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Basics of Ancient Ugaritic
By Michael Williams
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2012 Michael Williams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLESSON 1: UGARIT IN A NUTSHELL
Ugarit was a cosmopolitan Canaanite city-state on the Mediterranean coast, almost directly east of the eastern tip of the island of Cyprus. It occupied a strategic and profitable position on the east-west trade route that connected the Mediterranean with the peoples of the mainland. It was also situated advantageously on the north-south trade route that connected Egypt with its neighbors to the north. This economically beneficial position also exposed Ugarit to foreign cultural influences and military pressures, and it was this last exposure that contributed to its downfall.
A Brief History
Although human settlement in the region of Ugarit dates back to the 8th millennium BC, for references to the proper name "Ugarit" we have to wait until at least the 18th century BC. Substantive documentation of its history appears even later, in the 14th century BC. Because Ugarit was in the middle of Levantine action, its history is inextricable from that of the surrounding nations. The precise dates for these events are still fuzzy (particularly for the reigns of the Ugaritic kings), but an outline of the history of Ugarit is provided below.
–1370 Ammitamru I reigns in Ugarit.
1370–1340 Niqmaddu II reigns in Ugarit. Ugarit nominally accepts the rule of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) but actually sides with the Hittites. The Tell el-Amarna letters witness to this double-dealing.
ca. 1350 The Hittite king Suppiluliumas conquers the kingdom of Mitanni and dominates northern Syria (including Ugarit).
1340–1330 Arhalbu reigns in Ugarit. late 14th c. An earthquake destroys the city and harbor. Ugarit never quite regains its former splendor.
1330–1260 Niqmepa reigns in Ugarit.
1274 Egypt (Ramses II) and the Hittites (Muwattallis II) fight to a draw at Kadesh and make a treaty. Ugarit remains under Hittite control and prospers during the subsequent time of peace.
1260–1230 Ammitamru II reigns in Ugarit.
1230–1210 Ibiranu reigns in Ugarit.
1210–1200 Niqmaddu III reigns in Ugarit.
1200–1190 Ammurapi reigns in Ugarit. early 12th c. The "Sea Peoples" invade the region and subsequently burn and destroy Ugarit. One wave of their attacks reaches Egypt during the reigns of Merneptah and Ramses III. Ramses finally defeats the Sea Peoples in a great land-and-sea battle on the coast of Egypt, but he is unable to dislodge them from Canaan.
In 1928, in the fields surrounding Ras Shamra (the contemporary name of Ugarit), a farmer's plow struck a stone. When the stone was lifted, an ancient tomb was discovered. This discovery prompted subsequent archaeological exploration in the surrounding region that, in turn, led to the discovery of clay tablets written in an unknown cuneiform script. Here begins the study of the language now called Ugaritic. Among the wide variety of tablets subsequently unearthed, the ones that have understandably attracted the most interest are the larger epic texts. These are few in number and consist of the legend of Aqhat, the legend of King Kirta, and the Ba'al and Anat cycle. The main outlines of these literary texts are provided below.
The Legend of Aqhat
The righteous, but childless king Dan'el is blessed with a son, Aqhat, in answer to his prayer to El and Ba'al.
Kothar-wa-Hasis gives Dan'el a bow of unusual quality, which he then gives to his son Aqhat.
Anat covets the bow, but Aqhat refuses to sell it to her despite her generous offers, the last of which is immortality.
Enraged, Anat transforms her henchman, Ya'pan, into an eagle, and he kills Aqhat.
Dan'el has Ba'al bring down eagles and searches in them for Aqhat's remains.
Dan'el finds Aqhat's remains, buries them, and then mourns for his son for seven years.
With her father's blessing, Pu'at, Aqhat's sister, goes out to avenge her brother.
The Legend of King Kirta (or, Keret)
Kirta mourns the loss of his palace, wife, and children.
Upon the advice of El, Kirta invades the town of Udum and, after negotiations with its king, marries the king's daughter.
El blesses Kirta and his new wife, at Ba'al's urging, and they have many sons and daughters.
Evidently as a consequence of his failure to fulfill an earlier vow to Asherah, Kirta falls ill (affecting the fertility of the fields).
El restores Kirta's health, with the help of the goddess a'tiqat.
Kirta curses his son Yassib, who had taken steps to usurp his father's throne.
The Ba'al and Anat Cycle
Prince Sea, Yamm, goes to El to ask permission to build a palace.
He also requests that Ba'al be handed over to him, and El accedes.
Ba'al refuses and decides instead to meet Yamm in combat, armed with two magic clubs fashioned for him by Kothar-wa-Hasis.
Ba'al is victorious over Yamm.
Ba'al enlists the help of Anat, and then Asherah, to persuade El to let Ba'al have a palace.
El grants Ba'al's request, and Ba'al commissions Kothar-wa-Hasis to build a palace for him.
Ba'al's domination is usurped by Môt, and Ba'al dies.
Anat attacks Môt and conquers him.
Ba'al returns and resumes his rule.
Later Môt also returns and challenges Ba'al.
Môt finally acknowledges Ba'al's rule.
Intersections with Biblical Studies
One of the most exciting aspects of the study of Ugaritic for students of the Bible is the light it has the potential to shed on many aspects of biblical scholarship. Among these are the elucidation of the names and functions of deities, literary figures and concepts, textual difficulties, and perhaps even the thought world shared by the biblical writers. Summaries of a few of these details are provided below. Hopefully these will whet your appetite for the study of the language that has made such scintillating observations and suggestions possible.
Several of the Ugaritic deities are mentioned in the Bible. The Ugaritic texts provide us with more information about them than is possible to obtain intrabiblically. Some of the more significant of these include the following:
Father of the gods and head of the Ugaritic pantheon
* ltpn il dpid "the kindly one, El the merciful"
* tr il "Bull El"
Ba'al, Anat, Môt are among his children, born to him by Asherah.
The gods are referred to in general as "the sons of El" or "the sons of Asherah."
Creator of the world and its creatures (ab adm "father of humanity")
Given the title "king"
An aged deity who does not actively rule. He is active when it is necessary to decide on an important matter relative to the government of the world. Then the gods travel to his abode at "the mouth of the rivers" or "the midst of the channels of the two deeps."
Cf. Ezek 28:2, where the king of Tyre regards himself as a deity and says: "I am [El], I sit on the throne of [the gods], in the heart of the seas."
His abode is also described as situated on a cosmic mountain. Cf. Ps 48:1–2: "Great is the LORD, and most worthy of praise, in the city of our God, his holy mountain. Beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth, like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King."
Dominion of the world is divided between his three sons: Ba'al, Môt, and Yamm.
* Ba'al rules the heavens (and the earth).
* Môt rules the underworld.
* Yamm rules the sea.
Mentioned in connection with Melchizedek (Gen 14:18–20)? Cf. Gen 14:22: "I have sworn an oath to the LORD, God Most High ['el 'elyôn], Creator of heaven and earth."
Cassuto, The Goddess Anath, 55: "It would seem that the children of Israel used to identify 'the most high god' of the Canaanites with their own One God. Since he was the highest of the deities and the maker of heaven and earth ... the identification could be regarded as justifiable at least relatively."
In this regard, consider Gen 33:20, where Jacob set up an altar that he names: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('el 'elohê yisra 'el) "El, the God of Israel."
His name means "lord"
Major actor among the Ugaritic gods
Defeats the sea god, Yamm, and the dragon, Lôtan
His elevated position shows itself in his power over meteorological phenomena. Cf. the battle between Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al regarding the ability to produce rain (1 Kgs 17:1, 7, 14; 18:1, 2, 41–46).
* So, he is often associated or identified with Hadad or Hadd (Ugaritic hd), the West Semitic weather god and leading deity of the Canaanite pantheon.
* His association with fertility results in his being referred to as the son of Dagan (a West Semitic fertility god).
* His rule guarantees the annual crops.
* zbl b 'l ar' "prince, lord of the earth"
* aliyn b 'l "powerful Ba'al"
* aliyn qrdm "most powerful of the heroes"
* rkb 'rpt "rider of the clouds" Cf. Ps 68:4, for example, where this epithet is applied to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]: "Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him—his name is the Lord."
His abode is on Mount Zaphon (cf. Ps 48:1–2[2–3], cited above)
* The cosmic mountain par excellence in NW Semitic religions
* This name transferred to Ba'al sanctuaries outside of Ugarit Cf., for example, the place name [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ba 'al sepon) in the Exodus narrative (Exod 14:2, 9; Num 33:7)
In the Bible, Ba'al is ubiquitous, appearing in references to
* The temple of Ba'al (1 Kgs 16:32; 2 Kgs 10:21, 23, 25–27; 11:18)
* The altar of Ba'al (Judg 6:25, 28, 30–32; 1 Kgs 16:32; 2 Kgs 21:3)
* The pillar of Ba'al (2 Kgs 3:2; 10:27)
* The prophets of Ba'al (1 Kgs 18:19, 22, 25, 40; 2 Kgs 10:19)
* The priests of Ba'al (2 Kgs 11:18)
* Place names incorporating the name of Ba'al (for example, Ba'al Meon [Num 32:38], Ba'al Gad [Josh 11:17], and Ba'al Perazim [1 Chr 14:11])
* Personal names incorporating the name of Ba'al (for example, Ba'al-Hanan [Gen 36:38], Jerub-Ba'al [Judg 6:32], and Merib-Ba'al [1 Chr 8:34])
Sister and consort of Ba'al
The mother of his offspring (although this has been alternatively explained)
A bn 'nt may not refer to an actual child of Anat, but rather to someone who shares the attributes of Anat
Volatile, independent, adolescent warrior and hunter
* Distinguished for her heroic spirit and courage
* Bloodthirsty and fierce in battle
* btlt "virgin," or "marriageable, adolescent female"
* aht b'l "sister of Ba'al"
Appears in the Bible in
* The personal name Shamgar ben Anat (Judg 3:31)
* The personal name Anathoth (Neh 10:19)
* The place name Beth Anat (Josh 19:38)
* The place name Anathoth (Josh 21:18)
A temple to Anat has been discovered at Beth Shan, and it is perhaps the place where the Philistines took Saul's armor after his death in battle (1 Sam 31:8–10).
The great goddess
The consort of El
Her full name is rbt art ym "the Lady who marches upon the sea."
Particularly worshiped in Tyre and Sidon, which helps us to understand Jezebel's actions (1 Kgs 16:31–32; 18:4, 13; 19:1–2)
* qnyt ilm "creator [f.] of the gods" (the deities are sometimes called her children)
* rbt "Lady" (i.e., "great one" [f.])
In the Bible, usually associated with a cultic pole
* It can be set up/planted like a tree (Deut 16:21).
* It can be chopped down (Deut 7:5).
The Bible records other unspecified cult objects made for Asherah:
* In 1 Kgs 15:13, we're told King Asa's grandmother, Maakah, made "a repulsive image [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] mipleset] for the worship of Asherah."
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