Court Oracles in the Psalms: The So-Called Royal Psalms in Their Ancient near Eastern Context

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Court Oracles in the Psalms: The So-Called Royal Psalms in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context, by Scott R. A. Starbuck. SUDS 172. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999. Pp. xx + 271. $37.00.

Scott R. A. Starbuck wrote this monograph originally as his doctoral thesis under the direction of J. J. M. Roberts at Princeton Theological Seminary. Starbuck's primary goal is to determine "the theological contribution made by the royal psalms to ancient Israel's theological-anthropology" (p. 1). He argues that this subject merits a fresh investigation because, despite intense research by scholars such as H. Gunkel and S. Mowinckel, fundamental questions persist. For example, it is uncertain whether the royal psalms as they appear in the Psalter were composed as court liturgies or as messianic psalms in the post-monarchical era. Starbuck recognizes the import of such questions for current attempts to establish the literary and theological shape of the Psalter, and he attempts to contribute to such work by establishing criteria for judging the Sitze im Leben of the royal psalms. In that effort Starbuck retraces the steps of previous scholars methodologically in two respects: (1) he treats these psalms by comparing them to analogous Sumero-Akkadian, Egyptian, and Hittite material; and (2) he limits his investigation to psalms almost all commentators identify as royal (Pss 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 110, 132, 144).

After a brief introductory chapter, Starbuck lays the groundwork for his investigation by selectively reviewing past research on the royal psalms. Three shortcomings in previous work give impetus to his study: (1) "royal psalm" is such a vague label that one can say little more than, "What they have in common is only that they deal with the king" (C. Westermann, Ausgewahlte Psalmen [G6ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984], 48; quoted in German on p. 37); (2) many studies of the royal psalms have assigned, somewhat tenuously, cultic functions to these works (Mowinckel and members of the Myth and Ritual school are primary culprits); and (3) past comparisons of biblical royal psalms to other ancient Near Eastern material have overlooked the essential fact that the royal psalms never name a particular king.

In chapter 2 Starbuck builds on his observation that the royal psalms do not contain regnal names. He shows that the identification of specific monarchs was a key part of the promulgation of royal prayers in the ancient Near East. Indeed, many were composed for public display on temple walls and stelae. This fact makes the absence of such names in the biblical royal psalms quite conspicuous. Starbuck explores the possibility that the lack of identity with specific kings is due to the psalms' reuse in the cult. However, the evidence (though minimal) does not suggest that monarchs borrowed liturgies from their predecessors. On the contrary, the exclusive identification of a poem with a particular king was essential for that king's propaganda. Therefore, it is puzzling that the royal psalms on the one hand do not name the king, but on the other hand maintain references to the monarch. Starbuck concludes that regnal names were originally part of the royal psalms, but they were removed to transform these works into poems "whose concern is the institution of Israelite kingship. …