Peter Hawkins and Eric Reymond discuss the power of God in Psalm 29. The text is appointed for the First Sunday after Epiphany, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Aslan is not a tame lion. The voice of the Lord is powerful.
This is Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study. I’m Helena Martin. Welcome back, and happy new year.
Every Monday, we put you in the room with two of our faculty from Yale Divinity School and let you listen in while they discuss a text from the coming Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary.
This episode, we have Peter Hawkins, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature, and Senior Lecturer Eric Reymond.
They’re discussing Psalm 29 which is appointed for Sunday, January 9, the First Sunday after the Epiphany. The text is read for you by Caity Stuart.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
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!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
Well, Eric, there’s a lot of noise in this Psalm, in this poem. And we’ll get into that in a moment. But I’m going to start off by saying: I’ve got a big question. Who are these heavenly beings? So, are they angels or is something else going on?
So, one of the fascinating things about this particular song is its resonances with Ugaritic literature and, in particular, some mythological poems, from Ugarit in the north of Syria that describe the deity Baal and his interactions with the gods and goddesses of that Pantheon. And because of other resonances of this poem with those mythological poems from Ugarit, the assumption that I always had was that the divine beings—the ëliym in Hebrew, the b’nëy ëliym
—were other deities within the pantheon.
So this is a kind of repurposing of a (so to speak) pagan text for an Israelite purpose?
It seems to be, yes, part of the same cultural tradition that’s reflected in the earlier Ugaritic myths, those dating from around 1200 BCE.
Well, that puts me in mind, for many reasons, of the beginning of Genesis. But I want to get to that later.
What’s so powerful in this poem is… power. I mean, the power of YHWH, the power of the Lord. Again, we have glory and strength, but it’s really the power of this “voice of the Lord,” a phrase which occurs seven times in the course of the poem, that does things, that overturns things, that opens up things, that thunders, that makes noise.
I mean, there’s no still small voice here. There’s a lot of thunder. And I wonder if you have anything to say about that, the sheer noisiness of the Lord?
Right, well, one of the manifestations of Baal was in thunder and lightning. He’s the God that’s associated with bringing fresh water. And, of course, fresh water comes from the clouds during storms.
And the association, of course, of thunder and lightning. It’s obvious that this has to do with power, forces that are beyond the human realm. In the case of both the Ugaritic mythological texts and Psalm 29, it’s interesting that there is this connection between, power, sound, the Hebrew word for “sound” in this poem is qôl and is often, especially in relation to YHWH, is often associated with thunder. That is, the word for thunder could be qôl as well as other things.
And the thunder is associated with shaking things, not unsurprisingly, especially if you can imagine a valley that’s being hit with thunder and lightning, it can be rather disquieting and frightening.
Yeah, and the oaks are whirling, and the forest and stripped bare of leaves. The cedars of Lebanon are broken. The voice of the Lord is powerful and full of majesty and full of glory. There’s also a great deal of destruction that’s going on.
Right. It’s interesting, Peter, because the association with destruction is also, it seems, also associated with bringing fertility.
So in the Hebrew, at least Psalm 29 verse nine, there are different translations or different possible translations. And I think one of the one of the ones you’ve already referred to is the association or the translation of the Lord causing the oaks to whirl. But an alternative translation would be, according to the NRSV, is “the Lord causes the deer to calve” or “makes the does give birth.”
And in Hebrew, the phrase would be “qôl adonai y’chôlël ayälôt” and the verb theme, the relevant verb is y’chôlël. And in Hebrew, the most likely, I think, translation is “to make give birth,” so that it’s paired with stripping the forest bare. So, in one sense, there is a destructive element. But at the other end, it seems to be creating fertility. And it’s the same kind of association, you know, you have with, a storm, right.
There is a both/and rather than an either/or, in other words.
And as I said earlier, for me, it’s impossible not to think of the opening creation story in Genesis by way of contrast. Where the word of the Lord speaks creation into being, is orderly, it’s a ritual, there’s something very dignified and liturgical about it.
Whereas this sense of the voice of the Lord is explosive. And it works through the creation, rather than speaking it gently into being, so to speak. It thunders and rages and prods and flashes forth, trees and landscapes and animals and so on and so forth.
You know, I think the psalmist, might be saying, “Aslan is not a tame lion. The voice of the Lord is powerful.” And a way of suggesting that is to portray that voice as tearing through the creation.
And at the same time, you know, at the very end, it’s associated with a gift to the people, right? And associated with, in the end, peace. So there’s a shift that happens at the end.
“May the Lord give strength to his people. May the Lord bless his people with peace.” And the notion of peace is sort of shocking at the end, because what we’ve heard in the 10 verses previously is a disruption of order, a breaking down of order.
And yet, even as I say that I see in verse 10, the Lord sits enthroned, sits enthroned as king. So, while the Lord tears through the creation, the Lord is always, always in charge of it. And part of God’s being in charge of it is blessing his people with peace.
In other words, there’s a lot going on in his short poem.
And the mention of verse 10, you know, it’s a similar kind of thing of setting things in order. The implicit reference to the flood implies a destructive force, and the Lord’s sitting in throned on top of it would imply, I suppose, that he is in control over it. He has dominated it and will prevent it from happening again.
Yeah. Looking for that rainbow.
Thanks for listening! Check out YaleBibleStudy.org for more Bible study resources. And follow us on Twitter for updates: @BibleYale.
Chapter, Verse, and Season is produced by Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey, and me, Helena Martin. Production help for today’s episode by Crichelle Brice. And our theme music is by Calvin Linderman.
Thanks to the Center for Continuing Education at Yale Divinity School. And thank you to Professors Hawkins and Reymond for their wisdom.
We’ll be back with another conversation from Chapter, Verse, and Season.
New Revised Standard Version Bible
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Host: Helena Martin
Producers: Helena Martin, Joel Baden, Kelly Morrissey
Music: Calvin Linderman