In recent weeks I have finally been able to dig into James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), which I purchased earlier this year. In his chapter on “The Psalms of David,” Kugel discusses the general, “one-size-fits-all” composition of many of the Psalms, which according to the general consensus of form-critical research may be ascribed to its use as Israel’s cultic poetry, both communal and private. In this connection, Kugel comments on what is undoubtedly one of the more regrettable byproducts of these generalities in composition. He says:
“Such a hypothesis, scholars noticed, seemed to fit well with a rather striking feature of the Psalms, their lack of specificity. For example, a great many psalms . . . speak of ‘my enemies’ or ‘my foes,’ but they rarely say anything more specific. Personally, if I had my own thirty seconds to stand directly before God and discuss my enemies, I would not beat around the bush: ‘Punish N_______,’ I would say to Him, mentioning by name a certain prolific but misguided student of rabbinic Judaism; or “Squash W_______,’ I would urge, referring to someone who has had the temerity to disagree with some of my ideas about biblical poetry. On the contrary, they are full of metaphors that could apply too almost anyone—‘roaring lions’ threaten the Psalmist or ‘bulls of Bashan’ surround him; he overcomes snakes and panthers, jumps over traps that have been dug for him, and escapes snares that have been spread out for him. And it is not just a matter of enemies. The psalmist begs to be saved from the underworld, Sheol, the gates of death, and so forth—but he almost never gets around to saying what’s wrong with him or even what makes him think such danger is imminent. It seems to scholars, therefore, that the great variety of psalms in the Psalter on the one hand, and their somewhat vague language on the other, derive from the balancing of two contrary tendencies. A psalm had to be somewhat individualized, reflecting the specific occasion that had brought a person to the temple; so there had to be a lot of them. On the other hand, such psalms could not be overly specific, since they had to be used again and again for a multitude of different worshipers, each of whose circumstances would be somewhat different” (page 464).
Needless to say, half the fun in reading the above paragraph is filling in the blanks in Kugel’s text. The other half is coming up with one’s own blanks to replace Kugel’s cries for divine punishment and squashing and so remedy this lamentable deficiency in the Psalms. So, for instance, in my own thirty seconds before Divine Justice, I would say “Punish G______,” whose embarrassingly shoddy lexical “scholarship” and crypto-heretical triadology surely demand vengeance from heaven; or “Squash C_______,” who in his utterly narcissistic madness has raised up his heel against the Infallible One.
You know, come to think of it, it was probably better that it was up neither to Kugel nor to myself to write the Psalms.
Returning to the matter of the “lack of specificity” in the Psalms and how this feature enabled the Psalter to serve a wide range of purposes in Israel’s cultic life, Kugel’s paragraph quoted above reminded me of a very interesting document I found a few years ago. Recognizing the versatility of the Psalter, and much in the vein that Kugel describes above, a modern Greek elder, St Arsenios of Cappadocia (1840-1924), prepared a list of possible uses of the Psalms as blessings and prayers for various needs when the liturgical books fail to include an appropriate text for a specific occasion. The listing is available in English from the St Pachomius Library. I take the liberty to quote below the editor’s note, which helpfully puts St Arsenios’ list in context.
Saint Arsenios used to use the Psalms for blessings, especially when there was no prescribed blessing for a particular occasion. . . .
Apart from all religious considerations, this “Book of Needs” is a fascinating portrait of village life in Anatolia at the beginning of the Twentieth Century: whether it reflects more the “longue duree” of Byzantine history or the particular difficulties of St. Arsenios’ time we do not feel well enough informed even to speculate. There is certainly no idealization of rural conditions here: particularly noteworthy is the extreme concern for alleviating psychological as well as physical pain, and the mention of what we would nowadays call “post-traumatic stress disorder”.
To us, at least, the exact reasoning behind the saint’s choice of a particular psalm for a given need is not always obvious; perhaps this is by design, to encourage close reflection on the words. Orthodoxy is not magic, and a document like this one is not an endorsement of “peasant superstition”; it is rather a channel through which the Love of God can enter into every aspect of human society.