Reading Commentaries Resistantly



After doing some morning Hebrew reading in the Psalms, I decided to what a see what a study Bible commentary had to contribute to my understanding of Psalms 42-43. I usually keep an old (1973 edition) RSV New Oxford Study Bible handy, first, because I feel that the translation is reasonably reliable (not ideal by any means, nor is it the best English Bible translation available), and second, because the commentary is a concise introduction to mid-20th century biblical scholarship. Really, though, it might actually be better described as coming from early-mid-20th century biblical scholarship, since it often bears few marks of the major upheavals in OT scholarship that began in the late 60s through the 70s, namely the dismantling of the J and P pillars of the Documentary Hypothesis, a general shift away from source-criticism and form-criticism toward tradition-criticism as a primary diachronic method, and the increasing interest in literary critical methods and other methods based on structuralist semiotics. In other words, the commentary in the NOSB is a little old-fashioned, even for its time. But regardless of the date or reputation of a commentary, I read them all in essentially the same manner: resistantly.

Here’s what I mean. With almost no knowledge of the current state of scholarship in the Psalms (I just spent the last four years focusing on biblical narrative, especially Genesis), I can still read commentary critically and productively.

The NOSB commentary begins by saying, “These two psalms are a single lyric consisting of three stanzas with a refrain (42:5,11; 43:5).” My thoughts: This is a helpful observation about form, and one I’m inclined to follow, but we can’t necessarily know that the two psalms are “a single lyric.” There are other explanations, like a later psalmist borrowed the refrain of a well-known psalm (i.e. 42), and the two were then transmitted together. It’s nearly impossible to talk with any reasonable sort of reliability about the composition history of biblical texts without manuscript evidence, which puts us in a position where we have to begin with what is before, namely two Psalms with a common refrain. Questions I need to research: where did this psalm numbering come from? Is there manuscript evidence showing that some older communities read these two as a single psalm?

Next: “The author, who lives in the far north of Palestine near Mount Hermon and the sources of the Jordan (42:6-7) …” My thoughts: There are two problems with this statement. First, we cannot be certain that contextual clues tell us anything about the actual author of the text. Especially in poetry, authors, both now and in the ancient past, frequently construct fictive personas and settings or scenarios in their poetry. In other words, the actual author may just as well be a Jerusalemite imagining the feelings of an Israelite from the far north. Second, the text does indeed say “therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan and Hermonim, from Mount Mizʿar.” Assuming Hermonim should be understood as referring to Mount Hermon in the far north of the Israelite kingdom, this still doesn’t say anything about the provenance of the Psalm or the home of the psalmist. Mount Mizʿar is not a place name that we can situate with any certainty, and “land of the Jordan” seems an odd designation for the far north when entirety of Israelite land is characterized by proximity to some part of the Jordan. This geographical information, in other words, could just as easily be saying, “North, south, east, or west, wherever I find myself I remember you.” Questions I need to research: Are there any other texts that refer to the far north as Hermonim rather than Hermon or Har Hermon, or as “land of the Jordan”? What do I do with the Masoretic strong accent on Yarden that separates it from Hermonim?

Finally, “… has been prevented by illness (42:10) from making his accustomed pilgrimage to Jerusalem (42:4; 43:3-4).” My thoughts: The RSV doesn’t suggest this at all. It says in 42:4, “As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me ….” The RSV clearly understands that first clause as a simile rather than a literal “deadly wound.” The commentary, however, may be looking at the Hebrew: bĕreṣaḥ bĕʿaṣmôtay – “with a brokenness in my bones.” But while the metaphorical nature of the clause is not as explicit in the Hebrew, it still seems to me more likely metaphorical than literal. Questions I need to research: Investigate both reṣaḥ and the preposition b and try to determine more certainly whether the metaphorical or the literal understanding is more plausible.

Reading Commentaries Resistantly
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Reading Commentaries Resistantly
Commentaries are helpful, but the proper posture towards them is one of resistance. By asking "How do we know that?", you are positioning yourself to get the most out of the commentary.
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Bite-Sized Exegesis
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