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The Psalms (Interpreting Biblical Texts Series)

The Psalms (Interpreting Biblical Texts Series)

by William P. Brown

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Biblical texts create worlds of meaning and invite readers to enter them. When readers enter such textual worlds, which are often strange and complex, they are confronted with theological claims. With this in mind, the purpose of the Interpreting Biblical Texts series is to help serious readers in their experience of reading and interpreting, by providing guides for


Biblical texts create worlds of meaning and invite readers to enter them. When readers enter such textual worlds, which are often strange and complex, they are confronted with theological claims. With this in mind, the purpose of the Interpreting Biblical Texts series is to help serious readers in their experience of reading and interpreting, by providing guides for their journeys into textual worlds. The controlling perspective is expressed in the operative word of the title—interpreting. The primary focus of the series is not so much on the world behind the texts or out of which the texts have arisen as on the worlds created by the texts in their engagement with readers.

The focus of the volume moves from the smallest to the largest of scales, from an examination of poetic segments to considerations of God and the world through the psalmists’ eyes. The author will present new slants and questions that equip the reader with various tools of interpretation while leaving issues open for the reader’s further exploration.

Included are discussions of Psalms as Hebrew poetry, species, performance, corpus, anthropology, and theology.

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Abingdon Press
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Interpreting Biblical Texts Series
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The Psalms (Interpreting Biblical Texts Series)

By William P. Brown

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-00845-2

Chapter One

Psalms As Poetry: Prosody

Poetry cannot be read, I would argue; it can only be reread. For me, it is a continuation of the holy scriptures. —Jay Parini

A painter once engaged the nineteenth-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé with the following complaint: "I have tried to write poetry, but I cannot do it, even though I have ever so many ideas." Mallarmé responded, "Chéri, poems are not written with ideas, but with words." Mallarmé was right: words are the essence of poetry, words used in very special ways. Arguments and treatises, however rhetorically embellished, can be boiled down to their logical, or fallacious, ideas. Narratives can be summarized with synopses. Poetry, however, resists such reductions. The study of poetry is fundamental to the study of Psalms, and to introduce the poetic nature of ancient Hebrew psalmody, we begin with modern poetry.

Modern Poetry

Defining poetry, whether ancient or modern, is an elusive endeavor. "Poetry is the kind of thing poets write," said Robert Frost. Such an operational "definition" simply pushes the question back a step: so what defines a poet? Arriving at a conclusive, fits-all-sizes definition is impossible. Nevertheless, one can identify certain features that help distinguish a poem from a narrative or an argument: (1) artistic or aesthetic quality; (2) density or compactness of expression; (3) performative power.

Aesthetic Quality

"Poem" comes from the Greek verb poieo, "make" or "do." A poem is a literary, indeed artistic, creation. It is not mechanically or casually produced. Poetry is verbal art. A poem is crafted to be impressive to the ear; its diction is frequently conveyed through the use of assonance and alliteration as well as through its metrical structure or rhythm. Such poetic devices serve to "thicken the verbal texture" of a poem.

In addition, there is the visual side to the verbal aesthetic. The format of a poem, for example, distinguishes itself from prose narrative: much shorter lines and uneven right margins for English poems. Poetry is arranged in lines instead of paragraphs. As the most basic unit of poetry, the line is typically absent in straight prose. As we shall see in biblical poetry, a verse largely consists of parallel or corresponding lines. And there is another critical aspect to a poem's graphic texture. More often than not, poems revel in imagery and metaphor, in figurative language and allusion. A poem evokes images and feelings that stir the imagination. The attuned reader not only hears the poem in all its eloquence but also sees in and through the poem all that it conjures in the reader's mind. A poem is not only riveting to the ear; it is also arresting to the eye. What makes a poem a poem is its synergy between sense and sound.

Density of Expression

A poem typically has less space to wield its communicative craft than its prose counterpart. With the exception of epic poetry, a poem is generally short and compact. Its terseness is its literary hallmark. The German term for poetry is Dichtung, which coincidentally sounds as it if were derived from the German dicht, meaning "dense." According to J. P. Fokkelman, "poetry is the most compact and concentrated form of speech possible," with the exception, I would add, of electronic text messaging. The difference between a poem and an instruction manual is readily evident: a poem's terse style conveys an abundance of meaning. Laurence Perrine defines poetry as "a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language." More "condensed and concentrated" than prose, poetry exhibits a "higher voltage" and applies "greater pressure per word." A poem, thus, marks the convergence of verbal compactness and semantic intensity. Semantically, poetry does a lot of heavy lifting, and with its semantic abundance comes ambiguity. More than any other form of discourse, poetry invites multiple readings. Much in contrast to a text message, a poem conveys a palpable richness that resists a narrowing of meaning. Poetic language is generously and generatively suggestive.

Performative Power

The words, images, and rhythms of a poem invite the reader to feel, sense, and imagine. In poetry, the reader is brought into intimate relationship with the poem's speaking voice. The reader performs the poem in the very act of reading, and the kind of performative reading that a poem requires is first and foremost a close and careful reading, an attentive recitation. A poem lends itself first to recitation and only thereafter to interpretation. A poem must be sounded, otherwise its palpably oral quality is lost; its rhythm and rhyme, its assonance and euphony, are grossly disregarded. Such qualities have compelled many to compare poetry to music. Both typically share a sense of rhythm. Many of Emily Dickinson's poems, for example, can be sung to the tune of "Amazing Grace," although they were not intended for such use. It is no coincidence that many of the biblical psalms are given instructions for what appears to be musical accompaniment. As S. E. Gillingham notes, "To understand Hebrew poetry at all, we have to participate imaginatively in its performative power.... The psalms have an evocative power; they communicate beyond the boundaries of ancient Israel, and continuously testify to a capacity to perform their one 'score.'" Activated by the reader's imagination, a poem's performative power is its power to evoke. As a result, a poem transcends the poet's own context, allowing it to join the ranks of all poetic works, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western.

Reading a poem is quite different from reading a narrative or an essay. Poetry "is not to be galloped over like the daily news: a poem differs from most prose in that it is to be read slowly, carefully, and attentively." A poem places a high demand on the reader's active participation. To read a poem as poetry is to linger over the words, to reflect on their sequence, to read aloud for their assonance and alliteration as they roll off, or get stuck on, the tongue. There is an element of simultaneity when it comes to reading poetry. As we read, the poem unfolds before our eyes and ears, and as the poem unfolds, so does our reading. The art of reading poetry is to find oneself "moving inside the growing poem." We do not read to impose our meaning on the poem or to extract something out of it. Rather, as Mary Kinzie points out, "We are actively remaking the work's own meaning, tracing the path of the poem from among the tangle of possible routes it might have taken but did not. In effect, we accompany the poet through the ambiguous emergence of the eventual artistic pattern." In short, reading poetry is much like writing poetry: it proceeds thoughtfully and creatively, word by word, image by image, beat by beat.

These three features of poetry, while briefly discussed above as discrete topics, are inseparably wedded in any good piece of poetry. Together, they ensure a poem's freshness and openness to interpretation that other discursive genres do not necessarily feature, at least not to the degree that poetry does. Kinzie talks of poetry as "a sequence of new turnings" that is "neither the clone of a convention nor a mere wildcat product of will." Poetry does its work by bringing out something new from what is conventional. "Most poetry is the product of experiments on the past, acts of recombining already invented substances in such a way that they are transformed." The poet is a semantic alchemist who combines standard verbal ingredients in new ways and records the surprising results. He or she excels in the art of combination, of juxtaposition. A poem's freshness emerges from the forging of new connections among familiar words and images, from taking surprising turns along well-worn routes. "The best poems satisfy by surprise, either because they reject something more familiar, or because they teeter on the edge of confusion in knowing something else."

Something mysterious transpires when reading a poem, as X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia admit: "For, when we finish reading a good poem, we cannot explain precisely to ourselves what we have experienced—without repeating, word for word, the language of the poem itself." The irreducible nature of poetry provides a necessary check on all methods of interpretation. In the end, no method or combination of methods will ever fully approximate the full sense and sound of poetic verse. They all fall short of capturing something of the ineffable that poetry conveys. Perhaps that is why the psalmists found it most appropriate to speak to God and of God through the medium of poetry.

Hebrew Poetry

Now that we have examined some of the defining marks of modern poetry, what about ancient biblical poetry? Like modern poetry, the poetry of the Psalms can be at once conventional and innovative. On the one hand, the language of prayer and praise is stereotypical and repetitive, drawing from stock vocabulary and set styles. Many psalms, moreover, exhibit identifiable patterns, or "forms," by which their literary movement is largely determined. On the other hand, psalmic poetry can sparkle with unexpected imagery and striking semantic connections established through the creative juxtaposition of words and lines. Behind every psalm, behind every cry of praise and petition, is a poet, a weaver of words whose tapestry may at first glance seem conventional and generic, yet upon closer scrutiny can elicit something new for the reader to experience, indeed a "new song" to sing.

Reading for Rhythm: Meter?

Like poetry in general, the Psalms reflect a compact style of discourse, employ figurative language, and evoke powerful images and emotions. Grammatically, the terse language of biblical poetry tends to omit certain linguistic elements frequently found in Hebrew prose, such as the definite article, relative pronouns, and the direct object marker, to name a few. In addition to what biblical poetry lacks, there are certain features that also distinguish, in relative degree, biblical poetry from prose: for example, line structure, peculiar word order, greater assonance and alliteration (even rhyme on occasion), repetition, chiasmus, unusual vocabulary, and word pairs. Note that "meter" is not included in the list. To be sure, both modern poetry and ancient Hebrew poetry reflect what is called prosody, but they can do so in different ways. Broadly put, prosody refers to a poem's movement in verbal time. Derived from the Greek word for "accent," the term is more specifically used to describe a poem's "auditory logic," or set rhythmic style, as determined by an identifiable system of stresses, such as iambic pentameter.

Hebrew poetry, however, rarely adheres to a uniform metrical system. Scholars have tried to adopt the system of iambic meter (whereby the stress or accent of a word falls on the second syllable) for Hebrew poetry, but with mixed results. In some cases, accentual rhythms have been successfully identified, such as the so-called qînah or "lamentation," in which a divisible line of poetry features an accentual beat of 3:2 (see, e.g., Amos 5:2; Ps 5:12; much of Lamentations). Some read Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the Psalter, as reflecting a consistent rhythm of 3:3. But such a count depends on how one assigns the accents, particularly in construct chains. Others have counted syllables to determine prosodic regularity, but again with mixed success. While Psalm 113 reflects syllabic consistency, most other psalms do not, unless one resorts to emending the text to fit a particular count. The issue of meter in Hebrew poetry, thus, remains open. As Wilfred Watson points out, "Confusion arises because scholars fail to distinguish between metre as actually present in verse, and regular metre. There is metre, yes, but not regular metre, since metrical patterns are never maintained for more than a few verses at a stretch, if even that." Although meter is clearly evident in biblical Hebrew poetry, it varies far too much to permit the identification of a metrical system.

Reading between the Lines: Parallelism

A more fruitful line of inquiry (particularly for readers not familiar with Hebrew) is to examine the syntactic and semantic segmentation of lines in biblical poetry. The history of early textual transmission gives telling, albeit mixed, testimony. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, a psalter from Cave IV dated to mid-second century B.C.E (4QPsa) features psalms consistently set in prose format or continuous script, that is, without separated lines. However, fragments of another scroll (4QPsb, dated in the second half of the first century B.C.E) feature poetic lines written in stichometric or line-structured arrangement. Jump ahead about a thousand years and we find the Leningrad Codex (1009 C.E), upon which the standard critical edition of the Hebrew Bible (BHS) is currently based, featuring a few psalms set in stichometric form (Pss 117; 118:1-4; 119; 135:19-20; 136). In an earlier codex, the Aleppo Codex (925 C.E), Psalm 1 is written in prose format, as is also Chronicles, which immediately precedes it, but Psalm 2 is set in stichometric structure. It appears, then, that both formatting traditions coexisted in the transmission of biblical psalms, at least since the first century B.C.E. But regardless of the lack of consistency reflected in ancient manuscripts, stichometric structure in Hebrew verse is ultimately based on internal grounds, specifically on internal segmentation.

This defining characteristic of Hebrew poetry has captured the attention of modern interpreters for more than two centuries. Robert Lowth, professor of poetry at Oxford University, published his lectures De sacra poesi Hebraeorum ("On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews") in 1753, setting the course for much subsequent research in biblical poetry. In his lectures, Lowth explored the aesthetic dimensions of Hebrew poetry, which in his words exhibit an "exquisite degree of beauty and grace." Lowth identified what he considered to be the central feature of biblical poetry, parallelismus membrorum ("parallelism of parts"). Poetic parallelism reflects "a certain conformation of the sentences." It conveys "the same thing in different words, or different things in a similar form of words." In 1778, Lowth gave a more precise definition of this linguistic phenomenon in his "preliminary dissertation" on Isaiah: "The correspondence of one verse, or line with another, I call parallelism." In other words, such correspondence is evident in the way the segments within any given verse of poetry "answer" or talk to one another. Lowth placed these poetic correspondences into three broad categories: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic parallelism.

A few examples will suffice. A Hebrew verse typically consists of two segments, sometimes referred to as "bicola," although triplets ("tricola") and more elaborate patterns are also attested. In a typical poetic couplet, the second segment (colon or stich) can repeat, intensify, modify, or complete the thought of the first. Furthermore, the relationship between the two cola may not always be obvious or even parallel in any strict sense. Yet such regular pairing of segments conveys a sense of lyrical symmetry. Take, for example, the sentence in Ps 114:1-2, translated in strict Hebrew word order (with the subject typically following the verb):

When went forth Israel from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of unintelligible speech, became Judah God's sanctuary, Israel his dominion.

The extended circumstantial clause (v. 1) consists of two parallel "cola," which could be labeled A and A , in which "Israel" and "house of Jacob" serve as corresponding partners, as well as "Egypt" and "a people of unintelligible speech." A succinct way of representing such correspondences is as follows:

A [a:b:c] / A' [b':c']

The first colon (A) contains three grammatical elements: a circumstantial verbal phrase ("when went forth" = a), the subject ("Israel" = b), and a prepositional phrase ("from Egypt" = c). The second colon (A') features a corresponding subject ("house of Jacob" = b') and a corresponding prepositional phrase ("from a people of unintelligible speech" = c'). Lacking, however, is a corresponding verb, hence no a . Rather, the verb is simply understood in the second colon, making it elliptical: "the house of Jacob [went forth] from a people of unintelligible speech." The second colon not only repeats the first colon; it develops the first. Lowth considered this a classic example of synonymous parallelism, a case in which poetic correspondence expresses "the same sense in different but equivalent terms." At the very least, the corresponding partners establish certain relationships of identity: Israel is the "house of Jacob"; Egypt is a "people of unintelligible speech." Similarly, the main clause (v. 2), also cast in two segments, has its corresponding elements: "Judah" and "Israel," as well as "God's sanctuary" and "his dominion." Note that the second colon is also elliptical, reflecting identical prosodic structure as found in verse 1.


Excerpted from The Psalms (Interpreting Biblical Texts Series) by William P. Brown Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William P. Brown is Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA

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