Hebrew poetry is different. When the surrounding cultures were using their poetry to tell the stories of gods and conquests, the Israelites wrote songs. The Hebrews chose to recount the victories of Yahweh in narrative prose—something unheard in the ancient world. As a result, they reserved their poetry for songs and sayings. Or, as we’ve come to call them, the psalms and proverbs.
In the songbook of Israel, however, there’s a song that stands out because it breaks the mold a bit. It’s a hymn that turns its sights on a Canaanite ballad: The Epic of Baal. At first it would seem strange that the psalmist would interact at all with something like the pagan story of Baal and his rise to power. But as we read through the course of Israel’s history, it becomes increasingly apparent that the people of God struggled with the notion that Yahweh alone deserved their worship.
The nations around them still had their gods and their high places and their cults. The stories of the gods of Moab and Phoenicia and Philistia clamored for the Israelites’ attention daily. The collective mythology formed a siren song that threatened to seduce men and women and children from the worship of Yahweh.
And so the psalmist challenged the worshippers of Baal to a sort of ancient rap-battle. That’s kind of what psalm 29 is. The psalmist (or David, as the song is credited to him) takes the grand language of the Ugaritic Baal Cycle and flips it on his head. Throughout the song, it’s Yahweh—not Baal—who’s doing everything that Baal was famous for.
For instance, the second stanza of psalm 29 reads:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty (vv. 3–4).
For us modern, Western readers, the image is nice, but it’s also a little obscure. What difference does it make that God’s voice is over the waters? Sure he’s powerful and people collapse to the ground when he talks, but what’s the point?
With his music, David strips the false god Baal of his titles and hands them to Yahweh. In the Baal Cycle we find statements such as:
Lo, also it is the time of His rain.
Baal sets the season,
And gives forth His voice from the clouds.
He flashes lightning to the earth.
The Phoenicians who’d sung the Epic of Baal were wrong—it was Yahweh, not their pretend deity who ruled the waters of the sky. It was Yahweh who commanded the thunder, and not with his hand like Baal but with his voice. The God of Israel did with speech what Baal could only attempt with his fists.
And the psalmist doesn’t stop there. In the Epic of Baal, the god overthrows his rival Yamm. In celebration, the craftsman god Kothar builds a house for Baal with an oddly specific materials list:
Of cedars his house is to be built,
Of bricks is his palace to be erected.
He goes to Lebabob and its trees,
To Syria and the choicest of its cedars.
Lo, Lebanon and its trees,
Syria and its cedars.
So it should come as no surprise, then, what David pens in his next stanza, verse five:
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
Baal might have a house built from the best of Lebanon’s majestic cedars, but Yahweh’s voice alone can and does shatter them to splinters. Baal can’t hide from Yahweh because his house offers no protection. Everything that makes Baal so great in the minds of the pagan Canaanites actually leaves him weak and exposed to the power of Yahweh.
The second verse of the stanza—verse six—contains an even more bizarre word picture:
He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
David’s once again one-upping Baal, for whom the animals of the hills and fish of the sea leap in
The anhb-animals leap by the thousand acres,
The zuh-fish in the sea, by the myriads of hectares.
Sure the land and sea animals might leap to praise Baal, but Yahweh’s voice makes the land and the sea themselves leap as if they were animals. Anything Baal can do Yahweh can—quite literally—do better.
The balance of the psalm—both the introduction stanza and the conclusion—further cements Yahweh as king. Baal might be in the flood, but God is king over it. Baal might be one of the “heavenly beings” but all creation must declare Yahweh ruler.
For the people of Israel bombarded daily by the lies of the Canaanites and their false gods, the hymn of psalm 29 proclaimed loudly that Yahweh was God alone. The music—the poetry—of God’s people fought against those lies. And it was important that the truth of God’s power and glory be on their lips in song all the time. Everything the Israelites heard, everything society around them trumpeted, warred for their loyalty. And to fight back, they sang. They sang the songs of the psalter.
For there is no God beside Yahweh—he is God and God alone. And he does not share his glory.