Review of R.L. Foster and D.M. Howard, My Words are Lovely

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

Robert L. Foster and David M. Howard (eds.), My Words Are Lovely: Studies in the Rhetoric of the Psalms. (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 467; New York, London: T & T Clark, 2008). Pp. 240. US$140, Can$175, £65. ISBN 978-0-567-02653-8.

In this thought-provoking collection, Robert Foster and David Howard present thirteen essays focusing on rhetorical analysis of the Psalms. The compilation grew out of a joint session of the Psalms Section and Wisdom in Israelite and Cognate Traditions Section of the 2003 SBL Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. The primary objective of the book is “to recapture what has been central to the study of rhetoric since at least the time of Aristotle, namely, a focus on the means of persuasion in a discourse” (p. i). Thus, the contributors aim to redress the tendency in some poetic and rhetorical analysis to focus only on stylistic concerns. This is accomplished in the first half of the book by addressing theoretical and thematic aspects of Psalms rhetoric and in the second half by a number of case studies applying various rhetorical strategies to specific psalms.

In his essay “‘The Altar of Certitude’: Reflections on ‘Setting’ and Rhetorical Interpretation of the Psalms,” Rolf Jacobson points out that the rhetorical powers of a speaker are never abstract, but always operational within a context, the “rhetorical situation” or “setting.” Given the indeterminate nature of setting in many Psalms, Jacobson presents a concise overview of the historical, theological, and canonical methodologies for approaching the issue and then posits that the interpreter's understanding of setting in part determines the resulting interpretation. He uses Psalm 4 as a test case, examining only two of the possible options: a forensic worship setting and a liturgical setting. The result is what Jacobson deems to be two equally tenable interpretations, neither of which is assured. Jacobson, rightly pointing out the larger context of the illusive multivalency of all language and the fact that interpretation is in itself a rhetorical act, concludes that although certainty is unattainable, differing interpretations can mutually inform each other.

“Persuading the One and Only God to Intervene,” by Dale Patrick and Kenneth Diable, is a study of the impact of monotheistic Yahwism on the rhetoric of lament. Since Yhwh is the One God, and he alone wields divine power, there is no possibility of deferring to other deities for aid or justice; the rhetoric of persuasion must be directed to Yhwh alone. Patrick and Diable then proceed to analyze how the specific rhetoric of complaint in individual laments serves to persuade. They consider the interplay of factors such as confession, piety, and freedom on the part of the lamenters with the pity, majesty, and honour of Yhwh, and conclude with an interesting comparison of persuasion and manipulation.

In her thought-provoking essay “Rapid Change of Mood: Oracles of Salvation, Certainty of a Hearing, or Rhetorical Play?” LeAnn Snow Flesher challenges traditional assumptions about the nature of the sudden change in many psalms from lament to confidence or praise. Pointing out that lament may be primarily intended to change the heart of God rather than merely the heart of the petitioner, she argues that the change in mood may not be due to a hypothetical oracle or psychological transformation, but rather to the rhetorical strategy of the supplicant. The statements of trust and praise may present “what should be” rather than “what is” and serve as motivations for God to act. Thus, rhetorical analysis adds new insights to form-critical, tradition-historical, and theological approaches.

J. Kenneth Kuntz gives a detailed overview of the role of faunal metaphor and simile in “Growling Dogs and Thirsty Deer: Uses of Animal Imagery in Psalmic Rhetoric.” Concurring with Northrop Frye that imagery is essential, not incidental, to thought and communication, Kuntz sheds light on how the interaction of tenor and vehicle enhance the portrayal of individual and community, suppliant and benefactor in the psalms.

In “‘Night to Night’, ‘Deep to Deep’: The Discourse of Creation in the Psalms,” William P. Brown examines two of the more subtle examples of the discursive voice of creation itself, Psalm 19 and Psalm 42. Following an overview of creation's singing, groaning, roaring, and rejoicing, Brown briefly considers the enigmatic use of קַוָּם or ‘lines’ in 19:5 and suggests that it is a visual image of creation's verbal discourse. He then moves to the curious expression “deep calls to deep” in 42:8, challenging the common interpretation of the phrase as expressive of chaos and death. In an analysis that is convincing and in itself rhetorically adept, Brown concludes that “the discourse of the deep is not so much didactic as it is liturgical” (p. 73) and resounds with the mysterium fascinans et tremendum.

Robert L. Foster advocates a reclassification of genres based on persuasive categories in “Topoi of Praise in the Call to Praise Psalms: Toward a Theology of the Book of Psalms.” He identifies those psalms intended to persuade a human audience as “proclamations” and those intended to persuade the deity as “prayers.” His focus in this essay is a sub-category within proclamations: the “Call to Praise” psalms, in which the people are addressed rather than Yhwh himself. Foster analyzes a number of these psalms in order to identify what other related topoi the psalmist uses within them to support this purpose and persuade the audience to respond, giving special attention to the metaphor of the “reign of Yhwh.” Foster concludes by suggesting that the concentration of the rhetorical conventions of the Call to Praise psalms in Book 5 affects the reading of the entire Psalter.

Johan H. Coetzee admits in his introduction to “‘Yet Thou Hast Made Him Little Less than God’: Reading Psalm 8 from a Bodily Perspective” that his emphasis is not on rhetorical persuasion, but on how the human body acts as the source of embodied, imaginative meaning. The article is interesting from a cognitive psychological perspective, illustrating, for example, how “sensori-motor involvement in the situation brings about joyful ecstatic experience” (p. 105). It begs the question, however, of whether this technical knowledge actually facilitates a rhetorical interpretation of the psalm.

Diane Jacobson's careful rhetorical analysis in “Psalm 33 and the Creation Rhetoric of a Torah Psalm” reveals structure and unity in a psalm often categorized as disjointed. As Jacobson points out, interpreters often “fall into the trap which ensnares the nations themselves. … they fail to see the connection” (p. 113). Her exegesis of the contrasts and progressions in vv. 16-19—between false and true security and from abstract to concrete imagery—is an example that illustrates the potential of poetic rhetoric to persuade the implied audience of the psalm of the connection between cosmic and social order.

Following the methodology of Phyllis Trible, Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, a canonical critic, branches out into rhetorical criticism in “Psalm 44: O God, Why Do You Hide Your Face?” and explores the relationship between the two approaches in the context of this community lament. Interestingly, she notes how words of lament and supplication spoken to God became also the words spoken by God to lamenting communities in subsequent generations, and speculates on how rhetorical impact interacts with the canonical shaping of Scripture.

In “Psalm 88 and the Rhetoric of Lament,” David M. Howard Jr. relocates the focus of rhetoric from an over-emphasis on mere stylistics to the perceived purpose of stylistics: persuasion. Howard differentiates between persuasion of the human audience toward truth and action, which he terms the “external rhetorical function,” and persuasion of the divine audience to act on their behalf, the “internal rhetorical function.” He then challenges form-critical assumptions that downplay the unique aspects of this psalm. Howard argues that, contrary to traditional interpretation, the psalmist does indeed attempt to persuade Yhwh to act, even in this darkest of laments, as the internal and external rhetorical functions balance desolation with hope.

W. H. Bellinger, Jr. explores the ambiguity of rhetorical function in “Psalm 102: Lament and Theology in an Exilic Setting.” Although the poem insists on divine sovereignty, the circumstances of the petitioner do not seem compatible with that sovereignty. After summarizing two different interpretations of the psalm's rhetoric, Bellinger discourages any attempt to resolve the tension in favour of one reading alone. He argues that multiple readings enhance and enrich the reader's understanding of a psalm. Reflections on the canonical context and the theological implications of this ambiguity round out the essay.

The distinctive rhetorical features of the narrative psalms are the focus of “The Rhetoric of Two Narrative Psalms 105 and 106” by Thomas H. Olbricht. The genre and social setting of each psalm is considered before examining their structure and intent. Olbricht draws on both classic rhetoric and form criticism while recognizing the unique theological suppositions of Israel. He argues that, as in classic rhetoric, “lively language” (p. 165) is used in the presentation of Yahweh's acts to demonstrate the virtue of the one acclaimed; however, the focus here is more on actions and structure than on the use of connotative language and imagery.

The compilation ends on an unusual note with “Why is Psalm 147 Still ‘Catchy’?” H. Viviers analyzes in this essay the appeal of a pre-modern psalm to a post-modern audience by using the insights of cognitive psychology. He attributes the allure of “‘catchy’ god-talk” (p. 171) to an innate capacity in humans to make sense of the divine, quite apart from any religious convictions. After a competent overview of the poetic rhetoric of the psalm, Viviers proceeds with a lengthy summary, which occupies the bulk of the essay, of the evolution of a “god concept” in the development of cultures and individuals. His subsequent application of these ideas to the psalm, however, is anticlimactic and serves to undermine the rhetorical power of the previous analysis. Viviers is both clinical and cynical, and one wonders whether he is more interested in using rhetorical criticism to understand the theological concepts expressed in the poem or to debunk them, looking to the day when we evolve beyond the temporary need for “god concepts” (p. 185).

As with all collections of this kind, the essays vary in quality and relevance, but My Words Are Lovely offers a number of insightful and thought-provoking forays into the arena of persuasive rhetoric in the psalms. Several themes are picked up more than once: the rhetoric of persuasion in relation to both human and divine audiences, the inherent ambiguity of rhetorical analysis, and the interaction of rhetorical criticism with other exegetical approaches. Over all, these essays are worthwhile correctives to an inadequate stylistic approach that seeks to view the Psalms merely as “pretty poems.”

Mary L. Conway, McMaster Divinity College