Bibliotheca Sacra 104 (July 1947): 290-97.

         Copyright © 1947 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.    

 

 

Department of

Semitics and Old Testament

 

PARALLELS TO THE PSALMS IN NEAR

     EASTERN LITERATURE

 

BY CHARLES LEE FEINBERG, TH.D., PH.D.

 

Many good examples of parallels to the Psalter in the     

hymns and songs of Babylonia and Egypt are to be found

in G. A. Barton's Archaeology and the Bible (1937 edition),

in R. W. Rogers' Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament,

and in the essays of G. R. Driver on the Psalms in the light        

of Babylonian research and of A. M. Blackman on the     

Psalms in the light of Egyptian research in The Psalmists,

edited by D. C. Simpson. The temptation is to give repre-

sentative ones from each group, but we shall choose but two

examples to illustrate the close resemblance between these

hymns and songs and the Psalms of the Old Testament. In

the matter of parallels we do well to heed the warning of

Rogers. He rightly points out that the hymns and prayers

of Babylonia and Assyria have at times been too highly

esteemed, because they have so often been judged by ex-

tracts alone, by too short passages, which sometimes leave

out qualifying contexts that set the examples in an altogether

different light. Resemblances are at times misleading, and

scholars, as we shall see later, differ widely in their adjudi-

cations of these products of the ancient Near East. One of

the most famous of all the parallels is the hymn of Ikhnaton

to the Sun-god.

 

Thou appearest in beauty on the horizon of heaven           

Thou living Sun, the first to live.

Thou risest on the eastern horizon,

Suffusing all lands with thy beauty.

Glorious art thou, and mighty,

 

(290) 



Parallels to Psalms in Near Eastern Literature  291

 

Shining on high o'er the lands;

Thy rays encircle the countries.

To the farthest limit of all thy creation;

Thou are Re reaching out to their uttermost border,

Subduing them for thy beloved son.

Far off art thou, yet thy beams touch the earth;

Thou art seen of man, but thy pathway they know not.

 

Thou settest in the western horizon,

And the earth becomes dark as death.

Men rest in their chambers,

With head enveloped, no eye sees aught.

Should their goods be taken that lie under their heads,

They would fail to perceive it.        

The lion comes forth from his lair,

And the serpents bite.

Darkness rules, and the earth is still,

For he that made all rests in the horizon.

When the earth becomes light, thou risest on the horizon,

And, as the sun, dost illumine the day;

The darkness flees when thy rays thou dost spread;

The two lands rejoice,          

They awake, stand up on their feet,

When thou hast raised them up;

They cleanse their bodies and clothe themselves,

Their arms give praise, for thou hast appeared.

The whole earth goeth forth to labour.

 

The cattle are satisfied with grass;

The trees and the herbs grow green,

The birds from their nests fly forth,

With their wings they offer thee praise.

The beasts spring up on their feet,  

The birds and every flying thing

Live, when thou art risen.

There go the ships, down-stream, up-stream,

All paths are free, since thou are arisen.

 


 292                             Bibliotheca Sacra

 

The fish in the sea leap up before thee,

For thy rays penetrate to the ocean's depths.1

 

The resemblances between this hymn and Psalm 104 are

striking indeed. The references to the light, heaven, and the

foundation of the earth are similar to the first verses of the

Psalm. The allusions to the beasts of the field, the birds of

the heaven, man, the lions, the darkness of night at the

setting of the sun, the sea, the ships, and the ocean fish, all

mentioned in the Psalm, closely approximate what is found

in Ikhnaton's Hymn to the Sun-god. But there are also

similarities in prayers for help from God. The cuneiform           

prayer is in keeping with its polytheistic background. One          

such prayer is pointed out as resembling Psalm 13, where

the psalmist cries out to God that He forget the suppliant

no longer. God has turned away His favor and the psalmist

is filled with sorrow all the day. Enemies on every hand

surround the praying one, and he must have the help of God

if they are not to triumph over him. He closes with the

expression of his faith in the loving-kindness of God, whom

he will yet have cause to praise for His bountiful dealing

with the needy. The parallel to this Psalm from the cunei-

form is addressed to a goddess.      

 

How long, my goddess, wilt thou be angry with me, wilt

        thou hide thy face from me?   

            How long, my goddess, wilt thou be offended, and thy    

                   heart be full of wrath?

Turn thee unto me again, him whom thou didst cast off,

Incline thy countenance to a word of pity;

            Let thy heart be assuaged, like the soft-flowing waters of

                   the river.

Suffer me to tread upon mine enemies, as I tread down

                  upon the dust;

Them that hate me cast down, and let them grovel at my

                  feet.

 

 

 

1Oesterley, W. O. E., A Fresh Approach to the Psalms, pp. 16, 17.

 


  Parallels to Psalms in Near Eastern Literature              293

 

My prayer and my supplication, let them come before thee,       

Thine abundant mercy, let it be granted unto me.

They that meet me in the way shall extol thy name,          

I myself will praise thee before the adversaries, thy god-

     head and power will I glorify.2

 

The similarities between this prayer and Psalm 13 are clear.      

Not all examples from the cuneiform parallels are so marked    

in their resemblances to the Psalms. For instance, the Hymn     

to Ramman, the Weather God, dated about the third millen-

nium B.C. (according to Rogers), is said to remind one of         

Psalm 29 on the voice of the Lord in the storm. The first           

ten lines of this cuneiform hymn, repetitious to the point of      

pain, give no impression of a storm ; they are a praise to

the god Ramman for his exalted character. Twice in these

lines it is said that he rides the storm. The remaining verses       

of the hymn do depict a storm, but quite differently from

Psalm 29, as even the most superficial perusal will reveal.

What conclusions are we to draw from these parallels    

and others? First, no one will be so foolhardy as to deny

the definite resemblances. Second, he will be quick to note       

the many differences also. Third, the matter of date will be        

given prominence. Hymns that can be dated to the third  

millennium B.C. or to the fourteenth century B.C. (the date       

for the Egyptian hymn of praise to the Sun-god, composed        

by Pharaoh Amenophis IV, called Ikhnaton) surely bespeak

for psalmody early origins. Fourth, the superior beauty and        

power of the Hebrew hymns will be recognized.3 Rogers           

finds the Babylonian and other parallels marked by a same-

ness of phrase and deficient in individual character.4 Peters

notes by a comparison of the rituals that the Hebrew

psalmody reveals no such use of incantation or sorcery as is

found in the religious liturgies of the other Semitic nations

of the time. He calls it astonishing. In contrasting the He-

 

 

2Oesterley, W. 0. E., op. cit., pp. 19, 20.

3Oesterley, W. 0. E., op. cit., pp. 11-15. See also his The Psalms, Vol. I,

     p. 37.

4Rogers, R. W., Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, p. 141.



294                                         Bibliotheca Sacra

 

brew and the Babylonian psalms he concludes that the former

are monotheistic, spiritual, and pure, while the latter are

full of polytheism, superstition, and sensuality.5 Gunkel

saw that the chief difference between the hymn of Ikhnaton

and Psalm 104 was this: the Egyptian god is the Sun and

is bound up with nature, whereas the Hebrew God created

the sun and is above nature. So much and more can be said

of the diversities between the two, but there are similarities

which must be explained. With regard to the parallel to

Psalm 104, Albright suggests two explanations which he

deems most plausible: (1) the Psalm has been adapted from

a Canaanite hymn which had been influenced by the Egyp-

tian; or (2) the Egyptian composition was familiar to the

Israelities in Egypt, from whence it was brought to Pales-

tine. He prefers the first position as the more probable.6

Obermann, in comparing the psalm literature from Ras

Shamra to that of the Old Testament, points out that the  

former have all the characteristics of form present in the

Biblical Psalms as to liturgical features: the three-fold divi-

sion of contents into ritual, supplicatory, and hymnal, the

antiphonal rendition, the parallelism of speech, and the metri-

cal rhythm.7 With Oesterley, Barton, Albright, and others          

we understand the similarities to arise, not from borrowing

but from the same background of world thought. There were      

a common geographical environment, a common material

culture, and a common language.8 Adaptation rather than

imitation may better explain the resemblances. Yet this does

not answer all the questions. Though the Hebrew psalmody

will be seen as a part of a world literature, yet it must be

 

 

5The Psalms as Liturgies, p. 26.

6"'Recent Developments in Bible Lands," in supplement to Young's Analyti-

      cal Concordance, 1936, p. 6.

7"An Antiphonal Psalm from Ras Shamra," Journal of Biblical Literature,

     Vol. LV, p. 41.

8"Barton, G. A., "The Present State of Old Testament Studies," in Grant,

     E. ed., The Haverford Symposium on Archaeology and the Bible, p. 67;

     Albright, W. F., "Recent Progress in North-Canaanite Research,"       

     Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 70, p. 24.

 



Parallels to Psalms in Near Eastern Literature  295   

 

regarded as sui generis. It has the inspiration of the Spirit

of God and a boundless power of its own. 

 

The cogent arguments of G. R. Driver against those who

would derive much of the Hebrew Psalms from the Baby-

lonian and other parallels of previous centuries are note-           

worthy and must be considered. In many instances the com-

parisons drawn are clearly unfair. An example in point is

taken from Psalm 2:7:

 

I will tell of the decree:

The Lord said to me, Thou art my son;

This day have I begotten thee.

 

This verse is said to echo the law of adoption in the Code

of Hammurabi, by which a man may acknowledge sons born      

to him by a handmaid with the words, "[They are] my sons."

Driver argues that Babylonian influence could not have  

weighed largely with Hebrew psalmody, because the age

when Sargon gave the West a unified medium of expression

was followed by a time of turmoil not conducive to the  

sharing of cultural influences. During a period of uninter-

rupted wars the trader will scarcely bring much culture

with him across an expanse of several hundred miles of

scorching desert. Furthermore, that which is allowed even

the least cultured peoples to invent by way of form cannot

be denied a race like the Hebrews. Driver denies that subject     

matter and its arrangement reveal dependence of the Hebrew

upon the Babylonian or the Egyptian, because no definite           

underlying principle of arrangement can be discerned in

either case. Even in the case of the hymn of Amenophis IV

the order is different, an instance where both may have been      

expected to follow the natural order. Such themes have been

the subject of meditation and poetry the world over. The

common Semitic ancestry of these peoples explains the simi-

larities. It is a truism that figures drawn from everyday life        

arise independently in the minds of many different peoples.

Even more, why should the Hebrews, who were far more

 

 


296                                         Bibliotheca Sacra

 

advanced spiritually than the Babylonians, borrow from their

less gifted neighbors? He concludes, therefore, that the

Babylonian hymns exercised no real influence on the work

of the Hebrew poets. Most of the Babylonian poems are on

a lower level of thought; any apparent monotheism in them

is but the enthusiasm of a devotee trying to raise his god

above the others; these poems lack that great emphasis on

ethics which is so important a feature of Hebrew monothe-

ism. The resemblances are superficial, while the differences

are most significant. How does Driver, then, explain the

similarities? He holds, "I am convinced that many, if not

the majority, of them are the result of independent reflec-

tion; for it is possible to shew that not only a number of 

figures of speech but also certain definitely theological ideas

recur in the religions and mythologies of other peoples who,

as far as it is possible now to say, owe nothing to Babylon.

Due allowance must therefore be made for the common

instincts of mankind."9

 

Other resemblances are laid to the common origin in the

prehistoric period before the Semites expanded and formed      

separate nations. Driver does not deny, and this he inserts

by way of a conclusion, the possibility of indirect influence

from Babylon which may have functioned in several direc-

tions. Blackman, in his discussion of the influence of Egypt

on the Psalms in the same series of essays, feels there was

direct or indirect influence of Egypt upon Hebrew psalmody

through the medium of Phoenicia (cf. Jezebel). He even

asserts that the outlook of both peoples was so close that it

may almost be said that the Songs of Zion were sung in a

strange land before they were sung in Zion.

 

Our position is this: the resemblances, which are far       

fewer than the differences, are to be explained by the com-

mon experiences of man and the common heritage and back-

ground of all the Semitic peoples. To essay an evaluation on

the basis of direct or indirect borrowing is both precarious

 

9Driver, G. R., op. cit., p. 173. For the entire discussion see pp. 109-175.



Parallels to Psalms in Near Eastern Literature  297

 

and difficult of substantiation. Agreement is lacking and

positions of scholars differ too widely for any confidence in

such attempts. The differences, which are great in extent,

are to be interpreted by the superior genius of the Hebrew

psalmists and ultimately to the personal activity of the

inditing Spirit of God. Sellin has stated it somewhat as fol-

lows: "The literatures of Ancient Egypt and of Babylon

show us that in respect of religious lyric, as of prophecy,

the people of the Revelation reached a height absolutely

unique among the nations of the Ancient East. In spite of           

all the formal affinities of style, imagery, etc., it is here 

alone that the ethical is set free from the bondage of the

natural; it is here alone that a consciousness of salvation is        

attained which in places already bears an almost New Testa-      

ment character; it is here alone that the keynote is the hope       

of a kingdom of God which is to embrace all nations, along

with the heavens and the earth a kingdom where ‘mercy and

truth are met together, and righteousness and peace have

kissed one another.’"10

 

 

Dallas, Texas.

 

 

10Introduction to the Old Testament (trans. by W. Montgomery), pp. 205 f.       

 

 

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