Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 18 – Part 2

Verses 8-20

The core of the first half of Psalm 18, the first poem (vv. 2-31), is the description in verses 8-20 of YHWH’s action, in response to the Psalmist’s cry for help (vv. 5-7, cf. Part 1 of this study). It is the description of a storm-theophany—that is, of God manifesting Himself in the storm. Many deities (or conceptions of deity) in the ancient world are manifest in atmospheric natural phenomena, whether or not they involve the actual personification of the storm itself. Most notable, among the Canaanites, the storm-theophany was associated with the deity Haddu, known commonly by the honorific title “Lord [Ba’al] Haddu”. For the Israelites, of course, this theophany belonged to YHWH, and the similarities with Baal Haddu help to explain the fierce anti-Baal polemic among devoted Yahwists, found in the Old Testament Prophetic traditions. Canaanite Baal was effectively a religious competitor to El-Yahweh in Israel, throughout the late 2nd and early 1st millennium B.C. Psalm 18:8-20 is one of the clearest instances of the ancient storm-theophany applied to El-Yahweh.

Verses 8-9 [7-8]

“And it shook and trembled, (did) the earth,
and (the) firm (foundation)s of (the) hills quivered,
and shook themselves, that (such) burning came f(rom) Him.
Smoke went up with [i.e. from] His nostril(s),
and fire from his mouth devoured (all things),
glowing (fire)s blazing (forth) from Him!”

This first strophe, made up of a pair of (3+3+3) tricola, describes the disruption of the natural order of things as YHWH approaches, so that even the strongest parts of the earth (the mountains/hills), from their deepest foundations, are shaken and tremble with fear. Three different verbs, indicating shaking/trembling/quivering, are used—vu^G`, vu^r*, and zg~r*—all with a similar sound; this assonance and alliteration is almost impossible to capture in translation. The anger of God, which causes nature to shake with fear, is depicted with the traditional imagery of a burning fire; the smoke and glowing bursts (sparks, burning embers, etc) may also allude to the natural phenomena of fires caused by lightning. The smoke/fire in the nostrils, drawing upon the motif of the angry animal (bull, etc), is a common Old Testament image for the anger of El-YHWH.

The main difference in 2 Samuel 22 here is the expression “firm (foundation)s of the heavens [<y]m^V*h^]” instead of “…of (the) hills [<yr!h*]”.

Verses 10-11 [9-10]

“And He spread (apart the) heavens and came down,
and (the) storm-cloud (was) under His feet;
and He rode upon (the) kerub and took flight,
and swooped (riding) upon wings of (the) wind.”

This next strophe is a pair of 3+3 couplets, depicting the phenomenon of the dark storm-cloud (lp#r*u&, Ugaritic ²rpl) itself. The image is an inclusio, with the first and fourth lines describing the cloud as it moves through the sky and approaches (descends). The spreading apart (vb hf*n`) of the skies is parallel with the outstretched “wings” of the sky. The Masoretic text in the fourth line reads “wings of the wind [j^Wr]”, but Dahood (p. 107) suggests that the consonantal text jwr should be vocalized instead jw~r#, meaning a “wide space” (as in Gen 32:17; Est 4:14). The basic imagery would not differ that much; the emphasis would be on the spreading of the sky rather than the atmosphere (skies/wind) itself. The correct verb in line 4 is ad#Y@w~ (“and He swooped”), but the MT of 2 Sam 22:11b reads ar*Y@w~ (“and He was seen”), reflecting a scribal mistake of the letter r for d.

In the second and third (inner) lines, YHWH is shown standing/riding upon the storm-cloud, itself personified as a great winged being, a bWrK= (kerub). The derivation of this term remains uncertain, but it clearly is meant to depict a winged being, of divine/heavenly nature, best known from the iconography of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Temple (esp. the golden box [ark] which served as the ‘throne’ for YHWH). Depiction of the storm as a bird is relatively common in ancient mythology, one of the best examples being the imagery associated with Ninurta in Sumerian religious/cosmological myth. Baal Haddu is similarly depicted as a great bird on a number of occasions, and so also YHWH in the older (poetic) strata of Old Testament tradition (e.g., Deut 32:11; Hab 3:3-4).

In terms of ancient cosmological-mythic conceptions, the idea of the deity riding (or standing) upon the natural phenomenon emphasizes his control over it. This reflects a development in religious thought, going beyond the idea of the deity as represented by the phenomenon itself (or as a personification of it). Clearly, in Israelite religion, YHWH was not simply manifest in the storm, but transcended it, coming down from heaven to ride upon the storm-cloud.

Verses 12-13 [11-12]

The rhythm and meter in the MT of vv. 12-13 is irregular and awkward; comparison with 2 Sam 22 suggests that the text is corrupt, in terms of the original poem. Cross and Freedman (p. 25f) provide an interesting reconstruction. Let us consider the first couplet in verse 12, beginning with the MT of the Psalm:

“He set darkness (as) His covering round about Him,
His covered (lair) (the) darkness of waters, clouds of vapors

It is an awkward 4+4 couplet, and the italicized portions are suspect. For one thing, in 2 Sam 22, the first line has only 3 beats, and is more likely to be correct in that regard:

“And He set darkness round about Him” (2 Sam)
wyt*b)yb!s= Ev#j) tv#Y`w~
“He set darkness (as) His covering round about Him” (Ps)
wyt*obyb!s= [ort=s!] Ev#j) tv#y`

The word in brackets (ort=s!, “his covering”) is likely an accretion; however, the initial w-conjunction in 2 Sam is probably secondary as well. Taking this into account, the putative first line of the original would be:

“He set darkness round about Him”

There are several difficulties in the second line. Ps and 2 Sam are largely identical, except that the Ps reads “darkness of water” (<y]m^-tk^v=h#) while 2 Sam has “collection of water” (<y]m^-tr^v=j^). The latter reading is to be preferred, with the noun hr*v=j^ meaning something like a container or “sieve” for gathering water. The final words “clouds of vapors” do not fit the meter of the couplet; in all likelihood, the words belong with the subsequent line, but this creates additional problems that have to be addressed. However, if correct, the original (or close to it) of verse 12 would read:

“He set darkness round about Him,
His cover (is) a collection of water”

This is a streamlined 3+3 couplet, with the noun hK*s% properly indicating the “covering” of YHWH; it can refer to a thatched (woven) structure, or to a more lavish sort of canopy (like a royal pavilion). The main idea is that the dark rain clouds are all around Him.

It is more difficult to make sense of significant differences between Ps and 2 Sam in verse 13, especially if the last words of v. 12 properly belong to that couplet. Here is my attempt at isolating a possible original:

“Clouds of vapors (go) in front of Him,
hail-stone(s) and flashes of fire”
oDg=n# <yq!j*v= yb@u*
va@-yl@j&g~w+ dr*B*

The word Hg~N)m! (“from brightness”) in both Ps and 2 Sam would be explained as a scribal mistake (haplography), while the addition of Wrb=u* wyb*u* may represent a gloss that made its way into the text. In 2 Sam, somehow the word dr*B* (“hail”) came to be mistaken for wru&B*, perhaps under the influence of v. 9. Here then, is how the two couplets might have read originally, taken together:

“He set darkness round about Him,
His cover (is) a collection of water;
clouds of vapors (go) in front of Him,
hail-stone(s) and flashes of fire.”

Verses 14-15 [13-14]

“YHWH thundered in the heavens,
the Highest (One) gave (out) His voice;
He sent (out) His arrows and scattered them,
multiplied lightning flashes and set them in motion.”

After the description of the approaching storm cloud, we have depicted the phenomena associated with the storm itself—thunder (v. 14 [13]) and lightning (v. 15 [14]). In the ancient world, the sound of thunder (vb <u^r*, indicating a crashing/rumbling sound) was conceived as the “voice” (loq) of the deity (here El-YHWH). When YHWH “gives” (vb /t^n`) out his voice, there is a terrifying sound of thunder, as in the famous theophany at Sinai (Exod 19:16, 19; 20:18). In verse 15 [14], the related phenomenon of lightning is described—first, figuratively as “arrows” (<yX!j!), and second, more realistically as bright flashes (<yq!r*B=) in the sky. The arrow-motif emphasizes the military aspect of this imagery—the storm being a means (whether literally or figuratively) by which God strikes enemies and evil-doers.

The wording of the last line is a bit difficult, and could be read several ways. The final verb (<m^h*) is typically understood in the sense of causing a disturbance or commotion, but I have rendered it above in the more fundamental sense of setting something in motion. Possibly a bit of wordplay is intended—as YHWH sets his lightning bolts in motion, He causes a commotion among His enemies, setting them in motion (they flee/scatter). This same wordplay would involve the third person suffixes on the verbs JWP and <m^h* (“He scattered them”, “He set them in motion”)—they properly refer to YHWH’s lightning bolts, but secondarily they can also allude to the enemies of YHWH who are scattered, etc.

Verse 16 [15]

“And (the) channels of (the) sea were seen,
and the foundations of (the) lb@T@ were uncovered,
from your (powerful) rebuke, YHWH,
from (the) burst of wind of your nostrils.”

The text of 2 Sam seems to confirm the reading “channels of the sea” (<y` yq@yp!a&), and that <ym (“waters”) in the MT of Ps 18 perhaps misreads an enclitic mem (<) at the end of the verb form. The noun lb@T@ in line 2 is difficult to render here; typically it is translated “world”, but literally it refers to something being carried or transported—i.e. the space (of the earth) that ‘carries’ the sea and its channels. The noun qyp!a* in line 1 similarly refers to a container, and the parallelism of the couplet is best seen as a synonymous (and/or synthetic) step-parallelism

    • the channels whereby the sea (and its waves, currents, etc) moves are revealed,
      • then the deeper parts (to the bottom) are uncovered.

On the idea of the “foundations” of the deep being uncovered, and the general idiom, cf. Job 36:30, and the Canaanite Aqhat text VI.48, etc. This sort of imagery was depicted in the traditional scene of the crossing of the reed-sea, in which the storm-winds of YHWH uncovered the bottom of the sea, allowing the Israelites to cross over on solid ground (Exod 14:21-22, etc).

Keeping in mind the military imagery of the storm-theophany (cf. above), we must remember the ancient Near Eastern cosmological tradition of the conquest of the Sea by the (Storm) deity. This traditional imagery was certainly applied to YHWH, though only traces of the association survive, in certain Psalms and archaic poetry of the Old Testament. Cf. my recent article on the subject.

The subjugation of the Sea indicates YHWH’s power and control over the natural forces in the universe. It is described here, in the second couplet of v. 16 [15], dramatically as a great roar (of thunder) and a powerful storm-wind. I read this as a slightly irregular (slanted) 2+2 couplet, again with synonymous parallelism:

    • your roar/rebuke | YHWH
    • the burst/blast (of the) | wind of your nostrils

Like a powerful animal, YHWH roars, and this terrifying cry “rebukes” the Sea. This would seem to involve a play on the root ru^g` which can carry both meanings (roar/rebuke, for the Canaanite evidence cf. Dahood, p. 110). On the depiction of the anger of El-YHWH by the motif of the nostrils of a (snorting) bull, etc, see above on verse 9. There, the image was of a burning fire from the nostrils, here it is a powerful blast of wind.

Verses 17-18 [16-17]

“He sent (down) from (the) high places and took me,
He pulled me (out) from (the) many waters;
He snatched me (away) from my powerful enemy,
and from (the one)s hating me, for they were strong(er) than me!”

Verses 17-18 [16-17] are comprised of a regular pair of 3+3 couplets, though this rhythm is hard to convey in a literal translation. Especially awkward to render is the last line. Based on the theory that lwav in the superscription refers to Sheol (i.e. Death and the grave), rather than “Saul”, supported by the context in vv. 5-6 [4-5], then the “powerful enemy” of the Psalmist is the death (personified) that threatens him, being manifest (literally or figuratively) in his various (human?) enemies (“the ones hating me”). In the first couplet, these “enemies” are represented as “waters”, i.e. a manifestation of the turbulent and chaotic Sea. Thus, in spite of the traditional historical setting of the superscription (as customarily read), we should be cautious about attributing the Psalm to any specific historical event.

What is especially emphasized is the power (zu) and strength (vb Jm^a*) of the Psalmist’s enem(ies), which requires intervention from YHWH in order to rescue him. The military imagery from the earlier couplets is continued here, rendered through the mythological idiom of the storm-theophany (cf. above).

Verses 19-20 [18-19]

“He came near to me in (the) day of my distress,
and YHWH was a place of support [i.e. protection] for me,
and He brought me out (in)to the broad place—
He pulled me (out), for He has delight in me.”

I follow Dahood (p. 110f) in reading the first verb of line 1 as a Piel singular, rather than plural, form (i.e. “He came near to me”). The consonantal text of 2 Sam (ynmdqy) supports this, and it better expresses the overall sense and imagery of these two couplets in context. YHWH comes near to the Psalmist; the verb <dq also can specifically connote the idea of coming in front of someone, i.e. to offer protection, as here. God Himself becomes a place of safety and support, in which (and by which) the Psalmist is brought out into “the broad/wide place” (bj*r=m#). This wide, open space is in direct contrast to the “distress” the Psalmist experienced—i.e. being in a tight space, surrounded by “many waters” that force and press him down. I have to disagree with Dahood (p. 111) who understands bj*r=m# as a poetic term for the ‘nether world’ (i.e. of Death). While there is some support for such a view (cf. Job 38:16-18), it seems to contradict the overall emphasis in vv. 19-20 on the theme of salvation/deliverance—i.e. the place to which God delivers the Psalmist, rather than the place from which he is rescued.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S. J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).
“Cross and Freedman” refers to the study by F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman Cross and Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18”, originally published in the Journal of Biblical Literature [JBL] 72/1 March 1953, pp. 15-34.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *