Did Ancient Near Eastern Writing Influence the Composition of the Bible? Psalm 1 and Amenemope

Personal updates are in the works…coming out very shortly, but in the meantime I invite you to consider the following:

Can the inspired scriptures of God be based upon pagan thought??   If these writings preceded the Biblical account, did they influence the composition of the Bible, and if so, how, and to what extent?  In comparing Psalm 1:1-4 with a section from chapter 4 of the writings of Egyptian teacher Amenemope, it appears likely that this text did influence the writing of the Psalm. Common themes such as the advantages and security of wise living are demonstrated as well as the unique message of God’s sovereign protection and blessing on the righteous contained in the Biblical passage.

The goals of such comparative study are to comprehend more clearly the underlying conceptual culture of the ancient world as well as to gain a broader understanding of the terminology and genre distinctions of this period.  Once similarities and differences between various writings have been carefully examined and outlined, interpretive contributions can be made in terms of the relationship and influence of the parallel texts with the Biblical narrative.

Among the most well known of the psalms is Psalm 1, with its beautiful imagery of the righteous man as a tree planted by the water.  This psalm promises blessing for those who obey the commands of the Lord.  The benefits of avoiding sin and the fruits of doing right are extolled in compelling fashion, with the dire warning of eradication as worthless chaff underscoring the evils of rejecting the law of God and pursuing evil.

Amenemope was an Egyptian teacher dated by Matthews and Benjamin to 1250-1000 B.C.  A highly respected man of wisdom, his teachings were deeply influential to the Egyptian and other ancient worldviews.  Proverbs in particular bears strong similarities with some of his writings, particularly in terms of structure and theme.  Proclaiming the virtues of wisdom in pithy sayings is a feature of both, as well as a division into 30 units (see http://www.touregypt.net/instructionofamenemope.htm).

The following lays out the two passages under examination in parallel fashion:[1]

The genre of both is broadly considered wisdom literature/poetry.  The function of both passages was similar within each indigenous culture.  Warning of the dangers of foolish activity and praising the actions of the wise by the use of archetypal and common symbolism, often taken from natural or agricultural lexicons, served a pedagogical and religious role.  Encouraging the worship of the Lord and enjoyment of His law and discouraging intimacy with the culture of sin were important and ongoing tasks in the Israelite community.

The exact details concerning the date and composer of this psalm are unknown.  No explanation of the author or situation of its writing were appended to this psalm, as with some of the others.  One possible dating scheme is as follows: “The Psalms were written over an extended period of time, most probably coming between 1000 and 400 B.C. …  Book I (Ps 1-41) is Davidic, compiled prior to his death.”[2]  Egypt being a major cultural and economic force at this time, connected across the ancient world and particularly throughPalestine by well-traveled trade routes, the potential for Israelite reception of Egyptian teaching is likely.  With the dates given by Matthews and Benjamin accepted as accurate, the time period for Amenemope precedes that of Solomon and the writing of Proverbs.  Given this example of Egyptian influence upon Israelite religious writings, it seems likely that this process occurred for Psalm 1, although the time periods of composition could possibly be very close.

With the assumption, then, that the psalm was composed after the Egyptian text, the section from Amenemope has exerted obvious influence upon the first chapter of Psalms.  The primary motif is that of a tree, and how this image describes the situation of the righteous.  The location of the tree’s planting is emphasized in both as indicative of the tree’s health.  The wording used in the description, “like a tree planted…” is identical in these English translations.  Both mention the tree yielding its fruit, and either flourishing or prospering.

The author of Psalm 1 did, however, make some divergence from Amenemope.  Amenemope first described the representative fool with the symbolism of a tree indoors.  After initially flourishing, the tree’s growth is halted and it is thrown out and eventually burned.  The order is reversed in the psalm, and the wicked are described after the righteous.  The fate of the wicked, however, is very similar.  The metaphorical tree is also physically removed, by wind instead of water, and compared to chaff instead of to trash.

The first two verses of Psalm 1 contain significant material not found in Amenemope, and this forms the theological foundation.  The term ‘wicked’ does not appear in this Egyptian writing, and the term ‘fools’ is less theologically weighted or morally evaluative.  The contrast in Amenemope is between the wise and the foolish, as in much of Proverbs.  Psalms 1, however, lauds the righteous man above the wicked, making the comparison in language of moral character and compliance with the law of the Lord.

Aside from the wicked, other significant topics found in Psalm 1 not from Amenemope are sinners, scoffers, and the law of the Lord.  The centerpiece of the psalm is the delight in the Lord’s law.  Sin is held up as a danger, and keeping the company of sinners as corrupting honest men.  The practical import of the psalm takes on a much broader spectrum of human activity in linking obedience to all the commands of God found in the law, as opposed to the much narrower warning against foolish living in the Egyptian context.

Given the verbal parallels and structural similarity, it seems likely Psalms 1 was adapted in part from Amen-em-ope.  The image of a tree was selected as conveying the embodiment of God’s loving nurture and protection.  This symbol could have also been a more universal one across the ancient world, with this metaphor being a common one.  Other literature of the time did share characteristics of Psalms and Proverbs: “In any of the ancient Near Eastern societies the gods were considered responsible for maintaining justice and were concerned about justice in the human realm.”[3]  The significance of this passage comes in the differences in the Davidic portrayal of God’s role in human affairs.

In interpreting the psalm, the main point is that of God’s blessing and reward for holiness and delight in His perfectly holy law.  The progression from walking to standing to sitting implies further acceptance and enmeshment with the environment of wickedness, and thus presents a warning against even passing associating with those people and situations.  This avoidance is not presented in a solely negative prohibition but rather with a positive commendation of joyous time spent instead in the contemplation of the law of the Lord.  The wicked are deprecated to the status of useless chaff, which when harvesting wheat was the portion removed by tossing the whole plant up into the wind, which would then blow away the lighter chaff from the rest of the wheat.

In considering the resemblance with Amenemope, the basic interpretation of Psalm 1 does not change.  This does not undermine the value of the psalm as divine revelation or as normative teaching.  The author did not adjust the message to fit cross cultural norms, but rather appropriated standard imagery in expressing the meaning.  In this particular parallel all the major theological terms were not borrowed, but rather particular to the Israelite context.  Readers from varied locations of that time and from our current time also can appreciate the metaphor of the tree and give thanks to God for His constant goodness and provision for His people.

A related post is https://davidbawks.wordpress.com/2009/01/16/contextualization/


[1] V. H. Matthews and D. C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997), 276.

[2] Peter Craigie, Psalms 1-50 Word Bible Commentary V. 19 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher’s, 1983), 58.

[3] John H. Walton, et. al., eds. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 491.

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