Review of Stories from Ancient Canaan

canaan-bookHow do we know what the Canaanites believed? How did their beliefs influence the Israelites? Tablets discovered in the ancient city of Ugarit help answer those questions.

The book Stories from Ancient Canaan is a review and translation of those stories by Michael Coogan and Mark Smith. A second revised edition with updated translations and new discoveries was produced in 2012.

These stories are based on ones found on clay tables from the site of Ras Shamra. This is on the coast of Syria and was the ancient city of Ugarit. It was one of the major Canaanite city-states during the Late Bronze Age and was destroyed in about 1200BC, part of the major upheavals that led to the collapse of empires and (amongst other things) the formation of the kingdom of Israel. The destruction of Ugarit led to the partial preservation of clay tablets with some of the major Canaanite myths on them. It is this that book focuses on, along with discussion on how these texts illuminate the Old Testament.

Coogan and Smith discuss the gods and goddesses of Canaanite mythology and the language and style that is used in these myths. This includes many of the characteristics of Biblical poetry, where the main style was not that of rhyme but of parallelism, where the same idea is expressed in different ways in 2 or 3 line blocks. This is frequently found in the biblical Psalms, but also in other books.

Along with the use of parallelism, there is also overlap in the motifs used, including for example, the importance of the number 7. They also discuss the way that the Biblical authors made use of the descriptions of Canaanite gods to describe Israel’s God, Yahweh.

This is a very helpful book for getting a clearer sense of what the Canaanites believed, and how this might have influenced the Israelites and their writing about God. Coogan and Smith do a good job of both presenting the myths in their own terms, as part of Canannite culture, and also of showing the parallels with the Old Testament.

These myths show part of the worldview that the Israelites were immersed in. Although these myths date to the Late Bronze Age (ending in 1200BC) and the kingdom of Israel is a couple of hundred years later in the Iron Age, it is very probable that versions of these myths still circulated, while it is even more probable that the worldview represented in these myths still prevailed. This is of course alongside the somewhat different Egyptian worldview, which also influenced the Israelites, as I’ve discussed with reference to Psalm 104. Understanding these influences is a important part of recognising where the biblical writings come from, the worldview that they were challenging (and sometimes accepting without properly thinking about it), and the ways that they took up stories that were already known and subverted them to make a different point.

Over the next few posts (coming over the next few days), I will look in more detail about the particular stories that Coogan and Smith have translated and the ways that they illuminate parts of the Old Testament. The next post looks at the myths of Aqhat and Rephaim, theĀ third post looks at three more myths, and the final post in the series looks at the myth of Baal.

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