U is for Ugaritic

Ugaritic is a Semitic language which shares many lexical and grammatical features with biblical Hebrew. 1929 saw the first of a long series of Ugaritic textual discoveries in the remains of the city of Ugarit, which was the capital of the kingdom of Ugarit in the second millennium BCE. To date, more than 1,300 texts in Ugaritic have been collected from the site of ancient Ugarit and its environs. These texts date from around the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. They provided a wealth of new information about the religious beliefs, mythology and culture of the inhabitants of Ugarit at this time. The discovery of this large range of Ugaritic texts has a number of implications for students of the Hebrew Bible. We will consider just two of them here:

  1. The close relationship between Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew has enabled some gaps in our understanding of Hebrew and Hebrew texts to be filled. Some scholars such as Mitchell Dahood, famous for his Anchor Bible commentary on the Psalms [1], have probably gone too far in amending the Hebrew Bible at thousands of points. Contemporary scholarship displays a more balanced assimilation of the new insights but they are valuable in bringing clarity to the meaning of obscure words and in some cases identifying minor textual errors.
  1. The Ugaritic texts provided fresh background information about the god Baal—the same Baal that features in the Hebrew Bible. There are many references to Baal in the Hebrew Bible which treat the worship of Baal as a serious temptation for the tribes settling in the land of Canaan. Some of the Ugaritic texts are known as the Baal-Anat cycle, although the term cycle is controversial as some scholars argue they are collection of disparate texts rather than a literary whole, see [2] for more information. In this ‘cycle’, Baal is clearly portrayed as god of the storm and Anat is both his sister and his wife. In the background of the ‘cycle’, playing no real narrative role is El, head of the Ugaritic pantheon, along with his wife Asherah.

To round off this post we consider a proposal about a psalm which brings these two threads together. It has been claimed that some of the most ancient of Psalms might be appropriated from outside of Israel. Psalm 29 is the classic case. Here are some verses from Psalm 29:

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;

    the God of glory thunders,

    the Lord, over mighty waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;

    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,

    and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

Psalm 29:3‒7 (NRSV)

Some interpreters have noted that if the occurrences of ‘the Lord’ (i.e. Yahweh) are replaced by the name Baal then a number of alliterations appear. As Holladay says ‘the present Hebrew text of the psalm has so great a number of occurrences of the consonants b and l and of the syllable ‘al as to lead us to suspect that the original form of the psalm was a hymn to the god Baal’ (my emphasis, see [3]).  This possibility seems even more plausible when we note that the thunder, lightning and storm manifestations so central to this psalm are typical of those attributed to Baal in the Ugaritic texts.

Some people of faith find such proposals disturbing as it is far from the simple tradition of the psalms being inspired by David. Such an adaption of a pre-existing text can however be seen as Yahweh’s hand at work in a most remarkable and providential way—the worship of other gods is transient and Yahweh emerges triumphant as the true God of not only of the storm but of history too.

 

References

  1. Mitchell Dahood, Psalms I, II and III, The Anchor Bible Commentary, volumes 16, 17 and 17A, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966, 1968 and 1970.
  2. D. Pardee and Pierre Bordreuil, ‘Ugarit: Texts and Literature’, in volume 6, pp.760‒721 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed: David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  3. William L. Holladay, The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

 

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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