(p. ix) Preface
(p. ix) Preface
Rare it is among reference works in biblical studies that one finds the likes of St. Jerome and Chuck Norris featured in the same volume. But so it is in this “handbook” to the Psalms, a volume whose variety of offerings aptly addresses the Psalter’s own diversity. Over the years, indeed over centuries, the book of Psalms has accommodated itself to a bewildering variety of interpretations, uses, translations, and approaches. Its interpretive challenges are many: the poetic subtleties, the diversity of genres and theological perspectives, the Psalter’s shape and structure (or lack thereof), the identities of the speakers (and their enemies), the composers and editors of the Psalms, the variety of social contexts, the range of usage, and the ancient Near Eastern backgrounds and parallels. The list goes on. This volume aims to touch upon, rather than cover, the myriad bases of Psalms study and interpretation, both past and present. Some reflect longstanding precedence and practice; others are novel and just emerging. Yet countless gaps remain. The volume, containing over forty essays, is a modest sampling of what is under way in Psalms studies and perhaps a glimpse of what is in store.
This volume is designed for both scholar and student. It is structured so that readers can readily locate where their own interests are addressed and where they might want to venture beyond them. The volume opens with essays exploring the rich extra-biblical backgrounds and parallels of the Psalms, primarily Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Canaanite. From background traditions and forms to the particular language of the biblical psalms, the volume addresses the nature of poetry in the Psalms and, conversely, the use of Psalms in poetry. The language and rhetoric specific to particular genres, from lament to praise, are also explored.Of course, no handbook to the Psalms would be “complete” without reference to ancient translations of the Psalter, specifically Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.
From matters of language the volume moves to issues of composition and compilation. One essay explores those responsible for setting and organizing the various psalms within their respective collections, whose growth and arrangement ultimately yielded a Psalter. Comparing the canonical Psalter of the Masoretic tradition to the Psalms scrolls of Qumran yields fruitful speculation on the evolution of Psalms as a book.
From the Psalter’s editing to its interpretation, three chapters in this volume are devoted to certain trajectories of interpretation and reception, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. One essay explores the vast reception history of one particular psalm, spanning its earliest contexts to the present. Regarding interpretive approaches, the volume addresses both traditional and emerging methods of interpretation: form critical and literary approaches, as well as iconographic, rhetorical, narratival, psychological, (p. x) feminist, and socio-literary approaches. In addition, a separate but far too meager section is devoted to explicitly cultural interpretations of the Psalms, specifically African American, Asian American, and Latin American, as samples of how widespread the Psalms have been interpreted and appropriated by various communities.
Two sections are devoted to issues of theology and anthropology, the former providing a point/counterpoint dialogue between Christian and Jewish approaches and the latter offering two ways of addressing human identity in the Psalms. And, finally, a number of essays explore the use of psalms in Christian practice, from homiletics and hymnody to pastoral and ecological practice. Although the delineations and placements of these essays may seem artificial (and they are!), the volume’s overarching movement is clear: from Sitze im Leben to Sitze in unserem Leben, from ancient to contemporary contexts and settings of the Psalms in all their rich variety.
While some essays navigate the continuing debates over particular issues, surveying various opinions and approaches, others chart a way forward by offering heuristic paradigms and new methods for consideration in the study and use of the Psalms. The hope is that there is something for everyone in this volume. A greater hope is that students of Psalms will come to appreciate a variety of approaches and their potential for mutual enrichment.
This volume would be nothing without the concerted efforts of its many contributors. My thanks to them for their willingness to contribute a sampling of their own work. Thanks also to Elisabeth Nelson of Oxford University Press for initially conceiving this project and her help and encouragement throughout. Finally, thanks to Columbia Theological Seminary, whose generous sabbatical policy gave me the time to see this monumental project to its fruitful end.
And a final note (and warning) to the reader: the verse citations featured in these essays, unless otherwise noted, correspond to Hebrew (MT) versification, which frequently does not match English verse numbers. In many essays, the corresponding English citation is set in brackets.
William P. Brown