Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Van Hecke, Pierre and Antje Labahn (eds.), Metaphors in the Psalms (BETL, CCXXXI; Leuwen, Uitgeverij Peeters, 2010). Softcover. Pp. xxxiv + 363. € 76.99. ISBN 978-90-429-2256-3.

The book under review is a contribution of the “Research Group on Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible” that began their study back in 2001 during the meetings of the European Association of Biblical Studies. They earlier produced a book on Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, edited by P. Van Hecke (Peeters, 2005), and in the present book they turn their attention to the Psalms, a particularly ripe repository of metaphoric language, where “abstract concepts” are presented in “concrete terms.”[1]

A number of the chapters treat individual metaphors across the Psalms or a sizable portion of them. For instance, C. de Vos (“Es Gibt Mehr Felsen in Israel,” pp. 1–11) studies the metaphor of rock or fortress across the individual lament psalms of the Psalter. While denying that the rock/fortress is Zion or the temple, she does believe that the metaphor depicts God as a place where the petitioner finds protection, citing Psalm 71:1–3 as a particularly rich example. B. Janowski provides an illuminating study of the metaphor of light in the Psalms (“Das Licht des Lebens: Zur Lichtmetaphorik in den Psalmen,” pp. 87–113) where, in agreement with cognitive linguistic theory, metaphors make concrete more abstract or vague concepts. He concludes that light is connected to four main themes in various psalms including (1) life (Ps 13), (2) justice (Pss 17 and 27), (3) the king—not as light himself but as mediator of God's light, and (4) the Torah, though the Torah is not light, but God's instruction in the Torah illuminates the life of the reader (Ps 119:105, 130). In a stimulating discussion of the metaphor of God's wings as a place of protection, G. Kwakkel (“Under YHWH's Wings,” pp. 141–65) surveys the possible sources of the image of wings found in Pss 17:8; 36:8; 57:2; 61:5; 63:8; 91:4. While highlighting the idea that this may be a polemical appropriation of the picture of false gods who are winged, he allows for the possibility that more than one suggestion is possible, including the picture of a bird protecting its young with its wings (cf. Deut 32:11; Matt 23:37), a reference to the wings of the cherubim in the temple, or a reference to the winged solar disk.

A second type of chapter looks at what might be called metaphorical fields across the book of Psalms. G. Eidevall's chapter provides a good example, as he examines the figurative use of landscapes through the book (“Metaphorical Landscapes in the Psalms,” pp. 13–21). Though few, these metaphorical landscapes tend to be desolate, as for example when wicked people are compared to pastureland that perishes (Ps 63). He also points out that the psalms use various landscapes to denote different experiences, for instance Ps 63:1: “my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land.” Metaphors of life and death across the psalms is the subject of K. Liess' chapter (“Von der Gottesferne zur Gottesnahe: Zur Todes- und Lebensmetaphorik in den Psalmen,” pp. 167–95). She discusses the wide range of metaphors that lead from life to death from the perspective of the enemies' action (crushing) to God's (turning away his face). The dying psalmist himself is said to draw close to death or being on the brink of death. He also examines the metaphors of the underworld as a dark, dry, and deep place. C. Sticher also surveys a theme (plant metaphors) throughout the Psalms, covering some of the same themes as Eidevall, though the concentration in this chapter is really on tree metaphors in Psalms 37 and 92. Two other contributors take the same approach to the topic of metaphor by talking about a metaphorical field in the Psalms as a whole: S. Wälchli (“Zorn JHWH's im Psalter—Eine Metapher des Leidens?,” pp. 269–77) points out that the psalmist describes God's anger concretely (metaphorically) through the emotion's “observable effects” with a concentration on Psalms 6 and 38. Finally, B. Willmes provides a stimulating study of the metaphor of God's kingship and adds a diachronic development (“Israels Erwartungen an Jahwe als König: Zum Gottesbild im Psalter,” 279–323). Of course the difficulty of dating psalms throws some doubt on his reconstruction, where he suggests that preexilic and exilic psalms share a view that the divine king was like a human king who protects his people, whereas in later times God the king was like a judge.

Most of the chapters in this book focus on a single psalm and sometimes a single metaphor in a psalm. M. Grohman brings to our attention the fact that God is presented as both male and female in the Bible in her chapter entitled “Metaphors of God, Nature and Birth in Psalm 90,2 and 110,3” (pp. 22-33). P. Guillaume (“Bull-Leaping in Psalm 18,” pp. 35–46) suggests translating Psalm 18:30 as “By you I [over]run a bullock, and by my God I leap over a bull.” He then places this idea in the context of the ritual of bull-leaping in the ancient world (with illustrations) and identifies the significance by calling this a ritual of imitation where a person takes on the divinity's strength. Other articles that take the form of a study of a specific psalm or psalms include those by J. Hausmann (“Zur Sprachwelt von Psalm 121,” pp. 47–54), Z. Kotze (“קרץ עין as Conceptual Metaphor for the Evil Eye in Psalm 35:19,” pp. 135–39, K. Nielsen (“Metaphorical Language and Theophany in Psalm 18,” pp. 197–207), P. Reide, (“‘Doch du erhöhtest wie einem Wildstier mein Horn’: Zur Metaphorik in Ps 92,11,” pp. 209–16), P. Reide (“Du bereitest vor mir einen Tisch: Zum Tischmotiv in den Psalmen 23 und 69,” pp. 217–33), and J. Schnocks, (“Metaphern für Leben und Tod in den Psalmen 23 und 88,” pp. 235–49).

Two of the most theoretically sophisticated and interesting of this overall very profitable collection of studies are those by E. Hayes (“‘Where is the Lord?’: The Extended Chain of Being as a Source Domain for Conceptual Metaphor in the Egyptian Hallel, Psalms 113–118,” pp. 55–69) and M. Klingbeil (“Metaphors that Travel and (Almost) Vanish: Mapping Diachronic Changes in the Intertextual Usage of the Heavenly Warrior Metaphor in Psalms 18 and 144,” pp. 115–34). Both of these studies have fairly lengthy discussions of metaphor theory. Both (and others in the collection) are interested in the insights provided by cognitive linguistics. I particularly value Klingbeil's interest in diachronic and intertextual uses of a particular metaphor—in his case the divine warrior. Hayes helpfully distinguishes conceptual from literary metaphor and then applies her understanding to metaphors of space and in particular how the psalmist in the Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113–118) speaks of the location of God.

This book presents a rich collection of reflection on various metaphors and the psalms in which they are found. The strength of the book is in the insightful close reading of the text often with a profound awareness of ancient Near Eastern background. One wonders, though, how important the theoretical background is to the results of this study; at times it appears that many of the insights do not require the extensive theoretical structure in which they are embedded.

Tremper Longman III, Westmont College

[1] S. Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), 391. reference