Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Ugaritic Texts

The remains of the ancient city of Ugarit were discovered in 1929, and the stone tablets found there contained writings that must have implications for the Old Testament.  Scholars are of course divided about how to interpret them and theologians obfuscate about their relevance, but many of them are now preserved in the Louvre in Paris.

There seems little doubt that the Ugaritic Texts pre-date the Old Testament.  There is strong archaeological evidence to show this, but the evidence is partly of a type that does not satisfy certain people with a vested interest in the bible.  For example, if you believe in the literal truth of the Old Testament and that the world is only 6000 years old, then carbon dating and other rational scientific evidence that sheds doubt upon these claims can be dismissed as easily as the rest of science.  (I will not dwell on the irony of the observation that many of these people rely on same basis of science to read this post on the internet, or to use their mobile phones, while denying that science has anything useful to say about their area of 'special pleading'.)

Those who do not actually deny the scientific truth of the dating of these texts sometimes try to pretend instead that it is not very relevant.  However, it seems obvious to me that contents of the Ugaritic Texts cannot be irrelevant to this weekend's theme about god in times of the Old Testament.  Any evidence from the same geographical region from a time slightly earlier than the Old Testament must shed light on the way people were thinking and acting in their religious lives. If experts disagree with each other, then it is obvious that they all need more evidence to back up their arguments.  Ignoring some data in favour of other evidence that you prefer is lazy and un-scholarly.

The Ugaritic texts show that the Israelites were clearly very closely associated with the tribes living around them.  At that time in the Canaan region, it is claimed by many that polytheism was not the exception but the norm.  There are strong clues about this throughout the Old Testament.  Interesting verses are slipped into the text here and there, and it is as though have not been effectively removed while trying to make the Old Testament appear monotheistic.  I touched on Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy yesterday, but here are some more.

  • 1 Kings 22:19  "I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left."  (Who were all the host?)
  • Exodus 15:11  asks about Yahweh "Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods?"
  • Genesis 1:26, uses the plural - "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness".   Even from the very creation it seems that god was not alone.
I expect there are 'weasel words' to explain these oddities, but how can theologians say that the bible is all literally true except where it isn't?

So who were these other gods in this polytheistic environment, one might wonder.  The people of Ugarit worshipped a god called Ba'al.  This time he was a storm god, unlike the way he was described yesterday, so you could be forgiven for assuming that I was confused.  (In the event that that is true, it is because the 'evidence' is truly confusing.)  But the texts mention a god even more powerful than Ba'al, namely El.  The Ugaritic version of El was the husband of Asherah and the father of all gods.

You won't be surprised to see the familiar names Ba'al and El but now you can see why I chose to look at them in more detail in the previous posts.  But who was Asherah?  More on her in the next post.

Related posts:
More on the details of the Ugaritic Texts can be found here.


Beachbum said...

After reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God, even those not familiar with the archaeological evidence will ever look at the Old Testament as monotheistic texts again.

I've been reading Israel Finkelstein's submitted papers, and have come to the working thesis that there is much more Aesop in the Old Testament than anything close to even a Herodotus let alone an Edward Gibbon or Will Durant.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Ugaritic, the Phaistos Disk is of Ugaritic origin. It contains a royal genealogy on the recto side and a mythical flood narrative on the verso side, with a war story thrown in for good measure. For more on this, please see: