In 1928 a Syrian farmer accidentally uncovered ancient tombs on the Mediterranean coast, directly opposite the northeastern tip of Cyprus. This led to the excavation of the main city at nearby Ras Shamra, which yielded one of the most sensational archaeological finds of the twentieth century: the political and religious texts of archives of the ancient kingdom of Ugarit. The French excavators uncovered numerous cuneiform tablets, many of which were written in a hitherto unknown alphabetic script. On decipherment of that alphabet, it was seen that the language of Ugarit belongs, with Hebrew and Aramaic, to the family of Northwest Semitic languages. Dating roughly from the fifteenth to the thirteenth centuries BCE, these tablets now include a large collection of various kinds of texts: literary, religious, epistolary, administrative, and economic. Together they form the single most important archaeological contribution in the twentieth century to our knowledge of the language and symbol world of ancient Israel.
In the first place, the discovery of the Ugaritic tablets has greatly enhanced, and at times corrected, our understanding of biblical Hebrew. Many Hebrew words whose meanings had been unknown or merely conjectured have been clarified by Ugaritic cognates. The close relationship of Hebrew with Ugaritic, moreover, allows one to reconstruct still more accurately the early history of the Hebrew language and to discern some early linguistic features in (and hence the relative dates of) parts of the Hebrew Bible. The identification of certain grammatical elements in Northwest Semitic languages has greatly facilitated the task of translating the Hebrew Bible; texts that were hitherto grammatically awkward, if not impossible, can now be explained (e.g., Pss. 29.6; 68.2; 89.18; Isa. 9.19; 10.2). On the basis of Ugaritic literature too, scholars have been able to make advances in the study of Hebrew prosody, for the two languages apparently share the same poetic structures and utilize the same stylistic devices (see Poetry, Biblical Hebrew).
Beyond the details of language and prosody, the tablets also contribute to our knowledge of Canaanite religion. The Ugaritic pantheon includes many of the gods already known to us from the Hebrew Bible as Canaanite deities against whom the prophets inveighed. Much more is now known, for example, about Baal and Asherah (Athirat in Ugaritic) and the fertility cult with which they are associated. Thus, in Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), the failure of the latter to bring rain demonstrates the impotence of Baal even in what was thought to be his domain; instead, it is Yahweh who controls nature. But the value of the Ugaritic texts goes beyond the horizons of Canaanite faith. The evidence suggests that Israelite theology was not as radically discontinuous with Canaanite religions as was once thought. Yahweh was imbued with characteristics associated with El and Baal. Like El, the chief deity of the Ugaritic pantheon, Israel's God is regarded as the Most High (Pss. 47.2; 97.9; Deut. 32.8; Gen. 14.19) who presides over the divine council and judges other gods (cf. Ps. 82; 89.5–7). The Ugaritic descriptions of El's abode (a tent) in “the far north” (see Zaphon) and “at the source of the two‐rivers” correspond to the biblical depiction of the divine abode (Isa. 14.13; 33.20–22; Ezek. 47.1–12; Joel 4.18; Zech. 14.8), which, according to Judean theology, was on Mount Zion (2 Sam. 6–7; Ps. 46.4). Like the storm‐god Baal, Yahweh is portrayed as a divine warrior who sets out to fight the cosmic forces of chaos most commonly depicted as the flood(s) (e.g., Pss. 29.10; 93.3; 98.8) and “mighty waters” (Pss. 29.3; 77.19; 93.4; Hab. 3.15), as sea and river (corresponding to the Ugaritic synonymous parallelism Prince Sea/Judge River; Ps. 24.2; 89.25; 114. 3; Isa. 50.2; Hab. 3.8), and as sea monsters, including Leviathan (Ugaritic ltn). Accordingly, the manifestation of divine presence is often couched in the language of a storm theophany (Ps. 29; 97.1–6; 2 Sam. 22.8–16). Indeed, the language and content of Psalm 29 are so reminiscent of Ugaritic that scholars are generally agreed that it was originally a Canaanite hymn to Baal adapted for Yahwistic worship. As in the Ugaritic myths and hymns, the divine warrior in the Bible is enthroned in the sanctuary as a consequence of the victory over enemies. It has also become clear that Isaiah's metaphor of the fallen “Day Star” (Isa. 14.12–15) is to be located in the Ugaritic myth of the fallen astral deities, notably Athtar, who presumed to usurp the throne of Baal; the persistence of this theme is seen in the later development of traditions about Satan (Luke 10.18).
From the Ugaritic tablets, much can also be learned about the social institutions and structure of the region. The legends and administrative texts provide insights into the Israelite understanding of divine and human kingship. Among other things, it was the king's task to “decide the case of the widow” and to “judge the suit of the orphan”; failure to do so was tantamount to surrender of royal prerogative. Besides the king, one learns about various cultic functionaries, military personnel, and people of various social strata. Among the military elite and powerful nobility are people designated “bulls,” “gazelles,” “boars,” and the like (cf. Exod. 15.15; Isa. 14.9; Ezek. 34.17; Amos 4.1; 2 Sam. 1.19). In the Ugaritic texts, one encounters a respected group known as the nqdm, a class or guild to which Mesha the king of Moab and Amos belong, calling into question the traditional translation of nqd as “shepherd” (Amos 1.1).
In minute details of the Hebrew language as well as in our understanding of broad themes and literary forms in the Bible, Ugaritic has had an impact. Several commentaries and numerous reference works have been written with the explicit purpose of elucidating the biblical text through the advances made possible by the discoveries at Ras Shamra. Although the correspondences between the Ugaritic texts and the Bible have at times been exaggerated in scholarly works, the study of Ugaritic is an indispensable discipline in biblical scholarship.
C. L. Seow