Barr-some Psalms and Qoheleth

James Barr, in Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, took on the claims of those who did not find natural theology in the Hebrew Bible. He talked first about three particular Psalm and then, more broadly about Wisdom, Prophets, and Law.

Today I am going to cover the Psalms and Wisdom.

The first two Psalms he considered are the ones traditionally linked to the idea of natural theology, Psalm 104 and Psalm 19. Psalm 104 talks at length about how God stretched out the heavens and provided sustenance for animals and man. Psalm 19 makes the beauty and order of the sun, moon and stars something parallel to God’s law as realities that call for praise of God.

Those who did not see natural theology in these Psalms made a distinction between natural theology and a theology of nature. They said that Psalms 104 and 19 contain traces of a Hebrew theology of nature. In other words, they are secondary to the revelation of God in the Torah. They are not independent of God’s self disclosure to Israel in the Law. Rather, given the Law, these Psalms are attempts to understand and appreciate nature.

But Barr argued that in Psalm 104 the material about nature does not come from special revelation. Part of the content comes from adapting pagan mythology about the stretching out of the heavens and the overcoming of the watery chaos. And part of the content comes from common human knowledge and observation of nature: the animals get water and food from nature and eventually die. There is no special revealed information in the Psalm. The insight that God is behind nature may be revealed. That did not conflict with natural theology in Barr’s understanding.

Also Barr knew about the Egyptian background of this Psalm. So there must be something universal, not just Hebrew, about the thrust of Psalm 104.

In regard to Psalm 19 (the heavens declare the glory of God), Barr also stressed the universal nature of the claim. Although the second half of the Psalm beginning in v. 7 is about the law of God, the conclusion in v. 6 is that the sun warms the whole earth and sends its message to the “ends of the earth.” This universality caused Barr to wonder if the language in the second half of the Psalm was also not more universal than often thought.

The poem says nothing about the law being the Law of Moses. The laws, commands, testimonies and judgments mentioned in the second half of the Psalm can be read as the wise laws derived from observation and passed down from parents to children. The Proverbs and other Wisdom literature use law in this sense.

This line of thought brought him to consider Psalm 119, the very long Psalm that talks a lot about the laws, commands, testimonies, and judgments mentioned more briefly in Psalm 19.

Barr called attention to Psalm 119:89-91 as he translates it:

For ever o Lord thy word is set up in the heavens;

thy faithfulness is to all generations.

Thou hast established the world and it stands fast;

by thy judgments they stand this day;

for all things are thy servants.

You could certainly read this as akin to natural theology.

Barr actually thought that these Psalms spoke in conjunction with the Wisdom view of the world.

He took up a major objection to that regarding the Book of Ecclesiastes. He called it Qoheleth. This book seems to accord with Barthian criticism of natural theology. It says that the human attempt to understand the world comes to nothing and is vain (see Ecclesiastes 1:13-14).

But Qoheleth does not fall back on special revelation as a Barthian would. Instead his position is close to Greek Epicurean or Stoic thought that accepts the world with an edge of “critical individuality” (Martin Hengel’s phrase). God is sort of distant and uncaring and the individual must seek his own happiness in accord with his needs and desires while recognizing the limits of human knowledge.

Barr drew a parallel between Qoheleth and Job. Just as Job was reacting against a simplistic theodicy that must have existed within the Hebrew Wisdom community, so Qoheleth was reacting against a too pat natural theology within the same community.

At any rate Qoheleth testifies to the Hebrew borrowing of thought forms from other cultures.  This is another witness to the universality of the Hebrew Bible’s approach.  It did not just rely on Israel’s own, isolated experience of God.

In all of this Barr was taking a polemical position against the Barthian denial of natural theology. Barr had once gone along with this and tried to downplay natural theology himself. So by the 1990s he was on the other side.

His argument has an edge to it. For instance, he said at one point that no Barthian could have written Psalm 19.  That is cutting and a little unfair. But it gives some spice to his argument.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Bible, Psalms, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Barr-some Psalms and Qoheleth

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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