Posted by: religionthink | September 10, 2009

Psalm 16: Protect Me, O EL

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalms 16:1-11 NRSV)

In the above text lies hidden something special that only one knowing Hebrew and the Canaanite religion might be able to uncover. The above text is thought to be a profession of a believer who has just converted from the Canaanite religion to Yahwehism. Verse 1 of the Psalm is the introduction, Verses 3-4 are the rejection of the past religion and gods. Verses 5-11 talk of the benefits of following Yahweh. Finally, verses 10-11 are statements alluding to belief in the afterlife.

The writer in the above text renounces the old gods and wishes on the believers of his previous faith many sorrows. The word here for sorrows makes us remember back to the conversation Yahweh had with Eve concerning the curse. Below we will discuss this text and compare it to the Canaanite confession of faith spoken by the goddesses Asherah and Anat concerning Baal while they were lobbying the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon, El, for a temple to be built in which Baal could be finally be validated as a god. Along with the text from the Canaanite religion, comes a Sumerian text where the writer is saved from death by execution, at the last second, and praises the goddess Nungal, in a writing called “A Hymn to Nungal”.

The above text outside of the praises for Yahweh has illusions to that of a warrior being kept from death or “Sheol” because Yahweh is his protector. In the Ancient Near East the most trusted defender was put at the kings right. Also, the sword was carried in the right hand and the shield in the left. Possibly the writer is not only talking about the afterlife but perhaps he finds council in Yahweh and Yahweh is seen as his protector. It is humors to speculate this conversion was made out of fear before a battle. It would be smart to have the strongest god protecting you, while for good luck you denounce the old gods and use them only in extreme measures or when convenient.

The Canaanite profession of faith reads:

But our king is Baal the Conqueror,
our judge, higher than all:
all of us must bear his chalice,
all of us must bear his cup.”

Here is also a reference to the cup, with the same motif as in the Psalm above. This saying comes from the mouth of Anat before El, when she asks permission for Baal to build a temple. The phrase is quite small but it is enough to make the comparison.

Moving on we come to the hymn to Nungal in this particular part we see how the accused are snatched from the jaws of death and praise is given to the goddess, the protector of the perhaps wrongly accused.

“When someone has been brought into the palace of the king and this man is accused of a capital offence, my chief prosecutor, Nindimgul, stretches out his arm in accusation (?). He sentences that person to death, but he will not be killed; he snatches the man from the jaws of destruction and brings him into my house of life and keeps him under guard. No one wears clean clothes in my dusty (?) house. My house falls upon the person like a drunken man. He will be listening for snakes and scorpions in the darkness of the house. My house gives birth to a just person, but exterminates a false one. Since there are pity and tears within its brick walls, and it is built with compassion, it soothes the heart of that person, and refreshes his spirits.”

The writer then ends with the conclusion:

Because the lady has revealed her greatness; because she has provided the prison, the jail, her beloved dwelling, with awesome radiance, praise to be Nungal, the powerful goddess, the neck-stock of the Anuna gods, whose …… no one knows, foremost one whose divine powers are untouchable!

So here in this one Psalm were able to see a conversion from the Canaanite religion to Yahwehism. At time they headings concerning King David that were applied to the introduction to some of the Psalms can serve as distraction. This text is possibly the only text in the Psalms where the writer has changed gods and has denounced the old ways. It is also interesting how the same themes flowed through the ancient Near East. The concept of the protector, the cup, the afterlife, and the praises written to their particular gods were very much a part of the culture and writing style within the region. One would be mistaken that the biblical texts were written within a vacuum of a pure culture.

A hymn to Nungalhttp://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/index.html, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL), Oriental Institute, University of Oxford.

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.

Walton, John H, Matthews, Victor H. and Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. InterVarsity Press. Illinois 2000.

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