The textual discoveries at Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) rival the great Mesopotamian tablet finds in their impact on the study of the Bible and ancient Israelite religion. Ugarit lies on the coast of northern Syria, just north of the modern city of Latakia, and the site has undergone regular excavation from 1929 to the present, except for a hiatus in the 1940s. The original excavator, Claude Schaeffer, decided almost at the outset to concentrate largely on the remains of the final major phase of occupation, and thus about half of the Late Bronze Age city has been uncovered. No other Syro-Palestinian city from this period is so well known. The royal palace and several other major public administrative buildings have been uncovered, as have some temples and extensive residential areas of both the upper class and of the more modest folk.
The archaeological remains of Ugarit are spectacular. The palace, an enormous edifice built and expanded between the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE, covered nearly a hectare (over 2 acres), boasting some ninety rooms and six large courtyards on the ground floor, as well as a considerable second story. On the highest part of the site were found the remains of two impressive temples. One was the temple of Baal, Ugarit's patron deity, and the other may have been dedicated either to the head of the Ugaritic pantheon, El, or to Dagan, Baal's father according to the mythology.
Although the material finds are significant, they pale beside the tablet discoveries. In the first excavation season Schaeffer opened a field on the highest area within Ugarit and immediately came upon a well-built house with clay tablets strewn across its floors. To his great surprise the tablets were not in Akkadian cuneiform, or in any other script known at the time. The script was cuneiform, but it had only thirty different characters, none of which were immediately identifiable. With such a limited number of signs it was assumed that the script must be alphabetic, and scholars deciphered it quickly, showing as well that the texts were written in a West Semitic language, related to Canaanite. It was immediately dubbed Ugaritic.
The house was apparently the dwelling of the high priest of Baal, whose temple stood nearby. The tablets found in the house over the first four seasons of excavation were the priest's library. The most important component of this library was a collection of myths and epic poems, the only such collection preserved from Canaan. These provide us with considerable insight into the nature of the Canaanite pantheon: El, the father of the gods and their king; Baal, the storm and fertility deity and the active ruler of the gods, though not without dissension; Asherah, the wife of El and mother of the gods; and Anat, the volatile sister of Baal and goddess of war.
The most significant mythic texts are a series of tablets that feature Baal as their main character. Several of the tablets are fragmentary, but three major stories about Baal are substantially recoverable. The first, the story of Baal's conflict with the god Yamm (literally, “sea” or “ocean”), climaxes with a battle between the two in which Baal is victorious. A number of thematic parallels link this episode to the famous Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish. The latter tells the story of the battle between the storm-god Marduk, patron deity of Babylon, and the goddess Tiamat (“ocean”), which ended in Marduk's victory and the creation of the world out of Tiamat's corpse. Several biblical passages indicate that Israel's traditions included a similar story about a conflict between Yahweh and the Sea (for example, Ps. 74.12–17 ), which was also connected with the creation of the world. The Ugaritic story as preserved, however, does not conclude with the creation.
A second story tells of the building of Baal's palace by the gods, and the third details Baal's conflict with the god of sterility and death, named Mot (“death”). Baal is killed by Mot, but returns to life after his sister Anat finds and slays Mot. Many interpretational problems beset these texts, and the relationship between the various stories is not clear. But the myths are helpful in understanding Baal as he is portrayed in the Bible, since in the first millennium BCE he was the chief rival of Yahweh in Israel.
In addition to the myths, parts of two epic poems with human heroes as protagonists were found in the library, the Kirta and the Aqhat epics. The former traces the tribulations of Kirta, king of Bit-Hubur, who, after losing his entire family in a series of disasters, is shown by El, the king of the gods, how to win Hurraya, the beautiful daughter of King Pabil of Udm, as his new wife. He succeeds in marrying her, but then angers the goddess Asherah by failing to fulfill a vow he made on his way to Udm; as a result he is stricken with a deadly illness. El eventually intervenes and saves Kirta's life, but then the king has to stave off a rebellion by one of his own sons. The end of the epic has not been preserved.
The Aqhat epic is of great interest because of its close thematic similarities to the ancestral narratives of Genesis, in particular the story of Abraham and Sarah. In the Aqhat epic, the elderly king Daniel has no son and prays fervently to his patron deity, Baal, for an heir. Baal brings the request before El, who grants Daniel and his wife a child, named Aqhat. The boy is given a marvelous bow by the craftsman of the gods, Kothar-wa-Hasis, and goes into the forests hunting. The goddess Anat covets the bow, and when Aqhat refuses to give it to her, she has one of her devotees, named Yatpan, kill Aqhat. Aqhat's sister, Pughat, goes in search of her brother's killer. She comes to Yatpan's dwelling, gets him drunk, and then…the text breaks off and the end is lost!
The library of the priest of Baal was far from being the only collection of tablets found at Ugarit. In the royal palace, excavated largely in the 1950s, five separate archives were found. Some contained tablets written in the Ugaritic script, but others had mostly tablets in Akkadian cuneiform. The latter included international correspondence from the mid-fourteenth century to the end of the thirteenth, when the city was destroyed. These texts allow us to reconstruct the general outlines of political developments during the reigns of seven kings of Ugarit. They indicate that Ugarit was able to steer itself well through the political turmoil of the period of competition between Egypt and Hatti. Ugarit had kept close ties with Egypt during much of the second millennium. Even when they found it necessary to submit to Hittite dominance the kings of Ugarit were able to maintain economic relations with Egypt, apparently with Hittite acquiescence. The texts reflect a number of problems that arose between Ugarit and its neighbors, including Amurru, which entered into alliances with Ugarit sealed by royal marriages. Relations with Amurru went sour, however, during the reign of Ammistamru II, who divorced his Amorite wife and sent her back to her native land. The texts, along with the economic documents and the archaeological remains, also show that Ugarit was a cosmopolitan, prosperous trade port that flourished until its violent destruction at the end of the thirteenth century.
In addition to the royal archives, other libraries have been recovered. Private houses have produced archives belonging to high government officials, priests, lawyers, and professional scribes. Discoveries continue to be made: excavations in 1994 and 1996 found a large library of more than four hundred tablets in the house of an important administrator.
Ugarit and Amarna are not the only two Late Bronze Age sites to produce archives relevant to the study of the ancestral narratives. At Nuzi, located east of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, several thousand tablets dating between 1550 and 1400 BCE, largely of an economic and legal nature, have been found in both official and private contexts. Scholars have often pointed to legal situations referred to in the Nuzi texts as parallels to events described in the Bible's ancestral narratives and have argued for a close cultural and chronological relationship between the narratives and the Hurrian culture exemplified by the Nuzi tablets. Activities such as the adoption of a slave as an heir (Gen. 15.2–3 ) and the provision of a surrogate by a barren wife (Gen. 16.1–4 ) were thought to be attested in the legal documents of Nuzi. Most of these proposed parallels have been shown to be mistaken, but the ones that are valid provide a sense of the legal milieu out of which the ancestral stories emerged. For example, marriages arranged by a woman's brother normally required the assent of the woman, while those arranged by a woman's father did not. Compare to this the biblical negotiations concerning Rebekah's marriage (Gen. 24.50–61 ) and those of Leah and Rachel ( 29.15–30 ), and note also the importance of household gods within the family (Gen. 31.33–35 ). The appearance of Late Bronze Age parallels to certain marriage, inheritance, and family religious customs in Genesis cannot be used as evidence that such stories preserve ancient traditions of the second millennium, since most of these customs continued into the first millennium BCE when the Genesis narratives were written down. So the Nuzi texts have a limited, largely illustrative function.
The tablets from Emar, located along the west bank of the Euphrates southeast of Aleppo, were discovered in the mid-1970s and published in the mid-1980s. Over a thousand thirteenth-century tablets, written in Akkadian, were found by excavators (and several hundred others by illegal diggers, which have shown up on the antiquities market). The primary collection came from the ruins of a temple and included nearly two hundred tablets and fragments describing religious rituals performed at Emar. Several texts refer to a number of cultic officials called nabu, a word parallel to the Hebrew word for “prophet,” nabi. Others describe the practice of anointing a priestess at her installation into office, a custom attested in Israel for priests of Yahweh, but largely unattested elsewhere.