Today I start blogging through Nahum M. Sarna’s work, On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel. There is an interesting article about Sarna on Wikipedia. It is interesting because its main section attempts to describe his “approach to Biblical studies”. He rejected literalism and tried to understand the intention of the text. His main works were on Genesis and Exodus. He is no longer living. He died in 2005.
This book about the Psalms has an introduction and then a closer reading of just nine of the Psalms. He chose these particular Psalms as representative.
In the introduction he says that, while the Torah and the prophets present God’s approach to man, the Psalms present man’s approach to God.
“In the Psalms, the human soul extends itself beyond its confining, sheltering, impermanent house of clay. It strives for contact with the Ultimate Source of all life” (p. 3).
I liked that he connected the Psalms to music. So often they are treated as just literary pieces without a lot of notice to their use as songs. He recognized that Israel got a musical heritage of instruments and forms from the cultures around it. He illustrates this with a wall painting found in Egypt dated to almost 1900 years before Christ. It shows 37 visiting tribesman from the Transjordan. One of them holds a stringed lyre.
He believed that by the time Israel came to Canaan there was already an established tradition of vocal and instrumental music. Many depictions of instruments have been excavated in Mesopotamian temples. So music and religion seem closely connected in those cultures.
He talked about the stories about the rise of human culture in Genesis. Music was part of that (Genesis 4:21). Both Genesis and the pagan practices seem to show that the urge to worship was innate in human nature. Yet worship happened in a unique way in Israel. In the Mesopotamian literature the role of music in ritual and sacrifice is spelled out in detail. But the Torah is pretty much silent about this. And the Psalms contain only hints about their connection to official worship. Israel disassociated sacrifice from prayer and music, Sarna says.
The way Israel remembered it was that sacrifice and ritual go back to Moses, but musical prayer was mostly introduced much later by David. Sarna thought this separation of music from the sacrificial ritual may have been part of Israel’s attempt to disassociate its worship from that of the surrounding cultures.
Speaking of David, the Psalter consists of several different collections of songs. The largest collection carries the name of David. Yet more than half of the Psalms do not bear his name and many of those bear someone else’s name. Some scholars doubt David wrote many of those that bear his name. So why does Jewish (and Christian) tradition assign the whole book to David? Sarna believed that the Talmudic tradition that emphatically declared David the author of all the Psalms can be defended. Records claimed that David founded the musical guilds. Since these guilds produced the various collections of Psalms, David was indirectly responsible for them all.
When I read this I thought of the argument between Christian inerrantists who say that Luke 20:42 proves that Psalm 110 was written by David–because Jesus says so–and critical scholars who doubt David’s authorship of that Psalm. Sarna’s understanding would allow both Jesus and the critical scholars to be right as long as the musical guilds produced Psalm 110.