Greater Syria History

Impressions of “The Ras Shamra Discoveries and the Old Testament,” by Arvid S. Kapelrud

Ras Shamra Discoveries is a short monograph about the religious texts of ancient Ugarit, known in more recent times as Ras Shamra, or “Fennel Mound.” The ancient city is at the point of Syria closest to the island of Cyprus. From these texts we have a nearly complete Ba’al Cycle, a set of stories involving God (the creator of all things), Prince Ba’al (referenced multiple times in the Old Testament), Death (“Mot”), Leviathan (“Lotan”), and others. The text’s themselves are available in multiple collections I have read and reviewed here, including Stories of Ancient Canaan and Assembly of the Gods, and helped form speculation like my post on “The Good Bull.”

Kapelrud focuses on the physical context of the discoveries and what he sees as their implications. These texts are our best window into what the Canaanites of the Bible actually believed and did. One reason we can be so confident in the translations of the Ras Shamra tablets is that they are dwarfed by more predictable writings in the same language: legal contracts, invoices, receipts, and the everyday world of business dealings. More intriguing is what appears to be the physical layout of ancient Ugarit: a great royal palace (with 90 rooms, nearly a “Royal City” in itself), plus great temples of Ba’al and Dagan.

These texts are old. They date from around 1200 BC. In terms of Hebrew history, this is halfway between the Exodus and King David. Specifically, this would be during the Book of Judges, immediately before the arrival of the Philistines. In terms of Canaanite history, at the end of the “Habiru” wars and just before the invasion of the Sea Peoples.

These twin histories are a good jumping-off point. My view is that the obvious conclusion is that the Philistines are one of the Sea Peoples and that the Hebrews are related to the “Habiru.” In other words, that the ancient Hebrew histories present a Hebrew-centric perspective on a history that extended beyond them. A similar perspective can be used for the Rash Shamra texts. For instance, the following passage can be taken, not as a statement of comparative religion, but as how the Hebrew writers used the same themes to make a point. For instance:

Occasionally Death is personified in the Old Testament… but the few glimpses we get of this figure do not give us much to build upon, and the element of personification does not amount to much.

It is not remarkable that the figure of Mot [Death] does not really appear in the Old Testament. As we have seen, there is a strong tendency there to get rid of mythological conceptions .The traces that survive appear for the most part in poetical passages and in the prophets. In particular much of the old material has been preserved in the Psalms but even they provide no evidence that Mot [Death] was of any significance in Israel.
A.S. Kapelrud, The Ras Shamra Discoveries and the Old Testament, ppg. 63-64

Indeed, to Israel, death does not amount to much.

While Kapelrud is clear about where his personal perspective departs from what the texts say, at times he falls into eisegesis. In spite of the lack of any text anywhere presenting a war between Ba’al and El, he assumes there must have been one, because in other cultures (say, Greece or Babylon) there were conflicts between the Storm-God and the Creator-God. Likewise, Kapelrud views the use of clearly Canaanite references in the Old Testament as evidence of confusion between Ba’al and the LORD, instead of evidence that the human authors of the scriptures used human words, phrases, and conventions they knew about to express their message.

The (Missing) Temple of God

Strikingly, in spite of references to “El” (God, the Creator) as above other gods, with the legal power over their fate, there is no Temple to El (“God”) in Ugarit. Or seemingly, anywhere before King Solomon built one in Jerusalem hundreds of years later. While Kapelrud believes the missing text implied a battle between El and Ba’al, I think my own thoughts are more likely:

The reason is that in no Near Eastern religion, other than Judaism, considered the Creator of the Universe particularly important. (For that matter, Mormons still don’t). The Romans worshiped Jupiter though they thought he was created, Jezebel obviously worshiped Ba’al Melqart though he was just Hercules! The question was not who created the universe from nothing, or even who had the greatest absolute power: no one believed that Ba’al Melqart / Hercules had “The sun and the moon, rain and dew, the entire realm of mysterious natural forces” (Van’t Veer, My God is the LORD, p. 45) assigned to him. The question was who was the most effective patron right here and right now.

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