Canaanite Mythology and the Bible

The Oxford Research Encyclopedia’s article Ugaritic and Biblical Literature describes how the Ugaritic (Canaanite) religion influenced the Torah (i.e. the old testament). Here’s my summary:

El

The head of the Ugaritic pantheon, El, appears in the Bible. His name (and its variant Elohim) is usually replaced in English translations by God (or gods), but in a few passages it serves as a proper name. For example, psalm 82 begins:

Elohim (God) has taken his place in the Assembly of El, and in the midst of the elohim (gods) he holds judgment.

Like El, the god of Israel presided over the assembly of the gods, as is also seen in 1st Kings 22:19 and Job 1–2.

In Exodus 6:2–3 a distinction is made between earlier and later names of the god of Israel:
Elohim (God) said to Moses: “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shadday, but I was not known to them by my name, Yahweh.”

The title El Shadday, often mistranslated God Almighty, actually means El of the Mountain. In the Ugaritic texts, El lived on the cosmic mountain that was the source of all fresh water, and this biblical epithet reflects that mythology.

Other titles of El in the Ugaritic texts are also echoed in the Bible. In Genesis 21:33, Yahweh is called El, the Eternal One, which is similar to El’s title the Father of Time. The phrase the Mighty One of Jacob in Genesis 49:24 is probably a mistranslation of  the Bull of Jacob, and in the Ugaritic texts, El is identified as the Bull. The phrase Yahweh, the Merciful and Gracious in Exodus 34:6, is a variant of El the Kind and Compassionate.

Jerusalem had been a center of El worship, as Genesis 14:18–24 illustrates. There Melchizedek was a priest of El Most High (El Elyon):

Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem, brought forth bread and wine. He was the priest of El Most High.

“Blessed be Abram by the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth,” he said. “and blessed be the most high God, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Like the mountain of El in the Ugaritic texts, Mount Zion was, especially in apocalyptic vision, the source of fresh water. This is mentioned in Ezekiel 47:1–12, Joel 3:17–18,  Revelation 22:1–2, and Zecharia 14:8:

On that day, living waters will go out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea, half of them to the western sea, both in summer and in winter

Baal

Many of Yahweh’s characteristics resemble Baal’s or were derived from them. Baal is called Rider on the Clouds, and Yahweh in Psalm 68:4 is called the one that rides upon the heavens.

Yahweh is described in Psalm 29:

The voice of the Lord is upon the waters. The God of glory thunders. The Lord is upon many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; it is full of majesty.The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars. The Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes them skip like a calf. Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.The voice of the Lord divides the flames of fire.The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness. The Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord makes the hinds calve, and discovers the forests. In his temple, everyone speaks of his glory.The Lord sits upon the flood. The Lord sits as King for ever. The Lord will give strength to his people. The Lord will bless his people with peace.

According to Smith, this is remarkably similar to the description of Baal in the Ugaritic legends. Like Baal, Yahweh was a victorious warrior who had shown his mastery over the sea. Like Baal, Yahweh had a temple built of cedar.

When Yahweh revealed himself on Mount Sinai in  Exodus 19:16–18:

There was thunder and lightning, and thick cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of an  exceedingly loud trumpet. Mount Sinai was completely wreathed in a smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire. The smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked terribly.

The same imagery is used to describe Baal:

Baal opened a break in the clouds, sounded his holy voice, and thunder came from his lips. The earth’s high places shook.
Like Baal, Yahweh was storm god, as revealed in Judges 5:4–5:

When the Lord went out from Seir and marched across the fields of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens dropped, and water fell from the clouds. The mountains melted before the Lord. Even Sinai shook before the Lord God of Israel.

Just as elements associated with both El and Baal appear in the figure of Yahweh, so too Zion became identified not only with El’s mountain, but also with Saphon, Baal’s mountain just north of the city of Ugarit, as can be seen is Psalm 48:2-3:

Beautifully situated, the joy of the whole earth, mount Zion is in the recesses of Saphon, the city of the great king.

baal-hammonThe popularity of the worship of Baal in Israel is illustrated both by repeated attacks on it by biblical writers and by the use of Baal as an element in personal names. Among others, Saul and David gave their children names containing Baal (for example, Baalyada, meaning “Baal knows”). Like the name El, which may also mean “god,” Baal can also mean “lord,” so this word does not always refer to the god.

Anat

Anat is the least well attested of the Ugaritic deities in the bible, occurring only in the place names Beth-anath and Anathoth and in the personal name Shamgar Ben-Anath (Judges 3:31 and 5:6).

Asherah

In the Bible, most scholars detect the goddess Asherah in 2 Kings 21:7 and 23:4, 6–7. In biblical Hebrew the word asherah is also a common noun, meaning a sacred tree or pole used in the goddess’s worship. The asherah is implicitly associated with Yahweh. The Bible prohibits this form of worship of Yahweh: “You shall not set up an asherah of any wood next to the altar of Yahweh” (Deut. 16:21). Because of its disapproval of Asherah, the Bible sometimes associates her name with the god considered to be the divine epitome of idolatry, Baal himself (1 Kings 18:19).

Astarte

Astarte also occurs in the Bible, but, as in existing Ugaritic sources, little light is shed on her personality. She is called “the goddess” or “the abomination of the Sidonians” (see 1st Kings 11:5).

Mot

The deity Mot (Death) is only occasionally mentioned in the Bible. As in the Ugaritic texts, his appetite is proverbial and his presence life threatening (Jeremiah 9:21). His home in the underworld is a palace fitted with gates (Job 38:17). In Isaiah 25:8, it is said that at the eschatological victory banquet Yahweh “will swallow up Death forever”. This is a reversal of the scene where Baal goes down into Death’s mouth to be crushed like a kid in his jaws.

The Origins of Yahweh

For those interested in the origins of Yahweh, see my article Yahweh: From Local Weather God to Almighty Creator.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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11 Responses to Canaanite Mythology and the Bible

  1. simonjkyte says:

    and the golden calf is the strangest of all these things

    • jimbelton says:

      There is a good chance that the golden calf was an idol representing Baal, who in the old mythology was associated with the bull and was the son of El.

      • simonjkyte says:

        So is often said. But I personally think that there is an alternative interpretation. That it was an image of an ox which pulled the chariot of the god of israel – which simply breaks the graven images thing – even though it had not been formally stated at that point. If Yahweh was really Ba’al anyway….

      • jimbelton says:

        Yahweh is not Baal, though he seems to have attracted some of Baal’s attributes. Yahweh was a deity brought from the south and took El’s place in the pantheon for the Jews. Whatever the meaning of the golden calf was, it was clearly a threat to Yahweh in the mind of the author of Exodus.

      • simonjkyte says:

        My previous understanding was that Yahweh was a particular name for El. But I have been watching something from Yale Uni which suggests that both are storm gods, both fight watery creatures etc. Yes, clearly. You say he was brought from teh south – how far south?

      • jimbelton says:

        The source article notes that the identity of Yahweh and El is an open question: “For many scholars, Yahweh was originally a storm-god like Baal and acquired additional features of Baal as well as the identity of El. Other scholars have suggested that Yahweh was a title of El and this Yahweh-El acquired Baal’s characteristics.” I’m going to add a link to my article on the origins of Yahweh at the bottom of this one. Short answer: Midia (northeastern Arabia) and Edom (Jordan/Israel, south of the dead sea).

  2. Surname William says:

    10: Yeshua was from both Ishmael and Jacob lineages;
    This is for all religions and all denominations.
    (Abraham 1:25-28) This happened as the covenant Son was to be through Jacob as he was Sarah’s son, yet also through the Firstborn son of Abraham was the covenant supposed to be through. This conflict was a problem except for the fact that Ruth had Ishmaelite lineage. (Ruth 1:4) Don’t let anyone trick you. The Christ lineage is found to be true with Ishmaelite also by the names Zerubbabel, Shealtiel and Heli. (Luke 3:23, 3:27) And because of this, Christ was the rightful heir on both sides. When they say that Islam is the only true religion, as Islam means submission or complete submission to GOD. (Matthew 6:10, 26:42) (Luke 11:2, 22:42) We know there is only one GOD, and Yes is in the name of the Son Yeshua for a reason. (2 Corinthians 1:17-22) (James 5:12-15) (Revelation 14:12-13) (1 Corinthians 8:1-8) The first Pharaoh was righteous, yet not the others as the ages went on. Today we see modern Pharaoh with the false priesthood still. It is cut into three sections known as Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. That is the false priesthood that is spoken of in the Book of Abraham. They are forsaken for the war they are enjoined in, for it is not holy nor acceptable before GOD. Together with the United Nations, they are known as the Whore of All the Earth. And their doctrines are one with them, the doctrines of their laws. These doctrines of theirs are not those of Yeshua and the world that GOD created. They are of the evils of the world. In the name of Yehsua they are cast out, by YHWH, and not by anyone else. Weapons of war are not acceptable. Bombs are not acceptable. And those who live by them are not acceptable. This is called Locusts upon the Earth. A veiled meaning to Moses seal 8. These are the Canaanites. Canaanites are said to have a dark body, and some have mistaken this to mean the Africans. (Matthew 6:22-23) (Luke 11:34) Not all the sons of Ham were Canaanites. He had more than one son, yet the Canaanites thought that killing was the correct way. Here we learn that if they are circumcised in the heart, they can be forgiven.
    (Joshua 5:5-7) Canaanites have weapons of war, called iron chariots. (Joshua 17:18)
    Not extremist fantasy. Plain Biblical precision.

    This seal had to be opened three times; here is the first.

    Seal eight is the locusts sent upon the Earth. The locusts in the book of Revelation are different from those in the book of Exodus. Her we redefine locusts under the next veil, for GOD has had the Bible written with more than one veil. (Judges 6:5) (Isaiah 40:21-24) (Jeremiah 51:14) (Nahum 3:15-17) The Locusts are the people protesting against the government of man, who were the people of the symbolic sealing of Revelation chapter 7 under the first veil. Between August and September of 2011, some of the protests that broke out were in London, Israel, Iran, Bolivia, Athens and at the White House and at Wall Street. There was also anti Pope protesting in Madrid. On October 15th, global protests broke out on roughly 951 cities in 82 countries. This is where the people with the temporary symbolic mark of God sealed on their foreheads; temporary because the protesting subsided. (Revelation 7:9-10) Protesters around the world were protesting in the name of God and of Christ, and for the fair treatment of every man. In America, protesters even booed President Obama at a live speech, and began yelling that Christ is King. The locusts were the children of God protesting. In time, the major protests and the people who saw the disasters as a sign from God, just dwindled away as they saw 2011 as nothing but another year. (Exodus 10:12-20) The eighth seal has been opened. The locusts are also the four types of rebukes as they come from various peoples. (Joel 1:4)

    • jimbelton says:

      This comment is a bit off topic. This article’s topic was Syriac mythology in the bible. The comment is drawing parallels between biblical prophecies of the end times and present day. I will likely post in future on the question of whether we are living in the end times. For now, I’ll simply say I’m less than certain that we are, but we can hope.

  3. simonjkyte says:

    i am going to reread your posts as there is a lot of interest here to me

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