Learn Ugaritic. No, Really

The Logos Bible Software Blog points to an article titled “What’s Ugaritic Got to Do with Anything?” You might not put Ugaritic (an ancient language related to Hebrew) at the top of your list of things to learn, but Michael Heiser, the article’s author, makes a strong case for it.

We share some of the highlights from the article below, but we recommend you read the whole thing if the cultural and historical context of the Bible interests you.

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…. 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.” 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 article goes on to discuss a specific image, “the cloud rider,” and its parallels in Ugaritic texts and the Old Testament.

Logos has posted the article in part because they want to produce a twelve-volume Ugaritic library for their software. They’re looking to garner enough pre-orders to justify the costs they’ll incur in producing it.