Psalm Structures: A Study of Psalms with Refrains (JSOT Supplement 104)

Written by Paul R. Raabe Reviewed By Beat Weber

This dissertation, written under the guidance of D.N. Freedman, doesn’t give answers to all my questions, but it is a helpful book. It is astonishing that no-one since Segal (1935) has studied refrains to better understand larger structures of biblical poetry. The purpose of Raabe’s study is ‘to identify and describe the basic “building blocks” of a psalm’ (p. 9). Its primary focus is on the larger units that constitute psalms, strophes and stanzas.

The book has three main chapters. First, there is an overview of the latest scholarly research on questions about lyric poetry, especially their structural phenomena. This chapter contains methodological considerations. The poetic building blocks which he distinguishes are (from the smaller to the greater): colon (basic poetic unit = line), verse (mono-, bi-or tricolon), strophe (semantic-syntactic unit of one or more verses) and stanza (major subdivision of a poem of one or more strophes). Refrains are extra-stanza structural entities, and a unit of stanza-plus-refrain is called a ‘section’.

The second (and largest) chapter examines the texts. Raabe has selected 6(7) psalms with refrains for detailed study (42–43, 46, 49, 56, 57 and 59). Short analyses of Psalms 39, 67, 80 and 99 are given in an appendix. Every psalm has the following divisions: Hebrew text colometrically written, with numbers of syllables and stresses; English translations; translation notes, including short discussions of philological questions; structures (including versification, stress and syllable counts, strophes, refrains, stanzas and sections); repetition (Leitwörter); and thought progression.

The third chapter summarizes the conclusions of the study in relation to the analysed psalm corpus. Each psalm has a ‘dominant’ stress pattern, which means a regularity of colon/verse length. An equivalence or symmetry in the length of each psalm is also recognizable in stanzas, but not in strophic units. Refrains (verses that are repeated (with minor variants) at regular intervals in a poem) are stanza-external and section-final. They function to complete or resolve the preceding stanza. The major turning points come between the sections, i.e. after the refrains. Raabe points out that surface structure (which is more in the focus of this book) and semantic content belong together. Psalms exhibit a progression of thought that is modulated in stanzas. The reader should therefore first recognize these units and analyse each stanza/section in its own integrity. He/she should follow the content through the stanzas to understand the poem as a whole. He criticizes scholars (Kraus, Gerstenberger) who divide (form-critically) a psalm without examining its stanza blocks, without identifying elements of the appropriate genre and their function.

The layout of the book is clear and helpful. The methodological presuppositions are formulated and therefore open to evaluation. Raabe has consulted the relevant literature in the field of Hebrew poetics (apparently too late for consideration was D. Grossberg, Centripetal and Centrifugal Structures in Biblical Poetry, SBLMS 39, 1989). In difficult questions such as ‘metre’ and criteria for dividing blocks of poetry, he follows a pragmatic and good method. He analyses the poetry with sensitivity and he avoids pressing it into a scheme. His results are not entirely new, but give further support to the existence of deliberate poetic structures in the psalms on the supra-verse level.

I doubt that strophes and stanzas are really distinguishable as two deliberate building blocks in classical Hebrew poetry. The criteria for the two entities overlap a great deal. Raabe’s introduction of ‘half-stanzas’ is a symptom of the confusion of the two levels. I wish that Raabe had analysed all refrain-psalms and reduced his statistical observations (there is too much ‘counting’). His assumption that one can draw conclusions regarding the strophic/stanz structures of all the biblical psalms on the basis of only seven psalms is not without risk. His study is a step in the right direction, but the topic needs further investigation, including psalms without refrains.

Beat Weber

Linden BE, Switzerland