Academic journal article Shofar

Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms, by Laurance Wieder

Academic journal article Shofar

Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms, by Laurance Wieder

Article excerpt

Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2003. 2003. 186 pp. $25.00.

What is the best way to interpret a sacred text? That question has baffled religious people for over two millennia. Answers have varied from simple (peshat) to complex (derash), from a literal reading to a sensus plenoir. When historical analysis brought embarrassment over explicit details or appeared trite, an allegorical interpretation either removed the offense or invested the text with profound meaning. Readers' interests have governed the specifics of interprettation, whether theological, literary, or historical.

The book of Psalms differs from much of the Bible in that it presents discourse from below, as it were. Like wisdom literature, this book arises from human analysis of reality rather than purporting to give a voice to the divine. Human laments and praise rise to the deity in Psalms, whereas the Bible usually has God address humans with command, challenge, and rebuke. Medieval Jewish interpreters struggled with this problem, some even venturing to label Psalms divine prophecy.

Regardless of how one decides to interpret a canonical text, the task consists of providing an adequate translation. Once again various modes of accomplishing this difficult task present themselves, stretching from the literal to paraphrase. Whether one chooses to let the language of the text dictate the content of the translation, as in formal correspondence, or to favor modern diction, as in dynamic equivalence, crossing the border that separates one language from another is no easy endeavor. Imagine, then, the added difficulty of trying to substitute a new poem for an ancient one, and then multiply that by one hundred and fifty. That is precisely what Laurance Wieder set out to accomplish. Small wonder he is just the third person to undertake such a daunting task.

Wieder understands his poetry as illumination of the ancient text, not its replacement. To prepare for this work, he immersed himself in the Hebrew text and in earlier attempts to put words to God's music. I am not sure where he got the title, but it evokes for me the majestic Psalm 19, with its allusion to celestial music. The probability that the first half of this psalm derives from Canaanite solar worship merely underlines its universal message.

The tone of the book is reverential, perhaps granting too much to Talmudic tradition about the sweet singer of Israel. Surely the claim that David came closer to being perfect in God's eyes than anyone else shortchanges Job, who received exceptional praise, at least in the prose. …

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