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  • Seeing the Psalms, A Theology of Metaphor
  • Frederick E. Greenspahn
Seeing the Psalms, A Theology of Metaphor, by William P. Brown. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. 274 pp. $24.95.

The rich poetry of the Psalter has been widely studied and its many metaphors, which constitute the topic of this book, identified and explored. However, they are usually treated as isolated vocabulary items. Instead, this book examines the metaphors themselves, and not just the words with which they are expressed. The result, as suggested by its subtitle, is a study of the phenomenon of metaphor within the Psalter as a whole. [End Page 162]

The reason for doing this is clear from the author's description of the Psalter as "the theological center of the Old Testament"; he even calls it "the Romans of the Old Testament" (p. 1). One might question the appropriateness of those titles, but there need be no argument about the value of this approach, which yields numerous insights into an important dimension of this biblical book as well as the nature of Israelite religion.

The decision to treat the Psalter as a whole is particularly intriguing. It is, after all, among the most obviously composite of biblical books. To be sure, holistic approaches have become prevalent in recent biblical studies, with the discovery of texts from Psalms among the Dead Sea Scrolls stimulating sustained attention to the book's overall structure. Still, everything from its superscriptions to Gunkel's form critical categories leads naturally in the direction of looking at each psalm individually. Considering the book's more comprehensive theology is, therefore, in some ways a novel idea.

Each chapter explores an individual metaphor. Many of these center around specific psalms, most notably 1, 19, 42, and 139. Among the images treated here are refuge, pathway, tree, sin and law, and water. There is also a chapter devoted to animal imagery and another to the images applied to God. The theological references are divided into several sub-categories; these include anatomical images, emotional traits, specific roles (king, warrior, parent, and teacher), light, shield, mountain, fountain, and portion or cup. Through all of this, the author's observations are enriched by extensive illustrations, taken mostly from ancient Near Eastern statuary and pictures.

The rich possibilities which emerge from this approach can be illustrated by noting the remarkably diverse byways into which these topics lead. For example, chapter 3 is devoted to "The Transplanted Tree" that is mentioned in the first psalm. After noting the relationship of that metaphor to the concept of Torah, the author proceeds to examine the concepts of the tree of life and then of kingship. From these, he turns to the patriarchs' use of trees for worship and then the prohibition of that practice in Deuteronomy. From there, it is not a big step to discuss the role of Asherah. This entire journey is accompanied by numerous pictures of tree images from the ancient Near East. The other topics covered in this book receive similarly elaborate explorations.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the unexpected productiveness of this approach makes one wish that it had been extended even further, with greater attention to how these images are used in other parts of the Bible, particularly the prophets, although those books are scarcely ignored. However, full-blown treatment of that sort would have involved the author in a project somewhat different from the one he set out for himself. This reader's wish for more may simply be testimony to how rewarding the project that is undertaken here has turned out to be. Perhaps, like knowing when not to ask for dessert, it would be best to digest what is before us rather than eating more than can be absorbed at a single sitting.

In any event, this book provides a powerful demonstration of the possibilities created by taking a new approach to an old topic—using the Psalter's imagery as a [End Page 163] vehicle for understanding the underlying message to which it is devoted as a whole. In that endeavor, the author has succeeded remarkably well in laying the groundwork for developing the theology of metaphor that his subtitle suggests was...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 162-164
Launched on MUSE
2005-01-06
Open Access
No
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