Ugarit and It’s Significance for Biblical Studies: Part 3

Literary Comparisons

The discoveries of Ugarit included a vast array of literature. Ugarit contained the largest Canaanite[1] body of literature known to date. The best-known portion of this literature is the Baal Cycle. It is an epic about the exploits and challenges of Baal. In addition to the well-known mythical texts, the literature also includes texts concerning administration, contracts, dedications, divinations, economics, hymns, incantations, labels, legal practices, letters, medical practices, rituals, schooling, and treaties.[2]

Example One: Canaanite Mythology

As far as the gods are concerned, El is the high god, the father of the other gods. Thus, many of the lesser deities are called “sons of el” which is an interesting correspondence to the same phrase found in Genesis 6 and Job 1-2. Also, his name obviously corresponds to the biblical title for God which is also El. He is sometimes referred to as El-Elyon—the Most-High God. Astarte is El’s consort and the mother of the gods. She is correlated the goddess Asherah in mentioned in the Bible. Baal is El’s son and the most popular deity, even though he is not the chief. He is the god of Storm. Anat is Baal’s consort and sister.  She is a blood thirsty warrior goddess, like a hardened female warrior from a graphic young adult fiction novel. She is not mentioned directly in the Bible. The only possible place is the place-name Anathoth. Yam is the god of the sea who hates Baal. He controls epic sea monsters and waves. He is not identified as such in the Bible, although some commentators would read him into some Psalms.[3] Mot is the god of death and also another enemy of Baal. He lives in the underworld kingdom surrounded by filth.[4]

In addition to the gods, there are other important religious concepts. Their home was in Mountain Zaphon, which is the Mount Olympus of Canaanite mythology.[5] It is the abode of Baal and Anat. The gods amuse themselves there and the people of Ugarit offered sacrifices to Zaphon.[6] Also, the Ugaritic texts reference beings called the rpum. These beings appear to be the spirits of the departed kings, heroes of the ancient past.  They live in the underworld and are summoned on occasion to join the living in some of their celebrations.[7]

The Mythological Background of Isaiah Fourteen

How does this information help Bible students interpret the Scriptures? The Baal Cycle and other religious texts help Bible students understand some references to Semitic cosmology as found in the Bible. For example, Isaiah 14 is filled with Semitic mythology, which could be missed without knowing the background.

In Isaiah 14, God addressed this chapter to the King of Babylon. The king of Babylon is a pagan king who had a cosmology similar to that of Ugarit. And so, God borrows this pagan’s cosmology to mock him in this “taunt song” (Is. 14:4). The taunt song begins with a demonstration of his power over the king of Babylon (vv. 4-8). Isaiah cries, “Look how the oppressor has met his end!” He declares that “the Lord broken the club of the wicked.” He was a terrible conqueror, but now the world can rest in peace because this oppressor has died. This peace is because Yahweh has destroyed the conqueror.

Sheol and RS 2.[008]

However, Isaiah does not focus on the destruction of the king in this life, but moves quickly to what this king believed about the afterlife. Isaiah says, “Sheol [the underworld] below is stirred up about you, ready to meet you when you arrive” (v. 9). The word sheol does not have a known cognate in Ugaritic.  However, there are many other connections between the Ugaritic concept of the afterlife and that found in this chapter. Sheol is a place where “maggots are spread out as your bed beneath you And worms are your covering” (v. 11) and where “you will be thrust down to Sheol, To the recesses of the pit” (v. 15). The description of Sheol is like the description of Mot’s home in the Baal Cycle in RS 2.[008] VII: “There now, be off on your way . . . And descend to the depth of the earth, / Be of those who descend into earth. . .. Into his city Pit, / Low the throne that he sits on, / Filth the land of his inheritance.”[8] With these shared characteristics, Isaiah begins to reflect a pagan cosmology of the underworld.

The Spirits of the Dead and RS 34.126

Besides the general setting of Sheol, Isaiah also describes the inhabitances of Sheol in a way which parallels Ugaritic literature. Verse nine reads, “It rouses the spirits of the dead for you, all the former leaders of the earth; it makes all the former kings of the nations rise from their thrones.” The “spirits of the dead” is the word rəphă’ȋm in the plural or rəphă’ in the singular, which is a cognate in Ugaritic rpum. These beings appear in RS 34.126 which has a similar context. It is a ritual of the deceased king Niqmad, where the rpum are summoned to attend the dead king on his journey to the underworld.

Order of service for the sacrifice(s) of the (divine) Winged Disc: ‘You are invoked, O saviours[rpum] of the under[world], you are summoned, O assembly of Di[dan]. Invoked is Ulkan the saviour; invoked is Taruman the savior; invoked is Sidan-and-Radan; invoked is the eternal one, Thar. They have been invoked, the ancient saviours [rpum]. You are invoked, O saviours [rpum] of the underworld, you are summoned, assembly of Didan. Invoked is Ammithtamru the king (and) invoked as well is Niqmad the king. O throne of Niqmad, may you be mourned! And lamented be his footstool. Let the table of the king be mourned in his presence. But let their tears be swallowed, and their dreadful lamentations. Go down Shapsh [Sun goddess], yea, go down, Great Luminary! May Shapsh shine upon him. After your lords, from the throne, After your lords into the underworld go down: into the underworld go down and fall into the dust, down to Sidanu-and-Radanu, down to the eternal one, Thar, down to the anci<ent> saviours [rpum], down to Ammithtamru the king and also down to Niqmad the king.’[9]

In Isaiah, the departed kings rise from their thrones as this newly deceased king arrives.  But instead of congratulating him, they too mock him saying, “You too have become weak like us! You have become just like us! Your splendor has been brought down to Sheol, as well as the sound of your stringed instruments. . ..  Look how you have fallen from the sky, O shining one, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the ground, O conqueror of the nations!”

The Deification of a King

But this end in Sheol was not what the king of Babylon thought was going to happen. The rəphă’ȋm reveal his surprise by quoting what the king of Babylon thought would happen: “You said to yourself, ‘I will climb up to the sky. Above the stars of El I will set up my throne. I will rule on the mountain of assembly on the remote slopes of Zaphon. I will climb up to the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High!” There are several points of pagan cosmology in this statement. First, the “Stars of El” is a reference to “astral deities under the authority of the high god El.”[10] Second, here also is a reference to Zaphon, the mountain of the gods. Third, the Most-High is probably not a reference to YHWH, but to the god El who also (falsely) claimed this epitaph.

To summarize this passage, the King dies from the judgment of Yahweh the true God. He will be brought down to the land of filth—Sheol. This end is the exact opposite to what he expected. He expected to become a god—to join the gods on Mount Zaphon. Like many other kings of his time, he thought that when he died he would become one of the great gods that he believed in. He wanted a glorious funeral, to be held in great honor, to be surrounded by the glory of his kingdom. He probably wanted to be buried with his treasure—the necessary goods needed for his journey in the afterlife.

Instead, the only one true God condemned him to a miserable death, as he says in verses 18-20: “All the kings of the nations lie in glory, Each in his own tomb. But you have been cast out of your tomb Like a rejected branch, Clothed with the slain who are pierced with a sword, Who go down to the stones of the pit Like a trampled corpse. You will not be united with them in burial, Because you have ruined your country.”

The Limitations of the Parallels

These parallels are striking, and some connection exists between Ugaritic literature and the Bible. But what is the exact connection? Scholars differ greatly on this subject, as Michael Heiser notes:[11]

Craigie argues for a distinctly Ugaritic provenance.[12] Other scholars argue for a Mesopotamian source and want to trace Isaiah xiv 12-15 to either the Babylonian Irra-Myth[13]  or to the Gilgamesh Epic.[14] Oldenburg argues for an origin in South Arabian religion, but as he admits, there are no myths to be found among the South Arabic inscriptions upon which to base his argument.[15]

The main problem with comparing Isaiah 14 with any literature is that there is no single piece of literature that directly parallels it. In addition, a problem with the Ugaritic-Origin Theory is that Isaiah lived 400-500 years after Ugarit fell. Therefore, a direct connection between Isaiah 14 and Ugarit is highly suspect.

The answer to this quandary lies in the text of Isaiah 14 itself. First, God directs his taunt song against the King of Babylon, so whatever material Isaiah used probably came from that area. Second, the text also reflects the cosmological thoughts of this pagan king, so there might not even be a written document upon which this is based. Therefore, unless a parallel is discovered in Babylon, it is better to assume that God is drawing on a common ANE cosmological belief system to mock this king, and that Ugaritic literature illustrates some of his beliefs.

Example Two: A Certificate of Divorce

Often, that ancient culture of Ugarit seems distant, wild and mysterious. The religious texts make Ugarit feel like a mystical Atlantis, full of magic and lore. But, while the religious texts are helpful, they do not provide a complete picture of Ugarit. However, many of the texts discovered at Ugarit are non-religious in nature: lists of people on international caravans, letters to friends, contracts, tax receipts and so much more. These non-religious texts are important for biblical studies because they bring a sense of the humanness to the ancient world. They were people, who married and gave in marriage, set out on expeditions, traded, grew their businesses, engaged themselves in international politics and so much more. Through the study of these non-religious texts, aspects of the Scriptures are illustrated with real-life scenarios making it easier to understand and apply portions of the Bible to one’s every day life.

This final example represents the non-religious material from Ugarit. It is a Certificate of Divorce from the 13th century. Apparently, Ammistamru the king of Ugarit had some trouble with his wife and decided to divorce her. He wrote up the divorcement in two tablets, RS 17.159 and RS 17.396.

RS 17.159—Initial Certificate of Divorce[16]

Before My Sun, Tudḫaliya, Great-king, king of Hatti.

Ammistamru, king of Ugarit, took for wifehood the daughter of Bentešina king of Amurru. With regard to Ammistamru, — she sought to cause him headache. Ammistamru, king of Ugarit, has divorced the daughter of Bentešina forever.

And she shall take anything belonging to the daughter of Bentešina, that to the house of Ammistamru she brought, and she shall go from the house of Ammistamru. And whatever Ammistamru will deny, the sons of Amurru shall swear and Ammistamru shall compensate them.

And Utrišarruma is heir-apparent, in Ugarit. If Utrišarruma will say, I will go after my mother’, — he shall put his dress upon the throne, and shall go. And Ammistamru will appoint another son of his as heir-apparent in Ugarit.

If Ammistamru will go to his fate, and Utrišarruma (then) takes his mother, and restores her to queen(mother)hood in Ugarit, Utrišarruma shall put his dress upon the throne (?), and he shall go wherever he pleases. And My Sun will appoint another one of Ammistamru’s sons in Ugarit for kingship.

And in the course of time, the daughter of Bentešina shall raise no claim with regard to her sons, her daughters and her sons-in-law (?): they belong to Ammistamru, king of Ugarit. If she raises a claim this tablet he will produce against her.

RS 17.396—Addendum

Before Initešub, king of Carchemish, the son of Šaḫunuruwa, king of Carchemish grandson of Šarrukušuḫ, king of Carchemish , the hero.

Whatever the daughter of Bentešina, king of Amurru—silver, gold , copper , objects of bronze , tribute (?), gifts, donations, slave, hand-maiden, dress and tunique—that the daughter of Bentešina, king of Amurru, has acquired in Ugarit, all [these things] belongs to Ammistamru, king of Ugarit.

In future, the daughter of Bentešina will raise no claim with regard to these movables against Ammistamru, king of Ugarit, and against his sons and grandsons. If she raises a claim, this tablet he will produce against her.

Ammistamru had this document drawn up before the king of Hatti, who was his suzerain at that time. The document drew sharp boundaries between “his” and “hers.” She could take her dowry and anything she brought with her, but she could not take anything she obtained in Ugarit (as noted by the Addendum) nor did she have claim on any of her children fathered by Ammistamru.

Interestingly, the only charge brought against her is that she “sought to cause him a headache.” Literally, this phrase is “the illness of his head she sought.” The interpretation of this phrase is hard to determine. It could be a political or private embarrassment to the king.[17] Or to put the phrase in modern terms, the reason could have been for incompatibility. Whatever the reason, it caused the king enough headache that he divorced her.

The last significant item to note is that the wife is never named. She is only mentioned as “the daughter of Bentešina, king of Amurru.” According to Yaron, this is highly unusual because most often men and women had their names given in the legal texts. This namelessness may have been “to assign her to oblivion.”[18]

Biblical Comparison

The term Certificate of Divorce occurs only four times in the Scriptures, and none of these describes the contents of the certificate. And so, the Ugaritic texts serve as an excellent example of what the contents of one of these certificates would have looked like. These texts are what Moses would have been thinking about when he wrote Deuteronomy 24:1.

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

Even though there is little semantic overlap between this passage and RS 17.159, they do share some similarities. As far as timing, both were written within the Late Bronze Age. Both documents give a vague reason for divorce: in Israel, it was “some uncleanness” and in Ugarit it was “a headache.” Both documents ended up in the same situation, the divorcee was sent out of the house.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is part of the legal code, and as such it seems a little cold. The law presents a scenario in black-and-white, if-then statements. No exceptions to this rule are allowed, and no one can alter it. In addition, the scenario presented is a little odd, at least to the modern reader. The wife leaves her first husband and marries as second. Then, she leaves the second and attempts to come back to the first. And, although this situation is not totally improbable, it is not universally applicable. Thus, this passage may be difficult to apply to the modern reader.

While RS 17.159 may not provide additional exegetical information, it does provide a real-life scenario to compare with Deuteronomy, making the Law feel more human. The Ugaritic divorce paper presents a king who is frustrated with his wife and wants to divorce her for an almost humorous reason: a headache. Also, the anger and hatred are present in the text. The text divides strictly between “his” and “hers” and she can have no more than what she brought in. The text does not even mention her name, even though it mentions the names of everyone else involved.

In addition to the moral and ethical issues in divorce cases, RS 17.396—the addendum—provides a clear example of what it means to not love one’s neighbor. The king not only selfishly took back anything he might have giver to her in RS 17.159, be he also forbade her from taking anything she might have acquired in Ugarit. These actions display a self-centered attitude, not to unlike divorce cases today.

Theological Considerations

It is no wonder, then, that God says, “I hate divorce.” About a thousand years later in the days of Malachi the Prophet, God spoke these words to a society rampant with divorce. The men were dealing treacherously with their wives, in ways probably not too dissimilar to the Ugaritic texts. Drawing lines between “his” and “hers,” not giving her what she had acquired, and assigning her to oblivion. And so, while God allowed divorce in Deuteronomy 24, he did not want it to occur.

Another theological consideration comes from the other two contexts where the term certificate of divorce occurs: Isaiah 50:1 and Jeremiah 3:8. In both situations, God is describing his relationship with Israel in not so pleasant terms: Israel had committed adultery against her Husband, both metaphorically and literally. God’s divorce of Israel was not a friendly divorce between two people who had decided to go different directions in life. God declared that he had given Israel a certificate of divorce, sending them into captivity.

The Ugaritic texts illustrate what that divorce looked like. A clean line was drawn between God and Israel. As a wandering people they came into the land, and as a wandering people they went out. He sent them away with only what they brought into the land. All the wealth that they had acquired belonged to someone else and they became slaves in the land to which they went. And in a sense, like Abraham came from Mesopotamia, so they returned to the land of their fathers. Thankfully, the story did not end there. He did bring them back into the land and they were reconciled to him.

Summary

The discoveries at Ugarit are helpful from the narrow confines of grammar to the broad expanse of literary works. However, there is the danger of pan-Ugaritism, as exemplified by Mitchell Dahood’s commentary on the Psalms.[19] Pan-Ugaritism claims that “just as in Ugarit, so in Israel” and it indiscriminately draws parallels between the two cultures. However, any parallel drawn between Israel and Ugarit is only tentative, because of the distance and time gap between the two cultures.

But this caution should not deter study in this arena, nor should the conclusions be rejected just because they are only tentative. While not a magical answer for Biblical questions, Ugarit and its literature can serve as useful tool for understanding the Scriptures. And Bible students both in Academia and the Church can profit from the study of Ugarit.

[1] There is much debate over whether Ugarit was Canaanite or not. While this debate is important, for the purposes of this introductory paper, I will merely assume that they were Canaanites for the purpose of simplification.

[2] Categories taken from Sandra Schloen, Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment, Windows 10 (en_US, 2018), http://ochre.uchicago.edu.

[3] Simon B. Parker, “Ugaritic Literature and the Bible,” Near Eastern Archaeology 63, no. 4 (2000): 228–231.

[4] James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 135.

[5] The NET Bible, 1st ed. (Biblical Studies Press, 2005), Is. 14:13 n. 28.

[6] Gregorio Del Olmo Lete and Joaquin San Martin, “Ṣpn,” A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2003).

[7] Gregorio Del Olmo Lete and Joaquin San Martin, “Rpu,” A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2003).

[8] Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 135.

[9] Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, 431–439. Italicized brackets added.

[10] The NET Bible, Is. 14:13, n. 27. Compare with sense b of: Gregorio Del Olmo Lete and Joaquin San Martin, “Kbkb,” A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2003).

[11] Michael Heiser, “The Mythological Provenance of Isaiah 14:12-15: A Reconsideration of the Ugaritic Material,” in Faculty Publications and Presentations (Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School, 2001), n. 2, http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/lts_fac_pubs/280. Parenthetical citations were converted into footnotes for ease of presentation.

[12] Peter C. Craigie, “Helel, Athtar, and Phaeton [Jes 14 12-15],” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1985): 223–225.

[13] W. S. Prinsloo, “Isaiah 14 12-15—Humiliation, Hubris, Humiliation,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1980): 435.

[14] Robert O’Connell, “Isaiah XIV 4b-23 Ironic Reversal Through Concentric Structure and Mythic Allusion,” Vetus Testamentum 38, no. 4 (1988): 414.

[15] U. Oldenburg, “Above the Stars of El: El in Ancient South Arabic Religion,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 82 (1970): 187–208.

[16] Translations adapted from R. Yaron, “A Royal Divorce at Ugarit,” Orientalia 32, no. 1 (1963): 22–23. Some of the word order has been changed in order to give it clarity in English.

[17] Ibid., 25.

[18] Ibid., 24.

[19] Example taken from Craigie, “The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Studies,” 71. Dahood’s commentary: Mitchell J. Dahood, Psalms I: 1-50, The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966).

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