Ugarit and It’s Significance for Biblical Studies: Part 2

Grammatical Comparison

Because of their close proximity to each other, Ugaritic and Hebrew share many common features. For example, the base form for many of their words has three radicals. From these radicals, endings are added, or vowels changed to use the words in a variety of ways.

Nouns

The noun systems in Ugaritic and in Hebrew are very similar, but they do have some major differences.[1] The greatest difference is that in addition to Hebrew’s gender, number, and state, Ugaritic adds three cases (Nominative, Genitive, and Accusative). The cases function like they do in Greek: nominative is the subject of the sentence. Genitive is the prepositional case. And accusative is the object of a sentence.

What is the difference between the genitive case and the construct state? The genitive case relates to the previous word, while the construct state relates to following words. Take the example: “Doug of Greenville of South-Carolina.” Doug would be in the construct state because it relates Greenville which comes after it. Greenville would be in the genitive case because it relates back to Doug and it would also be in the construct state because it relates forward to South-Carolina. South-Carolina would be in the genitive case because it relates back to Greenville and it would be in the absolute state because it ends the construction.

Verbs

Hebrew and Ugaritic are very similar in their verbs systems. Ugaritic has the same states as Hebrew, except they add energic state. This state adds a suffix to the end of the yqtl (or imperfect) forms which communicates energy or necessity with the verb.

Ugaritic and Hebrew themes overlap greatly. However, Ugaritic lacks its equivalence to the Hophal and Pual themes. But, it has three themes which are unique. The Gt theme is the basic ground theme (G), but it has an infixed t, which makes the verb reflexive. Also, they have an R theme, which is for verbs with two letter roots. In this theme, both radicals reduplicate (hence, the R theme) to make the verb’s force mean to cause a state. Finally, the L theme is for hollow and geminate verbs. In this theme, a long vowel (hence, the L theme) occurs after the first radical. This too means the verb causes a state.

Vocabulary Comparisons

According to David Steinberg, the overlap of vocabulary roots “between Ugaritic and Hebrew . . . is about 79 percent.”[2] Because of this overlap, Ugaritic has given Biblical scholars more contexts to determine the meaning of the words. However, comparative linguistics can be dangerous territory. Issues such as chronology, cultural interaction, physical distance, and shared heritage must be considered when comparing the two languages.[3] For purposes of this article, the cultural heritage and connection is assumed.

Example One: ḤMD (Desire)

The Hebrew word ḥmd can mean:  “1. desire and try to acquire, crave, covet Ex 20:17;—2. find pleasure in Is 1:29; 53:2 †—3. חָמוּד a) beloved Is 44:9; b) treasure Jb 20:20. nif.: pt. נֶחְמָד, נֶחְמָדִים: desirable Gn 2:9; 3:6. piel: pf. חִמַּדְתִּי: desire passionately SS 2:3.”[4] Ugaritic has a similar root, ḥmd (6md). In Ugaritic literature, the word appears 8 times. Here are their usages:

Occurrence Catalog Number Transliteration[5] Translation[6]
1, 2, 3 KTU 1.4.v.16,33, 39, tbl k.ģrm.

mid.ksp.gb‘m.mḥmd..

ḫrṣ.w bn.bht.ksp.

w ḫrṣ.bht.ṭhrm.

iqnim.šmḫ.aliyn

Let the rocks yield you much silver, the hills desirable gold, let the quarries bring you choicest gems. And build a house of silver and of gold, a house of jewels and lapis lazuli!
4, 5 KTU 1.4.vi.19,21 y[tl]k.l lbnn.w ‘ṣ h.

l [šr]yn.mḥmd.arz h.

h[n.l]bnn.w ‘ṣ h.

[šr]yn.mḥmd.arz h.

They [we]nt to Lebanon and its trees, to [Si]ryon and its choicest cedars; Yes, [Le]banon and its trees, Siryon and its choicest cedars.
6 KTU 1.92:29 M h.nšat ẓl h kbkbm.

… b km kbkbt k ṯn.

… b‘l yḥmdn h.yrṯ y.

… dmrn.l pn h yrd.

When the Virgin had changed,

Baal desired her; the Mighty One would possess her beauty

7,8 KTU 1.12.I.40 Wn.ymģy.aklm.

W ymẓa. ‘qqm.

b‘l.ḥmd m. yḥmd m.

bn.dgn.yhrr m.

b‘l.ngṯ hm.b p‘n h.

Baal went out hunting and came to the edge of the desert. And now he found the eaters, and he came upon the devourers. Baal greatly desired to have them, the Son of Dagan was eager for them.

Occurrences 1-3 mean something pleasurable or desirable. This is like the Holladay’s second definition: “2. find pleasure in.” Occurrences 4-8 are like Holladay’s first definition: “1. desire and try to acquire, crave, covet.” It is interesting how broad this word can be. It can mean to desire some object (4,5) or to lust after a person, like in Exodus 20:17. Or it can mean to desire someone’s death (7-8).

Example Two: NQD (Shepherd)

While comparing Ugaritic and Hebrew does not help us understand ḥmd much better than we already do, it does, however, help us understand rare words in the OT.  For example, about the word noqed in Hebrew, Peter Creige states:

Amos is called a “shepherd” (Amos 1:1). But why is the Hebrew word noqed used, rather than the common Hebrew word ro’eh? Noqed is used in only one other text in the Hebrew Bible to describe Mesha, King of Moab (2 Kings 3:4). In the Ugaritic texts, the cognate word nqd is used approximately ten times. It designates not a simple shepherd but somebody in the sheep business; the [073] was responsible for vast herds of sheep; he was a significant person in society, a member of the business elite. Amos, then, was probably not a simple shepherd. We are told that he was also involved with cattle and fruit farming (Amos 7:14–15). In light of the insight derived from the Ugaritic word nqd, we can conclude that Amos was engaged in agribusiness on a fairly large scale. Perhaps his business, selling wool or mutton, took him from his native Tekoa, in Judah, to the northern market places of Israel where he became involved in his prophetic ministry. Amos thus becomes not only a more human figure but also a more challenging figure to us in the 20th century, in the light of Ugaritic.[7]

The one caveat with this conclusion, however, is that Amos lived during the mid-eighth century and Ugarit was destroyed sometime in the early twelfth century. There is about a 400-year gap between the use of the comparative materials. Therefore, the conclusion can be only tentative until more texts are found where this word appears which are closer to the time of Amos.

Example Three: BMT (Back)

A final example shows how the meaning of some words can be refined for better translation. The word bāmā appears 101 times in the Bible means according to BDB a mountain, a battle field, a high place or funeral mound.[8]  In Ugaritic, a similar word appears which is spelled bmt. It means height, back or loin. Here are its usages:[9]

Catalog Transliteration Translation
KTU 1.5 VI 22 k ˁmq yṯlṯ bmt like a valley he ploughed (his) back
KTU 1.4 IV 14s yštn aṯrt l bmt ˁr l ysmsmt bmt pḥi they placed DN on the back of the ass, on the best of the donkey’s back
KTU 1.3 II 12  ˁtkt rišt l bmth she fastened heads to (her) back
KTU 4.247:17 ˁšr bmt alp mri ten loins [backs] of fattened ox
KTU 1.4 VII 34 bmt ar[ḥ] tṭṭn the heights of the earth shook

In KTU 1.4 VII 34, bmt overlaps with the Hebrew cognate bāmā taking the same meaning. But the other uses point to a person’s/animal’s anatomical back.

Bāmā appears in Deuteronomy 33:29 in the construct state, spelled bāmôṯê. Here is the passage: “Blessed are you, O Israel; Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, Who is the shield of your help And the sword of your majesty! So your enemies will cringe before you, And you will tread upon their [bāmôṯê].” Traditionally, this word has been translated high places, rendering the phrase “And you will tread upon their high places” (NASB). Recent scholarship, however, suggests that this use should reflect the Ugaritic meaning of a person’s anatomical back, rendering it “and you shall tread upon their backs” (ESV).

While there is a connection between the words, is it legitimate to render the Hebrew word according Ugaritic meaning? First, the two texts were written within the same period of each other (Late Bronze Age), thus giving a higher probability of semantic overlap. Second, according to Kitchen, this depiction reflects a common motif in Egyptian art, where the conquering hero steps on the backs of his fallen enemies.[10] It could be that Moses was drawing on a common theme in the Ancient Near East found in Ugarit and Egypt. Third, the passage is focusing on God personally defeating a foe face to face. The Ugaritic meaning fits better the use of the word kḥš (cringe) in the parallel line. Where kḥš means cringe elsewhere in the Bible, it is used of one’s enemies being subjected under one’s self.[11] In each of these passages, it is not the enemy’s land that is in view, but the enemies themselves are the conquered. The picture of God treading on the back of his enemies would complete the image of subjection. With these considerations in mind, it seems that using the mean of anatomical back found in the Ugaritic cognate makes better sense here in this passage.

[1] For a chart comparing the noun endings, see Table 4 in the Appendix.

[2] “History of the Hebrew Language by David Steinberg,” accessed April 10, 2018, http://adath-shalom.ca/history_of_hebrew.htm.

[3] For more information, see Williams, Basics of Ancient Ugaritic: A Concise Grammar, Workbook, and Lexicon, 24–25. And also the classic critic of James Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

[4] William Holladay and Ludwig Köhler, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 108.

[5] G. Douglas Young, Concordance of Ugaritic., Analecta orientalia, commentationes scientificae de rebus Orientis antiqui, 36 (Roma : Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1956., 1956), 260, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat04680a&AN=bju.b1096760&site=eds-live.

[6] Translations borrowed from Nicolas Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, 2nd ed. (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003).

[7] Craigie, “The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Studies,” 72–73.

[8] Francis Brown, Samuel Driver, and Charles Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 119.

[9] Information taken from Gregorio Del Olmo Lete and Joaquin Sanmartin, A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition, vol. 67, Handbook of Oriental Studies Section One: The Near and Middle East (Bostan: Brill, 2003), 224.

[10] Kitchen in Kenneth L. Barker, “The Value of Ugaritic for Old Testament Studies,” Bibliotheca Sacra 133, no. 530 (1946): 127.

[11] 2 Samuel 22:45, Psalms 18:44, 66:3, and 81:15.

Appendix of Noun and Verb Endings

Hebrew Nouns Singular Plural Dual
Absolute Construct Absolute Construct Absolute Construct
M. None None ׅים ֵי ַיׅם ֵי
F. ׇה ַת־ וֺת וֺת תַיׅם תֵי
Ugaritic Nouns Singular Plural Dual
Absolute Construct Absolute Absolute Construct Absolute
M. NOM. -u -u -ūma -āmi
M. GEN. -i -i -īma -êmi
M. ACC. -a -a -īma -êmi
F. NOM. -atu -atu -ātu -ātu -atāmi -atā
F. GEN. -ati -ati -āti -āti -atêmi -atê
F. ACC. -ata -ata -āti -āti -atêmi -atê
Ugaritic Hebrew Meaning Example
No performative G Qal No performative Basic or Ground (hence “G”) stem. No special meaning. He kills.
Infixed t Gt Ground + action reflected on subject He kills himself.
N Performative N Niphal N performative Simple passive He was killed.
Double Middle radical D Piel Dagesh in middle radical Causing a state He destroyed.
Prefixed t and double middle radical tD Hithpa’el Performative hith + Dagesh in middle radical Causing a state + action reflected on subject He destroyed himself.
Reduplicate radicals R Causing a state for verbs with two letter stems
Long Vowel after first radical L Causing a state for hollow and geminate verbs
Š-Preformative Š Hiphil H performative Causing an action He caused death
Št-Preformative Št Hophal H performative Causing an action + action reflected on subject He caused dead upon himself

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