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What's Ugaritic Got to Do with Anything?

Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Academic Editor, Logos Bible Software

We recently placed what is, as far as we know, the first electronic digital library for the study of the Ugaritic language and its literature on our pre-Pub page.

Ugaritic, the language of ancient Ugarit (in modern Syria), isn’t something that most people think about when it comes to Bible study. However, the clay tablets discovered and deciphered in the late 1920s and early 1930s provide an unparalleled glimpse into the life and religious worldview of the ancient Israelites. Some (including myself) would argue that they are as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ugaritic is important because of the fact that its vocabulary is so close to biblical Hebrew — many Ugaritic words are letter-for-letter the same as biblical Hebrew. It is the religion of Ugarit, however, that is especially important to Old Testament scholarship.

You might be thinking that all you really need to know about the religion of the Israelites is in the Bible. You’d only be partially correct in that thought. We are centuries removed from the world of the Bible, and a lot of material in the Bible is pretty obtuse to those of us in the 21st century. Those who wrote the Bible weren’t writing for a technological society, and so words, phrases, descriptions, and concepts that were completely familiar to an Israelite are lost on us. There’s also the matter of the kinds of ideas that were floating around in Israel from other religions—like Baal worship—that were being embraced by people who were supposed to be following the God of Israel. You have to wonder why, to paraphrase Elijah (1 Kings 18:21), Israel kept halting between two opinions as to who was the true God.

The ancient literature of Ugarit sheds a lot of light on these issues and others (hey, the library contains three thick books of parallels!). The destruction of Ugarit can be accurately dated to around 1200 BC, which means that these tablets, and the ideas they convey, were around earlier than most of the books of the Hebrew Bible. Given that chronology, scholars were startled to find so many striking parallels to words, phrases, pericopes, and ideas previously known primarily—or even only—from the Hebrew Bible. In the years prior to the discovery of the library of Ugarit, especially the late 19th century, scholars of the Hebrew Bible and the languages of the ancient Near East presumed that Mesopotamian religious texts provided the best parallels to those found in the Hebrew Bible. It was at that time that the cuneiform tablets of works such as the Gilgamesh Epic and Atrahasis (the flood story) were first translated, revealing similarities to stories in the Bible in written material centuries older than the Bible. After the discovery of Ugaritic, the idea that Israelite beliefs came from foreign civilizations in Mesopotamia was abandoned. The Ugaritic texts showed that people in Canaan living during biblical days were quite literate, a realization that was important, since the oldest manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Bible at the time dated to roughly 1000 AD.

Like everyone whose doctoral work is in Semitics, I took Ugaritic during graduate school. It was a life-changing course, because it opened up the Hebrew text and Israelite religion to me in so many ways. I’d like to share one of the observations made by scholars that has profound implications for the biblical theology of both testaments.

Some Backdrop

It is often said that one of the most important principles of interpretation is to put every text into its proper context. That is, to read the text to be interpreted in place with its surroundings: the surrounding text as well as the social, historical, cultural, and literary traditions of the world in which it was produced. The texts recovered at Ugarit provide a key piece of literary, social, and religious context for certain passages of the Old Testament.

Literary Context. First of all, it's important to understand that the biblical writers, though under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, followed the ordinary forms of literature that were current in their day when they wrote. If, for example, the biblical writer was describing a covenant treaty between God and his people, his description conforms in style to covenant treaties known elsewhere in the ancient world. To depart from this style would have seemed strange to the ancient readers: “What kind of covenant treaty is this? Didn’t this guy know how to write one?” The apostle Paul as well wrote his letters to the churches in a recognizable style and with an expected format. The recipients of Paul’s letters knew what a letter was supposed to look like. Just as we wouldn't write a letter home to Mom and put footnotes in it, or jot down a recipe and lace it with legal mumbo-jumbo, so the biblical writers wrote using the literary conventions and forms that would be expected by their audience.

Biblical writers didn't just use the forms of contemporary non-inspired literature, they were also influenced by the literature itself. Just as preachers today quote commentaries, journals, news periodicals, or even television shows to drive home or illustrate a point, so the biblical writers used external material to draw attention and make a statement. Paul quotes from pagan Greek poets. The psalmists and prophets borrow vocabulary and paraphrase material from ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Syrian literature. Jude quotes a book from the Pseudepigrapha (ancient writings that falsely claim authorship by a biblical character). The people of biblical times knew the quoted material wasn't inspired, but it had meaning for them and their audience.

Religious Context. The religion of Ugarit and the religion of ancient Israel were not the same, but there were some striking overlaps. For example, the name of the ultimate divine authority at Ugarit was El, one of the names of the God of Israel (e.g., Gen 33:20). El was described as an aged god with white hair, seated on a throne. However, at Ugarit, El was sovereign, but another god ran things on earth for El as his vizier. That god’s name was Baal, a name quite familiar to anyone who has read the Old Testament. At Ugarit Baal was known by several titles: “king of the gods,” “the Most High,” “Prince Baal” (baal zbl), and—most importantly for our discussion—“the Rider on the Clouds.”

Baal’s position as “king of the gods” in Ugarit, Israel’s northern neighbor, helps explain the “Baal problem” in the Old Testament. Jereboam’s religion in the northern kingdom borrowed from Baal worship, and it soon began to look like there was no difference, or if there was a difference, they were so close that worshipping one or the other was just theological hair-splitting. This is what prophets like Elijah had to contend with. The people had no Bible. They had only the prophets and their words. When a prophet wasn’t around to set the record straight, it was easy to just do what the neighbors were doing—especially if your king didn’t care, or actually preferred it that way.

Given this state of affairs, it's not surprising that sometimes in the course of their preaching and writing, the prophets counted on familiarity with Baal to make their case that it was Yahweh, not Baal, who was the heavenly king. We know this was the case, since certain Old Testament books actually quote from the Ugaritic religious texts, most notably the one that modern scholars have called the Baal Cycle. Whereas the Baal Cycle would give Baal credit for things like sending rain and making the crops grow, the prophets would credit those things to Yahweh. The showdown at Carmel (geographically close to Ugarit) is a case in point. God had withheld rain and Elijah challenged the rain giver to a duel, which God won in glorious fashion (1 Kings 17-18).

The Bible can only be fully understood when properly situated within its ancient context. That is not to say that the Bible is no longer relevant for our modern world. The Bible is certainly written for our benefit, as well as the benefit of future generations. Still, the Bible was neither written by this generation nor for this generation as the immediately intended audience. It's an ancient (wonderful!) record from God, which must be understood on its own terms. Putting the Bible into its ancient social, historical, and yes, even religious context doesn't harm it; rather, the text is illuminated for people like us who are culturally removed from their origin.

“The Cloud Rider”

Throughout the Ugaritic texts, Baal is repeatedly called “the one who rides the clouds,” or “the one who mounts the clouds.” The description is recognized as an official title of Baal. No angel or lesser being bore the title. As such, everyone in Israel who heard this title associated it with a deity, not a man or an angel.

Part of the literary strategy of the Israelite prophets was to take this well-known title and attribute it to Yahweh in some way. Consequently, Yahweh, the God of Israel, bears this descriptive title in several places in the Old Testament (Isaiah 19:1; Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 68:33; 104:3). For a faithful Israelite, then, there was only one god who “rode” on the clouds: Yahweh.

Until we hit Daniel 7, that is. You know the scene, but you likely don’t know the full context, since Ugaritic provides that for us:

Ugarit / Baal Cycle

  1. El, the aged high God, is the ultimate sovereign in the council.
  2. El bestows kingship upon the god Baal, the Cloud-Rider, after Baal defeats the god Yamm in battle.
  3. Baal is king of the gods and El's vizier. His rule is everlasting.

Daniel 7

  1. The Ancient of Days, the God of Israel is seated on the fiery, wheeled throne (cf. Ezekiel 1). Like Ugaritic El, he is white haired and aged (“ancient”).
  2. Yahweh-El, the Ancient of Days, bestows kingship upon the Son of Man who rides the clouds after the beast from the sea (yamma) is destroyed.
  3. The Son of Man is given everlasting dominion over the nations. He rules at the right hand of God.

The striking parallels are especially noteworthy given that this is the only time in the Old Testament where a second personage other than Yahweh is described as “coming with/upon the clouds” (the preposition in Aramaic can be translated either way). The intent of the author to describe this “son of man” with a title reserved only for Yahweh was clear by virtue of how the scene followed the Baal literature — the literary cycle whose central character, Baal, held the Cloud-Rider title!

The Jewish audience reading Daniel understood the implications — the prophet Daniel was describing a second power in heaven — a second being at the level of Yahweh to whom Yahweh himself granted authority. Although we naturally think of the idea of a godhead as distinctly Christian, we have evidence here that the seeds of the idea are found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s no accident that Jewish theological writing during the Intertestamental period is filled with references to the “second power in heaven” and attempts to figure out how to articulate what was going on in heaven in light of monotheism. Jewish writers speculated that the “second god” was the archangel Michael, or perhaps Gabriel. Some Jewish writers even wrote that Abraham or Moses occupied that position! For Christians the answer was obvious.

It is well known that Jesus’ favorite title for himself while on earth was “son of man.” The term means two things: (1) human being (Jesus enjoyed being human!), and (2) the deity figure to whom all authority was given. The latter usage is perfectly evident in Matthew 26, as Jesus stood before Caiaphas — someone who knew his Old Testament — waiting to fulfill his destiny on the cross. When asked to give the Sanhedrin a straight answer about who he was, Jesus quoted Daniel 7:

63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (ESV)

By quoting this passage, Jesus was making an overt, unmistakable claim to be deity—he in fact was the one who rides on the clouds. That this is no exaggerated interpretation is evident from Caiaphas’ reaction:

65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy.” (ESV)

The statement is only blasphemous if one is claiming to be the rider on the clouds. That idea may have been acceptable to Jews at the time, but it was simply intolerable that this man Jesus of Nazareth would claim to be the incarnation of the second power. What most of us might think is an odd answer, or even a deliberate deflection of Caiaphas’ demand, is the exact opposite. Jesus could not have been more blunt. He was the “second deity” of Daniel 7.

The Jews of the first century understood this well. They knew their Bible. The idea of a godhead was not a Christian innovation; it is rooted in Israelite religion and Jewish theology, and was acceptable doctrine for Jews until the second century A.D. when, in response to the worship of Jesus by Jews converting to Christianity, the rabbis declared the second power idea a heresy for faithful Jews.

Who would have suspected? We are able to see the beginnings of the Christian doctrine of the godhead in the Hebrew Bible with the help of the context supplied by the literature of Ugarit.