The Psalm Superscripts
PSALM 3 A psalm superscript is the brief informational note that precedes many psalms. In Psalm 3, for example, the superscript is: "A psalm of David.When he fled from his son Absalom."Today many scholars disregard the superscripts, considering them untrustworthy, but two factors suggest that we do well to pay attention to them:
Some superscripts refer to incidents about which the books of Samuel and Chronicles say nothing. For example,the superscript of Psalm 60 mentions otherwise unknown battles with Aram Naharaim, Aram Zobah and Edom. If a scribe had been inventing superscripts to tie the psalms artificially to historical events, he would probably have linked them to known episodes from the canonical text (such as David's flight from Absalom, as in Ps 3). But references to unknown events or persons imply that the superscripts were written by people with specific knowledge of events, many of which are now lost to us.
The superscripts use technical, musical terms. Examples include song titles (like "The Doe of the Morning" in Ps 22), references to instruments (such as"stringed instruments" in Ps 4) and special instructions (such as"For the director of music" in Ps 58). Significantly, however, as early as the third century B.C. the true meanings of many superscripts were lost. For example,the translators of the Septuagint evidently did not always know what to make of the Hebrew words of the superscripts and at times resorted to guesswork in translating these terms into Greek.3 This implies that the superscripts themselves are quite old—perhaps as ancient as the psalms themselves.
Ancient Musical Instruments
PSALM 5 A modest number of remains of musical instruments have been recovered by archaeologists. We do, however, have abundant evidence in ancient texts (such as the Psalms) and art (such as Egyptian tomb paintings) that attest to the varied use ancient peoples made of instruments to create music. Thus, the paucity of relics of ancient instruments is a matter of their fragility, not their scarcity. Indeed, a few of the more durable ancient instruments that have been found, such as cymbals, can still produce sound. Also,the vocabulary of musical instruments in Biblical Hebrew is fairly extensive. There can be no doubt that such instruments were widely employed in the ancient world, including Israel.
Precise translation of many Hebrew words for instruments is made difficult by the lack of Biblical descriptions. Even ancient translators, such as those working on the Greek Septuagint, often had little understanding of the meanings of the Hebrew musical terms. Also, modern associations with certain names can be misleading. For example, shofar is often translated "trumpet," calling to mind a brass instrument rather than what it actually was: a ram's horn.' The English "tambourine" suggests a hand drum with metal rings that jingle when shaken, but ancient Israelite hand drums probably lacked the rings. On the other hand,ancient artwork from Egypt and Mesopotamia provides us with clear images of what many instruments looked like. The Israelites, like their neighbors, used three basic types of instrumentation:
Stringed instruments, like the lyre and harp.The lyre is well attested from ancient Israel, but the harp is more problematic. Some authorities argue that the word translated "harp" may actually refer to a kind of bass lyre or even to a lute. On the other hand, an instrument that is obviously a harp is attested from ancient Egypt and thus may have existed in Israel as well.
Percussion instruments of two kinds: Drums and tambourines were constructed from animal skin stretched over a frame. "Idiophones" produce sound by vibrating but have neither strings nor skin membranes. Examples are objects such as bells, gongs, rattles, clappers and cymbals.These may have been made of various materials, including metal, wood, hardened clay or bone.Second Samuel 6:5 and Nehemiah 12:27 both refer to their use.
Wind instruments, like pipes, trumpets or the shofar (ram's horn),are well-attested in the Bible (flute-like instruments at 1Ki 1:40; silver trumpets at Nu 10:2; the shofar at Joel 2:1).
Such instruments were widely used for entertainment and boisterous parties (lsa 5:12), but also for celebratory worship (Ps 81:2; 150:1-5).The first reference to musical instruments in the Bible is in Genesis 4:21, where Jubal, one of Cain's descendants, is described as "the father of all who play the harp and flute." Musical instruments were used at celebrations of various kinds (Ge 31:27; Job 21:11-12), including military victories (Ex 15:20). The shofar was employed primarily for signaling, especially during war (Jdg 3:27; 1Sa 13:3;Jer 6:1). Starting with the period of the monarchy, instruments were used at court (1 Sa 19:9),as well as at the temple. Religious lyrics (such as those preserved in the Psalms) often called for instrumental accompaniment (Ps 150:3-5; Am 5:23).
The Creation of Humans in the Sumerian Myth of Enki
PSALM 8 The Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninmah describes the creation of humankind and a subsequent contest be tween these two deities regarding the value and occupation of disabled individuals. The myth begins when the earth was newly created and the lesser gods were charged with drudge work in service to the greater gods. Consigned to digging irrigation canals and providing their superiors with food, their toil became so wearisome that they rebelled against the high god Enki.The mother goddess, Nammu, encouraged Enki to relieve the gods' labor by forming a creature who could do the work for them. Enki accordingly devised the form of humanity and commissioned Nammu to create man and woman, using a pinch of clay (cf. Ge 2:7).
Afterward Nammu boasted that she could make a person in any form she wished, and Enki replied that he could find compensation for any deformity. Nammu deliberately fashioned a series of individuals with various disabilities, including a blind man, a cripple, a barren woman and a eunuch. Enki proceeded to find an honorable occupation for each of these persons in which their handicaps proved no obstacle. The text ends by praising the superiority of Enki.
The Biblical presentation of humanity's creation is quite different from the Sumerian myth. In the Bible men and women are not an afterthought but the pinnacle of God's creation, crowned with glory (Ps 8:5). Work itself (tending God's creation and caring for his creatures) is a God-given vocation (Ge 1:26,28; 2:15), not a form of drudgery to relieve God's burden but a means for participation in his creative work and an opportunity to act as his representatives on Earth. Human sickness and malformation, far from being the result of some divine game, are a product of humanity's fallen condition and, in God's sovereign plan, vehicles through which God can display his greatness in the lives of individuals (Jn 9:2-3).
Storm Gods, Storm Imagery and Theophany
PSALM 18 It was common practice for peoples in the ancient world to identify their deities with observable, awe-inspiring natural phenomena. As Canaan was a land of tempests, the high-ranking deities of the Canaanite pantheons were storm gods: Teshub of the Hittites,' Hadad of the Arameans and Baal of Ugarit.2 Storm gods were conceived of as vigorous warriors, revered for their ability to usher in the rains needed for fertility and feared for their destructive power unleashed in the storm. Religious iconography frequently portrays storm gods as riding on beasts while wielding weapons in their hands.
Israel's God also appears in the storm. Indeed, the Old Testament fully fleshes out the concept that God controls the storms. Although Yahweh is omnipresent and fills the earth (Ps 139:7 —8;Jer 23:23-24), he appears in the world as a physical, divine presence at specific times and locations.This is the meaning of "theophany" --an appearance of God.
The creation, which is ordered by Yahweh and submits to his will (Lk 8:22-25),at times becomes the vehicle of his manifestation (Ps 18:7-15).The raging wind is depicted as his chariot (Eze 1:4-28; Hab 3:8), peals of thunder his voice (Job 37:1-5; Ps 29:3-9; 1n 12:28-29; Rev 10:3-4) and lightning bolts his weapons (Ps 18:14; Hab 3:11).
The appearance of God in the storm may be either to save (Dt 4:33 —35) or to judge (Mic 1:3-5; Hab 3:3-15).
Theophany is only temporary because a full revelation of God's terrifying glory can-not be endured by humans (Ex 20:18-19; 33:18-23).
God appeared in the storm to make a covenant at Sinai by which Israel became his own possession (Ex 19:16-19).
At the end of time God will return to the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, riding on the clouds with the sound of the trumpet to judge the living and the dead (Mt 24:30-31; 1Th 4:16-17; Rev 1:7).
Lions and Other Wild Beasts in Ancient Israel
PSALM 22 For the modern reader the ferocity of wild beasts is something of a cliché; we can mouth the analogy "as bold as a lion" without having had any firsthand experience with the terror these animals can inspire. In ancient Israel, though, such creatures were an all too real danger and a pervasive source of fear. Menacing carnivores included bears, lions, leopards, wolves and jackals. The situation of the ancient Israelite herdsman was all the more acute in that he had to defend his livestock from these beasts or face personal ruin. The shepherd literally stood between the predator and its prey (1Sa 17:36-37).
Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of lions and bears from the Iron Age,2 and many carnivores continued in the region until the fairly recent past. Leopards still survive in parts of the Negev.3 Relief sculptures from Nineveh (c. 650 B.c.)4 depict the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal hunting lions from the relative safety of his war chariot, indicating that these animals were neither rare nor exotic in the ancient Near East. In Psalm 22:13-14 David likened his enemies to a roaring lion that made his heart melt; no doubt many Israelites knew what it was to be paralyzed with fear by the roars, growls, howls and snarls of wild beasts.
Ugarit / Ras Shamra
PSALM 29 Ugarit ("Map 1") was a prominent city-state that flourished during the second millennium B.C. Its capital of the same name (modern Ras Shamra) was discovered in 1929 on the coast of Syria. The site has yielded a wealth of finds, allowing for a reconstruction of its history and an understanding of its influence in the region.
The history of the site's occupation can be traced to as early as Neolithic, times (fifth millennium B.c.),the period of the first appearance of humans in Syria.The Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000 B.c.) saw the migration of Amorites and Semitic Canaanites to Ugarit; these peoples settled there, bringing with them a knowledge of metallurgy and an instinct for commerce.The city developed as an important trade center on the Mediterranean coast, mediating contact between the great Aegean and Mesopotamian civilizations. At the height of its prosperity, during the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C., Ugarit was a crossroads where culture and learning converged:
Wine, oil, cosmetics and pottery from Crete, Egypt, Asia Minor and Cyprus were traded in the city.
Texts in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the period, as well as in Egyptian, Cypriot, Hittite and Hurrian attest to Ugarit's cosmopolitan character.
The excavated areas of the site have yielded temples dedicated to Baal and Dagon (or possibly El), the latter dominating the highest point of the mound.
A spacious royal palace covered nearly three acres. This and the residences of the high priest and government officials also housed official archives.
The city was densely populated, with roomy houses arranged around individual courtyards, as well as numerous sanctuaries.
Examples of the first indigenous Canaanite metalwork and glyptic art (art of carving or engraving, especially on gems) abound among the artifacts.
Among the most significant finds are some 1,300 inscriptions from the fourteenth century B.C. in a western Semitic language (called Ugaritic) similar to Biblical Hebrew. Ugaritic employed an innovative cuneiform alphabet. Compositions such as the Kirta (or Keret) Epic and the Legend of Aqhat bring to light the religion of the people of this land. Some scholars, in fact, have used Ugaritic poetry to try to decipher some of the more difficult passages in Biblical poetry. The literature of Ugarit will continue to contribute to our understanding of the cultural environment of ancient Israel.
At the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 B.C., a great upheaval of unknown origin evidently convulsed the ancient world, causing the collapse of numerous older civilizations. Ugarit was sacked around this time and the site ultimately abandoned.
Sackcloth and Ashes: Rituals of Lamentation
PSALM 30 Abject grief was poignantly expressed in the ancient world through rituals of lamentation. Upon news of a calamity the afflicted tore their clothes and donned the garments of mourning (Ge 37:34). These coarse, sack-like coverings, woven from goat hair and typically black (Isa 50:3; Rev 6:12), could be as small as a loincloth or large enough to cover the entire body. The mourner (assuming him in this case to be a man) would prostrate himself on the ground (Jer 6:26), heap ashes upon his head (La 2:10) and sit in the dust (Job 2:8).
The violent gesture of tearing one's clothes communicated deep distress, as well as the personal loss and/or ruin the grieving individual had suffered (Job 1:20-21). The custom of languishing in dust and ashes pointed to the fragility of human life and to the inexorable end of all life—a return to dust (Ge 3:19; Ps 103:14). Acts that otherwise would have been considered undignified, such as shaving one's head and tearing out one's beard (cf. 2Sa 10:4-5), became appropriate expressions of grief (Ezr 9:3; Isa 22:12). Mourners removed their shoes and fineries and refrained from anointing or perfuming themselves (2Sa 14:2; Mic 1:8). Laments were composed and chanted at a funeral (2Sa 1:17-27); and professional wailing women joined family members in expressing their grief (Jer 9:17-20). The period of mourning typically lasted seven days (Ge 50:10; 1Sa 31:13).
Rituals of mourning were also enacted in Israel in times of national crisis and/or repentance (21(.1 19:1; Ne 9:1-2). At such times kings and their subjects alike would humble themselves before the Lord in a posture of humility with fasting, sackcloth and ashes to repent and seek the visitation of his favor (Da 9:3; Jnh 3:5-9). The book of Lamentations is a ritual text of mourning over the fall of Jerusalem.
As anguish and despair were given vivid expression through the donning of sackcloth and ashes, so also the reversal of mourning is vividly portrayed as a joyful celebration in which the redeemed donned festal garments of salvation and robes of righteousness (Isa 61:10). Such would be the ministry of the Messiah:"to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair" (Isa 61:2b-3; cf. Lk 4:18-19).
The Warrior Creed in the Akkadian Epic of Erra and Ishum
PSALM 35 Peoples of the ancient Near East understood the brutality of war from firsthand experience. In the Bible and elsewhere we see reflections of the dread of its destructiveness, but we also see examples of a"warrior creed" that glorified war and conquest.
The Akkadian epic of Erra and Ishum focuses on Erra (also called Nergal), a god of war, plague and the underworld. In the myth, Erra has been lethargic but threatens to arouse himself and massacre the "black-headed people" (i.e., the Mesopotamians). Erra is urged on by a group of seven warrior gods, but in the end the situation is defused by the counsel of the god Ishum.
Of particular interest is the manner in which the seven warrior gods urge Erra to rouse himself for battle. They inform him that staying home is effeminate and childish; the battlefield is the province in which a man gains honor. The fancy cuisine of the city, they claim, cannot begin to compare with food roasted over embers out in the field or to water drunk from a skin. Furthermore, it is a disgrace to allow weapons to rust or to become covered with cobwebs. They also exhort Erra to slaughter his opponents and thus to terrify the world. Their words probably reflect the militaristic ideology of actual Assyrian soldiers—a perfect example of a warrior creed.
Psalm 35 is strikingly different: a prayer by David for God's help in battle. Nevertheless, the psalm offers a helpful point of comparison because it illustrates the ideology of David, who was also a warrior. There is no glorification of brutality here; to the contrary, David condemns those who declare war without just cause (vv. 19 —21).As elsewhere in the Psalms, David appealed to God's justice. Most significantly, by pleading for God to intervene on his behalf, David repudiated the notion of gaining glory for himself by his own belligerence or aggression.
A Prayer of Confession to Marduk
PSALM 38 Since the Psalms originated from the same cultural milieu as other ancient Near Eastern hymns and prayers, Bible readers need not be surprised to find that Israelite and pagan texts can be similar. In Psalm 38 David lamented that God was against him. God, he alleged, came at him like a warrior (v. 2), and David felt sick and feeble (vv. 3 — 6,10,13 — 14). He recognized that he had sinned against God (vv. 3,18) and concluded the psalm with a plea for the Lord's help (vv. 21-22).
From Akkadian literature comes a similar prayer to Marduk, the chief god of Babylon (date of composition unknown). In it the poet bemoaned Marduk's anger. He confessed that he had sinned against Marduk and lamented that he was so afflicted that he was bent over like an old man. He pled for forgiveness and concluded,"O warrior Marduk, let me sound your praises!" Unlike the psalmist, however, this supplicant was fatalistic about Marduk's actions ("Who can understand a god's behavior?" he bemoaned) and also sought the aid of lesser gods and goddesses.
Just as we can cite similarities between Christian and non-Christian worship in contemporary society, so also we can find correlations in the Old Testament world. The similarities between an Old Testament and a Mesopotamian prayer help us to see what was common to the world of that day in terms of prayer language.The differences, on the other hand, enable us to recognize the distinctive faith of Israel.
The Elohistic Psalter
PSALM 42 The Old Testament generally uses one of two different Hebrew words to refer to God: • Elohim: This term, translated simply as God, is a generic Hebrew word, comparable to the English God, the French Dieu or the German Gott. • Yahweh:This word is the proper name of God, but it is usually translated in English as"the LORD." In older translations it is sometimes written as "Jehovah."
An enigma in the Psalms is the so-called Elohistic Psalter, encompassing Psalms 42 —83. This collection of psalms has been so designated because in them God is generally referred to as Elohim instead of Yahweh (230 versus 43 occurrences, respectively).We can verify this even in the English by simply comparing how often the word "God" appears in these psalms in comparison to "the LORD." Elsewhere in the Psalms, however, Yahweh is used more frequently than Elohim. How can we explain this peculiarity in Psalms 42-83?
A hypothesis that is almost certainly incorrect relates the Elohistic Psalter to the"Documentary Hypothesis."' This theory states that three major documents, referred to as J, E and P, are the sources of Genesis (a fourth theoretical source, D, contributed very little to Genesis).
According to this theory J refers to God as Yahweh in Genesis because J believed that the patriarchs knew the divine name Yahweh. Thus, so-called "J"texts always refer to God as Yahweh. However, E and P call him Elohim because they believed that the name Yahweh was not revealed until the time of Moses.Thus, E and P do not use Yahweh in Genesis.
There are good reasons to believe that this theory is groundless. More than that, this hypothesis has no bearing on the divine name as it appears in the Psalms. 'See-The Documentary Hypothesis" on page 15.
A second possibility is that Psalms 42-83 use Elohim instead of Yahweh in order to communicate that the God whom Israel worshiped was not merely a local, national god but the One true deity over heaven and Earth: God. A problem with this explanation is that even when speaking to Gentiles about God as the universal deity, Israelites did not avoid the name Yahweh.Jonah, in Jonah 1:9, asserted to pagan sailors,"I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land." (See also Ps 89:6; 1 1 3:5; Jer 51:19.)
A third possibility is that the Elohistic Psalter reflects a shift in attitude about speaking the divine name, Yahweh. We know that in later Judaism the name Yahweh was never pronounced for fear of committing blasphemy., Instead of pronouncing God's proper name the Israelite would say Adonai ("my Lord") or hashern ("the name"). When a reader in the synagogue came to the name Yahweh in a text, he would simply substitute Adonai. It may be that the Elohistic Psalter represents a specific stage in the history of the compilation of the book of Psalms. Psalm 14 is almost identical to Psalm 53, except that where Psalm 14 uses Yahweh Psalm 53 substitutes Elohim. If Psalm 14 is the original version, it may be that a later editor replaced Yahweh with Elohim in Psalm 53 (a similar relationship exists between Ps 40 and 70).
Thus, the collection and editing of the Elohistic Psalter may reflect a time when people had begun to feel uncomfortable about pronouncing the name Yahweh but had not yet developed the practice of substituting Adonai or hashem. We do not know with certainty, however, why the Elohistic Psalter prefers Elohim over Yahweh.
The Ancient Near Eastern King
PSALM 45 Israel's plea for a king "such as all the other nations have" (1Sa 8:5) testifies to how common this form of government was in the ancient Near East. Discharging judicial, military and sacral responsibilities along with political obligations, the king was the fulcrum of state administration and ideology. Psalm 45,a royal wedding song,alludes to several aspects of kingship. First, the Israelite king modeled and guaranteed justice and righteousness (vv. 4,7). In comparison,
the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi proclaimed the king's divinely ordained role as legal authority. Moreover,verses 3-5 describe the king's role as the military commander-in-chief,a theme amply and ferociously demonstrated by Assyrian rulers who recounted military exploits in artistic reliefs and written annals.
In antiquity religion permeated royal ideology. Rulers were expected to provide offerings, build and maintain temples and participate in ritual feasts.2 Yet the institution of kingship was not necessarily identical from one nation to another; the nature of the king's sacred duties differed from nation to nation. According to the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, when king Amenemhet I died he became united with the sun god.This notion of the deification of the king and the divine nature of his office are reflected in many Egyptian texts.On the other hand,although Mesopotamians occasionally depicted their king as a deity, they tended to construe him as a divine representative.The king played such a critical role in the Mesopotamians' annual New Year's festival that, during the Neo-Babylonian period, the feast was not celebrated due to his absence.
Divine rule and human kingship were also intertwined in Israel (v. 6). The Davidic covenant (2Sa 7) and several psalms (e.g., Ps 2; 89) describe a unique father-son relationship between Yahweh and his anointed. Yahweh, however, placed numerous constraints and moral requirements upon the king, and this is quite different from what we see elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Prophets like Elijah and Nathan openly criticized the king when he engaged in wrong
practices; Deuteronomy 17:16 severely limited his military procurements, and even
his sacral duties were carefully defined (2Ch 26:16-20).
Zaphon, Olympus, Sinai and Zion: The Mountain of God
PSALM 48 Most people today are aware that the gods of the Greek myths had their palace on Mount Olympus; less well known is Zaphon, the sacred mountain of the Canaanite god Baal-Hadad. The actual Mount Olympus (9,573 ft [2,918 rn] in height) is in northern Greece at the border of Thessaly and Macedonia; the actual Zaphon (5,807 ft [1,770 m] high) is in northern Syria on the Orontes River. In both cases the mystery and grandeur of a high mountain in the far north seemed appropriate to ancient peoples as the abodes of their gods. The Israelites also had sacred mountains. The first of these was Mount Sinai, located far to the south.' Mount Sinai was not recognized as the home of God but as the mountain to which he had descended in order to meet Moses and give Israel his law. Despite the fact that a pivotal event in Israel's history had taken place there, later texts, such as the Psalms, pay relatively little attention to Sinai. It does not appear to have been a place of pilgrimage either, although on one occasion Elijah did journey to Sinai in order to encounter God (see 1Ki 19:8, where Sinai is called Horeb).
Both the psalmists and the Old Testament prophets paid far more attention to Mount Zion. This is somewhat surprising, for, unlike the other mountains mentioned above, Zion is neither remote nor particularly impressive. It constitutes the hilly area of Jerusalem—more specifically, the temple mount.The claim of Psalm 48:2 ("It is beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth. Like the utmost heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion") would hardly seem accurate with reference to its literal height. This area of Jerusalem sits about 2,000 feet (610 m) above sea level, and although the views are impressive Zion hardly dominates the area of Judah in the same way Olympus overshadows Greece. Also, unlike the other mountains, it had a large human population and thus none of the remoteness or mystery typically associated with the mountains of the gods.
The term "Zion" in the Old Testament is used as a kind of code word for the coming kingdom of God. Zion was a symbol of God's dominion over the whole earth, as well as the promise of a great future, when the Gentiles would come and submit to Israel's God (Isa 2:2-4).The worship at the temple was a foretaste of that future, when David's kingdom would extend over all humanity forever. The very presence of Zion in a human city, Jerusalem, was proof that God's covenant was with people and that, unlike the gods of the nations, he would indeed dwell among us.
Hyssop and the Rituals of Cleansing
PSALM 51 The hyssop of the Bible is not the European Hyssop officinalis but Origanum syriacum, sometimes referred to as "Bible hyssop" or"Syrian oregano." A variety of oregano or marjoram that grows in rocky soil in Israel, it has hairy, gray leaves that absorb liquid well—probably accounting for its use in rituals involving cleansing.
In Leviticus 14 a person with a skin disease was to be ritually cleansed by means of two clean birds, hyssop, a piece of scarlet cloth and some cedarwood.1 Under a priest's direction one bird was to be slaughtered and the other, along with the hyssop, yarn and cedar, dipped into the blood.The individual would be sprinkled with the blood (apparently using the hyssop) and the living bird released.
Hyssop was also used for wiping sacrificial blood on the lintel and doorposts of Israelite houses in Egypt at the time of the first Passover (Ex 12:21 —22),2 as well as in a cleansing ritual involving a red heifer (Nu 19:6)) Because of its association with purification rites,4 David in Psalm 51:7 asked in his prayer for forgiveness to be cleansed with hyssop.
A Ugaritic Prayer for a City Under Siege
PSALM 65 In the ancient Near East warfare was frequent and often came close to home.Thus it is not surprising that religious texts from the ancient world often include prayers for victory over enemies.' Psalms such as Psalm 65 reflect this tendency: David either prayed for victory for himself or for Jerusalem.
A Ugaritic text gives us insight into how followers of Baal sought the aid of their god in times of war. This text is known as RS 24.266 ("RS" stands for "Ras Shamra," the place at which the Ugaritic tablets were discovered).
The Nature of the Ugaritic Prayer Text.
This text has two parts:
A prose portion describes how the rituals for seeking Baal's help against enemies were to be conducted. Among other stipulations, the instructions include directions about the appropriate dates for such ritual prayers, as well as about which animals were to be offered on those dates.
A poetic portion provides the prayer that was to be recited. It appeals for Baal to protect the walls of the city and devotes considerable attention to promises by the people to make various sacrifices to Baal if he would defend the city during a time of war. Some scholars suggest that the prayer includes a promise to make a human sacrifice to 13,4,3 but the text is unclear and more likely denotes an animal sacrifice.
The Value of the Ugaritic Prayer
Text This text is helpful for Biblical readers for several reasons:
It illustrates the fact that ancient texts could be quite complex, containing both prose ritual instruction and poetic liturgy. Biblical scholars sometimes argue that a passage containing both prose and poetry must have been written by at least two authors. This wrongly assumes that ancient writers never produced complex texts:We see clear evidence in the Ugaritic texts that they did.
The content of the Ugaritic prayer, calling for help from one's god, is paralleled in David's prayer for Zion in Psalm 65. The Ugaritic text is older than the Biblical psalm, indicating that there is no reason to suppose that the psalms and prayers should be treated as late compositions (many reject the idea of Davidic authorship for the psalms and argue that these sophisticated prayers and liturgies must have come from a very late date). If such prayer-texts existed prior to David's time, there is no reason to think they could not have existed during this period.
The Ugaritic text reminds us that the enemies the psalmist faced were not metaphors for spiritual struggles but flesh and blood foes who sought to kill the Israelites and destroy their cities.The Ugaritic—prayer is clearly about real warfare.
The theological content of the Ugaritic prayer over against the Biblical psalms is illuminating. ln the Ugaritic text Baal is to some extent bribed with promises of bounteous sacrifices. Such an approach is explicitly rejected in the Bible (e.g.,51:16-19),Instead, the psalmists appeal to God's righteousness and covenant faithfulness, as in 65:4-5. No one can buy off the God of the Bible!
PSALM 66 The Hebrew word Selah occurs 74 times in the Old Testament, often at the ends of stanzas within psalms or at the ends of entire psalms. Three of these occurrences appear in the prayer song of Habakkuk 3. While scholars concur that this is a musical term, there is little agreement as to its precise meaning.
Some suggest that Selah is derived from salal, which means "to lift up." If this is correct, Selah could be an instruction either to raise the voice or to increase the instrumental volume during an interlude.
Some take it to indicate a pause or breath in singing, perhaps reflecting an understanding of the instrumental interlude above.
Some posit that Selah marks an affirmation of what has just been sung—much like Amen in later Judaism and Christianity.
The presence of musical directions within the Psalms reminds modern readers that these compositions were not intended simply to be read but were for Israel a part of a total, vibrant worship experience.
The Coronation of Ashurbanipal
PSALM 72 Who wrote Psalm 72, David or Solomon? This particular psalm is distinctive in that it contains both the superscript "Of Solomon" (which could be taken to mean"for Solomon,""about Solomon"or"by Solomon") and the colophon "This concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse."The colophon suggests that the superscript here means "for Solomon" and that the author of the piece was David.The psalm appears to be a prayer written by David for the occasion of the coronation of his son and successor, Solomon.
Hymns and prayers composed for the coronation of kings of other nations are also found among ancient Near Eastern texts. For example, one text contains a prayer or liturgy for the coronation of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king (r.668-627 B.c.). The liturgy invokes a variety of blessings from the Assyrian gods, including the following:
That Ashurbanipal be granted a long life and reign,
That he be given great eloquence and understanding,
That the scope of his rule might expand,
That the people of Asshur might be so prosperous that grain and oil could be purchased inexpensively, and
That the gods would provide abundant rain for the land.
Psalm 72 includes striking parallels to the Ashurbanipal coronation liturgy. The psalmist prayed for the Israelite king's domain to be extended (vv. 8-11) and for the land to prosper (vv. 15-16). In addition, verse 1 appeals to God to grant the king wisdom, as does the Ashurbanipal text.
At the same time, Psalm 72 is distinctive for its concern that the Israelite king should rule with righteousness and compassion (vv. 2 —7). In addition, the Biblical text sought for God's name to be glorified through the king's reign (v. 5). Indeed, Psalm 72 was not seeking expanded political and military domination for Israel so much as it was looking for a fulfillment of the Messianic promises. Behind this psalm stood the assurances that the Gentiles would be blessed in Abraham (Ge 12:3) and that the reign of God would be established through the son of David (2Sa 7). Formally,then, Psalm 72 is similar to the coronation prayer for Ashurbanipal, but the message and hope of the Old Testament have invested the Biblical text with a distinctive purpose and outlook.
Ancient Israelite Poets and Singers
PSALM 73 Throughout the ancient world music and hymnody played an important role in temple worship, and many temples had musical guilds that composed and sang hymns to the gods. (Examples of such liturgy are available from as far back as the Sumerian period.) The situation was similar for ancient Israel.
Unlike David, who was a renowned and yet amateur musician, Asaph, Heman, Ethan and the sons of Korah were in effect professional singers who created and sang psalms as part of their Levitical service in the temple.
Asaph, a Levitical choir leader during the time of David (1 Ch 6:39), is mentioned alongside David in 2 Chronicles 29:30 as a composer of psalms and as "seer."He is credited with Psalms 50 and 73-83.
Heman the Ezrahite and Ethan the Ezrahite are linked to the composition of Psalms 88 and 89. First Kings 4:31 indicates that both were highly esteemed for their wisdom.
Numbers 16 describes Korah's attempt to usurp the priestly position from Aaron and of Korah's consequent death. Nevertheless, the "sons of Korah" served as gatekeepers at the sanctuary (1Ch 9:19) and rose to prominence as temple musicians. Psalms 42, 44-49,84-85 and 87-88 are all attributed to the Korahites.
Evidently these psalmists, beyond being talented vocalists and songwriters, were highly respected as prophets and sages.
Power Over Egypt in the Hymn to Osiris
PSALM 78 Frequently we find similarities between the Bible and ancient texts from Egypt or Mesopotamia. As significant as those commonalities are, it is at least equally important to recognize differences among the texts so that we can discern the ways in which the beliefs of Israel were truly unique. Psalm 78 is a recitation of the history of God's rule over Israel from the time of the exodus to that of David.The story is not fully chrono-logical but selectively demonstrates that the Lord was sovereign over the Israelites, punishing them when they sinned but delivering them from oppression and slavery.
From the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt has come a stele that contains a hymn celebrating the rule of Osiris over Egypt. In the myth Osiris was slain by his brother, the god Seth, but was restored by his sister/consort, the goddess Isis. Osiris then became lord over the realm of the dead, as well as over Egypt, both through his son Horus and through the earthly representative of Horus, the pharaoh. The hymn proclaims how the "Two Lands" (i.e., Upper and Lower Egypt), the Nile and all the beasts of Egypt honor Osiris, Isis and Horus.
As the Egyptian text does for Osiris, Psalm 78 proclaims the reign of the Lord over all Israel. And as the Egyptian text does for the pharaoh, the psalm depicts a human viceroy to the reign of God in the person of David (vv.70-72). However, unlike the Egyptian song the psalm is focused entirely upon events in human history.The Egyptian hymn builds upon the mythical slaying and rising of Osiris, while the psalm focuses on God's dealings with his people in specific events in history.This, above everything else, separates Biblical theology from paganism.
Curses and Imprecations
PSALM 83 To pray for someone else's well-being is to make intercession for that person, but to pray for someone's destruction is to make an imprecation. The Bible contains a number of examples of imprecations; one of the clearest is Psalm 83. Here the psalmist called on God to take action against his enemies (vv. 1-2), the Gentile nations all around (vv. 6-8) who were plotting harm against I-rael (vv. 3 —5).The prayer minces no words;the psalmist asked God to destroy them (vv. 9-18). Prayers and rituals meant to bring about the destruction of enemies (whether personal or national) were common in the ancient world:
Egyptians practiced an execration rite whereby they would inscribe names or figures of their adversaries on terra-cotta or pottery, after which they would pronounce a curse upon the enemy and ritually smash the pottery. Execration texts with lists of names of cities in Syria-Palestine have been located;the Egyptians who created these texts wished to call down destruction upon such places as Ashkelon, Byblos and Damascus.
Mesopotamian tablets contain rituals meant to call down destruction upon enemies.
From the Greco-Roman world archaeologists have discovered magical papyri that called down curses upon all kinds of enemies. For example, there are texts that invoke curses against adversarial parties in lawsuits, as well as those that curse business competitors.
Are the imprecations in the Bible any different from these curses from pagan sources? Obviously there are similarities. Psalm 83, like the execration texts, delineates a list of the foes the psalmist wanted God to punish.Several factors, however, set Biblical imprecations apart:
Biblical imprecations have no tie to magic. In magic, a person seeks to manipulate supernatural powers with ritual words and actions in order to achieve his or her desire. The Bible provides no rituals to bring about the destruction of enemies. God's people could only call upon the Lord to punish the enemy and then leave it to him to decide whether or not to act.
Biblical imprecations were based upon belief in the righteousness of God. When making an imprecation, a psalmist appealed to God's justice in a tacit acknowledgment that God punishes only because it is the right thing to do—not simply in response to a psalmist's anger. By contrast, in magic-based rituals justice was not an issue.
Biblical imprecations were never used for personal jealousies and ambitions.
Biblical imprecations ultimately sought to give glory to God. Verse 16 prays for the destruction of the wicked "so that men will seek your name, 0 LORD." God's honor—not Israel's—was to be maintained.
The Enuma Elish and the Biblical concept of Creation
PSALM 89 In the Bible we read of creation primarily in Genesis 1, but other texts enlighten us as to how the Israelites viewed the creative process (cf. Ps 89). With the discovery and decipherment of ancient texts in Akkadian, as well as of hieroglyphics, scholars have come to realize that many cultures from the ancient world had creation myths that could be compared to the Biblical creation account.' The most famous Akkadian creation story is called the Enuma Elish, a poem of about 1,100 lines.
Copies of the Enuma Elish exist in the form of cuneiform tablets dating from about 750 to 200 B.C., but the poem was no doubt composed earlier than that.The creation story contained in these tablets exalts Marduk, god of Babylon, as the greatest of the gods. Because the main purpose of the text was to glorify Marduk, some scholars resist referring to the Enuma Elish as a "creation" story. This reluctance is misplaced, however; many creation myths from the ancient world serve to glorify a particular god or shrine.
Enuma Elish begins with a pair of high gods, Apsu (male) and Tiamat (female), as well as a number of lower gods. Apsu threatens to kill the lower gods because of the noise they make, but he himself is slain by the god Ea. La in turn fathers Marduk, whose birth is at-tended by great celebration. Tiamat, who is alternatively pictured as an ocean or a dragon (i.e., sea monster),, deploys against the gods a gruesome army of monsters (lion-men, scorpion-men and the like) under the command of her second consort (partner), Kingu. Ea and the other gods are paralyzed with fear, but Marduk agrees to fight the monsters on condition that he be named king of the gods. Marduk defeats Tiamat and splits her body like a fish for drying. From one half he fashions the heavens and from the other he forms the earth. From the blood of Kingu, according to the myth, Marduk created men, after which he was indeed lauded as ruler of the gods.
At one time many scholars believed that the Babylonian creation story provided the source material for its Biblical counterpart. Today, however, few hold that position. Indeed, the differences between the Babylonian and Biblical accounts are more significant than their similarities:
The Biblical record does not present the creative act as that of slaying a monster and making use of its body. Some have argued that the Hebrew word for the "deep" (tehom) in Genesis 1:2 is related to the name Tiamat. In fact, the words are unrelated, and there is no hint in Genesis of Yahweh slaying a dragon.
A monster called Rahab is mentioned in Psalm 89:10. This Biblical Rahab represents forces that oppose God; even Egypt can be identified as Rahab (Isa 30:7). Whatever we make of Rahab in the Bible, it is unrelated to creation. . The Biblical account describes the act of creation as proceed-ing simply from God's word: God spoke the cosmos and every-thing related to it into existence (Ge 1).
The Biblical account leaves no room for polytheism. Even though Psalm 89:7 mentions other heavenly beings who are under God's authority, there is no multitude of gods who marry, have offspring, fight each other for supremacy and the like.
The Biblical record does not promote one shrine above all others. Genesis 1 never mentions Jerusalem or any other site sacred to Israel in connection with creation. Indeed, the Bible's initial chapter never mentions Yahweh, describing the creator simply as "God." The Biblical concept of creation is truly monotheistic; there is no elevation of one god above others, for, indeed, there is an ancient version of the flood story only one God.
Form Criticism and the Psalms
PSALM 90 "Form criticism" is a relatively new method of Biblical study, pioneered by the twentieth-century German scholar Herman Gunkel.This method originally had three purposes:
To discover the original setting of a psalm. Was it sung by an individual or as part of congregational worship? Was it a lamentation or a song of praise? Was the psalm used in a temple setting or engaged by an individual in private?
To discover oral traditions behind the text. Are there vestiges of oral tradition the psalmist incorporated into the composition?
To discover the structure of a psalm.What is the psalm's basic outline? Do other psalms of the same genre have a similar structure?
Some of this slicing and dicing is of dubious value. For exam-b' ple, it is difficult to prove that an oral tradition lies behind a particular portion of a psalm. Also, some scholars have made claims about the original setting of certain psalms that are impossible to verify. For example, some have suggested that specific psalms were part of a New Year's festival, but there is little evidence to support this premise. In reality, we can frequently only infer the circumstances behind individual psalms.
Still, some psalms do present fairly clear life settings (e.g.,an • individual is calling on God for deliverance from his enemies). Also, psalms of the same type often do have features in common (e.g., psalms in which someone is calling out for help from his enemies often use similar vocabulary and have a similar structure).
Even though form criticism as originally developed by Gunkel has only limited value, the method is important in that it has forced us to reckon with the fact that the Bible contains a variety of different types of psalms.To begin with, it is helpful to ask certain basic questions of a psalm. For example,
Is it a prayer that addresses God or an instruction for the reader?
Does it thank and praise God or call upon him for help?
Does it focus on special themes, such as Zion, the king or the law?
By asking these and other questions and carefully reading the psalms, we can quickly discern that there are a number of types and subtypes, a few of which follow:
Hymns are congregational songs that praise God.
Praise psalms extol God for his character (Ex 15:1-18; Ps 100; 145).
Thanksgiving psalms express gratitude to God for his actions (Ps 32; 107; Jnh 2:2-9).
Songs of Zion celebrate Zion as the"type,"or representation, of the kingdom of God (Ps 48).
Royal psalms focus on some aspect of Israelite kingship.
The coronation psalm is a prayer for the success of the king's reign (Ps 72).
The royal wedding song celebrates the king's wedding and anticipates the Messianic kingdom (Ps 45).
The royal votive psalm records the king's vow to execute justice (Ps 101).
Wisdom and Torah psalms contrast a life lived wisely under the law with one lived foolishly.These psalms are often contemplative or address the reader directly, as though a teacher were speaking to a disciple (e.g., Ps 1; 19; 37; 119). •
Lament psalms, the most abundant psalm-type, express the anguish of worshipers due to sin, famine, enemies, etc. In these psalms a petitioner pleads with God to remove the source of his distress, often accompanied by a vow to praise God (e.g., 1Sa 2:1-10; Ps 3; 12; 22; 77; 90; La 5). Psalms of lament may be sung by the individual (Ps 13) or an entire congregation (Ps 74).
Songs of trust express confidence in God (e.g., Ps 11;23; 121), not cries for help. Psalm 90 illustrates the pattern of a lament. It is congregational in nature in that it speaks to the situation of all people, not to that of any one individual.
This psalm opens with an assertion that God is Israel's refuge as the basis for an appeal for mercy (vv. 1-2).
It laments the mortality and sinfulness of humans (vv. 3-11).
It includes a short appeal for wisdom (v.12), recalling the wisdom psalms.
It closes with an appeal for God's compassion (vv. 13 — 17).
By understanding the type of psalm we are engaging, we are in a better position to interpret and use it appropriately.
PSALM 98 Psalm 98:4-6 instructs worshipers to offer joyful praise music to the Lord, using not only their voices but also various instruments. The Hebrew word translated "ram's horn" here (v. 6) is shofar. This instrument belongs to a class known as aero-phones, which produce a sound when air is passed through them.1 The shofar was blown in several contexts:
The blast of the horn summoned warriors to battle and signaled the beginning of an attack (Jdg 3:27; 7:20; Job 39:25; Jer 4:19— 21).When the Israelites marched around Jericho for the seventh time,they were instructed to blow rams' horns (Jos 6:4-5).
The shofar summoned worshipers to Jerusalem (Isa 27:13).
It was blown by watchmen to announce important news, whether celebratory or disastrous (1Sa 133; Eze 33:3-6; Joel 2:1,17; Am 2:2).
It was used during coronation ceremonies, such as Solomon's (1Ki 1:34) and Jehu's (2Ki 9:13).
The shofar was sounded on holy occasions such as:
The Day of Atonement during the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:9),
David's return of the ark to Jerusalem (2Sa 6:15),
The covenant renewal ceremony during
Asa's religious reforms (2Ch 15:14) and
Regular temple worship (Ps 47:5; 81:3; 98:6; 150:3).
Thrones in the Ancient World
PSALM 99 Royal and ritual thrones of the ancient world were typically constructed of wood frames overlaid with precious metals and inlaid with gems. 1 Popular ornamentation included engravings of lions, winged sphinxes and composite mythological creatures. According to artistic tradition throughout the ancient world,these served as images of power and authority. Solomon's throne was inlaid with ivory and overlaid with gold. It featured a rounded top and a pair of standing lions for armrests. Six steps led up to the royal dais, and each step was flanked by two lions, one on each end (1Ki 10:19-20). Aspects of the throne's design recall other royal furniture of that time and region. For example, an ivory engraving from Megiddo and a sarcophagus (coffin) from Byblos, both dating roughly to the thirteenth century B.C., picture rulers seated upon thrones with curved-top backs supported by sphinxes, their feet resting on footstools. Footstools typically accompanied thrones and were occasionally engraved with scenes of vanquished foes, an image communicating triumph over one's enemies (Ps 110:1). An ancient king literally sought to make his enemies his footstool.
The gods of the ancient Near East are depicted seated either upon thrones or atop animals or mythical beings (e.g., a goddess might be seated astride a lion).The creatures themselves become the seat of divinity. Images of gods carved into the hills along the Tigris River portray deities mounted upon such composite creatures.
The divine throne of Yahweh is envisioned as a living entity composed of fiery creatures whose outspread wings form the chariot upon which he transverses the heavens (2Sa 22:11; Ps 18:10; Eze 10:1). His throne is a spectacle of light, shining with a radiance of jewels (Eze 1:26; Rev 4:3) and issuing flames of fire (Ps 104:3 —4; Da 7:9). Although heaven is God's throne and Earth his footstool (Isa 66:1), the temple and Jerusalem (i.e., the temple city) are often referred to as the throne and footstool of God, respectively (1Ch 28:2; Ps 132:7).4 This imagery evokes the divine presence of Yahweh and his kingship over his covenant people.
The Ugaritic Text of the Myth of Baal
PSALM 104 Discovered at the site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), the Myth of Baal is one of the longest literary works of the western Semitic peoples in the second millennium B.C. It begins with a conflict over kingship between Baal, the storm god, and Yam, the sea god. Although Baal is victorious in this battle, he is later defeated and killed by Mot, the god of grain and death. After Baal's sister, Anat, mourns and buries him, she kills Mot in revenge for her brother's death. She then grinds up his body and sows it as seed. Subsequently, Baal and Mot come back to life and vie for power once again, with the result that Mot eventually capitulates to Baal.The incident with Yam is interpreted as Baal's victory over the sea, while the struggle between Baal and Mot is equated to the fertility cycle, with Baal seasonally"disappearing" from the earth.
Psalm 104, a creation psalm, uses some of the imagery known from the Myth of Baal.The Lord's power over the sea in creation is described (v. 6ff.). While Baal is the "cloud-rider," the Lord "makes the clouds his chariot" (v. 3). Unlike Baal, however, the Lord is neither killed nor needs help in making the earth produce food (v. 13ff.). The attribution of aspects of Baal to the Lord, along with a demonstration of his superiority to Baal, served to exalt and praise the Lord as
the true King and God of creation in an environment in which the temptation to worship Baal was rampant.
"The River Is Blood" in The Admonitions of Ipuwer
PSALM 105 The text called The Admonitions of Ipuwer is a lament over the break-down of society in Egypt, and some compare it to the laments over upheavals found in the Biblical prophets. Ipuwer is most famous in Biblical studies because it contains a line stating that the Nile is blood —and yet people drink from it anyway. This has an obvious historical parallel in the turning of the Nile to blood during the period of the plagues prior to the exodus (Ex 7:14-25). Psalm 105:29 expresses it this way: "He turned their waters into blood, causing their fish to die."
Although the date of the composition of Ipuwer is unknown, this lament was probably written long before the exodus and thus is not describing the Biblical event. The expression that the Nile"turned to blood" in Ipuwer may help us to understand what the term would have meant to ancient readers. The implication does not appear to have.
Praise of the"Bull" in the Cairo Hymn of Amon-Re
PSALM 106 When the Israelites were encamped at Mount Horeb they worshiped the image of a calf cast in gold (Ex 32; Ps 106:19-20), a practice they had no doubt learned in Egypt. The Cairo Hymn of Praise to Amon-Re describes the chief Egyptian god variously as the Goodly Bull, the bull of Heliopolis and the bull of his mother. The bull's two eyes were the sun and the moon; both bovine and solar images were incorporated into the cult of Amon-Re. He was worshiped as the creator god who generated heaven, Earth, humankind and animal life and was believed to have been the father of all other gods and the sustainer of the Egyptian kings. Although Amon-Re rescued the poor and downtrodden, he nevertheless kept his name a secret from his children (Amon means"hidden").
When the Israelites formed the golden calf, they insulted God by depicting him using the same image employed to portray Egyptian and Canaanite gods, possibly even attributing his saving acts to one of these false gods. Unlike the "hidden" god Amon-Re, however, the one true God revealed himself to his people both in his name (Ex 3:13-14) and in his miraculous deeds. It is important to recognize that the worship of the bull god was in keeping with everything the Israelites had learned in Egypt and that it was, in their view, entirely appropriate. Although their sin was an obvious violation of God's commands, the culture of their day no doubt convinced them that what they were doing was proper and acceptable.
The Gezer Calendar
PSALM 107 Gezer (modern Tell Jezer; find "Gezer" on "Maps 4-6" in the back of this Bible) lies in the low hills that separated Philistia from Judah. It had a strategic location, guarding access to the coastal trade route, known as the Via Maris ("Way of the Sea"), as well as to the overland route into the hill country. The city was at various times under Egyptian, Philistine or Israelite control.
In 1908 a stone was found inscribed with what appears to be an agricultural calendar. It dates to the tenth century B.C. and was probably written as a schoolboy's exercise. Rather than beginning in the spring,as does the festival calendar, the "Gezer calendar" commences in the fall, suggesting that the Israelite agricultural calendar began in the autumn.
Scholars have used this brief text to try to better understand Israelite agricultural practices. It suggests that the planting of grains began in October, after the rains had softened the soil to allow for plowing. Grain sowing lasted for two months, followed by two months of vegetable sowing. After a month of hoeing, the harvest began in the spring with first the barley, then the wheat, then the grapes and finally the summer fruit.4The text of the calendar has also proved important in the study of early Hebrew spelling and the development of the shapes of letters.
The Exaltation of a Holy City in the Psalms and in the Myths
PSALM 110 An ancient city would often have its own local myth that exalted that city and its patron god above all other cities and gods.These myths served to reassure the inhabitants that their city and its shrine were somehow superior to all others. One such myth comes from Sumerian civilization and was meant to glorify the city of Uruk ("Map 1") and its god-dess, lnanna.
In the myth the god Enki possesses all the qualities of civilization in his city, Eridu.These qualities include, among others, kingship, priestly orders, crafts (carpentry, metal-working, etc.), jurisprudence and truth. Curiously, negative elements such as prostitution and deceit are also included among the qualities of civilization.' lnanna ventures to Eridu and is welcomed by Enki. While in a drunken state Enki confers upon lnanna the qualities of civilization, described in the story as physical objects. She proceeds to load them onto her boat and sails away. Too late, Enki realizes what he has done and tries to retrieve them, but lnanna has already conveyed them to Uruk.Thus Uruk is exalted as the favored city of lnanna.
In the Bible,and especially in the Psalms, Zion is exalted as the chosen city of God.The difference between the exaltation of Zion and the story of lnanna and Enki is profound. The Sumerian story is pure myth: Abstract qualities are described as physical objects, and gods seek to outwit or overpower one another. In contrast, Zion was exalted because of God's covenant with David and the promise of a Messiah, a greater son of David who was yet to come. The Messiah would be a king (Ps 110:1-2) but also a priest (v.4) and warrior (vv. 5 —6). We see a similar exaltation of Zion and its Messiah in Psalm 2. In short, the exaltation of Zion is not grounded in a myth but in a._ historical event (God's choice of David) and in a hope for the future (the advent of the Messiah).
A Pagan's Prayer of Thanks
PSALM 116 Many Biblical passages are in form similar to pagan texts, but the formal similarity only makes the differences in content more apparent. An Akkadian psalm from Ugarit (referred to by scholars as Ugartica 5.162)1 is outwardly similar to Biblical psalms of thanksgiving, such as Psalm 86 or 116. Like the writer of Psalm 116:3, the Akkadian psalmist described himself as being at death's door (probably due to illness) and vividly portrayed how he was wasting away, unable to eat anything but his own tears (see 42:3). Like Psalm 116:8 or Jonah 2,the Akkadian poet ultimately celebrated the fact that his god had snatched him from the grave.
What is distinctive, however, is the manner in which the Akkadian psalmist sought help from his god via magic and ritual.2 He had surrounded himself by omen takers, who looked for favorable signs from incense clouds and the entrails of lambs. He depicted his brothers as having been drenched in blood and described them as being like possessed men (they practiced self-mutilation in an attempt to compel their god to act; see 1 Ki 18:28-29). In contrast, although the Biblical psalmist spoke of making a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Ps 116:17), there is no implication of manipulation of divine power through magic, nor is there the sense of frantic desperation that pervades the Akkadian text. The Biblical psalmist could even make the astonishing and profound statement, "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints" (v. 15).
The Horned Altar
PSALM 118 The two most important ritual altars of Israel's religious life were the bronze altar of sacrifice and the golden altar of incense. A conspicuous feature of their design was four "horns" rising from each of the four corners, which were to be of one piece with the altar itself rather than attached separately (Ex 27:2; 30:2). Archaeological excavations have provided examples of this construction in an incense altar discovered at Megiddo and a sacrificial altar from an Israelite sanctuary at Beersheba.
The precise function of the horns remains uncertain. Since the Hebrew term for altar, mizbeah, literally means "place of ritual slaughter," it has been suggested that the horns functioned as pegs to secure the animal about to be offered (Ps 118:27).This seems unlikely, however, since the animal was ritually slaughtered before being placed on the altar and would require no restraint (Lev 1:5-9). Perhaps the horns on the altar, and especially those of the altar of incense, which was not used for sacrifice, may be explained by the broader role of the altar within temple liturgy. Priests were commanded to daub these horns with sacrificial blood to symbolically effect purification from sin and thus to remove ritual impurity from the entire altar and sanctuary (Lev 4:7; 16:18).
In addition to their role in sacrificial offerings, altars served to memorialize a theophany or physical appearance of the Lord (Ge 12:7; 35:1-7) and were intimately associated with the divine presence (Ex 20:24). It is possible that altars were constructed so as to imitate mountains upon which sacrifices were offered and with which God's presence was associated. This would explain the law prescribing that free-standing altars in Israel be constructed of packed earth or a mound of unhewn stones (Ex 20:24-26). The horns on the elaborate altars of the temple could suggest a more "stylized" mountain. Whatever the case, the special sanctity of the altar, and of the horns in particular, is evidenced by the asylum granted to anyone who seized them (1Ki 1:50-51; 2:28-34).
A Hittite Blessing for a House
PSALM 127 Virtually all people are concerned for the well-being of their own home and household. Frequently people will invoke divine help for the protection of their families, but often the differences we see among such invocations are far greater than what they have in common.
A Hittite text has been discovered that describes ritual purification of a house deemed to have become ritually polluted. The reason for the alleged defilement is unclear; perhaps its inhabitants had suffered from misfortune or infertility or the house itself had manifested problems such as mildew. The text explains that an exorcist came and ritually recited various possible explanations for the defilement, suggesting that perhaps a perjurer, murderer or witch had entered the house. The exorcist proceeded with an elaborate ritual involving the recitation of myths and magic formulas, while making animal sacrifices and pouring out libations at various locations. All of this was meant to encourage primordial deities to carry off the uncleanness of the house to the underworld.
Although the Old Testament specifies a number of rituals that concern uncleanness, none involves magic formulas, recitation of myths or the invocation of infernal deities. In fact, the Old Testament is extremely practical in its outlook regarding household defilement (see Lev 14:33-57). Psalm 127 vividly illustrates the Old Testament attitude toward the welfare of a household. First, security comes from God, not from personal diligence (vv. 1-2). Second, children, as a gift from God, constitute the true wealth of a home (vv. 3 —5). Reverence for God and devotion to family are at the heart of the Bible's teaching on the well-being of a home, in contrast to the superstition of pagan teaching.
Historians in the Ancient World
PSALM 132 The poet of Psalm 132 looked back to the covenant with David and to the history of the ark of the covenant as the basis for his prayer' — a reflection that the Bible is rooted in history, not theology divorced from human events and cultures.
The works of ancient historians, because they provide context, are of great value in Biblical studies. Important historians include:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.484— 425 B.c.): His great work is called the Historia ("investigation"). An account of the wars between the Greeks and Persians, his work includes other stories as well, including an interesting, if not fully credible, account of ancient Egyptian culture.
Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.c.): Perhaps the greatest ancient historian,this Greek general wrote a lucid and gripping account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.c.) between the Athenians and the Spartan alliance.3 His work, which models scrupulous research and careful writing, has survived intact but ends abruptly.
Manetho: Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived during the reign of Ptolemy 1 (305-282 B.c.), compiled a history of Egypt. Unfortunately, his work has survived only in fragments,as quoted by other ancient writers (e.g., Josephus and Eusebius). His division of Egyptian history into 30 dynasties is still followed.
Berosus: The first true historian of the Mesopotamian region was this Babylonian priest. In about 290 B.C. he authored three books in Greek on Babylonian history. Berosus's history also survives only in pieces, as cited by Josephus and Eusebius. His original work covered the history of the region from the mythological past to the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians.
Demetrius the Chronographer (third century B.c.): Demetrius, a Jewish historian, recorded the history of his people, focusing on Biblical Israel and using the Septuagint as his primary source. He desired to illuminate the Bible's historical background and to resolve exegetical difficulties. His work too survives only in fragments.
Flavius Josephus (c. A.D. 37-100): Josephus was the most famous Jewish historian. His History of the Jewish War, describing the A.D. 66-70 war between Judea and Rome,5 ranks with Thucydides' history as one of the greatest ancient historical works. Josephus, of a priestly background (a Pharisee),6 began the war as a combatant for the losing side. He also wrote a chronology of the Jewish people from earliest times to nearly A.D.100 (Antiquities of the Jews).Josephus used the Septuagint as his primary source for the Biblical period but was also influenced by Hellenistic culture. He is our chief source of information regarding Herod the Great,' and he referred to John the Baptist, Jesus and James, the brother of Jesus, although the authenticity of his description of Jesus is disputed.
Polybius (c. 200-118 B.c.): Although a Greek, Polybius was the greatest historian of early Rome. His history is a major source for the study of the Punic Wars (Rome vs. Carthage).
Appian of Alexandria (second century A.D.): Another Greek historian, he focused on the rise of the Roman Republic.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. A.D. 56 — 120): Tacitus was the primary historian of the Roman Empire. His Histories and Annals focus on the imperial history of the first century A.D.
Dio Cassius (died c. A.D. 229): His work described the history of Rome from its founding to the time of Alexander Severus (A.D. 222-235). Unfortunately, much of it has been lost.
Suetonius (c. A.D.69-112):Suetonius (The Lives of the Caesars)10 wrote a biography of the early Roman emperors.
Plutarch (c. A.D. 46-119): Another biographer, he authored the Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans, a valuable resource for Greek and Roman history.
Eusebius of Caesarea (c. A.D. 263-339): Eusebius was the church's first great historian. His Ecclesiastical History, sometimes criticized for being more a defense of Christianity than a history, details chronologically the story of the rise of Christianity and is of enormous value.
An Akkadian Prayer to the Gods of the Night
PSALM 134 There are several short Akkadian liturgies known as Prayers to the Gods of the Night. These poems, which are prayers to the celestial stars, were recited at night. One example describes the silence of the city when doors were bolted, the palace was quiet and the people were asleep. Even the major deities (e.g., the sun god) had retreated into the lap of heaven, meaning that they were not visible at that time. The petitioner addressed the night gods, represented by the various constellations, asking for a favorable omen. He then performed a ritual of extispicy (seeking an answer to his inquiry through an interpretation of the form of the animal organs).
It may be that Psalm 134 is also an evening liturgy, but it is vastly different from the Akkadian poems. Psalm 134 may be a dialogue of praise sung between Yahweh's worshipers as they left the temple in the evening and the Levites who would guard it by night.2 The worshipers exhorted the Levites to continue to praise the Lord throughout the night, while the Levites in turn pronounced a benediction upon the congregants.Yahweh does not cease to work simply because it is nighttime; indeed, the Protector of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps (121:4). The Israelites were not to worship the heavenly bodies as the surrounding nations did, for they are not divine beings but simply part of God's creation that also glorify him (Ge 1:14-18; Ps 8:3; 136:7-9; 148:3). Worship of the Lord is to continue uninterrupted by day and night.
Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, the Abyss and Tartarus: Images of Hell
PSALM 139 The Psalmist declared to God, "If I make my bed in the depths, you are there" (Ps 139:8). The Hebrew word for "depths" is Sheol, and many translations simply leave the word untranslated. Sheol in the Old Testament view was essentially the place beneath the earth to which the dead were thought to go. Thus, Sheol can refer both to the literal grave and to the netherworld. As the netherworld, it is similar to the Greek Hades, the dark and sorrowful domain of the dead (as seen in Homer's Odyssey, book 11); in fact, it is usually translated as "Hades" in the Septuagint. In a single verse, however, Sheol can refer both to the gated kingdom of the netherworld and to the dusty grave (Job 17:16). In Greek mythology Hades was also a god, unlike what we see in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, the Bible sometimes portrays Sheol as a beast with gaping jaws (Isa 5:14; 14:9; Hab 2:5; NIV in each case,"the grave").
Visions of Sheol as a fearsome site sometimes appear in prophetic judgments and warnings. Ezekiel 31-32 includes elaborate depictions of the hordes now confined to Sheol, and this vision serves as a warning to Egypt. Similarly, in Luke 16:19-31 Jesus recounted the parable of the rich man in Hades (Niv,"hell") as a warning to his audience to repent.
The range of meanings the word Sheol carries explains what seem to be inconsistencies in the text. On the one hand, no one praises God in Sheol (Ps 6:5); one who is in the grave cannot testify to God's glory before the assembly of Israel at the temple (cf. Ps 51:14). On the other hand, God is present even in Sheol (139:8; Niv,"the depths"); even the dead in the netherworld are not beyond his power. It is significant to note that Sheol in the Old Testament refers simply to the habitation of the dead—not specifically to hell, the location for punishment of the wicked dead.
In the New Testament, especially when the reference is citing the Old Testament, Hades refers again either to the grave or to the netherworld of the dead (e.g., Ac 2:27,31, which states that Jesus was not left in Hades; NIV, "the grave"),In Revelation 20:13 Hades is the netherworld, which yields up the dead to God's judgment. Another New Testament term, abyss, can also refer simply to the place of the dead (Ro 10:7, citing the Old Testament; Niv,"the deep"). But the word usually describes a locale for the imprisoned demonic powers (Lk 8:31; Rev 9:1-2; 20:1). In classical Greek abyss connotes unfathomable depths, such as the sources of a spring.
A New Testament term with Jewish roots is Gehenna, named for the Hinnom Valley south of Jerusalem. Because child sacrifice was carried out in this valley (2Ki 16:3),' it was desecrated by King Josiah (2Ki 23:10). Jeremiah 7:32 declared that God would judge Judah there, and thus, during the intertestamental period, the term came to be used for the domain where the wicked would receive eternal punishment. Jesus often spoke of Gehenna as a place of fiery punishment (Mt 5:22; 10:28; 18:9; NIV in each case, "hell"), also indicating that Gehenna's original purpose was as the site of punishment for demons, although wicked humans would also be consigned there (Mt 25:41; NW, "eternal fire").A similar word,a verb that means "to cast into Tartarus," appears in 2 Peter 2:4 (Niv,"sent ...to hell") to describe the place where wicked angels are punished. Tartarus in Greek literature is the deepest part of Hades and a locale of eternal punishment.
We are wise not to make too much of the origins of these words. Gehenna has little to do with the historical Valley of Hinnom. Similarly,the Greek words the New Testament incorporates did not, for the apostles, imply that the Greek myths were credible.The word Sheol, we do well to note, is pure Hebrew with no known origin or parallels in any other language.
Warfare in the Ancient World
PSALM 144 Modern readers may be shocked at the opening verse of Psalm 144, but warfare is a prominent theme in the Psalms. The earliest wars were conducted with crude weapons of wood and stone. Horses were of limited value during heavy combat because the stirrup had not yet been invented and a rider could easily fall.
Chariots were not used extensively until the Late Bronze Age.' An Egyptian chariot conveyed two men, a driver and an archer (chariots from the Levant [Syria] also accommodated a shield-bearer). Massed chariots used shock value and speed to demoralize and scatter an enemy. Chariots were prominent in New Kingdom Egypt.
A revolution in military technology occurred at the beginning of the Iron Age. Massed armies of heavy infantry with the discipline to hold their ranks appeared on the scene.They could withstand and rout a chariot charge, making the chariot obsolete except as a prestigious vehicle for commanders.
Battles were often short, lasting only as long as one side or the other had the stamina to maintain face-to-face combat. Frequently one side would break ranks and flee. Panic was common, exacerbated by the commanders' poor control, having to rely as they did on shouted voice commands or signals. In keeping with the hilly terrain they inhabited, the Israelites relied primarily on infantry. Light infantry soldiers wore little or no armor and typically used projectile weapons, like stones and arrows.They moved in loose formations, relying on speed (see Jdg 20:15 — 16; 2Ch 14:8).
Heavy infantrymen wore full armor and often carried heavy swords and long spears. They moved in large, close formations, with spears lowered to form a wall of pikes, in effect creating an ancient version of a tank. The Greek hoplite (heavily armored infantry soldier) marching in his phalanx was a classic example of heavy infantry in action. Normally a heavy infantry unit would rout a light infantry corps, but out in the open a single heavy infantryman could be at a disadvantage when pitted against a light infantryman, due to the latter's mobility and ability to strike at a distance. The greatest armies combined heavy and light infantry with cavalry. Alexander the Great and Hannibal were masters at using their heavy infantry as a solid center for their armies, employing cavalry to flank an opponent. The Roman legions rejected the long pike in favor of a short sword. These legions had the weight and impact of heavy infantry but were much more mobile.
In addition to fighting pitched battles in the open field, armies sometimes laid siege to walled cities that were often situated atop hills.' How long a city could hold out depended on how much food it had in storage and upon whether it had direct access to underground springs. Plague could strike a besieged city, as happened to Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C. Often the besieging army would seek to bring down a city by building a siege ramp and attacking the walls with siege towers.
Ancient armies were often made up of citizen soldiers called up in times of emergency. These citizens could fight with dedication but were poorly trained and armed and often needed to return home on short order to tend their crops. Citizen-soldier armies served Israel during the judges period.
Ancient societies tried to give their armies a core of professional soldiers with long-term enlistments. Kings would also hire mercenaries. The Spartans had a novel solution to the recruitment problem: Every man served in the army full-time and lived in the barracks through most of his adult life (farming was handled by slaves called helots).
Ancient city-states often fought each other in"wars"that lasted a single day.Casualties could be light, and frequently nothing more was at stake than settling a property claim. Other wars could be catastrophic. The Peloponnesian War lasted 27 years, destroyed the Athenian Empire and devastated the Greek world.' Victorious armies might slaughter cities and take survivors as slaves, effectively destroying peoples and cultures with deliberate genocide.
Armed conflict was indeed a fact of life for the peoples of ancient times. Against this reality David had ample reason to thank God, who trained his hands for war.
PSALM 150 Among the ancient texts of the Bible scholars sometimes encounter psalms not found in the Hebrew Bible. A Syriac medieval Psalter includes five Apocryphal psalms numbered 151 to 155. Psalm 151 also appears in numerous ancient versions (Greek, Latin, Ethiopic and others). Cave 11 of Qumran contained Hebrew versions of Psalms 151,154 and 155,and several other non canonical psalms were discovered in caves 4 and 11. This gives rise to the obvious question of whether these psalms were overlooked and should have been included in the Scriptures.
Psalm 151 is a pseudo-autobiographical account of the early life of David drawn from 1 Samuel,1 although the Hebrew version also includes some material not found in the Greek.The Hebrew of Psalm 151 includes,"The mountains do not testify to him [the LORD], and the hills do not tell [of him]. The trees praise my words and the flocks [praise] my deeds." Perhaps those lines were edited out of the Greek version on the grounds that they were unorthodox or simply made no sense. Some of the non canonical psalms have borrowed from the Biblical psalms and maintain their poetic conventions. For example, Psalms 154 and 155 are pleas to God for help and are analogous to the Biblical Psalms 61, 62 and 63. Psalm 155 opens with the words:"LORD, I have called to you; hear me," in the tradition of Psalm 61:1 and 63:1.
The reason these psalms were not included in the Bible is simply that they were written too late.Their presence at Qumran and elsewhere indicates that liturgists continued to create songs of praise in imitation of the psalms after the canon had closed.2 In fact, we even see psalm-like songs of praise in the New Testament (e.g., Lk 1:46-55).