Ritual and Cult at Ugarit

  • Dennis Pardee
  • Apr 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Edited by Theodore J. Lewis. SBL Writings from the Ancient World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002. xiii + 299 pp. Paperback, $29.95. ISBN 1-58983-026-1.

Dennis Pardee, who teaches at the University of Chicago, is one of the leading authorities of the ancient city of Ugarit and the hundreds of texts discovered there that are written in the city's distinctive language and script. The importance of these writings for the understanding of the Bible and especially the Old Testament has long been recognized. Both the language and the beliefs of these texts have aided enormously in the understanding of the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the background of ancient "Canaanite" religion. Most frequently the mythological texts have been examined for a better understanding of beliefs regarding Baal, Asherah, and other deities at the time when Israel was first settling in the Promised Land. However, there remain hundreds of Ugaritic tablets (the cuneiform script was written on clay tablets) that describe many other aspects of the religious practices at ancient Ugarit. Other publications by other scholars (e.g., N. Wyatt) and by Pardee himself have studied these, but this is perhaps the first collection and translation of these texts into English that follows the moderate scholarship of Pardee. The result is a fundamental source for students of Israelite religion and the study of sacrifices and other priestly institutions in the Old Testament.

Already in his brief introduction, Pardee is cautious regarding what cannot be concluded from a study of these texts. The tablets excavated so far represent the results of accidental and random preservation. Therefore, they cannot be considered a fair or complete representation of the cult. Further, the difficulty of vocabulary and syntax in these texts is compounded by the fact that they are almost entirely prescriptive. That is to say, they define aspects of what is to be offered or said in a sacrifice or ritual. They do not explain the significance of these actions or of the ceremony as a whole. This leaves many uncertainties and questions regarding the practice of religion at Ugarit. Nevertheless, the texts do say something about religion there.

The texts themselves are divided into two large groups. The first constitutes those writings that describe religious matters associated with the official sacrificial cult. These include lists of gods and goddesses, descriptions of which animals are to be sacrificed and what the officiates are to do during various holy days, mortuary offerings, texts about divination, and one or two prayers. Some texts even reveal a form of check marks in the left margin of the tablet. Placed beside each deity's name, they indicate that the appropriate sacrifice was made. A second group of texts examine religious practice outside the cult. This includes incantations and recipes for snakes, a hangover, sexual dysfunction, and other problems. It also may include rituals involving the dead as well as other texts describing administrative taxation and the distribution of goods for religious purposes.

The god lists include many of the familiar deities found in the Bible, other than Yahweh. RS 4.474 (This is the tablet's excavation number. Pardee unfortunately does not provide the more standard KTU text number.) may conclude with a reference to El ('Ilu) as having "built" or created all the other goddesses and gods named there. Unlike the biblical calendars of rituals (e.g., Leviticus 23; Numbers 28-29; Deuteronomy 16), which trace the festivals from the spring (Passover and Unleavened Bread) through the summer (Pentecost) and into the autumn (Booths), the festival calendars at Ugarit cover only one or two months in any text and they focus on the half-year period from the autumn through the winter and into the spring. In this aspect, the texts taken together are closer in content to the contemporary six-month ritual text from Emar (number 446). However, unlike those at Ugarit, Emar 446 is the only West Semitic calendar outside the Bible that covers a half-year period. More about this later.

Most significantly are the few prayers that are preserved. This indicates the different type of literature that has been discovered at Ugarit more than it suggests the amount of praying that the citizens of Ugarit did. One of the prayers preserved exhorts the reader to invoke Baal when attacked by an enemy. The supplicant promises to visit Baal's temple and to offer sacrifices in a manner not unlike some of the lament psalms of the Bible (Psa. 17:9; 18:3; 66:15; etc.). Another text, sometimes called the Ugaritic Day of Atonement ritual, is described by Pardee as a ritual of national unity. Nevertheless, a sense of confession and forgiveness seems to be involved.

Texts of divination and incantation represent genres unknown in the theology and practice of ancient Israel. Only the Urim and Thummim appear as acceptable means to divine God's will, apart from God's word.

In his conclusion, Pardee helpfully provides his list of similarities and contrasts between Ugaritic religious practice and that found in the Bible. Among the former he lists vocabulary such as altar, peace offering, burnt offering, and the house of the deity. Mostly, he notes a similarity in terms of what is absent. Both do not mention the sacrifice of children, pigs, and wild animals; nor do they record a New Year's festival or a fertility cult. In terms of contrasts there are differences of genres between the two collections of literature. Ugaritic sacrificial texts do not mention expiation, sin, atonement, blood, and fat. There is a text describing a donkey sacrifice and there is more emphasis on offerings of wine and of textiles. Distinct personnel and their roles are not mentioned much at Ugarit.

In light of the more recent publication of the thirteenth century B.C. Emar religious texts from this north Syrian city, it would have been useful to note comparisons and contrasts between the three groups. Emar has priestly installation, festival, and cultic calendar texts that much more closely resemble the genres found in the Bible than those from Ugarit. Thus future discussion of this important subject will need to consider this key source as an added dimension that provides a context for what is unique and what is common in the Ugaritic texts and in the Bible. In doing so, the transcriptions, translations, and notes to the relevant Ugaritic texts found in Pardee's work will remain an essential starting point.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
April 2006