Recalling a Story Once Told

A Brief Review

Vassar, John S. Recalling a Story Once Told: An Intertextual Reading of the Psalter and the Pentateuch. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007. x + 155 pp. $29.

In Recalling a Story Once Told: An Intertextual Reading of the Psalter and the Pentateuch, John S. Vassar, who earned a Ph.D. from Baylor University and served as provost at multiple universities including vice-chancellor of academic affairs, “investigate[s] the intertextual relationship between the Psalter and the Pentateuch” (p. vii). The “initial marker” or connection between the Law and Psalms is their “fivefold division” (p. vii). Vassar sees other connections between each book of the Pentateuch and Psalter. Therefore, he “examine[s] the relationship between the initial psalm of each book of the Psalter and acorresponding text from the five books of the Pentateuch” (p. vii). This review summarizes and critiques Vassar’s book.

Summary: Argument and Contents

Introduction and Argument

Chapter 1 defines intertextuality and shows that passages correspond with other texts by connecting “markers” and are consequently amplified in meaning. Vassar seeks to identify connecting “markers that relate to formal structures of the text” like “identical words, or linguistic constructions” (p. 7) along with “thematic” correspondence between the Psalter and Pentateuch. By reading the initial Psalm of each book alongside the Pentateuch through the connections, Vassar argues for a chiastic connection/structure between the two (p. 7): 

A. Book 1 of Psalter

               B. Book 2 of Psalter

                               C. Book 3 of Psalter

                                               D. Book 4 of Psalter

                                                            E. Book 5 of Psalter

                                                            E.Genesis

                                               D.Exodus

                                C. Leviticus

                 B. Numbers

 A. Deuteronomy

Vassar’s main argument is that reading through the Psalter “moves the reader back through the Pentateuch as reading the Psalter recalls a story once told” (p. 28). Namely, as we read through the Psalter, we are brought backwards through the Pentateuch.

Contents

Chapter 2 first connects Psalm 1 with Deuteronomy 30. Vassar sees similarity in the passages due to “the contrast between the life of the wicked and the life of the righteous” (p. 35). Formal markers/connections include: walking(הָלַךְ) and perishing(אָבַד) (pp. 36–37). Thematic markers include: meditation on Torah, covenant, and God’s word (pp. 37–43). Some implications are: it highlights living according to Torah, signifies life/blessing in the land, associates David with Moses, and “provides a manageable way to read the Psalter alongside the Pentateuch” (p. 44). Vassar then connects Book 2 (Ps 42) and Numbers 16. The formal connection is the superscription: “the sons of Korah” (pp. 45, 57). This correspondence reveals other similarities (pp. 60–61) inducing hope in Yahweh who brings destruction and blessing. Both passages have elements of disaster, but death is not the final say: God grants life by his sanctuary/presence (pp. 61–62). The connection to Numbers 16 presents credibility/hope in God’s goodness to the exiled in Psalm 42 through past experience (p. 62).

Chapter 3 connects Book 3 (Ps 73) with Leviticus. Connections include purity and holiness signified by “רָחַץ,” and “sanctuary.” Other connections are worship and divine presence (pp. 85–89), where worship is a response to God’s presence (pp. 87–89). Vassar concludes, “The Psalter completes Leviticus” in that “Leviticus gives worship its form, but the Psalter infuses that form with life” (p. 89). Psalm 73 asks where God is, and Leviticus and Psalm 73:17—28 both answer: “God is amongst the community” and so too is his goodness (p. 89).

Chapter 4 first connects Book 4 (Ps 90) with Exodus 32. Vassar sees connections such as: the superscription to Moses (p. 101), the terms נָחַםand שׁוּב, and request for God’s presence (p. 105). Others include confrontation and wrath against God’s people. Vassar observes Moses and the psalmist both interceding (pp. 106–107). This connection creates hope: as Yahweh relented due to intercession before, he will relent again (p. 108). Next, Vassar connects Book 5 (Ps 107) with Genesis 1. Each text concerns chaos:תֹּהוּ, חֹשֶׁךְ, תְּהוֹם, and מַיִם (p. 120). Thematic connections include creation and providence, which helps the reader remember God’s power to save (pp. 122–124). This helps Psalm 107’s reader to consider God’s past acts and his continual care, creating hope in chaos.

Vassar ends with implications of his study. Some include: “it simply provides a basic structure for the formation of the Psalter” (p. 128); “it reminds the reader about the Pentateuch” (p. 128); it aids interpretation of the Pentateuch (p. 129).

Critique

This book is very critique worthy. I will mention four concerns. First, Vassar’s work in general misses a significant point of the Psalms: Jesus. While his work aims to show the connection between the Pentateuch and the Psalter, he misses the point that both are future-oriented. The Psalter not only reminds us of Torah,it calls to mind the Davidic covenant and instills hope for the future Messiah—Jesus. Psalms does not only look backward to the Law, it looks forward to Christ—the end of the Law. The Pentateuch itself looks forward to the prophet like Moses. By connecting the Psalter to the Pentateuch without noting its future orientation, Vassar misses the main point: look forward to God’s Anointed. Jesus said, “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). To read the Psalms as “simultaneously traveling back through the Pentateuch” (p. 125) while not touching on their future-oriented nature of looking to the Messiah and never mentioning Jesus seems to miss the point not only of the Pentateuch and the Psalms, but the entire OT. This might just be omission, but it is costly. If Jesus said the OT was about him, we should read it as such.

Second, Vassar treated Psalm 1 as the introduction (“initial Psalm”) to Book 1 (p. 32). However, most scholars see Psalms 1–2 as united and act as the introduction to the whole Psalter and as a lens through which we read the Psalms. Reading Psalm 1 and 2 together paints a portrait of the “Torahlover” as the very Messiah who reigns together with Yahweh. Vassar’s treatment of solely Psalm 1 as the initial Psalm of Book 1 leads him to make an unwarranted dichotomy between Yahweh and David’s progeny later in his book. Vassar says Book 4 looks back prior to David’s kingship, which is not necessarily wrong, but he says that this signifies a shift of kingship from David (and his offspring) to Yahweh (p. 103). In doing so, he creates a division between them, which might explain why he does not mention Jesus. If he read Psalms 1–2 together, he would see that the kingship of Yahweh and the kingship of the Messiah—David’s Son—are united and thus there is no need for a dichotomy.

Third, Vassar seems to stretch connections to fit his chiastic schema. While I agree that Moses is emphasized in Book 4, Vassar says this emphasis draws us to Exodus. However, he connects Exodus with Psalm 90, which is not wrong, but Psalm 90 also includes creation themes. So why not connect it with Genesis? Additionally, Vassar connects Book 3 with Leviticus partly because of its emphasis of divine presence and the sanctuary—but Exodus does likewise. Why not connect it with Exodus? This book on intertextuality unhappily leaves this question unanswered: What are the qualifications to make a single and primary connection to one book when a Psalm could be connected to another book? Further, since Vassar only connects a Psalm with “a corresponding text” in the Pentateuch (p. vii), it seems he overlooks and cherry picks connections to make a chiasm.

Fourth, on the basis of his proposed chiasm, Vassar connects Book 5 with Genesis. He says that “the initial connection between Psalm 107 and the book of Genesis is the culmination of the fivefold division of the Pentateuch and the Psalter” (p. 119). He says “culmination” because he is referring to his chiastic schema that claims as we travel through the Psalter, we are progressively brought backwards through the Pentateuch (pp. 119, 125). Hence, Vassar says Book 5 and Genesis connect because they are parallel parts of a chiasm. Here he appeals to his not-yet-fully-proved conclusion to validate a claim that should support his proposed conclusion. This is like arguing: the Pentateuch and Psalter form a chiasm (p. 28; main proposition/conclusion) because Book 5 and Genesis are connected (p. 119; supporting claim) and they are connected since the Pentateuch and Psalter are a chiasm(supporting claim on the basis of not-yet-proved conclusion). This seems to be flawed logic.

Conclusion

While Vassar’s volume has shortcomings, it is beneficial. Though it is not close to the same caliber and achievement as other works like that of Wilson, Snearly, or Robertson, it nevertheless contributes to the movement of reading Psalms as a unified and organized book. Vassar leaves room for further study on how each initial Psalm of the five Books relates to each other (p. 131) and for more thorough connections between the Psalter and Pentateuch. Though much can be criticized, Recalling a Story once Tolddisplays real connections between the Psalter and Pentateuch.