Ugarit and the Bible

ASSIGNMENT: Read Coogan and Gordon; then read the following lectures.

1. Introduction.

The ancient Canaanite city-state of Ugarit is of utmost importance for those who study the Old Testament. The literature of the city and the theology contained therein go a very long way in helping us to understand the meaning of various Biblical passages as well as aiding us in deciphering difficult Hebrew words. Ugarit was at its political, religious and economic height around the 12th century BCE and thus its period of greatness corresponds with the entry of Israel into Canaan.

Why should people interested in the Old Testament want to know about this city and its inhabitants? Simply because when we listen to their voices we hear echoes of the Old Testament itself. Several of the Psalms were simply adapted from Ugaritic sources; the story of the flood has a near mirror image in Ugaritic literature; and the language of the Bible is greatly illuminated by the language of Ugarit. For instance, look at M. Dahood’s brilliant commentary on the Psalms in the Anchor Bible series for the necessity of Ugaritic for accurate Biblical exegesis. (N.B., for a more thorough discussion of the language of Ugarit, the student is advised to take the course titled “Ugaritic Grammar” offered by this institution).

In short, when one has well in hand the literature and theology of Ugarit, one is well on the way to being able to comprehend some of the most important ideas contained in the Old Testament. For this reason it is worthwhile that we pursue this topic.

2. The Discovery of Ugarit and the Ugaritic Texts.

In 1928 a group of French archaeologists journeyed with 7 camels, one donkey, and some burden bearers towards the tel known as Ras Shamra. After a week at the site they discovered a cemetery 150 meters from the Mediterranean Sea. In the graves they discovered Egyptian and Phoenician artwork and alabaster. They also found some Mycenean and Cypriot materials.

After the discovery of the cemetery they found a city and a royal palace about 1000 meters from the sea on a tel 18 meters high. The tel was called by the locals Ras Shamra which means “fennel hill”. There also Egyptian artifacts were discovered and dated to the 2nd millennium BCE.

The greatest discovery made at the site was a collection of tablets carved with (a then) unknown cuneiform script. In 1932 the identification of the site was made when some of the tablets were deciphered; the city was the ancient and famous site of Ugarit.

Ugarit experienced a very long history. A city was built on the site in the Neolithic period around 6000 BCE. The oldest written evidence of the city is found in some texts from the nearby city of Ebla written around 1800 BCE. At that time both Ebla and Ugarit were under Egyptian hegemony, which shows that the long arm of Egypt extended all along the west coast of the Mediterranean Sea (for Ugarit is located in modern day Syria roughly dead east of the NE coast of Cyprus on the coast of Syria). The population of Ugarit at that time was roughly 7635 people. The city of Ugarit continued to be dominated by the Egyptians through 1400 BCE.

All of the tablets found at Ugarit were written in the last period of its life (around 1300- 1200 BCE). The kings of this last and greatest period were:

1349 ‘Ammittamru I
1325 Niqmaddu II
1315 Arhalba
1291 Niqmepa 2
1236‘Ammitt1193- Niqmaddu III
1185 ‘Ammurapi

In the period 1200 - 1180 the city steeply declined and then mysteriously came to an end.

The texts which were discovered at Ugarit aroused interest because of their international flavor. That is, the texts were written in one of four languages; Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurritic and Ugaritic. The tablets were found in the royal palace, the house of the High Priest, and some private houses of evidently leading citizens.

These texts, as mentioned above, are very important for Old Testament study. The Ugaritic literature demonstrates that Israel and Ugarit shared a common literary heritage and a common linguistic lineage. They are, in short, related languages and literatures. We can thus learn very much about the one from the other. Our knowledge of the religion of Ancient Syria-Palestine and Canaan has been greatly increased by the Ugaritic materials and their significance cannot be overlooked. We have here, as it were, an open window on the culture and religion of Israel in its earliest period.

3. From the Literature of Ugarit to the Literature of the Bible.

The style of writing discovered at Ugarit is known as alphabetic cuneiform. This is a unique blending of an alphabetic script (like Hebrew) and cuneiform (like Akkadian); thus it is a unique blending of two styles of writing. Most likely it came into being as cuneiform was passing from the scene and alphabetic scripts were making their rise. Ugaritic is thus a bridge from one to the other and very important in itself for the development of both.

One of the most, if perhaps not the most, important aspect of Ugaritic studies is the assistance it gives in correctly translating difficult Hebrew words and passages in the Old Testament. As a language develops the meaning of words changes or their meaning is lost altogether. This is also true of the Biblical text. But after the discovery of the Ugaritic texts we gained new information concerning the meaning of archaic words in the Hebrew text.

One example of this is found in Proverbs 26:23. In the Hebrew text Mygys Psk is divided just as it is here. This has caused commentators quite a bit of confusion over the centuries, for what does “silver lips” mean? The discovery of the Ugaritic texts has helped us to understand that the word was divided incorrectly by the Hebrew scribe (who was as unfamiliar as we are with what the words were supposed to mean). Instead of the two words above, the Ugaritic texts lead us to divide the two words as Mygysps k which means “like silver”. This makes eminently more sense in context than the word mistakenly divided by the Hebrew scribe who was unfamiliar with the second word; so he divided into two words which he did know even though it made no sense.

Another example occurs in Ps 89:20. Here the word rz( is usually translated “help” but the Ugaritic word “gzr” means “young man” and if Psalm 89:20 is translated this way it is clearly more meaningful.

Besides single words being illuminated by the Ugaritic texts, entire ideas or complexes of ideas have parallels in the literature. For example, in Proverbs 9:1-18 wisdom and folly are personified as women. This means that when the Hebrew wisdom teacher instructed his students on these matters, he was drawing on material that was commonly known in the Canaanite environment (for Ugarit was Canaanite). In point of fact, KTU 1,7 VI 2-45 is nearly identical to Proverbs 9:1ff. (The abbreviation KTU stands for “Keilalphabetische Texte aus Ugarit”, the standard collection of this material. The numbers are what we might call the chapter and verse). KTU 1.114:2-4 says-

hklh. sh. lqs. ilm. tlhmn

ilm w tstn. tstnyn ‘d sb’

trt. ‘d. skr. y’.db .yrh

“Eat, o Gods, and drink,

drink wine till you are sated,

Which is very similar to Proverbs 9:5;

“Come, eat of my food and drink wine that I have mixed”.

Ugaritic poetry is very similar to Biblical poetry and is therefore very useful in interpreting difficult poetic texts. In fact, Ugaritic literature (besides lists and the like) is composed completely in poetic metre. Biblical poetry follows Ugaritc poetry in form and function. There is parallelism, qinah metre, bi and tri colas, and all of the poetic tools found in the Bible are found at Ugarit. In short the Ugaritic materials have a great deal to contribute to our understanding of the Biblical materials; especially since they predate any of the Biblical texts.

4. The Ugaritic Pantheon.

The prophets of the Old Testament rail against Baal, Asherah and various other gods on nearly every page. The reason for this is simple to understand; the people of Israel worshipped these gods along with, and sometimes instead of, Yahweh, the God of Israel. This Biblical denunciation of these Canaanite gods received a fresh face when the Ugaritic texts were discovered, for at Ugarit these were the very gods that were worshipped.

El was the chief god at Ugarit. Yet El is also the name of God used in many of the Psalms for Yahweh; or at least that has been the presupposition among pious Christians. Yet when one reads these Psalms and the Ugaritic texts one sees that the very attributes for which Yahweh is acclaimed are the same for which El is acclaimed. In fact, these Psalms were most likely originally Ugaritic or Canaanite hymns to El which were simply adopted by Israel, much like the American National Anthem was set to a beer hall tune by Francis Scott Key. El is called the “father of men”, “creator”, and “creator of the creation”. These attributes are also granted Yahweh by the Old Testament.

For instances, read KTU 1. 2 I 13-32 and compare it to many of the Psalms. Also, read Ps 82:1, 89:6-8mn!).

In 1 Kings 22:19-22 we read of Yahweh meeting with his heavenly council. This is the very description of heaven which one finds in the Ugaritic texts. For in those texts the “sons of god” are the sons of El.

Other deities worshipped at Ugarit were El Shaddai, El Elyon, and El Berith. All of these names are applied to Yahweh by the writers of the Old Testament. What this means is that the Hebrew theologians adopted the titles of the Canaanite gods and attributed them to Yahweh in an effort to eliminate them. If Yahweh is all of these there is no need for the Canaanite gods to exist! This process is known as assimilation.

Besides the chief god at Ugarit there were also lesser gods, demons, and goddesses. The most important of these lesser gods were Baal (familiar to all readers of the Bible), Asherah (also familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (the god of the sea) and Mot (the god of death). What is of great interest here is that Yam is the Hebrew word for sea and Mot is the Hebrew word for death! Is this because the Hebrews also adopted these Canaanite ideas as well? Most likely they did.

One of the most interesting of these lesser deities, Asherah, plays a very important role in the Old Testament. There she is called the wife of Baal; but she is also known as the consort of Yahweh! That is, among some Yahwists, Ahserah is Yahweh’s female counterpart! Inscriptions found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (dated between 850 and 750 BCE) say:

I bless you through Yahweh of Samaria,

and through his Asherah!

And at ‘El Qom (from the same period) this inscription:

Uriyahu, the king, has written this.

Blessed be Uriyahu through Yahweh,

and his enemies have been conquered

through Yahweh’s Asherah.

That Yahwists worshipped Asherah until the 3rd century before Christ is well known from the Elephantine Papyri. Thus, for many in ancient Israel, Yahweh, like Baal, had a consort. Although condemned by the prophets, this aspect of the popular religion of Israel was difficult to overcome and indeed among many was never overcome.

As had already been mentioned, one of the more important lesser deities at Ugarit was Baal. Baal is described as the “rider on the clouds” in KTU 1.3 II 40. Interestingly enough, this description is also used of Yahweh in Psalm 68:5.

In the Old Testament Baal is named 58 times in the singular and 18 times in the plural. The prophets protested constantly against the love affair the Israelites had with Baal (cf. Hosea 2:19, for example). The reason Israel was so attracted to Baal was that, first of all, some Israelites viewed Yahweh as a God of the desert and so when they arrived in Canaan they thought it only proper to adopt Baal, the god of fertility. As the old saying goes, “whose land, his god”. For these Israelites Yahweh was useful in the desert but not much help in the land.

There is one Ugaritic text which seems to indicate that among the inhabitants of Ugarit, Yahweh was viewed as another son of El. KTU 1.1 IV 14 says:

sm . bny . yw . ilt

“The name of the son of god, Yahweh.”

This text seems to show that Yahweh was known at Ugarit, though not as the Lord but as one of the many sons of El.

Among the other gods worshipped at Ugarit there are Dagon, Tirosch, Horon, Nahar, Resheph, Kotar Hosis, Shachar (who is the equivalent of Satan), and Shalem. The folks at Ugarit were also plagued by a host of demons and lesser gods. The people at Ugarit saw the desert as the place which was most inhabited by demons (and they were like the Israelites in this belief). KTU 1.102:15-28 is a list of these demons.

One of the most famous of the lesser deities at Ugarit was a chap named Dan’il. There is little doubt that this figure corresponds to the Biblical Daniel; while predating him by several centuries. This has led many Old Testament scholars to suppose that the Canonical prophet was modeled on him. His story is found in KTU 1.17 - 1.19.

Another creature which has ties to the Old Testament is Leviathan. Isaiah 27:1 and KTU 1.5 I 1-2 describe this beast. Also see Ps 74:13-14 and 104:26.

5. Worship at Ugarit and in Ancient Israel

In Ugarit, as in Israel, the cult played a central role in the lives of the people. One of the central Ugaritic myths was the story of Baal’s enthronement as king. In the story, Baal is killed by Mot (in the Fall of the year) and he remains dead until the Spring of the year. His victory over death was celebrated as his enthronement over the other gods (cf. KTU 1.2 IV 10)

The Old Testament also celebrates the enthronement of Yahweh (cf. Ps 47:9, 93:1, 96:10, 97:1 and 99:1). As in the Ugaritic myth, the purpose of Yahweh’s enthronement is to re-enact creation. That is, Yahweh overcomes death by his recurring creative acts.

The major difference between the Ugaritic myth and the Biblical hymns is that Yahweh’s kingship is eternal and uninterrupted while Baal’s is interrupted every year by his death (in the Fall). Since Baal is the god of fertility the meaning of this myth is quite easy to understand. As he dies, so the vegetation dies; and when he is reborn so is the world. Not so with Yahweh; for since he is always alive he is always powerful (Cf. Ps 29:10).

Another of the more interesting aspects of Ugaritic religion which has a parallel in Hebrew religion was the practice of “weeping for the dead”. KTU 1.116 I 2-5, and KTU 1.5 VI 11-22 describe the worshippers weeping over the departed in the hopes that their grief will move the gods to send them back and that they will therefore live again. The Israelites also participated in this activity; though the prophets condemned them for doing so (cf. Is 22:12, Eze 7:16, Mi 1:16, Jer 16:6, and Jer 41:5). Of particular interest in this connection is what Joel 1:8-13 has to say, so I quote it in full:

Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth. The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. The fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails. Be dismayed, you farmers, wail, you vinedressers, over the wheat and the barley; for the crops of the field are ruined. The vine withers, the fig tree droops. Pomegranate, palm, and apple tree -- all the trees of the field are dried up; surely, joy withers away among the people.

Yet another interesting parallel between Israel and Ugarit is the yearly ritual known as the sending out of the “scapegoats”; one for god and one for a demon. The Biblical text which relates this procedure is Leviticus 16:1-34. In this text a goat is sent into the wilderness for Azazel (a demon) and one is sent into the wilderness for Yahweh. This rite is known as a “eliminatory” rite; that is, a contagion (in this case communal sin) is placed on the head of the goat and it is sent away. In this way it was believed that (magically) the sinful material was removed from the community.

KTU 1.127 relates the same procedure at Ugarit; with one notable difference -- at Ugarit a woman priest was involved in the rite as well.

The rituals performed in Ugaritic worship involved a great deal of alcohol and sexual promiscuity. Worship at Ugarit was essentially a drunken orgy in which priests and worshippers indulged in excessive drinking and excessive sexuality. This because the worshippers were attempting to convince Baal to send rain on their crops. Since rain and semen were seen in the ancient world as the same thing (as both produced fruit), it simply makes sense that participants in fertility religion behaved this way. Perhaps this is why in Hebrew religion the priests were forbidden to partake of wine while performing any rituals and also why females were barred from the precincts!! (cf. Hos 4:11-14, Is 28:7-8, and Lev 10:8-11).

6. The Cult of the Dead at Ugarit

In Ugarit two stela (stone monuments) have been discovered which demonstrate that the people there worshipped their dead ancestors. (Cf. KTU 6.13 and 6.14). The Prophets of the Old Testament likewise protested against this behavior when it occured among the Israelites. Ezekiel denounces such behavior as godless and pagan (in 43:7-9).

Yet the Israelites sometimes participated in these pagan practices, as 1 Sam 28:1-25 clearly shows.

These dead ancestors were known among both the Canaanites and Israelites as “Rephaim”. As Isaiah notes, (14:9ff),

Sheol beneath is stirred up

to meet you when you come;

it rouses the Rephaim to greet you,

all who were leaders of the earth;

it raises from their thrones

all who were kings of the nations.

All of them will speak

and say to you:

“You too have become as weak as we!

You have become like us!”

Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,

and the sound of your harps;

maggots are the bed beneath you,

and worms are your covering.

KTU 1.161 likewise describes the Rephaim as the dead. When one goes to the grave of an ancestor, one prays to them; feeds them; and brings them an offering (like flowers); all in hopes of securing the prayers of the dead.

The prophets despised this behavior; they saw it as a lack of trust in Yahweh, who is God of the living and not god of the dead. So, instead of honoring dead ancestors, Israel honored their live ancestors (as we clearly see in Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16, and Lev 19:3).

One of the more interesting aspects of this ancestor worship at Ugarit was the “festive meal” that the worshipper shared with the depearted, called the “marzeach” (cf. Jer 16:5// with KTU 1.17 I 26-28 and KTU 1.20-22). This was, to the dwellers of Ugarit, what the Passover was to Israel and the Lord’s Supper to the Church.

7. International Relations and Seamanship in Ugarit

International diplomacy certainly was a central activity among the inhabitants of Ugarit; for they were a sea-going people (like their Phoenecian neighbors). Akkadian was the language used in international diplomacy at that time and there are a number of documents from Ugarit in this language.

The King was the chief diplomat and he was completely in charge of international relationships (cf KTU 3.2:1-18, KTU 1.6 II 9-11). Compare this with Israel (at I Sam 15:27) and you will see that they were very similar in this respect. But, it must be said, the Israelites were not interested in the Sea and were not boat builders or sailors in any sense of the word.

The Ugaritic god of the sea, Baal Zaphon, was the patron of sailors. Before a journey Ugaritic sailors made offerings and prayed to Baal Zaphon in hopes of a safe and profitable journey (cf. KTU 2.38, and KTU 2.40). Psalm 107 was borrowed from Northern Canaan and reflects this attitude towards sailing and trade. When Solomon needed sailors and ships he turned to his northern neighbors for them. Cf. I Kings 9:26-28 and 10:22.

8. Art in Canaan and Israel

In many of the Ugaritic texts El was described as a bull, as well as a human form.

The Israelites borrowed art, architecture, and music from their Canaanite neighbors. But they refused to extend their art to images af Yahweh (cf. Ex 20:4-5). God commanded the people to make no image of himself; and did not forbid every kind of artistic expression. In fact, when Solomon constructed the temple he had it engraved with a great number of artistic forms. That there was a bronze serpent in the temple as well is well known.

The Israelites did not leave as many artisitic pieces behind as did their Canaanite neighbors. And what they did leave behind show traces of being heavily influenced by these Canaanites.

9. Conclusion

Since the discovery of the Ugaritic texts, study of the Old Testament has never been the same. We now have a much clearer picture of Canaanite religion than we ever had before. We also understand the Biblical literature itself much better as we are now able to clarify difficult words due to their Ugaritic cognates.

The student who is interested in the earliest, and therfore formative, period of Israel’s history are heartily encouraged to read Niels Lemche’s “Early Israel”.