Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Psalm "stealing"

I announce to you, Prince Baa'l , and I repeat, Cloud-Rider:
Look your enemies O Ba'al, look your enemies you will smash, look you'll destroy your foes
Your kingship is eternal, your sovereignty endures from generation to generation

-- The Epic of Ba'al (line 2 translated by Robert Alter; rest by William Halo)

שִׁירוּ, לֵאלֹהִים-- זַמְּרוּ שְׁמוֹ:סֹלּוּ, לָרֹכֵב בָּעֲרָבוֹת--בְּיָהּ שְׁמוֹ; וְעִלְזוּ לְפָנָיו.
Sing unto God, sing praises to His name;
extol Him that rideth upon the clouds(*), whose name is the LORD; and exult ye before Him.

- Psalm 68, m'chon mamre translation

וְאַתָּה מָרוֹם-- לְעֹלָם יְהוָה
כִּי הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ, יְהוָה-- כִּי-הִנֵּה אֹיְבֶיךָ יֹאבֵדוּ:
יִתְפָּרְדוּ, כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן
For you are on high forever o Lord,
for look your enemies o Lord, for look, your enemies perish,
all the wrongdoers are scattered.

- Psalm 92, Alter's translation

Does it mean anything that a line from the Psalms is replicated in the Ba'al epic? Or that "Rider of Clouds" is an epithet both for the God of the Hebrews and the God of the Canaanites? Depends who you ask. Over in the synagogue I have a friend who says its "presumptuous and dumb" to think the author of the Psalm lifted a line from the Ugaritic canon. There's no early or later in archeology so its impossible to know (continues my religious friend) which poem came first.

I don't know if she's right - I am in no position to judge between the Rabbis and the archaeologisst - but I can agree (ahem) that motifs and idioms and expressions are often recycled. Bits of poems turn up later in songs, or in dialogue. Movie directors copy each others shots. A gripping bit of biography gets repurposed in someone else's fiction. A clever turn of phrase sticks in your head, and you use it again and again. There were any number of possible avenues for the Jewish writer to encounter the Ugaritic poem. Perhaps he incorporated the line into his poem as an homage to a writer he liked, or as a refutation of a God he had rejected, or... something.

What about the claim that Psalms were divinely inspired? Well, that can be rescued. There are countless examples of motifs and images in Tanach that appear to be have been taken from earlier sources. In both Parshas Vayerah and in the epic of Eqhat, for example, a man waits outside his tent for divine guests. Following their arrival, she ends his wife to prepare a meal that is the best of the best. Both Moshe and Sargan of Akkad were sent sailing down the river in a basket sealed with tar. How do we explain this phenomenon? Take your pick:

1 - The Ugaritics stoles our story/terminology
2 - We stole their story/terminology
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 Torah, God made use of the stories and myths and language that would have been familiar to and appreciated by His audience.

(*) M'chon mamre translates this as "rideth upon the skies" but the received word is "aravot" whch means "plains." Alter argues persuasively that the word should be "avot", clouds, unless its a varient of 'arafot, a poetic word for clouds. In Ugaritic, Baal is called the rkb 'rpt, or rider of clouds.

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