Aug 27 2007

Ugarit and the Bible

On a few past episodes we looked at some of the gods mentioned in the Old Testament. Among them, Asherah, Nehushtan, Ba’al, Yahweh, and El.

Many people are familiar with the texts found at Qumran, commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the 1940s. But fewer people have heard of the Ugarit findings, which began to be unearthed in the late 1920s. Both discoveries greatly increased our knowledge and understanding of Biblical texts and also of the history surrounding the evolution of Judaism and Christianity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls impacted both the Old and New Testament interpretations, while the findings at Ugarit impacted only the Old Testament. These texts and architectural inscriptions predate the Hebrew settlement at Canaan, but interestingly, they mention some of the same gods that appear in the Hebrew religious writings, produced after the Hebrew contact with the Ugarit region. The most significant god mentioned is El. In one temple inscription he is said to be the father of Ba’al. In other mentions, he is even the father of Yaweh.

In the Old Testament, Ba’al is associated with the Canaanites. And he is described as the focus of their religious worship in those stories—while El is described as being another name for Yahweh, the Hebrew patron god. In reality, however, based on the discoveries at Ugarit (the land called Canaan in the Bible), El is clearly the father of the gods in much the same way that Zeus is the head of the gods on Olympus in Greek mythology. And Yaweh is not another name for El, but a separate deity. Like Zeus, El headed a pantheon. He was not only the father of mankind, but the leader of the Ugarit gods. His pantheon, in Ugarit, is called the Elohim (literally, the plural of El).

Using the book of Genesis as an example, the best scholarly estimates date it back to somewhere between 950 and 500 BC. It appears that the writings were composed in two styles, one style preferring to refer to god as El and the other using YHWH (or Yahweh). Eventually these texts came together into the form we have today, sometime around 450 BC. Just to give some perspective, the best documented time in the Ugarit history was between 1450 and 1200 BC.

According to many modern apologists, El is simply another name for god, or even a generic word for “god” used by the Hebrews; and Elohim is simply another form of El. However, Bible translators do translate Elohim as plural in some instances and do translate El to be a proper noun in some instances. Some apologists defend a wholly singular usage of Elohim by pointing to the inconsistency with which Elohim is used with singular verb forms; however, this does not rule out the very real (and likely) potential that as monotheism evolved out of polytheism, the Hebrew texts were adjusted to correct for this problem (as we discussed the evolution of the book of Genesis in the above paragraph). However, it does seem oddly coincidental—and difficult to overlook—that the Hebrews had significant contact with Canaan and then, some years afterward, wrote out a Hebrew religious mythology using a name for god that parallels the Ugarit mythology’s chief deity. It is also odd that Elohim appears in Ugarit texts as a clearly plural form of El, and then later in a sometimes confused singular/plural fashion in the Hebrew texts.

The important question becomes, then: Is there any reason beyond the contact with Canaan to view the Hebrew deity as being synonymous with the Canaanite god El? The answer is “yes.” There are parallels between the two gods. For example, if we look at more of the attributes of El in the Ugarit texts, we find that El had a consort, Asherah (who was also, occasionally, recorded as the consort to Yahweh). This would appear to distance the Hebrew El from the Ugarit El then, if there is no mention of the Hebrews combining El with Asherah. However, there is mention in the Hebrew texts that illustrates that Asherah was connected with El in the minds of the Hebrews as well as in their worship. Twice in Jeremiah (chapter 7 and chapter 44), she is referred to as the Queen of Heaven, and it is clearly indicated that the Hebrews were worshipping her in those instances. Also, in 2 Kings 18, it is noted that her objects of worship (the Asherah poles) were removed from the “high places” of worship to El/Yahweh.

There is no doubt that as the Hebrews moved from polytheism, into henotheism, and ultimately into monotheism, that they adjusted their religious practices accordingly. It is not surprising that the worship of Asherah was ultimately condemned, discouraged, and forbidden. But what can’t be ignored is the fact that the Hebrews did acknowledge Asherah. They did worship her. And they did associate her with El by placing her symbols in the same temples of worship. If Hebrews did not adopt the older Ugarit El, with which they were surely familiar, then it is very odd that Asherah also appears in their religious texts and worship.

I would never underestimate the apologist’s ability to find a perspective that can reinterpret this data to make it less problematic. However, the clear and simply explanation is this: The Hebrews interacted with Ugarit, adopted their pantheon, and their religion evolved, as all religions do through time, to become a uniquely Hebrew monotheism.

Further Reading:
[General information about Ugarit]

[Describes similarities and parallels between Biblical texts and Ugarit texts]

[Describes the production of Genesis]

[Presents an apologetic case for the singular form of Elohim]

[Another apologetic case for the singular form of Elohim]

[Identifies Asherah as El’s consort]

[Information about Asherah]

[Asherah as the Queen of Heaven]


  1. 1
    Humanist Mama

    Thank you for this post…it is really interesting. I love learning about this type of history but rarely have the time to do my own research.

  2. 2

    Someone pointed out an error in my post, so I’m making a correction here. Where I mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, I had confused it with the The Nag Hammadi texts found in Egypt during the same time period (the 1940s). The Dead Sea Scrolls focused mainly on the OT, while Nag Hammadi included texts written by early Christian authors.For more information:http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.htmlWhile there is some small input about the Dead Sea Scrolls and potential impact on the NT, I did not intend that as a meaning. And I don’t think the claims are established enough to be promoted. If anyone would like more information on that minority view, they can look up Dr. Robert H. Eisenman.

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