Ugarit and the Old Testament

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I have recently finished a book called Ugarit and the Old Testament by Peter Craigie. He tells the story of the discovery and translation of thousands of tablets of a culture contemporary with much of the early Old testament. What is so important about this archaeological discovery? The texts they have unearthed at Ugarit are in a cognate of Hebrew that has many words that parallel and potentially shed light on several biblical texts as well as the culture of the surrounding region.

The written texts are important not only for the study of Ugarit’s life and history; they are also vital for the comparative study of the world of Ugarit and the Old Testament world. Their value is increased by the relative lack of similar textual evidence from the southern geographical region of Paelstine in which the Hebrews settled early in the biblical period. From the historical period of the Old Testament, very few ancient texts have been recovered by archaeologists. Complete Hebrew inscriptions from the early biblical period number less than twenty and none of them are long…The few surviving Hebrew inscriptions, together with two Moabite inscriptions, constitute the principal epigraphic evidence of a relatively early date that is relevant to the study of the Old Testament. But, with the exception of the biblical text itself, nothing has survived from the early period that could be called literature in the proper sense.” (Craigie, 44).

The excavation of the tell at Ugarit (also known as Ras Shamra) contained many religious, mercantile, and political archives that shed light on the meaning of the Old Testament. It would be similar to a society that knew of the United States and was growing in its knowledge of English and then discovered several thousand Latin texts – the language is not identical but some words are nearly verbatim. The difference being Latin is not nearly as contemporary with modern day English as Ugarit’s language was with biblical Hebrew.

What effect has this had on biblical interpretation? It has impacted our view of several of the songs or poems of the Old Testament. Ugarit’s poetry employed some of the same tools like parallelism that the Hebrew Bible contains. The narrative and religious texts of Ugarit have helped us understand the stories of the false gods mentioned in the Old Testament like Baal who was the god of the storm and rider on the clouds (which have biblical parallels now seen as an attack on the false gods of the surrounding nations). The ancient god Yam was god of the sea and represented the primeval forces of chaos. In the Genesis account we see God himself creating the sea and having authority over it and subdues it. Craigie points to about a dozen other biblical texts that are illuminated by a study of the texts from Ugarit. If any of this has piqued your interest you can look here for where to find this book.

See this wikipedia article for more information and further links on the literature from Ugarit.

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