Ascribe to Yahweh

The ancient context of Psalm 29

Baal and Yam fighting along the Mediterranean Coast at Tel Dor in Israel

Through our 21st century, western eyes, Psalm 29 seems to be about how God shows his strength in the natural world. He thunders, he breaks cedar trees, and he sits enthroned on a flood. The psalm also contains language that is not so familiar and gives us the uneasy feeling that we possibly don’t understand it as well we might. For example, God’s voice flashes fire (v7), he makes Lebanon skip like a calf (v6), and he shakes the wilderness of Kadesh (v8) – the significance of these phrases is not obvious. By the end of the psalm we’re not sure exactly what it’s about, but are pretty comfortable that it’s somehow a declaration that God’s power is shown in dramatic weather events like thunder, lightning, and floods.

Christadelphian students have interpreted the psalm in a number of ways: Some have thought that the ‘voice of the LORD’ is a reference to God’s actual voice or words1, some have used the passage to make the case that before Abram had set off from Ur God must have explained the plan of salvation to him2, some have thought that the psalm teaches that God speaks before acting, and that this has a bearing on our understanding of inspiration3, and some have used it in discussions about the length of Christ’s future reign on earth (v10).4 As we will see, the psalmist’s intention lies elsewhere.

If instead of reading with 21st century, western eyes we listen to the psalm with the Iron Age ears of an Israelite agriculturalist5  we will hear an entirely different message, and that message is crystal clear.

In a section describing rewards for obedience to God, a passage in Deuteronomy contrasts the land of Canaan with that of Egypt:

Dt 11:10–12 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, a land that the LORD your God looks after.6

Irrigation channels running off from the Nile in Egypt
Irrigation channels running off from the Nile in Egypt

Unlike Egypt, watered by the ever-reliable Nile, agriculture in the land of Canaan was dependent on the rain. If the rain didn’t come then the land would suffer drought and its inhabitants famine. The first time we come across the land of Canaan in scripture we find it in this sorry state. Shortly after Abram arrived in Canaan (Ge 12:5), he had to leave due to famine (12:10). Following the lead of those around him, he went down into Egypt in order to survive.7 Canaan suffered from famine in the time of Isaac (26:1), as it did in the time of Jacob (42:5). During the early settlement period the land suffered from famine8, as stated in the Ruth narrative (Ru 1:1). It did not escape in the time of David (2 Sa 21:1), or in the time of Elisha (2 Ki 4:38). Famine and hunger were common in the land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Living at the mercy of the elements and being dependent on seasonal rains left the Israelites in a vulnerable position. God had hoped that they would have responded by placing their trust in him:

Le 26:3–4 If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.

Instead, the Israelites who entered Canaan “lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters as wives for themselves, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they worshiped their gods. The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs” (Jdg 3:5–7). They abandoned God wholesale – hardly a surprise given the extent of their intermarriage with the native Canaanite population. Further, we’re told:

Jdg 2:11–13 Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes.

It would be a mistake to think that this falling away to the gods of the surrounding Canaanites is a reference to a few isolated cases – the scriptures paint the early Israelites as having completely turned their backs on God for the worship of the gods of the Canaanites, Moabites, and Phoenicians amongst others.9 There was a wide gulf between the sometime-state religion practiced by Levitical priests in Jerusalem worshipping Yahweh, and the Israelites’ hereditary folk religion worshipping the Canaanite pantheon, a practice passed down through their generations (Je 9:14).

The Canaanite god we hear most of in scripture is Baal. It is recorded that even before the wandering Israelites made it into the Promised Land they were worshipping at Baal-Peor.10 They worshipped Baal in the time of the Judges (Jdg 10:10), Ahab famously built the god a temple in the capital city of Samaria (1 Ki 16:31-32), and just before Judah were taken to Babylon they were still worshipping him (Je 2:8). The Israelites were loyal and keen worshippers of Baal: For your gods have become as many as your towns, O Judah; and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars to shame you have set up, altars to make offerings to Baal (Je 11:13).

Though he was not the head of the Canaanite pantheon, Baal was its most prominent god. He is first mentioned in the Ebla texts of the late 3rd millennium BC where he is the son of Dagon11, but it is from the texts discovered at Ugarit that we learn the most about him. Baal’s father was variously El or Dagan, his consort was Anat, he fought and was killed by Mot the god of the underworld, he came back to life, and was enthroned.12

Baal and Mot - one of the Ras Shamra tablets on display in the Louvre Museum
Baal and Mot – one of the Ras Shamra tablets on display in the Louvre Museum

Baal was considered to ride on clouds. The epithet “Cloud Rider” occurs frequently in the Ugaritic texts. For example, Anat responded to an invitation from Baal in The Tale of Aqhat:

What enemy has risen against Baal,
What foe against the Cloud Rider?
The youths speak up and answer:
No enemy has risen against Baal,
No foe against the Cloudrider.13

It was thought that Baal sent the rain. From The Legend of King Keret we read:

Unto the earth Baal rains,
And unto the field rains ‘Aliyy [Aliyy being identical with Baal].
Sweet to the earth is Baa[l’s] r[ai]n,
And to the field the rain of ‘Aliyy.14

Back in The Tale of Aqhat we read of a time when Baal would fail, resulting in the cessation of rain:

Seven years shall Baal fail,
Eight the Rider of the Clouds.
No dew, No rain;
No welling-up of the deep,
No sweetness of Baal’s voice.15

Thunder was considered to be Baal’s voice. In the story The Palace of Baal we find the following:

Baal uttered his holy voice,
Baal repeated the [issue] of his lips;
(he uttered) his [holy] voice [(and)] the earth did quake,
[(he repeated) the issue of his lips (and)] the rocks (did quake);
peoples afar off were dismayed […] the peoples of the east;
the high places of the earth shook.16

As well as his voice being thunder, he was also thought to send out lightning. Though it is damaged the tablet containing the relevant story recounts Anat, Baal’s consort, calling for Baal to send out his lightning, and his “horns”, i.e. “double-lightning”:

May Baal set his bolts [in the Heavens,]
May […] radiate his [‘ho]rns.’17

Baal’s father El summed up the above characteristics in his speech to the goddess Athirat:

So now may Baal enrich with his rain,
May he enrich with rich water in a downpour.
And may he give his voice in the clouds,
May he flash to the earth lightning.18

The Israelites did not fall for Baal due to their belief that he was in control of dramatic natural events such as thunder and lightning; rather it was because the fertility of the land depended on him sending the rain.19 There was a naturalistic attraction to the fertility god. This explains why God framed Elijah’s encounter with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel with the following statement:

1 Ki 18:1 After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.”

That was the question that needed to be settled. Who would send rain on the earth? Yahweh? Or Baal? The contest Elijah proposed to the people was simple: you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God (1 Ki 8:24). The god that sent down lightning20, he was the true and the other the imposter. Lightning would come from a storm, the storm would bring rain, and rain would end the drought. Much was riding on the contest – the next verse tells us “the famine was severe in Samaria.

A storm in the Jezreel Valley as seen from Mt Carmel
A storm in the Jezreel Valley as seen from Mt Carmel

The outcome of the contest is well known. Against all odds (1 Ki 18:33-35) lightning struck (1 Ki 18:38) and therefore thunder would have been heard,21 the heavens grew black with clouds (1 Ki 18:45), and heavy rain fell that would have ended the drought (1 Ki 18:45).

These are exactly the actions that would ordinarily have been attributed to Baal. He was after all the cloud-riding god of thunder, lightning, and rain. As the Israelite onlookers and unfortunate priests of Baal found, it was not Baal who answered but Yahweh. After all, when the priests of Baal called on the name of Baal all morning, there was no voice in response:

1 Ki 18:26 So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made.

As well as receiving an answer, they’d been expecting to hear the voice of Baal, i.e. thunder. But no thunder came from him. The voice they heard was Yahweh’s thunder.

In the events on Mount Carmel, Yahweh had appropriated the attributes of Baal to himself. What the Israelites assumed to be the actions of Baal were now irrefutably seen to be Yahweh’s.

It is with this background that we now turn to Psalm 29.

With the Baal motifs in mind, we can get a sense of the impact the psalm would have had on the Israelite agriculturalist, and it would not be dissimilar to that of the events on Mount Carmel. It begins, “Ascribe to Yahweh, O heavenly beings, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.” The focus is not on Yahweh’s glory and strength, neither is it on the glory of his name. The focus is on the ascription of these attributes to Yahweh. The listener was instructed to ascribe them to Yahweh, not another God. If this was not the psalmist’s intent it could instead have begun with, “Yahweh has glory and strength, etc.” Just as on Mount Carmel the question was which god would bring down lightning, the question in this passage is: to which god should strength and glory be ascribed? As the psalm continues the choices available to the hearer become obvious.

It continues:

Ps 29:3–9 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. 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. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. 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. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

Seven times the “voice of Yahweh” is mentioned. It is the focus of the body of the psalm. His voice is described as being “over the waters” and “mighty waters”. It is powerful, full of majesty, and breaks the cedars of Lebanon. The voice of Yahweh produces lightning, shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The imagery of thunder is clear, and if there was any doubt verse 3 makes it clear: The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters, where the voice of Yahweh is paralleled with the thunder he is responsible for.

Again, just like on Mount Carmel, the psalmist is claiming the thunder and lightning for Yahweh. With the background we established above it would have been abundantly clear to any Israelite agriculturalist that they were to ascribe the thunder to Yahweh, and they would only have needed to be told to do this if they were not doing so already, and they’d only not be ascribing it to Yahweh if they were already ascribing it to another god, and the other only god who’d have fitted the bill was Baal. The psalmist was appropriating thunder from Baal and ascribing it to Yahweh.

The same is true of the lightning ordinarily attributed to Baal. In verse 7 the voice of Yahweh flashes forth flames of fire. The link between the thunder (“the voice of Yahweh”) and lightning (“flames of fire” “flashed” from the thunder), though obvious, points us once again to characteristics attributed to Baal. As seen above in El’s speech to Athirat, it was Baal who was thought to send lightning; the psalmist intended the hearer to ascribe lightning to Yahweh instead. Similarly, though not in this psalm, the language of Baal the “cloud-rider” is attributed to Yahweh elsewhere; Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds – his name is the LORD – be exultant before him (Ps 68:4).

What does it mean that the voice of Yahweh was over the water? The idea is mentioned three times; twice in verse 2 and once in verse 10 where we find Yahweh enthroned over the flood. This may seem like an odd idea to us but it would have been striking to the Israelite agriculturalist. Canaanite mythology held that thunder was the result of battle between Baal and “Yam”, the god of the sea. In the closing scene of the story Baal and Yam we read the following:

“Strike the crown of prince Yam, between the eyes of judge Nahar. Let Yam collapse and fall to the earth!’ And the club danced from the hand of Baal, [like] an eagle from his fingers. It struck the crown of prince [Yam]…. Yam collapsed (and) fell to the earth; his joints quivered and his form crumpled. Baal dragged out Yam and laid him down… Athtart rebuked the Name,(saying): “Scatter (him), o mightiest [Baal]! Scatter (him), o rider on the clouds! For prince [Yam] is our captive….’ And he did come forth […] mightiest Baal scattered him and […]: ‘Yam is indeed dead! Baal shall be king!22

The sea was considered a terrible force23, and in Canaanite mythology its subjugation was ascribed to Baal. However, the psalmist ascribed that characteristic to Yahweh too:

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. (Ps 29:3,10)

The psalm opens with the image of Yahweh “thundering”, or displaying his power over the water. By the end of the psalm he is enthroned on it, having conquered and brought order to it. The flood Yahweh is described as being enthroned over is the only use of the word outside of the deluge narrative of the early chapters of Genesis – water described as destructive enough to flood the earth. The psalmist ascribed power over these waters to Yahweh; something Canaanites ascribed to Baal.

Mt Hermon ("Sirion") as seen from the Golan Heights
Mt Hermon (“Sirion”) as seen from the Golan Heights

Mention of Sirion and Lebanon attest to the psalm’s geographic setting north of Canaan in Phoenicia. Kadesh is also likely speaking of a northern location, i.e. Kadesh on the Orontes.24 Lebanon’s cedars, and Sirion (i.e. Mount Hermon – Dt 3:9, 4:8, Je 18:14) are symbols of strength.25  However, in verses 5 and 6 we see these powerful symbols as being made weak: The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. Cedar trees, a symbol used for Baal’s lightning26 were smashed by Yahweh’s voice. Sirion, one of the most prominent mountains in the Levant, a source of cedar for the building of Baal’s palace27 and recorded as being a site of Baal worship (Jdg 3:3) was made to “skip” by Yahweh. Baal’s strength was broken, because it was Yahweh who thundered, not Baal. The psalm once again ascribes to Yahweh the power ordinarily ascribed to Baal.

Much more could be said about the psalm including about its great age28, its ancient meter29, and its use in the feasts of Tabernacles and Pentecost30; we have only scratched its surface. However, from a Baal-worshipping Israelite agriculturalist’s point of view, the psalm’s intent has become abundantly clear:

Ascribe to Yahweh, not Baal, glory and strength.

Further reading

  • Broyles, Craig C. Psalms. Edited by W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012.
  • Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50 (vol. 19, 2nd ed.; Word Biblical Commentary; Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2004)
  • Frank Moore Cross Jr and David Noel Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.; Livonia, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Dove Booksellers, 1997)
  • John Day, “Baal (Deity),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 545.
  • John C. L. Gibson and Godfrey Rolles Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (2nd ed.; London;  New York: T & T Clark International, 2004)
  • Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary (vol. 15; Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 141–145.
  • Hans-Joachim Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 1–59 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993)
  • Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1990)
  • Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.; Dearborn, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Dove Booksellers, 2002), 65–101.
  • Mark S. Smith and Simon B. Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (vol. 9; Writings from the ancient world; Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1997)

Footnotes

  1. Alan and Margaret Fowler, “In the beginning was the word,” The Christadelphian (May), no. 1547 (1993): 177–178.
  2. Stephen Palmer, “Great and precious promises – The God of glory appeared to Abraham,” The Christadelphian (March), no. 1545 (1993): 89.
  3. Peter Watkins, “The inspired scriptures – our sure foundation,” The Christadelphian (September), no. 1167 (1961): 405-406.
  4. Stanley Owen, “Studies in the Statement of Faith, The Millennium After,” The Christadelphian (October), no. 1516 (1990): 127.
  5. The Iron Age spans approx. 1200–586 BC, the period from the conquest of Canaan to the Babylonian captivity. As for the psalm’s target audience being an agriculturalist, almost everyone in Canaan was exactly that. As Dever explains, “…the archaeological record bears out the notion of a simple, poorly developed society and economy, based on agriculture and a self-sufficient lifestyle.” William G. Dever, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 206.  “Iron Age Israelite Agriculturalist” serves as a useful label for those the psalm aimed to teach.
  6. All scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989)
  7. K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 318–319.
  8. Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1990), 235.
  9. For example see Judges 10:6 “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, worshiping the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines.”
  10. “Prior to the discovery of the Ugaritic texts it was sometimes thought that there were various and quite-separate gods called Baal. This idea was encouraged by the presence in the OT of various compound place names involving Baal, e.g. Baal-peor, Baal-hermon, Baal-meon, Baal-hazor, Baal-gad, etc. However, with the discovery of the Ugaritic texts it became clear that there was one great Canaanite storm-and-fertility deity Baal-Hadad of cosmic stature, so that we must assume that these OT allusions refer to particular local manifestations of this one god. We may compare the variety of local manifestations of the Virgin Mary within Roman Catholicism.” John Day, “Baal (Deity),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 547.
  11. Winfried Corduan, “Baal,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  12. For Baal as son of El: KTU 1.3:5:32–36 “Our king is Mightiest Baal… In lament he cries to Bull El, his Father, to El, the King who created him.” Mark S. Smith and Simon B. Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (vol. 9; Writings from the ancient world; Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1997), 117–118. For Baal as son of Dagan: KTU 1.2:1:35 “Give up Baal that I may humble him, the Son of Dagan, that I may possess his gold.’” Ibid., 100. For Anath’s consort: KTU 1.3:3:5–6 “She sings the love of Mightiest Baal…” Ibid., 109. For Baal’s death: KTU 1.5:6:8–10 “We [c]ame upon Baal fallen to earth; dead is Mightiest Baal, perished the Prince, Lord of the Earth.” Ibid., 149. For Baal’s coming back to life: KTU 1.6:3:20–21 “For Mightiest Baal lives, the Prince, Lord of the Earth is alive.” Ibid., 158. For Baal’s enthroning: KTU 1.6:6:33–35 “Let Baal be enthroned on [his] royal [throne,] on [the resting place], [the throne] of his dominion.” Ibid., 163
  13. KTU 1.3:4:4–6, Smith & Parker, op. cit., 112.
  14. Ibid., 148.
  15. Ibid., 153.
  16. CTA 4:7:29–38 John C. L. Gibson and Godfrey Rolles Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (2nd ed.; London;  New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 65.
  17. KTU 1.3:4:25–27, Smith & Parker, op. cit., 113.
  18. KTU 1.4:5:6–9, Ibid., 129.
  19. John Day, “Baal (Deity),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 545.
  20. The “fire from Yahweh” that “fell” (1 Ki 18:38) can only have been lightning. It was a natural event that the Canaanites associated with thunder, a phenomenon they’d experienced many times and referred to as “fire”. The naturalistic explanation fits well with the other use of the phrase: “While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.’” (Job 1:16) The passage is not describing some sort of heavenly flame-thrower.
  21. Lightning always causes thunder. See National Severe Storms Laboratory, “Severe Weather 101 – Lightning”, http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/education/svrwx101/lightning/faq/
  22. CTA 2:4:19–35, Gibson & Driver, op. cit., 44–45.
  23. It was seen as a cosmic element, represented by violent sea-monsters in most Ancient Near Eastern mythology, see Elaine R. Follis, “Sea,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1058–1059.
  24. “Some scholars argue that the expression should be interpreted as a place name and that the Qadesh referred, to in the Sinai traditions is intended. But others, noting the same expression in the Ugaritic texts (mdbr qdš; CTA 26.65), prefer to identify the area with the Syrian desert, perhaps the area near Qadesh on the Orontes (e.g. Dahood, Psalms I, 178; Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 154). The reference to northern locales in vv 5–6 may seem to support such an interpretation, but it must remain uncertain.” Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50 (vol. 19, 2nd ed.; Word Biblical Commentary; Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2004), 248. See also Hans-Joachim Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 1–59 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 349.
  25. Craigie, op. cit., 247.
  26. CTA 4:7:32–41, Gibson & Driver, op. cit., 65.
  27. KTU 1.4:6:16–21, Smith & Parker op. cit., 133.
  28. “Psalm 29 is very old — perhaps one of the oldest of all OT psalms.” Hans-Joachim Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 1–59 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 347.
  29. “Without doubt we have in Psalm 29 archaic meters that clearly stand out from other OT psalmic poetry.” Kraus, op. cit., 345–346.
  30. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary (vol. 15; Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 142.

Author: Nat Ritmeyer

Nat lives in London with his wife and son. His main interests are the Ancient Near Eastern background to the bible, the Iron Age I period, and travelling through the Modern Near East. He is also scared of geese.