A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath

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A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. By Erich Zenger. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996, xi + 104 pp., $13.00 paper.

The long-standing question of the imprecations in the psalms merits sustained and careful reflection. One welcomes, therefore, this new study from the Professor of Biblical History at the University of Munster. Zenger's thesis is that "the `psalms of enmity' are a way of robbing the aggressive images of the enemies of their destructiveness, and transforming them into constructive forces" (p. vii). He sustains his thesis by setting forth the problem in chap. 1, by exegeting seven relevant texts (Psalms 12, 139, 58, 83, 137, 44, 109, in that order) in chap. 3. His final chapter calls for the reinvigoration of such laments in the liturgical life of the Christian church today.

Zenger aims to challenge the dismissive rejection of the imprecations by highminded liberalism without lapsing into what he calls "fundamentalistic biblicism." His proposal is summarized by pp. 84-85: "[T]he psalms of vengeance participate in the revelatory dynamic of the Bible within different contexts, and exercising different functions . [T]hese psalms confront us with the reality of violence and, especially, with the problem of the perpetrators of this suffering and their condemnation by the judgment of God. In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God's revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last thing left to suffering human beings-as protest, accusation, and cry for help" (emphases his).

Zenger's argument is the most illuminating, in my opinion, when he expounds the theme of divine judgment as the theological substructure of the imprecations in chap. 3. However, the "fundamentalist biblicistic" reader will also encounter not a few theological and hermeneutical infelicities that aid Zenger's argument in no material way but only detract from the strengths of the book.

Zenger could have nuanced his position by lingering longer over the personal dimension of the imprecations, which, it seems to me, is their most striking feature. …