Discuss the role of psalmody in Israel’s cult: a) On the basis of what evidence are the psalms alleged to have, or not have, been part of Israel’s cultic worship? What are the historical implications of this evidence? b) When did the cultic interpretation of the psalms develop in modern scholarship, and how has it influenced such questions as the dating of the psalms and their classification into literary genres?


Evidence of the Psalms in CultEdit

There is very little direct and explicit evidence for exactly how the psalms were used in Israel's cultic worship, but there are some hints outside in other biblical books as well as within the psalms themselves that provide some clues.

In Numbers 10:35-36, during the wilderness journey Yahweh is told to "rise up" when the ark is moved and is told to “return” when the ark it rests. This is reflected in certain psalms that tell Yahweh to “arise” (Ps 68:1) or “return” and may witness part of a procession with the ark. Cross argues that Ps 24:7-10 is involved in this.

Some psalms have an antiphonal element, where different speakers or groups are invoked such as Ps 118, where Israel and the house of Aaron are called to give the refrain “his loyalty is forever.” Such a ceremony with refrains is reminiscent of the type of ceremony called for in Deut 27 where different tribes stand on Ebal and Gerizim and shout the refrain “amen” to each of the curses.

1 Chron 16:7, after the ark comes the Jerusalem David appoints Asaph to give thanks to the Lord. The psalm that is given comes from Ps 105; 95; 106. This provides evidence for a temple context to the Psalms, as well as some of the superscriptions at the beginning of psalms. Psalm 30:1 reads, “A psalm; a song of the dedication of the temple, by David.” Psalms 120-134 which have the heading “Song of Ascent” may indicate the occasion of pilgrimage. Jer 33:11 uses Ps 136:1 in the context of people bringing thank-offerings to the Lord at a future day.

It is also clear that the headings talk about a number of musical instruments and many are attributed to priests and musicians known from narrative sections of the HB. While not proving that these figures wrote this, it shows that these psalms are associated with temple functionaries and music puts them in a ritual setting.

Along with the evidence that can be mustered from within the Hebrew Bible itself, especially influential has been data from other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The prayers of Mesopotamia that bear a remarkable number of similarities to what we find in the psalms also contain much more information about their place within the cult and who performed them. We know that similar types of prayers were invoked in a variety of rituals, both within sacred precincts and without. The comparisons to festivals and rituals of Mesopotamia are important reasons that commentators since Mowinckel have tried to construct the theme and content of festivals that are reconstructed to have taken place in ancient Israel.

Historical ImplicationsEdit

If these psalms reflect first temple pre-exilic ritual this would have important implications to our understanding of the ritual practice of ancient Israel and Judah. However, if these are much later, reflecting the practice of second temple or are the product of reflection and piety of individuals outside of a cultic context, this changes the way that we approach the psalms and changes the type of data from which we can expect from them.

The Beginnings of the Cultic Interpretation of the PsalmsEdit

Hermann Gunkel believed that the anonymous character of the psalms within the Psalter was evidence for an early general cultic context. Many scholars at that time belieived the Book of Psalms to be mostly the product of post-exilic authors and they sought to recover the historical situation of these authors. Gunkel while not rejecting the late context of the Psalms in their present form wanted to get behind the current written sources and identify the types of psalms and the life setting that they reflected, a setting that was ultimately cultic. Gunkel found evidence for Communal and Individual Complaint Psalms, Royal Psalms, Individual Thanksgiving Songs, as well as smaller genres like pilgrimage psalms, or victory songs. He sought for types and assumes that Psalms that “mixed” types were evidence of a later date.

Mowinckel, a Norwegian scholar who was himself a student of Gunkel, took things a few steps further. The psalms in their present form were not cultic for Gunkel, but they represent genres that had their original setting in life as cultic. Mowinckel argued that the psalms in their present form were actually cultic and is most well-known for reconstructing a New Year Festival at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles in the image of the first-millennium Babylonian akītu festival. John Day argues that Mowinckel appealed fist to the biblical text and later rabbinic evidence and used the New Years Festival “as a confirmatory analogy.” The festival celebrated Yahweh’s victory over the waters of chaos and his enthronement, similar to how Marduk’s hegemony over the cosmos is celebrated in the New Year Festival through reading the Enuma Elish. Certain psalms called “enthronement psalms” were part of this ceremony, and the ark which stood for Yahweh was brought up to the temple similar to how the statue of Marduk was carried around during the akītu festival.

Although Mowinckel’s proposal has been criticized and others have proposed differing reconstructions of Israel’s festivals (i.e. covenant renewals festivals), Mowinckel’s arguments are still important today. Some have criticized Mowinckel for reconstructing the temple as the only cultic context, and argue that there are other settings that do not require a temple context.

Influence on Date and Genre ClassificationEdit

The cultic interpretation has an important influence on how we date and classify the psalms. If one holds to Mowinckel’s view that many of the psalms represent the liturgy of pre-exilic Israel then we have to date them, or some part of them to that time. The genres that both Gunkel and Mowinckel use for the psalms presuppose a cultic context. There would be little help in calling something an enthronement psalm if no one was actually enthroned, or a pilgrimage song if it had nothing to do with a pilgrimage.


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