Review of B.Becking and E. Peels, Psalms and Prayers

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Bob Becking and Eric Peels (eds.), Psalms and Prayers (OTS 55; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007). Pp. vi+306, Hardcover, US$135.00, ISBN 9789004160323.

The British and Dutch Old Testament societies meet together quite frequently, take a common theme for the papers at their meeting, and then publish them. This volume includes all but one of the sixteen papers read at the 2006 joint meeting of the two societies, with an introduction by Eric Peels. All the papers are in English. While one can imagine that many are published as delivered, a number are much more substantial than one can imagine being read in full on that occasion.

As the title might make one expect, many of the papers concern the Psalms, but a number relate to prayers and praises outside the Psalter, which has been a fertile area of study in recent years after being the subject of neglect. The volume in fact begins (for alphabetical reasons) with a very substantial and interesting paper by Pancratius Beentjes on “Psalms and Prayers in the Book of Chronicles” in which he shows that these prayers and praises are not mere filler but reflect and contribute to the Chronicler's agenda. In “The Demarcation of Hymns and Prayers in the Prophets (2)” Marjo Korpel considers Isaiah 1-12 and Jeremiah 10:23-25 in the course of continuing her studies of the demarcation of units within the Old Testament in light of indications of delimitation of units in the ancient manuscripts, applying her approach to discerning the relationship of these passages to their contexts. Eep Talstra studies “The Discourse of Praying” as illustrated in Nehemiah 1, which (he concludes) presupposes the communicative nature of prayer and the importance and fruitfulness of praying in light of the community's tradition of prayer. Jaap van Dorp studies “The Prayer of Isaiah and the Sundial of Ahaz” and provides the reader with a fascinating study of astronomy, time measuring, and sundials in the Ancient Near East. As well as defending the idea that the “stairs” in that passage were indeed a sundial, he gives an account of how retrogradation of sundials is a known phenomenon, but I confess I did not understand his account of how this works. John Elwolde studies “The Hodayot's Use of the Psalter,” focusing on Book I and asking after the text-critical significance of the material. A long introduction and a conclusion offer careful discussion both of the relationship of the Hodayot to individual psalms and also of the kind or means of influence one might envisage, though the conclusion of the text-critical study (itself long and detailed) is that the text-critical significance of the Hodayot seems to be rather small.

On issues within the Psalter, Adrian H. W. Curtis reflects on “‘… Father…’ An Inherited Title and its Presence (or Absence) in the Psalms” in light of the portrayal of El as Father at Ugarit, and ends with the suggestive proposition that perhaps the relative infrequency of reference to God as Father in the Psalms needs to be brought into relation with the Psalms' fondness for the theme of hesed. Whereas this paper considers links with Canaanite El theology, Paul Sanders considers at length “Argumenta ad Deum in the Plague Prayers of Musili II and in the Book of Psalms.” He notes the extensive similarity in the way the Psalms and the Plague Prayers argue and in their assumption that God can be known. The differences between the Psalms and the Plague Prayer reflect their theology; the Psalms do not argue that God will miss the suppliant's sacrifices and do not allow for the possibility that some gods are more capricious than others. John Day takes up another question more about absence than about presence, in studying “The Ark and Cherubim in the Psalms”; he draws attention to implicit references to these in passages such as Psalms 17, 24, 47, and 68. Roger Tomes takes up the puzzle of what is “new” when the psalms urge people to “Sing to the Lord a New Song” and is inclined to reckon that the new song relates to something new that the psalmists have experienced God doing, in a context such as the deliverance from Babylon. He also considers the appearance of references to a “new song” in Judith and in Revelation. Rather surprisingly, Howard N. Wallace's study of “King and Community” is the only contribution that takes up the current interest in the “shaping” of the Psalter and its “canonical reading”; it suggests that one aspect of the effect of this shaping is to hold up the king as a model for piety for the community. Gordon Wenham takes further his interest in ethical reading of the Old Testament by looking at the Psalms from this angle, and does so in interesting fashion in light of the work of Paul Griffiths, Dorothea Erbele-Küster, and J. L. Austin.

On particular psalms, Alastair G. Hunter (“Inside Outside Psalm 55”) intriguingly draws attention to links between Psalm 55 and Jonah and suggests that the psalm was the inspiration for the Jonah story. Christiane de Vos and Gert Kwakkel study “The Petitioner's Understanding of Himself, His God, and His Enemies” in Psalm 69 in light of the unusual combination of two features in the psalm. On one hand, it pleads for help on the basis of being under attack without reason, but on the other hand, it incorporates an acknowledgment of guilt. Even granted the reality of guilt, the psalm emphasizes that God is the psalmist's only hope. Jan Fokkelman offers an essay on Psalm 103 with the subtitle “Design, Boundaries, and Mergers,” adding to his study of this psalm's structure and prosody in his Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible and providing more backing for his understanding of the structure. I add myself to the 48 commentators on the psalm to whom he refers, who (on his understanding) miss the point of the psalm's structure. In turn Jan Holman takes further his earlier study of Psalm 139 that located its background in an accusation of idolatrous sun worship and asks “Are Idols Hiding in Psalm 139:20?” As he notes, this view fits with growing awareness of the prevalence of the worship of deities other than Yahweh in Israel.

There is no particular trend in the book as a whole; it is simply a collection of separate studies on topics that interested the scholars who wrote them.

John Goldingay, Fuller Theological Seminary