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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Syro-Palestinian Deities

The religion of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard (the Levant), where ancient Israel was one population group, is known from a few scattered references in classical sources, some inscriptions set up for public display, a scattering of extant letters, but primarily from the so-called Ugaritic texts, artwork, and temples unearthed at modern Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) and Ras Ibn Hani on the coast of northern Syria opposite Cyprus. These fourteenth-thirteenth century B.C.E. texts, written mostly in alphabetic cuneiform, consist of legends, myths, letters, lists, and cultic texts. Since Ugarit was a cosmopolitan city, it was influenced by Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hurrian, and Hittite cultures. Nonetheless, the texts present us with a glimpse of authentic Syro-Palestinian (often called Canaanite) religion. The names of over 200 gods appear in the texts, although in the god-lists only thirty or so gods are mentioned. Of these only about a dozen play significant roles in the mythological texts.

The rather well-organized pantheon was presided over by the patriarchal deity, El, with his consort Asherah. El was depicted as preeminent among the gods, a source of wisdom and counsel, and as beneficent and benign. He bore a number of titles and epithets: “bull,” “father of years,” “king,” “father of the gods,” and “creator of creatures.” He may have been perceived as the creator of the world but this is uncertain. He seems to have represented deity in its transcendence, controlling but not directly involved in the governance of the world. Since the term El was a general Semitic word for “god,” El may have been associated with various situations and sanctuaries where the numinous was experienced in a special way. In the myths, his abode was located at the source of the two deeps. His consort, Asherah, was the “mother of the gods.”

Second to El in the lists is the god Dagan known from Mesopotamian texts and the Old Testament (as Dagon, associated with the Philistines; see Judg. 16.23; 1 Sam. 5.2–7 ). Although a temple was dedicated to him at Ugarit, Dagan plays no role in any of the known texts.

The most active of the gods was Baal, whose consort was Anat. Baal, identified with the Mesopotamian storm god, Adad, was the god of storms and rain and giver of fertility. He embodied deity in its immanent power. Baal, whose name means “lord, husband, owner,” was widely worshiped throughout the region. He was described as the “powerful one,” “king,” “lord of the earth,” and “rider of the clouds.” Anat, like Ishtar a goddess of love and war, was the special protector of Baal.

In the myths, Baal's enemies were Yamm (the sea) and Mot (death). He struggled against Yamm for dominance among the gods, finally defeating Yamm and his cohorts, the sea monsters Litan (the biblical Leviathan) and Tunnan (the biblical Tannin). Baal's victory resulted in the reign of order over chaos, after which the gods constructed a house/temple for him. In his encounter with Mot, Baal was defeated and forced to go to the underworld. Fertility and vegetation disappeared during his stay. After Anat rescued the remains of Baal and defeated Mot, Baal was restored to life and fertility returned. This myth obviously reflected the seasonal and general climatic conditions in the region where a rainless summer when vegetation disappears is followed by a rainy season with new growth.

Other deities of some importance in the Ugaritic texts were Resheph, god of disease and pestilence, Shapash, the sun goddess, Yarih, the moon god, Shachar and Shalim, dawn and dusk, and Kothar wa-Hasis (“skilled and wise one”), the divine artisan.

Very little is known about the religion of Israel's near neighbors, the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Philistines. Only one major inscription from these nations is known, namely, an inscribed memorial stela erected by Mesha, the king of Moab in the ninth century B.C.E. In it Mesha made several references to the Moabite god Chemosh. The king noted that the Israelites had ruled over Moab “many days because Chemosh was angry at his land.” This statement demonstrates that the Moabites held the view (also found in Israel) that the national god of a land acts in history to reward and punish.

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