Psalm 29: Why Should the Canaanites Have All the Good Music?

Read Psalm 29.

In his book Miracles, C. S. Lewis writes about the resurrection of the Son of God and how curious it is that we find resurrections of gods in other cultures and traditions:

For there have, of course, been many religions in which that annual drama (so important for the life of the tribe) was almost admittedly the central theme, and the deity—Adonis, Osiris, or another—almost undisguisedly a personification of the corn, ‘a corn-king’ who died and rose again each year. Is not Christ simply another corn-king?…

Now if there is such a God and if He descends to rise again, then we can understand why Christ is at once so like the Corn-King and so silent about him. He is like the Corn-King because the Corn-King is a portrait of Him. The similarity is not in the least unreal or accidental. For the Corn-King is derived (through human imagination) from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature, from her Creator; the Death and Rebirth pattern is in her because it was first in Him.*

It’s hard to deny that there are aspects of the Christian faith that appear to have been borrowed from other religions. (I’m stressing the word appear.) That’s what Lewis is getting in this discussion of corn-kings. A god who dies and rises again is not unique to Christianity. You can even see this death-and-rebirth motif played out in the seasons of the year, as the death of fall and the grave of winter become the resurrection of spring. So, as Lewis says, “the Corn-King is derived… from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature, from her Creator.”

The story of redemption is so very true that it can’t help but show up in creation. After all, the universe and the Bible have the same Author. But I actually don’t think Lewis goes far enough. I’m not so sure that the truths of Scripture pop up in other faiths only because there are echoes of the Grand Story in nature. I think that is certainly true, but I also wonder if there aren’t also primitive—even primordial—memories shared by cultures across the globe that speak of the truth. After all, we’re all descendants of Adam and Eve; we’re all exiles from Eden. It was only after the incident at Babel that we went our separate ways.

In Psalm 29, we see these primordial memories crash into the truth of Scripture—and it’s wild. If you spend much time reading academic papers, scholarly journals, or research commentaries that tackle the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern context, you’ve probably discovered that there are places in the Psalms that seem to borrow from Canaanite poetry. This is one of them.

In the Baal cycle, the Canaanite god Baal, full of thunder and lightning, battles the sea god, Yam. Here in Psalm 29, “the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters…. The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning” (v. 3, 7). The psalmist mentions “the voice of the LORD” seven times. In Canaanite literature, Baal, the storm god, is said to have “seven thunders and lightnings.”

Critics of the Bible are quick to say these similarities show that the Bible ripped off existing religious literature, which, in many of their minds, means the Bible can’t be trusted. It would be like discovering your favorite author plagiarized. But what if the biblical writers in both Testaments used source material from their culture when they found it aligned with the truth in some way?

Baal is not the god of storms; Yahweh controls the wind and the rain, the thunder and the lightning. They answer to Him. So it is Yahweh’s voice in the thunder, not Baal’s. And Baal did not bring an end to chaos when he defeated the sea-god monster, Yam, but Yahweh did when He spoke and brought order from chaos at creation. “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood” (v. 10). This psalm sets the record straight.

But there’s another place in this psalm that shows where Canaanite theology mirrors the truth of God’s Word. Verse 1 says, “Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.” In Hebrew, the “heavenly beings” are literally “the sons of God,” and in the literature of the ancient Near East, sons of god were often part of a pantheon. They were lesser deities who made up a chief deity’s divine council.

Many people think this makes no sense in the Bible. It’s as if David stole this song from some Ugaritic hymnal and forgot to change some very important details. What is God doing with a pantheon? A divine council? Sons of God? But Scripture actually affirms that God does have a heavenly council, and there are supernatural beings known as “sons of God”:

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment. (Psalm 82:1 ESV)

Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left.” (1 Kings 22:19)

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. (Job 1:6 ESV)

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?… when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4, 7 ESV)

Thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat…. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9–10)

Of course, God’s “pantheon” does not consist of other “gods” in the sense that Yahweh has any equals or that there is another uncreated Creator. “Who among the gods is like you, LORD?” (Exodus 15:11). The “gods” or “sons of God” in the Bible are created beings who serve the Lord (though as we’ll see later, some of them rebelled). God has a divine council, and so it should not be surprising that we find pantheons, councils, and the like in other religions. Distorted from the truth they may be, they are perhaps echoes of a faded memory, stretching back before Babel.

Martin Luther famously wrote hymns using the tunes from popular bar songs of his day. The story goes that when asked why he used secular music in Christian worship, Luther responded with a question of his own: “Why should the devil have all the good music?” God’s people live in time and space, surrounded by a culture that is not the kingdom, and yet, even in the darkness there are pricks of light. We should never be afraid to tell the world where that light really comes from, nor should we be surprised to find the biblical writers doing the same from time to time.

* C. S. Lewis, Miracles (1947; repr. ed., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 181 and 186.

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