Vengeful Smoke from Divine Nostrils
Samuel 2 22:9
In 1929 a Syrian farmer stumbled on what would become known as the world’s greatest trove of Ugaritic mythology - tablets dating to the 15th-12th centuries BCE. In the century since that discovery scholars have been able not only to decipher much about this fascinating dominant and literary culture but also about its enduring influence on some of the civilizations that followed it - including Israel. One of the lingering sites of impact is the religious language and the poetry found throughout the bible - including today’s chapter.
Lofty poetry prepares us to close the Book on the prophet Samuel and the first years of Israel’s monarchy. Today’s chapter is one epic poem composed, supposedly, by David, and it’s one of six great ancient poems scattered through the Hebrew Bible. This chapter also seems very similar, almost identical to the 18th psalm. Scholars debate which version came first, and whether it really was David who in addition to all his complex attributes was also a poet, as tradition clearly claims. Some of the language in both chapters also very much resembles Ugaritic descriptions of the gods - and especially the mysterious aspects of wrath, vengeance and fury. Somehow YHWH took on the attributes not only of Baal but also of Baal’s famous and often furious sister, the Goddess Anat.
Why end this political volume with poetry? This closely follows a familiar trope in ancient cultures - narrative prose fused with poetry to literally mix metaphors and add perspective to the historical telling. Robert Alter points out that
“It was a common literary practice in ancient Israel to place a long poem or song at or near the end of a narrative book -- compare Jacob’s Testament, Genesis 49, and the Song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32. In the case of the Book of Samuel, David’s victory Psalm and Hannah’s psalm, respectively a song of the male warrior’s triumph and a song contextualized as an expression of maternal triumph, enclose the large narrative like bookends, and there is even some inter-echoing of language between the two poems.”
What’s striking in this poem is that it begins by praising YHWH for fighting the wars for the people, but then swiftly switches to glorifying David’s own military might. The chapter begins by describing the moment that made it possible to be composed - not mid battle but at a time of relative rest: “When David was rescued from his foes, and saved from Saul.” Perhaps that would be the brief moment of respite after Saul perished and Jerusalem was seized, back in chapter 7 of Samuel 2?
Either way - the shift from extolling and thanking YHWH begins with describing a god with boundless energy, a rock and mighty mountain, whose nostrils flare with fury and smoke as he rides the cherubim as a giant battle ram against Israel's foes. It’s the nostrils that give the ancient Ugaritic influence away. With time, Israel’s prophets will use less and less human imagery to describe the abstract deity that is not to be described at all, but there are still remnants that scholars identify as ‘copy and paste’ job from available poetic fragments that still excited contemporary listeners and were familiar to their mythical vocabulary. Whether Baal, Anat or YHWH - it was, and is, meaningful, to have on your side a deity who knows how to kick ass when it’s time to fight your enemies. David describes YHWH as a fierce warrior, a god of earthquakes and battles who breathes fire and smoke emanates from his nostrils evoking terror and awe:
עָלָ֤ה עָשָׁן֙ בְּאַפּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֥שׁ מִפִּ֖יו תֹּאכֵ֑ל גֶּחָלִ֖ים בָּעֲר֥וּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃
Smoke went up from His nostrils,
From His mouth came devouring fire;
Live coals blazed forth from Him.
One of the more striking similar descriptions in the Ugarithic texts is that of Anat the Goddess, sister of Baal, who avenges her brother’s death by Mot, the God of Death. Anat is so mad that her brother was taken to the underworld that she decides to take on death himself:
“She seized the son of the gods, Mot.
With a sword she cleaved him,
With a sieve she winnowed him,
With fire she burned him,
With mill-stones she ground him,
In the field she sowed him!”
Baal, like other deities in world mythologies, is the source of agriculture, and his resurrection, when spring returns, is the revival of life - and it’s Anat who makes it happen. To revive life she must kill death - and that’s the power of her divine vengeance. Is this a human fantasy of defeating death altogether that keeps surfacing in myriad forms throughout cultures and civilizations?
One of the forms is brutal. It’s not Divine wrath against death but the use of this enormous energy in the territorial and tribal wars between people and nations. Halfway through the chapter David switches from thanking YHWH for being the fight to praising his own military might - inspired from on high. And that’s when the vengeful trope becomes disturbing:
הָאֵ֕ל הַנֹּתֵ֥ן נְקָמֹ֖ת לִ֑י
וּמֹרִ֥יד עַמִּ֖ים תַּחְתֵּֽנִי׃
“The God who has vindicated my revenge,
And made peoples subject to me”
Who is this God of Vengeance? It is a product of a human fantasy, an aspirational conspiracy inspired by prophets and poets to give hope to generations of oppressed and depressed, conquered and humbled Hebrews living as minorities all over the world including on their ancestral land. But not just hope - but also justification. David’s wars, however historically accurate, depict his rule as ruthless. And while Anat is there to kill death so that life can resume she too, like other local deities, supported her people’s myths and showed up on their battlefields. Just this week Jewish people chanted the Scroll of Esther, where awful revenge and bloodshed celebrated by the Jewish Queen and her people, a minority in Persia, echoes this very description of bloody revenge. Esther is also an echo of the ancient Goddess Ishtar, as is her consort Mordechai - an echo of the God Marduk. The revenge aspects of the Purim story are troubling and tough. Especially today when so many cite them as divine permission to wage acts of terror on neighbors and enemies alike. David’s use of ‘God of Vengeance’ is not unique to him or to this chapter but it’s important to remember that it’s on loan from other cultures and contexts. While it is one of the attributes of the divine - it’s a different matter when taken on by human hands, and a warning tale comes with it.
The residue of ancient deities and their human-made desires for less death and more life, less fear and more fervor - lives on, right inside these pages, and in our modern lives.
The poetry will give way to final chapters of prose and narrative, problems and needs that will wrap the book up before we move on to more historical territory, not without its poetry and myth - the Books of Kings.
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