On the Regrettable Generalities of the Psalms

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 forthbut 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.


10 responses to “On the Regrettable Generalities of the Psalms

  1. Very nice post! I was particularly interested to see Keck’s reference to ‘what we would nowadays call “post-traumatic stress disorder”’, which made me go back and re-read some of the needs St Arsenios lists.


  2. John> Reading your post made me bemoan the fact that, in all likelihood, I’ll never be in a position to attend International SBL! But I’ll see you in New Orleans, yes?

    Aaron> Thank you! That same reference caught my eye, and it too lead me to revisit St Arsenios’ list in detail. I think I should do that more often — perhaps I can keep these suggested applications in mind as I read the Psalms.

    Kevin> Yes, that much was clear! Sadly, I haven’t been able to figure out who “W_____” is. Any ideas? Anyway, I found this bit amusing in the extreme.


  3. See this post and comments at Mississippi Fred Macdowell’s On the Mainline: “James Kugel on Neusner, or Neusner Knives II: When knives are turned back at ‘a certain prolific but misguided student of rabbinic Judaism’

    The suggestion is made that ” W____” is Wilfred Watson. That would make sense.

    Humor is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. I don’t find it humorous, nor do I think Neusner does. Nor do I really think Kugel does.


  4. Esteban,

    Kugel had Wilfred Watson in mind, with respect to Kugel’s (idiosyncratic) ideas about ancient Hebrew poetry. Watson is the author of not one but two thick volumes on classical Hebrew poetry. Watson lucidly and persuasively dissed Kugel’s approach in Biblica 64 (1983) 134-36 and again, in JSOT 28 (1984) 89-98.

    I suppose I should post on this.

    To be clear, I’m not especially happy with either Kugel’s or Watson’s approach to Hebrew poetry. Alter, Berlin, and Fokkelman’s introductions, on the other hand, are better, each in their own way.


  5. Thanks for filling in the second blank, Kevin and John!

    Kevin> Well, I have a really hard time believing that Kugel is literally calling down divine punishment on Neusner and Watson on account of their academic rivalry. I think he just made a humorous use of this same rivalry to illustrate his point, also taking the chance to take a shot at each of them. I mean, heaven knows that in spite of my visceral dislike for Grudem and Caragounis, I wasn’t seriously calling down judgement upon them in this post! ;-)

    John> Thanks for the pointers. This is, in fact, the first book by Kugel I have read, and I’m not up on the debates on the nature of Hebrew poetry. My reading in that particular area has been restricted to Alter and, more recently, Meynet.


  6. Well, yes, Esteban, he didn’t say that he was doing so, but he clearly labeled them “my enemies.” What kind of thing is that to say? That’s not funny in the least. It shouldn’t have been said, much less printed.

    Fortunately, Neusner gives as good as (and better than) he gets!


  7. Pingback: Bad Boy Bible Study meets Ship of Fools | lingamish

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