Religious Texts from Ugarit: The Words of Ilimilku and His Colleagues

  • N. Wyatt
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Wyatt, N. Religious Texts from Ugarit: The Words of Ilimilku and His Colleagues. The Biblical Seminar 53. Sheffield: Sheffield University Press. 1998. Paperback, 500 pp. ISBN 1850758476. $35.00.

This volume represents an English translation of many religious texts from the thirteenth century B.C. city of Ugarit and written in the distinctive alphabetic cuneiform script found in many of the clay tablets of that city. The texts are an extremely valuable source of the background to the Canaanite religion as found in the Bible. Here are myths, sacrifices, and even a prayer to Baal, Asherah, El, Anat, and other deities of the pantheon that the prophets condemned so harshly. Although Ugarit was technically not in Canaan, it lay just outside the boundaries of that land, the city was close enough in time and place to represent what may be assumed to be similar sentiments regarding its deities as those found among the Canaanites themselves. Because the Ugarit religious texts represent by far the largest number of texts dealing with these matters, they have become an invaluable source for the study of the Bible. In their own way, they provide more background than the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

Wyatt translates all the most important mythological texts including the lengthy Baal cycle, the story of Keret, that of Aqhat, and the birth of the gracious gods. In addition, dozens of other smaller or fragmentary texts are also translated. Each text is provided with an introduction, including discussion of just how fragmentary the text is and a summary of the theme and contents of the text itself. Further, there are copious footnotes, often taking up more of the page than the translation itself. This is necessary because so much uncertainty exists about the translation of many of the passages. At the end, there is a bibliography and several indices, including an index of Scriptural references.

In reading this material, the student of the Bible will learn not only about the practices of deities that will reappear in the later texts of the Bible, many nuances, expressions, and forms that occur in the Old Testament will be studied in terms of their background. Thus the background of terms such as messiah, of motifs such as God's victory over the sea, and of themes such as the may occur in divine titles may be identified. Also the same sorts of parallelism, word pairs, and other poetic expressions as occur in the Psalms may be found earlier in the Ugaritic literature.

Wyatt's approach is sometimes to venture farther than other translators would in attempting to provide a meaning to difficult or disputed parts of the text. While this is helpful for the English reader and often defended in his notes, it may on occasion give the wrong impression. It would be helpful for the reader to consult another translation for some texts to gain a sense of balance regarding what is certain and what is not.

The translator also has a view regarding these texts. He sees them as reflections of a culture that was far more civilized and noble than many would give the Canaanites credit for. No doubt Ugarit represented a successful cosmopolitan center with far greater sophistication in many areas than the land that the biblical writers came from; and no doubt modern readers of the Bible read a more negative assessment of Canaanite culture into the Bible than what is actually written. However, it remains to be proven that the deities of these myths were noble individuals with moral constraints. Indeed, a key example of this appears on p. 96 where, in the Baal myth describes sacrifices that Baal hates (CAT 1.4 III 17-23, here lines 19-21):

a sacrifice of shame,
and a sacrifice of whoredom,
and a sacrifice of the debauching of handmaidens.

From this Wyatt concludes that "a high moral tone was demanded". Indeed, it would seem to present Baal in a completely different light than the licentious practices that worship of Baal and Asherah produces in Hosea and other prophetic books. One resolution might be to argue that these two texts are separated in time by more than 400 years and also differ in terms of their society. Baal could be understood in different ways in different cultures. However, and more importantly, the real problem lies in the translation of these passages. They are not certain. A leading Ugaritic scholar, Dennis Pardee, translates them as follows (The Context of Scripture. Volume 1, ed. W.W. Hallo. Leiden: Brill, 1997, p. 258):

An improper feast,
a low-quality feast,
and a feast where the female servants misbehave.

The difference is clear and preserves the low moral reputation of these deities, a perspective supported in other Ugaritic texts (e.g., CAT 1.23). The problem is not just one small text, but represents Wyatt's general concern to rehabilitate the Ugaritic texts. In itself this is often laudable and useful. It is unfortunate, however, that it is so often done at the expense of the biblical text.

However, readers should examine this excellent collection for themselves. Nowhere else is there an up-to-date English translation of so many of these important texts. Wyatt is to thanked for this work and lauded for his efforts to make the religion of Ugarit available to English readers.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary