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Research Sheds Light on Canaanites

August 29, 1998

RAS SHAMRA, Syria (AP) _ To the prophets of the Old Testament, the Canaanite god Baal was a symbol of decadence and his popularity such a threat that Elijah took 450 priests of Baal ``to the brook ... and slew them there.″

Now, a new image of the Canaanite religion is emerging as archaeologists decipher thousands of texts left behind in the ancient city of Ugarit, where Baal was the patron god.

The texts reveal a wealthy and sophisticated Canaanite society that imported alabaster from Egypt and timber from Anatolia and whose religious services and hymns strikingly resembled those of the ancient Israelites.

``It’s almost a revolutionary site,″ Neal H. Walls of Emory University said in a telephone interview. ``It gives us the Canaanite perspective on Canaanite culture. Previously, the only perspective was the biblical one.″

Scholars say that by piecing together the Canaanite traditions they can better understand the society that existed at the time of the ancient Israelites and roughly encompassed modern-day Israel with strong cultural influences as far north as Syria.

``Ugarit has transformed our knowledge of the early Hebrew Bible,″ said Nicholas Wyatt of the University of Edinburgh. ``Here, suddenly, we find people speaking a very similar language and writing their poetry in part in almost an identical fashion.″

At its height from 1400 B.C. to 1200 B.C., Ugarit was a coastal city in what is now northern Syria that grew rich trading with the two major empires of the time, Pharaonic Egypt and the Hittite Empire based in Anatolia.

Scribes kept careful records on clay tablets, writing in eight languages, including Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the time, and the local language, Ugaritic, which used one of the world’s first alphabets. The texts range from hymns and myths to orders for lumber and the proper medical care for horses.

The site was first discovered in 1928. The latest cache of 57 tablets was uncovered in 1996 and is still being translated.

The texts are widely believed by archaeologists to predate the biblical settlement of Canaan, which archaeologists say began about the time of Ugarit’s destruction in 1185 B.C.

``Israel emerges out of the culture that we see most vividly from Ugarit,″ said Wayne Pitard of the University of Illinois at Urbana.

Some of the attributes used to describe the gods of Ugarit are also found in the Old Testament, scholars say.

They point to Psalm 29, in which ``the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thundereth.″

In the Canaanite pantheon worshipped in Ugarit, it is the voice of Baal, the weather god, that thundered and it was Baal who battled Yam, god of the seas. In biblical and modern Hebrew, yam is the word for sea.

Scholars also note that in Ugarit, El was the patriarch of the gods. In the Old Testament, ``el″ is used as a word for god and is found in names like Daniel (``God is my judge″) and Ezekiel (``God is strong″).

``Many of the deities that appear in the Ugaritic pantheon appear in the Hebrew Bible as acceptable names for God or as deities against whom the prophets rail,″ said Dennis Pardee, who is working in Damascus and at the University of Chicago to translate the Ugaritic texts.

In Ugarit, the worship of Baal was led by the king, who would climb the 60-foot tower on a hill overlooking the city and offer sacrifices of sheep, bulls, birds and grain to appease the lord of thunder.

The names of the sacrifices such as the ``peace offering″ _ the sacrifice of an unblemished animal to give thanks to the lord _ were similar in ancient Israel and Ugarit.

``The Hebrew Bible implies that the worship of the Canaanite gods includes some type of cultic sex,″ Walls said, but there is no clear evidence of this in Ugarit.

Most of Ugarit’s 1,500 houses had two stories with four to six rooms for the family and a terrace on the top. The stone palace in the front section of the city had its own swimming pool and garden and is believed to have been three or four stories tall.

``These people were sophisticated. ... They weren’t crude peasants,″ Wyatt said.

The city was burned by conquerors from the sea and was never rebuilt.

Its gods, however, were never forgotten. The Israelites occasionally turned to worship Baal and other Canaanite deities such as the goddess Ashtaroth, inspiring the wrath of their prophets.

``And they forsook the Lord and served Baal and Ashtaroth. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies ....″ (Judges 2:13-14)

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