Ugaritic Literature as an Aid to Understanding the Hebrew Bible
The discovery of Ugaritic literature greatly increased our understanding of the pagan world within which Israelite Religion developed.
In 1928, a Syrian peasant accidentally ploughed up a flagstone not far from Lataquia on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. The flagstone turned out to be part of an ancient burial chamber. Eventually the French Bureau of Antiquities, in Damascus, got wind of the discovery and excavations were undertaken which, over several decades, uncovered the Middle to Late Bronze Age city of Ugarit; its palaces; its temples; its works of art; and, most importantly, its archives.
Before moving on to Ugarit’s language and literature, we will outline the history of Syria-Palestine in general and see where Ugarit fits into the overall picture.
2. Syro-Palestinian History to the Emergence of Ancient Israel
The pre-Hellenistic (i.e. to 332 BCE) history of Syria-Palestine is much less understood than that of Egypt and Mesopotamia, not because there is less to know, nor because literacy was unknown, but because writing was recorded on papyrus and wood which decay rapidly in the climate of the settled areas of Syria-Palestine. On the other hand, the civilizations in Mesopotamia used almost indestructible clay tablets from c. 3000 BCE almost up to the Christian era. Hence, we have massive numbers of contracts, personal letters, school practice tablets, epics, omen tablets etc. from Mesopotamia. These enable us to examine subjects as varied as language, diseases, inflation, ethnic changes, theology and history. In Egypt, the writing media tended to be papyrus and temple walls. Both of these can survive thousands of years in the Egyptian climate. The literary data from ancient Egypt, while not as wide and varied as that from Mesopotamia, is still relatively plentiful.
The situation is very different for the literate societies of Syria-Palestine, lying between Egypt and Mesopotamia, including Ancient Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, references to writing are frequent and literacy is often taken for granted. The Hebrew Bible itself is clearly a remnant of a much wider literature, yet all the inscriptions from, say 1200 BCE to 300 BCE found in Israel, probably the most excavated country in the world, would scarcely cover one or two closely printed pages. The bulk of these inscriptions are on ostraca, i.e. notes written on pieces of broken pottery using water-soluble ink which only good luck has saved from the elements. Of course, we do have the Hebrew Bible itself. However, we must remember, that any preserved document, such as the Hebrew Bible, is
preserved precisely because some group considers it, for whatever reason, to be extraordinarily important. Thus, such a document, requiring huge efforts to recopy and preserve, would certainly not be typical of the generality of the documents that existed at the time of its creation. Also, the Hebrew Bible was authored, edited and redacted over a long period of time by various groups is likely to give an inaccurate picture of the period that might be covered by a given narrative.
On the accompanying table, is an outline of Syro-Palestinian history from the Early Bronze Age until the Arab Invasions. Note –
1) two major discontinuities occurred before the time of King David:
1) The collapse or destruction, at the end of the third millennium BCE, of the Early Bronze Age urban culture. Some scholars assume that this is linked with a postulated Amorite nomad invasion or massive inflow of population from the Syrian Desert. If Abraham was a historic figure, he might have been part of this population movement.
2) The overrunning of almost the whole Near East by various groups about 1200 BCE. Among these were likely the Israelites.
2) These disruptions affected more or less the whole Fertile Crescent including Egypt.
The Early Israelites probably emerged, probably the coalescing of: (a) some immigrant elements bringing the worship of Yahweh, Egyptian and Aramean traditions; and (b) disaffected Canaanite groups. The first Israelite settlements were in the almost unoccupied hill country. As the Israelites consolidated they captured, and usually destroyed, Canaanite city-states when they could. At times these efforts were aided by divisions, and even uprisings, within Canaanite society. King David was able to absorb the remaining Canaanite enclaves by about 1000 BCE. The Israelites thus lived, for centuries, side by side with the Canaanite Late Bronze Age cities and their populations.
3. Synthesis and Syncretism – Israel’s Response to Canaanite Culture
Since the Israelites had little experience in governing and lacked a higher culture, in a literary and artistic sense, they borrowed.
The united Israelite kingdom under Solomon borrowed its administrative system and the Wisdom tradition of education administrators from the Egyptians. A “smoking gun” is found in the biblical Book of Proverbs which probably started out as a Wisdom textbook. Proverbs 22:17-24:22 “…is modeled on an Egyptian work, The Instructions of Amen-em-ope. This may have been composed as early as the thirteenth century B.C., but was still being copied centuries later and may well have been studied during his training by an Israelite scribe of the prophetic period.”
The Israelites appropriated their literary and artistic higher culture from the Canaanites. The channel was either the scribes, architects and artists of local cities such as Jerusalem, whose Jebusite-Canaanite population remained in the city after it became the Israelite capital, or from the Phoenician cities of present-day Lebanon whose Canaanite culture flourished unbroken from the Middle Bronze age until Hellenistic times.
The adoption of the Egyptian administrative system, and its cultural values, may have led to greater stratification in Israelite society, a deliberate distancing of the rulers from the ruled, the splitting of the kingdom after the death of Solomon and exacerbated the social problems denounced by some of the prophets. However, some of these processes were simply intrinsic to the institutionalization of a state.
The cultural interaction with the Canaanites (see Israelite Religion to Judaism: the Evolution of the Religion of Israel) was even more problematic. For one thing, the Israelites lived cheek-by-jowl with the Canaanites for centuries. They spoke the same language and, indeed, much of the Israelite population may have been Canaanite by origin.
When the royal palace of Ugarit was uncovered, a large number of cuneiform tablets were found. Some were in the known languages of the Bronze Age. Most, e.g. Akkadian and Sumerian were written in known cuneiform writing system which involves hundreds of different signs. However, there were many tablets and inscriptions in a totally unknown cuneiform consisting of only 30 signs. This number is far too low to allow it to represent a syllabic system let alone a mixed logographic-syllabic system such as ancient Akkadian or modern Japanese. The system had to be phonetic with each sign standing for one or two phonemes. This writing system was the oldest alphabetic system ever discovered! Within a year, two scholars working independently had cracked the alphabet and language through using some brilliant assumptions and deductions and much hard work.
These tablets revealed, to the incredulous eyes of the epigraphers, was a literature written down in about 1375 BCE but much older in origin. This literature described the exploits of the Canaanite gods, known from the Hebrew Bible, in the form of great epic cycles. Among the interesting revelations is that, in the words of Pfeiffer (p. 57)-
Many of the sacrifices mentioned in the Ugaritic texts have names which are identical to those described in the book of Leviticus. Ugaritic texts speak of the Burnt Offering, the Whole Burnt Offering, the Trespass Offering, the Offering for Expiation of the Soul; the Wave Offering, the Tribute Offering, the First Fruits Offering, the Peace Offering, and the New Moon Offering. The term “offering without blemish” also appears in the Ugaritic literature.
Before discussing the detailed points of comparison, we should mention 4 general points of interest:
1) Up until now we have had only the Israelite view of Canaanite religion. The authors-editors-redactors of the Bible loathed and denounced Canaanite Religion not least because the common Israelite people had been attracted by it. One can imagine how accurate a picture one can get of any complex cultural phenomenon if the only description available is that provided by vitriolic attacks of the propaganda of a mortal enemy.
2) Now, Ugaritic literature has provided us with the point of view of scribes and poets who were proponents of the Canaanite cult. This, for the first time, enables scholars to contrast and compare Israelite and Canaanite religious and moral values, ceremonies etc. However, the Ugaritic material cannot be used uncritically because:
Ø Ugarit was a cosmopolitan state with many ethnic groups. We cannot know to what extent the religious texts reflect the indigenous culture uninfluenced by foreign cultures. By contrast, the Israelites settled in isolated inland regions of Canaan where foreign influences would be minimal.
Ø Ugarit was far north of the areas settled by Israel and so might have had somewhat different religious traditions; and,
Ø The Ugaritic religious literature might be a poor, or idealized, guide to actual belief and practice. This is particularly true because much of the most interesting material is elevated mythological poetry which may well conflate and harmonize oral traditions coming from different periods and regions which may reflect varying social, political and religious realities
However, even with all these provisos, Ugaritic literature still greatly advances our knowledge of Canaanite cult and culture.
5. Ugaritic Literature
It is clear that Ugaritic and early biblical Hebrew poetry share a common literary tradition. They use the same poetic techniques and even share the same fixed pairing of words in parallelism. On the basis of careful study of Ugaritic poetry it has become possible to distinguish early and successfully archaized biblical poetry, on the one hand, from later non-archaizing or sporadically archaizing biblical poetry on the other. Thus it is now clear that Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea, fits all the criteria for a very early poem – perhaps as early as the time of the Exodus. When we come to examine the hymns of the Dead Sea Sect (first century BCE to first century CE), however, it becomes clear that the ancient Canaanite poetic traditions had atrophied. We can create the scenario that might have occurred:
Ø Israelites accept the Canaanite poetic tradition which is then maintained in the royal scribal schools;
Ø With the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (587 BCE) knowledge of the tradition declines; and,
Ø With Alexander’s conquest (332 BCE), and the subsequent Hellenization of Syro-Palestinian higher culture, the whole tradition atrophies.
The three key benefits afforded us by Ugaritic literature are:
i. It offers us an independent view into the Canaanite poetic tradition in a form similar to the one in which it was adopted by Israel’s earliest poets. We thus can understand some aspects of early biblical poetry probably better than they have been understood since Pre-Hellenistic times.
ii. I would like to stress, however, that by knowing the original nature of the higher culture adopted and adapted by the early Israelites, we can better understand the drastically different religious outlook that the biblical authors expressed using the stock phraseology of Canaanite literature.
iii. It extends our knowledge of a sister language of the Early Canaanite language out of which Hebrew developed. This offers lexical resources for helping to define rare words in Early Biblical Hebrew.
A Few Gods from the Ugaritic Pantheon with Special Relevance to the Hebrew Bible
“…El, (was) the ancestral deity of the Semites. (“El” appears also (in Arabia) under the augmentative form “Ilah,” who’s plural of majesty is the Hebrew “Elohim”)…. The names ending in ‘ēl and in ‘ilah are more numerous in the various proto-Arabic dialects than those in honor of any other deity. Taken as a whole, they are to be considered as survivals, for it has been proved that they were preponderant in ancient Akkadian and in proto-Aramaic. Since the word ‘ēl corresponds to the word god, it has been rightly concluded that the proto-Semites invoked only El. In fact, if the word god had applied to various deities, the personal names in ‘ēl would have had an equivocal meaning. It is legitimate to translate El as god but this practical monotheism does not imply a clear awareness that the gods adored by neighbouring peoples did not exist.”
Cross wrote, in Canaanite myth and Hebrew epic p. 43 “In Akkadian and Amorite religion as also in Canaanite, El frequently plays the role of “god of the father,” the social deity who governs the tribe or league, often bound to the league with kinship or covenant ties.”
El seems to have been pushed into the background, in most areas, by other deities: thorough most of Canaan by Baal-Haddad the god of the weather, fertility and war; in northern Arabia by astral deities (e.g. Şalam (moon god) Ilat (feminine form of ‘ilah i.e. El the goddess Venus), Athar (Morning Star); and in Mesopotemia the Sumerian religion largely displaced earlier Semitic forms leading to a pantheon peopled by nature and astral deities with an increasing role being played by national gods such as Ashur and Marduk.
Twice, at least, El was lifted out of the dust of obscurity to be used as the name of the eternal, exclusive, unique, all-powerful God of monotheistic religions. This required that El be shorn of his consorts, children, peers, sexuality and many unedifying characteristics. The first occasion, was when the Israelites identified him with their God YHWH, appropriating a number of Canaanite El’s titles or epithets, as part of the process of developing the monotheism of the Torah. Then, much later, under Jewish and Christian influence, Muhammad declared El, under his Arabic designation, Allah, to be the one true God thus founding Islam.
In the Ugaritic literature El:
- Is the greatest of all the gods with full ultimate authority though he tends to sit back and let other gods, especially Baal, take the spotlight;
- is the creator of all things;
- Sexually fathered the other gods who participate, under El’s headship in the Divine Assembly;
- El’s epithets or descriptions include: Bull, Father of Men, Holy, Ancient, Merciful, Supreme Judge, guardian of the cosmic order, Kindly One and Compassionate. Ugaritic El can be drunken and, though he copulates freely with numerous females, his consort is Asherah.
- He is represented as an aged man. El wore bull’s horns, the symbol of strength, and was usually depicted as seated.
“The common identity shared by El and Yahweh is impressive…. In the various texts El and Yahweh were both portrayed as 1) father figures, 2) judges, 3) compassionate and merciful, 4) revealing themselves through dreams, 5) capable of healing those who are sick, 6) dwelling in a cosmic tent. 7) dwelling over the great cosmic waters or at the source of the primordial rivers, which is also on top of a mountain, 8) favourable to the widow 9) kings in the heavenly realm exercising authority over the other gods, who may be called ‘sons of gods’, 10) worrior deities who led the other gods in battle, 11) creator deities, 12) aged and venerable in appearance, and most significantly, 13) capable of guiding the destinies of people in the social arena.” Gnuse, Robert Karl, No other gods : emergent monotheism in Israel, Sheffield, Eng. : Sheffield Academic Press, c1997. p. 193
- Baal is a son of El. His name (meaning – lord, owner, husband) is the normal Ugaritic-Canaanite epithet for the Canaanite rain god Haddu or Haddad (probably meaning “thunderer”) and hence, is the god of rain and fertility as well as being a war god.
- Baal is not a creator, like El, but is the preserver and giver of fertility (cf. Vishnu in Hinduism);
- Baal is almost El’s prime minister. He is the executive of the divine assembly. Baal is the champion of divine order against chaos. Lightening is his weapon, and he can be found in storms and thunder;
- When Baal falls into the hands of Mot, the god of death, there is drought and sterility, growth ceases. With his rescue, by his consort, rains return and vegetation is returned to the earth;
- In the beginning of all things, Baal-Haddad warred with and conquered Yamm (Sea), and so brought the unruly waters of Chaos under divine authority and control.
- Baal was the main god worshiped at Ugarit and, apparently, in many areas of Canaan;
- Baal is always paired with a female sister-wife whose name varied with place and time – Anat (at Ugarit), Ashtart (paired with the vowels of boshet=shame to make the artificial name Ashtoreth in the Bible) or Asherah (in the Bible the Asherah is either the consort of Baal or a cult pole which may stand for the goddess or fertility).
- Baal’s consort, whatever her name, had 3 characteristics:
- Sexual lust;
- Fecundity; and,
- Being a bloody goddess of war e.g. Anat, at Ugarit, wading up to her thighs in the blood of her enemies.
- Baal’s epithets include Mighty and Rider of the Clouds.
- ‘Baal’s land’, that is to say, land where cultivation depends on the activity of the god manifests in the autumn and winter rains. The term Baal-land as distinct from irrigated land was used in Mishnaic Hebrew (2nd century CE) and has survived down to the present day in Muslim.
Goddess of love and war. Sister/wife of Baal. Anat often aids Baal in his battles and takes his part in defeat. (cf. Goddess Durga-Parvati-Lalita in Hinduism).
Baal is killed by Mot (in the autumn) and he remains dead until the spring. His victory over death was celebrated as his enthronement over the other gods. It depicts the prevailing order of things as the result of struggles among the gods–successive bids for power in which Yamm and Mot are confined to their present bounds and Baal and Anat (associated with fertility and military prowess, respectively) prevail. Having descended into the underworld and survived Death, Baal embodies the assertiveness and continuity of life.
Yam was the god of primordial chaos and Baal’s enemy. Before the great combat with Baal Yam sent emissaries to the Assembly of the Gods demanding tribute to include his receiving Baal as a slave. Baal drove the emissaries from the assembly hall thus opening the war.
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Assmann, Jan, Moses the Egyptian : the memory of Egypt in western monotheism,
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BS 580 .M6 A79 1997
Athanassiadi, Polymnia and Frede, Michael editors, Pagan monotheism in late antiquity, Oxford : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
Avishur, Yitzhak, Studies in Hebrew and Ugaritic psalms; [translated from the Hebrew]
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Bronner, Leah, The stories of Elijah and Elisha as polemics against baal worship.
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Cohen and Troeltsch : ethical monotheistic religion and theory of culture / by Wendell S. Dietrich.
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BL 65 .C8 D54 1986
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Day, John, Yahweh and the gods and goddesses of Canaan, Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
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Kampen : Pharos, 1995. BS 1192.6 .T75 1995
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GRAY, JOHN, THE LEGACY OF CANAAN: THE RAS SHAMRA TEXTS AND THEIR RELEVANCE TO THE OLD TESTAMENT, SECOND, REVISED EDITION, E. J. BRILL, LEIDEN 1965
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Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology FAQ, ver. 1.2
Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology FAQ, ver. 1.1
Phoenician Religion — Pagan
YHWH and his Consort
gods, exactly, did Israel have? Together with the historical and political aspects, there are also doubts as to the credibility of the information about belief and worship. The question about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a pair of gods: YHWH and his Asherath. At two sites, Kuntilet Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and Khirbet el-Kom in the Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention ‘YHWH and his Asherah’, ‘YHWH Shomron and his Asherah’, ‘YHWH Teman and his Asherah’. The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, YHWH and his consort Asherah, and send blessings in the couple’s name. These inscriptions, from the 8th century BCE, raise the possibility that monotheism, as a state religion, is actually an innovation of the period of the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. Ze’ev Herzog
A phoneme is: a contrastive unit in the sound system of a particular language; a minimal unit that serves to distinguish between meanings of words; pronounced in one or more ways, depending on the number of allophones.
He Ugarit’s Dagon was the father of Baal and may have been identified with El. There were also temples to Dagon in Mari and Emar. To the Phoenicians, he was a god of wheat and the inventor of the plow. The Philistines adopted him as their own and depicted him with the upper torso of a man and the back half of a fish.
“God in monotheism is conceived of as the creator of the world and man; he has not abandoned his creation but continues to lead it through his power and wisdom; hence, viewed in this aspect, history is a manifestation of the divine will. God has not only created the natural world and the order existing therein but also the ethical order to which man ought to conform and, implicit in the ethical order, the social order. Everything is in the hands of God. God is holy —- supreme and unique in being and worth, essentially other than man…. The god of monotheism, as exemplified by the great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — is a personal god. In this respect the one god of monotheism is contrasted with the conception of the divine in pantheism (e.g. philosophical Hinduism) which may also affirm one god or a divine unity. The god of pantheism, however, is impersonal, rather like a divine fluid that permeates the whole world including man himself….In monotheistic religions the belief system, the value system, and the action system are all three determined…by the conception of God as one unique and personal being. Negatively considered, the monotheistic conviction results in the rejection of all other belief systems as false religions, and this rejection partly explains the exceptionally aggressive or intolerant stance of the monotheistic religions in the history of the world. The conception of all other religions as “idolatry” (i.e. as rendering absolute devotion or trust to what is less than divine) has often served to justify the destructive and fanatical action of the religion that is considered the only true one…. For exclusive monotheism only one god exists; other gods either simply do not exist at all, or, at most, they are false gods or demons; i.e., beings that are acknowledged to exist but that cannot be compared in power or in any other way with the one and only true god. This position is in the main that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While in the Old Testament the other gods, in most cases, were still characterized as false gods, in later Judaism and in Christianity…the conception emerged of God as the one and only, and other gods were considered not to exist at all…. Inclusive monotheism accepts the existence of a great number of gods but holds that all gods are essentially one and the same, so that it makes little or no difference under which name or according to which right a god or goddess is invoked. Such conceptions characterized the ancient Hellenistic religions…. Henotheism …(is) a belief in worship of one god though the existence of other gods is taken for granted…. (In) pluriform monotheism… the various gods of the pantheon, without losing their independence, are at the same time considered to be manifestations of one and the same substance…. There may be some reason to speak of the Old Testament conception of God as monolatry rather than monotheism, because the existence of other gods is seldom explicitly denied and many times even acknowledged…. In Israel the ethical aspects was as important as the exclusiveness of their one God; the prophets stressed the ethical elements of an essentially exclusive God. The God of Israel was a jealous god who forbade his believers to worship other gods. In this respect he differed from other gods in the ancient Near Eastern religions who, as a rule, did not put such exclusive obligation on their adherents.”