From 1939 onwards, the excavation of a mound on the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria, (called Ras Shamra), uncovered the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit. Included in the finds were tablets containing texts recording the religious beliefs of its people, which show that Ugarit and Israel shared a common linguistic and literary heritage, and provide an insight into early Israelite religion.
The earliest Israelites are currently thought to have been indigenous Canaanites, so that their chief god was initially called El. They were joined, however, by a fellow Semitic group who’d escaped forced labour in Egypt, and who worshipped a god called Yahweh who was adopted by the Israelites as a whole. El became Yahweh for the Israelites, and both names are used in the Hebrew Bible. Psalms in praise of El in Ugarit texts were adapted in praise of Yahweh. Also among the Canaanite gods were Yam, (the god of the sea), and Mot, (the god of death), so the Hebrew word for sea is yam, and for death is mot, although the Israelites did not regard these as the names of gods. There is evidence in one of the texts that Ugarites, having become aware of the existence of Yahweh, were happy to regard him as one of the sons of their own god El. Myths, I think, are much more tolerant than religions!
The El of Ugarit presided over a council of lesser gods, as does Yahweh in the book of Job. El had a wife called Asherah, and so did Yahweh! We need to remember that the religion of the common people differed from that of the elite. Archeological inscriptions have been found that refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah“. We hear, in 2 Kings 21, about a statue of Asherah in Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem and, in 2 Kings 23, about women weaving garments for her statue. No wonder the Hebrew prophets raged against this on page after page.
An important Ugarit god was Baal, who’s mentioned 76 times in the Hebrew Bible, including the shocking story, in 1 Kings 18, of Elijah humiliating the 450 prophets of Baal before murdering every one of them. Baal was a storm god, who’s described as “the rider on the clouds” in Ugarit, as is Yahweh in Psalm 68:5. Israelites who lived by subsistence farming were entirely dependent on rain for the fertility of their plots of land, and Baal, unlike Yahweh, was a fertility god. It made good sense, therefore, to worship both. As it happens, Ugaritic worship of Baal included much drinking and sexual activity, rain and semen being both productive of ‘fruit’. This is perhaps why Israelite priests were forbidden alcohol while performing their rituals, and why women were allowed nowhere near!
Ugarit celebrated the enthronement of Baal over the other gods. The story was that, as a fertility god, he was killed by the god Mot in the autumn, and remained dead through the winter, but returned in the spring along with renewed vegetation. Although not as a fertility rite, in the Hebrew Bible there is celebration of the enthronement of Yahweh over all other gods, as in the ‘enthronement’ Psalms such as 47 and 99. Both the Ugaritic and Israelite rites re-enact creation, ensuring the maintenance of order over chaos, and the triumph of life over death.
Other parallels are found in the Ugaritic yearly ritual of the scapegoats, one for the god and one for a demon. In Leviticus 16, one goat is offered to God as a sacrifice, and the other is “sent off into the desert to Azazel (a demonic spirit), in order to take away the sins of the people.”
Why is it important to be aware of this Ugaritic, Canaanite context for the Hebrew Bible? It makes it clear that the Bible did not drop, ready made, from heaven above. It emerged out of a rich, diverse, colourful and widespread historical, cultural and religious context. It accepted, modified and rejected elements in the myths of others, to create its own, unique, symbolic, figurative, and metaphorical response to the idea of God, and to the idea of a reality transcending, and enhancing, the everyday materiality of our human existence. That’s what helps to make the Hebrew Bible such a great, rich, and essential, read.