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Psalm 29

These are the words of God, for the people of God.  Thanks be to God! 

First things first: King David almost certainly did not write Psalm 29.

The “of David” superscription here could mean “written/adapted for David” or “composed in the Davidic musical style,” of course. But the consensus among Old Testament scholars for the past half-century has been that Psalm 29 is likely a Hebrew adaptation of an even more ancient Canaanite (or perhaps Phoenician) hymn of worship to their storm god, Ba’al.

There are a number of reasons for believing this, including the poem’s unique topic (praise for a deity’s control of storms and general mastery of nature), structure (numbering, phrases and phonetic structures that evoke or incorporate the name of Ba’al), setting (the coastlands west of ancient Israel,) and stylistic similarity to other Ancient Near Eastern exhortations and inscriptions (both Ugaritic and Phoenician).

Placing this historical reality to one side, several important questions still remain:

Why would an Israelite author see fit to co-opt a presumably well-known Canaanite hymn to Ba’al in praise of Yahweh in the first place? Would Israelite religious practices (or indeed the God being worshipped) be threatened by this sort of adaptation? And what can modern, Christian readers learn from this evocative, ancient hymn to the Creator?

These questions will form the crux of our analyses.

First, it is important to understand that adopting, adapting, and wholescale co-opting of rival cultures’ founding myths and religious expressions was common throughout the Ancient Near East. Examples include everything from the myriad Creation and Flood accounts across Mesopotamian cultures to the worship of Ba’al himself (first by the Phoenicians, and later by other Canaanite and Semitic peoples).

“The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters…The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.”

The ancient Israelites were no exception! It was a common enough practice to appropriate the most desirable attributes of a rival culture’s pantheon and ascribe them to your own deity (for example, a storm god called “The Lord” who rides on clouds, wields thunder and lightning, sends rain on the crops of his worshippers, and has the power to ensure peace for prosperity of future generations).

“The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh…”

Second, such practices were not only sociologically customary in the Ancient Near Eastern context of the psalmists, they were also theologically instructive. How better to emphasize the supremacy of Yahweh in an at-best-pluralistic society than to usurp and magnify the praises of his presumed rivals?

“Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.”

What better way to describe the lovingkindess of Yahweh than to make plain that the same sevenfold “voice of the Lord” that could call forth a storm or lay waste to forests also called God’s faithless people back to covenant? How could the translator more poetically describe the mercy of a God whose anger could destroy entire nations but yet insisted on forgiving even Israel’s enemies?

“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”

In the end, perhaps the most important reason for a Hebrew psalmist to adopt and adapt a hymn of Ba’al worship for the magnification of Yahweh was to draw just such a contrast. “Our God is greater, but also more merciful” the rewritten poem declares. “Yahweh’s power could bring death and destruction, but instead fosters life and peace for even our social, theological, and economic rivals.”

These truths comfort and challenge modern Christian readers just as surely as they did our ancient Jewish counterparts. Too often we seek a God who is richer, better looking, and more powerful than those venerated by our enemies…only to eventually succumb to the same greed, lust, and power that tempt us toward idolatry.

But once more the transmuted psalm reminds us: Yahweh’s strength is in restraint, and the voice of the Lord calls God’s people to reconciliation.

“The Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

These are the words of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

Further reading:  Barré, Michael. “A Phoenician Parallel to Psalm 29.” Cook, Stephen. “In Praise of the Storm God.” Stith, Matthew. “Commentary on Psalm 29.”