For Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, Wesley’s Professor of Biblical Theology, writing Psalms, Books 2–3 for the Wisdom Commentary Series, was an opportunity to shed new light on beloved texts and to experience them from a rich, new perspective.
Using “intertexts” Hopkins helps readers step away from the masculine framing usually applied to these works. “At its base, intertextual analysis is simply laying texts side by side,” she said. “You look for the resonance, for similar metaphors, for corresponding situations. Each text then illumines the other.”
In this case, Hopkins lays the psalms alongside the stories of women in the Bible, challenging interpretations built upon the superscriptions that link the psalms to King David. “The stories they conjure have been about men and kingship and war,” Dombkowski Hopkins said. “The metaphors have been enfleshed through heteronormative male stories.”
She chose a different approach. “I wanted to see the metaphors come alive in a new way” she said. “I’m using a feminist lens, and women’s story are going to bring out a different metaphor.”
Using the intertextual approach, she linked Psalm 53 with the story of David’s daughter, Tamar, who is raped by her brother Amnon.
“The words of Psalm 53 are words we can imagine Tamar speaking after her brother rapes her, and after her father David does nothing in response,” Dombkowski Hopkins said. “Her brother Absalom is plotting revenge, but she doesn’t know that yet.”
The new context gives the psalm new resonance. “One can imagine that these are words that Tamar might have prayed,” Dombkowski Hopkins said. Those words include:
“God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.
They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.”
Dombkowski Hopkins took a similar approach to Psalm 72, which bears the superscription “Of Solomon,” and details how a king should live and rule. “It was probably prayed at coronations, and served to remind kings of their responsibilities,” she said.
She imagined who might be in the audience at Solomon’s coronation. “I thought of the queen mother, Bathsheba,” she said. “I pictured her listening to these declarations about what a king should be, but her experience under the kingship of David was to be a victim, to be raped. She’s listening and saying to herself, ‘Uh-huh. Yeah. Right.’”
Dombkowski Hopkins’ scholarly writing draws directly on her work at Wesley. “There always needs to be a link between the classroom and the book you’re writing,” she said. “Otherwise it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.”
In particular, she benefited from the varied perspectives of her students. “I listen to the questions my students ask, each of them speaking from their own context,” she said. “If you’re in tune with that in the classroom, you’ll be in tune with it in your writing.”
Her commitment extends to sharing opportunities with students who have become scholars in their own right. Throughout the book, shaded boxes provide insights from women who are Wesley graduates, and are Dombkowski Hopkins’ former students or teaching assistants.
Yolanda Norton will receive her doctorate later this year and plays a prominent role in Dombkowski Hopkins’ book. “She and I disagreed often,” Dombkowski Hopkins said with delight, noting that those disagreements remain present on the page. “An African American woman and a white woman are coming from different contexts,” she said. “And those differences are important.”
“The writers of the Talmud would be proud,” she said, referring to the ancient Jewish work in which each page is covered with multiple, contradictory views on a given text. “It’s a perfect way to illustrate that the text is multilayered and multivalent.”
For Dombkowski Hopkins, the book answers a need in contemporary culture, and in scholarly circles. “We need to work hard at bringing out the voices that have been silent or muffled,” she said. “It’s all too easy to ignore them.”
She described writing the book as the most difficult work of her career, and confessed to periods of feeling overwhelmed. In response, she would think about those who would benefit most.
“I think the church always has to look at what it proclaims in the face of oppression and of fear,” she said. “We have to do that before we start spouting platitudes. I hope this book helps people practice looking at the text from a different angle, and at people they’ve taken for granted.”