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

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