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Psalm 68 - a suggestion for historical development

On the face of it, Psalm 68 is a straightforward celebration of a religious ritual in Jerusalem (v.30) by various of the tribes in Israel - see eg v.25 "the progression of my God, my king, into the holy place", followed by references to various parts of the procession, and other nations bringing tribute. Whether this was a song used at a real event at which other countries really did bring tribute, or an optimistic hope never actually realised, makes no difference. It was written for a state occasion at a time, and by an author, who favoured northern as well as southern tribes.

This much seems quite straightforward. There are, however, various clues in the psalm that suggest a more complex development from earlier material to later.

There is a near-quotation from Deborah's Song:

Judges 5Psalm 68
Yahweh! At your setting out from Seir,
At your marching from the land of Edom,
the land quaked, the skies wept,
water dropped from the clouds,
the mountains melted before Yahweh -
even Sinai - before Yahweh, Elohim of Israel!
Elohim! At your setting out before your people,
At your marching in the wilderness - Çelah! -
the land quaked, the skies wept

before Elohim -
even Sinai - before Elohim, Elohim of Israel!

and another from Numbers 10:35b:

Numbers 10Psalm 68
Arise, Yahweh! and your enemies will be scattered,
those that hate you will flee from your face.
Let Elohim arise, and his enemies will be scattered:
those who hate him will flee from his face.

There are some key differences between the passages:

  1. The names of foreign nations have been removed in the Psalm - "from Seir" has become "before your people" and so forth. This makes sense if Psalm 68 was to be used at an official event, in which it would be inappropriate to name other countries in such a positive sense as this. Even in the tribute section, only Egypt and Cush get named, with other nations simply referred to in passing and not by name.
  2. The name Yahweh has been replaced by Elohim - Yahweh (or Yah) is used very sparingly in the Psalm, and much more frequently in Judges 5 and Numbers. In v9 of the psalm this results in a rather clumsy repetition of Elohim, with Judges 5:5 reading more naturally.
  3. In Deborah's Song, the connecting idea of melting mountains, which stands between weeping clouds and Sinai, has been lost, leaving the psalm feeling slightly truncated.
  4. In Numbers, the statement is an invocation, phrased in the emphasised imperative, whereas in the psalm it is a wish, expressed in the cohortative.
All these reasons suggest that these parts of the psalm, in its present form, post-date the Numbers passage and Song of Deborah.

Also, the northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are explicitly named here along with the southern ones of Benjamin and Judah. Zebulun and Naphtali played the key role in Deborah, though not often later, and their lands were lost as part of the Aramaean and later Assyrian incursions into the north during the divided monarchy period. Of course, Judah is not named either favourably or unfavourably in Deborah, but omission of Judah at a Jerusalem-centred festival would be improbable. It therefore seems a safe assumption that this is an addition.

So, it seems likely that the author of Psalm 68 used Deborah's Song as one source. More, however, can be said. Twice in the middle portion of the Psalm (vv.18 and 25) the ceremony is said to take place at "the holy place", and only in v.30 do we get explicit mention of the Temple. This suggests the possibility that there was in fact an alternative version of Deborah available to this author, that ended not with the downfall of Sisera and the anticipated distress of his mother, but with a procession at one of Yahweh's holy places in celebration of the victory. Another possibility is that Deborah had already been adapted for a celebration still within the Judges (pre-monarchy) period, and this is where the procession imagery was introduced. The word temple is used a few times of the pre-Solomonic holy place at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:9 and 3:3, in close proximity to the same place being called simply the house of Yahweh), but numerically is far more often used of the Jerusalem temples (both first and second).

The Shechem area may be suggested by the use of Tsalmon, named in Judges 9:48 as in this region. Deborah's court was also in the hill country of Ephraim, between Ramah and Bethel. However, Bashan and Sinai are also named, so conceivably the author was simply using well-known places that were mountainous and linked with religious activity to build an image in the minds of his audience.

The God of Israel is twice called Rider - "of the Plains" (‘rbt) in v4, and "of the highest of the ancient skies" (or eastern skies) in v.34. This is directly borrowed from Canaanite imagery for Ba‘al who is regularly called "Rider of the Clouds" (‘.r.p.t) in Ugaritic material. It is otherwise a quite rare visual image in the Old Testament, though with an earlier mention in Deuteronomy 33. The wording has been slightly changed from the Ugaritic material, perhaps to disguise the origins, although alternative explanations are possible - see a companion page (in preparation) for details.

Other Ugaritic links are to be found in phrasing reminiscent of the Keret cycle - father of orphans and judge of widows in verse 6 (though perhaps a stock regional phrase indicating the expected duties of the good king), and silver and pale gold in verse 14.

There may be indications of another source block in the section from verse 20 to 32, bracketed by two blessings: bârûkh ’adônây to bârûkh ’elôhîym. The material here follows this pattern:

  1. A contest is indicated between the God of Israel (variously named as Elohim, Adonay, and Yahweh through these verses in quick succession) and an unnamed adversary - clues suggest Yam (the sea) or Mot (death), but this is by no means certain.
  2. During this contest, God's people are liberated from various situations and are brought back to participate in a triumphant public display of humiliation of the adversary.
  3. A religious celebration with music and a procession to the holy place follows, headed by God's people but including representatives of other nations.
As a general rule, the Old Testament contains little of the epic poetry that is very typical of Ugaritic material, in which divine or human characters progress through a sequence of events of a mythic or magical nature. Typically, Old Testament poetry consists of an account of an event already familiar to the audience (for example, Deborah's Song retells in poetic form the prose account of the previous chapter). Temporal progression from one episode to another within the cycle is rare in the Old Testament, whereas snap-shot style images are more common. It has been suggested that the Old Testament authors deliberately avoided this style because of association with Canaanite material. However, this portion of the psalm may well be an example of a more epic presentation of Elohim's actions on behalf of his people. It is quite brief compared to many of the Ugaritic texts, and lacks, for example, any detailing of the actual combat, but shares some of the qualities of the contest between Ba‘al and Yam.

So we can hypothesise the following source chain: Psalm 68 suggested development

A striking feature of the psalm is the great variety of names and titles used for God. The most common is Elohim, but overall we have the following:

2 1     
3 1     
4 1     
5 1 1  Rider
6 1     
7 1     
8 1     
9 3     
10 1     
11 1     
12     1 
15  1    
16 1     
17 1  1  
18 1   1 
19 1 1   
20     1 
212   11 
22 1     
23     1 
27 1   1 
29 2     
32 1     
33 1   1 
34      Rider
35 1     

It is clear that, whilst El/Elohim is spread very evenly through the verses, the other names and titles appear predominantly in the second half of the psalm and are not evenly distributed. Interestingly, this is also the area in which the words that are unique to this psalm appear:

15snow (in verb form)
21liberating deeds
31bar/piece (?)
32representatives (?)

This again suggests the possibility that this portion of the psalm originated separately from the first half.