A large mound, Ugarit, on the Syrian coast about 25 miles South of the mouth of the Orontes river marks the site of an ancient Canaanite cultural center known as Ugarit. Perhaps the most important finding there for biblical archaeologists has been the writings in Ugaritic, a language closely related to biblical Hebrew and fundamentally important for Old Testament study.
Ugarit’s culture reached a peak in the fourteenth century B.C., and then declined and disappeared. It was rediscovered in 1928 when a Syrian farmer struck the top of a rich tomb while plowing. The mound was then excavated systematically, yielding gold objects, a surprising range of Greek pottery, a set of weights, and several bronze images. Some bronze tools and weapons were also recovered in excellent condition.
The discovery of the Ugaritic language came about when archaeologists uncovered many clay tablets written in a strange cuneiform script of alphabetic rather than syllabic character. When deciphered, the tablets showed a close linguistic relationship to Phoenician and biblical Hebrew, but also indicated that the people of Ugarit used an alphabetic script long before the Phoenicians, who probably inherited the idea.
The Ugaritic language contains literary forms that occur also in Hebrew poetry, and study and comparison have helped clarify a number of difficult Hebrew passages. Now such expressions as “rider of the heavens” (Ps. 68:33) are seen to be Canaanite in origin, indicating that Ugaritic and Old Testament Hebrew are somewhat variant dialects.
The recovered writings have revealed that at Ugarit similar ceremonies to those of the Hebrews were observed such as the wave (Exod. 29:24), trespass (Lev. 5:15), whole burnt sacrifice (Lev. 6:15), peace (Lev. 22:21), and tribute (Deut. 6:10) offerings.
While it is illuminating to compare similar references in written records of the two cultures the languages are not identical, so we can not automatically equate the terms or references being compared. For example, the legislation in Exodus 23:19 prohibiting the boiling of a young goat in its mother’s milk was thought to have been illumined by a similar offering recorded in the Ugaritic texts. This is now uncertain, since the Ugaritic word rendered “cook” actually means “slaughter,” and there are other problems with the text as well.
The tablets at Ugarit record the depraved and lewd forms of ritual worship indulged in by the Canaanites showing the threat these practices posed to traditional Hebrew faith and indicating that the Old Testament condemnation of such religion was justified.