Sunday 26 February 2012

Edward L. Greenstein on Psalm 78

Edward L. Greenstein, ‘Mixing Memory and Design: Reading Psalm 78’, Prooftexts 10, 2 (1990), 197-218.

I’ve looked at the above article as part of my preparation for the next ‘Word for the Week’ for LICC, this one on Psalm 78. It’s an interesting essay, and I’ll be trying to incorporate some of its insights into my own piece.

Greenstein notes that Psalm 78 has often been read flatly as a fairly straight historical condemnation of Israel for her ongoing rejection of the Lord, reading it through a rebellion-punishment pattern, where Israel is bad and God is good.

Instead, according to Greenstein, the speaker in the Psalm remembers the past as a motivation for the people to maintain their side of the covenant. He is not merely recounting the past, but is seeking to prompt the kind of remembrance that brings about change.

The Psalmist, he says, does not exhort the audience directly (in the style of Moses in Deuteronomy, say). Rather, he himself sets a model of engaging in an exercise of memory. He does so through evoking the language of common tradition, where his telling of the story reverberates throughout with the language and plot of the narrative (the sheer amount of verbal links between Psalm 78 and the primary narrative is staggering). He also takes up the theme of memory in 78:35, 39, and 42.

Here is Greenstein’s conclusion:

‘The psalm, as I read it, is not about history; it deals in memory. It is not about something called memory; rather, through the rhetoric adopted by the psalmist for jogging the people’s recollection, he exercises their memory by exercising his own. I read the psalm as a process of remembering. Reading for the rhetoric, the psalm is not static – it moves. The psalmist does not ruminate on the past; he addresses the present and, like a prophet, seeks to transform the future’ (209).

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