Hebrew Psalms and Ugaritic

Ugaritic and the Psalms

Per request, I did a bit of research on relationships between Ugaritic texts and Hebrew psalms. Please note that I began from a standing start, with zero background in this area, so would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows more or better….

…Here, however, for what it’s worth, is what I discovered from some internet searching and a day at the Woodstock Theological Library — with appreciation once again to Georgetown University for allowing anyone with a picture ID (no special application or rigamarole required for those of us fortunate enough to have a stable address for picture ID) into their stacks….

By Rama – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2991280 Artist Unknown Description Tablet: epic of Danel and his son Aqhat Collection Louvre Museum (Inventory)


(Naive) Summary

In 1928, a farmer in Syria stumbled upon a collection of texts, which scholars subsequently determined to be Ugarit(ic), dated to somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. For the next few decades, this find was celebrated as a new key to understanding semitic languages, including Hebrew, and the region’s literature, including the Hebrew psalms.

For example, in 1984, Wilfred G.E. Watson wrote in Classical Hebrew Poetry (JSOT [Journal for Study of Old Testament]), a guide to related scholarship to that point:

In spite of many centuries’ study, detailed analysis of all the poetic texts has not yet been completed. This is in part due to the same set of texts being chosen for study…to the exclusion of others. Another reason is that the main interest of commentators is exegesis, so that remarks on poetic technique are more or less of a random nature. The principal reason, though, is of a different order: it is only since the discovery of poetic texts in Ugaritic and Akkadian that certain techniques of poetry could be
recognised in Hebrew.

…as Ugaritic poetry is chiefly narrative in character it cannot be directly compared with Hebrew poetic texts. Even so, there is a large overlap between the two sets of literature since they share a common poetic technique and in many respects would appear to belong to the same tradition of versification.

As early as the mid-1960s, however, at least one scholar had “concluded [that] the parallel between the texts is tenuous and reflects exaggerated ‘pan-Ugaritism'” (Avishur, see below), while others began expressing more caution about how much Ugaritic could explain Hebrew.

Writing in 1994, Yitzhak Avishur discusses some elements common to Ugaritic and Hebrew psalms: chiastic structure, themes of lifting up one’s eyes to the deity, the deity hearing prayers, and walking in the deity’s house. He then concludes:

However, despite all of these common structural and stylistic features, the patterns of Hebrew psalmody are more sophisticated and its style more nuanced than those in the Ugaritic psalms. Thematically speaking, the themes of the Ugaritic psalms re more concrete, graphic, and practical. The prayer to Baal is essentially a declaration of cultic acts accompanying the invocation to Baal, rather than true petitionary prayer.”
–p.36, Studies in Hebrew and Ugaritic Psalms. Jerusalem, 1994: Magnes Press, Hebrew University.

Along the way, Avishur includes a discussion of Psalm 92, one of the chapters studied so far (July 2019) in Temple Micah’s Psalms Study Group.

Psalm 92 and Ugaritic

Avishur summarizes the perspective of N.H. Sarna (1923-2006) on Ps. 92:

According to Sarna, Ps. 92:8-10 alludes not only to Baal’s war against Yam, but also to Marduk’s struggle with Tiamat. The mythical motifs in Ps. 92, which are associated with Creation, explain why this Psalm was designated “a Psalm for the Sabbath day,” a day which is also associated with Creation (Gen 1-2).

— p.238, Studies in Hebrew and Ugaritic Psalms

The entire paper, N.H. Sarna, “The Psalm for the Sabbath Day (PS 92)” — originally published in Journal of Biblical Literature 81:2 (June 1962): 155-168 — can be downloaded, easily and free of charge, from Academia.edu


Donner, Herbert. ZAW 79 (1967) 322-50: Ugaritismen in der Psalmenforschung. [No idea what ZAW is, except that it’s obviously a German scholarly publication.]

Donner is noted as one who cautioned against attributing too much to Ugaritic, as opposed to other cultural influences of the time and region. See, e.g., “Ugarit and the Bible: progress and regress in fifty years of literary study,” by P.C. Craigie IN Ugarit in Retrospect: Fifty Years of Ugarit and Ugaritic. Gordon Douglas Young, ed. Eisenbrauns, 1981: “…too few comparativists remember the cautionary perspectives provided by Donner a little more than a decade ago.”