An Introduction to the Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel

By Hermann Gunkel and Joachim Begrich
Macon, GA : Mercer University (1998). ix + 388 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 126-127

An Introduction to the Psalms is a translation of the fourth edition of Einleitung in die Psalmen: die Gattungen der religiösen Lyrik Israels (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985). Its author, Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), was the founder of OT form criticism. The first edition was published in 1933 after Gunkel had passed away in 1932 without being able to com plete his work. Joachim Begrich completed the volume, working from Gunkel’s notes as much as possible. Wherever he deviated from Gunkel’s conclusions, he noted the deviation within the affected portions of the volume. This is the first English translation of Gunkel’s concluding contribution to the study of the Psalms that had been highlighted by his commentary, Die Psalmen, 4th ed., Göttinger Handkommentar zum Alten Testament (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1926).

Gunkel’s Introduction to the Psalms is packed with detailed information about the literary forms and vocabulary of the Psalms. A brief introduction to “The Genres of the Psalms” (1-21) presents the foundational principles for the study. Throughout this first section Gunkel emphasizes again and again the primary tenet of form criticism: “the genres of an ancient writing must be differentiated by the various events of life from which they developed” (7, emphasis in the original). The goal of form-critical study is to identify the purpose and function as well as the mood and content of a genre in general and specifically for the literary unit under study (in this case, the psalm). Gunkel provides a detailed analysis of the major genres of the Psalms: hymns (22-65), songs about YHWH’s enthronement (66-81), communal complaint songs (82-98), royal psalms (99-120), individual complaint psalms (121- 98), and individual thanksgiving psalms (199-221). Then he discusses the smaller genres (222-50), prophetic elements in the Psalms (251-92), wisdom poetry in the Psalms (293-305), mixtures, antiphonal poems, and liturgies (306-18), the history of psalmody (319-32), the collection of Psalms (333-48), and the superscriptions of the Psalms (349-51). An index of Scripture references in two sections (Psalms, 353-70, and Other Scriptures, 371-88) concludes the volume.

The section on the hymns genre is representative of the approach taken by Gunkel, even though the discussion of each genre is arranged differently. (1) He identifies examples of hymns in the OT (22-23), listing even individual verses in a psalm (like the 119th) that contain hymns. (2) He describes the linguistic form of such hymns (23-41), identifying the form by the contents of the introduction, main part, and conclusion. Hebrew words and phrases characteristic of these parts are noted (e.g., the plural imperative zamměru [“play”] might introduce a hymn [23] and, in the main part of the hymn, the nominal sentence usually is employed to describe Yahweh’s qualities [34]). (3) The manner of performance is discussed (41- 47) by dealing with such topics as festivals, processions, bodily movements, musical instruments, and choirs. (4) The religion of the hymns is described (47-57). This section presents the concepts of religious moods, the description and praise of God, God’s dominion and deeds, and the prophetic influence on hymns. (5) Gunkel discusses the relationship of hymns to other genres (57-61). (6) Lastly, he describes the internal history of the hymns (61-65).

Throughout the volume, the author draws comparisons with the poetic genres found in Babylonian and Egyptian literature. It is quite clear that Gunkel accepts an evolutionary theory of the historical development of religion and adheres to the dating of biblical composition consistent with the documentary hypothesis. Both of these tenets are characteristic of liberal higher criticism as a whole. The reader also must remember that the volume was written in a very different era of biblical studies, with no knowledge, for example, of the Qumran scrolls. Used judiciously, Gunkel’s work can lead the serious Bible student into a greater awareness of the various kinds of biblical poetry. Every seminary library should have this seminal text on its shelves.