Tag Archives: Canaan

Impressions of “Stories from Ancient Canaan: Second Edition,” Edited and Translated by Michael Coogan and Mark Smith

I previously read The Assembly of the Gods which provided an overview of Canaanite religion. Their religious texts provide the context for much of the Holy Bible. But unlike the Hebrews, the Canaanites did not have a Canon of specific texts which were included or excluded. Instead, their tales were like episodic superhero movies, that are mostly coherent and feature overlapping characters.  You can read these for yourselves in Stories from Ancient Canaan.

Everyone knows the main characters of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe:” Ironman, Thor, and the other Avengers.  In the “Canaanite Mythological Universe” the main characters are

  • El (the Creator, the Father of Time, the Most High).  The Hebrews and the Canaanites, unlike the Greeks or Romans, believed in one supreme creator God who created the universe out of nothing and is constantly active in it. His animal form is a Bull. The name Isra-El means “El strives” or “Strived with El.”
  • Asherah – the Queen of Heaven, El’s consort.  Women would bake cares to her (Jeremiah 7:18), and King Manasseh set up a Asherah Pole to venerate her in the Temple (2 Kings 21).
  • Ba’al — Part of El’s extended family, whose quest for  a house occupies the greatest single work.  The Greeks and Romans thought he was the same being as Zeus or Jupiter. The difference is that while Zeus/Jupiter is often sown as the “father of the gods,” Ba’al is clearly the ambitious, capable son of of El.   Like El, Ba’al’s animal form is a Bull.  Gideon adopts the ironic name Jeru-Ba’al, meaning “Ba’al contends” or “Contended with Ba’al” and ironically translated as “Let Ba’al Plead,” after smashing an idol to Ba’al (Judges 6:32).
  • Anat – El’s daughter. “Women leave their fathers to cleave to their husbands” and “Women must submit to their husbands” in semetic culture, but Anat is not married.  Her father, El, is indulgent to her, and she even complains about El to his face and gets up to all sorts of mischievous.  The Greeks and Romans thought she was the same goddess as Athena or Minerva. The mysterious judge Shamgar, of whom we only know one sentence, is called “Son of Anat” (Judges 3:31).
  • Kothar-wa-Hasis – the Lord of Egypt, a craftsman who makes especially valuable objects or devices. A bow Kothar-wa-Hasis makes for a lad will become an object of envy for Anat.  Likewise, when Ba’al finally is able to build his house, Kothar-wa-Hasis is his general contractor. Kothar-wa-Hasis, literally “Skillful and Wise,” does not appear to be mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Death, Yam, Judge River, Leviathan, Dawn, Dusk, and so forth — the central tension of Canaanite myth is El’s love for all of his creatures.  Death and Judge River (also called the “Sea”) are two chaotic forces which were created by El, and which his son Ba’al must fight. These forces are kept around by God as a sort of sport or game, like powerful man may have a pet lion (Job 41:1-7),

For Bible readers, the Canaanite tales are also interesting because they were written down before the Bible. The stories presented here seem to have been set to tablets around 1200 BC, in other words halfway between the Conquest of Joshua and the Kingship of Saul. The description of Biblical events, even those that occurred before the writing down of these Canaanite stories, often assumes the listener had heard the Canaanite stories first.

The primary story from ancient Canaan is Ba’al, which in this book is ordered differently than in Assembly of the Gods. The reason is that we have multiple nearly complete copies of Ba’al, and while the main events in the tale are pretty consistent, the specific ordering changes.

There does not appear to be an overarching theology to these tales. I will take them one at a time, beginning with Ba’al, typically placing a Canaanite verse next to a Biblical verse that appears to play on it.

Ba’al

The motivation Ba’al’s adventures is to have his own house. As he complains

But Baal has no house like the other gods,
no court like Asherah’s sons:
El’s home is his son’s shelter,
Ladery Asherah of the Sea’s home

While the Bible repeatedly condemns worship of Ba’al, neither Ba’al’s existence nor his question to have his own house are denied anywhere in the text. Instead, Ba’al supernatural attempt to achieve his ends is contrasted with the path available to the believer

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.  In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”
John 14:1-4

In the Hebrew Bible, God’s home at Eden was finished in six days of work, and a seventh of rest

Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
Genesis 2:1-3

The construction of Ba’al’s home takes a similar amount of time

Then on the seventh day,
the fire went out in the house,
the flames in the palace:
The silver had turned into blocks,
the gold had become bricks.
Baal the Conqueror was glad:
‘I have built my house of silver,
my palace of gold!'”

Though there is a humorous wrinkle — a dispute with the general contractor! Should the house have windows, or is that an unncessary complication?

“And Kothar-wa-Hasis replied:
‘Listen Baal the Conqueror,
pay attention, Rider on the Clouds:
I should put an opening in the house,
a window in the palace.’
But Baal the Conqueror replied:
‘Don’t put an opening in the house,
a window in the palace!'”

Eventually, after the day of rest, Ba’al relents and asks for the window to be reinstalled.

And Baal the Conqueror said:
‘I will put it in, Kothar, son of Sea,
Kothar, son of the Confluence:
let a window be opened in teh house,
an opening in the palace;
so let a break be opened in the clouds,
as Kothar-wa-Hasis said.’
Kothar-wa-Hasis laughed;
he raised his voice and declared:
“Baal the Conqueror, didn’t I tell you?
You’ll recall my words, Baal?
He opened a window in the house,
an opening in the palace.'”

The God of the Hebrews, however, is a more careful builder. After each day he evaluated the work, notes “it is good” (Genesis 1:3,10,12,18,21,25,31) and has no need to resume construction afterwards.

In the version of Ba’al presented here, Ba’al attempts to fight the Sea with a magical club

The club swooped from Baal’s hands,
like a vulture from his fingers.
It struck Prince Sea on the skull
Judge River between the eyes.
Sea stumbled;
he fell to the ground;
his joints shook
his frame collapsed.
Baal captured and pierced the Sea;
he finished off Judge River

But Moses needed neither a sword nor a club, nor even his own power, but only his hand

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided.
Exodus 14:21

As did Joshua (thus did the LORD part the Sea and the River)

So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the waters that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jericho. Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan.
Joshua 3:14-17

Two character interactions are worth noting.  Anat, El’s daughter, seems to be a high maintenance woman and has memorable scenes with both Death and El.

It’s striking how similar Death’s response to being accosted by the goddess Anat.  (As she was a single woman she was answerable only to her father — and El is remarkably tolerant of Anat…)

“What do you want, Maiden Anat?
I was taking a walk and wandering
on every mountain in the heart of the earth,
on every hill in the heart of the fields.

.. is to Satan’s description of his activities before God

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?”

So Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.
Job 1:6-7

When Death takes her brother, Anat hysterically threatens El

“Maiden Anat replied:

“My father, El, the Bull, will answer me
he’ll answer me… or else,
I’ll push him to the ground
like a lamb
I’ll make his gray hair run with blood,
his gray beard with gore”

These threats were made in spite of a statement acknowledging that God is the supreme creator

She arrived at El’s encampment,
the tent of the King, the father of Time

One wonders if she made good on her promise

So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him. And the soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and they put on Him a purple robe. Then they said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck Him with their hands.
John 19:1-3

or if it was really just us

And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.”

Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.
Mark 27:25-26

And if she, liked us, benefited from the salvation of the cosmos.  El was patient with Anat, may He be patient with human sinners also!

El replied from the seven rooms,
from the eight enclosures
“I know you, daughter, how furious you are,
that among goddesses there is no restraining you:
What do you want, Maidan Anat?”
And Maiden Anat replied
“Your decree is wise, El, your wisdom is eternal
a lucky life is your decree.”

El the Father treats the other gods hospitably

“Eat, please drink:
eat some food from the table,
drink some wine from the goblet
blood of the vine from the golden cup”:

as His Son treats us

When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve[a] apostles with Him. Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
Luke 22:14-19

AQHAT

Aqhat’s father Danel is specifically referenced along with Noah and Job as righteous gentiles in the Bible

“Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out My fury on it in blood, and cut off from it man and beast, even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.”
Ezekiel 14:19-20

The story of Aqath is of a Goddess’s greedy wrath against Danel’s son, Aqath. Aqath is struck down, and Danel — a righteous man who judges the orphans and the widows — prays to the God’s for his return.

Danel, the man of Rapau
the Hero, the man of the Marnamite
got up and set down at the entrance of hte gate
amon the leaders on the threshing floor
He judged the cases of widows
presided over orphans’ hearings

This matches Job’s descriptions of his own work

“When I went out to the gate by the city,
When I took my seat in the open square,
The young men saw me and hid,
And the aged arose and stood;
The princes refrained from talking,
And put their hand on their mouth;
The voice of nobles was hushed,
And their tongue stuck to the roof of their mouth.
When the ear heard, then it blessed me,
And when the eye saw, then it approved me;
Because I delivered the poor who cried out,
The fatherless and the one who had no helper.
The blessing of a perishing man came upon me,
And I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
My justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
And I was feet to the lame.
I was a father to the poor,
And I searched out the case that I did not know.
I broke the fangs of the wicked,
And plucked the victim from his teeth.
Job 29:7-17

Interestingly, the same story includes the Canaanite identification of the deities controlling Egypt

This provides a clue as to the importance of the LORD’s humiliation of them in Exodus

Listen, Lady Danataya
Prepare a lamb from the flock
for Kothar-wa-Hasis’s appetite,
for the desire of the Skilled Craftsman
Give food and drink to the god
serve and honor him,
the lord of Egypt, the god of it all

Both Aqhat and Job deal with the fall-out from tragedy. Job has his famous arguments with the friends who visit him, though in literary merit Job is superior. The context for Aqhat’s actions appear to be the end of mourning, as paid mourners are dismissed from their paid positions

Then, in the seventh year,
Danel, the man of Rapau, spoke:
the Hero, the man of the Harnamite,
raised his voice and declared:
“Leave my house, weepers,
leave my palace, mourners,
leave my court, you who gash your skin.”

 

And Aqhat himself kicks out the mourners. And unlike Job, which structurally is missing at least two chapters (we are left without a resolution on earth or heaven), Aqhat promises a sequel. The dead boy’s brother, Danel’s daughter, vows revenge

Now bless me, that I may go with your blessing;
favor me, that I may go with your favor.
I will kill my brother’s killer,
put an end to whoever put an end to my mother’s son.

It ends on a cliffhanger! Aqhat’s sister is in the enemy’s tent, having seduced her brother’s murderer…

Twice she gave him wine to drink,
she gave him wine to drink

The Book of Judith, included in the Catholic Deuterocanon, is the only similar Bible story i can think of

And if you follow out the words of your maidservant, God will accomplish something through you, and my lord will not fail to achieve his purposes…. “Therefore, when I, your servant, learned all this, I fled from them; and God has sent me to accomplish with you things that will astonish the whole world, as many as shall hear about them.
Judith 11:6,16

THE REPHAIM

In the Hebrew Bible, the Rephaim are described as “giants,” regularly more than six foot tall and (in the case of King Og) having a bed as wide as a modern queen-size.

“For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the rephaim. Indeed his bedstead was an iron bedstead. (Is it not in Rabbah of the people of Ammon?) Nine cubits is its length and four cubits its width, according to the standard cubit.
Deuteronomy 3:11

But in this story Danel — the father of Aqath from the previous story — invites them to his houes. These are divine ones, supernatural creatures

To his place the Rephaim went
to his place the divine ones went
the warriors of Baal and the warriors of Anat
“Go to my house, Rephaim
to my house I call you,
I call you to the midst of my palace.”
To his palace the Rephaim went,
to his place the divine ones went.

Whatever these things were both the Scriptures and the Canaanite stories agreed they were physically manifest in the land.

KIRTA

Kirta is an anti-Abraham, which is to say Abraham is an anti-Kirta. Kirta longs for a male her, and his focus on his future family and not worldly rewards reminds us of our father in faith.

Why should I want silver or gleaming gold,
along with its land,
or perpetual slaves,
three horses,
chariots in a courtyard,
a slave woman’s sons?
Give me sons that I may want be established,
give me a clan that I may be magnified!”

God instructs him to take a lamb up a mountain and sacrifice it

And the Bull, his father El, replied:
“Enough of your weeping, Kirta,
of shedding tears, Graceful Lad of El.
Wash yourself and put on rouge,
wash your forearms to the elbow,
from your fingers to your shoulder
Enter the shane of your tent;
take a lamb in your right hand,
a young animal in both your hands
the measure of your food that can be poured out.
Take the proper sacrificial bird,
pour wine into a silver goblet,
honey into a golden bowl,
and go up to the top of the tower,
climb to the height of the wall;
raise your hands to heaven,
sacrifice to the Bull, your father El
serve Baal with your sacrifice,
the son of Dagon with your game

The story of Abraham reverse is beginning, with God initially demanding a human sacrifice.

Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Other aspects are reversed as well.

But while the seed of Abraham does not become a mighty army until half a millennium later, under Joshua, the Kirta does not have to wait

Your army will be powerful indeed
three million strong,
soldiers beyond counting,
archers beyond reckoning.
They will go in thousands, like a downpour,
and in ten thousands, like the early rain;
they will go two by two
three by three, all together.

Indeed, even after the Kingdom of Israel is established, it is the second king David, and not the first King Saul, who is known for those “tens thousands”

So the women sang as they danced, and said:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his ten thousands.”

Then Saul was very angry, and the saying displeased him; and he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed only thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?” So Saul eyed David from that day forward.
1 Samuel 18:7-9

though Abraham’s daughter-in-law is said to be the future mothers of tens of ten thousands during her engagement

So they said, “We will call the young woman and ask her personally.” Then they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?”

And she said, “I will go.”

So they sent away Rebekah their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her:

“Our sister, may you become
The mother of thousands of ten thousands;
And may your descendants possess
The gates of those who hate them.”
Genesis 24:57-60

Kirta then is instructed to go to war against a neighboring kingdom. This contrasts with Abraham being able to conceive a son with his old wife

And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him—whom Sarah bore to him—Isaac. Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.” She also said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.”
Genesis 21:1-7

Unfortunately, Kirta vows a sacrifice to another god, which leads his own to abandon him (though in both stories, the alternative is to a “slavewoman’s son” — either theoretical as with Kirta, or already born as with Ishmael)

Give me Lady Hurriya,
the loveliest of your firstborn offspring:
her loveliness is like Anat’s
her beauty is like Astarte’s
her pupils are lapis lazuli
her eyes are gleaming alabaster

Both Abraham and Kirta are accosted for deception, for Abraham it was to protect the well-being of his sister Sarah…

So Abimelech rose early in the morning, called all his servants, and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were very much afraid. And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.” Then Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?”

And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”
Genesis 20:8-13

…for Kirta it was hiding his own health from his own sister:

“She approached her brother and declared,
“Why did you deceive me?
How many months has he been ill?
How long has he been sick?
And the Hero Ilihu replied:
“For three months he has been ill,
for four Kirta has been sick.
Certainly, Kirta is reaching the end…”

The story concludes with God alarmed by Kirta’s sickness. The assembly of the gods have failed on their own to prevent this injustice

And El the Kind, the Compassionate, replied:
“Who among the gods can expel the sickness, drive out the disease?
But none of the gods answered him.
He spoke a second, then a third time:
“Who among the gods can expel the sickness, drive out the disease?”
But none of the gods answered him….

Indeed, the Heavenly Father often upbraids the divine ones, but being in heaven is not the same thing as matching the power or wisdom of the Creator

God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly,
And show partiality to the wicked? Selah

Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy.

Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked.
Psalms 82:1-4

THE LOVELY GODS

The Lovely Gods is the story of the birth of Dusk and Dawn, most notable for the parallels to presentation of Israel and Judah as lovely supernatural women in the Book of Jeremiah. Both stories are presented ironically. Duck and Dawn are “lovely gods,” but endlessly hungry, and the overall effect is like something out of Thomas Ligotti.

Twin lovely gods,
day-old devours, one-day-old boys,
who suck the nipple of the breast.
They sit a lip to earth,
a lip to the heavens.
Then entered their mouths
the birds of the heavens,
and the fish of the sea.
As they move, bite upon bite
they stuffed on both their right and left
into their mouths, but they were not satisfied.

El takes for his own two women, and from these the lovely gods are born

So the two women became wives of El,
wives of El, his forever
He bent down, kissed their lips, their lips were so sweet
sweet as pomegranates
As he kissed, there was conception,
as he embraced, their was passion

The Book of Jeremiah presents a dramatization of Hebrew history, substituting Israel and Judah for the women, and the fullness of Israel as the lovely gods:

The LORD said also to me in the days of Josiah the king: “Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She has gone up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot. And I said, after she had done all these things, ‘Return to Me.’ But she did not return. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it. Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.
Jeremiah 3:6-8

The Lovely Gods is also disturbing as Death the Ruler

Death the Ruler sits:
in his hand a staff of bereavment,
in his hands a staff of widowhood.
The pruner prunes him like a vine;
the binder binds him like a vine;
he is felled to the terrace like a vine.”

appears to be a type of God:

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
John 15:1-8

EL’S DRINKING PARTY

The Incarnate God of the Bible is often presented as a good guest to have at a party

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
Matthew 11:18-19

In one of His parables, He castigates sleeing guards, who are not on watchful enough

Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning— lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!”
Mark 13:33-37

El’s Drinking Party may be a literary background of this. The short plot is almost the reverse, with a drunken Moon-God stuck in his animal form. The goddesses try to feed him steak, but are shooed away by the guards.

Astarte and Anat he approached;
Astarte had a steak prepared for him
And Anat a shoulder cut.
The gatekeep of El’s house rebuked them,
not to prepare steak for a dog,
not prepare a shoulder cut for a houand.

Jesus’s reversal of the fault of the guards — instead of being too cautious, bad guards are those who are not cautious enough!

Less seriously, El’s Drinking Party ends with a cure for a hangover — including “hair of the dog”!

What one should apply on his forehead: dog hair;
and the top of pqq and
one should apply them together with fresh olive oil

The Holy Spirit provides numerous empirical methods of identifying the Messiah. The most eloquent Jewish critics of Christianity, like Rabbi Federow, emphasis this in guarding against an identification of Jesus as the promised Son of David.

Conclusion

These Stories from Ancient Canaanite are fascinating. The Bible not only parallels them in many places, but reverses certain elements or themes. These reversal may well be important to fully understanding what the Bible says.

That said, the commentary is not great. The editor assumes the author already understands that the reader knows the pattern of ancient near-East narrative and poetry. The commentary includes unsupported patter about the LORD dethroning El that is found nowhere in the Bible. It is less of an intellectual overview as The Assembly of the Gods, less of a literary introduction than anything by Robert Alter, and less of a rigorous understanding of biblical Context than the works of Michael Heiser. I’m very glad I read it — it is short and thought provoking — but is recommended only for those who have already read other works on the Canaanite background of the Hebrew Bible.

I read the Stories from Ancient Canaanite in the Kindle edition.