Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Are the Psalms Gendered?

I am reading Poets on the Psalms, an intriguing book edited by Lynn Domina (published in 2008 by Trinity University Press). I never thought about the Psalms as being particularly gendered until I read Alicia Ostriker's essay, "Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal Interlude."

Ostriker observes, "Psalms contains no women at all" (26). Before my recent, intense reading of the Psalms, I would have said that the Psalms contain no individual humans, so much as we read the voice of a universal narrator. But Ostriker goes on to observe that "the Psalmist often seems less a generic human than a public man. A politician, a warrior" (26). When I read that page of her essay, my first reaction was denial: "Surely not."

After reading her essay, I decided to turn to the Psalms for my daily 15 minutes of Bible reading. And much to my shock, she's right. I am surprised at the tone of the Psalms I've read thus far. I know that some of the Psalms have a reputation for their fierce anger, but I wasn't expecting so many of them to be like that. I wasn't expecting so much battle imagery.

And I'm reading the Psalms through the lens of gender, a lens that isn't unfamiliar to me (I began my life as a literary critic as a feminist reader; gender issues would always be the first thing I noticed, and then I'd return to issues of race, theology, class, nationality, figurative language--or whatever else the professor told me to observe). Ostriker is right. The lack of female experience is startling. How could I have gone through my whole church life and not have noticed this before?

Of course, it makes sense that since the Psalmist is male (we presume), the Psalmist would make use of imagery that was familiar to him. It makes sense that a male Psalmist would not refer to miscarriages, to bodies that betray us in particularly female ways.

Sure, some of the bodily betrayals presented in the Psalms are probably universal; most of us won't make it through old age without feeling that we are "poured out like water" (Psalm 22). I am familiar with the weeping episodes that the Psalmist describes.

I am most familiar with the Psalms as I encounter them daily, in the fixed hour prayers composed by Phyllis Tickle, in her The Divine Hours series. I like them better in small chunks. But am I letting the Psalms off the hook?

No. I know that I'm participating in a patriarchal religion, and that some of the books are more male-dominated than others. One of the things that many people appreciate about the Psalms is their fierce honesty. And if it's honesty written by a male Psalmist, that doesn't mean we must discount them, just because we're feminists.

It does give me an idea for a writing project--what would the Psalms look like, if penned by a modern, female poet? Hmmmmm.

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