Pondering the Spade: Ugarit

by Dr. David Schreiner

I was talking to my dad the last time he was visiting, and the conversation shifted to this blog series. As we talked about it, I mentioned in passing that I had considered putting Ugarit on the list, but I had decided against it. After I said this, I noticed a certain silence. Naturally, I looked up, and what I saw was something that appeared to be shock on dad’s face, as if I had just renounced my fandom to the Cincinnati Reds.

[In my family this is a big deal. Both mom and dad grew up in Cincy. Moreover, my grandparents were not only season ticket holders, but they also went to Spring Training every year.]

“Oh son, you’ve got to do Ugarit,” he bluntly remarked.

So, here it is, Dad.

In 1928, a Syrian farmer came across some ancient ruins just off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He was plowing his field when his plow slammed into a large stone in the middle of his field. At first he thought nothing of it, but when he started to dig it out to remove it he realized that this stone was no ordinary stone. Eventually word reached the authorities who soon realized the importance of this man’s field. In that field, one of the longest lasting and culturally important sites in antiquity had just been found—the city of Ugarit.

Ugarit 1
Figure 1

Ancient Ugarit, or Ras Shamra, is located only 1 kilometer east of the Mediterranean and about 10 kilometers north of Syrian Latakia. This massive site boasted a walled city that sat on approximately 52 acres and probably controlled about 1300 square miles. Moreover, the stratigraphic evidence of the tel suggests occupation all the way back to the Neolithic Era. Settlements began in the seventh millennium BCE (Yes…I said millennium.) and reached their apex toward the end of the second millennium. However, the site was abruptly destroyed around 1200 BCE, mostly likely in conjunction with the systematic and devastating collapse of the Late Bronze Age.

During the height of its importance, Ugarit was heavily influenced by Egypt, politically and socio-economically. Because it sat on a critical juncture between Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Aegean, Ugarit developed into one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world, a fact that is evidenced most pointedly by the diverse material culture and small finds excavated over decades of excavation. They are detailed and intricate, coming from all parts of the ancient Near East and beyond. In addition to the incredible small finds, Ugarit’s sophistication was also manifested in the city’s architecture. Ugarit displayed a well-developed residential area as well as two very prominent temples, which were dedicated to Baal and Dagan respectively. Yet Ugarit’s palace complex was its true hallmark. This installation was approximately 6,500 square meters!

Ugarit 2
Figure 2

“This is all fine and dandy, but there has got to be something more, right?”

Oh yeah….there’s more. Ugarit’s importance for Biblical Studies stems from its textual footprint. Numerous libraries have been discovered at several points in the site’s history of excavation, and they have yielded texts in various formats and languages. Akkadian, the internal language of diplomacy, was used there, but so was Hurrian, Egyptian, Luwian, Sumerian, Cypro-Minoan, and “Canaanite.” Furthermore, with the discovery of these libraries, scholars now know of a language called Ugaritic, which can be defined as a Northwest Semitic language written in a cuneiform alphabet. As for the content of the Ugaritic texts, many are administrative in nature, which has shed an important light on so much of the socio-political dynamics of the Late Bronze Age.

I would be remiss not to admit that Ugaritic is not mentioned in Scripture, which begs the question why I even include this site. Why was my dad so shocked that I had initially omitted the site from my list? For starters, Ugarit, particularly its texts, have allowed us to understand some cryptic elements of Scripture. Remember that fig concoction that Isaiah said needed to be applied to Hezekiah’s sore (2 Kgs 20:7; Is 38:21)? That was apparently also used in Ugarit on horses. Also, Jeremiah tells the Judeans not to enter a “house of mourning” (16:5-9), which is apparently the location of a funeral rite where people drank loads of alcohol and partook in pagan worship practices.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Then there is the importance for understanding poetry. Simply put, the fundamentals of poetry observed in Biblical Hebrew poetry find parallel in Ugaritic. In fact, the parallels are so pronounced that Biblical Studies has been victim to some parallel-o-mania. For example, one of the classic biblical commentaries, Mitchell Dahood’s commentary on the Psalms (3 vols), should have been subtitled, “Parallels! Parallels! So Many Parallels It’s Practically Ugaritic!”

But there’s more! Ugarit’s texts have shone a billion-watt spotlight on Canaanite religion. It is not an exaggeration to say that the texts of Ugarit have been the most important voice in shaping the contours of how one understands Canaanite religion and the development of Israelite religion. Without the religious epics of Ugarit, there would likely still be massive gaps in scholarship’s understanding of the Canaanite pantheon. Without the ritual texts of Ugarit, there may still be questions concerning how religious rituals commence around a lunar calendar. Without the religious texts, there would be a lacuna of understanding for how Israel’s religion interacted with the religions of its neighbors.

“Wait. Did he say what I thought he said?!”

Yes, I did. The reality is that Israel’s perceptions of Yahweh show points of commonality with Canaanite religion. There are too many to go into detail here, but as an example, Ps 68:4 attributes an epithet to Yahweh that is also attributed to the Canaanite Storm God. Yahweh as the rider on the clouds is like Baal the rider on the clouds. As crazy as this may sound to some, there is a reason why people like Mark Smith have made a career out of reconstructing the development of Israelite religion as a phenomenon with deep roots in Canaanite religion. And yes this mean that the song “Days of Elijah” perpetuates this Israelite/Canaanite connection.

“Behold he comes, riding on the clouds, shining like the sun…”

Perhaps, then, this is a fitting way to end this series. With Ugarit, one sees the essence of archaeology at work. One sees the lengthy commitment to systematic excavation of a particular site for purposes of understanding the importance of the site and the culture that populated it. Ugarit does not set out to prove or disprove the Bible, and the data yielded by the site does not necessarily have to bear on the content of Scripture. However, there are times that the data from the site impacts Biblical Studies, and sometimes that interaction can significantly shape one’s understanding of the dynamics of God’s revelation through Scripture.

 

Figure 1: “Ras Shamra,” in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (ed. Mark Allan Powell; New York: HarperCollins, 2011)

Figure 2: Ancient Ruins of Ugarit | Smothers, Thomas, “Ugarit,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (eds. Chad Brand; et. al.; Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

Figure 3: Cretan Vessels Discovered at Ugarit |”Ugarit,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (eds. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 2113.

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