Essay / Theology

Sigmund Mowinckel's Birthday

Today (August 4) is the day when Norwegian Old Testament scholar Sigmund Mowinckel was born (1884-1965). I have never made it more than a couple dozen pages into any book by Mowinckel, but he is always influencing the way I read the Psalms. My favorite Psalms commentaries were written by people who were influenced by his ideas, and who are at least keeping up a running argument with, if this is a word, Mowinckelian ideas.

Psalms scholarship in the early twentieth century was dominated by an effort to categorize the various psalms by their types: This psalm is a lament, that one is a praise; these laments are of a national character, while those laments are individual, etc. If that doesn’t seem like a game that could hold anybody’s scholarly attention very long, guess again. You could play it endlessly: Especially once the OT scholars started hypothesizing about the original settings these different types of psalms originated in, a wide field of scholarly conjecture opened up. What if each of the types originated in a particular social setting? Then you could discern temple-psalms of praise, classroom-psalms of wisdom, palace-songs of kingship, and so on. You could compare the Psalms with parallels in other ancient near eastern literature and have a whopping good time doing history-of-religions research. Sorting psalms by type turned out to give you a lot more traction on the actual form of the Psalms, and their probable stages of development, than the nineteenth-century’s favorite pastime of guessing at their sources based on what word the Psalms used for God. Hermann Gunkel is the big name behind this widespread type-approach to the Psalms.

Sigmund Mowinckel was remarkably good at this sort of scholarship; so good that he transformed it and began practicing it on a new, higher level. Mowinckel took the idea that certain Psalm types grew out of particular social settings and tried to make it more particular: Maybe Psalm 2 was from an ancient coronation service, maybe Psalm 46 was a corporate thanksgiving for the deliverance of Jerusalem from a siege, etc. Psalms like 24 (“Lift up your heads, o gates, that the king of glory may come in”) and 118 (“Bind the sacrifice to the horns of the altar,” etc.) are obviously liturgical. Mowinckel provides luminously clear explanations of these settings at the beginning of his book The Psalms in Israel’s Worship (original title Offersang og Sangoffer; I don’t know what that means, but it’s just got to be great).

Mowinckel’s work got especially interesting when he claimed to have discovered, or reconstructed, a forgotten festival that was the original setting of perhaps 40 of the Psalms. It was an autumn festival celebrating the enthronement of the LORD as king. Israel celebrated it annually, shouted “The LORD reigns,” and celebrated the reign of their human king only under the shadow of that epiphany of the true King.

At this point, of course, the experts descend and the scholarship gets pretty intense, and I can’t follow all of it. Hans-Joachim Kraus’ excellent Psalms commentary has a constant axe to grind with Mowinckel, apparently because Kraus hypothesizes a different kind of more Zion-y festival. I get lost easily in the details, and even after I’ve sorted it out by close reading, I wake up the next morning having forgotten the distinctions I learned. And of course there’s always plenty of higher-critical shenanigans I can’t support, but you get used to that sort of thing as an amateur commentary-user.

But what I like about Mowinckel’s work, and its influence on the commentaries I use, is how responsible and theological he gets. He doesn’t just pigeon-hole Psalms into types and imagine he has explained them. Once he’s hypothesized about an enthronement festival, he has just opened the door for the really interesting questions: What does it mean for Israel to recognize that the LORD is king, and what does it mean to commemorate that every year liturgically? Are they celebrating some sort of primal enthronement of the LORD, perhaps when he defeated chaos and established the world? Or are they looking forward to an eschatological victory of the LORD, but speaking in some sort of prophetic past tense about it? And how does history as experienced by Israel relate to this annual epiphany of the fact that the LORD reigns? Mowinckel is wide awake and highly articulate about these ramifications, and that makes him an unusually stimulating dialogue partner for real theological interpretation of the Psalms.

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