Ancient Canaan: part 4

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.

This is the final part in my series of posts and looks at one of the more well-known Canaanite gods, Baal. The first post was a general introduction, and the previous two posts looked at particular myths.

This myth tells of Baal’s rise to the kingship of the gods by his defeat of Sea and (eventually) Death. The story begins with Sea demanding tribute from the gods, particularly Baal:

Message of Sea, your master, your lord, Judge River …

give up Baal so that I may humble him, the son of Dagan that I may inherit his gold.

This again has parallels with the Bible, where the sea is also seen as a force of chaos and destruction. The language of ‘crushing’ and ‘piercing’ is also similar to that used to describe Yahweh as the conqueror of the sea in Job 26:12-13, Psalm 89:9-10.

However, Baal does not fight alone. The goddess Anat is also described as fighting alongside Baal. This highlights one of the tensions of both the Canaanite and biblical worldview: both are patriarchal, misogynistic in part, but both also portray strong women. Deborah and Jael in the Bible, Pugat and the goddess Anat in these myths. But this is put alongside statements like this:

a holy cup women should not see

Which is a cup that, in a particularly striking example of misogny, not even the goddess Asherah is allowed to look at!

So Baal, aided by Anat, defeats Sea and replaces El as the king of the gods. Coogan and Smith argue that this replacement of an earlier sky god with a younger storm god can be seen across the Eastern Mediterranean (including, they argue, El with Yahweh for Israel) and link this to the collapse of empires at the end of the Late Bronze Age (c.1200BC).

After Baal’s victory, the story tells of his construction of his palace. This mirrors other myths where the importance of having a palace or temple is stressed. Although the authors don’t mention this, it is probably worth noting that the Hebrew word הֵיכַל means both ‘palace’ and ‘temple’, while archaeologists often refer to ‘public buildings’ as it can be difficult to determine exactly what such buildings were actually used for.

As the authors do discuss, this does of course have significant parallels with David and Solomon’s construction of the palace and Temple. Not least of these is the description of the building plan of the Temple, which is very similar to Baal’s. Coogan and Smith also argue that this probably explains at least some of the prophetic ambivalence towards the Temple (and indeed the closely related kingship):

This adoption of Canaanite theory and practice in the house of the god of Israel was responsible for prophetic opposition to the temple from before its construction and until the last days of its existence.

For example, in 2 Samuel 7:4-7 where David wants to build a Temple for God:

the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying:
‘Go and tell my servant David, “This is what the Lord says: are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

Yahweh complains that he has never asked for “a house built of cedar”. Earlier, Samuel (1 Samuel 8) has also warned the people about the many problems with having a king.

But the story of Baal doesn’t end with the construction of his palace. Instead, Baal over-reaches himself and proclaims his kingship to Death. Death then informs Baal that he will swallow him. Baal is terrified, surrenders, and is swallowed by Death (cf. Isaiah 25:8 where Yahweh swallows death), leading to drought. He has to be rescued (again) by his sister Anat (helped this time by the Sun) who grinds death like grain to restore Baal (and fertility). Only after this, another fight with Baal, and further threats, does Death finally acknowledge the kingship of Baal.

First post (Introduction) Second post (Discussion of 2 myths) Previous post (3 more myths)


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