The Bible and Canaanite Myth

Previous posts have explored the use made by the writers/editors of the Hebrew Bible of the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, goddess of the salt waters. A different version of this story is found in the mythology of Israel’s fellow Canaanites, and appears in tablets (see above) discovered at ancient Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast of what is now northern Syria. The storm god Baal is threatened by Prince Sea (or Judge River). After defeating this adversary in battle, Baal is established as King of the Gods and, on Mount Zaphon, a temple is built for him made of cedar wood and furnished with gold, silver and precious stones. He’s acclaimed as the “rider on the clouds”, and when he “sounds his voice in the clouds, and flashes his lightning to the earth .. the earth’s high places shake”. 

In Psalm 68, Yahweh is “the one who rides on the clouds … Look! He thunders loudly … the earth shakes”. In 1Kings 6, Yahweh has a temple built for him on “Mount Zion” of which “the inside was all cedar .. plated with gold”. In Exodus 19, when Yahweh gives Moses the Law, “there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain … Yahweh descended on it in fire … the whole mountain shook violently”. This is a Storm God with a vengeance. 

It’s against this background, in my view, that the story of the Exodus from Egypt (and entry into Canaan) needs to viewed. This isn’t to say that it has no historical basis, but that this has been progressively overlaid with a multitude of supernatural occurrences. These include the ten plagues, (the different ones in separate sources having been combined), as well as the Storm God’s guiding “pillar of cloud by day and fire by night”.

The Storm God’s power over the Sea and its waters lies behind, and supplies a frame for, the Israelites’ exit from Egypt and entry into Canaan. In Exodus 14:21f –  “Yahweh drove the sea apart by a strong east wind … the water forming a wall for [the Israelites] on their right and left”. Exodus 15:8 declares that “By the blast of your nostrils the waters were piled up, the flowing water stood upright like a heap”.

That’s a blast worthy of any Storm God! The same wind then brings about the destruction of the pursuing Egyptians in 15:10, “You blew with your breath and the sea covered them”. In this adaptation of the myth, rather the sea being represented as God’s enemy, it becomes his ‘servant’ in defeating the enemies of his people. 

The counterpart of the exodus from Egypt is the entrance into Canaan. This becomes a repetition on a smaller scale, since the Jordan is a river, rather than a sea. It’s interesting, however, to recall that Baal’s adversary was known both as Prince Sea, and Judge River ! In Joshua 3 & 4, “the water of the Jordan will stop flowing and pile up – all Israel crossed over on dry ground … the water of the Jordan flowed again and returned to the flood stage”.

The link between the myth and the Exodus is recognised in Isaiah 51.9f –

And in Psalm 114:1f, we have a link between the Exodus and the crossing of the river Jordan – 

Understanding this mythical background, sourced from the Israelites’ historical, literary and religious participation in the widespread, vibrant culture of its time and place, does not, for me, detract from, but enhances the richness of its achievement, and the timeless fascination, and psychological and spiritual depths of its national epic.   

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