Ugaritic was an ancient language spoken in the city of Ugarit (on the Mediterranean coast of Syria) contemporaneously with many of the events in the Old Testament. What we have learned from the excavations of the city and from the language (a Semitic language somewhat similar to ancient Hebrew) has given us a clearer understanding of some aspects of Canaanite culture and worship and has also helped us to understand some words in ancient Hebrew that have been difficult to translate.
Because the Old Testament is an ancient book far removed from modern language and culture, there are many things that the original hearers would have assumed or understood that are lost to us. Our modern translations are very good, but more knowledge about ancient culture will give us a clearer understanding of the meaning of the text. We don’t mean to say that the text of Scripture is unintelligible without extensive knowledge of ancient language and cultures, but this knowledge does help fill out the picture. Perhaps it might be compared to watching a movie on a color television instead of a black and white set.
In 1928, a farmer in Syria was plowing his field when he uncovered an ancient tomb. He found some valuables in it, which he sold. Eventually, word leaked out about the find, and the site, now called Ras Shamra, was properly excavated, revealing the ancient city of Ugarit. Among the items uncovered were cuneiform tablets in a Semitic language similar to Hebrew. Using principles of translation and comparing it to Hebrew, scholars were eventually able to decipher the tablets, resulting in one of the world’s greatest literary finds.
The majority of the tablets contain poetry, and much of the poetry contains myths about the primary god of the city, Baal. This literature reveals beliefs about Baal and practices for his worship. When comparing the worship poetry of Ugarit with the Hebrew Psalms, we find that there are often striking similarities. The people of Ugarit often ascribe to Baal what the people of Israel ascribe to Yahweh. For example, Ugaritic literature reveals that Baal was thought to be the god of thunder and storm, but Psalm 29 attributes storm-making to God. It’s as if David was saying, “You Canaanite peoples ascribe this power to Baal, but we know that it is really Yahweh who controls the storm.” The biblical psalms were thus more than isolated songs of praise, but they may very well have been polemic as well.
The discovery of Ugaritic helps us to better understand the incident with Elijah on Mt. Carmel. King Ahab and the people had been worshiping Baal, but that false god could not produce rain for the land—there had been no rain for three years as Elijah the prophet of Yahweh had declared. Elijah’s pronouncement had contained an implied showdown between Baal and Yahweh. On Mt. Carmel, Yahweh answered by fire (lightning?) to burn up Elijah’s sacrifice and even the stones of the altar, showing Himself sovereign over Baal’s realm. Then, only after the prophets of Baal had been killed, did God send rain (see 1 Kings 17–18). We can understand the story without knowing anything about Baal except he was a rival god, but the background information gleaned from Ugaritic poetry fills out our understanding and how the people of Israel may have felt about the event.
There are some places in the Old Testament where translators are unclear about the best meaning of certain words. Comparison of Hebrew to Ugaritic sometimes gives more context to these words and allows us to gain a clearer understanding of the meaning.
For example, in Amos 1:1, Amos is described as “one of the shepherds of Tekoa.” The Hebrew word for “shepherd” is not the one normally used, and there was some uncertainty among translators about the precise meaning of the term. In Ugaritic, the equivalent word means “manager or owner of large herds of sheep.” Therefore, Amos was probably not just a poor shepherd or uneducated “dirt farmer” as he is often portrayed in sermons. He was probably a well-to-do businessman. There is nothing here that changes the meaning of the text, but it does give us greater insight into who Amos was. When he obeyed the Lord and went to the northern kingdom to preach, he may have given up (or at least risked) a significant livelihood. And when Amos decries the social injustice in Israel, he is doing it as one of the “haves,” not one of the “have-nots” (see Amos 1:6–7).
In Judges 5:17, the tribe of Dan is chided for not coming to help Deborah and Barak defeat the Amalekites: “And Dan, why did he linger by the ships?” This rhetorical question is somewhat mystifying, as Dan did not have any territory by the sea and was not known for using ships. By comparison with Ugaritic, we find that the word translated “ships” can also mean “to be at ease.” So, it makes more sense in the context to translate the phrase this way: “And Dan, why did he linger at ease?” or, as the NLT puts it, “Why did Dan stay home?” The basic meaning is not changed—Dan did not come to the aid of Israel when needed—but the circumstances are clarified. Dan remained “at ease,” not “in ships.”
The discovery of Ugaritic helps us to better understand the culture and language of the Old Testament. It does not change the essential meaning of any text of Scripture, but it can give it more “color.”