Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms – Book Review
John F. Craghan
JSOT Supplement Series 218. Sheffield, UK: Academic Press, 1999. Pp. 231. Cloth, $57.50.
This work focuses on the role that genre should play in the present post-Gunkel period of Psalms scholarship. For the great German scholar genre encompassed certain thoughts and moods, a specific linguistic form, and a common setting in life. While Gunkel regarded himself as more a historian of ancient Israelite religion, modern scholars like C. Westermann and W. Brueggemann evince more theological interests. Indeed, Westermann has de-emphasized the link between form and life setting and has accentuated the relationship between the larger theological categories of praise (both descriptive and declarative) and lament. In turn, Brueggemann employs Westermann’s interaction of praise and lament and constructs a threefold schema of orientation-disorientation-new orientation. In such a schema psalms of descriptive praise are at home in orientation while psalms of declarative praise come under new orientation. Laments capture for Brueggemann the stage of disorientation. Against such a background Harry P. Nasuti considers the “interplay between past and present, namely, the implications of past genre definitions for the current task of genre analysis” (p. 20).
Using the so-called Penitential Psalms of western Christianity (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) as a test case, the author notes that Gunkel objected to seeing all seven psalms as penitential. While certain motifs are indeed a common feature of the individual lament genre, in Gunkel’s view such motifs do not characterize all these psalms as penitential. However, under the aegis of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, medieval commentators discovered in these psalms a means of ethical struggle against those sins that challenge one’s everyday life. (Both Westermann and Brueggemann retain the designation “penitential psalms.”) Moving away from Gunkel’s concern for institutional setting, Westermann has underlined the setting of Israel’s overall relationship with God. Furthermore, Brueggemann has insisted that function, not literary or structural criteria, should determine the grouping of psalms. The author concludes: “Once one shifts the setting in which these texts are to be seen, one shifts the way one sees the features that these texts have in common” (p. 49).
The lament merits the author’s particular attention. While Gunkel and others perceived the human pain and frustration in such psalms, they limited their focus only to the context of ancient Israel. Modern psalms scholarship, on the other hand, has pursued a retrieval of these psalms in the practice of the modern church. The Holocaust, desperate situations of the world’s oppressed, etc., have provided a new context beyond that of ancient Israel for appreciating the lament. What is now clear is the understanding of the relationship between text and context. As a control against an overly individualistic appropriation of the text, the author correctly notes such factors as community, tradition, and canon.
In discussing the power of genre, Nasuti offers a viable critique of Brueggemann. Observing the other social settings of the text, the author shows that the history of interpretation indicates that the same psalm has belonged to different genres at various times. Whereas for Brueggemann Psalm 117, psalm of descriptive praise, reflects the status quo with its characteristic way of portraying Yahweh, indeed becoming a conventional slogan, Nasuti points out the use of this psalm as part of the Egyptian Hallel in the standard Passover Haggadah. Far from being a conventional slogan, “it is instead a classic celebration of victory over slavery and oppression” (p. 95). The weakness in Brueggemann’s argument is the implication that the original function of a psalm remains prescriptive for its later use. For Nasuti all of the psalm genres can be used in various ways depending on the setting of the one using them. Hence use and function ultimately constitute genre categories.
In his final chapter Nasuti discusses the parts and the whole, i.e., the canonical shape of the Psalter. He suggests initially that a certain genre analysis has been built into the Psalter. He cites G. H. Wilson’s view that the Psalter in its final form is a book to be read rather than performed. He contrasts this with Brueggemann’s opinion that Psalm 73 challenges the overly simplistic world envisioned in Psalm 1. Hence the movement in the final form of the Psalter is of hesed doubted (Psalm 1) to hesed trusted (Psalm 73). At this juncture Nasuti shows that the various psalms have their setting not only in the literary context of the Psalter but also in the lives of believers. Presenting the views of G. Sheppard (David as model of prayer), J. L. Mays (torah-piety as setting in life), and J. C. McCann (the Psalter as catechism), Nasuti insists on a genre shift from the Psalter’s final shape to the settings of subsequent users of the psalms. He concludes: “The book as a whole is capable of more than one genre definition because the texts within it cannot be restricted to one `function'” (p. 192). He substantiates this position, in part, by noting the Hebrew title of this biblical book: viz., the psalms as praises of God.
The merit of this study is the force of the author’s argument for a more expansive definition of the task of genre analysis. Unless one breaks away from Gunkel’s focus on institutional setting, one cannot understand individual texts in relation to other texts. Nasuti makes a good case not only for the descriptive task of genre analysis but also for its constructive task. Hence one must make a judgment about which elements of the text must be brought into conversation with similar elements of other texts. To conclude, the author has mapped out a viable course for ongoing psalms scholarship.
John F. Craghan
St. Norbert College
De Pere, WI 54115
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