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YAHWEH VERSUS BAAL: AN EXAMINATION OF THE USE OF PSALM 29 IN THE WORSHIP

OF ISRAEL AND ITS RELATION TO ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN HYMN TEXTS

A PAPER SUBMITTED TO

DR. RICHARD BELCHER

FOR 0OT512, POETS

BY

JOEL S.

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO

SEPTEMBER 15, 2010


INTRODUCTION

Throughout their history, the Israelites were surrounded by nations who worshiped false

gods. In particular, the Jews were tempted by the peoples around them to worship Baal. It

was to Baal that the God's people turned to repeatedly in the period of the judges and during

the time of the kings. Accordingly, for the Jews, it was vital that they were very clear on the

identity and authority of their God in the midst of peoples that rejected his sovereignty.

In the context of such idolatrous temptation Psalm 29 provides a clear call to worship

Yahweh, the true God of Israel, instead of Baal, the false god of the Canaanites. By

examining the Ancient Near Eastern background of Psalm 29, I will illustrate that the theme

of the psalm is that Yahweh is Lord over Baal, as proven by his authority over all that Baal

supposedly controls. Proceeding from a historical examination of the comparative studies on

Psalm 29 to a presentation of the evidence for the connection between the psalm and Baal

literature, I will discuss its role in the life and worship of Israel. That discussion will

provide the basis for a presentation of the Psalm's message to the people of God today.

HISTORY OF COMPARATIVE STUDIES ON PSALM 29

Starting in March of 1929, Claude F. A. Shaffer began to excavate sites believed to have

remnants of ancient Syrian-Phoenician cultures. He first discovered the necropolis of an

ancient city, containing some intriguing artifacts: small statues of goddesses, tombs of

ancient kings, and the jewelry of ancient queens. It was not until May of the same year that

Shaffer first found clay tablets in a slightly different location known as Ras Shamra. 1 These

tablets contained “letters, administrative and legal records, outlines of rituals, and god lists,”
1
Peter C. Craigie, Ugarit and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 10-12.
as well as “narrative poems, all of literary, religious, and mythological significance.” 2

Several tablets were found at Ras Shamra that shed much light on the nature of the gods and

goddesses of the Canaanites, especially Baal. 3 Peter Craigie says of Ugarit, the capital city of

the ancient civilization discovered at Ras Shamra: “But Ugarit is more significant than that;

its archives and ancient texts have added fundamentally to our knowledge of the Old

Testament world, to an extent far greater than has been the case with other archaeological

sites excavated in the world east of the Mediterranean.” 4

Six years after the findings at Ras Shamra, H.L. Ginsberg proposed the hypothesis that

Psalm 29 may have originally been a Canaanite hymn of praise to Baal which was adapted to

the praise of Yahweh. He noted several aspects of the psalm that were distinctly Canaanite,

especially the emphasis on the Lord’s voice. 5 His hypothesis was adopted by other scholars

such as Theodor Gaster, F.C. Fensham, and F. M. Cross, who said, “H.L. Ginsberg in 1936

drew up conclusive evidence that Psalm 29 is an ancient Ba‘l hymn, only slightly modified

for use in the early cultus of Yahweh. Further study has steadily added confirmatory detail.” 6

However, continued study has cast some doubt on whether Psalm 29 was taken directly and

completely from a Canaanite hymn and changed to fit an Israelite context, primarily because

no such original Canaanite hymn has as yet been found. Some scholars, the most prominent

one being Peter Craigie, have suggested that the Psalm 29 may take much of its source

material from Canaanite sources, and deliberately imitate the way the Canaanites spoke of

2
Simon B. Parker, “Ugaritic Literature and the Bible” Near Eastern Archaeology 63:4 (2000): 228.
3
Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, In Search of God: The Message and Meaning of the Everlasting Names
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988), 75.
4
Craigie, 6.
5
Ibid., 70.
6
Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 151, 152.
their god Baal, without necessarily taking a complete Canaanite hymn and “Yahwizing” it. 7

While there are differences between these two views, they are both saying the same thing:

Psalm 29 is a deliberate attack on the gods of the Canaanites, especially Baal, because it

draws directly from Canaanite poetic sources and uses their language to affirm the superiority

of Yahweh in everything.

EVIDENCE FOR THE CANAANITE BASIS OF PSALM 29

A cursory reading of Psalm 29 reveals some important features. Verse 1 calls the “sons of

the mighty,” or “divine assembly,” to praise the Lord. Broyles notes that the term for “sons

of the mighty”8 was used in Ugaritic literature to refer to the gods who served their king, and

so Psalm 29 is using a familiar expression with new meaning. 9 Instead of referring to the

gods of the Canaanites, it here refers to the angelic beings who do the bidding of the Lord.

Verses 3 through 9 form an extended section praising the voice of the Lord. The Lord’s voice

is presented as exercising his superiority over the created order. Verse 10 speaks of the Lord’s

enthronement as king, which brings peace to the earth. 10 The emphases on the Lord’s voice

and his enthronement are presented not only as being over creation in general, but over the

storm in particular: Verse 3 speaks of his voice being “over the waters.” Verses 3 and 7

relate his voice specifically to thunder and lightning. Verses 5, 8, and 9 speak of the Lord’s

voice as causing great trees to break, of shaking the wilderness, and of stripping the forests

bare. Verse 10 describes the Lord as “enthroned over the flood.”

7
Craigie, Ugarit and the Old Testament, 71.
8
My¡IlEa y∞EnV;b, translated “heavenly beings” in the English Standard Version.
9
Craig C. Boyles, Psalms (NIBC Vol. 11; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 152.
10
Boice notes that there is a “movement from heaven where the psalm begins (vv. 1-2) to earth where it ends
(vv. 10-11).” From James Montgomery Boice, Psalms, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 255.
F.M. Cross summarizes the main themes of the Psalm, “The hymn is introduced by a

classic “Address to the Divine Council” in repetitive, imperative plurals (verses 1f.); the

theophany of the storm god follows (verse 9), and with it the convulsions and travail of sea

and mountain, forest and creature (verses 3-9b), and finally the appearance of the god as

victor and king enthroned in his temple (verses 9c f.).” 11 Craigie notes, “It is generally

accepted that the psalm is in essence a theophany, the theophany of Yahweh in nature (i.e.,

the storm).”12 Craigie also argues that this theophany of Yahweh in the storm argues for the

nature of Yahweh as a warrior. He cites the examples of the Song of the Sea, in which the

victory in battle was won by use of a storm and the song of Deborah as other texts that use

storm language to communicate the prowess of Yahweh in battle. 13 However, these features

are not limited to Hebrew poetry, but are also found in the literature of the Canaanites. To

understand the relationship between Psalm 29 and Ugaritic texts, some features of Canaanite

mythology must be examined.

The Features of Canaanite Mythology in the Baal Poems

Much of Canaanite mythology speaks of the god Baal. He is spoken of in the Scriptures

as the false god that the Israelites followed when they rebelled against Yahweh. The well-

known story of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Ahab and Jezebel is a battle

between the servants of Yahweh and the servants of Baal14. A relief excavated at Ugarit

provides a picture of how Baal was probably viewed by the Canaanites. He was pictured as

“the young warrior. Through his victory over the powers of chaos he wins his kingship and

receives in return a palace, a temple. The lightning in his hand reminds us that Baal is
11
Cross, 152.
12
Peter C. Craigie, “Psalm xxix in the Hebrew Poetic Tradition” Vetus testamentum 22:2 (1972): 147-148.
13
Ibid.
14
See 1 Kings 18 and Romans 11:2-7.
6

responsible for lightning and rain. He is the god of weather and fertility.” 15 Mettinger also

points out that Baal is especially seen as the thunder-god. 16 One of the poems found at Ugarit

reads,

And <he will> peal his thunder in the clouds,


Flashing his lightnings to the earth. 17

Simon Parker summarizes the key elements of the Baal epic found at Ugarit,

The actors in Baal, the longest of the three major narrative poems, are all deities. The
poem opens with the conflict between Baal and Yamm (Sea). With the help of
Kothar, the craftsman god, Baal defeats Yamm. He now faces the task of getting an
appropriate house (palace, temple) built. This achieved, again with the help of
Kothar, he takes on Mot (Death), and eventually succumbs to him. In due course,
however, he reappears. There is a fierce combat between the two of them, until both
collapse. The solar deity (Shapshu) intervenes and Mot finally accepts Baal’s
dominion while retaining dominion over his own domain. 18

Baal was not only viewed as the storm-god, but also as a warrior-god who defeated his

enemies. This warrior-god is praised for his voice as well,

Ba[al gives] forth his holy voice,


Baal discharges the ut [terance of his li]ps.
His h[oly] voice [convulses] the earth,…the
mountains quake,
A-tremble are…
East and west, earth’s high places reel.
Baal’s enemies take to the woods,
Hadd’s foes to the sides of the mountain.19

This presentation of Baal’s voice as the means by which he controls nature and defeats his

enemies is important to note in order to understand the relationship between Baal and

Yahweh, Hebrew and Canaanite, especially as that affects the message presented in Psalm 29.

15
Mettinger, 80.
16
Ibid.
17
James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1969): 133. From II AB v, lines70-71, translated by H.L. Ginsberg.
18
Parker, 231.
19
Pritchard, 135. From II AB vii, lines 31-36, translated by H.L. Ginsberg.
7

Parallels Between Baal Mythology and Psalm 29

Some parallels are apparent between the Baal epic and Psalm 29 when they are compared.

Those themes that have already been noted in passing in both are the theophany during the

storm, which especially manifests itself in the power of the divine voice, and the control of

thunder and lightning. Day summarizes the main parallels, “Yahweh’s theophany in the

thunder-storm (vv. 3-9), his exaltation in the divine assembly (v. 1) and enthronement as king

over the cosmic sea (v. 10) are all paralleled in the Baal mythology of the Ugaritic texts.” 20

The theophany theme will be dealt with here, while the other two will be considered later in

the context of other texts relating to Baal mythology.

The theophany of Yahweh in the storm has already been noted, and a similar theme

emerged in the Ugaritic text cited above relating the voice of Baal to the shaking of

mountains and the defeat of his enemies. The Israelites, who often turned to Baal in their

times of rebellion against Yahweh, lived in a culture that was saturated with Baal worship.

As noted above, Baal was seen as the warrior who conquered and gave fertility through his

control over lightning, thunder, and rain. Psalm 29 makes it very clear that Yahweh is the

one who controls nature, that Yahweh is the one whose voice breaks the mighty trees and

shakes the wilderness. In one section of the Baal epic, Baal and Kothar are disagreeing over

whether a window should be made in Baal’s palace, and Kothar says,

[As for Baal] his house is built,


[As for Hadd] his palace is raised.
They […] from Lebanon and its trees,
From [Siri]on its precious cedars.
…[…Le]banon and its trees,
Si[r]ion its precious cedars.21
20
Day, 143.
21
Pritchard, 134. From II AB vi, lines 16-21. Translated by H.L. Ginsberg.
8

Baal however is not appreciative of this, and he destroys the house with fire and builds his

house out of silver and gold.22 Psalm 29 says,

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;


the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.23

The parallel is clear: Baal’s palace is originally made out of the cedars of Lebanon, but then

is destroyed by Baal. Psalm 29 takes this theme and applies it to Yahweh. Not only does

Psalm 29 draw from Baal mythology to make a point about Yahweh’s theophany in the

thunder-storm, it says that Yahweh is the one who destroys the very materials with which

Baal’s house was originally constructed.

John Day also presents another feature of interest regarding the theophany of Yahweh in

the thunderstorm. He notes, “It may therefore be maintained that RS 24.245 lines 3b-4 allude

to both Baal’s sevenfold lightnings and thunders, just as Ps. xxix depicts Yahweh’s

thundering seven times.”24 The number seven is both important in the literature of Ugarit in

general, and in the Baal epic in particular. Examples such as, “[He replies] in the seven

ch[am]bers, [In]side the eight enclosures”25 are common in Baal mythology. Day strengthens

his argument by referring to verse 10 speaking of the Lord’s enthronement over the flood,

Similarly, RS 24.245 lines 1-3a, immediately prior to the reference to Baal’s seven
lightnings and thunders, we read of Baal’s enthronement like the flood…‘Baal sits
enthroned, having the mountain as a throne, Hadad (the shepherd) like the flood in the
midst of his mountain, the god of Zaphon in the (midst of) the mountain of victory.’
There can surely be no doubt, in the light of these parallels, that the sevenfold thunder
22
Ibid.
23
See vv. 5 and 6.
24
Day, 144. He cites RS 24.245 lines 3b-4, which say, “Seven lightnings (he had), Eight storehouses of thunder
were the shafts of (his) lightnings).”
25
Pritchard, 137. From VAB E, lines 18-19. Translated by H.L. Ginsberg.
9

of Yahweh in Ps. xxix is yet a further instance of this psalm’s appropriation of motifs
deriving ultimately from Baal mythology… 26

The theophany of Yahweh in his seven-fold thunders is therefore derived from Baal

mythology. Two other parallels mentioned above will now be examined in relationship to

other biblical texts.

Psalm 29 and Other Old Testament Texts

Psalm 29 is not a text in isolation. It is related to other passages in the Old Testament

which have a similar place in the literature of the Israelites. One specific text will be

examined, the Song of the Sea found in Exodus 15:1-18, and then generally the psalms

classified as Enthronement Psalms will be considered. Both will help to understand the

relationship between Psalm 29 and Baal mythology, and in determining the significance of

the psalm in the worship and life of Israel.

The Song of the Sea found in Exodus 15 is a response to the victory won by Yahweh for

his people as they left the land of Egypt. It is a song of praise to Yahweh for protecting his

people and defeating their enemies, the Egyptians, by causing the Red Sea to overcome them.

Craigie argues that there are many parallels between the Song of the Sea and Psalm 29. He

summarizes one aspect of his argument in this way,

In summary, ‘z in the Song of the Sea is used with two senses, “refuge, protection” and “strength,
might”. A similar dual usage can be discerned in Psalm xxix. The context of xxix 1 indicates the
sense, “strength, might”. In xxix 11, however, ‘z is something given by Yahweh to his people, namely
“refuge, protection”, the prerequisites of “peace” (v. 11b). 27

Craigie notes a further a further parallel: in both the Song of the Sea and Psalm 29, there is a

clear relationship between the strength of Yahweh, and his name. The Song of the Sea

26
Day, 145.
27
Craigie, “Psalm xxix in the Hebrew Poetic Tradition,” 146.
10

identifies the Man of War with the name Yahweh, and in Psalm 29 the name of the Lord

receives glory and honor because of his strength.28 In addition, Exodus 15:1 reads, “Then

Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the Lord…The Lord is my strength and my

song…” Psalm 29 opens by saying, “Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the mighty, ascribe to

the Lord glory and strength.” Both poems are written in the context of the assembly of the

people to celebrate his theophany in the midst of the storm. 29 Furthermore, the Song of the

Sea after the Exodus plays off of Baal mythology, following the same themes: conflict,

order, kingship, and palace-construction, affirming the absolute victory of Yahweh over his

enemies.30 These themes are repeated in Psalm 29 as well, further strengthening the link

between the psalm and the Song of the Sea, as well as the relationship between the psalm and

Baal mythology.

The Song of the Sea can perhaps be regarded as the beginning of a tradition of literature

that draws from Baal mythology, applying the themes found there to Yahweh. Psalm 29

continues that tradition, and so do the Enthronement Psalms, though by the point at which

they were composed, the Canaanite mythological features are not as apparent. 31 The link

between Psalm 29 and the Enthronement Psalms should be apparent by reading verse 10,

“The Lord sat enthroned over the flood, and the Lord will sit enthroned as king forever.” As

noted above, the Lord’s enthronement over the flood plays off Baal mythology as well, since

in the Baal epic, Baal is pictured as having defeated Yamm, representing the sea, and chaos in

general. Craigie says, “the enthronement of the Lord, expressed in the powerful imagery of v

28
Ibid., 146-147.
29
Ibid.
30
Craigie, Ugarit and the Old Testament, 88-89.
31
Craigie, “Psalm xxix in the Hebrew Poetic Tradition,” 144-145; See Psalms 67, 93, and 96-99.
11

10, conveys clearly the concept of the Lord as victorious, not only over chaotic forces in

general, but over Baal, the conqueror of chaos, in particular; God’s power is greater than the

greatest power known to the Canaanite foes.” 32 These themes indicate that Psalm 29 should

be regarded as a victory hymn, celebrating the victory of Yahweh over chaos in general, and

over the false gods over pagan cultures in particular. The relationship between Psalm 29 and

these other texts, and their common relationship to Baal mythology all contribute to

understanding the role of Psalm 29 in the life and worship of Israel.

THE MESSAGE OF THE PSALM IN THE LIFE AND WORSHIP OF ISRAEL

As noted above, Psalm 29 can be classified as a victory hymn, leading the Israelites to

express their praise to God for being the one who defeats chaos and their enemies, and who

sits enthroned over them as their King. The image is similar to how the people praised God

after their deliverance from Egypt: they raised their voices in triumph as they recognized the

triumph of God's own voice in the midst of even the most powerful forces of nature. Thus

the heart of the message of Psalm 29 to the people of Israel was that Yahweh is in control. He

rules over all things and is therefore worthy of praise.

However, because Psalm 29 so potently draws on Baal mythology, its message becomes

much sharper. The psalm is not only a celebration of God's power over all the forces of

nature. Rather, it is a celebration of God's power over one of Israel's most common tempters:

the false god Baal. Because the Israelites would have understood from their own idolatrous

past the connections to Baal literature, they would have recognized that the Psalm called

32
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 Vol. 19, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 249.
12

them to give glory to God, the defeater of Baal. Indeed, what the Canaanites supposed that

Baal did—expressing his voice in the thunderstorm, giving fertility to the plant and animal

kingdoms, being enthroned over the flood—the God of Israel truly does. Accordingly, Psalm

29 calls on the people to reject all pretenses that Baal has any authority and to instead give all

glory to the God who gives them peace in the midst of all earthly storms. 33

THE MESSAGE OF THE PSALM TO THE CHURCH TODAY

Unlike the Israelite readers of Psalm 29 in the Old Testament, the church no longer is

tempted to worship the Canaanite idol Baal. However, this in no way lessens the force of the

message that the psalm conveys to the people of God in all ages. The ongoing message of

Psalm 29 to the people of God can be summarized in two points: (1) God is Lord over all

creation, including the seemingly chaotic forces of nature, (2) the idols that God's people are

tempted to worship today are as impotent before God as was Baal in the Old Testament. I

will now explain these two points in further detail.

First, the clear message of Psalm 29 is that even powerful elements of creation—thunder,

lightning, floods, majestic trees, graceful animals—are under God's control. While the

contemporary church's context is different than that of the people of Israel, one aspect

remains the same: unbelievers in all ages attribute control of nature to something other than

God. The Canaanites attributed the control of nature to Baal. Many modern people attribute

natural events to chance or scientific properties. The people of God know that peace only

33
Of this point, Delitzsch notes, “Gloria in excelsis is its beginning, and pax interris its conclusion.” From F.
Delitzsch, Psalms. (Transl. by James Martin; Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 5; Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1980), 373. In other words, as the Psalm begins with a description of God's majestic glory, it ends
with the result of this glory on earth: peace among his people.
13

comes from recognizing—and acknowledging in praise—that these powerful events come

only from the hand of God. Through the powerful echo of God's voice in the storm, Psalm

29 indicates that victory in all areas of life comes from God alone.

Secondly, Psalm 29 tells God's people today that all of the idols that they are tempted to

worship—money, possessions, positions of power and influence, sex, fertility, and all others

—are powerless to bring peace. Psalm 29 sounds forth the call that only God is worthy of

praise, that he alone has power in the earth. Thus for a people who is surrounded by cultural

calls to worship the idols of those who rebel against God, Psalm 29 communicates a powerful

message: God's people must reject those idols because they are impotent and praise God who

alone has power over heaven and earth.

CONCLUSION

Psalm 29 is a hymn to Yahweh, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. However,

because of its literary connections to the Baal literature of the Ancient Near East, its message

is more focused than that. It communicates clearly that Yahweh is Lord over Baal, as proven

by his authority over all that Baal supposedly controls. For the Israelites, this psalm of

victory called them to praise God for his sovereign control over nature and all false gods

raised up against him. Walton summarizes the message of the psalm in its Israelite context:

The similarities that exist between Psalm 29 and the poetry of Ugaritic mythology certainly help us
to see and appreciate some of the common motifs and poetic techniques of the ancient Near East. To
the extent that the use of well-known motifs and techniques may reflect a polemic effort on the part of
the Hebrew poets, we may also appreciate the stark theological contrasts that existed between Israel
and her neighbors.34

34
Walton, 166.
14

In the context of the contemporary church, this psalm clearly calls God's people to praise him

because he is not only sovereign over nature, but over all the idols that seek to turn their

attention away from the only true God.


15

Works Cited

Boice, James Montgomery. Psalms: Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994.

Broyles, Craig C. Psalms. Vol. 11, New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody:
Hendrickson, 1999.

Craigie, Peter C. Ugarit and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

______. “Psalm 29 in the Hebrew Poetic Tradition.” Vetus testamentum 22:2 (April 1972) :
143-151.

______. Psalms 1-50. Vol. 19, Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word Books, 1983.

Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the
Religion of Israel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Day, John. “Echoes of Baal's seven thunders and lightnings in Psalm 29 and Habakkuk 3:9
and the identity of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6.” Vetus testamentum 29:2 (April 1979) :
143-151.

Delitzsch, Psalms. Translated by James Martin. Vol. 5, Commentary on the Old Testament.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.

Mettinger, Tryggve N.D. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting
Names. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988.

Parker, Simon B. “Ugaritic Literature and the Bible.” Near Eastern Archaeology 63:4
(2000): 228-231.

Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1969.

Smith, Mark S. “Ugaritic Studies and Israelite Religion: A Retrospective View.” Near
Eastern Archaeology 65:1 (2002): 17-29.

Walton, John H. Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context: a survey of parallels
between biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Grand Rapids: Regency Reference
Library, 1989.