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Ugaritology and Biblical Interpretation

Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation What is This? Contains accessibly written entries for topics covering the religious, historical, and social aspects of the Bible.

Ugaritology and Biblical Interpretation

Right from its discovery in 1928, Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra, Syrian northern coast 35°35′ N, 35°45′ E) became an important context for the understanding of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible. Ugaritology itself is also an established research area in archeology, philology, linguistics, history, and religious studies in its broadest sense.

Ugarit and the Bible.

The Ugaritic civilization reached its peak in the beginning of second half of the second millennium B.C.E. and became extinct following the city’s destruction by the “people from the sea” by the end of the thirteenth century. Though it goes back several centuries before the beginning of Israel, Ugaritic civilization has a significant bearing on biblical interpretation. The richly documented entry on Ras Shamra in the DBS IX (1979: 1123–1446) gives a comprehensive picture of the diverse areas of Ugaritic studies such as archeology, history, the Sumero-Akkadian culture, the Hurrian milieu, and Ugaritic literature. Very useful is the synthesis on Ras Shamra and Old Testament by E. Jacob and H. Cazelles (pp. 1426–1439). Along these lines, the study by Loretz (1990) is also valuable for its accurate information and insights. The massive handbook of Ugaritic studies edited by Watson and Wyatt (1999) contains readable contributions covering various important sectors of this large field.

For biblical interpretation the epigraphic finds are the more relevant materials. The most important texts were discovered during the first couple of decades following the discovery of the site. They are written in cuneiform, both syllabic and alphabetic. The alphabetic cuneiform writing was used to write the local language, that is, Ugaritic, which is the oldest directly attested Northwest Semitic language. The content of the texts varies: literary (myth and legends), religious (rituals, lists of sacrifice, omina, curses), epistolary (letters), administrative (deeds), pedagogical (school exercises, abecedaries), and medical (texts to cure sick horses). The convenient edition of these texts is KTU/CAT. The texts written in syllabic cuneiform are mostly in Akkadian, the common language of the Ancient Near East of the period. These texts are letters, administrative documents, and a few literary compositions in the Mesopotamian literary tradition. There are also lexical texts with Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and their Ugaritic equivalent. On the special importance of these texts for the understanding of Ugaritic, see Huehnergard (2008).

Four periods of Bible and Ugaritic studies can be distinguished according to the scholarly achievements in both fields (Smith 2001a). In the first period, that is, 1928–1945, scholars concentrated on decipherment, textual editions, and the possible significance of Ugaritic for biblical studies. It was in the second period, that is, 1945–1970, that the real impact of Ugaritic on biblical studies first began to be felt, especially in the United States, with William Foxwell Albright at the Johns Hopkins University as one of its most important figures. Ugaritic started to be taken into account in Hebrew grammars such as Meyer (1969, 1996). Gordon’s classic grammar of Ugaritic (1965) reached its definitive shape in this period, after going through different forms since 1940.

The influence of Ugaritic studies on biblical studies became solidly established in the third period, that is, 1970–1985. The multi-authored three-volume work edited by Fisher (Vol. 1: 1971; Vol. 2: 1975; Vol. 3, by Rummel 1981) gathered parallels from Ras Shamra with the Hebrew Bible. Work on Ugaritic lexicography is reflected in the standard Hebrew dictionary HALAT/HALOT. Many of the Old Testament commentaries in the Anchor Bible series also made extensive use of Ugaritic, especially Dahood’s three-volume treatment of the Psalms (Vol. 1: 1965; Vol. 2: 1968; Vol. 3: 1970; the final volume includes a grammar of the Psalter from the Ugaritic-Hebrew perspective, pp. 361–456). Dahood frequently offered fresh readings of the Hebrew consonantal text, re-dividing words and re-vocalizing them on the basis of his understanding of Ugaritic. A brief but representative sample of his approach can be seen in his treatment of Job 3 (1974); Barr’s response to it (1974) is equally representative of the scholarly critical reaction.

During this third period, with the discoveries of new texts, Ugaritological studies proper also made progress. Materials other than myths and legends were studied in more depth, bringing new understanding of Ugaritic civilization itself. This development ushered in a cautious and sometimes critical attitude toward comparison between Ugaritic studies and biblical scholarship.

In the fourth period, that is, 1985–1999, scholars became more interested in refining the tools and theory for the study of Ugaritic itself. There was a growing tendency to revisit studies by the earlier generation. A generally positive and sobering assessment of Dahood’s contributions in Hebrew studies was published by Althann (1997). During this period the first complete dictionary of the Ugaritic language was published (Olmo Lete—Sanmartín, 1996–2000; Eng. trans., 2003). Knowledge of the language has also been refined and reflected in new grammars such as Segert (1984), Sivan (1997), and Tropper (2000). Progress along these lines continues to improve and advance.

Further development in the first decade of the twenty-first century still awaits assessment. There is already a tendency to study social institutions and economic life at Ugarit itself, as illustrated in the well-documented works by Zamora (2000) on socio-economic aspects of viticulture and wine making, and Marsman (2003) on the role of women at Ugarit. Advanced knowledge of the Ugaritic language has also become more widespread thanks to new teaching grammars, especially those of Tropper (2002) and Bordreuil and Pardee (2009); the latter makes available texts in excellent copies and photographs. Smith (2004, with ongoing updates) is an online bibliography on Ugaritic and Hebrew grammar.

What follows is an outline of the bearing of Ugarit studies for biblical interpretation under the headings of language and literary texts.


Ugaritic belongs to the second millennium B.C.E. Northwest Semitic languages together with the indirectly documented languages in Syria-Palestine of the same period. Gianto (2012) provides a sketch of Ugaritic, demonstrating its interrelationship with the other regional languages. For study of Ugaritic, the exhaustive reference grammar is Tropper (2000); see its review by Pardee 2003/2004. The Northwestern Semitic language group eventually split into the Aramaic and the Canaanite languages during the first millennium B.C.E. Belonging to the latter are Phoenician, Hebrew, and some lesser-attested Transjordanian dialects like Moabite, Edomite, and the dialect found in the Deir Alla inscription. This situation represents a dialect continuum from the earlier period down to the latter period and gives ground for the use of Ugaritic in Hebrew studies.

Linguistic Affinity.

The affinity among the languages varies. Some verbs of movement indicate that Ugaritic is closer to Phoenician and Hebrew than Aramaic. Thus while the first three all have hlk (“to go”), yrd (“to do down”), ʾly (“to go up”), yṣʿ (“to go out”), and ṯwb (or šwb) (“to go back”), Aramaic uses other roots for the same movements, namely ʿzl, nḥt, slq, npq, hpk. There is also a graded affinity between Ugaritic-Phoenician-Hebrew: in the first two “to give” and “to be” are expressed by ytn and kwn, in contrast to Hebrew ntn and hyy. The most common word for “to do” in Ugaritic is ʾdb, while Phoenician prefers pʾl and Hebrew ʾśy. Many words are etymologically the same in these languages, but their value is not always the same. Grammatical features shared in Northwest Semitic languages also exhibit such graded affinities. It is true that grammatically Ugaritic and Hebrew are generally closer to each other than each is to other Northwest Semitic languages. Therefore, on the basis of these shared features and genetic similarities, there is some justification in using Ugaritic to elucidate Hebrew.

Several linguistic features of Ugaritic help to clarify certain problems in Hebrew grammar. The traditional “he-locale” in Hebrew can no longer be considered as a remnant of the accusative case ending since the ending is the same as the Ugaritic directional -h.

The narrative use of yqtl in Ugaritic, referring to past events, corresponds to the use of the Hebrew yiqtol with past reference in archaic poetry and in the Hebrew narrative (way)yiqtol.

It is in the realm of particles that comparison with Ugaritic has stimulated new proposals for the understanding of Hebrew. A number of instances of the Hebrew prepositions k- and l- have been understood as the vocative “O!” following Ugaritic usage, though this is somewhat controversial; for a discussion on this topic, see Althann (1997, p. 93–120). Various Ugaritic enclitic particles -m; -y; -k; -t, which are found with any word, have been used to explain problematic constructions in Hebrew, especially where these consonants occur with a construct noun before its genitive. By rule, nothing other than these particles can stand between the nouns. In Hebrew these have been interpreted as other elements like the masculine plural ending, first/second person singular possessive suffix, or even preposition k, feminine ending.

Stylistic Affinity.

The largest corpus of Ugaritic texts with continuous content consists of poetry. The basic unit of Ugaritic poetry is a two-line poetic structure, the “bicolon”; each is said to be in parallelism with the other. This is applicable to Hebrew poetry. A bicolon can be expanded with a third colon, resulting in a tricolon. These units can combine among themselves to build larger structures analogous to strophes or stanzas. In Ugaritic the bicolon or tricolon are generally of equal length, which is reflected in earlier Hebrew poetry; later Hebrew poetry also exhibits unequal length. The poetic structure lies not so much in the meter or rhythm, but in the semantic parallelism of the lexical and syntactical expressions within the bi- or tri-colon. For a still useful outline, see Gordon (1965, par 13.108–170); for the features found in Hebrew, see Watson (1986: 114–200).

An example of a bicolon is KTU 1.14 I:26–27, yʾrb . bḥdrh . ybky || bṯn . ʾgmm . wydmʾ [“He (Kirta) went into his chamber crying, into the inner room and weeping”]. The parallelism can be described as a b c || b′ c′. The parallelism is incomplete since there is no parallel to ʾrb [“he went into”]. Yet the absent parallel expression is syntactically significant and can be described as an ellipsis or gap that creates a special effect. Thus, while the event narrated in the first part, that is, Kirta’s entering his chamber, continues to be true in the second part, attention now shifts to the inner part of the room (ṯn . ʾgmm), and is no longer on Kirta’s movement as such. The more specific word or expression in the second part is sometimes longer than its parallel, e.g., bṯn . ʾgmm vs. bḥdrh. The longer expressions often occur when there is gapping and serve as “ballast variants” to compensate for the omitted expression.

There is a bicolon in 1 Samuel 18:7B (ḥikkâ šāʿûl baʿălāpāw || wǝdāwid bǝribǝbōtāw [“Saul killed by the thousand || but David by the myriad”]) that also exhibits the a b c || b′ c′ structure. Like the Ugaritic example, there is no parallel to the verb ḥikkâ in the second part of the bicolon. This gapping draws the attention to the change of actor, that is, from Saul to David. The use of the word-pair “thousand”—“myriad” also enhances the contrast.

A bicolon, as noted above, can be expanded with a third colon, resulting in a tricolon, as in KTU 1.14 I:28–30: tnkn . udmʾth || km . ṯqlm . arṣh || km ḫmšt mṭth [“His tears were pouring || like shekels to the ground, like five weights onto the couch”]. The parallelism can be described as exhibiting the structure a b || c d || c′ d′, where the first is completed by the second, which is then expanded with a third line that intensifies the second. Compare this with the similar structure in Songs 1:16–17: ʿap-ʾarśēnu raʾănānâ || qōrōt battênû ʿărāzîm || raḥîṭēnû bǝrôtîm [“Our couch is luxuriant || the beams of our house are cedars || our rafters are cypresses”]. Note also that the third line in both examples contains words that are more specific than their pair in the second line.

Literary Texts.

These texts contain passages that reveal the world of Ugaritic deities and their dealings with humankind, just like in the sacred literature of Ancient Israel. A closer look at the divine epithets and the literary traditions suggests that the two literatures share the same background.

Divine Epithets.

The idea that Ugaritic religious thought provides a matrix to the sacred literature of Ancient Israel has become established since the publication of Cross’s collection of essays, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (1973). His insights are echoed in Smith (2001b, 2002; for more recent trends, see Smith 2007).

The comparative discussions generally concentrate on the deities and their roles. Many of the deities at Ugarit are, in fact, found in the Bible under quite different forms. This is evident from the Biblical imagery of Yahweh “the LORD,” which in a number of ways shares the metaphors and symbols of El, the supreme god of the Ugaritic religion. At a very early stage in the development of Israelite religion, El was assimilated to Yahweh. The God of the Patriarchs is basically El, as evident from the names such as El-Elyon (Gen 14:18), El-Olam (Gen 21:33), and El-Bethel (Gen 31:13). Exodus 6:23 states that Yahweh is the same as the El known to the patriarchs with the name of El-Shaddai (“The Most High”). Some epithets of El as found in Ugaritic texts are also applied to Yahweh. Thus El is said to be “eternal king” (KTU 1.108), just like Yahweh who lives forever (Ps 102:27; Job 36:26; Isa 40:28; Hab 3:6; Dan 6:27). El presides over the assembly of gods (KTU 1.2.1), as does Yahweh (Isa 6:1–8; 1 Kgs 22:9; Ps 29:1–2; 82:1; 89:5–8; Isa 14:13; Jer 23:18, 22; Dan 3:25). El is often mentioned as being gracious and the father of humanity, and these traits correspond to Yahweh being merciful and gracious (Exod 34:6; Ps 86:15), the Father (Deut 32:6: Isa 63:16; 64:17; Jer 3:4.9; 31:9; Mal 1:6; 2:10; also Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1). The Ugaritic El is often imagined as residing in a pavilion (KTU 1.2 III:5; 1.3 V:8; 1.4 IV:24; 1.17 V:49), just like Yahweh who dwells in a tent (Ps 15:1; 27:6; 91:10; 132:23; those who seek Him can come to the tent of meeting (Exod 33:7–11; Num 12:5.10; Deut 31:14–15).

That Baal was known in Israel from early times is clear from place names like Baal- Peor, Baal-Hazor, Baal-Hermon, Baal-Perazim, and Baal-Zaphon, that are associated with the sanctuary of a fertility god. In the Ugaritic mythological texts, there is a scene where Baal invites Anat, his consort, to come to his divine mountain, Zaphon, his inherited mountain, the mountain where his glory is manifested (KTU 1.3 III:28–31). In the ninth century B.C.E. there was a growing hostility in Israel to the Baal cult, presumably because of the association with foreign power (Jezebel of Tyre), which reappeared in the polemical passages of the prophets. Nonetheless, Baal’s character as divine warrior who fought against the forces of chaos and evil is very much alive in the imagery of the God of Exodus.

The goddess Asherah has an important role in Ugaritic religion. She is the consort of El, and together with him she is said to be the procreatrix of gods. In some Hebrew inscriptions of Kuntillet Ajrud, the goddess Asherah is paired with Yahweh. In the Bible, Asherah is depicted as a foreign goddess (1 Kgs 18:19; 2 Kgs 23:27), her statue considered as an idol (1 Kgs 15:13; 2 Kgs 21:27). In other passages the word refers to a sacred pole in high-places. For further studies, see Binger (2011).

Anat, Baal’s sister and consort, is the goddess of war known for her violent and vengeful character. In the Bible, however, this goddess is only vestigially reflected in a few place names: Beth-anath (Judg 1:33; Josh 19:38); Beth-anoth (Josh 15:59); Anathoth (Josh 21:18; Jer 11:1), and in the personal name Shamgar son of Anath (Judg 3:31; 5:6). The spectacular military prowess of this judge might have been associated with this goddess of war.

In sum, some important traits of El, Baal, Anat, and Asherah are also found in the figure of Yahweh within the Hebrew Bible. This explains the multifaceted religious experience of the people of Israel with their God: benevolent and life-giving as a father (Patriarchal narratives and Exodus), yet sometime jealous as a spouse (Deuteronomistic History; Prophetic literature, esp. Hosea), but on other occasions compassionate and protective as a mother (e.g. Psalms of Lament).

Literary Traditions.

Of special importance for biblical interpretation are the literary traditions of Ugarit, namely, stories about the god Baal, stories of the ancient heroes Kirta and Aqhat, the birth of the twin gods Shahar and Shallim, and the marriage of the lunar divinities. The tablets containing these stories were discovered at the acropolis, in the house or library of the high priest. These texts are conveniently presented, translated, and annotated by a group of scholars working under the editorship of Parker (1997). There are similar works by single authors, such as Olmo Lete (1981), Wyatt (1998; 2d ed., 2002).

The Stories of Baal.

The stories of Baal are preserved mainly in six tablets (KTU 1.1–6), each originally having six columns, but the order of the stories is not clear due to the fragmentary and broken parts of the tablets. Taken together these tablets give an account of the rise of Baal to power, his glory, and his descent into the underworld, presumably his resurrection from the realm of the dead too. Other deities enter into the stories in connection with this dramatic movement. At the beginning El, the highest god, bequeathed his dominion to the younger god Yamm, that is, Sea, also called Judge or River. Yamm’s rule caused disorder and strife among the gods. They chose their champion, the god Baal, to take the divine kingship from Yamm. Equipped with powerful weapons by Kothar-wa-Hasis, Baal conquered Yamm in a combat. Order was restored. In order to manifest his divine kingship, Baal needed a palace. Anat, Baal’s sister and consort, asked Asherah, the mother of all gods, to intercede with El to give Baal the permission to build his palace.

The building of the palace has been compared to the building of the temple in Jerusalem, considered also the dwelling place of Yahweh. At this point the traditions diverge. The Ugaritic cycle continues with the events that led to the descent of Baal to the underworld to meet Mot, the god of death; in Israel Yahweh maintained the supremacy as the eternal king.

The combat between Yamm and Baal—disorder against order—has been compared to the clash between the hostile attitudes of the Egyptian king against Yahweh’s claim to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt as narrated in the book of Exodus, especially in the crossing of the Sea. The victory of Yahweh is fundamental to the faith of Israel just like the victory of Baal over Yamm was decisive for the worship of Baal at Ugarit. In Ancient Israel, Yahweh not only acts like Baal, but also has the traits of El as the supreme god, wise and benevolent. Israel has also preserved a tradition of the holy mountain where Moses saw and received the laws from Yahweh. This strand is closer to the role of El in Ugaritic texts, who was known to dwell in a mountain, imparting his wisdom from there.

It is not without significance that the tablets containing the stories of Baal were found in the library of the high priest’s house, not in the royal palace. It seems that the high priest of Ugarit had a function of keeping the sacral traditions and ethos that the king of Ugarit had to observe. The stories of Baal are meant to explain the origin of the power of Baal, the divine protector of the Ugaritic kingship: Baal’s kingship comes from his ability to subdue the unruly forces of Yamm. The king’s authority should be measured by his ability to maintain order. There is also a clear statement that despite his victory over Yamm, Baal’s power still faces threats. There are thus also constant destabilizing forces against the king’s rule. The Davidic kingship also seems to follow this kind of ethos. For the interpretation of the Baal cycle, see Smith (1994–2009).

The Stories of Kirta.

The stories of Kirta are recorded in three tablets (KTU 1.14–16). Deprived of all of his offspring and wives, Kirta’s kingship will not continue. But his protector god, El, comes in a dream and gives him instructions to take Lady Huriya, the daughter of Pabil, the king of Udum, as wife and through her he will beget sons and daughters. He is also told to offer sacrifice before embarking on this expedition, which he does. On his way to take his wife, Kirta makes a vow to Asherah of Sidon that he would make a special present to the goddess if he succeeds in bringing back Huriya to Hubur, his capital, to be his wife. His marriage to Huriya is blessed by El, who promises many children. Kirta prospers, but at a later period he falls incurably ill. Social and natural disorder follow. This is probably a punishment for Kirta’s failure to fulfill his vows to Asherah. One of his sons wants to take Kirta’s throne, but the old king resists. He is cured by Shataqat, who is sent by El to help him.

El’s role as protector to Kirta is very clear. He arranges for Kirta to find a new wife who, in turn, gives him a progeny. When Kirta falls sick, El sends a healer. This narrative is meant as praise for El’s role as the divine protector of the king. The story also contains an ethos: a king should be good to his people just like El is good to the king.

The stories of Kirta emphasize the necessity of the king’s religious integrity in order to stay under divine protection. Throughout the story the importance of the rightful progeny is also stressed. The motive of preserving kingship, an offense committed to a deity, and the subsequent punishment by sickness are also familiar biblical motifs.

The Stories of Aqhat.

The stories of Aqhat, preserved in three tablets (KTU 1.17–19), start with an account of Danel’s childlessness. He performs a sacrifice to ask for a progeny. At the end of the seventh day Baal, Danel’s protector, intercedes with El to give Danel a son, detailing the duties of the progeny. El agrees. He also gives a list of duties that a son should perform, the main one being to take care of his father’s afterlife through various rituals. In the end a son is born, who is named Aqhat. When he grows up he receives a bow and arrow from Kothar-wa-Hasis. This is the beginning of his troubles. The goddess Anat is attracted by the weapons and tries to lure him to give them up in exchange for immortality. Convinced that Anat is only trying to deceive him, Aqhat refuses her offer. Anat is offended and vows vengeance. She goes up to El and forces him to deliver Aqhat’s life into her hand. She orders Yatpan to kill Aqhat. Yatpan transforms himself into an eagle and kills Aqhat. His body is eaten up by other birds of prey. Following his death, drought comes to the land. When Danel discovers his son’s fate, he collects his remains and brings them home for seven years of mourning. At the end of the period, Pughat, Aqhat’s sister, vows to revenge her brother’s death. She disguises herself as Anat and meets Yatpan who tells her what he did. The tablet breaks off at this point so that the conclusion is not certain. Presumably the story must have ended with Pughat’s killing of Yatpan.

Throughout this story El’s role is not as active as in Kirta’s legends. Though El remains the highest god, he lets the younger gods take the lead in the action: in the first part, Baal intercedes with El for Danel; at a later point, Anat forces El to give up Aqhat to her.

The importance of having a son whose main duty is to continue Danel’s life and take care of his afterlife is reminiscent of Abraham’s childlessness, hence his having nobody to take care of his household (e.g., Gen 15:32). In both stories, progeny is secured but the characters go through some crisis. The Aqhat stories include greater focus on ritual ceremonies than other narrative texts, and this has been the subject of Wright’s monograph (2001). This interweaving of ritual and stories is also found in the stories of the biblical patriarchs.

The Rapiuma.

The Rapiuma tablets (KTU 1.20–22) represent scenes from a ritual banquet. The mention of Danel suggests a connection with the Aqhat story. Pardee (2011) re-examines the tablets and puts together solid epigraphic and literary evidence demonstrating that these texts indeed belong together. The text starts with the mention of the spirits of the dead, presumably the Rapiuma themselves, who make a three-day journey on chariots to El’s shrine to join his banquet. The Rapiuma seem to be ancestors who now take part in El’s entourage and enjoy eternal life as divine beings.

Shorter Texts.

There are several other shorter texts representing mythological traditions, the most important are: KTU 1.23 (Smith 2006), the birth of the twin gods Shahar and Shallim fathered by El, interspersed with ritual instructions, and KTU 1.24, a hymn celebrating the marriage of the West Semitic moon God Yarih with the Mesopotamian moon goddess Nikkal. They provide a different imagery of the world of the gods than do the stories of Baal and the ancient heroes like Kirta and Aqhat. These texts also contain accounts of rituals, a field that is increasingly studied, making them extremely valuable alongside about a hundred cultic texts such as various ritual manuals, divinatory texts, and lists of gods who are to receive offerings (Pardee 2002).

Mesopotamian Wisdom Texts at Ugarit.

There are two important wisdom texts in the Mesopotamian tradition adapted to the Western Semitic/Syrian-Palestinian setting. One is a seventeen-line, bilingual Sumero-Akkadian composition on human destinies; the text is also preserved in Emar with seven more lines in the middle (Dietrich 1992). It contains a challenge to the traditional sapiential view that human destinies are unequal and at the same time immutable. The text instead asserts that human beings are destined to be happy, and therefore they should strive for this rather than accepting the traditional ideals that lead to futility. This composition has a special bearing on the interpretation of the Book of Qohelet, which affirms joy as a gift from God despite all sorts of predicaments of human condition (Gianto 1998). The other text is a longer collection of sayings, set in a kind of dispute between a son by the name of Shupe-ameli and his father. The text is preserved in four columns, each originally having 33 or 34 lines. The text is preserved also in Emar (Dietrich 1991); a Hittite version was also found at Bogazköy. This composition, like the previous, represents a critical attitude toward traditional wisdom represented by the father. These two texts seem to be preserved by scribes who were familiar with Mesopotamian literature.



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Agustinus Gianto

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