My RBL Review of Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah

My RBL review of Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is now available. It was a pleasure to review for RBL, in particular to have the space to explore the contents of the book more intensely than is typical for most venues. You can click through and read the review in full. Below is snippet in which I critique a perplexing chapter from the book about a subject I discussed recently.

Wenham explores the affinities between the Psalter’s emphasis upon law and the pentateuchal legal tradition in chapter 6, “Laws in the Psalter.” One senses a regression from the insights of the argument in the previous chapter. Wenham argues that “the psalmists know the Ten Commandments and place them at the heart of their ethical thinking” (109, emphasis added). He argues this despite the following observations: “although the Sinaitic commandments are familiar to the psalmists, the lawgiving at Sinai is rarely mentioned” (98, emphasis added); “I think that it is reasonable to say that the psalms certainly know the lawgiving at Sinai, even though they do not make much of it” (100, emphasis added); some commandments are “not directly quoted” (102); such direct quotations are “rare” (101); “the fourth and fifth commandments are relatively underplayed” (105); indeed, the fourth commandment is “completely ignored” (103). This claim concerning the importance of the Decalogue for ethical thinking in the Psalter is odd; it does not emerge from a descriptive analysis of the contents of the Psalter. Though odd, the chapter is beneficial. Wenham is honest about the varying degrees of correspondence (or lack thereof) between the ethical concerns of the Pentateuch and the Psalter, exploring also the topics of violence, retribution, and the poor and exploited. Discerning readers—and I count Wenham among them—will observe that the relationship between the Pentateuch and the Psalter is complex. Whether this complexity is respected by Wenham’s argument is questionable in my judgment.

I want to thank John Anderson for reading a draft of this review and providing me with helpful feedback.


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