Jew­ish Text

A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature

Ben­jamin J. Segal
  • Review
By – October 21, 2014

The Book of Psalms is many things to many peo­ple. It is a source of solace, inspira­tion, exis­ten­tial angst, faith, piety, long­ing, grat­i­tude, lyri­cal poet­ry, musi­cal and choir nota­tions, and a part of the litur­gy of major reli­gions. Psalms speaks to all gen­er­a­tions and has occu­pied a revered place in the Jew­ish cat­e­chism since it first appeared. Giv­en the sacred nature and set­ting of the Psalms, it is no won­der that it was and remains so popular. 

One of the hall­marks of all endur­ing lit­er­ary works is the capac­i­ty for mul­ti­ple lay­ers of inter­pre­ta­tion. Indeed, Psalms can be inter­pret­ed from a reli­gious-cul­tur­al per­spec­tive, which the Rab­bis have been doing for cen­turies; they can be viewed from an his­tor­i­cal-anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, which has been done by many fine schol­ars in the past cen­tu­ry and a half; and they can be viewed as great lit­er­a­ture, which of course is true for the entire Bible. 

Rab­bi Ben­jamin J. Segal acknowl­edges the oth­er valences at play in the Psalms, but his focus is lit­er­ary analy­sis, and he offers a new and refresh­ing look at this won­der­ful one-hun­dred-fifty-chap­ter trea­sure. As an anthol­o­gy, this is not a book to be read straight through. Even if one does not have favorite psalms, the psalms need to be read in group­ings, the­mat­i­cal­ly, or even sequen­tial­ly, but not all at once so that each psalm or cat­e­go­ry can be savored as its lit­er­ary boun­ty is uncovered. 

A New Psalm—a play on the open­ing words from Psalm 96 — is more of a com­pan­ion than a full-fledged com­men­tary, but the volu­mi­nous sources cit­ed, both mod­ern and clas­si­cal, serve that pur­pose as well. Although writ­ten at a spe­cif­ic time in ancient his­to­ry by King David and oth­er authors for a tra­di­tion­al faith-based soci­ety, Segal demon­strates that the top­ics cov­ered and the emo­tions expressed are still viable today. The lit­er­ary styles are ana­lyzed not so much as the­ol­o­gy but rather, as records of people’s spir­i­tu­al encounter with God. All the issues of moder­ni­ty — theod­i­cy, God’s appar­ent absence from the human are­na, the cries of lament expressed by peo­ple who faced unspeak­able evil, fear of death, the search for jus­tice, pleas for mer­cy, bursts of enthu­si­asm, won­der at God’s works, etc. — can be found expressed in the most sophis­ti­cat­ed lit­er­ary style. 

The author com­pares the five divi­sions of Psalms to the Pen­ta­teuch. He illus­trates the var­i­ous styl­is­tic tropes such as allit­er­a­tion, rep­e­ti­tion, par­al­lelism, line forms, refrains, inclu­sio, syn­onyms, chi­asm, acros­tics, puns and word­play, word pairs, and sur­prise end­ings which occur through­out Psalms. There are hymns, laments, psalms of thanks­giv­ing, prayers, exhor­ta­tions, and didac­tics, all expressed in a florid lit­er­ary style. 

For those famil­iar with the orig­i­nal Hebrew text, Segal’s com­ments and obser­va­tions will be espe­cial­ly mean­ing­ful; for those who rely on his mas­ter­ful trans­la­tion, this book will yield untold hours of apprecia­tion for a Jew­ish clas­sic, pre­sent­ed in mod­ern garb but with the orig­i­nal mes­sages intact. His orig­i­nal titles for the chap­ters are both inspired and clever, ren­der­ing an index unnec­es­sary. The art­work by David Sharir adds a love­ly aes­thet­ic dimen­sion to the book. 

The Book of Psalms was the first struc­tured set of prayers in ancient Israel. The ser­vice in the Tem­ple incor­po­rat­ed its vers­es and we have been recit­ing them ever since. A New Psalm brings the psalms’ beau­ty, joy, ethos, and pathos to the mod­ern read­ing public.

Relat­ed content:

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions