Friday, March 07, 2008

Alter on the Psalter

It's Friday afternoon. Michele and I are home from the hospital, and she's sleeping off the anesthesia from this morning. (See previous post for details).

So while I sat in the waiting room, I read the "Introduction" to Robert Alter's new translation and commentary on The Book of Psalms. A couple months ago, I did a post about some of Alter's previous work, and some of the buzz about this latest book. You can read my earlier post here.
I've been toying with the idea of writing a review of Alter's latest. Just thinking about possible titles makes me smile. Alas, someone beat me to the punch on "Altering the Psalms" (the title that showed up in the journal "First Things"). Alter doesn't think terms like "sin" and "salvation" and "soul" belong in a translation of the Psalms. For reasons I might eventually talk about, he prefers Alter-natives like "crime" and "rescue" and "life." So what do you think about this title? "No Sin, No Soul, Nor Salvation in the Psalter: What Demon Hath Possessed Poor Robert Alter?" I know, too many words, and just a little on the sappy side. Darn. Anyway, here are some of the highlights from the "Introduction":

Alter starts out with "Historical Contexts" of the Book of Psalms. So many millions of people around the world and across the ages have read and cherished the Book of Psalms. It has become their book, our book. So it might be easy to forget that the Psalms are "intricately rooted in an ancient Near Eastern world that goes back to the late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE) and that in certain respects is quite alien to modern people."

What was so different about that world? For one thing, just as modern Christians aren't the only ones who write religious music, the ancient Israelites weren't the only people who wrote psalms. Egyptians, Canaanites, and people living in Mesopotamia wrote psalm-like "cultic hymns and celebrations of the gods." Many of the biblical psalms are later than, and are sometimes quite similar to, their international counterparts.

These kinds of observations aren't new. And it doesn't seem that Alter intends them to be unsettling. However, I do know that sometimes believers assume that since the Bible is supposed to be unique among the books of the world, the writers couldn't have gotten their ideas from anywhere but heaven. (Such believers, I've noticed, also struggle with the idea that although he was more than a man, Jesus was a man). Often, when people read non-biblical literature that comes from the biblical period, they are surprised to find out how similar the Bible was to other books of the time. But a little further reflection suggests that we really shouldn't be surprised. After all, almost everywhere he went God-in-the-flesh walked. (I know, one time he did his walking on water. But the point is, Jesus didn't get around by hovering).

Regarding specific dates Alter thinks that "a few of the psalms might be as early as the Solomonic court, or even the pre-monarchic period. Many of these poems appear to have been written at some indeterminate point during the four centuries of the First Commonwealth (approximately 996 to 586 BCE). Many others offer evidence in their themes and language of composition in the period of the Return to Zion (that is, after 457 BCE)." This seems pretty standard.

One thing I especially liked about this first part of the "Introduction": Alter weighs in, and judiciously I think, on (1) the supposed cultic background to most of the psalms, and also on (2) the approach called Form Criticism.

Regarding the "cultic" (i.e., ritual worship) approach to the psalms often associated with the name Sigmund Mowinckel, Alter acknowledges that some of the psalms "were composed for use in the temple cult." (Again, he means worship at the temple). But, he adds: "What should be resisted is the inclination of many scholars, beginning in the early twentieth century, to turn as many psalms as possible into the liturgy of conjectured temple rites--to recover what in biblical studies is called the 'life-setting' of the psalms." I agree.

And when it comes to Form Criticism, most often associated with the name Hermann Gunkel, Alter insists that we must recognize its limited usefulness. This is the approach "that identifies distinct genres of psalms (supplication, thanksgiving, Wisdom psalm, royal psalm, historical psalm, Zion psalm, psalm of praise). Though these generic categories are sometimes useful for understanding the thrust of a particular text , there is more fluidity of genre than they allow, with many psalms being hybrids or switching genre in mid-course and at least a few psalms, such as Psalm 137, standing outside the system of genre." Once again, I think this is a fair critique, and well said.

Maybe I'll write more about the "Introduction" another time. But now I'm curious: Do you have a favorite psalm? Which ones have meant the most to you? Why?


Anonymous said...

I sang in the school choir and in the 7th grade we sang the 150th psalm. In public school, no less. Anyway, my parents weren't Christians and I had little exposure to God. But I was impressed by this song and how it described this praise party full of music for the Lord. I decided that if people felt that way about God, he must be all right. I can still sing some of the tenor part, even though I'm now a baritone. Anyway, the 150th remains my favorite.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.

I hope your loved one recovers swiftly.

preacherman said...

Thanks so much for the book review. The Psalms is one of my favorite books.
In Him,
Kinney Mabry

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

I have enjoyed a number of Alter contributions in translating the text especially his David Story. I worked through his version of the Psalms late last year and enjoyed it a great deal.

But one of the best and most helpful introductions to the Psalms that I have seen in years is that of John Goldingay in his new commentary on Book One of the Psalms (he will eventually cover the entire Psalter). This is in the Baker series Commentary on Old Testament Wisdom and Poetry. It is a near magisterial work.

Seeking Shalom,
Bobby Valentine

Darin L. Hamm said...

I'm looking forward to more thoughts on the book.

preacherman said...

Would it be a good book to use for a Bible class a church?

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks for your reactions, comments, etc.

To answer your question, Preacherman: No, I don't think Alter would be a good choice for a church class. The "Introduction" is not for everyone. It CAN be read by someone with a good classical education and/or college course work in Old Testament studies. Others would likely feel lost.

In the translation and commentary, Alter frequently includes transliterations of Hebrew words. In that way, it sort of stands in between a popular-level commentary and a technical, academic commentary.

Also, the translation is such a break from the tradition of the Psalter in English that unless a person understands what Alter is trying to do, it will probably just sound strange, at best, or heresy, at worst.

So where does this book belong? It belongs on the preacher's shelf. I think this book can serve to keep Christian preachers from over-spiritualizing the Psalms, or from reading a Christian message from them, too easily (that is, without acknowledging what the Psalms originally said and meant).

One thing that I really like about this book is that Alter is all about the literature of the Psalms. Not that being about the theology is bad. But when it comes to looking at the language of the Psalms, Alter doesn't have a horse in the race of theology. (However, I don't think he's quite as dispassionate as he apparently wants to be. And maybe I'll talk about that in a future post).

preacherman said...

Thank you for letting me know.
I appreciate it.
I hope you have a wonderful week.
In Him,
Kinney Mabry

Kirk said...

If you want a good book on the Psalms, try "Christ in the Psalms" by Patrick Henry Reardon.

If you are looking for a good translation of the Psalms, there is a new translation from the Greek Septuagint, which was the text quoted by Christ in the New Testament. The new translation can be found in the new Orthodox Study Bible, printed by Thomas Nelson Publishing.

God bless,