Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, (JSOT Supplement Series 218;
(JSOT Supplement Series 218; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 231 pp., H/b, £46.00/$73.00
Reviewed by Mark Boda
Regina, SK, Canada

Harry Nasuti’s recent publication is a fascinating contribution not only to the more particular field of Psalms studies, but maybe more importantly to the general field of biblical studies and hermeneutics. Nasuti interacts with several recent contributors to the study of the Psalms and uses them as a springboard into a post-critical agenda for psalms studies. The book is a helpful overview of recent trends in Psalms research while providing an excellent environment for evaluating shifts in hermeneutics.

In his two introductory chapters, Nasuti traces the enduring and central question of genre in the research of the Psalms from the earliest period of biblical interpretation until today. Focusing in on the past century, Nasuti shows how Gunkel defined the genres of the Psalms very carefully using his literary and sociological categories. This means that the Psalms were grouped according to genres that were similar in literary form (the elements within the psalm) and similar in life setting (the life setting in which they were used). The life settings proposed were institutional and liturgical in their origins. Two figures after Gunkel, however, have proposed different groupings of the psalms that revealed a move in a theological direction away from the history of religion approach of Gunkel. Westermann de-emphasized the connection of form to life setting and focused instead on the relationship between the larger theological categories of praise and lament. Brueggemann provided a threefold system of orientation, disorientation and new orientation. For Nasuti, this move to a more universal (no longer linked to institutional settings) and theological (focused on the relationship of Israel to God) reading of the Psalms moves us closer to the pre-Gunkel approach to the Psalms and he notes that throughout the history of genre analysis, changes in theological understanding has resulted in changes in groupings. It is this assertion by Nasuti that largely drives the agenda of this book: that genre analysis is not a description of something out there in the text, but rather is an act of interpretation, a way of describing the reality of the text from the perspective of a particular individual or community. Cutting objections off at the pass, Nasuti addresses the main question in the modern scholar’s mind: “Does this mean that one’s definition of genre is completely free, or more accurately, that there are no constraints on that definition other than one’s present historical circumstances?” He responds with three constraints: the canon (which gives us a defined number of texts for comparison), tradition (the past tradition of interpretation), and community (the present interpretive community). Thus, Nasuti is saying that genre analysis is both a descriptive as well as a constructive task. It is descriptive in that it brings to light the different ways in which texts have been grouped (from their origins to the present). It is constructive in that it makes a case for the way such texts should be grouped (in the present historical moment). Throughout these first two chapters, Nasuti uses the seven penitential psalms in the Western Christian tradition as an example of the theological and perspectival nature of genre analysis.

The following chapters continue to weave Nasuti’s foundational revelations into the various conversations around the Psalm research table in the past two decades. In the third chapter, The Shifting Center of the Psalms: Genre definition and evaluation, Nasuti affirms the recent arguments of Brueggemann and Westermann for the primacy of the laments in the interpretation of the Psalms, but refuses to see this as “more accurate” in an objective sense, but rather “particularly appropriate to our modern historical moment”. Identification of the central genre of the Psalter has changed throughout the history of interpretation and this reveals the constructive nature of interpretation and genre analysis.

In the fourth chapter, The Power of Genre: Form and Function in the Psalms, Nasuti investigates the ability of genre definition to affect the interpretation and use of the psalms. Through interweaving diverse sources both ancient and modern (Brueggemann, Athanasius, Austin, Searle, Wittgenstein, Ricoeur), Nasuti reveals three different ways that genres may function: the expressive function (they are the means by which one expresses an already existing state of being or bring the state to better expression), the creative function (they are the means by which a world is created), the transformative/sacramental function (they are the means by which one comes to inhabit that world). While Brueggemann would distribute these functions among the various genres, Nasuti argues that all genres are able to carry on all three functions depending on the setting of the one using them.

While the third and fourth chapters have focused particularly on those scholars most concerned with the form-critical agenda, the final two chapters engage another direction in psalms research: the canonical critical perspective. In the fifth chapter, King David’s Genres: The Relationship between authorship and genre in the Psalms, Nasuti notes a common link between pre- and post-Gunkel psalms study: the impact of King David on the interpretation of the Psalms. Prior to the historical-critical era, the psalms were almost exclusively viewed through the prism of David’s life in Jewish and Christian traditions. Tensions between statements in the Psalms and the life of David, however, led to a devaluing of this connection and at first to the search for individual authors and later, under Gunkel, to the search for typical liturgical settings. Nasuti then traces the re-emergence of David as the key to interpreting the psalms in recent research, in particular in the work of Brevard Childs, Peter Ackroyd, James Luther Mays and Gerald Sheppard. These scholars have emphasized the role of the literary David for the canonical community’s interpretation of the Psalter. Tensions between the life of David and anachronistic features in the psalms can be explained by the appeal to David’s role as both representative Prayer for Israel as well as prophetic voice. Therefore, Nasuti argues that although we cannot find the original author of the psalms, the canonical text and interpretive tradition has provided an ideal author. This ideal author in canon provides a necessary safeguard for readers of the psalms, offering insight into the way various psalms may function in the present day.

The journey in a canonical direction is continued in the sixth chapter, The Parts and the Whole: The Genre Definition of the Psalms and the Canonical Shape of the Psalter. In this chapter, Nasuti provides a superb introduction to recent research on reading the Psalms as a book, by surveying the work of Brevard Childs, Gerald Wilson, Walter Brueggemann, Gerald Sheppard, James Luther Mays, and J. Clinton McCann. These scholars have argued that the Psalter is not merely a hymnbook for expressing the heart of God’s people, but also (or for some, exclusively) an instructional book designed to teach the people. Nasuti shows how such research reveals that genre analysis is performed not only on individual psalms, but also on the Psalter as a whole and how this impacts one’s interpretation of the individual psalms. Nasuti also reveals how important genre definitions have been to the theories of these scholars, how the distribution of the genres throughout the book of Psalms has impacted their conclusions on the overall message of the Psalter. This shows the impact of the parts on the whole. The problem for Nasuti, however, is that if one is unable to assume that the editors of the Psalter shared the same genre categories as these modern scholars, then the interpretation of the the final shape of the Psalter is “proper to our own time, since it depends on genre definitions that are proper to our own time” (p. 199).

Nasuti’s book is a helpful resource for those engaged in scholarly study of the Psalms in particular and the Bible in general. He provides a superb review of recent trends in Psalms research. Nasuti’s focus on the power of genre not only to express, but also to create and transform the reader is helpful for explaining the enduring attraction of the psalms within religious communities today. Additionally, his belief that all psalms function as both human expression to God and divine expression to humans (prayer and wisdom) explains the transformative power of the Psalms: as we pray they teach. Nasuti also helps us to see that Psalms can carry more than one function and how they can belong to more than one genre. Nasuti’s contributions are helpful also in the area of hermeneutics. He has undercut the over-confidence within the form-critical guild that one can identify the genres of ancient Israel with accuracy. This questioning of the foundations also provides Nasuti an opportunity to introduce pre-critical study of the Bible in a way that takes it seriously.

However, there are some problematic and worrisome trends in Nasuti’s contribution. He assumes that the lack of congruity throughout the history of the definition of genres must mean that such definition is a perspectival exercise. May it not be possible that interpreters are limited creatures and cannot appropriate truth correctly and thus need ongoing revision of theory? May it not be possible that the various modern functions may be a mirror of the variety of ancient functions, much as we see in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible where prophets can use praise for the purpose of either judgment or promise? Nasuti claims that part of the descriptive exercise in genre definition entails a determination of this definition at “its origins in ancient Israel”, but for all intents and purposes makes such a definition impossible through an extreme hermeneutical suspicion. Nasuti claims to be building on Gunkel’s literary-social insights into the Psalms, but he ignores the literary (taxonomy) in favour of the social (function) and then redefines the social (modern setting) in a way Gunkel (ancient setting) would never have embraced. Nasuti’s book works out for the psalms the implications of recent shifts in hermeneutics. Using especially Brueggemann as a springboard for his discussion, Nasuti has shown what interpretation must become when loosed from the historical dimension of the text. In 1968 James Muilenburg addressed the Society of Biblical Literature calling the guild to move “beyond form criticism”. In this paper he called the Society to move beyond mere taxonomy of literary characteristics to a greater focus on the rhetorical technique of the biblical text. Muilenburg’s comments spawned a generation of scholars who have focused more on the aesthetic quality of the biblical text moving away from the ancient sociological setting so important to Gunkel and his followers. This revealed a more general philosophical shift in the study of texts that emphasized that the text was our only link to the author and provided a reading strategy (genre) for interpreting the ancient text. This focus on the text itself has run its course and with Nasuti, using Brueggemann as a foundation, we see the shift to the reader in biblical interpretation. Faced with a diversity of opinions on the definition of genres in the Psalter throughout the history of interpretation and convinced that interpretation is a perspectival exercise, Nasuti embraces the post-critical hermeneutical agenda and seeks to loosen the guild from its historical moorings. The safeguards he provides (canon, tradition, community) will not be helpful in resolving disputes, but then it appears that Nasuti is not concerned with such resolution.