If you are a scholar looking for word-for-word accuracy or you are going into philology, then Pamela Greenberg’sÂ The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation is definitely not for you.
But if you are one who struggles at time with life, if you are ever weary and distraught, if you ever doubt that God exists or that he really will do what he says, then this book of Psalms is for you.
Pamela Greenberg is a former rabbinical student and Hebrew scholar who admittedly “came to religion later in life.” She was going through a difficult time of life, including a battle with depression, when she decided she need something to believe in. This brought her to the book of Psalms. Said Greenberg, “I had an intuition that in the psalms I would find something of the relationship to God that I was looking for.”
She did not set out to translate the entire book of Psalms. In her journey of faith, she would rewrite a Psalm that meant something special to her that day, rewriting it in a way that matched the emotion she felt the author of that Psalm was trying to communicate. Soon she found that she had, indeed, rewritten all 150 Psalms. If this strikes you as a questionable way to approach the Psalms, Greenberg offers her explanation for her method of translation.
â€¦their power has been diminished by an instistence on theological dogma. For many years, their intimate connection with the communal prayer life of both Judaism and Christianity was a stumbling block to translating them honestly. At least until recently, liturgy tended to emphasize visions of spiritual perfection over acknowledgement that religious struggle is a necessary aspect of religious life.
As a result, the overwhelming tendency of translators has been to downplay anger at God and reinterpret the Psalms in ways that were doctrinally more palatableâ€¦It is precisely the Psalmsâ€™ refusal to engage in theological pietyâ€”their overflowing into wild jubilance or anger or deeply wrenching despairâ€”that allows them to resonate as perennial expressions of the human desire to stand simply and unabashedly before God.
This certainly is not the book of Psalms for scholars or for theologians to use as a primary text. This is a book of poetry. And like all poems–at least good poems–when you try to take them apart to analyze their individual verses, the whole poem collapses. It can only be known as a whole. Actually, poems are not “known” as much as they are experienced, eaten whole in one sitting. You do not strive to “understand” poetry. You receive it. Digest it. Let it become part of you. As a book of poems, Greenberg succeeds.
I wanted to find ways to struggle with the poetry and vibrancy of the original Psalms while at the same time wrestling with them as pieces of living liturgy. Because my central aim was to bring the text more fully alive as an act of prayer, I did not limit myself to translating any given word in the same way each time it appears. While consistency of language is useful as a pedagogical drumbeat, awakening a reader to repetitions that might otherwise be lost, poetry was for me a higher imperative.
Her translating identical words in different ways is seen in Psalms 103 and 104, both of which start with the phrase Barchi nafshi et Adonai. (We know this from our traditional translations as “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”) For Psalm 103, Greenberg states this as, “Be wild, O my soul, for the Source of Wonder.” In very next Psalm she translates the same words as, “Stand in wonder, my soul, before the Eternal.” The two Psalms are conveying different emotions–in 103, she sees “utter exuberance” as the main characteristic. In Psalm 104, “it is the quiet wonder at God’s everlasting presence that seemed more appropriate to reflect.”
If I had to assign one word to describe this work, it would be “real.” Greenberg brings out the realness intended in the Psalms. Betrayal. Abandonment. Confusion. Exhaustion. Wonder. Joy. Laughter. These feelings are not tamped down into nice little religious containers, but are allowed to spill out all over the page, and hopefully into the heart of the reader.
…we find within these verse the human search for God in all its mire and mud of complexity. Their landscape ranges from rocky crags upon which on stands in flight from persecution, to the shadow of God’s wings, to rivers and oceans that threaten to drown one in churning waters of despair. Their diversity gives testimony to the life of a person reaching with full heart and intellect toward God, a person yearning for revelation amidst the spectrum of circumstances that life presents. And with that search appears everything from jubilation to hopelessness to the various emotions in between.
Each of us have our favorite Psalms that we would use as measurements to see how we each like a certain translation. Allow me to present a few verses to give you a taste for Greenberg’s interpretation of the Psalms.
(We cannot reprint entire Psalms in this review without permission from the publisher, which could take a long time to obtain. Thus, I will only be able to highlight a few verses from select Psalms.)
Blessed are those who walked not influenced by the guilty
who in the path without purpose did not linger;
in the dwellings of scorners did not long dwell.
May you hear the speech of my heart, Holy One,
understand my contemplation before I give it voice.
Listen to my cry for compassion,
My Protector and my God,
because it is to you alone that I pray.
Come and gaze at God’s works,
the one who has astounded thte world with wonders,
who has brought all the earth’s wars to a halt.
The bow will be shattered and the arrow split in half,
the chariot burnt with fire.
Be calm and know that I am your Sustainer.
I will be lifted in praise among nations,
I will be lifted in praise throughout the earth.
Because you cling to me in love, says God,
I will carry you safely away.
I will lift you up, for you know my name.
When you call out to me, I will answer;
I am with you in times of affliction.
I will release you from harm
and illumine your honor.
I will satisfy you with long life
and show you the fruit of my salvation.
Understand the turbulent branching of my thoughts,
Seethe road that brings me sadness,
and lead me instead on the path of eternal life.
Ok, I think you get the picture. This is not a book you will take to church with you to follow along with your pastor’s scripture reading. Instead, this is a book to take with you on a retreat when you have leisurely time to soak in its words. It is for those times of darkness when you are sure you will not ever see light again. Or for when your joy cannot be contained, and you need help with words that make some sense of how great you feel. This is a book of poetry, and as such is not to be dissected, but savored.
My only complaint about this volume is that it is available–for now–in only one cover: a glossy hardcover. I would much prefer a heavy-stock paper back, jacketed hardcover, or–my personal preference–a nice leather edition. Be that as it may, The Complete Psalms by Pamela Greenberg would make a worthy addition to your collection of Scriptures–or poetry books for that matter.