Why Learn Ugaritic?
You already know that understanding the Bible’s original languages of Greek and Hebrew is an important prerequisite for serious biblical study.
But what about Ugaritic?
The Israelites didn’t speak Ugaritic. The Bible wasn’t written in Ugaritic. What makes understanding Ugaritic so important for understanding the Hebrew Bible?
What is Ugaritic?
Before we see why it’s so important to know Ugaritic, let’s take a closer look at the people who spoke it.
Ugaritic was the language spoken by the people who lived in the city-state of Ugarit. This city was located directly east of Cyprus, and directly north of Israel.
Ugarit was strategically placed on a direct east–west trade route from the Mediterranean regions to the inland peoples. It was also situated on a north–south trade route connecting Egypt to the nations to the north.
This means it was located at the economic and cultural epicenter of the ancient world—similar to the position of New York or London in our own time. If you were going anywhere in the ancient world, you were going through Ugarit.
Although we don’t know exactly how Ugaritic culture rose to prominence, we do know how it ended.
In fact, the city of Ugarit met its end in the same way as many civilizations in the mid-twelfth century B.C.: the Sea Peoples.
Who were the Sea Peoples?
The Sea Peoples migrated from the east—from modern-day Greece—and invaded the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. They were called the Sea Peoples because they seemed to appear without warning from the sea. (One of these people groups also settled in Canaan, and our Bible calls them the Philistines.)
When the Sea Peoples arrived in Ugarit, they destroyed it. So in approximately 1150 B.C., the Ugaritic civilization passed out of existence. And for the next three thousand years, the Ugaritic language and culture was lost to history.
In that year, a farmer hit a stone while he was plowing his field. When he removed it, he discovered a tomb. This discovery prompted an exploration of the surrounding area, and among the items found were several clay tablets written in an unknown language, which turned out to be Ugaritic.
With this discovery, we now have a window into the culture and people who occupied Canaan right before the Israelites entered the Promised Land.
Why Ugaritic matters for Old Testament studies
Often, when we read the Old Testament, we read it as though Israel existed alone.
What we don’t often realize is that the Israelites interacted with the peoples around them, just as we are today.
They asked many of the same questions we ask:
- What is okay for us to adopt from this culture?
- What should we reject?
- What can we accept with modifications?
We can’t fully understand what was going on in the Old Testament unless we understand how Israel was interacting with the surrounding pressures on them. That requires at least some knowledge of the Ancient Near East.
Ugaritic is probably the easiest way to begin accessing that understanding of the broader Ancient Near East. It’s a window into the culture that Israel was confronting—a culture that was close to theirs in both time and geography.
In this way, learning Ugaritic is your first step into understanding the broader cultural context.
3 ways Ugaritic intersects with the Old Testament
Let’s take a look at three specific ways Ugaritic can help illuminate the text and world of the Israelite people.
1. Ugaritic will help you understand the deities in the Old Testament
Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites struggled with worshipping foreign gods. Many of these foreign gods had their origins in Ugaritic culture:
- El is the father of the gods and head of the Ugaritic pantheon. Other gods in the pantheon are referred to as the “sons of El.” He was the creator of the world and lives on a cosmic mountain.
- Baal means “Lord.” He was the major actor among the Ugaritic gods. Baal had power over the weather and produced rain. This is an important insight for understanding Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Ba’al in 1 Kings 17–18.
- Anat is Ba’al’s female counterpart. She was the mother of his offspring, a warrior and hunter. A temple to Anat was discovered at Beth Shan, and it is perhaps the place where the Philistines took Saul’s armor after his death in battle (1 Sam 31:8–10).
- Asherah is the consort of El. She was worshipped in Tyre and Sidon, which helps us understand Jezebel’s activity in 1 Kings 16–19. In the Bible, worship of Asherah is usually associated with a cultic pole and other cult objects. This is recorded in numerous places in Deuteronomy and 2 Kings. The Bible also refers to 400 prophets of Asherah in 1 Kings 18:19.
- Yamm is the god of the sea, and represents the chaotic power of water. There are numerous allusions to Yamm in the Psalms, including stories of battles with the sea (Psalm 74:13–14; 89:9–10), crossing the Red Sea (Psalm 77:16–20; 106:9–10; 114:1–5). In the Temple complex, the Sea must stand motionless, subdued, before the Lord (1 Kings 7:23–26 and 2 Chronicles 4:2–10). And in the new heaven and the new earth, there will no longer be any threatening Sea (Revelation 21:1).
- Môt is the god of death at Ugarit. In Ugaritic texts, he is described as having “a lip to the earth, a lip to the heavens . . . a tongue to the stars.” The Bible contains several possible allusions to Môt, where he is personified as a demon who reigns over Sheol. He is portrayed as one who is never satisfied in Proverbs 27:20 and Habakkuk 2:5. He is opposed to life in Job 18:12–13 and Psalm 49:14. Most poignantly, however, the Bible notes that Môt, the enemy of life, is ultimately overcome by the Lord of life. In Isaiah 25:8, we learn the “[the Lord] will swallow up death forever.” The great swallower of life is ultimately swallowed up, and the Lord prevails.
By acquainting yourself with Ugaritic texts, you’ll gain a more well-rounded picture of the foreign gods the Israelites confronted.
2. Understanding Ugaritic will help you understand important literary figures and concepts
The Bible refers to several literary concepts found in Ugaritic texts. The original readers of the Hebrew Bible would have been familiar with them.
Ezekiel 14:14, 20; 28:3 refers to three men: “…Even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
But this Daniel is not the Daniel we think of in the Bible. The spelling is different, and the chronology is backwards: the biblical Daniel was Ezekiel’s younger contemporary, yet Ezekiel refers to him as though he were a legendary character with universal recognition.
So who is Ezekiel referring to?
Danʾel is likely the same king found in the legend of Aqhat. The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible suggests: “Since Daniel was not so well known as Noah and Job in Jewish circles, the post-exilic author was free to attach the name to a figure who would illustrate righteousness and wisdom in an historical context.”
Lôtan is a dragon-like monster with seven heads. The Hebrew parallel is “Leviathan,” which appears throughout the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah 27:1 notes that “In that day, the Lord will punish with his sword . . . Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.”
The Ugaritic texts indicate the rapaʾūma are inhabitants of the underworld and may be deified royal ancestors. They watch over dynastic continuity.
There may be a parallel between the rapaʾūma and Isaiah 14:9: “The realm of the dead below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you—all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones—all those who were kings over the nations.”
3. Understanding Ugaritic will help you understand the words in the Bible
Finally, the Ugaritic texts don’t just help us understand Canaanite gods, literary figures, and concepts. They also help us understand the very words of the Bible.
This is because Ugaritic and Hebrew belong to the same language family. When our understanding of the meaning of rare Hebrew words is unclear, we can sometimes find help by looking at Ugaritic texts which have similar words.
Let’s look at just one example.
In Psalm 73:21, there is a verb that is very difficult to translate, because it occurs in this stem only once in the entire Hebrew Bible. Because the verb in another stem means something like “sharpen,” that meaning is pressed into service in this verse, resulting in something like “pierced,” or “felt sharp pain,” or “embittered.” In the end, this verse is often translated as, “when my heart was grieved, and my spirit embittered.”
The support for this translation is provided by an Ugaritic word that has the same three-consonant root as the Hebrew word. In Ugaritic, this word means “to weep,” and this meaning makes sense in the context of Psalm 73:21.
There are numerous other examples of Hebrew words. Suffice to say, if you plan to do serious work on the text of the Old Testament, then learning Ugaritic is a must.
How you can learn Ugaritic
The best way to get started is to sign up for the Basics of Ancient Ugaritic online course, taught by Michael Williams. This is a full, seminary-level online course, adapted from both Dr. Williams’ experience teaching Ugaritic to hundreds of students, and from the Basics of Ancient Ugaritic textbook.
Here are four reasons why the Basics of Ancient Ugaritic online course is the best way to learn Ugaritic:
- You’ll learn from a seasoned teacher and scholar. The course is structured in a way to set you up for success. Dr. Williams has taught this course for several years to students of all ages and abilities. He understands the challenges you’ll face, so the course follows a straightforward pattern. You’ll grasp each concept before you move on to the next one.
- You’ll start reading Ugaritic on the first day. This course doesn’t use made-up sentences or arbitrary vocabulary lists. Instead, you’ll work with actual Ugaritic texts and you will translate words and phrases from passages you’ll continue to work with in the future—the same passages with parallels to the Bible.
- You can work at your own pace. Because it’s a self-paced online course, you can pause and rewind videos to ensure you’ve heard and understood the lectures. You can take as long as you need to work through the exercises. And you can do the readings at a pace that helps you learn best.
- You’ll get access to the digital textbook. The digital textbook is included in the course, which means you don’t need to worry about switching between lectures, readings, and exercises. Every component of the learning experience is integrated together and an easy-to-use, intuitive platform.
There is simply no better way to start learning Ugaritic. To get started, sign up today.
* * *
P.S. Interested in offering the Basics of Ancient Ugaritic online course at your school?
Making this online course available at your school will allow you to offer an additional elective, and it will allow students pursuing graduate-level studies to finish a pre-requisite while they’re still enrolled at your institution. The course is administered and taught by your faculty, and credit is granted by your institution. Additionally, the course is customizable for your institution and integrates seamlessly into your learning management system. We’ll help you with everything you need to get set up.
To learn more and see how it works, contact us today.
Learn more about the Bible.
Get started with a free online course. Plus, you’ll get occasional updates about new courses, free videos, and other valuable resources.
This post is adapted from material found in unit one of the Basics of Ancient Ugaritic online course. Photo credit: Varun Shiv Kapur via Flickr; original here.
Sign up complete.