Written by Dianne Bergant
(Liturgical Press, 2013)
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
I was pleasantly surprised by the ability of these two skinny volumes to unpack so much of the ‘literal sense’ of the Psalms. I learned a great deal very quickly. Bergant does not waste time summarizing the Psalms, or in moralizing; rather, she dives right in and gets directly to the historical meaning and context of the great songs of faith.
Here is a sample, where the author is commenting on Ps 29:3-9:The description of God found here reflects Canaanite mythological imagery. Chaos was often characterized as stormy waters and the deity who was able to control these waters was hailed as a major god. This phenomenal feat is here accomplished by the mere voice of the Lord, not by victory in a cosmic battle. God’s thunderous voice is mighty and splendid. It exercises power over the cosmic forces of chaos as well as over the political nations that surround Israel. God’s power is depicted in striking imagery. The northern country of Lebanon was known for its spectacular cedar trees. Sirion was another name for the northern mountain Hermon. These two imposing natural phenomena are characterized as young bulls, the metaphor used to symbolize the strength and prowess of the Canaanite storm god. Here these two wonders cease to inspire awe and are under the control of Israel’s god (sic.). (v. 1, p. 58)
Note how little redundancy (the Psalms are included on the page, after all), and the economy of words.
It is not a scholarly commentary, in that it takes on disputed questions and rehearses the history of research on the Psalms, as you would find in the more elaborate commentaries, like Anchor and Word. It would be more suited for a Bible-study group or, simply, an interested reader, such as myself. Many Catholics today pray the Liturgy of the Hours, but I cannot imagine how one can do so without wanting to know something about the historical context of the Psalms. This book would be suited to such a person.
In fact, this work was so exceptional that I shall definitely keep my eyes open for the other volumes in the series, that is, on those books of the Bible that I don’t feel I know all that well, and would like a crash-course in – Revelations would be a good choice for many, I am sure. We would just have to hope that the authors of the other volumes are as good communicators as Bergant.