Inspiring Psalm 104

AkhenatenPsalm 104 has been described as “Genesis 1 set to music”. That’s clearly the main inspiration for the psalm, and one which most readers will quickly realise. But, it’s not the only source of inspiration. It’s less well known that the psalm is also inspired by the Egyptian Hymn to the Sun.

In an earlier post, I explored how Egyptian literature can help us understand the account of Joseph better. This is true of other parts of the Bible as well, including Psalm 104.

Psalm 104 begins and ends with praise of God, and for most of the psalm generally follows the order of the days of the creation in Genesis 1, hence Grogan’s description of the psalm as “Genesis 1 set to music” (Two Horizons commentary 2008:173). What is striking about the psalm is how it both manages to be both draw inspiration from the Egyptian Hymn to the Sun and disagree with it at the same time.

The Hymn to the Sun, or Great Hymn to the Aten, was written during the reign of (and perhaps by?) the Pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten (who reigned c.1351-1334 BC) banned the worship of the traditional Egyptian gods and instead worshipped only the Aten (the god represented by the sun-disc). This led to massive (but temporary) changes in Egypt, including the religion, the style of art, and the building of a new capital city. It was whilst excavating this abandoned city that archaeologists discovered the tomb of Ay, on the wall of which is the Great Hymn. Archaeologists call the city Amarna and have made many important discoveries there, including the Hymn and the Amarna letters.

The Great Hymn to the Aten is a hymn of praise, talking about all the good things that Aten does (translation by UCL 2003):

You rise beautiful from the horizon on heaven,
living disc, origin of life.
You are arisen from the horizon,
you have filled every land with your beauty.

The entire land carries out its tasks,
every herd rests in its pastures,
trees and plants are sprouting,
birds flying up from their nests,
their wings in adoration for your spirit.

This hymn is described as “one of the most influential of surviving ancient Egyptian writings” (UCL 2003), and this includes its influence on Psalm 104. It is more probable that this is a general acquaintance rather than direct literary dependence, but verses 19-26 do echo parts of the Hymn. These verses are the psalmist’s meditation on days 4 and 5 (creation of the lights and the living creatures of the air and water). Verses 24-25 (NIV):

How many are your works, Lord!
    In wisdom you made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
    teeming with creatures beyond number –
    living things both large and small.

Both hymns celebrate the god who creates all things and the fact that nature points to god and bears messages about god, but is not in itself divine. C S Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms (1958, chapter 8: Nature) argues that the similarities are because both authors had this monotheistic doctrine of creation.

The differences are also significant. In the Great Hymn darkness is described in terrifying terms:

…the land is in darkness in the manner of death,

Every lion goes out from its den,
every snake bites.
Darkness envelops, the land is in silence, their creator is resting in his horizon.

As Lewis comments “It almost sounds as if that night itself were an enemy, out of God’s reach.” That is clearly not reflected in Psalm 104, where we are told (verses 19-21; NIV):

He made the moon to mark the seasons,
    and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
    and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
    and seek their food from God.

It is also worth noting that the moon is given prominence over the sun, surely a direct comment on the importance given to the sun-disc, particularly as it also inverts the order of ‘great light and lesser light’ of Genesis 1. So, while echoing concepts and understandings that were around at the time, the psalmist also challenges these beliefs by taking on the language and using it in different ways.

This is also reflected in the use of the name ‘Leviathan’ in verse 26. This can mean both great sea creatures and the dragon of Babylonian and Canaanite mythology. As Grogan (2008:175) comments: “Here is is probably the great whale, with perhaps a hint that all existence is divinely created, so that no uncontrollable powers exist.” When coupled with the rest of the psalm, I think that ‘hint’ becomes one of the underlying themes, with the psalmist taking on and correcting common beliefs and celebrating the power and majesty of God at the same time.

Edited to add:
Having been asked about the evidence for general interaction between Egypt and Israel during the time that the psalms were written, it is worth quoting the archaeologist Greg Mumford. He reviewed all the available evidence for links between Egypt and not just Israel but the wider area (the Levant) and concluded (2007:174):

the archaeological record displays a continuous, albeit fluctuating, Egyptian presence and influence in virtually all aspects of Levantine society

From: Egypto-Asiatic Relations during the Iron Age to early Persian Periods (Egyptian Dynasties late 20–26) in T. Schneider & K. Szpakowska (eds.), Egyptian Stories

So, Egyptian influence was still present in the culture that produced the psalms, so it’s not surprising that the psalmist would both know about (and be influenced by) Egyptian beliefs but also want to react against them (which in itself is a form of influence; recognising that these beliefs are influential enough to need correcting).

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