Review: A New Song: Biblical Hebrew Poetry As Jewish And Christian Scripture, Edited By Stephen D. Campbell, Richard G. Rohlfing Jr., And Richard S. Briggs

And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit in these degenerate times of shame,
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame; 1

In general, it is accurate to notice that poetry has fallen on hard times. Amid skyscrapers of glass and steel as monuments to utilitarianism, with A.I. in our devices prophesying a future of ease, the old-growth lumber of poetry, reflective and meditative, struggles to maintain relevance. The disembodied addiction of social media has little patience for the fleshy messiness of poetry. Yet, as old as time, inspired by the pristine wisdom of God, poetry pulses with the heartbeat of humanity and the human experience in life under the sun. For this reason, any work aimed at reinvigorating our understanding and reading of poetry, especially in Scripture, is a welcome contribution; and it is at this target that this new volume sets its sights.

A New Song is a collection of essays arising out of a conference of the same name, held at Ushaw College in Durham, England, in June 2019. The objective of the conference was to explore Hebrew poetic texts for their relevance and benefit for communities of faith in the twenty-first century (1). The conference was both ecumenical and international—the contributors are Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish scholars from England, Ireland, America, Israel, South Africa, and other nations.

The bulk of the essays center on poetry within the Old Testament canon, as it is found in various books. The poetry explored is not limited to the Psalms, but includes Genesis 49, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2, and passages from the prophets Hosea and Isaiah. With specific texts under the microscope, several of the essays are more exegetically focused. John Goldingay’s labors on Genesis 49 provides a translation, the Hebrew text arranged by cola, analysis of poetic devices, and its continued relevance. David Firth walks through Hannah’s prayer and discusses how this poem relates to the surrounding prose narrative. Benjamin Sommer examines Psalms 27 and 114 and discusses the theory of Hebrew prosody. Others have different emphases. C. T. R Hayward traces the liturgical use of the Song of the Sea both in the synagogue and in Catholicism. In her work on Psalms 38, 42, and 43, Ellen Davis considers how art has responded to the artful Psalms, with an emphasis on John Donne’s sermons. Drilling down into how poetry impacts the reader, and how the reader is involved in creating meaning, Yisca Zimran works through passages in Hosea, and Rabbi Shai Held delves into the darkness of Psalm 88. There is also an essay by June F. Dickie on translation and its theory in the context of South Africa among Zulu youth.

These academic essays consume the bulk of the volume—nine out of thirteen chapters. In the second section, however, there is a chapter of newly written poems, and three chapters of responses to the first section of essays. The poems are written by poets who attended the conference (mostly) and are dialoguing with the poetry in Scripture, as art interpreting art. The responses are nice reflections on the conference and the academic contributions.

Since A New Song is an ecumenical volume, the reader will sense the unique perspectives of the various scholars. This is intentional, and it is helpful for the student of biblical poetry to see how it is read and responded to differently. For those of us with Reformed, confessional presuppositions, some positions of the scholars do not harmonize with our high view of inspiration. This is okay though, for it is healthy for us to be exposed to various traditions in order to sharpen and refine our own theology. Additionally, despite the disagreements we may have, there are truths and lessons to be mined from this collection of essays. In particular, three emphases stand out as worthy of mention.

First, the scholars regularly touch on how ambiguity is part of the nature of poetry. The poet, human and divine, intended a certain amount of ambiguity in the images and metaphors of each poem. As lovers of the doctrine of perspicuity, we sometimes fail to allow for the ambiguity of poetry and instead attempt to explain it away. The poetry of Scripture, though, is both subtle and elusive, which can be the secret to both prophecy and application. For prophecy, the cloudy image can be understood in one way in Old Testament history and in another way as it is fulfilled in Christ. In application, the lack of a specific referent leaves the truth of the text open to be applied to the lives of the saints throughout the vicissitudes of church history. As Goldingay remarks, “The answer may be to work with the puzzles and the ambiguities rather than seeking to eliminate them” (23).

Second, particularly in Ellen Davis’ chapter, the role of silence is highlighted. Currently, silence is treated mostly as a negative, a sign of being oppressed. Scripture, though, communicates a much larger range of meaning by silence. There is God’s silence in response to a world of commotion or to the agonizing prayers of the saints. Our silence can be the awe of worship, the peace of resting in God, or the painful patience of waiting on the Lord. Thus, Davis reflects upon the “delicate balance between utterance and silence” and “the ineffable power of silence” (59). Her survey through Donne and Orr is thought provoking, as she explores how silence and response can stir our memories to become forgetful of ourselves in favor of the Lord (61).

Third, most of the essays deal with the topic of the reader and meaning. Dickie and Zimran explicitly deal with the text through a reader-response approach. Again, with Reformed commitments, the problems with reader-responses are evident, and our devotion to authorial intent is rightly fixed. That said, this does not mean the reader has no role in meaning. The reader’s interaction with the text to identify intertextual allusions, motifs, and reoccurring images or words, and to submit to the text is part of the complex, multi-level relationship in meaning formation. As Zimran points out, taking stock of the place of the reader “does not uproot the original meaning of the unit, but rather adds an additional layer to the reading of a modern reader” (188). A mature understanding of the reader in exegesis does not harm our doctrine of inspiration but strengthens it.

Nevertheless, with these three lessons put on the shelf, A New Song is an academic volume. Knowledge of Hebrew is essential for most of the contributions. Technical vocabulary and history of academic debates are pervasive. Moreover, many of the scholars explicitly do not approach Scripture from our confession doctrines. The subtitle mentions that Hebrew poetry is Scripture, but the various definitions of Scripture are felt. Therefore, for lay readers, this will be a challenging read with a sharp learning curve, and it will be obvious that one is not within Reformed circles. For scholarly readers, the essays are like any other academic work, containing both meat and bones; you have to pick through them, but the picking is worth it.

It is along these academic lines that a weakness of the volume is manifest. The conference and the essays take as their chief topic Hebrew poetry. Such poetry is analyzed, described, and defined, but the definition employed is thin and lacking in academic nuance and discussion. This is most evident in Goldingay’s and Sommer’s essay, but it is felt throughout. Sommer asks the question of what makes a biblical poem a poem at all. His answer is parallelism. Citing Kugel’s work from 1981, he defines Hebrew poetry as built on parallelism. This idea that parallelism is the essence of Hebrew poetry is echoed in the other essays as well. Parallelism as the essence of Hebrew poetry, however, does not have a consensus. In one of the most significant pieces of scholarship on Hebrew poetry, Michael O’Connor has laid out extensive evidence against parallelism.2 Another leading scholar on Hebrew poetics is Jan P. Fokkelman, whose theory of prosody does not rest essentially on parallelism. Other scholars could be cited. Yet, these scholars were not listed in the bibliography or the footnotes (that I could find). Clearly, within an academic debate, scholars take a position and work from that position; but in an essay on the definition of Hebrew poetry, it seems strange to not even acknowledge the debates surrounding the theory of poetry in the Hebrew Bible, at least in a footnote. As one who is unpersuaded by the theory of parallelism, I found that some of their poetic analysis suffered due to their working theory. This is a technical quibble, but a noticeable lacuna.

Overall, this is a helpful volume, especially with its creative approaches to understanding the poetry of Scripture, and its poetic and artful responses. The essays particularly inculcate a greater appreciation and love for the richness of poetry as being near the heart of our humanity and spiritual well-being. To hit this target is a noble accomplishment indeed.

Notes

  1. Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village,” 1770.
  2. Michael O’Connor, Hebrew Verse Structure (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 1980).

©Zach Keele. All Rights Reserved.

Stephen D. Campbell, Richard G. Rohlfing Jr., Richard S. Briggs eds., A New Song: Biblical Hebrew Poetry as Jewish and Christian Scripture (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2023).


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Posted by Zach Keele | Thursday, May 2, 2024 | Categorized in Books, Reviews. Zach Keele. Bookmark the permalink.

About Zach Keele

Rev. Zachary Keele grew up on a ranch in a small town named Crawford, Colorado. He attended Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania and received his Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California. He has served as the pastor of Escondido OPC since 2006.

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