In this post, I’ll be looking at Tryggve Mettinger’s discussion of critiques of Sigmund Mowinckel in In Search of God.
A significant element of Sigmund Mowinckel’s interpretation of the Psalms was the autumn New Year’s festival, which was about the enthronement of the LORD as king. According to Mowinckel, the Israelite New Year’s festival had three elements: “(a) the chaos battle and creation of the world, (b) the battles with the enemies of Zion, and (c) the Lord’s accession to the throne” (page 120). For Mowinckel, the Israelite New Year’s festival was like the Babylonian New Year’s festival, “which diverse archaeological finds had made accessible”, and which focused on the god’s defeat of chaos before becoming king. In a sense, it also resembled the later Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah, which concerned such themes as God’s kingship, creation, and “the final judgment” (page 119).
Mettinger states that continental (which I take to be the continent of Europe) and U.S. biblical scholarship had problems with Mowinckel for at least three reasons. First of all, Karl Barth’s theology was influential since the 1930’s, and that tended to marginalize “comparisons with other ancient religions” (page 120). The festivals, therefore, were taken to be about particular features of Israelite salvation history, such as the Exodus and the Covenant—as we see in Gerhard Von Rad’s work. By contrast, Mettinger (in defending Mowinckel) affirms that the festival focused on the chaos battle and creation, “while neither the exodus nor the covenant played any important part in the festival in pre-exilic Jerusalem” (page 121). Mettinger also states that the festival focused on the “battle against the enemies of Zion and the judgment of the peoples (the point of departure for OT eschatology)”, and the “enthronement of the Lord, which was probably realized as a procession in which the ark was led up to the temple (cf. Pss 24 and 47)” (page 121).
Second, Mowinckel’s opponents felt that Mowinckel’s scenario “subjected YHWH to the cyclical course of the dying and rising god” (page 120). They thought that the festival focused on such themes as the covenant and “the election of Zion and of the Davidic line”, not YHWH dying and rising in a natural cycle. And, indeed, there were people who developed Mowinckel’s ideas in the direction of applying the festival to the dying and rising god. Geo Widengren, for example, affirmed that the dying and rising god was “a central part of the festival of YHWH’s enthronement” (Mettinger’s summary on part 120). (According to Mettinger, Mowinckel’s ideas were more popular in England and Scandinavia than in mainland Europe and the United States.) But Mowinckel did not believe this. And there’s no evidence that the Babylonian New Year’s festival was even about the dying and rising god. Essentially, scholars combined two texts in their attempt to describe the Babylonian festival, but, according to Peter Welten, “the texts in question did not belong to the ritual texts of the New Year festival, nor did they necessarily characterize Marduk as a dying and rising god” (Mettinger’s summary on page 120).
Third, while Mowinckel affirmed that the expression “YHWH malak” meant “Yahweh has become king”, which implies a New Year’s festival, some of Mowinckel’s critics thought that it meant “Yahweh is king,” which implies, not that Yahweh has become king after defeating chaos, but that he always is king. Mettinger acknowledges that “Both translations are philologically possible” (page 121). But Mettinger states that the expression “malak YHWH” tends to mean “Yahweh has become king”, as one can see in such passages as II Samuel 15:10; I Kings 1:11; Isaiah 24:23; and Micah 4:7. This expression occurs in Psalm 47:8(9) and Isaiah 52:7. For Mettinger, critics’ attempts to account for passages in which “malak YHWH” means “YHWH has become king” are forced. Mettinger agrees with Mowinckel, therefore, that ancient Israel had a New Year’s festival in which the LORD was declared to have become king.