So What are You Studying?

by on August 5, 2012

It’s the dreaded question every grad student gets. You’re at a friend’s backyard bbq or a church potluck. You sit down next to a buddy who is not in academia, who has in fact been out in the world making money while you’ve been in school making debt, and he asks a friendly, good-natured question. Trying to be polite, he is. But how do you respond? If you give a succinct answer, like “The Old Testament” or “Psalms” it sounds dismissive. “Yeah, but what part? You’re focusing on something, right?” (Cool down, he didn’t mean it to come out that way.) But you start to explain, and get excited (because this is something you’re really passionate about), and the eyes glaze over. And who can blame the guy? You can go on and on about this for 400 pages and still get roasted in a review by someone who points out x, y, and z that you didn’t give adequate attention…
So, in ten or so minutes, what’s the general overview of my doctoral research?

In the broadest terms possible, the Old Testament.

OK, that’s pretty broad. You know, it goes from the creation of the world all the way to Alexander the Great. Even if you’re a young earth person, that’s a pretty broad stroke. So let’s narrow it down.

The Book of Psalms.

Well, OK. That’s only been a favorite book of the church and the synagogue since, I don’t know, King David. You really think you can find enough new material to pump out a dissertation?

Actually, yes. And now the eyes start to glaze. But if you’re interested, here it is. For the last thirty or so years, interest has exploded in reading Psalms as a book.

I know, that sounds… well, not exactly “duh” but… weird. Genesis is one thing. There’s a narrative that runs from the creation of the world to Israel’s preservation in Egypt and a promise of a return to Canaan. But Psalms is just a bunch of poems stuck together, kind of like a hymnal, right? That is actually the dominant way Psalms has been studied for about two thousand years. Pick out this or that hymn to sing or preach. Or maybe get ambitious and collect all the Christmas hymns in this pile, Easter hymns over there, …

All of that involves throwing out the order in which it comes to us. But what if that order was on purpose?

I’m overstating the case. People have recognized for a long time that Psalm 1 (and probably Psalm 2 along with it) form some kind of introduction to the book, and the book seems to be divided into five sections (think Torah…) punctuated by benedictions and rounded off by a grand Hallelujah chorus. But what if there is an overall big picture that affects how we interpret the pieces?

Gerald Wilson put this on the map with his Yale dissertation in the 1980s, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, where he compared the order of the Psalter in the traditional Hebrew text to a variant order in a major Dead Sea scroll, as well as different ordering schemes in other ANE hymn collections. He concluded that there was a deliberate editorial purpose in the arrangement, an attempt to communicate a larger message in the way the individual psalms were brought together. He and other scholars have been fleshing out the details ever since.

I think this opens up amazing new insights into the text, and I’ve been excited about it ever since Brian Gault introduced me to it back in seminary. I want my own work to be a part of fleshing those details, and testing the larger picture that is emerging, to see if it holds up, or turns out to be a construct of a certain group of readers.

By the way, can you pass the potato salad?