Gordon J. WENHAM. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012. pp 233, $22.995 pb. ISBN 978-0-8010-3168-7. Reviewed by James ZEITZ, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas 48207

In Psalms as Torah, Gordon Wenham (now emeritus professor at Trinity College, Bristol) advances his project of filling in the “blind spots” in biblical ethics which his 2004 work, Story as Torah, began by demonstrating the contribution biblical narrative makes to Old Testament ethics. The Psalms too, the prayer book of Israel, are one of the “most potent forms of ethical indoctrination,” though their instructional or “Torah” aspect has been neglected in works on Old Testament ethics.

Wenham Gordan, whose early scholarship was on Old Testament law (doctoral thesis on Deuteronomy…Leviticus) and has written approachable commentaries on Genesis and the Pentateuch, is a scholar whose books are infused with a faith vision. His audience is biblical scholars and the general reader familiar with biblical criticism.

The first four chapters of Psalms as Torah are a useful introduction to the psalter overall as part of the Canon. Chapter 1 introduces historical aspects of how the psalms were used in the Second Temple period and Early Christianity. Chapter 2 summarizes modern critical approaches. Chapter 3 views the psalms as a memorized anthology—similar to classic texts in other ancient cultures of the Middle East. Finally chapter 4 looks at the relationship between prayers and the one who prays using modern methods such as reader-response and speech-act theory. 

The last six chapters present the ethics “implied and taught by the psalms." Wenham first determines what the psalms say about law: first by noting the importance of Psalms 1 & 119 as a framing device and then by examining the eight terms Ps 119 uses for law.  To determine the psalms’ ethical teaching he surveys each of the ten commandments (They must presuppose Sabbath worship since there are no commentaries on the fourth commandment) and the giving of the Decalogue on Mt. Sinai, an event never mentioned in surveys of Israel’s history, but also presupposed by Israel responding to God’s voice and the holiness of his name. Beyond the Decalogue, many psalms reflect on other areas of the ethical life: violence (the Hebrew term hamas occurs more often in the Psalter than in any other Old Testament book), retribution (the familiar problem of the “wicked”), and God’s concern from the poor. In another chapter (chapter 8) Wenham expands on the believer’s relationship to God using three biblical categories: the wicked, the righteous, and finally imitation of God –or “human behavior in the light of the divine.”

The final two chapters treat two other dimensions of Psalter today: first, clarifications on psalms that ask for the God’s intervention (the psalm of lament is the most numerous category), second, the New Testament’s use of psalms in its ethical stances (68 of the 150 psalms are used). Here the New Testament is closest to Old Testament ethical ideals, according to Wenham.

My first impression of this work, especially its subtitle “Reading Biblical Song Ethically,” was one of unease: Why look to the Psalter rather than to Torah for the Bible’s ethical teaching? Isn’t the Psalter Israel’s Praises? (See the Hebrew title of the Book: Tephilim) Also, prayers as poetry use figured language that involves images and exaggeration to express feelings. However, Brenham’s reminder in his “Conclusion” that the Psalter was considered as a “second law” (organized into five books like the Pentateuch) and the “law of David” is definitely an invitation to compare the ethics it presupposes or uses with the ethics of the Pentateuch. It is also an invitation for Christians to think about their actual or implied ethics when they prayer the “Our Father” (which Wenham uses in his introduction) or repeat liturgical formulae in common worship. Looking at this work is certainly an invitation to look at Wenham’s 2013 work, The Psalter Reclaimed: praying and praising with the Psalms.