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From Gazing on the Deep: Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Jewish Studies in

Honor of Tzvi Abusch, edited by Jeffrey Stackert, Barbara Nevling Porter, and
David P. Wright (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 2010)

A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24
Benjamin D. Sommer

PSALM 24 PRESENTS A FINE EXAMPLE of how sensitivity to cultural patterns


known from the ancient Near East enhance not only our contextual under-
standing of an Israelite text but deepen our recognition of the religious
aspects of the text. In particular, familiarity with New Years festivals and
the myths associated with them sheds light on the way Ps 24 was used in
ancient Israelite liturgy and the way it is still used in rabbinic ritual.
The psalm has three parts: verses 12 (God and creation); 36 (ethics
and entrance to the temple); 710 (Gods triumphant entry into the
temple). A close analysis of the individual sections will shed light on
liturgical use of this psalm in the Israelite temple and in synagogue
liturgy. Examining how the three sections relate to each other will enable
us to answer the central question: how does this psalm portray the
connection between human beings and their divine king?
The following commentary is keyed to the NJPS Translation.

It is a pleasure and an honor to dedicate this commentary to my teacher and


friend, Professor Tzvi Abusch, a scholars scholar, whose work shows how
the detailed study of a particular culture can be not only a contribution to a
particular field but, more importantly, a contribution to the humanities writ
large, which is to say, a contribution to our understanding of what it means to
be a human being in relationship to the world.

495
496 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

COMMENTARY

Verse 1.
The earth...the world. According to Radak, the term ere (translated
here as the earth) means all the world, whereas its parallel in the second
verset, tevel ( world ), means the inhabited world or dry land. Nahum
Sarna confirms Radaks reading on the basis of the Akkadian phrase eli
tabali , which means by land (as opposed to eli nari , by water). 1 It
follows that all it holds ( umeloah ) means everything in the world,
whereas the parallel of that phrase in the second verset, its inhabitants
(yoevei vah), refers specifically to land creatures or perhaps to humans.
This verse, then, is a single poetic line that displays parallelism of speci-
fication as it moves from the whole world to the dry land. It may also
display heightening parallelism as it moves from all created things to the
highest earthly creature. As is typical in biblical poetry, the first verset
uses a common word, whereas the second uses a fancier, more literary
one: ere appears 2504 times in the Bible; tevel appears just 36 times (all of
them in poetry).2
All its inhabitants. Yoevei vah. Grammatically, this is a somewhat
strange or redundant construct, since the construct noun yoevei is
followed not by another noun but by a preposition with pronominal
suffix. This sort of construction represents an elegant form of language
and appears occasionally in biblical Hebrew poetry, but never in prose;
see, e.g., Isa 9:12 and Ps 2:12.

Verse 2.
The verse alludes to what for ancient Israelites was the well-known
story of Gods combat against the Sea or Yam, which concluded with God
creating the world as we know it on top of the seas corpse.3 In Canaanite

1. Nahum Sarna, On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel
(New York: Schocken, 1993), 242 n. 108.
2. Rashis suggestion that ere means the Land of Israel while tevel refers to
other lands does not fit with the norms of biblical parallelism, since accord-
ing to Rashi the poetic line goes from specific to general and from more
exalted to less exalted. Further, his suggestion does not match the two terms
after and: why should we think that the words all it holds are more related to
the Land of Israel while its inhabitants are related to the other lands?
3. See Sarna, On the Book of Psalms, 12223, and Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite
Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1973), 93.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 497

literature, it was the god Baal who defeated the Sea; in Babylonian myth, it
was Marduk, who, having defeated the forces of chaos led by the deity of
salt water, founded the world on top of the primeval waters. This psalm is
careful to insist that YHWH, not any other deity, rules supreme over the sea
and that YHWH created the universe. The words, For He founded it, can
more accurately be rendered, For it was He who founded it. The word-
order emphasizes the subject by putting it first; normally the verb comes
first in a Hebrew clause. Similarly, verses 8 and 10 take pains to identify
YHWH and none other as the king of glory.
Set it. The tense of the Hebrew verb is ambiguous, probably inten-
tionally so. It could be interpreted as a past tense,4 describing an event at a
particular moment in the past. Alternatively, it could be understood as a
present tense, or as a verb describing an ongoing activity in the past,
present, and/or future.5 Both meanings are relevant: God created the
world in primeval times and re-creates it or sustains it every moment
since then.
Nether-streams. neharot . Or ocean currents. 6 The other, more
familiar meaning of this noun, rivers, is not relevant here. As was the
case in the previous poetic line, the first verset here uses a common term,
whereas the second verset uses a less frequent one: ocean (yam) appears
392 times in the Bible; nahar appears 117 times, and many of these mean
river rather than nether-stream or ocean current.
The verse pictures the dry land of the world as set on top of pillars
that descend into a vast subterranean ocean (so Dahood); the same picture
appears in 1 Sam 2:8; Ps 136:6; Job 38:6.7 This picture involves a startling

4. Understanding the verb as a short form of the prefix conjugation. This short
prefix serves as a past tense in biblical poetry (and, when attached to a waw
and a pata, in biblical prose); see G. Bergstrsser, Hebrische Grammatik mit
Benutzung der von E. Kautzsch bearbeiteten 28. Auflage von Wilhelm Gesenius
hebrischer Grammatik (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1982), II 7h; P. Joon and T.
Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, SB 14 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum
Biblicum, 1991), 113h; Bruce K. Waltke and M. OConnor, An Introduction to
Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 31d.1.
5. Understanding the verb as a regular prefix conjugation (rather than a short
prefix conjugation).
6. Mitchell J. Dahood, Psalms 150: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, AB 16
(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), 151.
7. Some traditional commentators resist this reading of the verse, perhaps
because they recognize that it is scientifically inaccurate. Ibn Ezra, Radak, and
Meiri argue that al means not upon, on but next to, which would allow
498 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

paradox: God establishes earth firmly on top of water. Normally, a person


constructing a building uses bedrock or large boulders as a foundation, so
that the firmness of the rock supports a house that will not totter. God,
however, puts the earth on top of something fluidand doing so results
in an earth that is firmly planted!8 The fact that we know that this picture
is not scientifically accurate does not detract from the clarity and daring of
the theological idea the picture is made to express: that creation is ulti-
mately beyond reason, beyond common sense, a miracle. A contemporary
understanding, say, of gravity (the attraction of two objects even at great
distance from each other that seem to know of each others presence even
though they are not physically connected) or of time (which seems
constant to common sense yet was shown by Einstein to vary in
relationship to the mass of nearby objects) enables us to come to a similar
conclusion, however more refined our picture of the universe is.

Verse 3.
Traditional commentators contrast the broad perspective of verses 1
2 with the more restricted viewpoint of 34. Ibn Ezra9 notes how this
contrast functions on a geographic level: Verse 3 is concerned with the
temple located on the mountain of the LORD.10 The Temple Mount is an
axis mundi,11 a connection point between heaven and earth, and thus it
was especially sacred and dear to the deity. Verses 12 remind us,
nevertheless, that all the world belongs to God, who created it. That one

the understanding, It was He who set it [the land] next to the oceans, and put
it next to the rivers. But Isaiah of Trani recognizes that yammim here refers to
subterranean waters also known as tehom.
8. Amos Hacham, The Book of Psalms, Daat Mikra (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav
Kook, 1981), 1:128; see also Alastair Hunter, Psalms, Old Testament Readings
(London: Routledge, 1999), 135.
9. In his comment to verses 12.
10. On the Temple Mount as the mountain of the LORD, see especially Isa 2:2 and
Micah 4:2. See further Gen 22:14 (on its connection with Jerusalem, see 2 Chr
3:1) and Isa 30:29 (on the connection with Jerusalem, see verses 19 and 33
there).
11. On the notion of an axis mundi, see Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
or, Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1971), 1217. Another biblical example of an axis
mundi is the location of one of the northern Israelite kingdoms main temples,
Bethel, which Jacob calls the gate of heaven in Gen 28:17.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 499

place is sacred does not mean that other places are unrelated to the deity.
Rashi notes that the contrast also works at a moral level: even though all the
worlds people belong to him (12), not all are worthy to come into His
presence; rather, only those who are morally upright ought to do so (34).12

Verse 4.
Pure heart. In ancient Semitic languages, the heart was the seat not
only of emotion (as in modern English) but of reason and thinking. One
might, consequently, translate pure mind or clear-thinking. Cf.
Targum (berir raayonah).
Taken a false oath by My life.13 In the ancient world a person taking
an oath uttered a gods name or life as part of the oath formula (I swear
by the God YHWH that... or I swear by YHWH s life that...). On the
seriousness of taking a vain oath by Gods name or life (i.e., of failing to
fulfill such an oath), see the third commandment in Exod 20:6 (20:7 in
some texts).
Ibn Ezra points out that the verse mentions the mind, the mouth (since
it refers to a spoken oath), and the hands; thus the verse speaks of thought,
words, and action. All theseprivate intention, spoken objective, and
resultare morally important.

Verse 5.
Blessing. As in many other cases in the Bible, berakhah here has a
connotation of salvation.14
Just reward. Hebrew, edaqah. The term has two meanings in biblical
Hebrew, both relevant here. It denotes both what is right; justice and
victory, salvation.15 The person who obeys the moral strictures of the

12. Radak on verse 1 and Meiri on verse 3 explicitly draw out the connection
between the people-oriented point made by Rashi and the place-oriented
point made by ibn Ezra.
13. Manuscripts of the MT vary here. Some read My life, some, His life. Yet
others give one reading as the qere and the other as the ketiv or vice versa. If we
read His life, then the speaker is a human being. If we read My life, then
the speaker is God, or the speaker is a human who speaks euphemistically in
order not to mention explicitly the idea of taking a vain oath by Gods life (so
ibn Ezra).
14. So, e.g., James Smart, The Eschatological Interpretation of Psalm 24, JBL 52
(1933): 179.
15. For a verse that uses the word twice, once with each meaning, see Isa 56:1.
500 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

previous verses is a just person; therefore, this person merits victory or


salvation.16

Verse 6.
Circle. In the sense of group, assembly (referring to the worshipers
coming to the temple)17; alternatively, the Hebrew word (dor) place
(referring to the temple itself).18 This word, which carries these senses
relatively infrequently, may have been chosen to produce alliteration with
the next word (dor doreav).19
Turn...seek. Biblical writers often use these terms when speaking of a
pilgrimage to a temple.20 See Deut 12:5, 2 Sam 12:16, 2 Sam 21:1, Hos 5:15,
Amos 5:5. The presence of both terms here suggests that Ps 24 was recited
by and/or to Israelites seeking admission to the temple, probably during a
pilgrimage festival (e.g., Sukkot, Passover, or Shavuot).
Jacob. This seems to be a reference to the nation Israel as a whole (for
this use of the term Jacob, see Pss 14:7, 22:23). In this case, we find here a
three-part poetic line, in which Jacob is parallel to circles and those
who seek your presence:
Such is the circle of those who turn to Him,
Those who seek Your presence,
[Who can be called] Jacob.21
This reading, however, is odd in several respects. The third verset of
the line consists of the single word, Jacob, which creates an unusually
short verset. The alteration from the third person those who turn to Him
to the second person those who seek Your presence is also somewhat
uneven. The Septuagint seems based on an alternative text that read:
Such is the circle of those who turn to Him,
Those who seek the presence of the God of Jacob.

16. See Sarna, On the Book of Psalms, 243 n. 114.


17. For dor in this sense, see Ps 14:5, 73:15, and perhaps Isa 53:8. For examples in
other Northwest Semitic languages, see the references in Sarna, On the Book of
Psalms, 242 n. 115.
18. See Isa 38:12 and, again, perhaps Isa 53:8.
19. As suggested to me by Dr. Benjamin Katz.
20. As noted in Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 159: A Continental Commentary,
trans. Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 314.
21. For a cogent defense of this reading, see Hunter, Psalms, 137; Radak; ibn Ezra.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 501

This reading, in which the line has two versets rather than three,
makes good sense. The second verset in this case is slightly longer than the
first, which is unusual though not unheard of in biblical poetry. The aty-
pical length of the second verset may have caused a scribe or chanter to
drop the word God of there, leaving us with the text as we find it in the
MT.

Verse 7.
The psalm abruptly changes voice as someone or some group calls to
the gates of the temple, telling them to allow God to enter. From here to
the end of the poem, each line has three versets.
Lift up your heads, O gates! One might initially assume that head
here means top, and thus that this phrase means, Open up, O gates!,
that is, that the speaker addresses a gate whose door opens by rolling up
(rather like a modern garage door). In fact, however, gates in the ancient
Near East did not work this way; they opened like a door by swinging out
(on a horizontal plane, not a vertical one).22 The verse, then, does not refer
to opening the gate. Rather, the biblical Hebrew idiom to lift ones head,
means to act joyously, to act proudly, to act boldly. (For clear examples of
this idiom, see Judg 8:28, Zech 2:4, Ps 83:3, Job 10:15. Conversely, to lower
ones head seems to be a sign of depression or resignation in 1 Kgs
18:42.)23 The speakers direct the temples gates to be proud and to rejoice,

22. Gates that open by rolling up are called portcullis gates. They were un-
known in the ancient Near East. See Ronny Reich, Building Materials and
Architectural Elements, in The Architecture of Ancient Israel from the Prehistoric
to the Persian Periods: in Memory of Immanuel (Munya) Dunayevsky, ed. Aharon
Kempinski and Ronny Reich (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society,
1992), 1213; Muayad Saim Basim Damerji, The Development of the Architecture
of Doors and Gates in Ancient Mesopotamia (Tokyo: Kokushikan University,
1987), 13743; Shalom Paul and William Dever, eds., Biblical Archaeology
(Jerusalem: Keter, 1974), 3536. On the suggestion of E. Campbell and G. E.
Wright that the Middle Bronze Age eastern gate in Schechem was a portcullis
(which would make that gate unique in the ancient world), see the
comprehensive critique of Zeev Herzog, The City Gate in Eretz-Israel and Its
Neighboring Countries (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology,
1976), 52 n20 [in Hebrew].
23. See Cyrus Herzl Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook, AnOr (Rome: Pontificium
Institutum Biblicum, 1965), 464a and 482a, Dahood, Psalms; Cross, Canaanite
Myth, 98 n29; Alan Cooper, Psalm 24:710: Mythology and Exegesis,
JBL 102 (1983): 4647. All these scholars cite additional examples of the idiom
502 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

because they are privileged to admit the victorious king, the creator of the
universe. We might, therefore, render the first verset: Be proud O gates!,
Rejoice, O gates!, Stand tall, O gates!, or even, using a contemporary
English idiom, Hold your heads high, O gates!24
Ancient doors. Hebrew pitei olam literally means eternal doors.25
This could mean eternally in the future (referring to doors that will last
forever) or in the past (referring to doors that have existed since the
beginning of the world). In defense of the former understanding, we
should note that many psalms express the view that Jerusalem, as the city
where God dwells, is invulnerable; it will never fall to a foreign invader
(see, e.g., Pss 46, 48, 76, 87). 26 If our psalm assumes this widespread

from Ugaritic texts. Without the aid of the Ugaritic parallels, both Radak and
Meiri already concluded that the nasa ro here means to act with joy and
honor. Both note the similar context in Ps 96:1113, where the arrival of God
to judge the world elicits joy and exulting from the earth and the sea.
24. In a brilliant and suggestive article, A. Cooper suggests that these lines
originally referred to a myth in which YHWH leaves the underworld, just as
various deities in other ancient Near Eastern cultures were believed to have
descended to and ascended from the realm of the dead. One thinks of the
Mesopotamian goddess Inanna or Ishtar, and also of Jesus in Eph 4:810. See
Cooper, Psalm 24:710. Cooper argues that the gatekeepers who guard the
underworld are adjured to stand proudly as God crosses the gates of the
underworld (46). However, in the other myths of this type in the ancient
Near East, the gates or gatekeepers are not proud; rather, they are cowed into
submission by the deity, who forces them to disregard the cardinal rule
according to which those who enter can never exit. Coopers examples of the
idiomatic usage of lifting ones head mostly exemplify act independently,
act arrogantly or forcefully, which make less sense here if we are talking
about the gatekeepers of the netherworld; on the contrary, in that case the
gatekeepers would be forced to submit to YHWHs power, not to act
independently. In fact, we are speaking of gates of Gods own palace, which
proudly fulfill their designated role as God moves through them. For another
critical evaluation of Coopers theory, see Oswald Loretz, Ugarit-Texte und
Thronbesteigungspsalmen, UBL (Mnster: UGARIT-Verlag, 1988), 26567.
25. In biblical Hebrew, olam means eternity. This word acquired its additional
meaning, world, only in the post-Biblical period.
26. On the inviolability of Jerusalem in biblical thought, see Gerhard von Rad,
Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd,
196265), 1:4648; John Hayes, The Tradition of Zions Inviolability, JBL 82
(1963): 41926; Ben Ollenberger, Zion, the City of the Great King: A Theological
Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult, JSOTSupp (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), esp. 6680.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 503

notion, then the psalm might sensibly refer to the temples gates as
eternal. According to this viewpoint (which turned out to be wrong in the
year 586 BCE), the temple will never be destroyed. But the latter meaning is
possible, too. If the gates to which this verse refers (that is, gates into
which God enters) are located in Gods heavenly temple, then they may
well have existed from the beginning of time.27 Further, according to
myths known from both Egyptian and Akkadian sources, many ancient
Near Eastern peoples believed that the chief gods temple was built by the
gods themselves at the beginning of time. While biblical descriptions of
the origin of the tabernacle and of the Jerusalem temple are notable for the
absence of this theme (these structures were first erected in the days of
Moses and Solomon respectively, according to the Books of Exodus and
Kings), this way of thinking about sanctuaries was certainly known to
biblical authors.28 If our psalm, in contrast to Exodus and Kings, pre-
supposes this theme, it follows that even the doors of the Jerusalem
temple could have been viewed as going back in some sense to the crea-
tion of the world.
King of glory. Gods glory (kavod) has a range of meanings in
biblical texts.29 It can refer to a divine attribute, such as the honor due to
God or the moral values God expresses. Sometimes biblical texts compare
Gods kavod to other abstract qualities characteristic of the deity, such as
righteousness, salvation, loyalty, or truth (see Isa 58:8; Pss 19:1, 57:1012,
85:1014, 96:78). On the other hand, the word kavod can also mean body,
substance, that which has weight.30 Consequently, one might suppose

27. Isaiah of Trani sees the gates in this verse as the gates of heaven.
28. See Moshe Weinfeld, Sabbath, Temple Building, and the Enthronement of
the Lord, BM 69 (1977): 18893 [in Hebrew]. The biblical authors awareness
of this notion is especially evident in the tight textual connections between the
creation story in Genesis and the narrative of the erection of the tabernacle in
Exodus 3940, on which see Moshe David Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book
of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1944), 33334, 38 [in Hebrew], and Erhard
Blum, Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch, BZAW 189 (Berlin: De Gruyter,
1990), 30611. Weinfeld points out that midrashim also note these parallels
(18890 n4).
29. On the term, see my discussion in The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient
Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5862, 6878.
30. On the term meaning body, person, or self, see H. L. Ginsberg,
Gleanings in First Isaiah, in Mordecai M. Kaplan Jubilee Volume (New York:
Jewish Theological Seminary, 1953), 4647. See, e.g., Isa 17:4 and Ps 16:9.
504 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

that YHWHs kavod can simply refer to Gods body.31 Since the Israelites
conceived of the divine body as stunningly bright or surrounded by an
extraordinary radiance,32 we would expect this body to be made of or
surrounded by an intense fire. Hence, the kavod would refer to Gods fiery
presence. (For examples of kavod referring to Gods body, see, e.g., Exod
33:1823, 34:5, Lev 16:2,13, Num 9:1522, 1 Kgs 8:11, Ezek 1:1, 2728.)33 All
this suggests the possibility that this verse has in mind the literal entry of
Gods physical presence into the temple through a gate. Further support
for such a reading and its implications will be given in the section labeled
Interpretation below.
This verse contains a fine case of sound play in the phrase seu earim
raeikhem (Lift up your heads, O gates). Each word has either the letter sin
or shin next to either an aleph or an ayin, and two of these three Hebrew
words have a resh.

Verse 8.
Who is the King of glory? The Hebrew (with the additional pronoun
zeh) is emphatic: Who, really, is the king of glory? or Who dares to call

31. Contrary to what many people today assume, biblical authors agreed that
God has a body, even if its precise form and nature were different in many
ways from a human body. The notion of the non-corporeality of God became
standard in Jewish thought only after Maimonides. To be sure, some biblical
authors stressed that one could not see God and live (e.g., Exod 33:20). This
did not mean that God had no body, any more than saying that one cannot
touch a high-voltage wire and live means that there is no such thing as a high
voltage wire. Rather, God had an extraordinary body, and seeing it could
cause death. On divine embodiment in the Hebrew Bible, see further
Sommer, Bodies, 110.
32. See, e.g., Exod 19:18, Ps 104:2. On passages such as these and their connections
to the extraordinary divine light in Akkadian literature, see especially Moshe
Weinfeld, God the Creator in Gen. 1 and the Prophecy of Second Isaiah,
Tarbiz 37 (1968): 13132 (in Hebrew), and the comprehensive treatment in
Shawn Zelig Aster, The Phenomenon of Divine Radiance in the Hebrew
Bible and in Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Literatures: A
Philological and Comparative Study, (doctoral dissertation, University of
Pennsylvania, 2006), xvi + 576 (in two volumes).
33. On kavod as Gods body, see especially Julius Morgenstern, Biblical
Theophanies, ZA 25 (1911): 14153, and Weinfeld, God the Creator, 113
20. On kavod as simply equivalent to God, see Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, The
Dethronement of Sabaoth: Studies in the Shem and Kabod Theologies, ConBOT
(Lund: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1982), 107, and Aster, Phenomenon, 35354.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 505

himself the king of glory?34 Verse 2 alluded to the story of YHWHs defeat
of the Sea and the forces of chaosa story more commonly told of the god
Baal or his Babylonian counterpart Marduk among the Canaanites and
Mesopotamians, who were the Israelites neighbors and ancestors. Con-
sequently, the speakers pause to emphasize that it is YHWH, the God of
Israel, who really defeated the forces of chaos.
Mighty and valiant...valiant in battle. Or: A hero and a warrior...a
warrior in battle. On the image of God as a warrior, see also the very old
Israelite poem in Exod 15 (especially verse 3). Not coincidentally, Exod 15,
like our psalm, also mentions the sea (verses 1, 45) and emphasizes Gods
kingship (18).

Verse 10.
Who is the king of glory? The Hebrew of the first verset of this line
varies slightly from the almost identical phrasing in the first verset of
verse 8 by adding an additional emphatic pronoun, hu. Translate: Who,
then, is really the king of glory?
The LORD of hosts. Or (in more contemporary English), LORD of
armies.
The LORD of hosts, He is the king of glory! The second verset of this
line is identical to its counterpart in verse 8. In place of the third verset in
verse 8 (mighty and valiant), this line substitutes, The LORD of hosts.
The contemporary scholar Shalom Carmy asks the crucial question
concerning this repetition with variation: Is the new phrase in verse 10 an
interpretation of the phrase in verse 8, or it is a new, contrasting formu-
lation?35 Ibn Ezra and Radak view it as the latter: they maintain that verses
78 refer to the gate of Solomons temple, whereas verses 910 refer to the
gate of the third temple, which will be built one day by the Messiah.
Carmy himself opts for the latter as well, suggesting that the phrase
YHWH evaot should be translated, God of royalty, royal God.36 He
points to the connection between the royal theme implied by this phrase

34. See Cooper, Psalm 24:710, 5152; Dahood, Psalms, ad loc.


35. Shalom Carmy, Psalm 24 as the Key to the Problem of Hashem s-Vaot,
Gesher 5 (1976): 173.
36. Carmy, Psalm 24, 168, 17879. This sense may be related not to the noun
ava but of the noun evi in the sense of leader. See further the discussion of
J. Ross, Jhwh Sevaot in Samuel and Psalms, VT 17 (1967): 7692, who first
suggested this meaning for the phrase and who adduces Ugaritic evidence;
and see also Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook, 407a.
506 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

and Gods choosing David as king and the Temple Mount as His own
home: God dwells near the Davidic king, since the royal palace was
directly north of the Jerusalem temple. But these suggestions are some-
what forced. Mighty and valiant...in battle in verse 8 and LORD of
hosts in verse 10 clearly work together as references to YHWH as a god of
battle who fights on Israels behalf in historical time and who fought the
forces of chaos in primordial time.
In light of the preceding remarks, we might translate verses 710 as
follows:
7 Stand tall, O gates!
Be exalted, O eternal portals!
So that the King of Glory may come in!
8 Who, really, is the King of Glory?
YHWH, the mighty and valiant one!
YHWH, who is valiant in battle!
9 Stand tall, O gates!
Exalt the eternal portals!
So that the King of Glory may come in!
10 Who, then, is really the King of Glory?
YHWH of armies
He is the king of Glory! Selah.

INTERPRETATION

Setting and Uses, Ancient and Modern


Before investigating how the psalm was used in ancient Israel and
what its original setting might have been, we should note that several
kinds of answers are possible to these questions. One could seek a
historical setting for the psalms composition. For example, some inter-
preters suggest that David recited the psalm when he brought the ark up
to Jerusalem37; others suggest that Solomon recited it when he brought the
ark into the newly completed temple.38 An answer of this sort is based on

37. See ibn Ezra in his commentary to verse 3. On Davids decision to bring the
ark to Jerusalem, see 2 Sam 6 and 1 Chr 21:1827.
38. See Rashis comment on verse 7; Midr. Tehillim to this psalm; b. Shabbat 30a.
A modern scholar has made a very similar suggestion; see Cross, Canaanite
Myth, 93. This interpretation relates the psalm to the events narrated in 1 Kgs
8. Radak combines the Davidic and Solomonic readings by suggesting that
David wrote the psalm when he decided to bring the ark to Jerusalem so that
Solomon could recite it decades later upon completing the temple; see
Radaks comment to verse 7.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 507

the assumption that the psalm was written in response to a specific


historical eventan assumption that may not be valid. Alternatively, one
could seek what scholars call the setting in life for the psalm in ancient
Israel, which is a context in which people used to recite the psalm.39
According to this approach, the psalm played a particular ritual role again
and again over time. For example, the psalm may have been recited each
year at a certain holiday, or whenever the ark returned from accom-
panying Israelite troops in battle. An answer of this type does not connect
the psalm to any particular person or time. On the contrary, it stresses that
the psalm belonged to people over many generations. One can further ask
whether there was one main geographic setting for the psalms recitation
or many. Prior to the time of King Hezekiah (in the eighth century BCE),
there were many temples throughout Judah and Israel. Hezekiah
attempted to centralize the sacrificial worship in the royally sponsored
temple in Jerusalem.40 From the fact that his great-grandson King Josiah
made a similar attempt in the seventh century,41 we can deduce that
Hezekiahs attempt was not successful. Thus it is possible that this psalm
might have been recited not only in the Jerusalem temple but in other
temples as well.42 To be sure, it would work best at a temple that, like the
Jerusalem one, was on top of a hill (see verse 3), but some other temples in
Judah and Israel were located on hills (e.g., Samaria, Dan). Further, even
temples not located on a hill might have been viewed metaphorically as
being on Gods hill; the ability of worshipers to ignore or reinterpret a
single phrase that does not fit its setting perfectly is well known.

39. Scholars usually refer to the setting in life with the German phrase Sitz im
Leben.
40. See 2 Kgs 18:18; 2 Chr 2931.
41. See 2 Kgs 22; 2 Chron 3334. Josiahs reform of Judean worship was based on
the law code in Deuteronomy, which repeatedly insists that there should be
only one temple; see, e.g. Deut 12:1, 14:22.
42. If scholars who attempt to date the psalm to the post-exilic era are correct, this
possibility is less strong, since the Jerusalem temple had few competitors
then. But the arguments of such scholars (e.g., J. Coppens, La Royaut de
Yahv dans le Psautier, ETL 53 [1977]: 31417) are exceedingly weak. The
evidence adduced by Coppens, for example, is methodologically imprecise
(albeit common in biblical studies), since it merely notes that some other late
texts contain certain terms and ideas also found here. But parallels of idea or
vocabulary between two texts hardly prove they must date from the same era.
508 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

Finally, we should note that these types of answers to the question of


the psalms setting do not exclude each other. There could have been an
original historical setting in which the psalm was first sung, and a life
setting in which it was regularly recited thereafter. Further, there may
have been more than one life setting: it might have been recited on a
particular festival and also after a battle. (Even today, we shall see below,
this psalm has several settings in Jewish liturgy.)
Although various answers, and various types of answers, are
possible, the historical approach that attempts to know the setting in
which the psalm was composed is not promising. We cannot know when
the psalm was first sung or by whom. To be sure, the suggestions of
rabbinic literature and medieval Jewish commentators that David or
Solomon first recited this song make a plausible connection between the
psalms wording and specific events, but neither the psalm itself nor the
historical books of the Bible make such a connection explicit. The tradi-
tional commentators suggestion is possible, but we have no reason to
think it likely.
On the other hand, we can connect this psalm with a setting in life
with much greater confidence. Verse 3 mentions the holy mountain and
the sanctuary. Verse 6 uses vocabulary that regularly refers to a pil-
grimage to a temple. Verses 710 mention Gods glory, and other biblical
verses state that the glory or kavod was located in the Holy of Holies in the
Jerusalem temple and in the tabernacle that preceded it (see Exod 40:33
38 to Lev 1:1; Ezek 9:3, 10:422). Further, the moral requirements for entry
into Gods holy place in verses 35 are reminiscent of similar require-
ments that were engraved on the doorposts of many ancient Egyptian
temples.43 These many connections between the psalm and a temple show
that a primary setting for this text was a temple. This psalm was used in
temple ritualsalmost certainly in the Jerusalem temple, and perhaps in
other pre-Josianic temples as well.

43. Moshe Weinfeld, Instructions for Temple Visitors in Ancient Israel and in
Ancient Egypt, Tarbiz 62 (1992): 515 [in Hebrew]; Sarna, On the Book of
Psalms, 1003. On the connection between psalms and inscriptions more
generally, in light of which it is likely that some psalms were also (or
primarily?) inscriptions in the temple, see further H. L. Ginsberg, Psalms
and Inscriptions of Petition and Acknowledgement, in Louis Ginzberg Jubilee
Volume (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945), 15971,
and Delbert Hillers, Ritual Procession of the Ark and Psalm 132, CBQ 30
(1968): 5355.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 509

In order to understand how Ps 24 may have been used in a temple, it


will be useful to describe a common feature of temple rituals throughout
the ancient Near East. Ancient Near Eastern peoples, especially in Meso-
potamia, often led statues or idols of their gods out of a temple; sub-
sequently (often several days later), they returned the statues to the
temple in what may be described as cultic parades.44 For example, during
the New Years or Akitu Festival in Babylon, the statue of Marduk was
taken out of Marduks temple on the eighth day of the month of Nisan.
The Babylonians returned it in a triumphant procession, escorting it under
a golden canopy through a series of gates, on the eleventh day of the
month, which was the last day of the festival.45 The Babylonians and Assy-
rians believed that these statues were not mere symbols of their gods;
rather, the god was literally, physically present in a statue that had been
properly constructed and sanctified.46 Thus they did not view themselves
as parading sculptures around their cities; they believed they were parad-
ing the gods themselves.

44. A comprehensive study of these processions is Beate Pongratz-Leisten, Ina


ulmi rub. Die Kulttopographie und Ideologische Programmatik der Aktu-
Prozession in Babylonien und Assyrien im I. Jahrtausend v. Chr. (Mainz: Phillip
von Zabern Verlag, 1994).
45. See Mark E. Cohen, The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East (Bethesda,
Md.: CDL Press, 1993), esp. 493; Pongratz-Leisten, Ina ulmi rub, 75. Some
evidence suggests the procession out of the temple may have occurred on the
ninth day of Nisan (and variations no doubt entered the ritual during the
centuries for which we have evidence); see P.-R. Berger, Das Neujahrsfest
nach den Knigsinschriften des ausgenhenden babylonischen Reiches, in
Actes de la XVIIeme Recontre Assyriologique Internationale, ed. Andre Finet
(Brussels: Comite belge de recherches en Mesopotamie, 1970), 15657.
46. Many Akkadian texts assert that a statue of a god, once it has undergone the
mouth-washing or mouth-opening ritual, was, in fact, identical to the
god. See Thorkild Jacobsen, The Graven Image, in Ancient Israelite Religion:
Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, ed. P. D. Miller, P. D. Hanson, and S. D.
McBride (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 2329; Angelika Berlejung, Washing
the Mouth: The Consecration of Divine Images in Mesopotamia, in The Image
and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the
Ancient Near East, ed. Karel van der Toorn (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 4572;
Christopher Walker and Michael Dick, The Induction of the Cult Image in
Ancient Mesopotamia: The Mesopotamian Ms P Ritual, in Born in Heaven,
Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East, ed. Michael
Dick (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 55122.
510 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

Is it possible that Israelites somehow led YHWH out of the temple at


certain times? If so, what would that mean, given that biblical texts strictly
forbid making statues of YHWH?
Several other biblical passages speak of Gods movement into or out
of the temple or the tabernacle. In Ezek 9:3, 10:422 the prophet witnesses
the kavod (which he explicitly identifies with God) exiting the holy of
holies and flying from Jerusalem on top of a heavenly being called a
cherub. In Ezek 43:15 (a verse that shares vocabulary with our verse),
Ezekiel foresees that one day Gods kavod will enter the newly rebuilt
Jerusalem temple through a gate. These cases differ from a cultic proces-
sion like that occurring in the Babylonian Akitu festival, however, since
humans are not leading the kavod in its movements. Other biblical verses
do imagine humans accompanying the exit and entrance of God on top of
the ark, which is seen as a mobile throne for the divinity. According to
Num 10:3436, Ps 132:69, and 1 Sam 4:3, the ark could be taken out of the
sanctuary to accompany the Israelites in battle, and the kavod was located
on top of the ark.47 God departs the sanctuary to fight on behalf of Israel
and returns victorious to the temple or tabernacle. In light of the connec-
tion in these verses between Gods movements on the ark and warfare, it
is significant that Ps 24 speaks not only of Gods entry into the temple
gates (verses 7, 9) but also of God as a warrior (verse 8), of Gods armies
(evaot) in verse 10, of victory (edaqah) and salvation (yio) (verse 5),
andif only allusivelyof Gods defeating the sea and the forces of chaos
(verse 2).48 The connections between these other passages and our psalm
suggest that our psalm may have been recited when the ark was brought
back into the temple after battle. Given the pronounced tendency of
ancient Near Eastern religions to re-enact earlier events in ritual, it is also
likely that this psalm was recited in a re-enactment of an earlier victory or
victories. At such a re-enactment, the ark was led out of the temple so that

47. The ark and the cherubim above it served as Gods footstool and throne
respectively. See Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel.
An Enquiry Into the Character of Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the
Priestly School (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 23653; Roland de Vaux, Ark of
the Covenant and Tent of Reunion, in The Bible and the Ancient Near East
(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), 14748; Sommer, Bodies, 8081, 8485,
99100.
48. Ps 118:1920 and Isa 26:12 also use vocabulary similar to that in our verse
here. In both those verses, a speaker calls on the gates to open so that
victorious (or righteous) humans can enter the Temple.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 511

it could be paraded back in.49 Some Israelites may have believed that God
was invisibly but literally above the ark, just as the Babylonians believed
that a deity was in the statue they paraded around their cities. Other
Israelites (at a different temple? in a different century?) probably regarded
the ark as a mere symbol of Gods fiery presence, which in fact remained
in the holy of holies.
When might such a procession have taken place? More than one
answer is possible, since the precise use and setting of the psalm may have
changed over time. Nonetheless, it is striking that several features of this
psalm relate well to a New Years festival. New Years festivals in the
ancient Near East typically relate to the themes of creation and divine
kingship.50 Both themes are prominent in Ps 24 (in verses 12 and 710
respectively). This psalm would have been an appropriate one for a New
Years festival, which would have then included a cultic procession com-
parable to the one that occurred in the Babylonian New Years festival.
(Precisely when the New Years festival occurred may have varied with
time and place; many biblical scholars believe that the main New Years
festival in biblical times was Sukkot, on the fifteenth day of the seventh
month, while Rosh Hashanah served a preliminary function in preparing

49. On the likely presence of processionals in Israelite religion, see especially


Karel van der Toorn, The Babylonian New Year Festival: New Insights from
the Cuneiform Texts and Their Bearing on Old Testament Study, Congress
Volume Leuven, ed. J.A. Emerton, VTSup 43 (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 34041. On
the connection of this psalm with processions of the deity, see also Loretz,
Ugarit-Texte und Thronbesteigungspsalmen, 269. Cooper denies that Ps 24 refers
to the ark, since the psalm never specifically mentions it (Psalm 24:7
10, 41). For a good defense of the relevance of the ark here (based on the
strong verbal and ideational parallels with texts that definitely do involve the
ark), see Hunter, Psalms, 13738; Carmy, Psalm 24, 172, 175; and Radak to
verse 7 and 8, where he points out that the military vocabulary in verse 8 is
appropriate for the ark, since the ark goes out to war.
50. Eliade, Cosmos, 5162. The two themes, creation and divine kingship, are
linked for ancient Near Eastern cultures. By defeating the oceanic forces of
chaos, the hero deity established himself as king; immediately thereafter, he
proceeded to create the world. New Years festivals commemorated precisely
this sequence of events. On recent challenges to this understanding and a
response to them, see Benjamin D. Sommer, The Babylonian Akitu Festival:
Rectifying the King or Renewing the Cosmos? JANES 27 (2000): 8195.
512 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

the temple for ritual purification in advance of the Sukkot/New Years


festival.51)
If we are correct that Ps 24 originally was recited as part of a proces-
sional ritual, then current Jewish uses of this psalm are strikingly remini-
scent of ancient ones. Ps 24 accompanies the processional of the Torah
scroll back to the ark every Monday and Thursday morning, on Saturday
afternoons and at the morning service on festivals occurring on week-
days.52 Whereas many biblical texts regarded God as literally present
above the ark, Rabbinic Judaism regards the Torah scroll as a verbal
symbol of Gods commanding presence in the Jewish community. Ps 24,
then, serves in rabbinic liturgy as a song of Gods symbolic presence in the
communityjust as it served as a song of Gods literal presence in the
biblical temple.
The connection between the biblical and contemporary uses of the
psalm goes even further. Those Israelites who followed the theology of
Deuteronomy and Jeremiah (rather than the theology found in books such
as Leviticus, Numbers, Isaiah 133, and Ezekiel) rejected the notion that
Gods physical presence dwelt on earth. They insisted that God always
remained in heaven and only Gods name (em)a verbal symbol of
Gods presencewas inside the Jerusalem temple. 53 For them, any
procession such as those that probably accompanied Ps 24 at the temple
must have been seen as symbolic; God did not live on top of the ark, but
Gods words were inside it in the form of the tablets of the Ten Command-
ments (see Deut 10:15). In this regard, the contemporary rabbinic use of
the psalm is almost identical to a Deuteronomists understanding of the
use of the psalm in biblical times. For both Deuteronomy and Rabbinic
Judaism, Gods words replace Gods body: in places where other ancient
Near Eastern peoples used a statue that incarnated a god, and where some

51. Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israels Worship, trans. D.R. Ap-Thomas
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), 1:11830; Sarna, On the Book of Psalms, 13335.
52. Significantly, in synagogue liturgy the recitation of Ps 24 during the Torahs
processional is followed by Numbers 10:36 and Ps 132:910, which also refer
to the procession of the ark in biblical times.
53. See the classic treatments of this issue by Gerhard von Rad, Studies in
Deuteronomy, trans. David Stalker (London: SCM Press, 1953), 3744; Moshe
Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon,
1972), 191209; Mettinger, Dethronement, 4880. An especially fine summary of
the issue is found in Stephen Geller, Sacred Enigmas: Literary Religion in the
Hebrew Bible (London: Routledge, 1996), 39. See further Sommer, Bodies, 6268.
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 513

Israelites believed the kavod was located, the laws of Deuteronomy


repeatedly use a text from the Torah. (One can see this especially in Deute-
ronomys laws concerning mezuzah and tefillin. In ancient Near Eastern
religions, people would put statues of the gods in doorposts or they
would wear them on their own bodies; in Deuteronomy and Rabbinic
Judaism one places quotations from the Torah there instead.)54 Con-
sequently for both Deuteronomists and Rabbinic Jews, the meaning of the
cultic procession that accompanies Ps 24 (in the temple for the former and
in the synagogue for the latter) had to be refigured in purely symbolic
form. We note, in sum, a remarkable continuity between ancient Near
Eastern cultic processions such as those that likely occurred in the Jeru-
salem temple and Torah processions in synagogues up through the
present day. The former took place, and the latter take place, as people
sing Ps 24.55
The psalm is also recited in rabbinic liturgy as the psalm for Sunday,56
probably because Sunday was the first day of creation in Genesis 1 (Friday
was the last, followed by the Sabbath), and the first two verses mention
creation.57 Given the psalms themes of creation and divine kingship, it is
not surprising that it plays a role in the liturgy for the New Year season in
rabbinic and later Jewish liturgies. The psalm is quoted in the Malkhuyot
(kingship) section of the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah; it is recited by
Eastern Jews (though not Spanish and Portuguese Jews) on Rosh Hashanah
and Yom Kippur after the evening service and after the Musaf service. In
some Hasidic rites it is recited after the evening service on Rosh Hashanah.
Here again we find a parallel between its biblical and contemporary ritual
settings. A close study of this psalm suggests that the gulf between biblical

54. Concerning the extraordinary parallel between the uses of Torah texts in
Israel and of divine images elsewhere in the ancient Near East, see Karel van
der Toorn, The Iconic Book: Analogies Between the Babylonian Cult of
Images and the Veneration of the Torah, in The Image and the Book: Iconic
Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East,
ed. Karel van der Toorn (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 22848.
55. For another possible case of a remarkable continuity between Sukkot liturgy
and ancient Near Eastern literature, see Theodor Gaster, Seder Hoshanot in
Ras Shamra Texts, Tarbiz 8 (1937): 34044 [in Hebrew].
56. M. Tamid 7:4.
57. So Sarna, On the Book of Psalms, 121 and Hacham, Psalms, 1:132. This
reasoning is already explicit in b. Rosh Hashanah 31a, ARN A 5, and m.
Tamid 7:4 in the Cambridge ms.
514 BENJAMIN D . SOMMER

Israel and contemporary Judaism is sometimes much smaller than one


might initially think.

Parts and whole.


In the introduction we noted that this psalm has three parts. The first
deals with creation, focusing on Gods actions. The second discusses moral
behavior, highlighting humanitys actions. The third directs attention to
the relationship between God and humanity: humans acknowledge God
as king as God enters the temple. This third section displays the basic
theme of divine enthronement or coronation psalms (such as Pss 93 and
96). One could characterize the three sections, then, as follows:
Verses 12: Creation Subject: God
Verses 36: Moral behavior Subject: Humanity
Verses 710: Coronation Subject: Humanity and God
At the beginning of the psalm (and of the world), God is creator, and
at the end God is king. The crucial question of the psalm is: how does God
move from creator to king? God can be creator even when alone, but to be
king God must have subjects who obey and acclaim Him.58 The middle
section of the psalm provides the link between God as creator and as king:
God becomes king when humans become worthy to be His subjects.
Human behavior moves God from one status to the next.
We saw in the commentary to verse 2 that the predicate set it could be
understood as either a past tense or a description of an ongoing action;
God either made the world steady above the flux of the primordial ocean
in the past, or God continues to fix the world over the forces of disorder
into the present. In light of the middle section of the psalm, it becomes
evident that the second reading is preferable. God constantly becomes
king as chaos is defeated59 and humanity has a role in this process.
Through honest action, admirable thought, and sincere speech, humans
diminish primordial chaos. Through the opposite, people add to it,
making creation itself less firm and detracting from Gods status as king.60

58. As is explicitly stated in rabbinic literature; see Aggadat Shir Hashirim, ed.
Schechter, line 201, and Shir Hashirim Zua 1, end of siman 1.
59. Enthronement psalms typically stress that God becomes king in the present
moment; see Mowinckel, Psalms in Israels Worship, 1:1079.
60. The theme of Gods ongoing struggle to subdue chaos and humanitys role in
this struggle is prominent in the Bible and especially in the Book of Psalms.
See Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine
A COMMENTARY ON PSALM 24 515

In light of the psalms movement from part one to part three, the psalm
proves to be at once a song of the temple, a coronation psalm and a wis-
dom composition. It shows that human behavior generates the environ-
ment in which God can become king with an earthly home.

Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988). This theme, along with
its implied limitation of divine power, becomes even more central in both
Rabbinic Judaism and kabbalah; see Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 15699.