Poetry

It is hard to know how much of the literature of ancient Israel has survived in the Hebrew Bible, and how much has been lost to us; but at least in the case of poetry, it seems quite clear that there were once far more texts than we now have. There are references to books of poems, now lost, in Numbers 20:14, Joshua 10:13, and 2 Samuel 1:18; and these may have contained appropriate poems for various types of occasion, by no means all of which need have been religious in character. But the major collection in the Hebrew Bible is the book of Psalms, which contains only religious verse. A few of the Psalms are more like wisdom instructions, reflecting on good and evil, prosperity and adversity (Pss. 37; 49). But most seem to be intended for address to God. Some speak in the plural (e.g. Ps. 80), some in the singular (Ps. 88), and this might suggest a rough and ready division into liturgical texts meant for corporate worship, and private prayers to be uttered by an individual. Studies of ancient Israelite worship have argued persuasively, however, that almost all the extant Psalms could have had a liturgical function, since the 'I' who speaks may on many occasions be taken as a collective—the community represented, perhaps, by a single singer or reciter. (Note the change of number, for example, in Ps. 81.)

Most scholars now think that the majority of the Psalms originated before the Exile, and had a place in the worship of the Solomonic Temple (Mowinckel 1962; Kraus 1966; Day 1990). They characteristically express either praise or lament/petition, much as do the prayers of many religions. But some may also have been used in private devotion—even those couched in 'corporate' language. The Psalter is rather like a Christian hymn book: the poems may have originated as hymns, or as private lyric poems, but in their present context all are meant for public worship. Yet an individual may well use any or all of them for private prayer. The actual formation of the Psalter as a fixed collection may owe something to both motives, the desire to collect together common liturgical texts and the desire to produce a book for private devotion—though the latter term might imply a more widespread literacy than it is reasonable to assume for the pre- and early post-exilic periods.

The Psalter must have been formed through a number of stages. As it stands it is divided into five 'books' (1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-50), perhaps on the analogy of the Pentateuch; but within the books (and sometimes even cutting across them) are indications of earlier small collections, such as the Psalms of Asaph (50, 73-83) or the Psalms of 'Ascents' (120-34). Most scholars assume that groups of priests or other Temple officials were responsible for these collections. When and how they were made remains wholly in the realm of conjecture. (For what can be known, see Day 1990:109-22.) There are hymns and prayers from neighbouring cultures, but no compendium of psalmody that offers any close analogy to the Psalter.

The oscillation between corporate and individual piety in the Psalms, indeed the practical impossibility of knowing for sure which we are dealing with, make it harder to write a literary history of Israel, but throw much light on its religious thought. Yahweh, the God of the nation, is also seen as the protector and helper of the individual Israelite. Israel did not acknowledge (at least not officially) the pattern of thought common in other ancient cultures, where there were 'guardian' gods for the individual who were distinct from, and could act as intercessors with, the greater gods of the pantheon. From at least the time of the great prophets (eighth century BCE) it was claimed that one and the same God was both ruler of the universe, rightly worshipped in hymns and liturgies, and the friend of the individual—especially the afflicted or persecuted individual. As a finished collection, the Psalter reflects this religious tradition, which distinguished ancient Israel rather sharply from most of its neighbours.

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