In praise of the storm god (2)

In the final lines of Psalm 29 the writer repeats some terms used earlier, connecting the concluding lines with the opening statements. The Psalm begins by ascribing strength to the LORD and concludes with the benediction “May the LORD give strength to his people”. The central section describes the chaos and terror of a violent storm and the conclusion has a call for the LORD to “bless his people with peace”. The two concluding couplets declare that the LORD is enthroned “over the flood”, a term which probably refers either to the primeval chaos in the Canaanite myths or the chaos of the great flood described in Genesis.6 Either way there appears to be a deliberate contrast between chaos and peace and the structure of the psalm forms a tight unit.

Both lines of the penultimate couplet declare that “the LORD sits enthroned”. In the 1960s Sigmund Mowinckel wrote a thorough analysis of what he called the “enthronement psalms” which are characterised by an acclamation that the LORD is King and the use of language pertaining to the ascent of the throne. Mowinckel argued that these psalms had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles.7 Significantly, Psalm 29 in the Septuagint has a superscription ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”, which could possibly indicate that it was sung on the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles. Strangely, Mowinckel did not identify Psalm 29 as an enthronement psalm, despite these notable characteristics. The Festival of Trumpets and the Festival of Tabernacles are closely associated in the Hebrew calendar, both being in the seventh month. If Mowinckel is right this could also explain the possible connection between seven trumpets and the seven thunders in The Revelation.

Other scholarshave also noted similarities between the enthronement psalms of Israel and the enthronement festivals of Ugarit and identified several features in Psalm 29 which could possibly have Canaanite origins. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that almost every word in Psalm 29 can be found in earlier Canaanite texts. Aloysius Fitzgerald asserted that “it is clear that the typical Canaanite presentation of Baal as the god of the rainstorm which characterizes each of these texts has been used by Israelite poets in speaking of Yahweh, and such connections can be spotted with relative ease.”9 He concluded that Psalm 29 was originally Canaanite and simply adapted for Israelite use by changing “Baal” to the name of the God of Israel. Theodor Gaster argued, perhaps over-enthusiastically, that

There is a complete correspondence in details between the Hebrew psalm and the texts to which we have referred [Enuma elis and the Poem of Baal], and several passages of the former which are at present difficult of interpretation are at once clarified and illuminated by comparison with the latter.10

The introduction to Psalm 29 says it is לדוד ‘of’ or ‘pertaining to’ David.  It is therefore possible that it was composed with reference to an event associated historically with David and David’s two attempts to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem might qualify as this historic occasion. In connection with the first attempt to relocate the Ark the Chronicler wrote:

And David and all Israel went up to Baalah [Kiriath-jearim]… to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord who sits enthroned above the cherubim (1 Chronicles 13:6).

The tradition which understood the Ark as the throne of God may have prompted the composition of the psalm for the purpose of commemorating that event. While the first attempt failed the second succeeded, and this may be behind the exclamation in Psalm 29:9 that ‘in his temple all cry, “Glory!”’, referring to the Ark’s eventual resting-place in the Jerusalem Temple. The intriguing superscription in the Septuagint (ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”) would therefore refer to the departure of the Ark from its location in the Tabernacle at Kiriath-jearim and the ‘enthronement psalms’ might possibly commemorate the enthronement of the LORD on the Ark of the Covenant.

The main similarities between Psalm 29 and Ugaritic or Canaanite motifs are: (a) the reference to the divine council and the Sons of Elim/El; (b) geographical references in the psalm (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon], and the Desert of Kadesh [in Syria]) suggesting it may have originated from that region; (c) thunder is representative both of the voice of the LORD and the voice of Baal; and (d) enthronement over the flood in the psalm may reflect Canaanite creation conflict themes. However, Robert Alter has noted that “None of these arguments is entirely convincing.”11

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

So is Psalm 29 a Canaanite poem? While Fitzgerald asserted that it is a Baal poem transformed to become a poem to worship the LORD using a simple substitution of Baal with the name of the LORD, the psalm may equally have been intentionally composed by an Israelite using Canaanite ideas and poetic conventions. It is possible that in this psalm the God of Israel is deliberately described in the terms of pagan gods to appeal to Israelites who were tempted to worship pagan gods or as a polemic against Baal worship.12 Leland Ryken thinks that “Psalm 29 imitates (and ultimately parodies) the motifs of Canaanite poems written about the exploits of Baal.”13

My own view is that the Canaanites and Israelites both drew on poetic conventions and literary practices which were widespread throughout the region, producing literature which inevitably had many similarities in language and style but with different purposes and objects of devotion. Psalm 29 was probably written to be used liturgically as part of an ‘enthronement festival’, possibly associated with the Festivals of Trumpets and Tabernacles in the seventh month, commemorating the enthronement of the God of Israel in the Jerusalem Temple, and may have drawn on historic traditions about the relocation of the Ark to Jerusalem by David.

concluded

6 The Hebrew word for “flood” (מבול) occurs only here and in Genesis with reference to the great flood.

7 S. Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, 106

8 For example, A.R. Petersen, The Royal God: Enthronement Festivals in Ancient Israel and Ugarit? (Sheffield: Sheffield academic Press, 1998)

9 A. Fitzgerald,  “A Note on Psalm 29” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 215 (Oct., 1974), pp. 61-63

10 Theodor H. Gaster, “Psalm 29” The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jul., 1946), pp. 55-65 University of Pennsylvania Press, 57

11 R. Alter, The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007)

12 So argues A.P. Ross , A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (1-41), (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 653

13 L. Ryken, and T. Longman III (eds.) A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 50

In praise of the storm god (1)

stormPsalm 29 may be one of the oldest psalms in the Hebrew Bible. Its beginning is set in a heavenly council and is addressed to the בני אלים “sons of Elim”. This terminology is very similar to Psalm 82:1 and Psalm 89:6-7 which respectively refer to the עדת־אל “council of El” and the בני אלים “sons of Elim”. These texts in turn are similar to the frame narrative of Job which is partially set in a divine council of the בני האלהים “sons of ha-Elohim”; and the narrative of the interbreeding of the בני־האלהים “sons of ha-Elohim” with the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6.  Some scholars have noticed the similarity of this divine council with the Canaanite myths of the council of El.1

The central section of Psalm 29 describes the voice of the LORD in terms of an intense storm which forms over the sea (“the waters” and the “many [or mighty] waters” in verse 3 probably means the Mediterranean Sea) and then moves eastwards over the land (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon] and on to Syrian Kadesh), following the east-to-west pattern of weather in Canaan2 and breaking the cedar trees in its path (v. 5) and stripping the forests bare (v. 9), causing animals to flee (v. 6) and in their terror to prematurely give birth (v. 9), sending bolts of lightning (v. 7) and making the ground to shake (v. 8). In a striking parallelism the psalm refers seven times to “the voice of the LORD” and after the first use of this expression says “the God of glory (or, “the Glorious El”) thunders”. John Day saw this as reminiscent of the seven thunders of Baal in Ugaritic poetry3, specifically in the following lines from two poems:

Seven lightnings (he [Baal] had),  Eight storehouses4 of thunder were the shafts of (his) lightnings. (RS 24.245 lines 3b-4) 

And you [Baal], take your clouds, your wind, your chariot team, your rain, take with you your seven servitors and your eight boars, take Pidriya daughter of dew with you, and Taliya daughter of showers with you. (CTA 5.v. 6b-11) 

The identity of the “seven servitors” and “eight boars” here is uncertain, but because the other metaphors in this section of the poem are meteorological so Day takes them to be the same as the “seven lightnings and seven thunders” mentioned previously. Psalm 29 concludes with the ‘enthronement’ of the LORD and Day observed that the Ugaritic text RS 24.245 commenced with a similar enthronement statement:

Baal sits enthroned, having the mountain as a throne, Hadad (the shepherd) like the flood in the midst of his mountain, the god of Zaphon in the (midst of) the mountain of victory. (RS 24.245 lines 1-3a)

Several scholars have noted the similarity between the language of Psalm 29 and Ugaritic poems about Baal. For example, Tremper Longman III asserts that

It is well known that the Canaanite god Baal was a storm-god. He was the one who dispensed rain, flashed lightning, and created thunder. Psalm 29 pictures Yahweh as a storm-god in language reminiscent of Baal.5

There is a possible intertextual link between the “seven voices/thunders” of Psalm 29 and the apocalyptic New Testament book of The Revelation where the narrator heard an angel call out “with a loud voice … When he called out, the seven thunders sounded” (Revelation 10:1-4). The use of the definite article suggests that there were seven specific thunders he had in mind. Elsewhere he heard seven angels blow on seven trumpets “and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:2-5). The similarity in the language suggests that the writer either had the language of Psalm 29 in mind (and the Psalms are among the most quoted biblical books in early Christian literature), or was drawing on the same pool of metaphors which inspired the writer of Psalm 29. The mention of seven trumpets along with seven thunders and the frequency of Temple imagery in The Revelation further suggest that the writer may have been referring to a liturgical use of trumpets in connection with the language of Psalm 29, and I will return later to this connection.

 … to be continued

1 For example, at Ugarit there were seventy sons of the gods (KTU 1.4:VI.46).

2 R.J. Clifford,, Psalms 1-72, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 155

3 J. Day,, “Echoes of Baal’s Seven Thunders and Lightnings in Psalm XXIX and Habakkuk III 9 and the Identity of the Seraphim in Isaiah VI” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 29, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1979), 143ff.

4 Day understands the juxtaposition of ‘seven” and “eight” to be a poetic device for emphasis meaning “seven”, hence “seven lightnings and seven thunders”.

5 Temper Longman III “Psalms: Ancient Near Eastern Background” in Tremper Longman III, Peter Enns (eds.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 603