Ugarit—Ancient City in the Shadow of Baal
IN THE year 1928, the plow of a Syrian farmer struck a stone that covered a tomb containing ancient ceramics. He could not have imagined the significance of his discovery. Hearing of this chance find, a French archaeological team led by Claude Schaeffer journeyed to the site the following year.
Before long, an inscription was unearthed that enabled the team to identify the ruins emerging from under their trowels. It was Ugarit, “one of the most important ancient cities of the Near East.” Writer Barry Hoberman even said: “No archaeological discovery, not even that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has had a more profound impact on our understanding of the Bible.”—The Atlantic Monthly.
Where Paths Crossed
Situated in a mound known as Ras Shamra, on the Mediterranean Coast of what is now northern Syria, Ugarit was a flourishing cosmopolitan city in the second millennium B.C.E. Its territory covered an area extending some 35 miles [60 km] from Mt. Casius in the north to Tell Sukas in the south and 20 to 30 miles [30 to 50 km] from the Mediterranean in the west to the Orontes Valley in the east.
Livestock flourished in Ugarit’s temperate climate. The region produced cereals, olive oil, wine, and timber—a product sorely lacking in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Moreover, the city’s location at the junction of strategic trade routes made it one of the first great international ports. At Ugarit, merchants from the Aegean, Anatolia, Babylon, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East traded metals, agricultural products, and a host of locally produced goods.
Despite its material prosperity, Ugarit was always a vassal kingdom. The city was the northernmost outpost of the Egyptian Empire until incorporated into the secular Hittite Empire in the 14th century B.C.E. Ugarit was obliged to pay tribute and to supply its overlord with troops. When invading “Sea Peoples”a began ravaging Anatolia (central Turkey) and northern Syria, Ugarit’s troops and fleet were requisitioned by the Hittites. As a result, Ugarit itself was defenseless and was completely destroyed in about 1200 B.C.E.
Resurrecting the Past
The destruction of Ugarit left a huge mound almost 60 feet [20 m] high and covering more than 60 acres [25 ha]. Only one sixth of this area has been excavated. Among the ruins, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an immense palace complex with almost a hundred rooms and courtyards and covering some 100,000 square feet [10,000 sq m]. The complex had running water, bathrooms, and a sewage system. Furniture was inlaid with gold, lapis lazuli, and ivory. Intricately carved ivory panels have been found. A walled garden and sunken basin added to the charm of the palace.
The city and the surrounding plain were dominated by the temples of Baal and Dagan.b These temple towers, perhaps 60 feet [20 m] tall, consisted of a small vestibule leading to an inner room that housed an image of the god. A staircase led up to a terrace where the king officiated at various ceremonies. At night or during storms, beacons may have been lit on the summit of the temples in order to guide ships safely into the harbor. Sailors who attributed their safe return to the storm god Baal-Hadad no doubt made the votive offerings of 17 stone anchors found in his sanctuary.
Treasure Trove of Inscriptions
Thousands of clay tablets were discovered throughout the ruins of Ugarit. Economic, legal, diplomatic, and administrative texts have been found in eight languages, written in five scripts. Schaeffer’s team found inscriptions in a hitherto unknown language—given the name Ugaritic—using 30 cuneiform signs, which made up one of the oldest alphabets ever discovered.
In addition to covering mundane matters, Ugaritic documents contain literary texts that opened a new door to the religious concepts and practices of the time. The religion of Ugarit appears to have borne great similarities to that practiced by the neighboring Canaanites. According to Roland de Vaux, these texts “are a fairly accurate reflection of civilization in the land of Canaan just prior to the Israelite conquest.”
Religion in the City of Baal
More than 200 gods and goddesses are mentioned in the Ras Shamra texts. The supreme deity was El, called the father of the gods and of man. And the storm god Baal-Hadad was “the rider of the clouds” and “the lord of the earth.” El is depicted as a wise, white-bearded old man remote from humanity. On the other hand, Baal is a strong and ambitious deity who seeks to rule over the gods and mankind.
The discovered texts were probably recited during religious festivals, such as the new year or the harvest. However, the exact interpretation is obscure. In one poem about a dispute over rulership, Baal defeats El’s favorite son, the sea-god Yamm. This victory perhaps gave Ugarit’s sailors confidence that Baal would protect them at sea. In a duel with Mot, Baal is overcome and descends to the underworld. A drought ensues, and human activities cease. Baal’s wife and sister Anat—goddess of love and war—kills Mot and restores Baal to life. Baal massacres the sons of El’s wife, Athirat (Asherah), and regains the throne. But Mot returns seven years later.
Some interpret this poem as a symbol of the annual cycle of the seasons during which life-giving rains are overcome by the torrid heat of summer and return in the autumn. Others think that the seven-year cycle relates to fear of famine and drought. In either case, Baal’s preeminence was considered essential for the success of human endeavors. Scholar Peter Craigie notes: “The goal of Baal’s religion was to secure his supremacy; only while he remained supreme, so his worshipers believed, would the crops and cattle so essential to human survival continue.”
A Rampart Against Paganism
Clearly evident in the texts unearthed is the depravity of Ugaritic religion. The Illustrated Bible Dictionary comments: “The texts show the degrading results of the worship of these deities; with their emphasis on war, sacred prostitution, sensuous love and the consequent social degradation.” De Vaux observes: “On reading these poems, one understands the repulsion that true believers in Yahwism and the great prophets felt for this worship.” The Law that God gave the ancient nation of Israel was a rampart against such false religion.
Divination, astrology, and magic were widely practiced in Ugarit. Signs and omens were sought not only in the heavenly bodies but also in deformed fetuses and the viscera of slaughtered animals. “It was believed that the god to whom a ritually sacrificed animal was offered identified with it and that the god’s spirit fused with the animal’s spirit,” comments historian Jacqueline Gachet. “As a result, by reading the signs visible on these organs, it was possible to have clear access to the spirit of divinities who were able to give either a positive or a negative answer to a question on future events or on the course of action to take in a specific situation.” (Le pays d’Ougarit autour de 1200 av.J.C.) In contrast, the Israelites were to shun such practices.—Deuteronomy 18:9-14.
The Mosaic Law clearly forbade bestiality. (Leviticus 18:23) How was this practice viewed in Ugarit? In the discovered texts, Baal copulates with a heifer. “If it be argued that Baal assumes the shape of a bull for the act,” commented archaeologist Cyrus Gordon, “the same cannot be said for his priests who re-enacted his mythological career.”
The Israelites were commanded: “You must not make cuts in your flesh for a deceased soul.” (Leviticus 19:28) Reacting to Baal’s death, however, El “cut his skin with a knife, he made incisions with a razor; he cut his cheeks and chin.” Ritual laceration was apparently a custom among Baal worshipers.—1 Kings 18:28.
One Ugaritic poem seems to indicate that cooking a kid in milk was part of a fertility rite common in Canaanite religion. In the Mosaic Law, however, the Israelites were ordered: “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”—Exodus 23:19.
Comparisons With Bible Texts
Ugaritic texts were originally translated primarily with the help of Biblical Hebrew. Peter Craigie observes: “There are many words employed in the Hebrew text whose meanings are unclear and, sometimes, unknown; translators prior to the 20th century surmised, by various means, their possible meaning. But when the same words occur in the Ugaritic text, progress is possible.”
For example, a Hebrew word used at Isaiah 3:18 is generally translated “headbands.” A similar Ugaritic root designates both the sun and the sun-goddess. Hence, the women of Jerusalem mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy may have been adorned with little sun pendants as well as “moon-shaped ornaments” in honor of Canaanite gods.
At Proverbs 26:23 in the Masoretic text, “burning lips and a wicked heart” are compared to an earthen vessel covered with “silver dross.” A Ugaritic root allows for the comparison to be rendered “like glaze upon a potsherd.” The New World Translation appropriately renders this proverb: “As a silver glazing overlaid upon a fragment of earthenware are fervent lips along with a bad heart.”
Examination of the Ras Shamra texts has led some scholars to claim that certain Bible passages are adaptations of Ugaritic poetic literature. André Caquot, member of the French Institute, speaks of “the Canaanite cultural substratum at the heart of Israelite religion.”
Regarding Psalm 29, Mitchell Dahood of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome comments: “This psalm is a Yahwistic adaptation of an older Canaanite hymn to the storm-god Baal . . . Virtually every word in the psalm can now be duplicated in older Canaanite texts.” Is such a conclusion justified? No indeed!
More moderate scholars recognize that similarities have been exaggerated. Others have criticized what they call pan-Ugaritism. “No single Ugaritic text parallels Psalm 29 in full,” states theologian Garry Brantley. “To suggest that Psalm 29 (or any other biblical text) is an adaptation of a pagan myth has no evidential basis.”
Is the fact that similarities exist in figures of speech, poetic parallels, and stylistic features proof of adaptation? On the contrary, such parallels are to be expected. The Encyclopedia of Religion notes: “The reason for this similarity of form and content is cultural: notwithstanding the significant geographical and temporal differences between Ugarit and Israel, they were part of a larger cultural entity that shared a common poetic and religious vocabulary.” Garry Brantley therefore concludes: “It is improper exegesis to force pagan beliefs into the biblical text simply because of linguistic similarities.”
Finally, it should be noted that if any parallels do exist between the Ras Shamra texts and the Bible, they are purely literary, not spiritual. “The ethical and moral heights reached in the Bible are [not] to be found in Ugarit,” remarks archaeologist Cyrus Gordon. Indeed, the differences far outweigh any similarities.
Ugaritic studies are likely to continue to help Bible students to understand the cultural, historic, and religious environment of Bible writers and of the Hebrew nation in general. Further examination of the Ras Shamra texts may also throw new light on comprehension of ancient Hebrew. Above all, however, the archaeological finds at Ugarit eloquently highlight the contrast between the degrading devotion to Baal and the pure worship of Jehovah.
b While opinions vary, some identify the temple of Dagan as the temple of El. Roland de Vaux, a French scholar and professor at the Jerusalem School of Biblical Studies, suggested that Dagan—the Dagon of Judges 16:23 and 1 Samuel 5:1-5—is the proper name of El. The Encyclopedia of Religion comments that possibly “Dagan was in some sense identified with or assimilated to [El].” In the Ras Shamra texts, Baal is called the son of Dagan, but the meaning of “son” here is uncertain.
[Blurb on page 25]
Archaeological discoveries at Ugarit have enhanced our understanding of the Scriptures
[Map/Pictures on page 24, 25]
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Hittite Empire in the 14th century B.C.E.
MT. CASIUS (JEBEL EL-AGRA)
Ugarit (Ras Shamra)
Statuette of Baal and rhyton in the shape of an animal’s head: Musée du Louvre, Paris; painting of the royal palace: © D. Héron-Hugé pour “Le Monde de la Bible”
[Picture on page 25]
Remains of the entrance to the palace
[Picture on page 26]
A mythological Ugaritic poem may provide background on Exodus 23:19
Musée du Louvre, Paris
[Pictures on page 27]
Stela of Baal
Gold dish representing a hunting scene
Ivory cosmetic-box cover depicting a fertility goddess
All pictures: Musée du Louvre, Paris