Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Cottrill, Amy C., Language, Power, and Identity in the Lament Psalms of the Individual (LHBOTS, 493; London: T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. vii+184, Hardcover, £60, ISBN 9780567027283.

Amy Cottrill explores how “the psalmist negotiates a rhetorical identity of powerlessness and endangerment, and one of power and potency” within the lament psalms of the individual (hereafter ILs) (p. 28). She seeks to uncover what lies implicit in the language and ideological perspective of these psalms by analyzing the “figured world” of this material, paying particular attention to the portrayed relationship between different characters within it. To do so she introduces her socio-rhetorical approach, focuses alternately on the depiction of the psalmist's suffering body, then his relation to the “hostile other” and finally to God, and concludes with a case study of Psalm 109.

Cottrill orients her study with Gerstenberger's list of ILs as well as his view that the original setting of these psalms lies in a traditional, communal prayer ritual. But she then shifts away from the typical form-critical assumption that this genre is the product of such a setting, arguing instead that this context provides the rhetorical “means” for the reproduction of this “particular figured world” (p. 19). Within this world the psalmist adopts a certain role with respect to the other characters, notably the “hostile other” and God. Cottrill then employs Bakhtin's concept of the “dialogic self” to uncover how these textual “artifacts” construct the identity of the psalmist in a fluid and relational, rather than static, manner (p. 24).

In her second chapter Cottrill uses medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman's understanding of illness as a “cultural language of embodiment” (p. 49) to trace the depiction of the psalmist's own suffering body. Cottrill argues that the psalmist depicts his own body as both an image of powerlessness and agency; the body's portrayal as being under attack, threatened, and even undone provides the rhetorical means to insist upon a response from both God and the surrounding community.

Cottrill then outlines the psalmist's relationship with the “hostile other” through the lens of honour and shame. Drawing on the work of E. Gerstenberger and G. T. Sheppard, Cottrill envisions the setting of the lament as “not just private communication between God and the psalmist, but also public discourse simultaneously addressed to the enemy and community” (p. 63). She argues that the ILs depict the psalmist's social marginalization and victimization at the hands of the other in order to ultimately invert this portrayal by asserting dominance through aggressive and violent speech. Thus, Cottrill identifies a “sustained and unresolved tension between a self that must be represented and perceived as an object of sympathy and protection and also a subject of strength and aggression” (p. 99).

The fourth chapter describes the “vertical” relationship between the psalmist and God in light of a patronage model. Cottrill identifies various ways in which trust, loyalty, and obligation intersect for the psalmist, so that the psalmist's plight affects God's honour and not just his own. The psalmist's self-depiction of dependence in light of the experience of suffering and distance from God challenges the divine patron to respond, thus creating an “anxious selfhood” that is “empowered and also submissive” (p. 137).

Cottrill then seeks to incorporate all of these elements within a case study of Psalm 109, in which she explores how the psalmist portrays himself, becomes an active agent, and rhetorically asserts power. Clearly the underlying concern for Cottrill here is the use of vitriolic language which she attributes, rightly in my view, to the psalmist rather than the other. She argues that the psalmist does not challenge the system of domination itself but only his place in it, and seeks redress so that the tables are turned on those hostile to him.

The book concludes with a summary and some tentative theological implications of her project. While she recognizes the positive potential of the ILs providing a voice for contemporary sufferers, Cottrill cautions against accepting the “world” these psalms present.

The strength of this book lies in its use of sociological models as an entry point for reading ILs. The breadth of reading reflected in both the discussion itself as well as the bibliographic references on topics including depictions of the body and violence in the Hebrew Bible, honour and shame, and patronage is impressive. These elements provide interesting lenses through which to investigate the ILs and the “world” they construct.

The work's sociological orientation may also be the volume's greatest weakness. Because each of the main chapters explores the psalmist's relationship with one character in the light of a specific sociological model, the same psalms are treated piece-meal over several chapters; although initially described as fulfilling an “exegetical and descriptive task” (p. 5) the book does not pay sustained attention to a specific psalm until the concluding case study of Psalm 109. Also, the manner in which Cottrill makes general statements regarding “the psalmist” that interchangeably draw on elements from different ILs seems more akin to a classical form-critical mode (cf. Gunkel's An Introduction to the Psalms) than J. Muilenburg's “rhetorical” approach that insisted upon maintaining the particularity of specific psalms.

In her chapter on Psalm 109, Cottrill wrestles with the psalmist's use of violent, aggressive language. She outlines how others have attempted to deal with this element and provides a significant alternative reading sensitive to the identity this psalm constructs and the violent “revenge fantasy” it endorses. This chapter reflects two elements, however, that could have been further clarified in the project as a whole: the idea of agency and the depiction of prayer.

While Cottrill engages the psalm's use of violent language, her perception of the psalmist as an agent is less clear. She takes issue with those who emphasize God as the agent of revenge and argues instead for the “recognition of rhetorical violence as an act of violence” (p. 147). As such, she argues that “the psalmist's agency lies in his verbalization, his rhetorical enactment, of the other's absolute and utter destruction” (p. 138), the psalm portrays the “violent acts perpetrated by the victim as legitimate” (p. 139), and finally that here “violence is simply a necessary means of eradicating the source of distress” (p. 153). While Cottrill argues for the psalmist's direct ‘agency’ through his violent words, in Psalm 109 and other ILs this rhetoric reflects the requested destruction of the other. On this point Cottrill's discussion seems more thematic than rhetorical since it does not wrestle with the nature of these statements as jussives, or consider the implications of her former suggestion that the ‘other’ may be rhetorically configured as part of the psalmist's audience.

Similarly, Cottrill describes ILs as “dialogic prayer” with multiple dialogue partners (p. 27) and later describes the psalmist as speaking “in a multifaceted rhetorical context in which he addresses God, the hostile other, his community, and himself” (p. 138). Elsewhere, however, she states that “the laments are prayers to God” (p. 100) and finally, “because the laments are prayers, the psalmist's primary addressee is God” (p. 157). While Cottrill states regarding the end of Psalm 109 that “the psalmist ends his prayer with praises to God amidst the multitudes,” her translation appropriately refers to God in third person. This in turn identifies the last verses as said about God to the surrounding ‘multitude,’ which reflects the basic tension between these two elements; how is prayer both “dialogic” but primarily directed to God, and then how should we describe this kind of direct social address? Indeed, while Cottrill noted the “abrupt” change in vv. 21ff, she did not mention that here again the shift is linked to a comment primarily addressed to the listening social audience, not to God (v. 20). Thus, while Cottrill introduces multiple addressees of Psalm 109, her reading does not pay consistent attention to this feature.

Finally, although identified earlier as an anomaly within these laments, Cottrill does not mention the unusual use of hesed for human loyalty in this psalm. This would seem significant for her argument since, in light of this element, the psalmist's condemnation of the “hostile other” and appeal to God bridge the gap left by this asserted lack of social allegiance. Cottrill seems to perceive the audience in the rhetorical “world” of Psalm 109 to be quite passive, mesmerized by the rhetoric they witness. Perhaps this comes from Bakhtin, whose concept of “super-addressee” Cottrill describes as “the imagined sympathetic audience that uncritically and unreservedly sees, or will see, the validity of the speaker's viewpoint” (p. 84, emphasis added). However, if the ILs truly reflect a culturally recognizable, figured “world,” why would it not include social critique? Indeed, this was a major claim of Sheppard, upon whose work Cottrill relied heavily in her previous discussion of the “hostile other.” From this perspective Psalm 109 requires its listeners to evaluate whether or not the psalmist's depiction of the situation is reliable; the irony is that Cottrill's own critical engagement as a reader reflects precisely the critical response that could presumably arise in the rhetorical use of such a lament in both ancient and contemporary contexts.

In summary, Amy Cottrill succeeds in providing a compelling description of how ILs construct both the identity of the psalmist and the roles other characters are invited to play within their “figured world.” Though this review has suggested some areas for further clarification, we are greatly indebted to Cottrill for this stimulating project. Cottrill's work deserves significant engagement due to its intriguing topic, cogent argument, and explanatory significance.

W. Derek Suderman, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo