Ancient Canaan: part 3

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.

The first post in this series was a general discussion, and the next post talked about two of the particular myths. This post talks about three more, and the final post will talk about the myth of Baal.

This myth tells of the tribulations of a king, Kirta, in some way mirroring those of Job, and also showing the social significance of kingship at this time. There are also parts of this myth which importance of gods speaking through dreams. One of the most significant tribulations that Kirta undergoes is the attempted revolt by his son, which Coogan and Smith argue is similar to Absalom’s revolt against David (2 Samuel 15). This is one of their less plausible links, as royal sons revolting against their ageing fathers and trying to seize the crown isn’t really that uncommon, and they don’t show any exact parallels.

More interesting and helpful parallels include that, unlike Egyptians, Canaanites and Israelites saw the king as remaining human. However, Kirta as king is seen as responsible, with the gods, for the harvest. He is described as El’s son, similar to the biblical descriptions in Psalm 2:7:

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
    today I have become your father.

There is also a stated desire for sons, to carry on the line of successioin. Other parallels include a seven day siege of a city, again showing the importance of the number seven. In another interesting parallel, the besieging army is described as 3 million strong! This highlights one of the problems with most ancient literature (including the Bible) which is that the numbers can’t be taken literally. There just weren’t that many people…

A further fascinating similarity is that Kirta’s son, Yassub, criticises Kirta for not defending the kingdom against raiders and invaders, not caring for widows, the oppressed, the poor or the orphans, and that

you do not drive out those who burden the yoke of the poor

All of which resonates with the requirements of Deuteronomy and the criticisms of the Israelite prophets that their kings were failing them. It is notable that these ethical requirements were part of the expectations of kingship in the surrounding nations; that the ethics set forth in the Old Testament are known in the other kingdoms as well.

There are also significant differences in worldview. Asherah punishes Kirta with illness, for not fulfilling his vow to her. El the decides to heal Kirta, but none of the gods are able to, meaning that El has to create a new god with the power to do so!

Lovely Gods
This story is centred on a feast for the ‘Lovely Gods’, which is not so much a euphemistic title, as one meaning the exact opposite, as the gods are actually destructive and threatening! The feast is part of the autumn first-fruits celebration, during which time the Lovely Gods come back from their banishment in the desert wilderness into the cultivated areas (‘The Sown’) to feast in harmony. The dichotomy of the Sown and the Desert is also seen in the Bible, although it isn’t entirely borne out by the archaeology, which shows some of the links between the two (hinted at by the Lovely Gods moving back and forth between them)

The story describes rituals as part of the feast which are about placating these dangerous powers. The description of these rituals include songs to sing and recipes to prepare. The recipes include a milk-based sauce which is poured over the meat, which may be the origin of the prohibitions against exactly this sort of mixing in Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21.

Coogan and Smith note that earlier scholars thought the phrase “kid in milk” was present but while this is better translated as ‘corriander in milk’ they still think the wider correlation between the recipe and the biblical prohibitions is correct.

El’s drinking party
This is a much more irreverent portrayal of the gods, talking about El’s drunkenness and giving a hangover cure! As Coogan and Smith note:

it reminds us that Canaanite religion was more complex and multifaceted than the longer myths suggest.

The story is based on a drinking institution, which Coogan and Smith reports is known from legal texts of the time, referred to in the Bible, and which persisted until Graeco-Roman times. The biblical references are Jeremiah 16:5 and Amos 6:7, although this isn’t really reflected in modern translations.

It’s also worth noting that two of El’s sons help him home after he is drunk, which, as the previous post discussed in the story of Aqhat, is the correct thing for sons to do!

First post (Introduction) Previous post (Aqhat and Rephaim) Next post (The myth of Baal)


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