Posted by: religionthink | February 28, 2007

Psalm 23: You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies.

Psalm 23: You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies.

It is most difficult to analyze this Psalm in its proper context. The common reader already has much so New Testament imagery and symbolism preconceived from the start. Even finding a proper title for this essay has proven difficult. Therefore the author of this essay has chosen a translation different from the common to step out of the preconceived traditional translation so that we may view the text from perspective that is traditionally overlooked. Below is a paraphrased translation from the Tanakh published by the Jewish Publication Society 1999 translation.

The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;

He leads me to water in places of repose;

He renews my life;

He guides me in right paths

as befits his name.

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,

I feel no harm for you are with me;

Your rod and Your staff-they comfort me.

You anoint my head with oil;

my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me

all the day of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

for many long years.

The goal of this essay is to consider three other ancient near Eastern texts that reflect the same themes. First, we will look at the similarities of The Hymn to Shamash (a sun god of ancient Mesopotamia). Next, we will view a Canaanite text from the Baal Epic. Lastly, we will discuss the dining ritual and symbolism by discussing a section of the text Adapa and the Food of Life.

The Hymn to Shamash has many comparisons to Psalm 23. Here the sun god is praised for his works and much of the imagery and symbols are used in the same way. We can see this in evident in a portion of the text below.

In the brilliance of thy light their path [is obscured].

… constantly look at thy radiance.

The four world regions like fire ….

Opened wide is the gate which entirely ….

The bread-offerings of all the Igigi ….

O Shamash, at thy rising … are bowed down.

… O Shamash …,

O shining one, who opens the darkness, who …,

Who intensifies the noonday heat … the grain fields.

The mighty mountains are covered with thy brightness.

Thy brilliance fills the extent of the land.

(When) thou art risen over the mountains thou dost scan the earth.

Thou art holding the ends of the earth

suspended from the midst of heaven.

The people of the world, all of them, thou dost watch over.

Whatever Ea, the counselor-king, has willed to create,

thou art guarding altogether.

Those endowed with life, thou likewise dost tend;

Thou indeed art their shepherd both above and below.

Faithfully thou dost continue to pass through the heavens;

The broad earth thou dost visit daily.

After reading this text we can see that the author feels the same appreciation and reaps the benefits of being a follower. The faithfulness of the god is expressed and also reference to the “Shepard” motif is also present. The theme of protection from darkness is mentioned and the “caregiver-creator role” is a sign that Yahweh was not the only god in the ancient Near East to posses theses qualities. When compared to Yahweh, Shamash has many of the same qualities and characteristics throughout the Near Easten literature. He is described as both “their shepherd both above and below” as Yahweh is in the Psalm above.

Next we come to a text that is the total opposite of Psalm 23. In the Baal Epic we find the war goddess Anat on a rampage to sooth herself. The peaceful valley becomes that valley of darkness. The staff that is mentioned above that guides is used to make war, the house and the meal is turned into a state of carnage and fury. It may well be that Psalm 23 is a direct opposite due to Hebrew retaliation of Canaanite religion. We read of the acts of Anat below.

The gates of Anat’s house were shut,

and the lads met the lady of the mountain.

And then Anat went to battle in the valley,

she fought between the two cities:

she killed the people of the coast,

she annihilated the men of the east.

Heads rolled under her like balls,

hands flew over her like locusts,

the warriors’ hands like swarms of grasshoppers.

She fastened the heads to her back,

she tied the hands to her belt.

She plunged knee-deep into the soldiers’ blood,

up to her thighs in the warriors’ gore;

with a staff she drove off her enemies,

with the string of her bow her opponents.

And then Anat arrived at her house,

the goddess reached her palace;

there, not satisfied with her battling in the valley,

her fighting between the two cities,

she made the chairs into warriors,

she made the tables into an army,

the stools into heroes.

She battled violently, and looked,

Anat fought, and saw:

her soul swelled with laughter,

her heart was filled with joy,

Anat’s soul was exuberant,

as she plunged knee-deep into the soldiers’ blood,

up to her thighs in the warriors’ gore,

until she was satisfied with her battling in the house,

her fighting between the tables.

The soldiers’ blood was wiped from the house,

oil of peace was poured from a bowl.

The Virgin Anat washed her hands,

the Mistress of the Peoples her fingers;

she washed the soldiers’ blood from her hands,

the warriors’ gore from her fingers.

She made the chairs chairs again,

the tables tables;

she made the stools stools.

She drew water and washed,

the heavens’ dew, the earth’s oil,

the rain of the Rider on the Clouds,

dew which the heavens pour,

rain which is poured from the stars.

The similarities to Yahweh and Psalms 23 are striking. Although Yahweh is also a warrior god, and uses the elements to wage war on his enemies, after he is content and his anger appeased, he restores everything to its proper context. We find many times in the text, where Yahweh’s anger results in carnage. However, after the storm we find him relenting or repenting his decision. A good example of this would be the account of the flood in Genesis.

Moving on to the last topic we will take time to discuss the dinning ritual alluded to in this psalm by comparing this to the text of Adapa and the Food of Life. Below we read a small portion of the text, where Adapa is welcomed to heaven and is offered to dine. Apparently it was a custom to anoint the head with oil because it is mentioned in all three of the texts we are discussing. Adapa is told not to eat or drink anything while in the presence of the gods because of the possibly it might end in his death.

Answered … “art thou.” To Anu

They speak. He calmed himself, his heart was . . .

“Why has Ea revealed to impure mankind

The heart of heaven and earth? A heart

… has created within him, has made him a name?

What can we do with him? Food of life

Bring him, that be man, eat.”Food of life

They brought him, but he ate not. Water of life

They brought him, but he drank not. Garments

They brought him. He clothed himself. Oil

They brought him. He anointed himself.

Anu looked at him; he wondered at him.

” Come, Adapa, why hast thou not eaten, not drunken?

Now thou shalt not live.” … men …Ea, my lord

Said: “Eat not, drink not.”

Take him and bring him back to his earth.

When Adapa finds it was in fact the food and drink of life he was angered at following the bad advice of his father and in turn looses his chance at becoming immortal. It appears that there are some differences in the three texts used concerning the anointing and when the anointing comes into play. In the Psalm above (although not mentioned in the translation used here), the table is set and then the guest is anointed with oil. . Anat, however uses the oil of peace to wash her bloody hands, then puts her house in order. Adapa is offered food and drink and then oil to anoint. In prospective there may be a meal ritual hidden with in the text.

When the New Testament ideas are removed from Psalms 23 a whole new set of ideas and information become apparent. When this is combined to the other texts of the Near East the symbols, rituals, and imagery can be better understood. In one a picture of a kind and gentle god is described, while in the other the harshness is emphasized using the same metaphors. While is one text assurance of security in this life and the after is mentioned, the other is tricked into mortality.

Coogan, Michael David. Stories from Ancient Canaan. The Westminster Press. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1978.

Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible: Psalms 1-50. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York 1968.

Dally, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press Inc., Oxford, New York 1989.

Pritchard, James. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New York 1950.

Rogers, R.W. “Adapa and The Food of Life” Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament 1912.

Stern, Philip D. “The “Bloodbath of Anat” and Psalm XXIII” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 44, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 120-125

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Responses

  1. I agree with what you said in your comment on my blog. We DO have a great deal in common! Very nice analysis! You most definitely are on the right track!

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