Posted by: religionthink | September 10, 2009

Psalms 9 And 10: Yahweh The Merciful.

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. When my enemies turned back, they stumbled and perished before you. For you have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment….”

Psalms 9 and 10 were once one text; however, they were divided and put each in its own chapter. The two chapters were thought to be, at one time, a full text due to the composition of the Psalm. Between every second to fourth line, there exists a pattern, which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is used. It was thought by some scholars at first to be a magical recitation; however, at Ras Shamra, tablets were found using the same technique and it is now thought that such a composition was use to aid memorization by adding a certain structure to the text. In short the text is a song of thanksgiving followed by a lament. The two themes that are predominantly present in the text are Yahweh’s destruction of enemies and Yahweh as divine judge.

The text in full will not be given due to its length. While volumes could be written, there are three important points that stand out. The first area of interest is in Psalms 9:5-6, where the names of the wicked are being blotted out. We will observe one example of how this transpired in the ancient Near East when we inspect the aftermath of the rule of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut (c. 1479-1458 B.C.). The second point is the theme of “Sheol” and the “gates of death”. Using two examples outside the biblical texts, we will inspect the Egyptian and the Akkadian perspective on the gates of the underworld. Lastly, we will compare the Egyptian hymn “Gratitude for a God’s Mercy” to Psalms 10 to demonstrate the theme of praising the deity for mercy; from enemies and for the poor.

The concept of blotting out names of the wicked and their cities came when competition erupted between the religious cults or political parties. Two examples would include Thutmose III removing Hatshepsut’s images and icons from Egyptian society. Later, and possibly most relevant, the religious reforms of the King Josiah.

The queen Hatshepsut took the throne after her husband Thutmose II met an untimely death. Originally she was to be the co-ruler until Thutmose III was old enough to take the throne. However, Hatshepsut accumulated more and more power to herself. Hatshepsut was a queen of great ambitions. She not only reestablished trade routs that had since deteriorated during the rule of the Hyksos, but she also took to validating herself as queen. She had at her disposal a well oil propaganda machine. Hatshepsut took on such titles as “God’s Wife”, “Lady of the Two Lands”, and the name “Khnemtamun”, which means, “One with Amun”. Hatshepsut used mythology in which she included herself as coming from the deity and called herself “The queen from heaven”. She also would dress as a male pharaoh wearing the symbolic garb of the kings before her.

Hatshepsut also commissioned construction projects and religious icons of herself. In doing so she became one of the most powerful queens of the Egyptian empire. In retaliation, after her death Thutmose III destroyed and defaced many of her writings and religious icons. Some scholars believe that he did this in order to take full control of the kingship. Here is an image of the chiseled out Hatshepsut being blessed by the gods Horus and Thoth at the Temple of Karnack. At Medinet Habu, Ramesses III tried to prevent such destruction by constructing the writings of his war expeditions so deep in the walls that even if the temple was destroyed, and the blocks used elsewhere, they would still contain the hieroglyphs. Here is an image of the described construction. As far as a religious reform, most of the works of Akhenaten, the heretic king, were destroyed. Akhenaten was the king who, during his reign, changed the Egyptian religion to monotheistic ideas and worshipped the god Aten.

Whether the above destruction of names and icons were political, religious or both, the same reformation happened also by King Josiah. Returning to Yahwehism Josiah made sweeping reform and in the text below he crushes the high places to dust in an attempt to stamp out the other cultic practices that previous kings turned a blind eye to. Below we read:

“The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens. He brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. He broke down the houses of the male temple prostitutes that were in the house of the Lord, where the women did weaving for Asherah. He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on the left at the gate of the city” (2 Kings 23:4-8 NRSV).

This reform, however, was not enough for Yahweh. In verses 26 and 27 of the same chapter a curse is put on Judah. By the end of the chapter Josiah is killed by the Egyptian King at Megiddo after a fierce battle. So, one can come to the conclusion that the removal of competing political systems or religious practices, were at times broken down by periodic political and religious reform. Many times in the history this happened. Not only was this happening in the early Israeli community, but as seen above, it also occurred in other societies of the world for the same reasons.

Be gracious to me, O Lord. See what I suffer from those who hate me; you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death,…Concerning the gates of death and the underworld, we will view the Egyptian Book of Gates and the Decent of Ishtar. It is out of interest to note that in both of these texts have gates that the deities pass. These two texts may have some influence on Dante’s Inferno, for in both texts the deities pass through the underworld in a series of stages. The text of the Book of Gates is a rather long and complex series of funeral texts that depict the god Ra and the dead king traveling through the underworld in a series of sections representing the twelve hours of the night. The text is complex so we will only discuss certain sections of this underworld that may be most relevant. One relevant example is gate one, or the first hour.

The Majesty of this god standeth up after he hath taken up his position in this Court, and he addresseth words to the gods who are therein, saying, “Open ye to me your doors, and let me come into your Courts! Give ye light unto me, and make ye yourselves guides to me, O ye who came into being, from my members, my word hath gone forth to you. Ye are made of my bodies, I have made you, having fashioned you of my soul, I have created you, I have made you by means of my enchantments, [and] I have come to avenge myself the blood of my members which have risen up against me, and I will bring to destruction that which hath been made for it.”( Budge pp.18-19)

It is with these words that Ra enters the underworld by demanding the gates be opened and here the dead were introduced. Moving on to the third hour we find one of the oldest themes connected to the underworld; the lake of fire. Below we read of this fiery place of torment:

“Those who are in this picture [and those who are in] the house of TET praise this great god, and when this great god hath sent forth words to them, they come to life, for when he hath called to them and hath sent forth his words to them [they have] their water, and they receive their due (literally, heads) in addition to the utterance of his mouth. The work which they have to do in Ament is to hew and to hack souls in pieces, and set restraint upon shadows, and to destroy such doomed beings as have their being in their place of destruction which blazeth with fire. They send forth flames and they cause fires to spring up, and the enemies are as those who have their knives over (or, on) their heads. They wail and they lament when this great god hath passed them by.” (Budge pp.59-60)

The fifth hour, or gate, we read still of torture, from a Judgment Hall like scene.

“The Majesty of this great god saith unto them, Hail, ye who stand at the blocks of torture, and who keep ward at the destruction of the dead, ye whose voices have come into being for you, who have received your words of power, who are endowed with your souls, who sing hymns to the accompaniment of your sistra, who take vengeance on the enemies, who annihilate the dead, who hack in pieces shades [of men and women], who destroy and cut in pieces the dead, who avenge Osiris and hearken unto words near Unnefer, provide ye yourselves with your slaughtering knives, fetter and bind with your hands [this] figure which is with you, so that I may journey past you in peace. Whosoever knoweth this shall pass by the goddess in peace.” (Budge pp.110-115)

In the tenth hour and eleventh hour, the serpent Set-Heh or Apophis is bound and dismembered. With this done he is rendered helpless and defeated.

“The Majesty of this god uttereth the decree, [saying]:–’Hack in pieces and cut asunder the bodies of the enemies and the members of the dead who have been turned upside down, O my father Osiris . . . . . . . . . and let me come forth from it. My father having [once] been helpless hath smitten you, he hath cut up your bodies, he hath hacked in pieces your spirits and your souls, and hath scattered in pieces your shadows, and hath cut in pieces your heads; ye shall never more exist, ye shall be overthrown, and ye shall be cast down headlong into the pits of fire; and ye shall not escape there from, and ye shall not be able to flee from the flames which are in the serpent SET-HEH.” (Budge pp.254-255)

Finally we come to the sunrise or the assent form the underworld:

“Those who are in this picture sing praises unto this great god from dawn, when he taketh up his position in the Hall of the east of the sky. They say unto Ra, ‘O thou who art the producer of [thine own] birth, who dost bring into being [thine own] being, [lord of] homage of every soul . . . . .. Heaven belongeth to thy soul, which taketh up its place therein, and the earth belongeth to thy body, thou lord of homage. Thou sailest over the Horizon, thou takest up thy place in thy shrine, the gods in their bodies praise thee; descend thou into the sky and take thou thy two souls through thy magical protectors.’ The work of these gods in the Tuat is to praise this great god, and they stand in this City and they count up (or, verify) the gods of the country of Mafket (i.e., Sinai). They descend (?) to earth [before] Ra after he hath taken up his position in the sky and doth rise upon the eyes of mankind in their circles.”( Budge p.270)

As we can see, from the passages above, many of the same themes that are common to a modern day, mainstream worshiper, are used. The themes; lake of fire, torture, judgment, binding of the serpent, and the accent from the underworld in triumph are all prevalent. As another example of the same theme, we look at the text concerning the decent of Ishtar to the seven gates of the underworld.

That the palace of the Land of No Return may be glad at they presence.”When the first gate he had made her enter,He stripped and took away the great crown on her head.”Why, o gatekeeper, didst thou take the great crown on my head?””Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Underworld.”When the second gate he had made her enter,He stripped and took away the pendants on her ears.”Why, O gatekeeper, didst thou take the pendants on my ears?””Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Underworld.”When the third gate he had made her enter,He stripped and took away the chains round her neck.”Why, O gatekeeper, didst thou take the chains round my neck?””Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Underworld.”When the fourth gate he had made her enter,He stripped and took away the ornaments on her breast.”Why, O gatekeeper, didst thou take the ornaments on my breast?””Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Underworld.”When the fifth gate he had made her enter,He stripped and took away the girdle of birthstones on her hips.”Why, O gatekeeper, didst thou take the girdle of birthstones on my hips?””Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Underworld.”When the sixth gate he had made her enter,He stripped and took away the clasps round her hands and feet.”Why, O gatekeeper, didst thou take the clasps round my hands and feet?””Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Underworld.”When the seventh gate he had made her enter,He stripped and took away the breechcloth round her body.”Why, O gatekeeper, didst thou take the breechcloth round my body?””Enter, my lady, thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Underworld.”As soon as Ishtar had descended to the Land of No Return,Ereshkigal saw her and burst out at her presence.Ishtar, unreflecting, flew at her.Ereshkigal opened her mouth to speak,”Go, Namtar, lock her up in my palace!Release against her the sixty miseries:Misery of the eyes against her eyes,Misery of the sides against her sides,Misery of the heart against her heart,Misery of the feet against her feet,Misery of the head against her head -Against every part of her, against her whole body!”After Lady Ishtar had descended to the nether world,… (Pritchard pp.107-108)

It becomes apparent that not only are their themes of conquering the sea, creation, and divine warriors, but, also the passage of the deities through the underworld, conquer death and returning in triumph. Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (Isaiah 26:19 NRSV)

The last topic discussed will be an example of another prayer where one praises the deity for standing up for the helpless and defending the poor. Moving on to Psalms 10 we hear and important question that possibly every human who worships some kind of deity might ask during in justice or in the time of trouble. “O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more” (Psalms 10:17-18 NRSV).

The Prayer ‘Gratitude for a God’s Mercy’ comes from the nineteenth dynasty. It shows the writers humble gratitude for the recovery of his son from an illness. We read the memorial prayer below:

“Giving praises to Amon. I make him adorations in his name; I give him praises to the height of heaven and to the width of earth; I relate his power to him who travels downstream and to him who travels upstream. Beware ye of him! Repeat him to son and daughter, to great and small; relate him to generations of generations who have not yet come into being; relate him to fishes in the deep, to birds in the heaven; repeat him to him who knows him not and to him who knows him! Beware of him!

Thou art Amon, the lord of the silent man, who comes at the voice of the poor man. If I call to thee when I am distressed, thou comest and thou rescuest me. Thou givest breath to him who is weak; thou rescuest him who is imprisoned. Thou art Amon-Ra, Lord of Thebes, who rescues him who is in the underworld, inasmuch as thou art he who is… when one calls to thee; thou art he who comes from afar” (Pritchard p.380).

The texts are like a rope, and by looking at the rope, we at times forget we also see the small woven strings that make the whole. By carefully unbraiding the strands, we can observe the themes that run through the writing styles and actually see that outside the Old Testament, people dealt with the same issues. The themes that flow through the texts that we have read over and over are also prevalent in those civilizations surrounding the Israeli community. The themes are at times much older then the scriptures. One must not jump to conclusions that every piece of literature was copied, as some have in the past, but we must consider the writing styles of the Near East, and that it was normal to write on common themes that united enemy, friend, and cultures of the past.

Brown, E. Raymond., Fitzmyer, Joseph. And Murphy, Ronalde. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Prentice-Hall, Inc, New Jersey, 1990.

Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Book of Am-Tuat. Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. London 1905.

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

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

Roehrig, Catharine “When a Woman ruled Egypt.” Biblical Archaeology Review March/April 2006: p.64-70.

Quoted biblical texts are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.


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