D. J. Human (ed.), Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Human, Dirk J. (ed.), Psalmody and Poetry in Old Testament Ethics (LHBOTS, 572; New York: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. xiv + 192. US$140.00. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-567-28267-5.

The recent resurgence of interest in ethics and the Hebrew Scriptures has focused, understandably, on the Torah and Prophetic Literature, somewhat to the neglect of the Psalter. Poetry and song, however, are powerful ways of shaping people's beliefs, values, motivations and emotions, and so inculcating ways of seeing the world and fostering ways of living in it. Dirk Human has brought together the papers from a seminar on Psalms and ethics, making this a welcome addition to the literature.

The book falls into three parts, the first of which deals with methodological issues in ethics and the Hebrew Scriptures. Eckart Otto surveys recent work in the ethics of the Hebrew Bible, concluding that the most promising way forward is contextual analysis of and reflection on the varying values of the Hebrew Bible. This useful survey is marred by his casual dismissal of the work of conservative Protestant and Catholic authors. Gericke outlines an interesting meta-ethical analysis of the Psalter, arguing that a complex moral realism accounts better for the structure of ethics in the Psalter than does divine command theory. While I am not persuaded by some of his arguments (such as the significance of petition), I find his overall conclusions to be persuasive.

Part II shifts to a discussion of specific texts and contextual issues. Groenewald's discussion of Ps 16 helpfully outlines clear structures of ethical reflection found in the Hebrew Bible and notes that “righteousness” is a gift of YHWH's blessing rather than an autonomous human attainment, but is surprisingly light on ethical analysis. Botha argues that the editing and position of Ps 34 reflects a pacifist wisdom ethic similar to that of the editors of “Trito-Isaiah.” His conclusions, while interesting, depend upon his particular reconstruction of the redactional history of both the Psalter and Ps 34, of which I am not persuaded. Seidl identifies the רשׁע of Ps 50:16 as both Israel as a whole and groups within it who are critiqued from a broadly prophetic perspective for a range of social ills. This helpfully elucidates this section of the psalm and shows its coherence with the whole. Andrew Mein discusses the understanding of kingship reflected in Ps 72 and its reception in early modern debates over the divine right of kings, showing how it was used both to legitimize and critique monarchy. His treatment of reception history is illuminating, but I was puzzled by his agnosticism concerning its original function/s. Coetzee presents a “bodily” reading of Ps 104 and the experiences of the world it celebrates. This may be an interesting approach to the text but showed neither methodological clarity nor particular insight into the text and its function.

With Kamuwanga's piece, Part II turns to uses of the Psalms in African cultural and ecclesial contexts. He examines the understanding of justice and its relation to the divine reflected in Ps 72 and Lozi royal decrees, demonstrating that both are informed by a clear connection between the divine and social realms. Nonetheless, I was unable to see how bringing together Ps 72 and Lozi royal ideology illuminated either. Usue's comparison of biblical Psalms and indigenous Sudanese Christian hymnody demonstrates parallels between their theological and ethical concerns, and notes the power of song to inculcate values and beliefs amongst those who use them. While many of the parallels are the result of the hymns being dependent on biblical texts such as the Psalms, the discussion is illuminating. So, too, is Ndoga's analysis of Ps 133 and its value for combating xenophobia. I found his sociological and theological analysis of the Xhosa word Ubuntu particularly insightful.

Part III turns from the Psalms to other poetic texts in the Hebrew Scriptures. Otto's second contribution to the volume argues that Moses's song in Deut 32 is a pastiche of allusions and quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures and played a crucial role in the formation of the Hebrew canon. The details of his interpretation, of course, depend on his understanding of the text's development; nonetheless, his claim that after judgment God offers hope fits other elements in Deuteronomy and the Hebrew Bible. Wessells' discussion of Jer 5:26–29 is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, he articulates the text's critique of a stratified society and its grounding in the character and purposes of YHWH; on the other, he argues that cultural distance between us and Israel's world and contemporary scepticism about God's engagement with the world undermine the text's ethical value. He concludes that we need to free ourselves from the limitations of an “authoritative text” and create our own ethical solutions. I found this an odd conclusion to the volume; not only are the issues he raises addressed extensively in hermeneutics and ethics, but his argument renders the study of the ethics of the Hebrew Scriptures largely or even entirely otiose.

This reflects a major weakness in the volume; namely, its lack of coherence. This is a problem that bedevils collections such as this which include a wide diversity of methodologies and viewpoints, ranging from Otto's European continental Old Testament scholarship, through Usue's and Ndoga's relatively traditional Christian interpretation of the psalms, to Wessells' relativizing of the Hebrew Scriptures' role in forming ethical judgements. It is true that Human's Preface gives a little of the context of the papers and presents a brief summary of each piece, though nowhere does he outline or analyse the diversity reflected in the volume. While he notes that “scholarly debate on the definition, object, approaches and normative status of Old Testament ethics, Hebrew Bible ethics or biblical ethics remain [sic] complex and challenging” (p. vii), he does not indicate the ways this volume reflects that complexity, noting only that “the most appropriate way to deal with Old Testament ethics seems to be a descriptive and reflective one” (p. vii). The volume would have been both more coherent and more useful had he offered some reflections on the pieces, the differences between them and what this indicates about the state of the question. There are other weaknesses as well, such as the lack of a bibliography and the patchy editing of the book, but they are relatively minor.

I find it hard to give an overall assessment of the book. It brings together an interesting range of scholars and questions. It illustrates both the value of such study as well as some of the complexities associated with it. I appreciated the way that contextual issues relating to majority world cultures and faith communities were brought into the world of scholarly discourse. This is not only interesting in itself, but it sheds light on the biblical text and the ways it can be understood and used. As such, the volume does make a contribution to scholarship on ethics and the Hebrew Scriptures. The book suffers, however, from a lack of coherence as well as from the absence of an overall assessment about the value of ethics as a perspective on reading the Hebrew Scriptures and/or the role that those Scriptures might play in contemporary moral discourse. This is certainly a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, many of the pieces in the book make a contribution to the study of ethics and the Hebrew Scriptures, and so are worth the attention of those with an interest in the field.

Andrew Sloane, Morling Theological College