Friday, August 06, 2010

Loose Ends: Psalm 29

I've been accused, mostly by Chardal, of papering over the scholarly debate about the nature and origins of Psalm 29 and of saying with far too much certainty that our Psalm is a copy of a Ugaritic poem found in a Syrian cache in 1928.

He's right, to an extent, but he's wrong in the ways that matter most.

The post in question was not intended as a work of scholarship, nor was it meant to summarize the various scholarly views about Psalm 29. The post, in fact, was not about Psalm 29 at all. Its purpose (as 99.99 percent of you comprehended) was to mock the tendency of traditionalists to imagine that our Judaism as we have it today was presented intact at Sinai, when really our rituals, practices and theology evolved slowly over centuries (and continue to evolve.)

In the post, I chose the most radical (though legitimate) interpretation of Psalm 29, and made no mention of the other, more moderate interpretations.* Of this, I am certainly guilty.  

Chardal, however, makes a serious genre error. Criticizing that post for eliding discussion of a complicated and technical debate about Psalm 29 is a bit like criticizing, I don't know, Archie Comics for glossing over the latest research on the the dynamics of teenager relationships. (Chardal actually called the post "poor scholarship." I kid you not. By the Chardal-standard, I guess McDonald's is a poor 4-star French restaurant, a Toyota Prius is a poor Indy race car, and my old digital wristwatch is a poor I-pod.)

* Breifly summarized the various interpretations of the Ugaritic Psalm are:
1. The Ugaritics stole our story/terminology
2.  We stole their story/terminology


The terminology in question include the phrase "Benai Eilim" and the representing of God as a stormgod which is how the Ugaritic poetry depicts Baal. Also, some phrases seem to appear in both places.

--End interpolation--

3. Some time after the revelation at Sinai, well-meaning Jews embellished our stories with elements borrowed from other cultures. The Nile floating story could have been added to make Moshe seem more heroic. The "Cloud Rider" epithet could have been appropriated because, well, isn't that what a super powerful God does? And so on.
4. In writing the Psalm, it author made use of the stories and myths and language that would have been familiar to and appreciated by his audience.

Caveats include:
1.  The dating rests on interpretations of the linguistics and stress on accents. Its complicated, technical and not entirely conclusive, though the consensus is the Ugaritic version is at least a few centuries older than the Hebrew version
2. "Stole" is such a harsh word. Do we say Milton "stole" from Homer, or do we say he made use of a style/approach/artistic vocabulary that Homer created while making it wholly his own? Perhaps the author of the Psalm recast familiar Ugaritic idioms in authentically Israelite ways? Sometimes we read with a wink, and tell ourselves, well the verse really means this. Well, maybe the author of this particular Psalm wrote with something like that wink? How would we know otherwise?

Search for more information about Psalm 29 at

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