A pagan’s prayer of thanks (Psalm 116)


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Illustration: Some pagans used prayer beads, like a Catholic’s rosary

Many Biblical passages are in form similar to pagan texts, but the formal similarity only makes the differences in content more apparent. An Akkadian psalm from Ugarit (referred to by scholars as Ugartica 5.162) is outwardly similar to Biblical psalms of thanksgiving, such as Psalms 89 or 116. Like the writer of Psalm 116:3, the Akkadian psalmist described himself as being at death’s door (probably due to illness) and vividly portrayed how he was wasting away, unable to eat anything but his own tears (see 42:3). Like Psalm 116:8 or Jonah 2, the Akkadian poet ultimately celebrated the fact that his god had snatched him from the grave.

What is distinctive, however, is the manner in which the Akkadian psalmist sought help from his god via magic and ritual. He had surrounded himself by omen takers, who looked for favourable signs from incense clouds and the entrails of lambs. He depicted his brothers as having been drenched in blood and described them as being like possessed men (they practices self-mutilation in an attempt to compel their god to act; see 1 Kings 18:28-29). In contrast, although the Biblical psalmist spoke of making a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Psalm 116:17), there is no implication of manipulation of divine power through magic, nor is there the sense of frantic desperation that pervades the Akkadian text. The Biblical psalmist could even make the astonishing and profound statement, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (116:15).


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