Savoring the Psalms in a Postmodern Context

Suffering-DavidGrowing up, I was taught to think that the Psalms were all written by King David and given to us as light devotional reading that we should perhaps begin or end our personal time of Bible study with. I was taught that God so inspired David to write these songs and poems that though they were immediately applicable to his unique circumstances, they’re also relevant to each individual reader now, thousands of years later.

The problem with this is that historical-critical studies of the Bible demonstrate this model to be simply unverifiable and at least partially untrue. In studying ancient religious texts, we must remember that hardly anything is cut and dried; almost everything is extremely nuanced. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Deluge were ancient Near Eastern flood myths that came much earlier than the narrative of Noah in Genesis 6-9, which shows a heavy dependence on these texts. Similarly, laws and codes given in the Torah demonstrate a dependence on the form of Hittite legal contracts, the style of Proverbs was appropriated from older Egyptian documents and Paul used the Hellenistic form of letter composition to craft his epistles.

Dating the Psalms is very difficult and most scholars assume the range of composition to be extremely wide. Since extrabiblical material on the historical David is scarce, no hypothesis can truly be confirmed, however the notion that David wrote the Psalms is centered around a much later tradition and are largely considered pseudipigraphical. Interestingly, the reason many Psalms are essentially impossible to date with much certainty is precisely the reason why they made the canon in the first place. The compilers of the Tanak selected Psalms using a rubric of how dynamic they were. In other words, for Psalms to be included into the Bible, they must have the ability to be used in many different liturgical (worship), historical, cultural settings. This is not odd, in fact, it is strikingly similar to how the Christian New Testament was canonized.

Now, many Christians, especially conservatives, often choose not to engage in what is called higher biblical criticism, which seeks to determine the sources the biblical writers pulled from to create the canon. I understand this position quite well and frankly, it makes a lot of sense. Conservatives often consider the Bible above human criticism, as it is the infallible, inerrant, perfect Word of God. Thus, approaching the Bible with a hermeneutic of suspicion is disrespectful to the scriptures.

I honestly wish to be charitable to this position because I spent many years under its influence, but, as you might guess, I ardently disagree with it. I think it allows superstition to pervade scriptures, fossilizes vibrant narratives and ideas into dusty unreadable religious stuff, and most of all, forces its adherents to rigidly assume an all or nothing faith based on modern yet anti-intellectual presuppositions about history and science.

I mean honestly, so what if Moses didn’t write the first five books?

So what if David didn’t write the Psalms and Isaiah didn’t write much of Isaiah?

Perhaps these questions are hills to die on for you, but I’d rather follow where the evidence leads. After all, even if God did inspire the writing of the Bible, aren’t they still at least the words of humans? Would it not be poor stewardship and irresponsible scholarship for us to simply take a library of documents, written, compiled and edited by hundreds of brilliant minds, developed over millennia at face value without critical inquiries into where, why, how, when it came about?

I would suggest to you that the Bible has much more to teach us then it has been allowed to. What is there to be afraid of? E.Y. Mullins, (a Southern Baptist!) believed in firm faith and free research. If we let go of our rigid assumptions about the Bible, we might find that we enjoy reading it a hell of a lot more. I certainly do.

Now, the reason this is important in regards to the Psalms is this:

Around the exilic period (c. 586-539 BCE), the Psalms were arranged into the order we now find them in. They are organized into five books or sections, which symbolically correspond to the five books of Moses, which are also compiled during this time. To put it simply, the Psalter is essentially the liturgical partner for the Torah. The Psalms are relevant in a variety of settings because they were fashioned to be that way. Psalm 51, for example, has the superscript above it denoting that it was written by David concerning the Bathsheba situation (again, very unlikely), however the Psalm itself functions in an expansive variety of religious contexts. It is used by my Roman Catholic friends at every Ash Wednesday service, it has been adapted into countless songs and I often find myself praying for a new heart. This is all good.

So, all this to say, the Psalms were meant to be open. They were meant to be struggled with, questioned, appropriated. It is the hope of the Psalter to find relevance to each readers’ unique situation, in keeping with the rabbinic tradition of interpretive plasticity.

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