My Interview with Psalms Scholar Nancy deClaisse-Walford
(See HERE for my previous interview with Dr. Walter Brueggemann).
I am pleased to share this interview I conducted with Dr. Nancy deClaisse-Walford, professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. It is truly a thoughtful, insightful, and spunky read! I hope you will enjoy reading it, and please do leave comments; I have provided Dr. deClaisse-Walford with the link. Perhaps she will weigh-in. Happy reading!
Where to begin? I am a product of the social climate of the 60s and 70s. My high school guidance teacher (in Southern California in 1971!!!) told the whole class that the reason a girl went to college was to get her MRS degree. So that is where I began and where I begin.
I have always loved history and always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. And so I went to California State University at Northridge, California, and earned a degree in ancient history. I have also always loved the church and thought that it might be possible that I could teach about the history of the biblical text. Thus, when I graduated from college, I decided to pursue further studies in biblical history.
While I did not see a future for myself in theological education, I knew that I would need to have command of an ancient language in order to be accepted for Master’s Degree study in biblical or ancient history at a state institution. So in the Fall of 1979, I enrolled in Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in a twelve-credit-hour intensive course in Biblical Hebrew.
A few weeks into the course, I discovered that I had found a real passion. Hebrew was fun; it was invigorating; it gave me a whole new perspective on the biblical text. I was hooked. Further conversations with my counselor at Fuller revealed that I could pursue a degree in Semitic Languages and Literature at the school. And thus I embarked on a phenomenal journey. I studied Advanced Hebrew Grammar, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, and Northwest Semitic Dialects, and graduated in 1985 with an award for being the outstanding Old Testament student for that year.
I spent the following year at the University of California of Los Angeles in its Near Eastern Languages and Literature Department, honing my skills in Hebrew and Akkadian. And then I married and took a four-year hiatus from studies that included living in England for three years and having our two children.
In 1990, my husband and I moved to Dallas, Texas, and I began the search for a PhD program that would prepare me for the vocation to which I had felt called many years before. I traveled to Waco, Texas, and met with Bill Bellinger and Bill Pitts at Baylor University and knew immediately that they were folk with whom I could work and thrive. I began studies in Old Testament under the direction of Bill Bellinger in the Fall of 1990 and graduated in December of 1995.
Three months before graduation, I was offered a job at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia, to help “dream” the new Baptist seminary that was being formed there under the leadership of Alan Culpepper. I accepted the position and have been at Mercer (now the McAfee School of Theology) for the past fourteen years. And what a journey it has been!
As a fellow Baylor graduate, can you reflect a bit on your time there? How do you see Baylor as having contributed to your success as a scholar?
I grew up in Indiana, Arizona, and Southern California and experienced a variety of church environments. I was born and baptized into the Evangelical and Reform Church (now part of the United Churches of Christ). When I was six years old, my parents moved to Arizona, and we attended, and I was confirmed in, the Presbyterian Church. In my early teens, we moved to Southern California, where my best friend attended a Southern Baptist church. I began attending church with her, and thus was introduced to Southern Baptist life.
While I was in High School, the church we all attended went through a split and a number of us began attending the American Baptist church in town. I was baptized into and joined the American Baptist church and remained in that tradition for some fifteen years, until my husband and I moved to Waco.
After my experience with the Southern Baptist church in California, I was extremely cautious during my interview with Baylor University. My memory of the Southern Baptists was all “hell-fire and brimstone.” To my delight, I found that was not the case with all Southern Baptists and found my theological experience at Baylor to be both challenging and nurturing.
Academically, I had much to catch up on. First, my seminary degree was in Semitic Languages, not Bible. So while I had taken basic Bible courses, almost all of my elective hours were dedicated to language study. In the course of my language studies, I developed a real interest in how being able to read, contemplate on, and manipulate the written word impacted the development of human thought.
Second, I had taken a four-year break from academic work. Much changed in biblical studies in the late eighties. Scholarship moved quite dramatically during that time from “historical” approaches to the text to “literary” approaches, most with which I was only vaguely familiar. My first course at Baylor was Bill Bellinger’s “The Old Testament as Literature.” And not long after I took Mikeal Parson’s “The New Testament as Literature.” From those courses, I learned that the biblical text was the product of much reading, contemplation on, and manipulation of the written text.
As I listened to lectures, dialogued in class, and conversed with professors and colleagues, I determined that my niche in biblical studies would be in canonical criticism–that is, a study of the shape of the text. I read extensively the works of Brevard Childs and James Sanders, and found myself firmly in alliance with the views of Sanders, who maintains that the final shape of the text IS what we must deal with, but we must know the historical backgrounds of the communities of faith that shaped the text into its final form.
The next step in the process of “shaping” my academic career came with deciding which portion of the biblical text on which to concentrate my energies. The logical choice? Bill Bellinger had invested his academic career in the book of Psalms; he knew the current scholarship; he knew the questions that were being asked; he would be very interested in what I was doing. And so the canonical shaping of the book of Psalms became my area of interest.
The Baylor Religion faculty is very involved in the academy, and I was encouraged early on to submit papers to the regional SBL/AAR meeting (SWCSB) and to the national SBL meeting. I began reading papers in 1993 and before I graduated from Baylor in 1995, had delivered three papers at the regional meeting, three papers at the national meeting, and had one journal article published.
What led you to biblical studies, the Hebrew Bible more specifically?
Most of the answer to this question can be found in my response to question #1. What more can I add?
My love for history, which began at an early age, spilled over into my love for the history of the Old Testament when I was in high school and college. What led me to Old Testament studies, specifically? I took Western Civilization in college (as most of us did), and the stories of the ancient Near East and the archaeological finds absolutely fascinated me. When I was a junior in college I tood a course titled “Jews in the Ancient World,” and I really think that was when I knew that I wanted to study the backgrounds of our ancestors in the faith.
As I said in Question #1, in the mid-1970s, women didn’t really consider careers in theological education, so I decided I would like to teach ancient/biblical history in a college or university setting. That all changed when I went to Fuller to take Biblical Hebrew–other women WERE pursuing degrees that would lead them to teaching positions in theological education. And the rest is, as they say, history.
Your dissertation, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, has been published by Mercer University Press (1997). In it you pursue and expand upon Gerald Wilson’s hypothesis regarding intentional shaping in the Psalter by looking at the opening psalm of each book. Now, over ten years removed from its initial publication, how do you see it as having contributed to study on the Book of Psalms? And how do you understand/where would you situate your volume in the overall history of Psalms scholarship?
For so many, many years, the study of the Psalter was driven by Hermann Gunkel’s form-critical approach and Sigmund Mowinckel’s cult-functional approach. Wilson’s work represented a major departure from such studies, and when I arrived at Baylor in 1990, Wilson’s work was new and cutting edge. He had explored the tip of the iceberg; much was left to be done.
Wilson examined in depth the “seams” of the books of the Psalter, with particular attention to the closing psalm of each of its five books. I built off of his work, choosing to examine the opening psalm(s) of each book. My hope was to complement Wilson’s work and to offer some additional insights into the community of faith that shaped the book into its final form.
I like to think that I was successful in that undertaking. And I hope that my work subsequent to my dissertation, published in 1997 by Mercer University Press, had contributed substantially to the ongoing dialogue about the shape and shaping of the Psalter.
Psalm scholarship has followed the trend of Old Testament scholarship in general. Questions of shape and shaping have, very often, given over to questions of rhetoric, poetic style, and theology (see the recent topics for the Book of Psalms section of the SBL annual meeting).
Interestingly, though, was my experience in presenting a paper at the Book of Psalms session at the SBL annual meeting in 2006. The theme of the session was “The Rhetoric of the Psalter.” I chose to examine the rhetoric of Psalm 44, and, as I prepared the paper, I discovered that the concept of “rhetoric” was intimately tied to the concept of “canonical shaping.” Both were attempts to persuade an audience to adopt a particular viewpoint. Thus, I said:
As a canonical critic, I have spent my career looking, for the most part, at the big picture—the shaping of a book of the Bible to convince a postexilic Israelite people that they could survive as a separate and identifiable entity in a world in which they were simply one of many vassal nations. A shaping of words to convince . Have I perhaps been delving into Rhetorical Criticism without really realizing it? Is canonical criticism a “cousin” of rhetorical criticism?
I would like to suggest that the broader definition of “canonical criticism” will continue to inform the study of the book of Psalms (and the whole of biblical text) for years to come. We might be permitted to say that every word, every verse, and every story has been crafted to persuade an audience that their God, Yahweh, is the only sovereign god.
You have also written a brief introductory volume, Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel (Chalice, 2004) where you argue the final form of the Psalter (indeed, the entire Hebrew Bible) is a “constituative document of [Israelite] identity” that traces the rise and fall of the Davidic dynasty. How do you respond to critics who have noted the presence of psalms attributed to David still in the latter part of the Psalter, especially Pss 146-150, as a challenge to your claim that Books IV and V evidence a return to an earlier time in ancient Israel’s history when YHWH alone was king?
Book Four contains only two psalms of David, Psalms 101 and 103. Compared to the volume of David psalms in Books One and Two, Books Three and Four reflect a great absence of David. David DOES make a dramatic reappearance in Book Five, though.
Book Four introduces the idea of Yahweh, not a human being, as king over Israel. Psalm 90, the first psalm in Book Four, is, according to its superscription, A Psalm of Moses the Man of God. It is the only such superscription in the Psalter, and it reminds the reader/hearer of a time in the life of ancient Israel before the monarchy, the time of the escape from Egypt and the wilderness wandering. There, the Israelites had to rely solely on God for their sustenance and protection. No human was king over them. In the middle of Book Four are six enthronement psalms (Pss 93, 95-99), psalms that celebrate God’s rule over the earth.
In Book Five of the Psalter, David is once again a major figure. The Book is largely a collection of psalms used in various cultic celebrations in the life of Israel. David’s voice dominates and invites readers/hearers to join in the celebration. The words of the final psalm before the closing doxological psalms of the Psalter are placed on the lips of David. There, he leads the people in a heartfelt recitation, celebrating God as king over Israel and over all creation. The message seems clear. If David, the great king of Israel who can be king no longer, can celebrate God as king, then all Israel can and must join him in the celebration.
The voice of David returns in Book Five of the Psalter to rally the faithful around the concept of God as king–not a king of the davidic line, but God as king. Psalm 145 is powerful. It appears in the Jewish Prayer Book more than any of the other psalms in the Psalter. And the Babylonian Talmud Berakot 4b states that Psalm 145 is to be recited three times a day, just as the shema, and everyone who does so “may be sure that he is a child of the world to come.”
What impact has the late Gerald Wilson had on your work? What contribution(s) do you see him as having made to Psalms scholarship?
Oh, stories to tell. In my early days at Baylor, I was in absolute awe of Gerald Wilson. Here was a person who had stepped out, suggested a new approach to the text of Psalms, and he was a graduate of Yale who had studied under none other than Robert L. Wilson. He was a presence at every national meeting of the SBL Book of Psalms section that I attended.
One thing that you must know about me is that I am a very competitive person. So, after a few years of making my own presentations at the national meetings, I vividly remember looking him in the face and saying, “One day, ‘they’ will be quoting me instead of you.”
Gerald’s untimely and tragic death in 2005 was a wake-up call for me as I pursued my own agenda in academia. We are all human; we each make our contributions; and we cannot tell when our time is over. I dedicated my Society of Biblical Literature presidential address at the Southeast Conference for the Study of Religion to the memory of Gerald Wilson.
Holistic/metanarrative readings of the Hebrew Psalter are still relatively new and ‘cutting-edge.’ Where do you think we have yet to go in Psalms study? What areas warrant further investigation, and which questions need to be asked?
I think we have spent a great deal of time on the meta-narrative reading of the Psalter. I still wonder if we have “gotten it right.” Much of my career success hinges on that! I think we still have much ground to cover on the question of the “theology” of the Psalter–i.e., last years SBL Book of Psalms section on that topic.
But I am increasingly intrigued by the more micro-narrative readings of the Psalter. I am having fun examining the connectedness between groups of psalms. My specific interest at the moment is on Book Five. I maintain that it is a rich resource for us in the quest for understanding the deep-rooted message of the book. Recall Thomas Mann’s statement in The Book of the Torah: the Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch: “You can tell much about a story by the way it ends.”
What are some of your academic interests outside the Book of Psalms?
My other passion outside the book of Psalms is biblical Hebrew (and koine Greek). I am especially interested in how to present the language to and inculcate a love of it in seminary students. Many seminaries no longer require students to study biblical Hebrew and koine Greek. My lament–how can one be a student of a literature without being to examine it in its original language? No one could receive a degree in French literature if they could not read and understand French, so why should the study of biblical literature be any different.
The problem, however, lies in how theological faculty approach the study of Hebrew and Greek. In days past, students were required to complete a number of courses in each language. In our modern seminary environment, if students are required to take any Hebrew or Greek at all, it is usually for only one semester or, at best, one year. And yet, the pedigogical model has not altered. Students are still required to “stand up and recite” and memorize endless paradigms and vocabulary lists.
My desire is to provide for the students a system of learning how to use “tools” for language translation and analysis. I ask myself, “When a student arrives in a church setting and wants to REALLY KNOW what Gen 2:7 says, how will that student approach the text?” English Bible, Hebrew Bible, perhaps an Interlinear, Lexicon, Charts to figure out verbal tenses, and then Commentaries. Thus, why not train students in seminary to use the tools that they will need for preparing sermons, Bible studies, and lectures?
The Hebrew language program at McAfee reflects just such a philosophy–a tools-based approach to biblical Hebrew.
What one scholar has most influenced your thought, and how?
James Sanders — see #2
Gerald Wilson — see #4 and 6
What are some of the best places in your view to study Hebrew Bible/Old Testament today, and why?
Tough question. Lots of good places, depending on one’s area of interest.
I am in Atlanta, and Emory has top-notch Hebrew Bible scholars–Newsom, Petersen, and Strawn.
I think Baylor has built a pretty impressive department of Hebrew Bible. I recommend it to many of my students.
I do think we are going through another one of those transition stages–a number of celebrated figures in OT have retired or are considering retiring.
I know you are currently writing the NICOT commentary on the Psalms with Rolf Jacobsen and Beth LaNeel Tanner. Can you tell us a little bit about that project? Is there an overall trajectory or approach the volume is taking? How has the work been divided? And any ideas yet on when it will be available?
A rather touchy question to answer. I finished my portion of the commentary eighteen months ago. Now waiting for all others to complete. The joys of joint projects.
The division of the work? Rolf is writing the introduction to the voume, except for the part on the canonical shaping, which I contributed; he is also writing the commentary on Book One; I wrote the commentary on the first part of Book Two, Psalms 42-51; Beth is writing the commentary for the remainder of Book Two, Psalm 52-71; and for Books Three and Four, Psalms 73-106; and I wrote the commentary for Book Five, Psalms 107-150.
The three of us met a number of times to talk about the translation process and came to agreement on a number of items, such as: we will leave hesed untranslated; and the word yara’ usually translated as “fear” will be translated as “reverence.”
The challenge? Not so much for me as for Eerdmans. Beth, Rolf, and I each approach the biblical text from different standpoints. I realize that here I am stereotyping, but I am a canonical, historical critic; Beth is very theological; and Rolf is very literary and poetical (apologizes to Beth and Rolf if I have misrepresented you!!). So my concern is how this volume/volumes will look as a finished whole.
What other projects can we expect to be forthcoming from you?
Two projects I am working on:
First, how to craft the presentation of biblical Hebrew and koine Greek for the current seminary audience. I have published a Hebrew textbook (Chalice Press), but I continue to refine and hone the method to make the languages relevant and palatable–and doable!!!
Second, I have been working for a number of years on the concept of “The Wisdom Shaping of Book Five of the Psalter.” I maintain that wisdom influences contributed greatly to the final shape of the book of Psalms and that our best option for reading the book is through a wisdom lens.
Thank you, Dr. deClaisse-Walford! I very much appreciate your time and energies, I look forward to your forthcoming projects, and to getting together at SBL!