Polytheism, Monotheism, and “a Canaanite Psalm”: A Note on Psalm 29

Recently, I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on Psalm 29. For those who are not familiar with scholarship about it, many scholars believe it was originally a Canaanite hymn. Sometime in history, Judeans or Israelites tooks the hymn. They turned it into a hymn about Yahweh. So, often times, it is used when addressing issues of monotheism vs. polytheism.

I’ve noticed, though, a major issue with all of the monotheism vs. polytheism discussion. No Judean or Israelite would have thought, “this is a monotheistic (or polytheistic) text.” In other words, we are using our own categories. Typically, categories are useful because they help us to understand the information. In this case, however, it seems that the categories of “monotheism” vs. “polytheism” may hinder our abilities to understand what is going on in Psalm 29.

For example, by justifiably connecting Psalm 29 to Ugaritic literature, some may claim it it reflects its polytheistic background. In the Psalm, then, we see a movement towards monotheism, people would claim. Unfortunately, we seem to miss to point by saying “movement towards monotheism.” What is imperative is that we try to understand what the text is saying in its historical context. By speaking of some sort of monotheism, we are unable to describe Psalm 29 with great precision. Therefore, it is pertinent that we work to describe Psalm 29 based on where it is, not based on where it is going.

Furthermore, there is the issue of context. Because of its similarities to Ugaritic literature, many scholars work with it in light of Canaanite religion and culture. The reality, though, is that Judah and Israel were influenced by a variety of imperial foreign cultures, such as the Egyptians, Neo-Assyrians, and Neo-Babylonians. Therefore, it would be fruitful to look beyond Psalm 29 as a Canaanite Psalm. For we have no certainty in dating Psalm 29 (i.e. no manuscript evidence; only shared cultural traditions). While it may reflect Canaanite traditions, Judean scribes came into contact with far more than just Canaanite people. They would have come into contact with Neo-Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, and Egyptian scribes. Consequently, we should be attentive to those potential influences within Psalm 29. This is what I am working on with regard to Psalm 29.

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