Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

J. P. Fokkelman, Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible: At the Interface of Prosody and Structural Analysis. Vol III: The Remaining 65 Psalms (Studia Semitica Neerlandica 43; Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2003). 446 pp. Cloth. ISBN ISBN: 9023239369. $ 95.

J. P. Fokkelman is well known in circles of biblical scholarship, preeminent for his prolific publication concerning structural analysis and particularly for his discernment of chiastic patterns in a rich variety of textual materials. The present volume completes his three volume project on "Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible." Volume I concerned Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, and Job 3. Volume II offered analyses of eighty-five Psalms plus Job 4-14. This volume then concerns the remainder of the Psalms—65 in all—that were not considered in volume II. Thus volumes II and III together provide a critical analysis of each of the Psalms.

These volumes, including the present one, are of special interest for Fokkelman's acute attention to method. His detection of chiasmus in a variety of texts indicates his commitment to structural analysis. But behind that recurring chiastic observation, Fokkelman undertakes "numerical analysis" that evidences the "poets' love of precision" and that leads to the wonder of "numerical perfection" in the several poems. Fokkelman's intention is a "clean and consistent poetics" that avoids methods—such as form, tradition, and redaction history—that are "intellectualist," sometimes text-inimical, and largely hypothetical. Fokkelman's own work,

This method proceeds by syllable counting that has antecedents in the Netherlands in the work of C. J. Labuschagne and that is in some ways paralleled in the U.S. by the work of David Noel Freedman and some others of the Albright school. The intention of the method is to interpret according to the actual shape and occurrence of the text without reference to imported assumptions.

The book begins, in a preliminary way, with a close reading of Proverbs 15 in which Fokkelman traces a chiastic structure from verse 2a through verse 33a with the focal point on "love/hate" at the center of the passage in verse 17. This verse "constitutes the central line with its powerful polarity of love and hate." Out of the analysis Fokkelman opines that it is made clear that the collection of the Proverbs is not, as commonly assumed, "beads randomly strung together," but that the text is an artistic, intentional whole.

There is no doubt that Fokkelman is an acute reader of the text, and that his close reading characteristically yields fresh insight. One may wonder, however, if the claim for chiastic structure is as clear as his charting of the text seems to indicate. It is to be observed, in his presentation, that an element in his proposed chiasmus sometimes includes part of a verse and at other times several verses. The focus is not upon parallel phrasing, but upon the recurrence of key words. Perhaps in broad sweep the pattern of key words is illuminating. Except that one may wonder if the key words are not so characteristic of sapiential discourse that they will, perforce, recur in some pattern simply because the vocabulary is limited and much repeated. Thus it may well be that verse 17 is the center of the text; but it is to be recognized at the same time that Fokkelman is a strong reader and sometimes, so it seems to this reviewer, "makes it so," when another strong reader might make it otherwise.

The method is pursued through the book for the Psalms that follow. It is clear in the course of the discussion that Fokkelman's sensibility is much stronger and more sweeping than simply attention to syllable counting and chiastic structure, for in fact he engages in rhetorical analysis of the kind championed by my teacher, James Muilenburg. In that respect, the work of Fokkelman stands alongside a growing literature of "close reading." It is to be recognized that Fokkelman's work is loaded with technical and sometimes obscure vocabulary and that very often he does not develop his reading to exhibit the interpretive gain of his analysis.

In the end, I judge that his process of syllable counting and structural analysis have a clear and rich heuristic value, but that leaves this reviewer with skepticism about how reliable and objective the approach is, even when it is so immediately text based. With that reservation, however, Fokkelman's work is to be appreciated for the close, patient way he attends to the text in illuminating ways. Such a return to the elemental reality of the text is to be applauded, even though a good reading requires more than technical competence. Fokkelman himself knows this as when he himself draws conclusions that are more than the sum of technique.

Walter Brueggemann,
Columbia Theological Seminary