Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 29

Psalm 29

Dead Sea MSS: 5/6HevPs (vv. 1-2)

The antiquity of this Psalm is admitted by nearly all critical commentators, who recognize it (on objective grounds) as one of the oldest surviving Psalms (no later than the 10th century B.C.). Its relative age is marked by the many details and features reflective of Canaanite poetry of the period. Some would go so far as to claim that Psalm 29 represents a Canaanite Baal-hymn that has been adapted for worship of Yahweh (cf. the earlier studies by H. L. Ginsberg, T. Gaster, F. M. Cross, and M. Dahood).

The meter of the Psalm will be mentioned in the notes below. The superscription marks it as a musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”. The admitted age of the poem makes it one of the few Psalms where it is possible to date it to a time close to that of David himself.

Verses 1-2

“Give to YHWH, sons of (the) Mighty (One),
give to YHWH weight and strength!
Give to YHWH (the) weight of His name,
bow to YHWH at (the) appearance of (His) holiness!”

These are best presented as 4-beat (4+4) couplets; however, it may be more in keeping with ancient Canaanite style to view them as a series of short 2-beat (2+2) couplets. The repetitive parallelism of these short lines is typical of the Canaanite poetic style, as attested in the Ugaritic texts of the 14th-13th century. The repeated imperative Wbh* is of the verbal root bhy, “give”, in the transferred sense of offering to a great personage (i.e. God as king/ruler) a ‘gift’ of praise. The noun dobK* is translated in its fundamental meaning of “weight”, i.e. worth, value, and the honor that is to be accorded to something based on its worth.

The expression “sons of the Mighty (One)” in the opening line uses the ancient Semitic name and title la@ (°¢l), literally something like “mighty” —that is, the “Mighty (One)”, usually rendered “God” in English. The form <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) would normally be understood as a plural (“Mighty [One]s”, ‘gods’), comparable to the later expanded form <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm). However, Cross (p. 45-46) and other commentators prefer to view it as the singular (la@) with an enclitic <. Psalm 89:7 is another such example, as well as what likely is the original reading of Deut 32:8 (according to the Qumran MS ). The only definite instance of <la as a true plural would seem to be in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:11, cf. the recent daily note). In Canaanite polytheism, the “sons of °E~l” simply means the gods/deities in general, who are regarded as the offspring of the Creator (°E~l) and those divine beings who assemble in the court of His heavenly dwelling. Under the influence of Israelite monotheism, the “sons of God” are reduced to lesser heavenly beings who function as servants and messengers (i.e. Angels) of Yahweh (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1, etc). These beings appear to have been closely connected with the stars (Job 38:7) of heaven. Use of both singular la@ and plural <yl!a@ largely disappeared in Hebrew, being replaced by the expanded plural form <yh!ýa$; the older forms are preserved almost exclusively in poetry.

The noun hr*d*h& in the fourth line, usually translated “beauty”, is better understood in the fundamental sense of “adornment” —that is, of adorning one’s appearance to make it more attractive. The emphasis is on the splendor and majestic of YHWH’s appearance (i.e. as he appears). Given the storm-motif that is central here to this Psalm (cf. below), it is fair to assume that a theophany (manifestation of God on earth) is intended.

Verse 3

“(The) voice of YHWH (is) upon the waters,
(the) Mighty (One) of the weight brings thunder,
YHWH (is firmly) upon (the) many waters!

This is the first of a series of short stanzas dealing with the voice (loq) of YHWH, which is an ancient idiom for thunder—i.e., thunder conceived of as the “voice” of God. It is part of a wider stormtheophany—that is, of God manifest in the storm. Such storm-imagery was especially associated with the deity Haddu (called “Lord/Master”, or Baal) in Canaanite religious tradition, but was also connected with the Creator °E~l, and so similarly applied to Yahweh by the Israelites. The conflict between a strict worship of Yahweh and a (syncretistic) worship of Baal-Haddu in ancient Israel was based, in part, on these similarities.

The Sinai theophany, which was central to ancient Israelite religious thought and tradition, is described in terms of storm-theophany (Exodus 19:16-20; 20:18-21). The imagery is found in a number of Psalms and early poems as well, most notably in Psalm 18 (= 2 Sam 22), vv. 8-16, discussed in an earlier study; cf. also 89:6-19; 97:1-6; 77:16-18; 104:2-7; 144:5-6; Deut 33:26-29, and other examples. The power of the storm—both in its life-giving and destructive aspects—indicates control over the ancient waters.

In cosmological myth, this is often described in terms of the deity defeating and subduing the primeval waters (the Sea). There are likewise allusions to this conflict with the Sea in Old Testament poetry, and it is a component of the storm-theophany, as applied to YHWH. When the Psalm states that the voice of YHWH was “upon” (lu^) the waters it emphasizes God’s control over them; the preposition could also be understood in the sense of “against”, which would then contain an allusion to the cosmological conflict-motif. The context of creation may also entail a parallel with the traditional account in Genesis, where God’s presence (His breath/spirit) is “upon” the dark waters at the beginning of creation (1:2). The parallel between God’s breath and voice is obvious; in the Genesis account, the order of creation is established when He speaks (1:3ff).

The “weight” (dobK*) of YHWH—indicating His greatness and power, and the honor that is to be given to Him—is manifest especially through His presence in the storm. To ancient peoples, the storm, both through its terrifying power and life-sustaining rainfall, was held in awe and wonder. The religious focus shifts to the deity who is manifest in the storm, and has control over it.

Verses 4-6

“(The) voice of YHWH (is manifest) in power,
(the) voice of YHWH (is splendid) in appearance;
(the) voice of YHWH is breaking up (the) cedar trees,
YHWH breaks up (the) cedars of the white (mountains)—
He makes (the) white (mountains) jump like a bull-calf,
and the snow-peak(s) like (the) son of a wild bull!”

The use of repetitive parallelism is especially strong here, as the lines emphasize the grandeur and power of God’s “voice”. This power is manifest especially in the way that the storm (with its wind and lightning bolts) causes even the great cedar trees of the “white-capped” (/onb*l=) mountains (i.e., the Lebanon range) to burst/break apart (vb rb^v*). The parallel term /oyr=c! indicates the snow-capped (i.e. white) peaks of the mountains. The storm is depicted as affecting not only the trees, but the great mountain range as a whole.

Verses 7-9a

“(The) voice of YHWH is cutting through (with) flames of fire,
(the) voice of YHWH makes (the) hinterland [i.e. desert/wilderness] whirl,
YHWH makes whirl (the) hinterland of (the desert) sanctuary [Q¹¼¢š];
(the) voice of YHWH makes (the) deer twist (in anguish),
and makes bare (the) thicket (of the forest)!”

These verses continue the description of the thunder-storm’s effect on the land. If the focus in vv. 5-6 was on the mountains, in vv. 7-8 it is on the desert steppe (the “hinterland”, rB^d=m!, usually translated in English as “desert” or “wilderness”). Just as YHWH, through the power of the storm, can make the mountains “jump” (vb dq^r*), so he is able to make the desert steppe “whirl” (vb lWj). The reach of this power extends to the forest thickets in the flatland, where the deer and other animals dwell. As the land twirls, so also the deer “twist” (vb ll^j*) in anguish; this verb can refer specifically to the writhing of a woman in labor, so there may be here an allusion to the storm in its life-producing power. The destructive strength of the storm is also part of the fertility it brings to the land.

The mixing of imagery in verse 9 is further complicated by the incomplete/irregular meter, notably the two-beat line “and he makes bare the thicket”, which seems rather out of place. This, along with other factors, have led commentators to make various attempts at emending and/or rearranging the lines throughout verses 6-9 (e.g., Cross, pp. 154-155; Dahood, pp. 174-5). As there is no solution which, in my view, is remotely satisfactory or convincing, I make no attempt to do anything of the sort in my translation above. Instead, I work from the traditional Masoretic text as we have it, recognizing that the text, in verse 9 at least, is likely corrupt or incomplete. Unfortunately, there is no help from the Dead Sea texts, since the one surviving manuscript of Psalm 29 contains only the first two verses.

Verses 9b-10

“In all His palace (His) weight [i.e. glory] is shown—
YHWH sits against [i.e. over] (the) flood (waters),
and (so) YHWH sits (as) king into (the) distant (future)!”

Verse 9b is also problematic (cf. on 9a above), both rhythmically and in terms of the syntax. The line is awkward, due mainly to the presence of oLK% (“all of it” [?]), which Cross (p. 154) would omit as evidence of a scribal mistake (dittography). As it stands, the line is consistent with the 4-beat (or double 2-beat) meter that dominates throughout the poem, and many commentators would try to make sense of the text without modifying it. I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 179) in understanding the term as modifying “his palace”. Literally, this would yield “in His palace, all of it”, which is exceedingly awkward in English; I have simplified this for the sake of poetic style, while preserving the presumed sense of the line—i.e., “in all His palace”.

The second line clearly alludes to the cosmological myth-tradition of God defeating/subduing the primeval waters. In Near Eastern thought, the regular flooding that occurs—often catastrophic in effect, but also necessary to make the land fertile—represents a temporary return to the primeval condition, when the cosmos was comprised of a dark mass of water (Gen 1:2). By ‘subduing’ this water, the Creator deity brings order and structure to the universe. This work of creation marks God as Sovereign over the universe.

Verse 11

“YHWH will give strength to His people,
YHWH will bless His people with peace.”

Like many Psalms, the closing lines here apply the message of the poem to the people of Israel collectively, and assume a definite worship setting. The power of YHWH manifest in the storm, and which subdued the waters at the beginning of creation, will likewise act on behalf of His people. This may allude to the ancient concept of El-Yahweh as the fashioner of the heavenly “armies” —the forces of nature, of the sun and moon, sky and storm, etc.—which fight against the enemies of God at His command. For more on this idea, cf. the current daily notes on the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-12ff).

References above marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).
Those marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

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