Mythopoetic Language in the Psalms -- By: Elmer B. Smick

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 44:1 (Spring 1982)
Article: Mythopoetic Language in the Psalms
Author: Elmer B. Smick


Mythopoetic Language in the Psalms

Elmer B. Smick

In appreciating the mythopoetic language of the OT one need not view the authors as so culturally primitive that they appropriated mythical categories because that was the only way they knew how to articulate their understanding of divine reality. To show this one must distinguish between myth and mythology. The contexts prove the authors were not committed to myth but were keenly aware of contemporaneous mythology from which they drew colorful figures to enrich their theological expression. The greatest extra biblical mythological corpus comes from Ras Shamra and dates from the mid-second millennium.1 The many linguistic and cultural continuities between Ugaritic and the Bible make it reasonable to assume the god-language of the Canaanites and Israel was related. Our purpose in this essay is not to claim the Canaanite religion of Palestine was the same as that in Ugaritic or that Hebrew religion grew out of Canaanite but to examine exactly how the religious terminology was related. W. F. Albright at the time of his death saw this relationship as purely linguistic. It was on that note that I closed an earlier article on “The Mythological Elements in the Book of Job.”2

I will now attempt to deal realistically with this question as it relates to the Psalms. In Job we saw something that does not appear in the Psalms: direct reference to the pagan myths as in 3:8, “…the cursers…who are ready to arouse Leviathan,” and 7:12, “Am I Yam or Tanin that you set a guard over me?”

What does appear in the Psalms are idiomatic metaphors (cf. Job 5:7 where “Resheph’s sons soar aloft”—a reference to “arrows” or “sparks” or “lightning”) and conscious demythologizing as in Job 9 and 26 where the mythic terms served to show how the God of Job is both a unique and a supreme cosmic being. With regard to Job chapters 40 and 41 we suggested that mythic language was also used as a convenient vehicle to describe Yahweh’s power over the forces of evil. We noted how Job’s firm monotheism is clearly expressed (cf. chapter 31) and the same is true of the Psalms. The keynote of this theme is Ps 96:5: “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but th...

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