William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), xiii + 274 pp. US $24.95. ISBN 0-664-22502-0.
Reviewed by Carleen Mandolfo
Colby College

Although in Seeing the Psalms, Brown (who identifies himself as a Calvinist) notes Calvin’s iconoclastic fear that a focus on images as formative for theological understandings might bring one into breach of the second commandment, Brown pays little attention, and instead absolutely revels in the iconographic richness of the Psalter. He chooses to concentrate on a few central metaphors that have broad associations, and thus help to illuminate even those psalms that do not include the particular metaphor being addressed. The metaphors covered include “refuge” (“rock”); “tree”; “sun”; “pathway”; “water” and several animals. The final chapters focus on more human images for God, such as “king” and “teacher”, although it is hard to understand why ch. 8, which seems to rehearse metaphors that could have been treated with “refuge” and “water”, needs to stand alone.

While paying lip service to the importance of form critical approaches, Brown is clearly little interested in questions of form or function. Furthermore, he does scant more than note in passing the recent contributions of redaction criticism in Psalms study. Content is his concern, but not in the sense of rhetorical issues, even. He narrows his focus onto the word—the imagistic word, the metaphorical word, more precisely. Such a focus is welcome, given the traditional as well as more recent nearly exclusive concentration on structure and function. That said, his goal is not to chart exhaustively the use of metaphors throughout the Psalter (though he covers a broad range); in fact, his is hardly a linguistic study at all. The only place where linguistic theory is overtly conveyed is in the introduction, and even there it is fairly cursory. The names of Lakoff and Ricoeur are invoked, but then not really put to work in the interpretive task. Brown’s preference is clearly for reading, and his readers will benefit most from approaching his book as an illustration of a fresh way to read psalms. Beyond reading, however, Brown’s business is theological. It should come as a surprise to no one that Israel’s understanding of its God was conceived in the people’s imagination and eventually conveyed through the verbal images they crafted. Brown should be applauded for foregrounding that imaginative process.

The seeming lack of methodological structure could be considered a weakness, at least by those hoping for a more systematic linguistic mapping of the Psalter’s deployment of metaphors. As it is, Brown’s style seems occasionally random, both in terms of which metaphors he chooses to pursue, and which semantic tack he takes with each metaphor. This situation is aggravated by his decision to enlarge our range of semantic possibilities by reading biblical metaphors alongside those displayed in the iconography of Israel’s neighbors. The resulting readings are genuinely, uniquely insightful, but at times, ungrounded. For example, in his discussion of “the tree” in Psalm 1 (ch. 3), Brown seems to abandon the “natural” connotations the metaphor has in favor of cultic ones that seem something of a stretch. Apparently, the poet is not constructing a simple image, based on observation of the natural world, of the righteous one as a tree that when planted near nourishing streams reaches its maximum fruitful potential. Rather, the image of the tree is tracked throughout its appearances in ANE iconography, where it has powerful cultic connotations, usually in association with goddess worship. The conclusion is that “the didactic poet has turned a controversial cultic object into an evocative metaphor, an image of apostasy transformed into an icon of righteousness” (p. 74–75). Still, in this case the conclusion is far less important than the journey on which Brown takes us. His impressive knowledge of ANE iconography vastly enriches our ability to read the depth and breadth of metaphors employed in the psalms. It opens up avenues that are otherwise shut down by temporal and cultural distance.

The way in which he demonstrates the web of associations related to the cosmic and solar imagery displayed in Psalm 19 is a particularly impressive case in point (ch. 4). The cosmic import that Psalm 19 maps onto torah is thoroughly rehearsed, both in its simple, “natural” associations, as well as its cultic and iconographic ones: Torah “is as lucid and firmly established in the heart of the community as the sun is radiant and permanently fixed in the heavens” (p. 93); and “[t]hrough the juxtaposition of sun and torah, solarized worship of God is wrapped in the scroll of torah-piety” (p. 99). His rehearsal of sun-worship, both inside and outside of Israel, as well as the imagery associated with it, allows readers to understand how profoundly the sun, for ancients, was connected to issues of justice and law, and thus how “natural” is Psalm 19’s linkage of solar metaphors and torah. In addition, the use of related images—such as “dawn” and “light”—throughout the Psalter are given new force.

Brown gives psalms’ readers new hermeneutical issues to care about. Whether or not one agrees with the degree of importance Brown pins on understanding psalmic metaphors, it would be hard to read Brown’s book without it impacting all subsequent engagements with the Psalter.