"A New Psalm"
Benjamin J. Segal
The Book of Psalms is no less than a careful selection of some 150 poems (as traditionally numbered) dealing with life's great spiritual challenges, all of which remain relevant to this day. While the criteria of choice are no longer known, excellence of thought and composition seems to have played a major role, judging by results. If "eternal literature" implies forever thought-provoking and exciting, then certainly Psalms fits the description.
Great literature is ever worthy of time and effort. That is our purpose. I shall, in this project, "A New Psalm," reconsider the psalms, one by one. We add, nevertheless, but a small addition to work of scholars across the generations.
Ironically, some past uses, including religious ones, somewhat hinder, rather than help, our efforts. The inclusion of psalms in liturgy often condemns this grand poetry to quick recitation. In other contexts, rote recitations for comfort or reassurance, or to influence events, serve to blur the great impact the psalms might have if read slowly as what they are – poetry of the soul.
Even modernity has sometimes made Psalms less, not more, accessible. Some academic emphases have obscured literary appreciation. Research into meter, form, presumed contexts, historical development of religion, pagan origins, etc. have not provided the sought-after key of understanding, and ironically they have diverted attention from the words and the poetry. Indeed most commentaries of the last century typically "pigeonholed" a psalm before the reader was allowed to confront it. I seek to avoid that.
This project belongs to the school of thought that tries to let every psalm speak for itself as literature. To quote one early exponent of this approach, Prof. Meir Weiss, "The only legitimate interpretative criteria are 'internal,' i.e., criteria found within the work, not external to it" (Ideas and Beliefs in the Book of Psalms, Hebrew, p. 16, paraphrasing B. Croce).
Of course interpretations will still differ (as with all great poetry, I might add). It therefore behooves me to list further understandings that guide my approach to allowing the psalms to speak for themselves.
• Each psalm is first to be read on its own, the psalm constituting a unit. That implies that it is illegitimate to begin studying a psalm by dating it, categorizing it, emending it or splitting it (apart from considering alternate divisions found in other Bible versions).
• The grandeur of poetry lies not in simplicity, but in shades of meaning, multiple possibilities, inference and the like. (Corollary: If a verse can be understood in two ways, it is best first to assume that the author intended that, as opposed to searching for which of the two is "true")
• Form and literary patterns complement content, guiding our reading, reflecting the text, fine tuning its message, adding complexity, et al.
• The re-use of metaphors and phrases (even sentences or sections) from psalm to psalm, no more represents "borrowing" or "standardization" than does re-use of words. These were the building blocks of poetry, and we seek to understand each structure. Of course a significant number of borrowings from a single source can imply a literary connection.
• The psalmists were aware of (and probably trained in) varied techniques used in Biblical poetry, but no one such independently determines content. Each poem uses techniques (e.g. repetition, enclosure, chiasmus, radical breaks, slight variations, rhythm, etc.) for its own ends, which the poem can reveal. Each psalmist's use of precedents is eclectic, selective and personalized.
• A particular psalmist may have been an unquestioning pietist, but not necessarily so. The psalm must be read with open eyes, recalling that the Psalms appear in the same section of the Bible that includes Job and Ecclesiastes.
• The speaker of a psalm is not necessarily the author. The poet could create an imagined speaker (just as the speakers of Ecclesiastes and Job are not the authors).
• We do not know the origin of most psalms. Often, content and form do not befit cultic worship. Yehezkel Kaufman goes so far as to assert, "Biblical psalms have nothing to do with the priesthood and its functions" (The Religion of Israel, p. 109). I do assume that of those written for other purposes, many were sometimes later used with Temple and extra-Temple worship.
• As recognized by even many traditional commentaries over centuries, the attribution or dedication of a Psalm "to (King) David" does not necessarily indicate authorship. Most psalms cannot be dated.
• A psalm's final line, if a reversal, does not necessarily resolve previous conflict. More often, contradictory section reflect life's complexities.
• A radical change in subject (or form) might indicate that two psalms were joined. However, radical change is one of the techniques of the psalmists, and the conclusion of conflation can be reached only after much effort to see the psalm as a unit.
• We should read poetically. References to morning, entering God's presence, or cleansing oneself before God do not necessarily refer to an exact time, an exact place, or an act of washing. Such interpretations are examples of (using the phrase of A. N. Whitehead, in a different context) "misplaced concreteness." (Robert Alter cites both the phenomenon and the phrase.)
In these essays, I shall pay close attention to repetition, slight variations in phrase, enclosure, unusual structures, overlapping structures, choice of metaphor, surprise endings, and changes in the following categories: mood, speaker, voice, tense, singular-plural, et al.
While I am open to the possibility that the Masoretic Hebrew text reflects mistakes and/or editing, it is my observation that it is the best available, and so every effort should be made to deal with that text as it is. I also cite the dictum that "the more difficult text should be preferred," the simpler more likely to have been an emendation.
Finally, participants are encouraged to recall the depth and complexity of biblical literature in general. The Book of Psalms fits well into this context. Never simplistic, and anything but one-dimensional, the psalms are songs of the soul, and we must be open to the efforts of poets to give expression to their deepest convictions, doubts and hopes.
I briefly present myself as the author of these studies. I am the former President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies (the sponsor of these studies) and author of the recent Biblical Commentary, The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love. I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and moved to Israel in 1973, where I reside, in Jerusalem. I am author of articles and books in the fields of Bible, Education and Zionism.
The title of these essays, "A New Psalm," is taken from a fifty year old, but still well-known, Israeli song, "Abba's (Daddy's) Song" by Naomi Shemer. It was popular when I first moved to Israel. The last verse reads (approximate translation):
If you have yet to sing to me, then let a new psalm be sung -
Old wine to the palate, sweet honey to the tongue;
Old as the millennia, as each newborn day, young.
Some More Technical Introductions
Text – Because my interpretation depends on word and root repetitions and interpretations reflected in no one standard translation available on the market, I here present a translation of each psalm appropriate for this study. Verse are listed according to the Masoretic tradition, and readers should recall, if consulting other translations, that some follow the Greek Bible verse numbers, which are often one off the Masoretic. (While the Masoretic count numbered the attribution verse, the Greek often did not). This translation should be used for study only. Others might be more appropriate for inspiration, worship, etc. Anyone competent in Biblical Hebrew should follow with a Hebrew text as well.
I shall use only of a basic, non-complicated system of transliteration ("General Purpose Romanization Style" of the American National Standard), which is sufficient for our purposes.
Psalms are best studied by first reading and thinking about the psalm independent of any guidance. One should therefore consider the psalm before looking at my comments. Other views are always enriching, and the reader is encouraged to follow with other commentaries, of which there are many available.
One encounters a beautiful insight into Biblical commentary in the introduction to the (twelfth century) commentary of Rashbam. He cites his grandfather, Rashi (perhaps the greatest of commentators) who in his old age shared with his grandson how he would, if he could, rewrite his own commentary (which he previously had rewritten!). Commentary, in short, is a process, not a product.
The present studies are, therefore, a work in progress. Toward that end, participants are encouraged to add their own insights, which can be posted on our web site. I shall review all such comments before making the final revision to hard copy. Time permitting, I shall comment on selected submissions weekly, those reactions also to be posted to the web site. (I note that I reserve the right to review submissions, rejecting any which are inappropriate, or even those which duplicate others already posted.) The postings will be available to all participants.
Partially because this is a work in progress, each weekly essay will note that this material is copyright, and may not be reproduced. I ask all to honor that restriction scrupulously. Any interested in using these essays for study groups (which I encourage) must be in direct contact with me first.
It is difficult to know now which references will dominate these studies. I shall not, in the on-line version of these essays, provide detailed footnotes (which will be included in the printed volume), but I shall occasionally refer to a certain number of other texts briefly. I note the name by which I shall refer to frequently cited books and articles.
• Alter - The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter (NY: W. W. Norton 2007)
• Bar Yosef - Psalms (Hebrew) by Hamotal Bar Yosef (Jerusalem: Mishlav, n.d.)
• Bazak, "Structures" - Structures and Contents in the Psalms (Hebrew) by Jacob Bazak (Tel Aviv: Dvir 1984)
• Bazak, "Daily" – Psalms of the Day: Structures and Contents (Hebrew) by Jacob Bazak Jerusalem: WZO, 1985)
• Benun – "Evil and the Disruption of Order: A Structural Analysis of the Acrostics in the First Book of Psalms," by Ronald Benun, in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 6.5 (2006)
• Broyles -New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms by Craig C. Broyles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)
• Brueggemann - The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary by Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Augsberg Publishing House, 1984)
• Buttenwieser – The Psalms, Moses Buttenwieser, first published 1938 (republished, NY: Ktav, 1969)
• Cohen, A. – The Psalms by A. Cohen (Surrey: Soncino Press, 1945)
• Cohen, M. - Our Haven and Our Strength by Martin Samuel Cohen (NY: Aviv Press 2008)
• Dahood – The Psalms (three volumes) by Mitchell Dahood (NY: Doubleday [The Anchor Library], 1965, 1968, 1970)
• Freedman – Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah by David Noel Freedman et al.( Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1999)
• Gillingham – The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible by S. E. Gillingham (Oxford: Oxford University, 1994)
• Hacham - The Book of Psalms – 2 volumes (Hebrew) by Amos Hacham (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1986, 1987)
• Howard - The Structure of Psalms 93 –100 by David M. Howard Jr., (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1997)
• Ibn Ezra - Avraham Ibn Ezra, c. 1090-1165, Spain, Hebrew commentary
• Kimche (sometimes "Radak") - David Kimche, 1160-1235, Provence, Hebrew commentary
• Liebowitz – Leader's Guide to the Book of Psalms by Nehama Liebowitz (NY: Hadassah, 1971)
• Magonet – A Rabbi Reads the Psalms by Jonathan Magonet (London: SCM 1994, 2004)
• Malbim - Meri Leibush b. Yechiel Michael, 1809-1879, Ukraine, Hebrew Commentary
• Meltzer – The Aspects (lit.: Faces) of the Book of Psalms (Hebrew) by Feivel Meltzer (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1983)
• NJPS – The Holy Scriptures, New Translation, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962 and on)
• Rashi – R. Shlomo Yitschak, 1040-1105, France, Hebrew Commentary
• RSV – The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version (NY: Nelson, 1952)
• Sarna – Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms by Nahum M. Sarna (NY: Schocken, 1993)
• Schaefer – Psalms by Konrad Schaefer (Collegeville,MN:The Liturgical Press, 2001)
• Seybold - Introducing the Psalms by Klaus Seybold, (London: T & T Clark, 1990)
• Straus – Three Psalms from the Book of Psalms (Hebrew) by Aryeh Ludwig Straus(Jerusalem; WZO, 1964)
• Weiser – The Psalms by Artur Weiser (Philadlephia: Westminster, 1962)
• Weiss, "Ideas" – Ideas and Beliefs in the Book of Psalms (Hebrew) by Meir Weiss (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2001)
• Weiss, "Scriptures" – Scriptures in their Own Light (Hebrew) by Meir Weiss (Jerusalem; Bialik Institute, 1987)