Psalms as Torah, and Torah as Instruction

I’m cringing right now, bracing myself for the shock and awe that’s about to be hurled towards me when I make this confession: I hate the psalms.  I can’t stand them.  I must be the only person in history who feels this way, for all of the praise these songs seem to accrue.

I think it was Luther who called the Psalter the “book of all Saints”, and the book was once such a large part of everyday life that people made allusions to psalms in their daily speech.  There have been many different ways of interpreting the psalms over the centuries, from allegorical to historical-critical to form-critical to canonical.  For most of the past century, historical-critical methods have ruled the day; this means that scholars try to figure out who wrote each writing, trying to find the specific context of the writing in order to understand it better.  This is pretty much impossible with most books, but I’d say especially with the psalms, and it leads to a very individualized view of the psalms – the view that I grew up with.  The basic idea is that the Psalter is a collection of individual poems or songs or laments by individual authors (often simply attributed to David), and represent a personal expression of a personal faith in a personal God – exemplifying the personal relationship I’m supposed to have with God.

Here’s the problem: I do not relate to 98% of the psalms.  That means that, out of 150 psalms, I relate to three of them (or so).  I find half of them to be whiny (and I used to be incredibly emo!) and the rest to be quite touchy-feely (and I’m a Spirit-filled pentecostal!).  You’d think psalms would be right up my alley, but as far as personal expression of a relationship with God goes, they seem to be incredibly over-the-top and unrealistic (I always preferred Ecclesiastes).

Suffice it to say I had plenty of reasons to be pleased this week to write a summary of A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms by J. Clinton McCann, Jr. for my Hebrew Poetry class.  The basic premise of his introduction to the psalms is that they should be recognized as what they really are: torah, or instruction.  They are directly linked to the 5 books of Moses in the introduction (psalm 1 and 2) and throughout the entire collection; even structurally, they are divided into 5 books.  If the Psalms are actually instruction, then I guess they’re not saying that I need to feel the same things that they speak about, but merely that these prayers and praises are instructional about how to praise and pray.  They reveal a lot about the identity of God and the identity of human beings, as well as the appropriate responses and interactions between the two.  They also show a lot about the cult practices of Israel, which gives us a window into the religious life of Jesus and his ancestors.

So I’m enjoying the psalms a bit more now, which is great because I’ll spend the rest of the semester translating a few of them (1 and 2 today).  Also, they’re more interesting to read in Hebrew (though quite difficult – stupid hapax legomena!).  And speaking of Hebrew, I want to make a point about torah before I start watching Lost (I finally got into it): torah does not mean “law”!  It does in a sense, but not in the sense that we use for the term “law”.  It actually means “instruction”, and is not a code of law at all.  We run into trouble when we look back to the Septuagint and see that it translates “torah” into “nomos”, the greek term for “law” almost every single time.  Because of this, we see it come up all over the place in the New Testament, because at that point in history the Septuagint was the Bible they used.

The Hebrew rendition of “law” comes from torah, which means instruction: the Law of Israel comes from the instructions of God.  The Greek termm for “law” comes from nomos, which basically means “customs” or “how we do things” – and thus it is a social construction (much like the rules of the Pharisees).  So the next time you read Paul, remember that he’s contrasting a few different types of “law”: the Law from God (torah) and rules made up by men (nomos), both of which are spelled nomos in Greek!  He plays with the word throughout his writings, particularly in Romans and Galatians.

So for all you legalists out there, remember that instructions are not an inflexible code of law.  And for all of you touchy-feely folks out there who love the psalms: don’t be haters, I’ll get there someday.  And don’t just empathize with the emo-kids who wrote them; learn something from it!

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2 thoughts on “Psalms as Torah, and Torah as Instruction

  1. I have been struggling with the Psalms in a different way. They have been the prayer-book of Jews and Christians for millenia, but I am unsure of how to appropriate them for my own use in prayer. Can I really project the Psalmist’s very real times of trouble (assuming the Psalmist was truly beset by enemies and not speaking metaphorically) onto my own struggles and frustration with workload?

    Perhaps I should consider their form more than their content?

    • Exactly. No matter how crappy I feel, I can’t compare myself to being on the run from a tyrant or being exiled and seeing my family killed. Perhaps most of the world can, and I’m just too privileged; I’ve often felt that I’d understand my faith more if I was persecuted somehow (though I don’t seek it).

      Today in Contemporary Christian Theology we talked about feminist theologies and the issues surrounding gender, including stereotypes that women are more emotional while men are more logical or unfeeling, and how our churches (at least the evangelical ones these days) use a lot of touchy-feely, “feminine” images and metaphors for faith, which is countered by the macho machismo and warfare imagery of “Wild at Heart” and the like, both of which are represented in the psalms; but I don’t identify very well with either of those.

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