Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

deClaissé-Walford, Nancy L. (ed.), The Shape and Shaping of the Book of Psalms: The Current State of Scholarship (Ancient Israel and Its Literature, 20; Atlanta: SBL, 2014). Pp. 284. Paperback. US$36.95. ISBN 978-1-62837-001-0.

Dedicated to the memory of the contribution of Gerald H. Wilson on the study of the Psalter, this compilation grew out of two working groups from the Book of Psalms Section at the 2011 SBL Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California. This volume consists of a Preface by the editor and sixteen essays by recognized Psalms scholars. The primary aim of the book is to exam “questions of communities of faith, of collections of psalms, of theological viewpoints, of sovereignty, and, most of all, of the shape and shaping of what is arguably the most beloved book of the Old Testament” (p. xi).

In her essay, “The Canonical Approach to Scripture and The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter,” Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford first describes Gerald Wilson's main thesis in relation to the canonical approaches of Brevard Childs and James A. Sanders. Wilson embraces the perspectives of both scholars and discerns the purposeful activity (Sanders) on the basis of its final form (Childs). She then lists significant monographs and commentaries that focus on the canonical study of the Psalms from both the perspectives of its macrostructures and microstructures. She finally points out that the current scholarly trend is to spend more time on the microstructure of the Psalter. Although this article is brief, it successfully surveys the development of the canonical approach and its application to the Psalter.

Harry P. Nasuti's essay, “The Editing of the Psalter and the Ongoing Use of the Psalms: Gerald Wilson and the Question of Canon,” reflects the impact of Wilson's approach on Psalms studies. He first points out the methodical tension between Wilson's historical concern for the intentions of the editors, Childs's focus on the final form of the Psalter, and their subsequent history of interpretation. He then questions the validity of Wilson's limiting the purpose of the editing of the Psalms to a didactic function at the exclusion of liturgical functions. Although the author approaches the Psalms from the perspective of their later interpretation and use in the communities of the faith, he appreciates Wilson's attempt to discern the intent of the final editors, which influences understanding the book of the Psalms as a whole.

J. Clinton McCann Jr. explores the “groundbreaking” character of Wilson's study in “Changing Our Way of Being Wrong: The Impact of Gerald Wilson's The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter.” While he elucidates its impact on trends in Psalms studies, his conclusion contributes relatively little to understanding these approaches deeper.

In “The Dynamics of Praise in the Ancient Near East, or Poetry and Politics,” Erhard S. Gerstenberger does not directly address the issue of the shape and shaping of the Psalter, but focuses on the function of praise in the context of the ancient Near East. He concludes that “praise oratory becomes a meaningful part of promoting world order and well-being of people and environments” (p. 36).

“Philosophical Perspectives on Religious Diversity as Emergent Property in the Redaction/Composition of the Psalter” by Jaco Gericke is an introduction to a “descriptive philosophical perspective” for studying religious diversity in the redaction of the Psalter (p. 43). He proposes three levels of “emergent property” to describe the theological pluralism found in the Psalms (p. 46). Although this article provides an interesting perspective to the study of religious diversity, its contribution is limited to the descriptive level of theological pluralism, and offers little to further illustrate the issue of composition history.

Derek E. Wittman proposes a redaction-critical interpretation for understanding the role of foreign nations in the Psalter through the lens of Psalms 2 and 149 in his essay “Let Us Cast off Their Ropes from Us: The Editorial Significance of the Portrayal of Foreign Nations in Psalms 2 and 149.” On the basis of the literary and canonical relationship between both psalms, Wittman argues that the editorial intent of the Psalter is to affirm God's kingship in order to resist oppressive foreign domination. Although these two psalms are placed in important positions, this negative view about foreign nations needs to be examined further, as there are some positive descriptions of foreign peoples in the Psalms (for example, see Ps 96).

In her contribution, “The Message of the Asaphite Collection and Its Role in the Psalter,” Christine Brown Jones explores the linguistic and thematic links among the Asaphite collection from two perspectives: the portrayal of God and the faithful. She then examines the development of both perspectives in this collection. She finally concludes that the intent of the editor of the collection is to encourage the people in exile to remain faithful and obedient, because divine judgment will come to the wicked, and past divine deliverance affirms God's faithfulness toward them.

Catherine Petrany's “Instruction, Performance, and Prayer: The Didactic Function of Psalmic Wisdom” is a study of the functions of the wisdom elements that appear in three psalms from different genres: trust (Ps 62), thanksgiving (Ps 92), and lament (Ps 94). Rather than studying the issue from the perspective of the macro-structure of the Psalms, Petrany studies the psalmic wisdom function in individual psalms and concludes that the wisdom elements function differently in each psalm but ultimately emerge into the language of worship. Therefore, she suggests embracing both ritual and instructional perspectives for the interpretation of the Psalms. Her essay supports reading the Psalter from a perspective of pluralism; however, it lacks interaction with Gerald Sheppard's influential Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct (1980).[1]

The chapter ‘“Wealth and Riches Are in His House’ (Psalm 112:3): Acrostic Wisdom Psalms and the Development of Antimaterialism,” written by Phil J. Botha, argues that the acrostic psalms and “other alphabetizing psalms” frame both the smaller collections and the whole Psalter as a voice “against secularism, greed, and religious apostasy in the late Persian period” (p. 105). He uses Ps 112 as an example to support his thesis. This may look like a bold statement. While the theme is indeed reflected in some psalms, the essay describes it as reflecting the intent of the whole Psalter.

In “Perhaps YHWH Is Sleeping: ‘Awake’ and ‘Contend’ in the Book of Psalms,” Karl N. Jacobson studies the use of the image of God as a Divine Warrior within the psalms of complaint. To achieve his aim, he investigates the contrast between divine sleep and divine warfare through the rousing of the divine. As the title of the essay indicates, the theme of awakening God is explored from the consideration of the motifs “awake” and “contend” in selected psalms (Pss 44 and 7 for the former; Pss 74 and 43 for the latter; Ps 35 for both). Jacobson concludes that “God's inaction is out of keeping with Israel's covenant expectations, with ark piety and the motif of a vital, powerful, active Divine Warrior, who is challenged and called to rise to the challenge” (p. 142).

Sampson S. Ndoga, in “Revisiting the Theocratic Agenda of Book 4 of the Psalter for Interpretive Premise,” suggests a theocratic rubric for interpreting the shaping of Book 4 of the Psalter on the basis of several indicators of editorial activities. First of all, the shift of focus from addressing a failed monarchy at the end of Book 3 (Ps 89), to introducing the Mosaic covenant at the beginning of Book 4 (Pss 90–92), serves to “remind the reader/hearer of the covenantal heritage through which Israel's stability could be realized” (p. 151). Furthermore, the closure of Book 4 (Ps 106), which parallels with the ending of Book 3 (Ps 89), emphasizes the similar failure of the Mosaic covenant. Finally, the emphasis of YHWH as king in the body of Book 4 (Pss 93–99), and further developed in Book 5, suggests that “YHWH is featured as the only viable option for a reversal of the attendant misfortunes” (p. 156). This is a good example of interaction with Wilson's theory, and provides deeper insight on the basis of canonical study.

In his contribution, “On Reading Psalms as Liturgy: Psalms 96–99,” Jonathan Magonet argues that Pss 96–99 is a coherent liturgical unit, organized according to five elements of liturgy which are shown in these psalms: (1) a coherent narrative framework, (2) linkages between sections and voices, (3) worshipers' actions, (4) liturgical instructions, and (5) liturgical settings. He concludes that this particular set of psalms, which is featured with alternating hymns (Pss 96 and 98) and kingship psalms (Pss 97 and 99), applies a broad range of liturgical language and experience. This essay offers fresh insight on Pss 96–99 and their liturgical context; however, one could wish that it would interact more with previous Psalms scholarship.

W. Dennis Tucker Jr., in “The Role of the Foe in Book 5: Reflections on the Final Composition of the Psalter,” proposes an anti-imperial agenda behind the arrangement of Book 5. Indicating the significant role of foes in the book, which is overlooked by Wilson, Tucker points out that this theme appears in the section's introductory psalm (Ps 107) and in the concluding psalms of the first three collections (Pss 110, 118, and 136) to establish an anti-imperial emphasis. Finally, he concludes that “Book 5 operates with an anti-imperial bias, seeking to build a world absent of power, save that of YHWH alone” (p. 190). Although the placement of the psalms studied in this essay is significant, this conclusion seems to conflict with other psalms in Book 5, especially the Psalms of Ascent (Pss 120–134).

Unlike Wilson, Robert E. Wallace proposes a different reading for the role that David plays in Book 5 in “Gerald Wilson and the Characterization of David in Book 5 of the Psalter.” In contrast to Wilson's view that the final sapiential framework substitutes for the royal frame and becomes the major perspective, with David taking a secondary role after Book 2, Wallace suggests a mixed view embracing both sapiential and eschatological perspectives. He further interprets David's reappearance from an “already but not yet” perspective (p. 205). On the one hand, the Davidic monarchy calls for an eschatological expectation in the first half of Book 5 (Pss 108–138); on the other hand, the failure of the Davidic monarchy prompts the community to expect YHWH's reign in the second half of Book 5 (Pss 139–150).

“The Contribution of Gerald Wilson toward Understanding the Book of Psalms in Light of the Psalms Scrolls,” by Peter W. Flint, studies the influence of the Psalms Scrolls in the interpretation of the Psalter. He first lists the discovery of the psalms scrolls found in the Judean Desert and presents four stages of their study. He concludes this by proposing that “three editions of the psalms were in circulation in the late Second Temple period” (p. 225).

Rolf A. Jacobson, in “Imagining the Future of Psalms Studies,” concludes the book by pointing out two directions for future psalms studies. On the one hand, the four major approaches that have been applied to psalms studies will continue: form-critical, canonical, poetic, and theological approaches. On the other hand, new approaches that other biblical scholars apply to other parts of the scriptures, and methodologies from other disciplines, will likely be introduced to psalms studies.

Overall, most of these articles interact with Wilson's theory; however, they point out two important further directions for advancing Wilson's theory. First of all, Wilson assumes that the wisdom approach precedes establishing an eschatological framework for interpreting the shape and shaping of the Psalter. However, there are several articles in the book with emphasis on the Psalter's liturgical use, which provides another direction for developing Wilson's theory. Secondly, most of the essays focus on the microstructures of the psalms. This focus also suggests that the canonical approach is easy to apply to smaller collections; however, there remains space to explore the intent of the editorial activity in the whole book.

Although some articles in this volume do not directly relate to the issue of the shape and shaping of the Psalms and Psalter, this collection provides both a retrospect and prospect for the impact of Wilson's theory, and potentially diverse future directions for the canonical study of the Psalms along with an important bibliography. On the one hand, these articles are rooted in Wilson's work and explore fruitful interpretation from the canonical perspective. On the other hand, these articles also develop a variety of approaches for interpreting the relationship of the Psalms to the canon: from its canonical shape, its canonical shaping, the significance of this process, and other related issues. Therefore, this book will be useful for giving an overview of the canonical approach and offer both researcher and student avenues for further scholarly discussion.

Hung-Chih Tsai, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Gerald T. Sheppard, Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct: A Study in the Sapientializing of the Old Testament (BZAW, 151; New York: de Gruyter, 1980). reference