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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

Fruchtbarkeit und Geburt in den Psalmen, by Marianne Grohmann.  Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.  370 pp.  €109. 


This study on fertility and birth in the Psalms was presented as a Habilitationsschrift (a second doctoral dissertation) in Old Testament to the Protestant Theological faculty at the University of Vienna in 2006. In the introductory chapter, Ms. Grohmann explains that she selected the language of birth and fertility because this is a part of the imagery of the psalms that has not been widely examined. This imagery provides an entry into both the anthropology and theology of the Hebrew Bible. The language of fertility is used of plants, animals, and humans. From the perspective of the Hebrew Bible, fertility is ultimately controlled by God and is one important element in the relationship between God and humanity. The largest part of the opening chapter deals with methodological issues and hermeneutical presuppositions. The author plans to utilize form criticism and historical-critical exegeses, but she also considers Rabbinical and Jewish Medieval interpretation important, especially as these often mesh with more modern aesthetic, inter-textual, and reader-oriented approaches to the Psalms. In chapters 2 and 3, she examines specific texts from Psalms and uses the guidelines of syntax, semantic fields, and pragmatic questions flowing from the study of the texts.

              The second chapter is titled “Birth between Anthropology and Theology.” The first text considered is Psalm 139:13–16. The Psalmist recognizes that conception and growth even before birth are part of the creative work of God. The phrase “deep within the earth” is a parallel to the growth deep within the body of the mother, but this growth is not hidden from God. Rabbinic exegesis recognized that God, as well as the human father and mother, all have a part in creating the child. This text moves from anthropology to theology because even in its earliest stages, the life of the individual is not hidden from God. God is in relationship with the individual from the moment of conception.

              The second text considered in this chapter is Ps. 22:10–11. The picture there is one of God as midwife. God is the one who takes the individual from the mother’s body and keeps him or her safe and secure. God and the individual are closely connected from birth, and the language of birth and midwife is used to illustrate that intimate relationship. Other texts including Ps. 2:7, and 90:2 are examined in this chapter along with language dealing with pregnancy, birth, and other related terms.

              Chapter Three is titled “Ambivalence of Fertility.” The language of fertility is ambivalent because children can be a blessing and a heritage for good or for destruction and evil. The language of fertility is used in a strikingly negative way in Psalm 7:15. The picture presented there is of the wicked person who conceives evil and brings forth mischief and lies. Fertility also involves negative aspects such as birth pangs and suffering on the part of the mother. Other negative concepts connected with fertility or infertility are miscarriage and childlessness, and these are part of the world of the Ancient Near East and of the Hebrew Bible. 

              The concept of infertility in the Hebrew Bible as a whole is examined in the last section of Chapter Three. Several important characters such as Sarah, Rebekah, Rachael, and Hannah all face problems of infertility. As in much of the Ancient Near East, women in the Hebrew Bible exhibit their worth through bearing children. Infertility is a shame and a tragedy. According to the text of the Hebrew Bible, it is God who is responsible for the infertility of these women. At the same time, it is God who is concerned for these marginalized women and who shows love and mercy by finally allowing them to bear children.

              In the final chapter, Grohmann summarizes her analysis and makes some observations moving from the Hebrew Bible to the present bioethical discussion. Images of fertility and birth are used in the Hebrew Bible in the context of creation. This provides a link between God and humanity. The language of fertility is also an important theme in the theology of the Hebrew Bible. God participates in the process of conception, birth, and development of the individual. Moving beyond the Psalms to the wider literature in the Hebrew Bible, the language of giving birth is used of subjects such as Israel, Zion, the sea, and the day. Ms. Grohmann recognizes that all language about God is symbolic, and the various uses of fertility language in the Hebrew Bible are reflected in the different ways this language is used in later Jewish and Christian interpretations.

              Modern discussions that could relate to this topic include concern about when life begins, the ethical use of technology for dealing with infertility, thankfulness over the wonder of life, and the sorrow over childlessness. A look at the language of fertility in the Psalms might infuse a fresh perspective into the current discussion and open avenues of dialogue between theology and medical and social ethics.

              Grohmann’s work provides a careful look at a topic that has not been explored previously in detail. Her study brings a number of important texts together and should be a significant contribution to the discussion of the themes of fertility and birth in the Hebrew Bible. This work calls attention to the fact that the very human aspects of fertility and birth are also important symbols in the larger discussion of the theology of the Hebrew Bible. Future consideration of the symbolic language and theology of the Hebrew Bible should include Ms. Grohman’s work in the larger discussion. The book contains a bibliography that includes predominantly, although not exclusively, German language sources. The book concludes with three appendices including Biblical references, modern authors, and a brief subject index.


Philip McMillion
Old Testament
Harding University Graduate School of Religion