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Delve into the intriguing past of Ugarit, an ancient city significantly influenced by the worship of Baal. Discover how its historical and religious practices contrast with those of ancient Israel as we unravel the complexities of its civilization and its stark deviation from the pure devotion to Jehovah.
In 1928, a Syrian farmer unknowingly unearthed history when his plow hit a stone covering an old tomb filled with antique ceramics. Upon learning about this accidental discovery, a French archaeologist, Claude Schaeffer, decided to investigate the site in the subsequent year.
As the archaeological excavation progressed, the team discovered an inscription that led them to identify the ruins they were revealing. It was Ugarit, a crucial ancient city of the Near East. Its discovery had such an impact that author Barry Hoberman compared it to the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in terms of its significance for understanding the Bible.
Where Paths Crossed
Located in a mound now known as Ras Shamra, along the Mediterranean Coast of modern northern Syria, Ugarit was a bustling cosmopolitan city in the second millennium B.C.E. Its territory spanned about 35 miles from Mt. Casius in the north to Tell Sukas in the south, and 20 to 30 miles from the Mediterranean in the west to the Orontes Valley in the east.
Ugarit was an agricultural hub due to its mild climate, producing cereals, olive oil, and wine. Additionally, it was rich in timber, a resource much sought after in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Positioned at the intersection of key trade routes, Ugarit established itself as one of the earliest significant international ports. This city was a trading center for merchants from across the Middle East, Aegean, Anatolia, Babylon, and Egypt, who traded metals, agricultural produce, and various local goods.
However, despite its economic wealth, Ugarit was consistently a subordinate kingdom. Initially, it served as the northernmost outpost of the Egyptian Empire, but in the 14th century B.C.E., it became a part of the Hittite Empire. As a vassal, Ugarit had to pay tribute and provide troops to its ruling empire. When invading “Sea Peoples”* started to plunder Anatolia and northern Syria, the Hittites called upon Ugarit’s soldiers and fleet. This left Ugarit defenseless, leading to its complete destruction around 1200 B.C.E.
* The “Sea Peoples” are often identified as seafarers from Mediterranean islands and coastal regions, potentially including the Philistines.
Unearthing a Bygone Era
The fall of Ugarit resulted in an enormous mound nearly 60 feet high and spanning over 60 acres. However, merely one sixth of this area has been unearthed. Among the remnants, archeologists discovered an expansive palace complex with close to a hundred rooms and courtyards, occupying approximately 100,000 square feet. The complex was sophisticated, equipped with running water, bathrooms, and a sewage system. Luxurious furnishings, gold inlays, lapis lazuli, and intricately carved ivory panels were discovered. A walled garden and sunken basin enhanced the allure of the palace.
The landscape of the city and its surrounding plains was dominated by the temples of the gods Baal and Dagan.* These towering temples, potentially 60 feet tall, comprised a small vestibule leading to an inner room housing the deity’s image. A staircase ascended to a terrace where the king conducted various rituals. Beacons may have been lit atop these temples during storms or nights to guide ships into the harbor. Sailors who attributed their safe return to the storm god Baal-Hadad likely offered the 17 stone anchors found in his sanctuary.
* While there is some disagreement, several sources identify the temple of Dagan with the temple of El. Roland de Vaux suggested that Dagan—the Dagon of Judges 16:23 and 1 Samuel 5:1-5—may be the proper name of El. The Encyclopedia of Religion also suggests possible identification or assimilation of Dagan with El. In the Ras Shamra texts, Baal is referred to as the son of Dagan, but the exact meaning of “son” in this context remains uncertain.
Archeologists discovered thousands of clay tablets strewn across Ugarit’s ruins. These tablets, inscribed in eight languages using five scripts, document economic, legal, diplomatic, and administrative matters. Schaeffer’s team found inscriptions in a previously unknown language dubbed Ugaritic, written using 30 cuneiform signs—making it one of the oldest known alphabets.
Beyond ordinary affairs, the Ugaritic documents contain literary texts that provided new insights into the religious beliefs and practices of the time. Ugarit’s religion was found to be similar to that of the neighboring Canaanites. Roland de Vaux suggested these texts “are a fairly accurate reflection of civilization in the land of Canaan just prior to the Israelite conquest.”
Religion in Baal’s City
The Ras Shamra texts mention more than 200 deities. The supreme deity was El, revered as the father of the gods and humankind, and the storm god Baal-Hadad, hailed as “the rider of the clouds” and “the lord of the earth.” El is portrayed as a wise, elderly figure detached from humanity, while Baal is depicted as a robust, ambitious deity aspiring to rule over gods and mankind.
These discovered texts were likely recited during religious festivals such as the New Year or the harvest, though the exact interpretation remains unclear. One poem narrates a conflict over rulership where Baal defeats El’s favored son, sea-god Yamm, possibly instilling confidence in Ugarit’s sailors that Baal would safeguard them at sea. In a battle with Mot, Baal is vanquished and descends to the underworld, resulting in a drought and halting human activities. Baal’s wife and sister, Anat—goddess of love and war—defeats Mot, reviving Baal. Baal then slaughters the sons of El’s wife, Athirat (Asherah), and reclaims the throne. However, Mot reappears after seven years.
Interpretations of this poem suggest it symbolizes the annual seasonal cycle where life-giving rains succumb to the scorching summer heat, returning in autumn. Others speculate that the seven-year cycle represents fears of famine and drought. Regardless, Baal’s dominance was seen as essential for human success. Scholar Peter Craigie remarked: “The goal of Baal’s religion was to secure his supremacy; only while he remained supreme, so his worshipers believed, would the crops and cattle so essential to human survival continue.”
The Corruption of Ugaritic Religion
Texts excavated from Ugarit reveal a religion marred by deep-seated moral corruption. As noted in the Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the religion of Ugarit was inherently degrading, with a profound emphasis on war, sacred prostitution, sensuous love, and the resulting societal degradation. Roland de Vaux articulates the utter repulsion felt by the true followers of Yahwism and the great prophets towards such worship. God’s Law bestowed upon ancient Israel stood as a bulwark against such a false and corrupt religion.
Ugarit was steeped in practices of divination, astrology, and magic. Omens were sought not only from the celestial bodies but also from malformed fetuses and the entrails of ritually slaughtered animals. Historian Jacqueline Gachet remarks that the ritualistic animal sacrifice was believed to allow access to divine spirits capable of influencing future events or guiding specific actions. The Israelites, in stark contrast, were prohibited from such practices.
Repugnant Practices in Ugarit
The Mosaic Law expressly forbade bestiality. However, the Ugaritic texts reveal a disturbing indifference to this principle. Archaeologist Cyrus Gordon recounts an account where Baal is depicted engaging in sexual activities with a heifer. The Israelites were instructed not to make cuts in their flesh for the dead, yet the Ugaritic texts describe El cutting his skin in mourning for Baal’s death. Ritualistic self-harm was apparently a common practice among the worshippers of Baal.
In one Ugaritic poem, cooking a kid in its mother’s milk is depicted as part of a fertility rite. This practice was directly forbidden in the Mosaic Law.
Comparative Analysis with Biblical Texts
The translation of Ugaritic texts greatly benefited from the understanding of Biblical Hebrew. As Peter Craigie points out, the Ugaritic language has provided insights into unclear Hebrew words in the Bible, thus aiding in accurate translations.
Ugaritic Influence on the Bible?
The analysis of Ugaritic texts has led some scholars to hypothesize that certain Bible passages were influenced by Ugaritic poetic literature. André Caquot, a member of the French Institute, referred to this as the “Canaanite cultural substratum” in Israelite religion.
Theologian Garry Brantley refutes this claim, arguing that no direct parallel exists between any Ugaritic text and Psalm 29, or any other biblical text. The Encyclopedia of Religion observes that similarities in form and content are to be expected given the shared cultural and religious vocabulary rather than indicating direct adaptation.
Ultimately, any parallels that may exist between the Ras Shamra texts and the Bible are solely literary and not spiritual. Cyrus Gordon, a noted archaeologist, asserts that the moral and ethical elevation found in the Bible is completely absent in the texts of Ugarit. The contrasts clearly outweigh the similarities.
The archaeological finds at Ugarit serve as a testament to the cultural, historical, and religious environment of ancient Israel, thereby aiding our understanding of the Bible. Yet, they primarily highlight the stark contrast between the debauched worship of Baal and the pure devotion to Jehovah.
Hittite Empire in the 14th century B.C.E.
I deeply appreciate the significant historical and cultural context that the study of ancient empires such as the Hittite Empire of the 14th century B.C.E. contributes to our understanding of the Scriptures. The Hittite Empire, at its peak, was one of the dominant powers in the Near East and significantly intersected with the biblical narrative.
To fully appreciate the importance of the Hittites, we must first acknowledge their geographical dominance. Originating from the region of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, the Hittite Empire expanded significantly to encompass lands stretching from the Aegean in the west to the Euphrates in the east. Such territorial control put the Hittites in direct contact with numerous nations of the Ancient Near East, including Egypt, Assyria, and the lands of Canaan, which would later become the homeland of the Israelites.
The Bible, God’s inerrant Word, references the Hittites numerous times, demonstrating their notable presence during this era. For example, Genesis 23 tells us of Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot from Ephron the Hittite. This story underscores the presence of Hittites in the region during the time of the patriarchs, confirming the historical credibility of the Scriptures.
One remarkable feature of the Hittite Empire in the 14th century B.C.E. was its legal and administrative systems. Hittite laws are amongst the oldest known legal codes, significantly predating the Law given by Jehovah to Moses. These laws included regulations on a variety of social matters including marriage, property rights, and criminal offenses.
Despite the seemingly advanced societal structure, Hittite religious practices starkly contrasted with the monotheistic worship of Jehovah by the Israelites. The Hittites were polytheistic, their pantheon filled with myriad gods and goddesses borrowed from various cultures they encountered. This religious pluralism was a stark deviation from the worship of Jehovah, the one true God.
By the 14th century B.C.E., the Hittites had forged diplomatic relationships with other powerful states of the era. The Amarna letters, discovered in Egypt, contain several correspondences between the Hittite king and the Egyptian Pharaoh. These letters provide invaluable insights into the diplomatic interactions and political maneuverings of the time.
Moreover, archaeological evidence and ancient records corroborate the military prowess of the Hittites. The Battle of Kadesh, fought around 1274 B.C.E., saw the Hittite forces stand against the Egyptians led by Ramses II. This encounter, one of the earliest recorded battles in human history, ended in a stalemate, further attesting to the Hittite military strength.
However, the Hittite Empire eventually began to decline towards the end of the 14th century B.C.E., experiencing political instability and territorial losses. By the 12th century B.C.E., the empire had dissolved, with remnants of the Hittite culture assimilating into the surrounding nations.
In conclusion, the Hittite Empire of the 14th century B.C.E., a formidable force in the Ancient Near East, provides an invaluable historical backdrop that enriches our understanding of the biblical narrative. The Empire’s territorial influence, cultural practices, military prowess, and eventual decline all serve to provide contextual depth to the biblical accounts. By studying such historical empires, we enhance our comprehension of the Scriptures, appreciating the accurate and detailed portrait they provide of human history under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit.
As we delve into these historical realities, we are further reassured of the reliability of the Bible as the inspired Word of God. The Hittites and their empire, now long gone, serve as a stark reminder that earthly empires rise and fall, but the word of our God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8). Their story, and its intersection with biblical history, serves as a testament to Jehovah’s sovereignty and His unfolding plan for humankind, revealed through His inspired Word.