Baal Understands The Word of the Tree, The Whisper of Stone (Stories from Ancient Canaan)


Texts from ancient Ugarit, a major Canaanite city-state, now called Ras Shamra on the northern Syrian coast, they require careful interpretation. They date some time before and around the destruction of the city in 1200 BCE. That means that there is no reason to suppose that the Phoenician Baal against whom the biblical prophets inveighed many centuries later were (let’s try to hedge this) anything like in a precise way the Baal who appears in this much earlier text alongside El and sister Anat. At the same time, these Stories from Ancient Canaan might help shed some heavily refracted light on the Canaanite origins of biblical YHWH-theology.

Rather than recap the main plots to the 6 stories and story-fragments, what I’d rather do is highlight what struck me as the main thematic topoi to these tales. What drove Late Bronze Age Canaanite religion and what mattered to the gods, were simple things like [1] hunting, feasting and drinking, the divine council, [2] fertile fields and progeny, [3] death and the dead, [4] divine and human power, competition, and kingship.

It could probably be that my reading is stilted, but it seemed to me that there is no strong human frame here. But this too is complicated. On the one hand, there are no ordinary people, just heroes and kings. No particular favor is shown to anyone. In the story about “Aqhat,” the goddess Anat shows herself to be jealous of human heroes. In “Kirta,” the king will feed the people, who serve him as cannon fodder. On the other hand, in the Baal cycle, we are told that this god and his life is good for the people. Death kills Baal before Baal kills Death. In that dangerous meantime, who will care for the people and save them?

Much as did YHWH in ancient Israel, Baal seems to have usurped El’s high-god function. What’s clear is that the welfare of the people depends upon gods and kings, as so does the order of nature. From Baal the Conqueror, from the midst of his mountain, from the house that he wants to build upon divine Mt. Zaphon, the message to his messengers is a simple one. “Remove war from the earth, set love in the ground, pour peace into the heart of the earth, tranquility into the heart of the fields.” Setting himself apart from human beings, Baal understands the word of the tree, the whisper of stone, the murmur of the heavens to the earth, and the murmur of the seas to the stars (p.119).

(Second edition, edited and translated by Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Baal Understands The Word of the Tree, The Whisper of Stone (Stories from Ancient Canaan)

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Excellent resource!

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