainty. This is because of the stereotypical and formulaic nature of much of the descriptions in the laments. The situation of the psalmist and the nature of his trouble is never specified and can often fit a variety of contexts. Therefore to try to limit the setting of the laments moves against the direction in the psalms themselves. From a slightly different angle, modern folklore studies have also underscored the fact that the interaction between the performer, his material, and his audience is often quite complex and cannot be understood in simple one-to-one terms. The notion that a genre has a one-to-one connection with a single setting is not born out by the evidence. Even a genre like a hymn, which most would place in the cult, is equally at home in a variety of contexts as history and usage has proven (e.g., Gerstenberger, who places many in the context of synagogal worship). Moreover, while there is likely an original oral (and cultic) background to the lament psalm, at some time they were written down and transmitted throughout the community and used again and again by different people in different contexts. Quite opposite to the notion that something was lost by writing it down, the stereotypical character of the laments (and the psalms in general) allowed for diverse and rich usage. Some laments may even have been composed in such a general way so that they could be used in a number of different personal situations.

This is a perspective that Patrick Miller has done a lot to advance, and I think that he is essentially correct (see his Interpreting the Psalms [Fortress, 1986; Buy from or The open-endedness of the laments make them fruitful quarry for theological reflection. As Miller has argued, this open-endedness allows the laments to be appropriated by people in all sorts of different situations within and without the community of faith. This, however, does not mean that one should not attempt to determine some of the possible settings of the laments. Some knowledge of their setting helps us contextualize our theological reflection and ground it in human experience.

For more thought on Lament psalms and their place in the church, see my post, The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church.

Posted in Bible, Criticism, Form criticism, Old Testament, Psalms | 1 Comment »

The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 2) Personal Names and Notions of Authorship (Best of Codex)

22nd November 2006

[Originally posted 3rd July 2005]

There are a total of 37 places where the LXX Psalter has either additions (13x) or expansions (24x) to the superscripts in comparison to the MT Psalter. While these may be classified in a number of ways, I will discuss them under four headings: personal names; genre designations, liturgical notices, and situational ascriptions. This blog entry will focus on personal names. (Note: Chapter and verse references are to the MT with the LXX indicated in parentheses).

Personal Names in the LXX Psalm Superscriptions

In the MT many of the psalms have references to personal names in the superscripts (typically with the preposition ל l). Seventy three psalms contain David; others have Asaph (12x; Pss 50; 73–83); the sons of Korah (11x; Pss 42; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88); Solomon (Pss 72; 127); Ethan (Ps 89), Heman (Ps 88), Moses (Ps 90), and possibly Jeduthun (Pss 39; 62; 77). With rare exceptions, the construction lamed + name is rendered with an articular dative. This includes all of the Asaph psalms and virtually all of the Korahite psalms (there are two contested cases where υπεÏ? + genitive is used: Ps 46(45) and 47(46)). In connection with the David psalms, Pietersma has argued that the six places that Rahlfs uses a genitive in his lemma text should be read as datives. Of the two psalms with Solomon in their titles, one is translated by a dative (Ps 127(126)), while the other is rendered by εις Σαλωμων “for Solomon” (Ps 72(71)).

David in the Septuagint Psalter
In the LXX there are a number of instances where personal names are added, including Jeremiah and Ezekiel in Ps 65(64); Haggai and Zechariah in Ps 146(145); 147:1-11(146); 147:12-20(147); and 148. Most of the changes in personal names, however, relate to David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel.” In 13 cases the LXX adds a reference to David (Pss 33(32); 43(42); 71(70); 91(90); 93(92); 94(93); 95(94); 96(95); 97(96); 98(97); 99(98); 104(103); 137(136). (I should also note that there are two instances where references to David are omitted in the Greek tradition: Pss 122(121) and 124(123)). In all but one instance (Ps 98(97)), the LXX adds this association to psalms that are untitled in the MT. The question that immediately comes to mind are whether these additions reflect a different Hebrew text or are the product of transmission history. Unfortunately, it is difficult to gain any critical purchase on this question since Ï„á¿· Δαυιδ is the default rendering of לדוד. In three cases it is more than likely that the additions reflect a different Hebrew text, as there is textual evidence to support the variant reading, whether among a few Masoretic texts (43(42)), or among the DSS (e.g., 11QPsq has לדוד in Ps 33(32); and 11QPsa and 4QPse also have לדויד in Ps 104(103).

The remaining ten instances are more difficult to access. Al Pietersma, in his study “David in the Greek Psalms” (VT 30 (1980) 213-226), suggests that the Davidic references in Pss 71(70); 91(90); 93(92); 95(94); 96(95); and 97(96); may be called into question because other elements of the LXX superscripts are clearly secondary. While this is essentially a “guilty by association” argument, it’s the best we can do considering the evidence. This leaves four superscripts that add an association with David: Pss 94(93); 98(97); 99(98); and 137(136). It is almost impossible to make any determination with Ps 94(93), as the superscript is uncontested. As a royal psalm, it may be understandable why Ps 98(97) would attract a Davidic superscript, though this does not help explain Ps 99(98) (contra Pietersma). The only superscript where some judgment may be made is Ps 137(136). There is quite a bit of variation among the textual witnesses, with many of them including an ascription to Jeremiah, and some conflating the two and associating the psalm with David and Jeremiah. The textual rivalry between David and Jeremiah could be an indication that the psalm was originally untitled, as it is in the MT tradition and Qumran.

Jeremiah & Ezekiel in the Septuagint Psalter
As noted above, some Greek texts of Ps 137(136) include a reference to Jeremiah in their superscripts. The association with Jeremiah in the Greek tradition is perhaps understandable considering the psalm’s exilic setting, though according to biblical tradition Jeremiah never goes to Babylon. There is a tradition, however, that places Jeremiah in Babylon. In fact, 4Baruch 7:33-36 Ps 137(136):3-4 is actually put into the mouth of Jeremiah. The text reads as follows:

For I [Jeremiah] say to you that the whole time we have been here, they have oppressed us, saying “Sing us a song from the songs of Zion, the song of your God.” And we say to them, “How can we sing to you, being in a foreign land?”

While there is a possibility that the superscript led to 4Baruch making the association, it seems more plausible the other way around because 4Baruch has Jeremiah in Babylon, where singing the psalm makes sense. In addition, in 4Baruch there is no indication that Jeremiah is quoting Scripture.

The reference to Jeremiah in Ps 137(136) is not the only one found in the LXX Psalter. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel are mentioned together in Ps 65(64). The full superscript reads as follows:

εἰς τὸ τέλος ψαλμὸς Ï„á¿· Δαυιδ ᾠδή ΙεÏ?εμιου καὶ Ιεζεκιηλ á¼?κ τοῦ λόγου τῆς παÏ?οικίας ὅτε ἔμελλον á¼?κποÏ?εύεσθαι
To the end. A psalm for David. A song. Of Jeremiah and Ezekiel from the account of the sojourning community, when they were about to go out.

The superscript is somewhat contested, though Rahlfs considered it OG. What is interesting about this superscript, is that like the previous example, there is a double association: a connection with David and with Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Unlike the previous example, it is not clear what triggered the association with Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Within the psalm itself there are no explicit connections with these prophets or the return from exile in general. The reference to “Zion” and the addition of “Jerusalem” in v. 2 may suggest this is one of the “songs of Zion” mentioned in Ps 137. While these (and others I won’t bore you with) readings of the Greek translation may provide some clues as to why the association was made, it is more certain that the association is due to an inner-Greek development rather than a different Hebrew parent text. This is almost certain due to the fact that the superscript employs the atypical conjunction ὅτε, and that the grammatical construction of the modal μελλω (“about to”) plus a complementary infinitive is never found elsewhere in the LXX Psalter, and thus is not congruent with the translator’s technique.

Haggai & Zechariah in the Septuagint Psalter
The final two individuals that we meet unexpectedly in the superscript of the LXX Psalter are the post-exilic prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Ps 146(145); 147:1-11(146); 147:12-20(147); and 148 all include Αλληλουια, Αγγαιου καὶ ΖαχαÏ?ιου “Hallelujah. Of Haggai and Zechariah” (or “A Hallelujah of…”). If you look beyond Rahlfs’ text, then Haggai and Zechariah also show up in Ps 149 and 150, as well as 111(110), 112(111), and even 138(137) and 139(138). Of courses, not all attestations are as strong textually, though it is interesting to note how the tradition surrounding Haggai and Zechariah grew.

How the association of Haggai and Zechariah with these psalms arose is a perplexing question. F. W. Mozley (The Psalter of the Church, Cambridge University Press, 1905, p. 188), conjectures that Haggai and Zechariah were compilers of a small collection of psalms from which these psalms were taken. While that may be the case, a more plausible solution may be to look in these psalms for connections to the post-exilic community. Both Martin Rösel (“Die Psalmüberschriften Des Septuaginta-Psalters,” in Der Septuaginta-Psalter, Herder, 2001, pp. 125-148) and Al Pietersma (“Exegesis and Liturgy in the Superscriptions of the Greek Psalter,” in X Congress of the IOSCS, Oslo 1998, Society of Biblical Literature, 2001, pp. 99-138) appeal to Psalm 147(146) as the text that triggered the initial association. Verse 2 in the LXX has an explicit reference to the return from exile. The texts read as follows:

οἰκοδομῶν ΙεÏ?ουσαλημ á½? κÏ?Ï?ιος καὶ Ï„á½°Ï‚ διασποÏ?á½°Ï‚ τοῦ ΙσÏ?αηλ á¼?πισυνάξει
The Lord is the one who (re)builds Jerusalem; and he will gather the dispersed [diaspora] of Israel

The translation of the Nif’al participle from נדח “drive away” by διασποÏ?α is atypical. Elsewhere the translator renders נדח by εξωθεω“to expelâ€? (5:11) or απωθεομαι “expel, banish” (62[61]:5). Rather than these more general terms, in the passage under question he employs a technical term for the exilic dispersion, διασποÏ?α. Perhaps significant, is the fact that this term also shows up in some witnesses in connection with Zechariah in the superscript to Ps 139(138). This reference to the exilic dispersion in Ps 147 may have spawned the initial association with two prominent figures of the return, Haggai and Zechariah, which then expanded to include other psalms. The fact that the names are in the genitive may suggest these superscripts are products of transmission history, as it is unclear what the Hebrew text could have read to produce such a translation (If the Hebrew was lamed + name, then you would expect an article in the Greek, and there is no precedent for a construction “the hallelujah of Haggai and Zechariah”).

Personal Names and Authorship

One question that comes up in examining the LXX superscripts is how the translator understood the notion of authorship. Interestingly, it appears to be the case that the Greek translator (one of the earliest biblical interpreters) did not see the personal names in the superscripts as an indication of authorship, as a genitive construction would be expected. For example, Didymus the Blind (a 4th century Alexandrian theologian) makes the distinction in the Tura Psalms commentary in connection with Psalm 24:

(Ψαλμος τω δαυιδ): εις τον δαυιδ ο ψαλμος λεγεται αλλο γαÏ? εστιν “του δαυιδ” ειναι και αλλο “τω δαυιδ” λεγεται, οταν η αυτος αυτον πεποιηκως η ψαλλων. “αυτω” δε λεγεται, οταν εις αυτον φεÏ?ηται.
The psalm says “to David,” for others are “of David” and others “to David.” It says “of David,” when he made/wrote it or sang [it]. But it says “to him” when it was brought to him.

So while the Old Greek translation does not seem to indicate authorship, the growing trend in later witnesses is to spell out authorship explicitly by using the genitive. This suggests that the emphasis on individual authorship grew with time.

The evidence from the Greek Psalter fits nicely with a theory of Burton Mack’s I came across a number of years ago in an article entitled, “Under the Shadow of Moses: Authorship and Authority in Hellenistic Judaism” (SBL Seminar Papers 21 (1982) 299-318). In this article Mack argues that the interest in individual authorship only developed as Israel interacted with Hellenism. In the same way that the Greeks had their famous individuals, so too Judaism began to emphasize their own: Moses and the Pentateuch, Solomon and wisdom literature, and — as is clear from the Greek Psalms — David and the Psalter. The growing Davidic connection in the LXX Psalter is also paralleled in 11QPsa, where the prose piece notes that David composed over 4000 psalms “by the spirit of prophecy.”

Posted in Best of Codex, LXX Psalm Superscriptions, LXX Psalms, Psalms, Septuagint | Comments Off

Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?

6th November 2006

In response to my post on The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church, Tim Bulkeley over at SansBlogue rightfully noted that I have tended to continue employ the designation “laments” when referring to what Gunkel called Klagepsalmen. Tim prefers the term “complaints” when referring to the same psalms:

These psalms claim that something is wrong with the world, usually complaining that God has not acted to right the wrong and go on to petition God to put it right. They seldom stop at merely lamenting the wrong.

Tim highlights a fairly common critique of the appropriateness of the term “lament.” I would agree that the term “lament” isn’t entirely satisfactory since in English “lament” tends to be understood passively as a cry of sorrow or grief. In this regard, the psalmist isn’t really “lamenting.” Rather he is describing his distress and appealing to God for aid. That being said, I don’t think that “complaint” is entirely satisfactory either. In common usage, “complaint” tends to be a minor expression of displeasure; you complain about poor service at a restaurant or when your ride is late. In this regard I wonder if using the term “complaint” trivializes the psalms in question.

A number of scholars don’t use either term, but prefer to use terms that derive from the biblical text itself. Thus, Hans-Joachim Kraus, in his excellent commentary on the Psalms, calls laments “songs of prayer” based on the general Hebrew term for prayer, תפלה tefilla. Craig Broyles makes a similar move in his commentary by calling these psalms “prayer psalms.” The rationale for this move is twofold for Broyles. First, he prefers to employ a designation derived from the psalms themselves (as I already noted). Second, he finds that the term “lament” gives undue prominence to one motif in the psalms.

I wonder if a more appropriate name for these psalms may be “pleas” or “petitions.” Gunkel and most other psalms scholars after him have recognized the most important element of the lament psalm is the plea or petition for help. Gerstenberger calls it the “very heart of a complaint psalm” and claims that “in fact, all the other elements can be interpreted as preparing and supporting the petition” (Psalms, FOTL, 13).

I am happy to continue to employ the traditional term “lament” — and even to alternate it with “complaint.” But if I wanted to adopt a more appropriate name, I would probably use something like “prayer of petition” or “plea.”

Posted in Form criticism, Hermann Gunkel, Psalms | 1 Comment »

The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church

15th October 2006

I have been working on this post for a week. Actually, I haven’t really been working on it for a week; this post has been sitting as a draft in WordPress as I have been avoiding it in light of the tragic events in my friend’s life. On the one hand, talking about lament is appropriate is view of such a horrific tragedy. On the other hand, more than anything else, I don’t want to sound trite. Job’s (so-called) friends did fine as long as they kept their mouths shut — it’s once they opened them that things went sideways! In my mind, this recent tragedy underscores the need for the church to embrace lament fully as ancient Israel did.

I have been discussing lament psalms in my psalms course over the last few classes and was struck once again of the importance of lament for the life of faith. Of all the different types of psalms in the Psalter, laments occur most frequently. While some of the details of their form and setting in life are elusive (at least to scholars), it is pretty easy to identify lament psalms by their tone, which is one of sorrow, complaint, disorientation, and suffering. Take the following examples:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long? (Ps 6:2-3)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads (Ps 22:1, 6-7).

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
Turn your gaze away from me,
that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more (Ps 39:11-12).

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Ps 69:1-3).

You [i.e., Yahweh] have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend (Ps 88:6-10, 16-18).

Complaining in Faith to God

Many Christians don’t know how to handle tragedy. Consequently, they don’t know what to do with the lament psalms in the Bible. They think that “complaining in faith” to God is a contradiction. “Christians aren’t supposed to complain!” “We are to ‘rejoice always’ aren’t we?” But when we come to the book of Psalms we find it filled with complaints — and not just complaints about the psalmist’s circumstances, but also complaints directed towards God, challenging God’s perceived inaction (“How long, O Lord?”) and sometimes challenging God himself (“You have caused…”; see Ps 44:9; 60:3; 90:15). Roland Murphy has asked whether “we have lost the art of complaining in faith to God in favor of a stoic concept of what obedience or resignation to the divine will really means” (“The Faith of the Psalmist,” Interpretation 34 [1980], 236).

Rather than understanding complaint and lament psalms as expressions of doubt or unbelief, it is more appropriate to see them as manifestations of a deep faith. No matter how virulent the psalmist gets — at least the psalmist knew where to direct his complaints! He or she had the inward conviction that God was there. There was no question in the psalmist’s mind that God is there and that he will listen to the prayer and perhaps change his or her circumstances for the better. Lament psalms are not resigned lamentation; they do more than just whine about current hardships. They are fundamentally appeals or petitions to God to do something. What characterizes these psalms with few exceptions is the confidence that the situation can be changed if the LORD wills to intervene.

The Costly Loss of Lament

Walter Brueggemann broached this very subject (and I stole part of the title of his essay for this post!). In his article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” (JSOT 36 [1986] 57-71), he explores the theological significance of lament psalms. In particular, he explores the question of “what happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage?” (p. 59) His answer to his question is twofold. First, when lament is lost, there is also a loss of genuine covenant interaction. Brueggemann argues that when the second party to the covenant (i.e., the psalmist/petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is only permitted to praise, then there is no real covenant relationship. God does not want only “yes men and women.” He wants people who are honest and real in their relationship with him. “Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control” (p. 60). I might add that such a situation only serves to reinforce the status quo and legitimates a view of God that doesn’t square with the God of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

A second loss caused by the loss of lament, according to Brueggemann, is “the stifling of the question of theodicy” (p. 61). What he means by this is not theoretical questions of God and evil, but the capacity to raise legitimate questions of justice with God. I think here of Psalm 89 where in the first half of the psalm the psalmist rehearses and celebrates God’s promises to David (vv. 1-37), only to throw God’s promises in his face in the second half (vv. 38-51):

But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust (Ps 89:38-39).

The psalmist is raising a justice question related to God’s character. If he promised that, then why is this happening? In this sense lament articulates a formal complaint against God (see the book of Job as an extended lawsuit against God). Such articulation ensures that such questions of justice are not swept under the carpet. Like Ecclesiastes, laments recognize that the world is not as it should be — it is hebel – it is not right.

If we lose the ability or the right to lament, to complain to God, then we lose a vital component of our relationship with God. And when it comes right down to it, God knows our hearts, so why not be honest with God at all times? We should feel free to speak freely to God when we are walking through the darkest valley and when we feel like we could praise him forever.

Lament as One Stage in a Journey

Finally, while a few lament psalms end on a note of utter despair (see Pss 38; 39; 89; 143; and in particular Ps 88), most give way to hope. The distress the psalmist is experiencing is very real, but it is not final in the psalmist’s eyes. Parallel to the structure of the Psalter with its move from lament to praise, lament should be seen as only one part of the journey. Praise is the ultimate goal. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). That being said, we must embrace the night. We must embrace lament — and we must allow others who are walking through the darkest valley to embrace lament as well. Let us not be like Job’s friends and quote platitudes and Bible verses when we should be remaining silent and walking along beside our friend in silent prayer.

Posted in Form criticism, Psalms, Suffering, Theodicy | 4 Comments »

Thanksgiving Psalms for Thanksgiving

8th October 2006

Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Yes, up here in Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day this weekend (technically tomorrow). So I have already had some turkey with my in-laws and tomorrow we go to my brother’s house.

I’ve been teaching a Psalms class this semester and just this last week we were looking at Thanksgiving Psalms. Thanksgiving psalms are closely related to hymns (some scholars such as Westermann don’t make a big distinction between thanksgiving psalms and hymns). The difference is one of focus: while hymns offer more generic praise to God, thanksgiving psalms focus on praising God for deliverance from a particular distress. Significantly, the Hebrew word for “give thanks” (תודה) cannot be limited to the meaning of the English word “to thank.” The word has the wider connotation of “acknowledge,â€? “confess,â€? and “proclaim.â€? It is often used in parallel with verbs meaning “praiseâ€? (e.g., תהלה in Pss 100:4; 69:30[31]), or “recountâ€? (ספר in Ps 26:7). It is also the term used for a “thank offeringâ€? in Pss 50:14, 23; 56:12[13]; and 107:27. There is not a single instance in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible where the phrase “to thank” is used between people. Instead, the verb “to blessâ€? (ברך) is used (e.g., Deut 24:13; 2 Sam 14:22; Job 31:20; Neh 11:2).

It is more than likely that the community songs of thanksgiving were used in the major festivals at the temple. The individual songs of thanksgiving, on the other hand, were composed for recitation at the temple as an expression of a person’s praise to God for deliverance from a concrete distress, such as illness. Since the word usually translated “thanksgiving” is the same word used for “thank offering” (e.g., Pss 50:14, 23; Jonah 2:9), it seems clear that these psalms were intended to be used in a cultic setting. On such an occasion the individual, in the presence of the worshiping congregation, testified personally to God’s saving deeds to the accompaniment of a ritual act (e.g., Jer 33:11). Or the psalmist would go with family and friends to the temple (or some smaller gathering, if you follow the likes of Gerstenberger) where the individual would give thanks to God. Then he would invite those gathered to listen to his story about how God had answered his prayer. Sometimes the psalmist would also give some advice on the basis of his experience and then they would all share the meat from the sacrifice.

This scenario (called “Sitz im Leben” by scholars such as myself) can teach us something about being thankful. What I find particularly significant is the communal nature of thanksgiving. It wasn’t something that was kept private. In contrast, it was shared with friends and family. So this Thanksgiving weekend as you gather with family and friends, give thanks together. And if you are not celebrating Thanksgiving Day this weekend, I hope that you too will find something to be thankful for in your life.

Psalm 30

A Psalm. A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David. 1 I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
4 Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
6 As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.�
7 By your favor, O Lord,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
8 To you, O Lord, I cried,
and to the Lord I made supplication:
9 “What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
O Lord, be my helper!�
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Posted in Holidays, Psalms, Thanksgiving | 3 Comments »

Textual Criticism In Action (TCHB 9)

21st August 2006

In this post I will demonstrate the practice of textual criticism with two examples, Joshua 1:1 and Psalm 73:7, which highlight the practice of external and internal textual criticism, respectively.

This is the ninth post in a series on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Other posts include:

All posts in this series may be viewed here.

External Criticism: Joshua 1:1

External criticism, as noted in a previous post, involves the evaluation of a variant in relation to the “original edition” of the MT. This means that if a variant reflects an earlier stage in the literary development of a book, rather than a corruption during the course of its textual transmission, it should be disregarded by the text critic. Because these variants typically do not come to bear on text critical decisions, they are difficult to spot in English translations. Therefore, for this example we have to proceed directly to the Hebrew text. Compare the following readings of Josh 1:1 in the MT and LXX:

  • MT: ויהי ×?חרי מות מש×?×” עבד יהוה
    And it was after the death of Moses the servant of Yahweh… (cf. NIV, NRSV, etc.)
  • LXX: Καὶ á¼?γένετο μετὰ τὴν τελευτὴν Μωυσῆ
    And it was after the death of Moses…

In this example the MT refers to Moses as עבד יהוה (‘bd yhwh), “the servant of Yahweh.” This phrase is missing in the LXX. In fact, the MT of Joshua 1 has more than twelve additional words or phrases that are not found in the LXX. Further, the LXX of the book of Joshua is about 4-5 percent shorter than the MT. This leads one to posit that these differences in the LXX version of Joshua probably represent an earlier edition of that book. Therefore, because this variant in the LXX stands apart from the “original edition” behind the MT, there is no need to evaluate it by internal criticism. It should be ignored.

Internal Criticism: Psalm 73:7

The first example demonstrated the procedure involved when a variant is the result of a separate literary tradition. Psalm 73:7, in contrast, will provide an example of a variant that arose in the transmission of the “original edition” of the MT

An examination of a few English versions of Ps 73:7a reveals a significant textual problem. Compare the following translations:

  • NIV: From their callous hearts comes iniquity (cf. NAB).
  • NRSV: Their eyes swell out with fatness (cf. RSV, NEB, KJV).

In this verse there are two apparent divergences between the English translations, though only one of them reflects a textual difference. The NIV’s reading of “callous hearts” reflects an idiomatic translation of “fat” rather than a variant reading. “Fat,” it is assumed, is a figure for stubbornness and the translators took the liberty of interpreting the figure for the reader so that it makes sense, as modern readers do not think iniquity comes out of “fat” (cf. “crassness” in the NAB).

In this passage the textual variant pertains to “eyes” and “iniquity.” This is indicated by the footnote in the NIV, which indicates that they have followed the Syriac reading of the text rather than the MT, which the NRSV followed.

Now that the textual problem has been discovered, the preliminary step is to collect the variants. While this can be partially done by referring to the notes in the English translations, as noted above, exegetes should look to BHS to discover the exact nature of the textual problem. The verse in BHS reads:

  • יָ֭צָ×? מֵחֵ֣לֶב עֵינֵ֑מוֹ (BHS)
    Lit., “Their eyes come out from fat”

There is a superscript “a” after this line which leads to the second level of apparatus which reads: || 7 a l frt עֲוֹנָמוֹ cf G S ||. This “translates” as, lege(ndum) “to read” fortasse “perhaps” עֲוֹנָמוֹ (eonamo), “their iniquity” instead of the reading in the MT, and then asks us to compare with the LXX and the Syriac Peshitta. The LXX (= Ps 72:7) reads: ἡ ἀδικία αá½?τῶν, “their injustice,” while the Peshitta reads similarly.

Now the variant can be evaluated on its transcriptional probability. The word in the MT for “eyes” is עין (‘yn), while the variant suggested by BHS, and adopted by the NIV, is based on the LXX ἀδικία, retroverted to עון (‘vn), “iniquity.” The difference between these Hebrew variants is very slight as in the square script ו and ×™ are easily confused, especially in the DSS. Therefore the variant could be a result of the scribe confusing similar consonants. A major problem with this proposal, however, is that the LXX Psalms never translates עון with ἀδικία, “injustice”; either uses á¼?μαÏ?τία “sin” or ἀνομία “lawlessness” (30+ times). Better retrovert it to ×?ון “wickedness” and see an additional confusion between the aleph and ayin.

In relation to intrinsic probability, the MT makes little sense. The truth is that “their eyes come out with fatness” is incoherent. The NRSV’s “swell out” is an unattested extension of the meaning of the verb יצ×? (yts’) — especially with the preposition “from.” In contrast, the idea of iniquity or wickedness coming out of fatness, understood as a figure of speech for stubbornness, makes sense.

Therefore, in light of internal criticism, “their iniquity” — or better “their wickedness” — appears to be the most plausible. First, the error in the MT can be easily explained away by some common scribal confusions. Second, the MT is unintelligible: How do “eyes come out of fat”?, whereas “wickedness coming out of fat” is understandable once the metonymy of “fat” for “crassness” is understood.

Posted in Bible, Criticism, Joshua, Psalms, Text Criticism, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible | Comments Off

Irish Bog Psalter Follow-Up

16th August 2006

I can’t recall if anyone followed up on the medieval book of Psalms discovered in Ireland last month (Jim Davila surely did!), but the specific location of where it was found has been revealed (somewhat old news I realize). According to the Irish Examiner, it was was pulled out of a bog in the townland of Faddan More in north Tipperary. If you are wondering “where in the world is that?!” like I was, check out this google map (I assumed that it was somewhere near Tipperary!).

In addition, the Irish Times had another article with a bit more information about the Psalter. Here are some excerpts:

The discoveries also include a fine leather pouch in which the manuscript was originally kept.


“Part of a fine leather pouch in which the book was kept originally was recovered as well as other small fragments of the manuscript and its cover. The investigation results suggest the owner concealed the book deliberately, perhaps with a view to its later recovery,” the statement [issued by by the National Museum of Ireland] noted.

My previous posts on the Psalms manuscript may be found here and here.

Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Discoveries, Manuscript, Psalms | 1 Comment »

Medieval Psalms Codex Clarification

28th July 2006

There has been a clarification in connection to the Psalm book discovered in the Irish bog. Initial news reports said that the book was open to Psalm 83, which in most modern English translations is a prayer to wipe out the enemies of Israel. What no one noted is that they meant Psalm 83 in the Latin Vulgate, and the Latin Vulgate (like the Greek Septuagint it follows) is usually one chapter off of the Hebrew MT tradition and our modern English translations. So as it turns out — much to the dismay of all of those who interpreted this as some sort of sign from God — the book from the bog is open to Psalm 84 according to our modern translations.

Here is an excerpt from the recent Reuters story that announces the clarification:

The National Museum of Ireland announced Tuesday what it said was one of the most significant Irish discoveries in decades; an ancient Psalter or Book of Psalms, written around 800 AD. It said part of Psalm 83 was legible.

In modern versions of the Bible, Psalm 83 is a lament to God over other nations’ attempts to wipe out Israel and many commentators wondered at the coincidence of such a discovery at a time of heightened tension in the Middle East.

“The above mention of Psalm 83 has led to misconceptions about the revealed wording and may be a source of concern for people who believe Psalm 83 deals with ‘the wiping out of Israel’,” the museum said in its clarification.

The confusion arose because the manuscript uses an old Latin translation of the Bible known at the Vulgate, which numbers the psalms differently from the later King James version, the 1611 English translation from which many modern texts derive.

The difference in numbering is due to different ancient traditions of dividing individual psalms, especially for psalms without superscriptions. For example, Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew MT tradition (which most modern English translations follow for psalm numbers) are combined in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate to form their Psalm 9. This combination is facilitated because MT Psalm 10 does not have a superscription. In fact, many scholars believe that the LXX tradition here is more authentic since when combined MT Psalm 9 and 10 share an acrostic pattern (the verses are in alphabetical sequence).

Here is a table showing all of the differences in psalm divisions between the two major traditions:


I wonder what speculation Psalm 84 will give rise to!

(Thanks to Jeremy for the heads up in a comment on my original post)

Posted in Bible, Discoveries, Manuscript, Psalms | 4 Comments »

Bog of Psalms

26th July 2006

[See my clarification on this story here]

This story caught my eye last night: It looks like a medieval book of Psalms was discovered by a backhoe worker in Ireland. The 20-page vellum Latin manuscript has been dated to the 800-1000 CE by archaeologists. Ironically, the book was found open to Psalm 83, a psalm in which God hears complaints of other nations’ attempts to wipe out the name of Israel.

The discovery has been referred to as “Ireland’s Dead Sea Scroll” and has been hailed as “the greatest find from a European bog” (I wonder what is the second greatest find from a European bog?). The full AP story may be found here; here are some pictures (from AP) for your viewing enjoyment:



Posted in Archaeology, Discoveries, Psalms | 1 Comment »