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.

Even Ba’al believed that El was the Creator! The question is not whether El is a transcendent being, but whether he intervenes in human affairs. The Ugaritic view was that God created the earth but concerned himself primarily with the gods.

Indeed, our creator is eternal
Indeed ageless is He who formed us
“God’s Drinking Party,” in Assembly of the Gods

The Jewish (and later Christian) view is that God both created the world, and actively cared for all the creatures in it:

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
Matthew 6:26-27

Almost midway between the lives of the people who wrote these texts and the birth of Christ, God rejected a Temple for himself:

Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet,

“See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”

Then Nathan said to the king,

“Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you.”

But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying,

“Go and tell My servant David,

’Thus says the LORD:

“Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about with all the children of Israel, have I ever spoken a word to anyone from the tribes of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’”’
2 Samuel 7:1-7

Yet the tension between the Creator and a physical building was consistent. The Samaritans, an offshoot of the Hebrews, refused to worship in a Temple, and even Elijah the great prophet sacrificed outside of the Temple.

It seems to have been the total lack of Temples to El – outside Jerusalem – that led the Magi to visit Jerusalem, and from there to learn of a prophesied birth of a King in nearby Bethlehem.

The Psalms

In his translation of The Psalms, Robert Alter suggested that Canaanite stories were still well known during the time of the Second Temple period, perhaps in the way that Greek mythology is still known to us. Michael Heiser, in The Unseen Realm, argues that this setting is critical for understanding the drama of Christ’s victory. If so it is not surprising that motifs are taken up even into the New Testament, though Kapelrud does not comment on this. For instance, God’s (El’s) sadness at the death of a “god” might be puzzling…

The thread of the narrative is taken up again at the point where the news of Baal’s death was brought to El.

It might have been expected that El would be overjoyed to receive such news; the young god who had aspired to leadership was dead and gone. But here again we see how closely these texts are linked with the cult. What had to be expressed int eh cult in connection with Baal’s death was weeping and lamentation . At this point the appropriate action was mourning. El, the supreme god, had himself to set the example and show what had to be done. He descended from his throne and sat on the ground. He poured dust and ashes on his head and put on sackcloth. He lacerated himself, making cuts on his face, his arms, his breasts, and his back. He cried aloud and lamented: “Baal is dead. Who will be the people’s of Dagan’s son? Who will be the multitude sof Baal?”
A.S. Kapelrud, The Ras Shamra Discoveries and the Old Testament, ppg. 45

… but John the Evangelist seems to parallel this. It turns out the surprising part is not that the Creator would weep for a god. But that he would weep – and even shed blood – for a man as well:

Now Jesus had not yet come into the town, but was in the place where Martha met Him. Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforting her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, “She is going to the tomb to weep there.”

Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. And He said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”

And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.
John 11:30-38

Other parallels – including the explicit reference to the gentile Daniel (who figures in the Ras Shamra text):

Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out My fury on it in blood, and cut off from it man and beast, even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the LORD God, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.”
Ezekiel 14:19-20

and even the moon at the feet of the women in God’s family:

Astarte and Anat he approached; Astarte had a steak prepared for him And Anat a shoulder cut. The gatekeep of El’s house rebuked them, not to prepare steak for a dog, not prepare a shoulder cut for a hound.
“God’s Drinking Party,” in Stories from Ancient Canaan

is paralleled in the Scriptures:

Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars.
Revelations 12:1

Although only after the worship of Canaanite goddesses is condemned. Perhaps they are fellow-creatures, but they should not be the recipients of our offerings:

Do you not see what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke Me to anger.
Jeremiah 7:17-18


This book is worthwhile, though you may be better off reading the original stories themselves. A passage which nearly summarizes this entire work — discussing the confusing imagery of a “bull” in the Old Testament, while flatly stating the author’s own belief (“God is a fertility god”) without explanation, is the association of Ba’al and El with Bull imagery:

El [God] is often called Tor-il, the ‘Bull El,’ which shows that, like Baal, he too was a fertility god. he was looked upon as a guarantor of the fertility of livestock, and in all probability was represented as a bull as well as in human form. When King Jeroboam I of northern Israel had bull images of gold made and set them up in Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:26), he was acting in accordance with well-established Canaanite traditions about both Baal and El. His words: “Here is your God, O Israel, who brought up up from the land of Egypt,” are easily understood if set against the Canaanite background in which the supreme deity was represented in the form of a bull. Nevertheless, the identification encountered stout opposition. Even if the process of equating [the LORD] with El went on, on the whole, with little hindrance, the attempt to represent [the LORD] in the form of a bull was rejected.
A.S. Kapelrud, The Ras Shamra Discoveries and the Old Testament, ppg. 57

Ultimately, Kapelrud’s work feels “buffered.” Stories of Ancient Canaan and Assembly of the Gods let you actually read the Canaanite words that Kapelrud (and I) have mostly been describing. This is not a book that makes words more vivid by giving context, like Neusner’s A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, or a better translation like Pakaluk’s Memoirs of St. Peter, and at least for me did not lead to seeing a familiar place in a new way, like Meyer’s Dragons of Tiananmen. But Ras Shamra Discoveries is a fine book. I enjoyed learning a little about the geography of Ugarit, and knowing about the wealth of receipts and contracts found there.

I read the Ras Shamra Discoveries and the Old Testament in a paperback edition, but it is also available from the Internet Archive.

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