Copyright © 1986 by
THE LANGUAGE OF REBELLION IN PSALM 2
AND IN THE PLASTER TEXTS
FROM DEIR ‘ALLA
Editor's Note: The Deir `Alla material treated here by Victor Sasson is a
portion of a lengthy inscription on plaster discovered in fragmentary
within the ruins of a building at Deir ‘Alla in
inscription, which claims to be "the sayings of Balaam," had appar-
ently fallen from an upright position, breaking into two main clusters
of fragments plus a scattering of smaller clusters and individual pieces
lying between those two larger groups. As the two main clusters were
pieced together (with gaps in the text, of course), the reconstructions
came to be designated as "combinations." Sasson's article deals with a
section from the "first combination"—i.e., text pieced together from the
main cluster of fragments representing the beginning portion of the
In Psalm 2:1-2 we read of a rebellion brewing among the
nations against the sovereignty of YHWH and his anointed king:
lmh rgsw gwym
wl'mym yhgw ryq
ytysbw mlky 'rs
wrwznym nwsdw ybd
‘l yhwh w 'l msyhw
Why are the nations in turmoil?
Why do the peoples hatch their futile plots?
The kings of the earth stand ready,
and the rulers conspire together
the Lord and his anointed king. (
The "nations" in this psalm are generally understood to refer to
those neighbors of the
rebel against YHWH and his anointed king. Thus, in seeking to
148 VICTOR SASSON
overthrow the sovereignty of the king, these pagan nations aim at
overthrowing the sovereignty of God himself. On the whole, there
is agreement among commentators and exegetes as to the general
import of Ps 2:1-2, with recognition that these verses speak of
conspiracy and revolt.1
The plaster texts from Deir ‘Alla are a fairly recent discovery
and much discussion is going on aimed at clarifying them.2 In my
own detailed study of the first combination I have argued that the
‘lhn and the sdyn are two separate and opposing groups of gods.3 I
have maintained that the sdyn conspire against the ‘lhn, who rep-
resent the established order in the world of men and in the cosmos.
For some unknown reason, the sdyn seek to overthrow the rule of
the ‘lhn and bring about disorder and chaos to the world. Having
formed a conspiracy in their assembly, the sdyn order the goddess
sgr w ‘str—a lesser deity—to cover up the heavens with clouds of
darkness and to bring about terror to the inhabitants of the world.9
She is also told to keep silent forever, a command which can only
mean that she is to undertake her orders and execute them with
obedience to the will of the sdyn. The pertinent section of the
text—lines 18-27—is as follows, in transliteration and translation:
1 See, e.g., Elmer A. Leslie, The Psalms (New York, 1949), pp. 89-91; M. Dahood,
Psalms I 1-50 (New York, 1966), p. 7; J. W. Rogerson and J. W. McKay, Psalms 1-50
(Cambridge, Eng., 1977), pp. 19-20.
2 See the original edition by J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, Aramaic Texts
from Deir ‘Alta (
to this original edition, abbreviated as ATDA. See also A. Caquot and A. Lemaire,
textes arameens de Deir 'Alla,"
zione di Balaam Bar-Beor," Henoch 1 (1979): 166-188; P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "The
Balaam Texts from Deir ‘Alla: The First Combination," BASOR, no. 239 (1981), pp.
49-60; B. A. Levine, "The Deir ‘Alla Plaster Inscriptions," JAOS 101 (1981): 195-
205; and Jo Ann Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir ’Alla (Chico, Calif., 1984).
For my discussion of the first combination, see my forthcoming article in UF.
3 The evidence is provided in my "The Book of Oracular Visions of Balaam
from Deir ‘Alla," forthcoming in UF 17 (1985; to be published in 1986). This article
is a palaeographical, literary, and philological study of the first combination. Also, I
have provided a short note entitled, "Two Unrecognized Terms in the Plaster Texts
from Deir ‘Alla," PEQ 117 (July-December 1985), pp. 102-103.
4 Apparently sgr w`str is an astral-fertility goddess who cannot but obey the
command of the powerful sdyn gods.
PSALM 2 AND TEXTS FROM DEIR ‘ALLA 149
18. [' dr]n. [']tyhdw.
19. 6wnsbw. sdyn. mw’d.
20. [w'mr]w. ls[gr.]
21. [‘l. ytk.] ry.
22. [s] kry. smyn. b’bky.
23. sm. hsk. [w’1.] n/7gh.
24. ‘tm. w[srh.]
25. [b]smrky. thby. ht.
26. [wyrb.] hsk.
27. w’l [.] thgy. ‘d. ‘lm.
18. [The migh]ty [ones] have conspired,
19. The sdyn have established a council.
20. They [have said] to s[gr :]
21. ["Let no] rain-water [fall!]
22. [S]hut the heavens with thy dense clouds!
23. Let darkness rule there [and not] light,
24. Impenetrable gloom and [distress!]
25. [With] thy darkness, bring about terror,
26. And obscurity [will increase,]
27. And keep thou silent forever!"
All of this is communicated to Balaam by the 'lhn in a vision at
night. What follows in the text is a depiction of a future series of
events, events that will be contrary to what is deemed orderly, nat-
ural, or normal. We are told, among other things, that darkness
will replace light, hares will feed without fear, men will fear to
tread where ewes graze, and hyenas will listen to words of reform.
As the sdyn assume power in the world and offend the 'lhn by their
action, even so does the weak, the insignificant, and the contempt-
ible mock the strong and the noble. With the rebellion of the sdyn
against the 'lhn, the natural order in the animal kingdom and the
social order in human society become chaotic.'
5 The numbers within the transliterated text indicate the sequence of lines
according to the realignment of the fragments proposed by Caquot and Lemaire (see
n. 2, above).
6 Most of the above comments were made public in a paper read at the annual
meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in
150 VICTOR SASSON
Some scholars have seen in the name sdyn an alternative or
synonymous appellative for 'lhn.7 The content of the first combi-
nation does not seem to me to support such an interpretation, how-
ever. My thesis that the sdyn and the ‘lhn are two opposing groups
of deities and that the language of the Deir ‘Alla texts speaks of a
rebellion is now further strengthened by the linguistic evidence we
have in Ps 2. Both this Psalm and the Deir ‘Alla texts deal with
conspiracy and rebellion against the major deity (or deities)—and
thus against the established order. And moreover, both documents
use similar terms in their description of the conspiracy and rebel-
lion. A closer look at the language used in Ps 2:1-2 and in the first
combination of the Deir ‘Alla texts will reveal the following
Psalm 2 —YHWH; msyhw.
Deir ‘Alla—'lhn; (sdyn vis-a-vis sgr w str).
Psalm 2—gwyrn; l’mym; mlky 'rs; rwznym.
Deir 'Alla—sdyn; (sgr w ‘str as a possible rebel vis-a-vis the sdyn).
Words of Same Roots in Context of Rebellion:
Psalm 2—yhgw (hgh); ytysbw (ysb/nsb); yhd (yhd).
Deir ‘Alla—‘tyhdw (yhd); nsbzu (nsb); thgy (hgh).
A brief discussion of the usage of the roots yhd, ysb/nsb, and
hgh becomes necessary at this point. To begin with, all of these
roots are found in the Hebrew Bible, used therein also in contexts
that have nothing to do with opposition, conspiracy, or rebellion.
Further, it is realized that the meaning of words from these roots in
Biblical Hebrew and in the Deir ‘Alla dialect need not be identical.8
7 So, for instance, McCarter and Hackett. The palaeographical and syntactical
issues connected with my lines 18-19 are discussed in my UF article.
8 In my brief discussion of the Deir ‘Alla dialect in the UF article, I conclude as
follows: "In sum, the overall lexical, morphological and syntactical features of the
dialect coupled with the markedly Canaanite nature and pulse of its poetry all
indicate—at this stage of our knowledge—that the language of these texts is more
related to Canaanite dialects than to Old Aramaic."
PSALM 2 AND TEXTS FROM DEIR ‘ALLA 151
We will first examine the biblical root yhd, "be united."9 Cer-
tainly the root is related to Hebrew ‘hd, "one," just as Arabic
tawahhada is related to whd, "one." In the Bible we encounter
mostly the adverb yhd, "together," appearing in various contexts.
A good example of the use of yhd as an adverb in a context of
conspiracy occurs in Ps 31:14. As in Ps 2:2, the adverb here is used
in conjunction with a verb from the root ysd:
ky sm ‘ty dbt rbym mgwr msbyb
bhwsdm yhd ‘ly lqht npsy zmmw
For I hear many men whispering
threats from every side,
in league against me as they are
plotting to take my life. (
A good example of the use of yhd as a verb occurs in Gen
49:6a, where the nouns sdm (root ysd) and qhlm are used parallel
to each other. The context of Gen 49:5-6 speaks of murder and
destruction brought about by the rebellious brothers, Simeon and
A striking use of the root yhd, in its Aramaic form, occurs in
Haphel in an Old Aramaic inscription—the Zakkur inscription.10
Here King Zakkur reports that Barhadad has formed a league (i.e.,
conspired) with several other kings to fight against him:
whwhd. ‘ly. brhdd. br. hz'l. mlk.
‘rm. s .... ‘sr. mlkn. (KAI, no. 202 A4-5)
The use of the preposition ‘1, "against," is clear in Pss 2 and
31 (where yhd is used as an adverb) and in the Zakkur inscription
(where yhd is used as a verb). In the Deir ‘Alla texts, on the other
hand, the verb 'tyhdw is used without the preposition ‘1. It would
be hazardous, of course, to generalize from one instance as to
9 Brown-Driver-Briggs, Lexicon, p. 403 (hereinafter BDB).
10 Although Hoftijzer mentions Pss 2 and 82, the word hwhd in the Zakkur
inscription, and other relevant biblical texts (see ATDA, pp. 192-193, 199), he steers
a very different course in interpreting the first combination. Further, Hoftijzer
believes that the ‘lhn and the sdyn do not constitute two separate and opposing
groups of gods (see ATDA, pp. 275-276).
152 VICTOR SASSON
whether or not in the Deir ‘Alla dialect the verb yhd required the
preposition ‘l (in the kind of context we are discussing). Be that as
it may, it is obvious that when the text states that the sdyn gods
‘tyhdw, we are to understand that they got together for a dark
purpose, and not for an innocent social hour. The sdyn isolated
themselves in a particular place to hatch their plots and to issue
their orders. They "got together" in conspiracy aimed at rebellion,
just as the nations and kings in Ps 2 got together to overthrow the
rule of YHWH and his anointed king. The verb hwhd in the Zakkur
inscription gives further illustration of this particular usage.
Next to be examined are the roots ysb/nsb. The verb ysb
(Hitpael) occurs several times in the Bible in contexts of opposition
(positive or negative)—e.g., Ps 94:16; Deut 7:24 (11:25) and, of
course, Ps 2:2. But nsb, too, can occur in context of opposition, as
in Ps 82:1:
‘lhym nsb b’dt bqrb ‘lhym yspt
God takes his stand in the court of heaven
to deliver judgement
among the gods themselves. (
This example is interesting because the verb nsb has God as its
subject, just as the verb nsb in the first combination of the Deir
‘Alla texts has the sdyn gods as its subject. However, the meaning
and usage of the verb nsb in the Deir ‘Alla texts is somewhat
different. In Ps 82:1 God stands in the heavenly assembly (‘dt ‘l) in
order that he may pronounce judgment against false deities.11 In
the Deir ‘Alla texts we are told that the sdyn have established (nsbw )
an assembly (mw’d ). On the other hand, we have seen that the
sdyn's assembly is formed for the purpose of rebellion. On the
whole, it appears that Biblical-Hebrew (hereinafter BH) nsb and
ysb and Deir-‘Alla nsb share something in common, especially
when they are used in contexts that suggest opposition or rebellion.
According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, p. 426, ytysbw
is Hitpael from the root ysb and this root occurs only in this form.
The more recent Koehler-Baumgartner Hebraisches and ara-
11 It is interesting that the false and unjust deities judged in Ps 82, very much
like the sdyn, are at home in darkness amid "the shaken foundations" of the earth
PSALM 2 AND TEXTS FROM DEIR CALLA 153
maisches Lexikon (
thetical comment in its entry on ysb: "(alle ubrigen Stammformen
zu nsb?)." Clearly, there is a problem as to the exact relation
between ysb and nsb. It is beyond the scope of this study to dwell
on this problem. However, the use of the phrase wnsbw sdyn mw ‘d
in the Deir ‘Alla texts appears to me to suggest (1) that BH ysb in
Ps 2 and Deir ‘Alla nsb must have something in common, since
both are used (albeit in different ways) in contexts of rebellion;
(2) that BH ysb may well have originated in BH nsb (cf. Ps 82:1);
and (3) that Biblia Hebraica's ytysbw for ytysbw in Ps 2:2 is an
unwarranted suggestion and that Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is
correct in abandoning this suggestion (although it is not clear on
what ground this abandonment was made). Surprisingly enough,
Hebraisches and aramaisches Lexikon can still suggest yty ‘sw as a
replacement for MT ytysbw in Ps 2:2.
As a verb, hgh in BH has two distinct meanings: (1) "to moan,
speak, muse, imagine, devise," and (2) "to remove."12 It is clear
that in Ps 2 the verb hgh is used in the sense of "imagine, devise"
in the phrase w’l thgy ‘d ‘lm is best understood to mean "speak"
(with a nuance of "imagine, devise"). Some scholars, however,
have understood hgh here to mean "remove,"13 but the general
context where the above phrase occurs does not support such an
understanding of this verb. The linguistic evidence in Ps 2:1-2 now
confirms the unlikelihood of this suggestion (see also Prov 24:1-2).
It should be noted that the first meaning of the verb hgh (see
above) is the more prevalent one in the Bible, whereas the second is
rather rare. To opt for the biblically rare meaning "remove" for the
Deir ‘Alla hgh on account of real or supposed difficulties in the
preceding line(s) of the text is, surely, not the best methodology in
In conclusion, both Ps 2 and the first combination of the Deir
‘Alla texts use similar terms in their depiction of conspiracy and
rebellion. In the case of Ps 2, the conspiracy and rebellion are those
12 BDB, p. 211.
13 So, McCarter and Hackett.
14 The issues posed by the preceding lines are discussed in my articles in PEQ
and UF (see n. 3, above).
154 VICTOR SASSON
of pagan nations against YHWH and his anointed king. In the
case of the Deir ‘Alla texts, the conspiracy and rebellion are pri-
marily those of the sdyn against the ‘lhn. To accept this last con-
clusion regarding the first combination will naturally entail the
rejection of the proposal that the ‘lhn and the sdyn are one single
group of deities sharing a common purpose. The ‘lhn and the sdyn
will be correctly viewed as two distinct and opposing groups of
gods in conflict with each other. In fact, we can now characterize
the rebellion in Ps 2 as universal rebellion and that in the Deir
‘Alla texts as cosmic rebellion.
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