Tuesday, July 07, 2009

7. Critical Issues in the Psalms

Previous posts have included:

1. Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
2. The Old Testament Canon
3. Genres in the Pentateuch
4. Critical Issues in the Pentateuch
5. Critical Issues in the Historical Books
6. The Poetic Sub-Genre
We have chosen to move through the Old Testament by way of its Christian rather than Jewish groupings. What are often called the "Poetic Books" of the Christian Old Testament are actually in the Writings of the Jewish Bible. They are not the only books in the Writings, but most of them lead off this division. Here we are speaking of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.

Types of Psalm
We have already encountered Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) for his form critical work in Genesis. His second claim to fame was his work in the Psalms. In particular, Gunkel suggested about five main types of psalm: 1) the hymn, 2) the community lament, 3) the individual lament, 4) the individual song of thanksgiving, and 5) the royal psalm, which Gunkel believed were about pre-exilic Israelite kings. In this list we can see once again his pre-occupation with the forms a psalm might take.

Gunkel further divided these categories into subcategories. For example, among royal psalms, he distinguished a) coronation hymns (Ps. 2, 110), b) a hymn for a royal wedding (Ps. 45), and c) hymn on the anniversary of a dynasty (Ps. 132). This type is of some interest to Christians since the New Testament generally read them in relation to Christ. Some have therefore called them "messianic" psalms.

Christian Interpretation
The distinction between thinking of a psalm as a "royal" psalm and thinking of it as a "messianic" psalm is very instructive. The earliest Christians engaged the books of Psalms and Isaiah more than any other parts of the Old Testament. But, as we will also see when we get to the Prophets, they did not always pay much attention to the original contexts of the texts through which they heard God's voice. This is again the distinction between a particular theological interpretation the early Christians read in the Psalms and the meaning one would infer when reading the Psalms inductively.

Thus Psalm 45 reads inductively as a wedding psalm for a king. Psalm 45:1 indicates the psalm is about a king. Verse 7 speaks of the anointing of the king at a particular time in the presence of the king's contemporaries. Verses 13-14 tell how the princess to be wed is in her chamber in lovely garments. Her virgin companions follow her as she enters the palace (45:14). Finally, verse 16 looks forward to the king having sons. Yet Hebrews 1:8-9 apply two verses in this psalm to Christ as exalted, eternal cosmic king.

From an inductive standpoint, nothing about the psalm suggests anything other than that this is a wedding psalm for a human king--that is, nothing except perhaps verse 6 that Hebrews quotes. In that verse, the king is addressed as "God": "your throne, O God, is forever and ever." Still, in the light of the Ancient Near East, it is scarcely surprising for a king to be considered divine in some representative or derivative sense. Indeed, God himself tells Moses in Exodus 7:1 that He has made him like god to Pharaoh.

This hermeneutic, this pattern of reading the Old Testament, turns out to be a fairly consistent New Testament practice. That is to say, the New Testament does not seem to read Old Testament texts by way of an inductive method that is concerned to read these texts in their original literary and historical contexts. They find different meanings in the texts than they originally had. We might say they read these texts in light of a "fuller sense" (sensus plenior) those words might take on when read Christianly. To be sure, some have gone to great lengths to argue that the original contexts of these texts were important to the New Testament authors. The individual student of the Bible will have to make up his or her own mind.

What is clear is that the earliest Christians saw Christ in these psalms. Indeed, in several cases, the early Christians read the "I" of a psalm as if Christ were speaking (e.g., Ps. 40:6-8 in Heb. 10:5-7). They might thus hear Psalm 22, a lament psalm, as the voice of Christ, perhaps following Jesus' own cue on the cross. Matthew and Mark remember Jesus quoting verse 1 on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But this meaning for the psalm is a different meaning than its original meaning as an individual lament. Indeed, at some time the psalm was considered a "psalm of David."

Authorship and Date
With the Psalms, we face similar authorship issues to those we face in relation to the Pentateuch and Isaiah. The New Testament and Jesus material in the gospels refer to several psalms as if David were author. In more than one instance, Davidic authorship of a certain psalm is key to the point Jesus or the New Testament author was making. As such, these instances raise starkly the question of what truthfulness might mean in the "intra-biblical" use of other biblical texts. The New Testament language of David sometimes goes beyond a merely conventional way of referring to the Psalms.

Perhaps the issue is best presented by looking at how Jesus uses Psalm 110:1 in argument, one of Gunkel's royal psalms. In Mark 12:35-37 and its parallels, Jesus poses a question by way of this text: "The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand.'" Jesus assumes in his question that David is the writer, and David is saying that the "LORD," Yahweh, is saying something to the Messiah, the "Lord." If David calls the Messiah, "Lord," Jesus asks, then how is the Messiah David's son?

From a contextual, historical, and inductive standpoint, however, we would not naturally read Psalm 110 in this way. The very concept of a coming king most obviously would have arisen in the absence of a human king, in longing for God to raise up a king to restore the fortunes of Israel and restore a Davidic king to its throne. We see the concept develop most in the century or so immediately before Jesus. Historically, it is difficult to think of David having any concept of this sort of "anointed one" at all, which is what messiah means. After all, David was the anointed one of that sort at that time!

From an inductive standpoint, the most obvious reading of Psalm 110:1 is that of an anonymous psalmist speaking of Yahweh addressing the human king of Israel or Judah. The "LORD," Yahweh, enthrones the "Lord," the earthly, human king. God promises to empower the king to have victory over the nation's enemies.

Again, it would not be surprising in itself to find Jesus reading this Old Testament text in a different way from what it originally meant. We find over and over that the New Testament interpreted the Old in this way. But in this particular instance, the very point of Jesus' question seems to ride on David being the speaker in Psalm 110. Is it enough that Jesus' point (or the New Testament point) be true, even if it comes by way of a format and line of argument that is based on assumptions we do not have? Was Jesus teasing his opponents, following through assumptions of theirs he knew weren't true? The individual believer will have to work out what they believe is acceptable.

Most would accept that the psalm headings should be treated separately from the psalm texts themselves. That is to say, a heading mentioning "Asaph" represents later tradition and was not a title put on the psalm at the time it was written. The Hebrew usually says "to Asaph," which is a little ambiguous in itself. Perhaps we are to take the heading to mean something like "attributed" to Asaph.

The psalms do not clearly come from a single period of Israel's history. For example, Psalm 137 clearly was written during the years of Israel's captivity in Babylon (586-539BC). While some scholars do date psalms like Psalm 110 to the time of the Maccabeans in the second century BC, it is reasonable to date the royal psalms to the pre-exilic period, since that is when Israel and Judah had kings. Certainly the Psalms will have taken on their current form at some point in the post-exilic period, when they perhaps became the "hymn book" of the second temple.

Insights into History and Culture
Psalms study in the early twentieth century saw numerous attempts to relate the psalms to various moments in the worship and temple life of pre-exilic Israel. Perhaps the most prominent name here is that of Sigmund Mowinkel (1884-1965). He famously argued that the royal psalms Gunkel called "coronation" or enthronement psalms had featured at a yearly new year "Festival of Yahweh," where Yahweh as ritually re-enthroned as king of the cosmos (cf. Judg. 21:19).

Much of his proposal was clearly speculative. But he does provide a nice segway into the fact that the Psalms do seem at various points to interact with elements of Canaanite myth. One of the best known works on this subject, focusing primarily on Genesis however, is Frank Moore Cross' (1921-present) Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic.

The most likely interaction of the Psalms with contemporary myth is in Psalm 74 and 89. The first reminds us of the Babylonian creation story the Enuma Elish, where the God Marduk destroys the sea monsters of chaos in creation. So in Psalm 74:13-14, God breaks the heads of sea monsters, including "Leviathan." In Ugaritic literature, a related language of Israel's context, Lothan is one of the primordial chaos monsters as well. "Leviathan" and "Lothan" are the same basic word in these languages, sharing the same fundamental letters. They are thus quite possibly two versions of the same figure from contemporary stories.

Psalm 89 similarly speaks of Yahweh crushing "Rahab," also a figure of chaotic waters as perhaps in Genesis 1:2. We do not in any way have to assume that the respective psalmists took all these images literally. They read very well as poetic pictures of Yahweh's power. It is noteworthy, however, that the psalmist had no qualms about using such imagery from contemporary myth.

Psalm 82, as Psalm 89, pictures the other gods of the other nations as part of a divine council in which Yahweh is the supreme deity, an image not unlike the picture we might get of a Zeus presiding over the gods of Olympus (82:1, 6; 89:6-7). However literally the psalmist understood such pictures, we remember again that Israel at least in the pre-exilic period seems to have been henotheistic rather than monotheistic in the proper sense. They seem to have believed that other gods like Dagon and Ba'al existed. They just did not believe they came anywhere close to the power of El Elyon, the "Most High God," nor were they properly to be worshipped.

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