Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusion through Metaphor

Washing Away Sin in Psalm 51

in Vetus Testamentum
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Commentators have often noted the numerous prophetic allusions contained in Psalm 51. Identifying and evaluating the nature of such inner-biblical allusions, however, is not without difficulty. An additional feature that connects the psalm to the prophets is the concept of washing away sin (Ps 51:4, 9; Isa 1:16; 4:4; Jer 2:22; 4:14), a distinctive metaphor that is found explicitly only in these passages. This paper will evaluate the connection between Psalm 51 and these prophetic passages vis-à-vis a study of the washing metaphor and will utilize the distinctive metaphor as a criterion for identifying and exploring inner-biblical allusion. The analysis of a metaphor that is rare or unusual within the Hebrew Bible has the potential to inform the identification and exploration of inner-biblical connections and can aid in the discussion of dependency and directionality.

Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusion through Metaphor

Washing Away Sin in Psalm 51

in Vetus Testamentum




J. Kristeva“Bakhtine, le mot, le dialogue et le man.” Critique 33 (1967) pp. 438-65.


For example: E. van Wolde“Trendy Intertextuality” in Intertextuality in Biblical Writings: Essays in Honor of Bas van Iersel (Kampen 1989) pp. 43-49 rejects such approaches that are affirmed by scholars such as: K. Nielsen “Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible” Congress Volume Oslo 1998 (VTSupp 80; Leiden 1998) pp. 17-31; M. Fishbane “Types of Biblical Intertextuality” Congress Volume Oslo 1998 (VTSupp 80; Leiden 1998) pp. 39-44; etc.


See such discussion in Tull p. 75 on whether Isaiah used Nahum or Nahum used Isaiah. As will be discussed further below in the case of Psalm 51 the allusions between the prophets and the psalm are often discussed. While some point to the psalm depending on the prophets as in F. L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger Psalms 2 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis 2005) pp. 15-18 others suggest the opposite for example: W. Holladay Jeremiah 1 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia 1986) pp. 150-55 who later appears to have changed his mind in The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis 1993) p. 58.


K. Nielson“ ‘From Oracles to Canon’—And the Role of Metaphor” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 17 (2003) pp. 22-33; c.f. There is Hope for a Tree: The Tree as Metaphor in Isaiah (JSOTSup 65; Sheffield 1989) pp. 65-66 argues that “imagery can be reused in another context” and that the transmission of images may have played a role in redactional processes. Imagery was open and available for use and reuse and that one image or metaphor could be used in a variety of situations and still have meaning. Nielson elsewhere (“Intertextuality”) argues that central metaphors may act as markers for intertextual readings in which a subsequent text appropriates a metaphor from an earlier text thereby cueing the audience to think of that prior text while readings/listening to the next.


Sweeney pp. 108-111 suggests this unit provides a “climactic conclusion” to the preceding section that describing the “cleansing of Zion” in 2:22-4:1. He classifies this unit as a “description of salvation” even though it lacks the usual opening messenger formula.


HolladayJeremiah p. 157 points out that this passage is unique in the Hebrew Bible in that its verb takes the object “heart.” He compares this to the reference in v. 4: “Be circumcised to Yahweh remove the foreskin of your heart.” Both the washing of the heart and circumcision of the heart calls for “a radical renovation of the character the will to render it fit for covenant with Yahweh.” R. Carroll Jeremiah: A Commentary (otl; Philadelphia 1986) p. 163 connects this command to wash to Isa 1:16.


HolladayPsalms p. 58 points to the common use of כבס in Psalm 51 and Jeremiah 2 and 4 as well as the psalm’s use of other phrases from Jeremiah to argue for Psalm 51’s dependency on Jeremiah. He further argues that Jeremiah appears to be dependent on Isaiah (specifically Isa 1:15-20 and Isa 5:1-7) although this is less evident. Holladay affirms that Psalm 51 here is dependent on Jer 31:33 as he argues not only from their common messages but also on the basis of the common roots for “[re]new” and “heart.” Thus Holladay dates Psalm 51 to the exilic or post-exilic period on the basis of its dependency on Jeremiah. Furthermore he argues that Psalm 51 reflects the intense awareness of sin that emerged in the exilic and post-exilic period. The issue of dating will discussed further below.


Kraus p. 501 argues that the references to a “clean heart” and “spirit of obedience” in Ps 51:10-12 are reminiscent of similar values found in Jer. 24:7; 31:33; 32:39 and Ezek 36:25ff and that the repudiation of the sacrificial system reflects common concepts in Amos 5:22; Isa 1:11; Jer 6:20 etc.


Sabourin pp. 48 242-3 dates Psalm 51 to the period of the exile based on similar themes found in Jer 24:7; 31:33; Ezek 11:19; 36:25ff; and Amos 5:22; Isa 1:11: Mic 6:7; etc. He points to certain “eschatological realities” of blood the Holy Spirit and clean heart that would reflect the exilic period. Johnson pp. 414-15 also views Psalm 51 as drawing extensively on prophetic material and thus argues that it must be dated according to its use of the prophets. See similar comments in: Mays p. 199 Hossfeld and Zenger p. 18; Edward Dalglish Psalm Fifty-One in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Patternism (Leiden: Brill 1962) pp. 220-30; etc. Hossfeld and Zenger p. 18 go so far as to say that the prophetic texts of Isaiah Jeremiah and Ezekiel are alluded to by Psalm 51 and should thus inform a reading of the psalm as reflecting a common collective experience of the community.


See for example: TatePsalms 51-100 p. 9; Hossfeld and Zenger p. 16; Kraus p. 42; etc.


Hossfeld and Zenger p. 16 suggest the mention of rebuilding does not necessitate a date of composition prior to the building of the second temple; rather it points toward an eschatological restoration and is not dependent on the historical events of the rebuilding.

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