A pagan version of Psalm 20

An example of a text that moved around the Ancient Near East

While the Internet has made sharing of information trivial, we should not forget that the ancient Near East was in its own way no less cosmopolitan. Information may not have been shared instantaneously across thousands of kilometres, but texts from one culture certainly made their way across considerable distances. One fascinating examples is a pagan version of Psalm 20 dating to the second century BCE and of Egyptian provenance.

The pagan version of Psalm 20 – strictly speaking Psa 20:2-6 follows, with the NRSV text coming after it for comparison:

May Horus answer us in our troubles; may Adonai answer us in our troubles.
O crescent (lit., bow) / bowmanin heaven, Sahar / shine forth; send your emissary from the temple of Arash, and from Zephon may Horus help us.
May Horus grant us what is in our hearts; may Mar grant us what is in our hearts. All <our> plans may Horus fulfill.
May Horus fulfill — may Adonai not fall short in satisfying — every request of our hearts. Some with the bow, some with the spear; but (lit., behold) as for us — Mar is our god;
Horus–Yaho, our bull, is with us. May the lord of Bethel answer us on the morrow.
May Baal of Heaven Mar grant a blessing / bless you; to your pious ones, your blessings.1

Psalm 20:2-6:

May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices.
May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans.
May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners. May the LORD fulfill all your petitions.
Now I know that the LORD will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand.

The question of how a psalm of Israel made its way to Egypt is not difficult to answer given that there was a colony of Jews at Elephantine in Egypt which possibly pre-dated the fall of Jerusalem. Their faith was polytheistic, though whether they were responsible for this paganised version of Psalm 20 is unclear as the text may come from an Aramaic-speaking community in upper Egypt:

This largely poetic text is the liturgy of the New Year’s festival of an Aramaic–speaking community in Upper Egypt, perhaps in Syene. It seems to have been dictated by a priest of the community, possibly at the beginning of the third century BCE, to an Egyptian scribe trained in the fourth century BCE.

The original homeland of these people, called rš and ʾrš in the papyrus, is the subject of controversy. The present writer has suggested that it is the land between Babylonia and Elam which the Assyrians called Rashu and Arashu and that Assurbanipal, who captured Rashu in his campaign against Elam, deported its inhabitants to the Assyrian province of Samaria, like the Elamites from Susa mentioned in Ezra 4:9–10. There is reason to believe that most or all of them wound up in Bethel, joining the foreign colonists settled there by earlier Assyrian kings. Their subsequent migration to Egypt may be recorded in the text’s account of the arrival of soldiers from Judah and Samaria (XVI.1–6).2

Therefore, rather than being a Psalm adapted by the Jewish community in Egypt, it may have been co-opted by the foreign community imported into Israel by the Assyrians, and eventually made its way to Egypt.

Another argument is that both the Aramaic version and the Hebrew version share a common ancestor. Hebrew scholar Mark Smith notes:

This version of Psalm 20 belongs to a papyrus dating to the second century known as Papyrus Amherst Egyptian no. 63 (column XI, lines 11–19). The text, which may have come from Edfu, shows some Egyptian influence, specifically the mention of the god Horus. The text may secondarily reflect genuine Israelite features. M. Weinfeld argues that the psalm was originally Canaanite or northern Israelite. For Weinfeld, the references to Baal Shamem, El-Bethel, and Mount Saphon reflect an original Canaanite or northern Israelite setting, perhaps Bethel. The biblical version of Psalm 20 would reflect a southern version, which secondarily imported the psalm into the cult of Yahweh. In this case, the Aramaic version may have derived from a northern Israelite predecessor. If so, the reference to Baal Shamem might reflect the impact of this god in Israelite religion.3

Irrespective of how Psalm 20 became a pagan hymn, it is testament to how readily texts could move around the ancient world, and how cultures could influence and be influenced by others.

Footnotes

  1. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden;  New York: Brill, 1997–), 318.
  2. Ibid., 310
  3. 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), 70–71

Author: Kenneth Gilmore

Ken is a Brisbane-based medical practitioner whose interests include Syro-Palestinian archaeology, Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Second Temple Judaism, Historical Jesus studies, and cats.